Tag Archives: poetry

Rozanna Lilley, Do Oysters Get Bored?

Rozanna Lilley, Do Oysters Get Bored? A Curious Life (UWA Publishing 2018)

oysters.jpgDo Oysters Get Bored? is in two parts, a series of essay-memoirs followed by a selection of poems, both dealing with the same two main themes, the author’s life as a girl and young woman as the daughter of Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley, and her life now as the mother of Oscar, who is high functioning autistic. It’s a bit like a big haibun – the Japanese poetic form that’s made up of a piece of prose and haiku, usually a single haiku coming after the prose as a kind of distillation of its meaning or a related epiphany.

When I read one of the essays, ‘The Little Prince, and other vehicles’, in a 2014 Southerly, I wrote this:

[Rozanna Lilley’s essay] would be wonderful reading whatever her parentage: it’s very funny on the subject of inter-generational bad driving and builds to bitter-sweet reflections on her relationship with her father. But as Lilley’s parents were Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley … it makes a substantial addition to the lore about that magnificent couple. For example, the passing mention that Rozanna had hidden her father’s rifle away from him in his erratic old age is particularly chilling in the light of Merv’s book, Gatton Man, which argues plausibly that Merv’s father was a serial killer, and convincingly that he was capable of murder.

In the context of the whole book, ‘magnificent’ is quite wrong. The essay is still funny and bitter-sweet, but it’s also chilling. The dark side of Merv’s erratic behaviour, and of Dorothy’s sexual libertarianism are brought to the fore when seen through the lens of their impact on their daughter. Two chapters, ‘Fear of Flying’ and ‘A Bitter Pill’, tell of young Rose’s early exposure to sexually explicit conversation, her participation in the ‘mildly pornographic’ movie Journey Among Women, and her experience of sexual abuse. These are the chapters that have received a lot of attention in the press, especially from right-wing culture warriors (Jeff Sparrow’s excellent commentary here), and I think they bear significant witness to aspects of our cultural life. The book names no perpetrators (though Lilley has named names in press interviews), gives no salacious details, indulges no ‘Mommy Dearest’ self-pity or outrage, but it pulls no punches. Her mother, she says, did not intentionally hurt her by – at best – turning a blind eye to sexual assault, but in effect she was ‘propping up a predatory patriarchal sexual economy’, a judgment that would certainly have shocked Dorothy to her core, but which, I hope, she would find impossible to reject if she were alive to read it.

The other main subject of the essays is Lilley’s experience as the mother of Oscar, who was diagnosed with autistic disorder at age three. There are no high profile cultural figures here, but a loving, joy filled, often hilarious portrayal of a young boy that shatters negative stereotypes of autism on every page. Lilley is described on the back cover as an ‘autism researcher’ and mentions occasionally that she works in universities: she wears her academic garb very lightly here.

One of the most appealing qualities of these parts of the book is the way they highlight people who behave well around Oscar, while making it very clear that his behaviour can be testing. There’s a wonderful account of the family of three attending an anxiety clinic – at the end of which one of the clinicians confides in Rozanna that they all think Oscar is hilarious (as do we readers). And there’s a searing account of a prolonged hospital experience. But my favourite episode is Oscar’s tenth birthday party, where his autism is clearly not a social disadvantage:

The afternoon passes in a blur of play and pizza and ice-cream brain freezes. Oscar sometimes turns the TV on, momentarily disengaging from the festivities. His friends simply join him on the sofa, chuckling away at the same Tom and Jerry gags we used to laugh about at primary school. As I’m baking the chocolate cake, kids take it in turns to come out to the kitchen and tell me their favourite story about what Oscar said or did at school. It seems that his oddities and social incomprehension have landed him a starring role. ‘Last year Miss Malady said, “If you’ve finished, just read a book and don’t call out.” Then Oscar put up his hand, and called out, “Finished.”‘ Or ‘We were looking at machines on the computer. And Oscar yelled out, “Boring!”‘ The stories pour out, each one punctuated by laughter and followed by headshaking at his wondrous behaviour. Indeed, these small acts of classroom indiscretion appear to have made my son a local hero.

As the party continues, Oscar’s non-neurotypicality meets with a lot of delighted squealing. It’s Rozanna’s parental attempt to join in the merriment that produces the only awkward silence.

The book touches my own life in two ways. First, in my mid 20s I worked for Currency Press in an office just down Jersey Road from the Hewett–Lilley household, and met them regularly, though I knew very little of their domestic or social lives. I was in awe of Dorothy, mildly terrified of Merv, and intimidated by the poise and sophistication of Kate and Rosie.

Second, a young friend of mine, whom I’ve known all his life, is on the autism spectrum. I know at least a little of the difficulties that he and his mother have had in navigating the sometimes hostile neurotypical society.

These real-life connections give me some inkling of the extraordinary courage and intelligence that has gone into the writing of this book, both the remembered daughter story, and the current mother story – the courage, intelligence, and pervasive good humour. I haven’t said anything about the poems. Let me end with the final lines of ‘Dream Mother’, in which the poet’s mother comes to her each night in dreams:

It turns out none of it was true__she was
never heartsick__crippled__cancered__she never betrayed her daughters__and

when I finally tell the despairing-all___she is my comfort

Do Oysters Get Bored? is the thirteenth book I’ve  read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Kate Lilley’s Tilt

Kate Lilley, Tilt (Vagabond Press 2018)

tilt.jpgThis must be one of the most publicised books of poetry ever to appear in Australia. Kate Lilley and her sister Rozanna Lilley made headlines in June by talking to the press about how, when they were young teenagers, they were sexually exploited  by much older men – writers, poets, artists, etc in the orbit of the girls’ playwright mother Dorothy Hewett, and how this happened with their mother’s apparent endorsement. The articles under the clickbait headlines generally mentioned Tilt and Rozanna’s book of memoir essays and poems, Do Oysters Get Bored? As Rozanna said in an interview on the ABC’s Hub on Books, the Lilley sisters didn’t set out to make scandalous revelations or impugn their mother’s reputation, but to tell their own stories, and perhaps reconsider their experiences and their parents’ milieu in the light of the #MeToo movement. You can hear that interview at this link:

I don’t expect I’ll damage the sales of Tilt if I say readers will scan its pages in vain for prurient thrills. Poems related to Lilley’s early life make up about a third of the book, in a section entitled ‘Tilt’, and based on my limited acquaintance with her work I’d say they are uncharacteristically personal. Poems in the second section, ‘Harm’s Way’, range widely in subject matter, including Australia’s offshore detention of people seeking asylum, a scandal involving a judge in Arkansas, and a Texas psychiatric institution. These poems often feel as if they have been constructed from words and phrases found in other sources – newspaper articles, court documents, institutional records, perhaps. The third section, ‘Realia‘, is an expanded version of the Vagabond Rare Object chapbook (the link is to my blogpost): the expansion consists largely of seven pages of prose about Greta Garbo, which – for prosaic readers like me – allows for a vastly richer reading of the poems that follow, mainly ‘GG’ which comprises a list of objects from the catalogue for the auction of Greta Garbo’s estate.

But back to the direct, personal poems in ‘Tilt’. The great children’s writer Katharine Paterson said somewhere that her novel The Great Gilly Hopkins started out from the question, ‘What became of the children of  the Hippies?’ These ten poems address a similar question: ‘What of the children of sexual libertarians?’ They are not a diatribe, nor do they ask for a response of moral outrage. They are complex, poised, sometimes angry, clear-eyed accounts of troubling moments in a young life. One poem that keeps coming back to me is ‘Conversation Pit 1971’:

conversationpit.jpg

This little poem is worth sitting with for a while. The title and the first couplet conjure up a period domestic milieu – according to Wikipedia conversation pits were popular from the 1950s to the 1970s in Europe and North America, and I guess we’d add in some parts of Australia. In the second couplet Mum’s blunt, explicit question disrupts any expectation of wholesome conversation. It’s the kind of incident that could be part of a hilarity-filled session of reminiscences among the grown children. The lines giving the speaker’s reply,

Kissing I said just kissing
whoever’s nearest (only boy-girl) then swap

would fit nicely in such a session.

Then what wasn’t revealed in the conversation pit: that the speaker also experimented with girl-girl kissing.

We thought we were so ingenious
I was 11 she was 12

Even though we’ve been told that the mother’s question relates to primary schoolchildren’s activities, it comes as a further shock that the girl being questioned was so very young. Then the poem moves on from outrageous family anecdote mode:

The question changed everything
what had seemed forward was now backward

There’s something almost clinical in this. We’re not being asked to condemn the mother, or to pity the daughter – it’s just one of the infinite variety of ways ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad’, but that line, ‘what had seemed forward was now backward’ identifies this particular way with extraordinary simplicity and precision. And then a terrible ache is evoked in the final couplet:

I needed to speed up
at least get my period

Probably everyone has a story to tell about unhelpful parental intervention or non-intervention in their adolescence. Lilley’s poems have an extra dimension from the fact that her mother was Dorothy Hewett, whose poems, plays and prose often dealt with her own sexuality, and her father was Merv Lilley, author of the book Gatton Man, in which he argued that his father was a serial murderer. There are explicit references to the parents’ works: ‘Turn Around Is Fair Play’ amounts to a gloss on a moment in one of Dorothy’s plays, probably The Legend of Tatty Hollow; and ‘Her Bush Ballad (Bourke St Elegy)’ alludes to the subject matter of Gatton Man. But even without such references, this double handful of poems must change the way we read Hewett’s work. Elsewhere, Kate Lilley has described her mother as a ‘magnificently unabashed poet of female narcissism’. These poems expose some of the darker implications of that description, while never letting go of an enduring sense of connection, of complex loyalty. A line from ‘Memorandum’, the final poem in the section:

I’ll never get over (not) having you as my mother

[Added later: For a very fine, beautifully articulated discussion of the book and its place in the general ‘conversation’, I recommend Ali Jane Smith’s ‘A Book Is a Good Place to Think’ in the Sydney Review of Books.]

Tilt is the twelfth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jennifer Maiden’s Selected Poems

Jennifer Maiden, Selected Poems 1967–2018 (Quemar Press 2018)

__________________________I plough my furrow
heavily and fruitfully and my seldom rage
is that of the earth like an earthquake, sudden
and efficiently gutting.
(‘The Year of the Ox’, page 205)

maidenselected.jpg

That’s one of Jennifer Maiden’s many self-descriptions in this book. It leaves out a lot, of course – the wit, the polemic eccentricity, the sensuousness, the drama, the scarily eclectic erudition and much more – but it does capture her commitment to the work of poetry and her occasional bursts of rage at, well, anything from genocidal war to ‘ethical security’ in her fellow left-wingers or sister feminists.

This is Maiden’s third Selected Poems. The 1990 Penguin Selected drew on just four books. Bloodaxe’s Intimate Geography was a kind of introduction to British readers covering 1990 to 2010. This selection covers Maiden’s whole poetic career, and is appropriately hefty.

I’ve read the book a little at a time over several months. As the poems are printed in approximate order of publication, you get to see Maiden’s subjects and poetic forms develop over the years, a little like a stop-motion movie. Her daughter, Katharine, for example, first appears in ‘The Winter Baby’ on page 61:

She feeds as firmly
as the heart mills blood,
her needs as fair as Milton’s God
and her eyes like night on water.

The ‘whimsical huge pleasure’ of Maiden’s maternal love gives rise from the beginning to complex, wide-ranging poetry. Incidentally, one of the pleasures of this book is that when a poem refers to one that Maiden wrote decades earlier, it’s often possible to flip back to the earlier poem: ‘Night on Water’, more than a hundred pages and nearly a decade later, refers to the ‘The Winter Baby’. The appearance of the Winter Baby ushers in Maiden’s characteristic use of dialogue. In ‘Chakola’ (page 71) Maiden and her now three-year-old daughter visit an old school in the Monaro (emphasis from the original publication, not reproduced in this book):

She says ‘You used to teach here.’ I say ‘No:
your great grandfather did, and your father
played here.’ But you say ‘You mean
grandfather.’ And yes, that’s where the sense
of self slips up of course – in history.
Maybe we’re all an ‘I’ as we confront
the past, the broken ford, the Numeralla
gleaming with sunlit absence.

(I initially read the third line as the little girl correcting the speaker, but on typing it out realised that it’s actually the person the poem is addressed to who corrects her, a more interesting progression, of a kind that isn’t unusual in Maiden’s work.)

Maiden’s engagement with politics and especially violence is there from the start: among the very early poems are ‘Princip in the City’, about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, and ‘The Problem of Evil’ a long narrative set in an unnamed war that reads as the US-Vietnam war. Her acute observaations of political figures as seen on TV, from George W Bush’s mouth (‘George Jeffreys 4: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Berlin’) to Julia Gillard’s eyes (‘Poor Petal’), begin on page 73 (about 1990) with ‘Mandela in New York’:

_____the first loss is not time or health,
so much as forever the freedom
to escape to the purposeless self,
He walks slowly, precisely, and smiles.

And it’s fun to see Maiden’s signature ‘So-and-so woke up’ poems coming into being. In a long prose passage (on pages 153 to 159) ‘George Jeffreys: Introduction’, first published in Friendly Fire, 2005):

The part of my brain that provides new things was often inaccessible about September 11. Then driving along the Monaro and watching the tumbling circus of clouds one day, I thought: what are George and Clare thinking? George and Clare are characters from my second novel, Play with Knives, and my later notoriously unpublished novel Complicity, or The Blood Judge. George Jeffreys is a Probation Officer turned Human Rights investigator … Clare is his former Probation client and sometime lover … who as a nine-year-old child murdered her three younger siblings. The two could clearly do New York and in the process, with the freedom of fiction, the horror-inhibited portions of my mind might speak.

And so George Jeffreys and Clare Collins wake up from wherever fictional characters go when their novel s are finished, and usher in the George and Clare poems, thirty of them so far, come into being, as George and Clare visit horrors, from Manus Island to the pirate coast of Somalia, talking non-stop to each other and personages as disparate as Donald Trump  and Confucius.

There’s much more. The book is full of joys, even as it confronts many of the terrible elements of our world.

I don’t usually comment on book design and production, but it’s probably important to do so here. My impression is that Quemar Press operates on a shoestring. But I wish they had employed a professional book designer, and a professional proofreader. The margins of this books are painfully narrow – top, bottom, left and right. And there are no blank pages. It feels as if as the poems have crammed into the available space, an impression that is reinforced when occasionally the final line of a poem drifts to the top of the next page, where it sits a lonely widow above the title of the following poem. This isn’t just an aesthetic matter: I found it physically hard to read more than a couple of pages at a time. If you’re new to Jennifer Maiden’s poetry, you might find one of the smaller volumes more reader friendly.

But the mild pain was worth it for the intense pleasure to be found on almost every page.

Selected Poems 1967–2018 is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Mohammad Ali Maleki’s Truth in the Cage

Mohammad Ali Maleki (translator Mansour Shoshtari), Truth in the Cage (Verity La Press 2018)

truth.jpg

It can’t be right that my birthday hurts me;
I feel such regret for having been born.
(‘An Unforeseen Life’)

In 2001, when the Norwegian ship Tampa was turned away from Australian mainland with its burden of desperate people seeking asylum, Prime Minister John Winston Howard made sure that nothing reached the Australian population that would foreground their humanity: no photographs of their faces, no TV, radio or newspaper articles telling their personal stories, or quoting their own words.

Seventeen years later, Peter Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull maintain the same depersonalising policy regarding the men, women and children refugees and seekers of asylum now detained on Manus Island and Nauru, some of them for just over five years. The cost of a visa to Nauru is prohibitive; doctors and others speak about what they witness there under threat of imprisonment; Peter Dutton recently said that ‘the hard-won success of the last few years could be undone overnight by a single act of compassion’, and he seems to insist that no such act be allowed within his department, even to people who have died.

The detainees are not voiceless or faceless, but they are systematically denied a platform from which their faces can be seen and their voices heard. Word has managed to get out. Notably, Behrouz Boochani co-directed the documentary Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time with Dutch film director Arash Kamali Sarvestani, and his book No Friend but the Mountains is to be launched next month. There have been other newspaper articles by him and other detainees, and there are a number of detainee  Twitter accounts. Penny Ryan’s Connecting Hearts project garnered a collection of short messages from people on both islands, published in the Guardian in late 2016.

Now Verity La, a tiny, no-way-for-profit online literary magazine, has added to the voices we can hear with this chapbook containing eight poems by Mohammad Ali Maleki, translated from Farsi by another detainee, Mansour Shoshtari. All profits from sales of the book go to the poet.

As you would expect, the poems are grim: ‘The Migrant Child’ is for Aylan Kurdi, the child whose body was photographed washed up on a Turkish beach; ‘Brother’ is for Hamed Shamshiripour, one of the men who has died on Manus Island on Peter Dutton’s watch; and generally the poems reflect the desolation and despair of the experience of indefinite detention.

So, OK, this isn’t a cheerful read. But it seems to me that as well as going on protest marches, lobbying our MPs, and voting in elections, it’s important to take every opportunity that arises to listen to the voices of people with the lived experience. From ‘Where Is My Name’:

All people are known by name;
I’ve never met a human without one
Yet they stole mine and gave me
a meaningless nickname instead.
I’m fed up wth repeating this false name!
Take it away and return my identity.
That is the only thing I have left in this land.
That is my parents’ only mark here.

The book can be bought direct from Verity La. It costs $10 plus nominal postage.

Eunice Andrada’s Flood Damages

Eunice Andrada, Flood Damages (Giramondo 2018)

damages.jpg

There’s a lot of pain in these poems: the pain of migration and living in diaspora, of miscarriage and sickness, of  domestic violence, racism and internalised racism, and – shockingly topical just now – of family separation at the hands of officaldom. There are also poems that celebrate the body and family relationships, especially of a young woman with her grandmother.

There’s a wonderful variety in the forms of the poems. There are ‘novenas’, which echo the cadences of the Catholicism of Andrada’s native Philippines. There are prose poems – such as the one that would be a straightforward account of an allergy test except that the doctor is Ferdinand Marcos. There’s ‘photo album’, made up of captions to photographs, some of which probably actually exist. There’s a narrative element: no dates, times and places, but a cast of characters that we come to recognise, and when in ‘alibi’ the speaker refers to ‘the muscle memory of dancing / to the gospel / of my father’s temper’ the reader knows what she is talking about.  There are elusive epigrams, of which the best example is ‘forms’:

It is no sacrifice
when he collapses over his own altar
then asks for your body.

Eunice Andrada is also a Spoken Word practitioner – a poet of the stage as well as the page. She recently appeared at the fabulous Bankstown Poetry Slam. Here, for my readers who might hesitate to read an actual book of poetry, is a video of her performing her climate change poem ‘Pacific Salt’ at Sydney’s 2015 Youth Eco Summit, preceded by a short and charmingly awkward interview:

Flood Damages is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

Michael Farrell Loves Poetry

Michael Farrell, I Love Poetry (Giramondo 2017)

ilovepoetry.jpgSomeone said (on Twitter) that if a reviewer doesn’t get the thing they are reviewing, then no matter how long the review is, it will just be a whole lot of different ways of saying ‘I don’t get it.’ So, though I think of myself as a reader with a keyboard rather than a reviewer, I’ll make this brief.

I don’t get a lot of Michael Farrell’s poetry. That is to say, in some of his poems I really can’t tell what’s happening, apart from random phrases appearing on the page. It’s not like it’s a foreign language – I can’t tell if it’s a language at all. For instance, here’s the start of one poem (punctuated as in the book):

K In The Castle

I

Like a food documentary from 2013
Know something of your life
———and character. giraffes cry

Australian giraffes – third generation. everyone has
coconut in their tears, saliva and blood

Apart from recognising the reference to Kafka’s The Castle in the title, I draw a blank. I’m not even puzzled. My guess is that this is doing something that’s discernible to readers who are versed in contemporary poetics, but certainly not to me, and a fair amount of this book is as inaccessible (to me) as that.

Then there are poems that work for me in a tantalising way that makes me think of the fan dancers who performed in sideshow tents at the Innisfail Annual Show in my 1950s childhood. As a nine or ten year old I wasn’t oblivious to the performances’ salacious dimension, but I was mainly enthralled by the dancers’ amazing skill at waving ostrich feathers around while keep their presumably naked rude bits hidden. I don’t mean (obviously) that the poems are salacious, but that the frequent brilliant phrase and the pervasive, if sometimes annoying, playfulness are what keep me going, along with a feeling that often just out of sight there’s something coherent and beautiful.

There are some enticing opening lines:

Blue Poles and INXS shuffle into a bar. ‘What’ll you have?’
(‘Into A Bar’)


In Newcastle a businessman half-disappeared into another life.
(‘Death Of A Poet’)


The boxer has great hair, a great beard, great ink
jobs down both arms. He likes to pull up his
shirt when he’s with his friends: just above the nipples
(‘The Boxer’)


Bending over in shorts forever, Australianything
can remind us more of a country and western
song than a rap
(‘When Arse Is Class, Or Australianything’)

The poems then reliably take off in reliably unpredictable directions.

Sometimes I think I catch a glimpse of what lies behind the fan-dancing. ‘Cate Blanchett And The Difficult Poem’, perhaps the most straightforward of the book’s narrative poems, is a case. In it Cate Blanchett chats ‘laconically, fragmentedly’ with Waleed Aly while preparing to go on stage to read a difficult poem. Partly I feel relatively confident with it because I get most of its references.I know who Cate Blanchett and Waleed Aly are, and also Judith Wright and Patrick White who are both mentioned. The reference to ‘Jackie Weaver’s eye manoeuvres in Animal Sconedom / as they scorched their moving targets’ would be lost on anyone who hadn’t seen David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, but it a great description of that performance in that film. I’ve even seen Julian Rosefeldt’s multi-screen video work Manifesto, in which a protean Blanchett performs a multitude of artistic manifestoes, and which may lurk in the background of the poem.

But those are all part of the ostrich feathers. The thing that I have glimpsed is possibly an account of a poetic method. After Cate has read the text silently then aloud, trying out different tones and accents, an actor preparing, the ground shifts beneath our feet and she starts inserting lines from Judith wright’s ‘Woman to Man‘:

Blanchett’s jaw connects to a signal tower in her brain
that produces a pas de deux between the difficult
poem – but does it exist? – and the Wright poem, which
she gradually replaces with – not exactly quotations from
she’s not a complete freak – paraphrases of scenes from
Patrick White novels

A couple of lines later, Cate says to Waleed:

You have to fake it with a difficult poem: be like
I ain’t easy either, me. Treat it like a camera or
call it to the stage for an award and trapdoor it.

I like to think that’s a description of Farrell’s method: there’s a text (in the sense that everything we experience is text of one sort or another) that he has some difficulty with (for values of difficulty that include interest in a complexity), or maybe there’s nothing there at all (‘but does it exist?’); you make a poem from it by faking it, being like ‘I ain’t easy either, me’, that is tosay, by assuming you’re on equal terms with it – perhaps inserting bits of other texts (childhood memories, bits of pop culture, literary allusions), improvising a performance around it. By this method, of course, the original text / idea/ emotion will be hard if not impossible for the reader to see: what we are reading is a pas de deux between it and the poet, or perhaps only the poet’s side of the pas de deux. And maybe it’s a danse des éventails  de deux.

There’s also an implicit invitation to readers to do their own pas de deux with Farrell’s poetry. This has been an attempt to do just that.

Once again, I’m happy to acknowledge that my copy of the book is a generous gift from Giramondo.

Maryam Azam’s Hijab Files

Maryam Azam, The Hijab Files (Giramondo 2018)

img_2516.jpgIn ‘Hotel Golf’ in the current issue of The Monthly, Erik Jensen writes that Helen Garner doubts if many people who attend church actually believe – she thinks that’s a myth maintained by non-religious people.

As a non-believer, I understand how Garner herself can participate in religious services without subscribing to the underpinning beliefs, but surely it’s just a failure of imagination to project that lack of belief onto the other participants. To put that another way, Helen Garner doesn’t seem to have met ‘many people’ like my Catholic  mother, or me in my teenage years, or – to get to the point – Maryam Azam, the author of The Hijab Files.

The 29 poems in this small book aren’t religious poems, but they are infused with a religious understanding of the world. Many of them focus on the hijab, and it’s hugely refreshing to hear a clear, nuanced, non-Orientalist voice on the subject, sometimes cheerfully practical (‘A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion’, ‘Places I’ve Prayed’), sometimes satirical from an unexpected viewpoint (‘Modestique’), sometimes touching on friendly or hostile reactions from non-Muslims (‘The Hobbling Bogan’, ‘Praying at School’), sometimes addressing difficulties with other Muslims (‘Fashion Police’).

To single out one poem, here’s ‘Fajr Inertia’ (the Arabic fajr is explained in the epigraph):

Come to prayer! Come to success! Prayer is better than sleep!
FROM THE FAJR ADHAN (DAWN CALL TO PRAYER)

I lie in the knowledge of my failure
the way I lie through my chance at success,
hip sunk into the mattress
blanket over my chin
staring at a yellow flower clock
with a missing plastic cover
that reads six minutes past seven;
twenty-five minutes too late.
The broken gas canister of sleep
slowly clears from my head.
I hide under the covers from
the light invading my room
but I can’t hide the fact
I’ll have to live today outside
of Allah’s protection.

You don’t have to be a devout Muslim to understand this: the emotion isn’t a million miles from how I feel when I missed my pre-breakfast visit to the swimming pool, and realise I’ll have to live the day without that half hour of self-care. Who hasn’t woken up befuddled by a ‘broken gas canister of sleep’? With a gorgeous lack of portentousness, the poem places Allah’s protection in the middle of this commonplace experience.

Helen Garner’s scepticism about other people’s religious belief is probably typical of non-believers in these secular times. The Hijab Files speak back quietly but definitely to challenge that scepticism.

If you’re interested in getting more of a sense of this poet, you could have a look at a short, 5-question interview with her on Liminal magazine, here.

The Hijab Files is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my review copy.

John Mateer’s João

John Mateer, João (Giramondo 2018)

joão.jpgJoão is a man’s name, the Portuguese equivalent of John. So it was serendipitous that a copy of this book was in the mail waiting for me when we got back from the trip that included a memorable couple of weeks in Portugal.

The Book is made up of two unequal parts. The first, ‘Twelve Years of Travel’, consists of 58 sonnets – 58 fourteen-line moments in which the character João travels the world, seeing the sights, attending poetry events, partying, having sometimes embarrassing sexual encounters (mind you, I tend to find all writing about sex embarrassing), spending time with friends and inlaws, occasionally hobnobbing with the famous, and ruminating self-consciously. The sonnets make up a kind of discontinuous narrative, which is a term I first met in the context of Frank Moorhouse‘s short stories. The comic self-deprecation of many of the sonnets also reminds me of Moorhouse’s early stories. One of the famous writers who appear is Vikram Seth, author of The Golden Gate, a fabulous novel made up of sonnet-like stanzas, but even though it might be possible to discern a narrative through-line in João, it is not a verse novel in that way, and nor are his sonnets as formally strict as Seth’s stanzas.

These sonnets read as if they were written during John Mateer’s own travels, João being a semi-transparent mask that allows for a playful distance between character and poet, while gesturing to Mateer’s complex relationship to national identity: for example, he was born in South Africa, spent part of his childhood in Canada, is an Australian citizen, and has strong connections to Portugal and the Portuguese diaspora (hence João rather than, say, Giovanni or Johan). I imagine Mateer walking back his hotel room in Macau or Colombo or Prague, finding the words to squeeze something from his day into fourteen lines about João, partly as discipline, partly as play.

The second section, still featuring João, is just four sonnets grouped under the heading ‘Remembering Cape Town’. As far as I can tell, the only reason they are in a separate section is that Cape Town is in a sense home for both John and João, so involve encounters with family and childhood memories.

Here’s a sample. It’s the 50th sonnet from ‘Twelve Years of Travel’:

Vomiting as critique, João thought bent
over in the millionaire’s dark Balinese garden,
while in the marquee the other writers went
through the motions of being gracious. Forgotten
was introspection; they were just acting true
to their personae. Then he wiped his face,
went back to the table where he and others, too,
watched those more famous. ‘My disgrace,’
he quipped, ‘is that affluence makes me sick!’
His mind loved the tropical opulence, his body,
though, was still political. No laughter. Restricting
himself to French, the Egyptian writer, now less moody,
was again bragging to a younger Australian woman.
João, like the watching servants, was alone, forgotten.

This probably needs to be read aloud. The rhyming is important (as it is in the whole book, though not always consistently as here). It avoids the feeling of glibness that can be created by perfect rhyme (rotten/forgotten, say, is more obtrusive to modern ears than garden/forgotten or woman/forgotten), but its regularity makes the reader aware that there’s a verse structure at work. Though I don’t think there’s a regular metre, there are five conversational beats a line. True to the sonnet form, there’s a turn at the halfway point: up to then João is vomiting in the dark garden looking back into the marquee. In line 7 he becomes one of the group again.

The story is relatively trivial. A less than famous writer has a reaction to the food at a writerly party (presumably at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival). He vomits in the garden. On his return he makes a joke about his sickness which falls flat, and then is left feeling alone and socially awkward as the conversation near him, possibly sexually charged, is in a language that he’s not proficient in.

But it’s interesting how much happens in these fourteen lines. Wordsworth’s notion that ‘poetry takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility’ comes to mind, only the origin of this poem is a bit more physical than that. The emotion, and the thinking – the ‘critique’ – stem from the intense experience of regurgitation. If you’re out in the garden vomiting, you’re very likely to feel alienated from the people who are still happily chatting inside, so from the start there are invisible //irony// markers around João’s ‘critique’: yes, it’s a millionaire’s garden in a country where most people live in poverty; yes, people at parties tend to put on their party faces (their ‘personae’) rather than go in for ‘introspection’ (which I read as shorthand for serious thought). But what do these reflections amount to other than another form of self-indulgence? When João returns to the party, he tries to mould his observation into a quip. The fact that he fails – ‘No laughter’ – doesn’t take away from the fact that he wants to maintain his status as a partier.

Then, primed as we are from Shakespeare to expect things to be wrapped up neatly in the final couplet of a sonnet, we come to the lovely twist in the final line:

João, like the watching servants, was alone, forgotten.

Well, no, João isn’t like the servants, and the poem doesn’t expect us to think so. João is on the outer because he got sick, because he’s not one of ‘those more famous’, and because the French-speaking Egyptian writer and the Australian woman aren’t interested in him. People who work as servants in Bali are excluded by much harsher factors. And it’s in the nature of a party that they are more or less ignored by the partiers. João thinking of himself as ‘like’ them is self-pity, not solidarity. By putting them in the picture, though, the poem takes a mocking step back, suggesting a wider perspective. And I don’t think it’s stretching the point to read the repetition of ‘forgotten’ as a rhyme word as talking to us over João’s head, suggesting that whereas the vomiting João thought that forgetting ‘introspection’ was something to be criticised, actually forgetting a whole class of people is o a whole other level. We’re still fond of João, but a lot happens in the space between him and ‘John’ the poet.

I’m grateful to Giramondo for my copy of João.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014)

browngirl.jpgThis is a memoir in verse written for a mainly YA readership. ‘YA’ stands for ‘Young Adult’, publishing jargon for teenagers, but don’t let that put you off: teenagers get some of the best stuff.

It’s a portrait of the writer as a young woman who is Africa-American. She was born in Ohio in the early 1960s, and the Civil Rights movement features in this narrative as significant backdrop.

___________ we can’t turn on the radio
without hearing about the marching.

After her parents split up she and her two siblings move to Greenville, South Carolina, to live with their grandmother who imposes strict Jehovah’s Witness discipline, then at about the age of seven they rejoin their mother in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where the Witness discipline is relaxed somewhat, and among other things young Jacqueline discovers her vocation as a writer.

There’s something almost miraculous in the way the narrative swings along, one short, self-contained poem at a time. The little girl’s relationships with her mother and grandparents, and even with the father they leave very early in the piece, are finely drawn. Likewise her position in the family: in the shadow of her smarter older sister, concerned for their vulnerable youngest brother, born in Brooklyn, and proud of their quietly achieving middle brother. There’s a lot about the Witnesses and the Civil Rights Movement, and the joys and pressures on children’s inter-racial friendships. When a beloved uncle comes home from gaol as a convert to Islam, the telling provides a tender contradiction to the way such a story would be treated in the mainstream press.

This is from near the end of the book, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler:

the promise land

When my uncle gets out of jail
he isn’t just my uncle anymore, he is
Robert the Muslim and wears
a small black kufi on his head.

And even though we know
we Witnesses are the chosen ones, we listen
to the stories he tells about
a man named Muhammad
and a holy place called Mecca
and the strength of all Black people.

We sit in a circle around him, his hands
moving slow through the air, his voice
calmer and quieter than it was before
he went away.

When he pulls out a small rug to pray on
I kneel beside him, wanting to see
his Mecca
wanting to know the place
he calls the Promise Land.

Look with your heart and your head, he tells me
his own head bowed.
It’s out there in front of you.
You’ll know when you get there.

It’s a terrific book, and the reader falls in love with young Jackie and her family, so it’s a real pleasure to discover the pages of photos of them all up the back.

I feel obliged to mention, though, a shock I had when I read the poem ‘bushwick history lesson’. The first four stanzas begin: ‘Before German mothers wrapped scarves around their heads’, ‘Before the Italian fathers sailed across the ocean’, ‘Before Dominican daughters donned quinceañera/ dresses’, and ‘Before young brown boys in cutoff shorts spun their / first tops’. We are reaching back into the beginnings of this part of the world. But where we get to is: ‘Before any of that, this place was called Boswijk.‘ In the beginning were the Dutch and ‘Franciscus the Negro, a former slave / who bought his freedom.’ For young Jacqueline, this meant that African heritage people had been in Bushwick from the beginning. But for the reader it’s a painful shock all the same to have the pre-colonial past, and the dispossession of Native Americans so thoroughly erased.

To quote Joe E Brown’s character says at the end of Some Like it Hot, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect!’

Simon Armitage’s Flit

Simon Armitage, Flit (Yorkshire Sculpture Park 2018)

FLIT.jpg

This handsomely produced book of poems and photographs (mainly taken by the poet) was published to coincide with a small exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park featuring a selection of the photos and a video of Simon Armitage reading some of the poems.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is brilliant: Henry Moore sculptures and sheep happily coexist in the fields, in wooded areas you stumble on Andy Goldsworthy’s extraordinary land art, an Ai Wei Wei Iron Tree stands outside a chapel, and there are any number of special exhibitions, including, when we visited in early May, the Simon Armitage room and Chihara Shiota’s Beyond Time, which fills a small building with floating memories of its past identity as a chapel.

hangingtree

Part of Andy Goldsworthy’s Hanging Trees. Photo by Penny Ryan

IMG_6897

Henry Moore, Two Large Forms and sheep. Photo by Penny Ryan

Back to the book. The YSP website describes it like this:

The fully illustrated publication comprises 40 poems by Armitage, who was poet in residence at YSP throughout 2017, its 40th anniversary year. […] Rather than writing a direct commentary on the Park, he has redefined it as its own country, the little known Ysp (pronounced eesp). Letting his imagination run wild, Armitage has mapped an elaborate, alternative reality that melds fact and fiction, creating a fanciful existence for both YSP and the poet himself.

The key word of that is ‘fanciful’. At least for this reader, the book hardly relates at all to the experience of the Park. Less than a quarter of its photos show any of the sculpture – most are of the park’s buildings old and new or of its woods and water, some with odd images collaged into them: a Vietnamese fisherman sitting on the roof of a shed; a paddle-steamer on one of the streams. The photographs are beautiful, and so are the poems, but for me the conceit falls flat – my main response to the Ysp poems (a queue that lasts for months, the legend of a great drought …) is impatience. I guess what I wanted, to use the words of the website, was ‘direct commentary on the Park’.

All the same the individual poems are a good read. I’ve heard Simon Armitage read on the radio, and am glad to have got to read some of his work on the page.

Here’s a spread that includes ‘direct commentary’ on a sculpture (an ekphrastic poem, to use the technical term):

steps.jpg

On the left is a photograph of David Nash’s ‘Seventy-One Steps’, with the image of an odd temple-like building fancifully, and to my mind awkwardly, inserted. In real life you encounter this sculpture as you walk through the woods, and if you weren’t on the alert you might just walk on the steps without realising they were a work of art, though you would probably register that they are a lovely piece of work.* What you can’t see in the photo is that the dark, hefty oak steps rest on 30 tonnes of coal which will gradually erode. (The work was originally called The Black Steps, but it has already changed enough that it has been renamed.)

On the right is ‘The Dark Stairs’, presented as a translation of a poem by Armitage’s invention, ‘Ysp’s most famous poet, HK’. It’s a 14 line response to the sculpture, the short lines themselves a bit like steps.

[Inserted later: I realised that the text is hard to read in that image, so here’s the poem in full:

The Dark Stairs

Each blind step
a railway sleeper
quarried from coal,
fossilised treads
marinated in tar,
charred planks
dug out of a fire.
To me they’re saying
heaven or hell
it’s all the same,
a minor scale
of sharps and flats,
black keys only
this way or that.

The more I look at this poem, the stronger it feels. Where Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Polish Sleepers’ spells out the dark associations of railway sleepers by invoking the Holocaust, Armitage (ventriloquising HK) invokes elemental forces of fire and fossilisation, and perhaps the spectre of global warming, and does exactly the thing that I had hoped for from the book as a whole, finding words that help name the feelings evoked by the work.


*One of the joys of the Park is that this is true of a number of the sculptures: you could easily miss the Andy Goldsworthy piece above if you didn’t happen to look over a low stone wall, and there’s a brass sculpture that looks for all the world like the exposed roots of trees.