Tag Archives: Sarah Holland-Batt

Journal Catch-up 13

I used to call these posts Journal Blitzes, but there’s nothing very Blitzy about them. Just two journals this time: an Overland from a year ago and a Heat just one issue back.

Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 243 (Winter 2021)
(Much of the content is online at overland.org.au, and I’ve included links)

This issue of Overland opens with a suite of excellent articles:

  • Coming through ceremony, a brief insider’s history by Kim Kruger of the Melbourne-based Aboriginal theatre company Ilbijerri, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year
  • A teleology of folding, and of dying by Dženana Vucic. Don’t be put off by the high-philosophic title. This is a lucid personal account of the complexities of being a white Muslim – a child refugee from Bosnia – who is now atheist and hipster-presenting yet still identifies viscerally with Muslims worldwide who are facing something akin to the Nazi holocaust
  • The bridge and the fire by Robbo Bennetts, published before the terrible floods of 2021–2022, and perhaps written before the terrible fires of 2020–2021, reflects on the effects of two disasters he has been close to: the Westgate Bridge collapse in 1970 and the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009
  • Torrey Peters Detransition, Baby, in which trans person Yves Rees reviews a novel that has a Sex and the City frothiness, but whose ‘window onto transfeminine interiority is nothing short of revolutionary’. Recommended reading for anyone struggling with their inner TERF.

In a welcome return to tradition, this issue includes the winner and two runners-up of a literary prize. The inaugural Kuracca Prize for Australian Literature, established by Overland in honour of the late Kerry Reed-Gilbert, is open to all Australian writers for fiction, poetry, essay, memoir, creative non-fiction, cartoon or graphic stories, and digital or audio storytelling. The winner this year is a short story, the runners up are a poem and a personal essay.

There’s a generous eight-page poetry section, and three short fictions, of which the stand-outs are ‘Tight lines’ by Allee Richards, a tale of the collateral pain when the main character’s relationship with a child is brought to an end by the ending of a relationship with the child’s father; and see you later by Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn, a vivid evocation of work on a dairy farm, which most satisfactorily brings up to date the genre of workplace short stories.

Alexandra Christie (editor), Heat Series 3 Nº 1 (Giramondo 2022)

Heat is back from hiatus. Series 2 Nº 24 was published in 2011 (my blog post here) with no promise of a return. Now here is Series 3, slimmer, with a new look and a new editor, promising to appear every two months and – in my opinion – well worth the annual subscription price of $120 (slightly more for individual copies). My sense is that the new, intimate format is better suited than the previous, book-sized issues to the limited attention spans of our image-dominated era – there’s also a deft use of images.

This issue, introducing a minimalist design by Jenny Grigg, kicks off with a one-page linocut by Ben Juers, which works mainly as a reminder that Heat has in the past included substantial sections of visual art. The main body is made up of:

  • ‘Only one refused’ by Mireille Juchau, a Heat veteran. The essay tracks down the story of a family member who survived the Nazi camps, and makes dramatic use of illustrations, including a double page spread of the ‘Hollerith card’ that recorded her relative’s physical features, and a photograph of ghostlike women recuperating in the Mauthausen infirmary soon after liberation (This article is on the Heat web site, at this link)
  • ‘Special Stuff’, a grim short story by Josephine Rowe, featuring a woman, man and baby doing a futuristic equivalent of ‘duck and cover’, seconds before a nuclear explosion
  • Five poems by Sarah Holland-Batt, all dealing with the death of parents. I’m especially glad to have read these so soon after hearing SH-B read at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (my blog post at this link). If these poems, especially ‘Pikes Peak’, are any indication, her latest book, The Jaguar (University of Queensland Press 2022), is definitely something I want to read
  • ‘Brief Lives’ by Brian Castro, a kind of Decameron for readers with short attention spans, blended with a lament about ageing, with raging bushfires as a backdrop
  • Death Takes Me’, fiction by Hispanic USer Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Sarah Booker and Robin Myers, an esoteric variation on a police procedural that opens with a quote from Renate Saleci to the effect that castration is a prerequisite for sexual relations, and does nothing to allay the scepticism the quote provokes.

Number 2 is waiting on my shelf, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

PS: There’s a word in the Heat that I need help with. In the Brian Castro story, there’s this, speaking of an ageing writer taking refuge in a guesthouse with a number of other people:

He thinks. He thinks too much. Never sleeping. Now that Eros is held in liam in the other room, he fades into ancient tapestries.

(page 69)

What does ‘liam’ mean? Or is it Iiam (that is, does it begin with a capital ‘I’ rather than a lower case ‘l’? Given Heat 2’s propensity for typos and malapropisms, it may be an error. But if so, what is the correct word? All answers welcome, even correct ones.

SWF 2022, my Sunday

I managed to squeeze in a second Writers’ Festival event. I console myself that I’ll be able to listen to podcasts from the Festival over the next year, but I’m still sorry to have seen so little of it in person. The place was buzzing today

In the session I attended, The Unacknowledged Legislators, we were read to by eight poets. (It being poetry, it wasn’t hard to get a good seat at such a late moment.) The title comes from Shelley’s much-quoted assertion, ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ Declan Fry, emcee, said some elegant things about how poetry is a place where we can be free, where we can put our minds to things that we can’t quite say, so, invoking the theme of this year’s festival, it can literally change minds.

Tony Birch kicked things off with a number of short poems from his recently published collection, Whisper Songs, giving us a gentle introduction.

Eunice Andrada read from her second collection, TAKE CARE (link is to my blog post, as are the ones that follow). She read a number of confronting poems in solidarity with Filipina and other brown women.

Sarah Holland-Batt, author of the wonderful Fishing for Lightning, read from her most recent book of poetry, The Jaguar, poems written in the weeks and months after her father died. On the face of it these breathtaking poems about being with a dying parent aren’t political, but they drew tremendous political force from today’s context: Assisted Dying legislation has just been passed in the NSW parliament, and the federal election has removed from office a shamefully negligent Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services.

Madison ‘Maddie’ Godfrey describes herself as an emotional feminist. I don’t understand what that term means. She prefaced one of her poems with a ‘trigger warning for menstruation, endometriosis and sexy stuff’.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, author of The Hate Race, read from her collection How Decent Folk Behave. It was round about here that the poetry got explicitly political, in the sense of naming names and taking positions. She commented after one poem that it was a joy to be able to read it with a name that had to be taken out of the printed version on legal advice.

Sara M. Saleh describes herself as a Bankstown Poetry Slam Slambassador. Among the poems she read was one – I didn’t write down its name – that started out sounding like a fairly literal protest at the treatment of Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints and became a powerful, joyous assertion of humanity in the face of belittling treatment.

Omar Musa, whose debut novel, Here Come the Dogs, we read at my Book Group, has also performed at the Bankstown Poetry Slam. He performed ‘UnAustralia’ (I think that’s its name), a provocative and witty rant, then said, ‘I like to fuck around,’ and followed it with a rich, complex, passionate, compassionate poem about visiting the mosque in Christchurch where people were killed last year – you could hear a pin drop.

The last poet, Jazz Money, whose debut collection how to make a basket was published in 2021, told us she had changed her mind about what to read after she heard the others. After an excellent though mild-mannered poem about the endangered night parrot, she treated us to ‘Mardi Gras Rainbow Dreaming’, which is the stuff that slam poems are made of, and after hearing which the commercialisation of Sydney’s Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras will never feel bearable again.

And that was my Festival for this year. The Director, Michael Williams, has moved on to be editor of The Monthly. Who knows what next year will bring?

Jennifer Maiden’s Ox in Metal

Jennifer Maiden, Ox in Metal: New Poems (Quemar Press 2022)

In her essay, ‘The Political Poem’ in Fishing for Lightning (my review here), Sarah Holland-Batt says that lasting political poems are notoriously difficult to write, in part because of ‘the question of how to transform rage into poetry’. She names three Australian poets who manage to pull it off: Barry Hill, the late JS Harry, and Jennifer Maiden.

In Ox in Metal, her fifth book of new poems from Quemar Press in as many years, Jennifer Maiden pulls off the difficult trick once again.

These lines, from ‘There seems an easiness’ in this book, relate interestingly to Holland-Batt’s generalisation:

is here, but how? A recent ABR review of my last book says 
I avoid buttonholing the reader by using experienced 
techniques. I thought: I learned them over half a century, 
more to make fear bearable for both of us,
__________________________________ you and I, 
not buttonholing, clutching the cliff-edge,
turquoise sharp mountains in mist beneath

I read buttonholing as meaning the kind of verse that doesn’t manage to stay interesting once its immediate occasion is past, something more than an op-ed piece with added line breaks (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Maiden identifies two things: ‘experienced / techniques’ and an underlying emotional impulse.

The review by Rose Lucas referred to in the poem (at this link) speaks of ‘familiar Maiden strategies’ (rather than techniques) as moderating the ‘pent-up urgency of political imperative’, which isn’t a bad description of what happens in many of the poems.

Chief among Maiden’s strategies/techniques is the use of fictional characters as means to exploring ideas. In a signature opening to a Maiden poem, a historical or literary personage wakes up in the presence of a current political figure who has some connection to him or her: in Ox in Metal, Gore Vidal is paired with Julian Assange who was reading one of his books when arrested; Malcolm Turnbull chats with his relative Angela Lansbury playing Jessica Fletcher; Eleanor Roosevelt broods about Hillary Clinton; and in an interesting variation Maiden herself meets the lunar zodiac’s emblem of 2021, the metal ox. Since their first verse appearance in Friendly Fire (Giramondo 2005), her characters George Jeffries and Clare Collins have turned up in political hotspots in more than 40 poems: here they skype with a deputy leader of the Taliban and Joe Biden (though not in the same poem). There are other creations, including a cute little marsupial named Brookings after the Brookings Institute and the Honourable Carina Monckton, a kind of incarnation of the Carina Galaxy.

A main consequence of all this inventiveness is that when Maiden’s poems assert political views that many would see as contrarian or extreme leftwing*, they don’t harangue readers, or try to persuade us. The lines I quoted above speak, not of the rage that Sarah Holland-Batt sees as needing to be transformed, but of a fear that the poet assumes she shares with her imagined reader. The poetry’s motor isn’t political urgency or the need to vent emotion, but the attempt to make terror bearable, for the reader as well as the poet.

As well as the fictional creations, there are what have been called her weaving poems which bring together seemingly disparate elements – a passing remark by another poet, an item from the headlines, a memory of her daughter’s childhood. These poems are like sculptures created from found objects. An example in Ox in Metal is ‘It can’t be easy, being Tabaqui’, which picks up a quote from Vladimir Putin, finds some Kipling in it, makes connections to a recent biography of Paul Robeson and then-current Australian headline news. It’s a challenging poem to read at this time, as Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine continues to horrify and terrify the world, but here goes.

From Ox in Metal (e-book, Quemar Press 2022)

The opening quote is from Vladimir Putin’s address on 21 April 2021 to the Russian Federal Assembly, a combined gathering of members of the Federation Council (Senators), the State Duma (Parliamentarians), Cabinet ministers, Regional Governors, representatives of selected State Departments, Agencies and the media. In the address as a whole (online here), Putin positions himself as defender of a beleaguered Russia, and we now can see that he was laying the grounds for his invasion of Ukraine nine months later. The claims he was making have been fairly throughly debunked, for example at this link.

Maiden singles out a moment when Putin refers to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (which you can read at this link). The quotation is almost a found poem in itself, juxtaposing Putin the ruthless imperialist with Kipling, spokesman of the British Empire. I wonder if Maiden considered writing a poem that began ‘Rudyard Kipling woke up in the Kremlin, next to Vladimir Putin’. As a reminder: Tabaqui the jackal is the contemptibly devious offsider to Shere Khan the tiger, deadly enemy of the wolves who adopted Mowgli the book’s hero. Tabaqui’s propensity for rabid rages, mentioned in the poem, comes from Kipling. The Seeonee Pack, named by Maiden but not by Putin, are the wolves, and include Grey Brother, who kills Tabaqui. In the speech, Putin fairly explicitly casts the USA, or perhaps NATO, as Shere Khan.

The context of the quote is less charming, and is not irrelevant to a reading of the poem. Here is the next paragraph:

We really want to maintain good relations with all those engaged in international communication, including, by the way, those with whom we have not been getting along lately, to put it mildly. We really do not want to burn bridges. But if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn or even blow up these bridges, they must know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and tough.

He was definitely casting himself as the wolf.

Having unsettled the reader by quoting, without disclaimer, one of the nastiest political leaders of our time (it might even have been less unsettling to quote that Serbian butcher who was a Shakespeare scholar), the poem proper begins.

The opening lines make a complete break from Putin, and take a while to get to Kipling:

An Australian biographer of Robeson innocently undermined him 
with a bulging pocketful of CIA pathologies, summed it up:
'It can't have been easy, being Paul Robeson' but as an
alternative to coming up like thunder
how easy is it to be a jackal?

This offers a case of a virtuous figure (Paul Robeson) harassed by a smaller one (the biographer) doing the work of a big enemy (the CIA), a version of the Wolf pack–Tabaqui–Shere Khan diagram. ‘Coming up like thunder’, a phrase that seems made for Robeson, comes from a different Kipling work, his poem ‘Mandalay‘. The word ‘innocently’ suggests that the biographer is a useful idiot, doing the CIA’s propaganda work without realising it – but the suggestion hovers that literary biographers (and by extension reviewers, critics and dare I say bloggers) can be like jackals, opportunistic scavengers on other people’s creativity who wittingly or unwittingly serve the interests of political players.

It doesn’t take much research to identify the book in question as Jeff Sparrow’s No Way but This: In Search of Paul Robeson (Scribe 2017). Judging by the reviews, I’m confident that Sparrow would vigorously challenge the assertion that he undermined Robeson, and that Robeson’s ‘pathologies’ are CIA inventions. But we can agree to suspend judgement, and read on.

The word but occurs three times in this poem, each time signalling a pivot: here, it’s a pivot from Robeson to those who would attack him and his ilk.

how easy is it to be a jackal? Pity jackals. All children have been 
Tabaqui, lying for scraps from any father or mother,
living off scraps allowed him by Shere Khan, or the wolves
of the Seeonee Pack, and at last killed by Grey Brother.
It can't be easy, being Tabaqui. 

‘Pity jackals’ shifts the tone: it suggests that it’s important to pay attention to people who curry favour with powerful entities, and do their bidding, even to have sympathy for them. The next line suggests that the roots of such behaviour may lie in the universal childhood experience of dependency, lying as a developmental stage. The next lines slide to a slightly different take, suggesting that children who read The Jungle Book will identify with Tabaqui – will have been him in imagination, similarly to the way we are every character in our dreams.

Now for the only time the verse refers explicitly to Putin’s address:

It can't be easy, being Tabaqui. Putin was perhaps
thinking foremost of the Ukraine's build-up of troops,
or the put-down violent putsch in Belarus,

There’s no ‘perhaps’ about it (perhaps may well be there for the sale of the almost-rhyme with troops., which in turn chimes with Belarus). Putin was explicit: he was spinning the build-up in Ukraine as a potential attack on Russia, and threatening a response that would be ‘asymmetrical, swift and tough’: in the light of recent events he could have added ‘unprovoked’. This is the most unsettling moment in the poem, as it makes no attempt to distance itself from Putin’s point of view. If written today, reference to ‘the Ukraine’ would signify agreement with Putin that Ukraine is not a separate nation. Is Maiden here playing Tabaqui to Putin’s Shere Khan?

That’s not how I read it. Elsewhere, Maiden often quotes and even portrays sympathetically people whose politics she loathes – Tony Abbott and Donald Trump come to mind. Putin has a point when he says that NATO is hostile to him, even if he doesn’t acknowledge that they may have good reason. But to quote him like this doesn’t imply agreement, and the poem can’t fairly be accused of endorsing military action Putin took long after the poem was written.

The next lines, beginning with the poem’s second but, move away from Putin to the more general phenomenon that is the poem’s real subject:

but jackals are prone to rabies and zigzag insane
in a way even feared by the Beloved King:

The first of these lines is from the The Jungle Book‘s account of jackals. There is no Beloved King in that book, at least not by name. The gist is clear enough. Once you unleash Tabaqui, even in a poem, you can’t tell what it will do.

in a way even feared by the Beloved King: Shere Khan 
might in Australia have wanted famished Morrison
to cancel a couple of contracts with China, and academic 
agreements with Syria or Iran, in puzzled Victoria,

It’s reasonable to take Shere Khan as signifying the USA here, as in Putin’s speech. I found an ABC story about Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s cancelling contracts. It’s dated 22 April 2021 (link here), the day after Putin’s address to the General Assembly. So this example of a Tabaqui doing the bidding of a Shere Khan is in effect a piece of synchronicity, suggesting that examples could be multiplied endlessly. Then there’s the third but:

but one is compelled to look in shadows and be sorry
for mottled bundles of bravado and ingrained hunger
alternately huddling and howling.

Again, the poem turns away from particular actions: one is compelled (by what? a need to move from particular cases to an underlying phenomenon?) to pay attention to the Tabaquis, and in these lines the poem lands. Former Prime Minister John w Howard could evoke the myth of the Wild West and describe himself as the US’s deputy sheriff, and George W Bush could evoke the other US myth of the superhero and call Howard a man of steel. Maiden, leapfrogging on Putin, reaches further back to Kipling for a powerful alternative image of the relationship. The lines had me imagining Scott Morrison in camouflage gear, and sure enough I found a photo of him three years ago as almost literally ‘a mottled bundle of bravado’, here.

alternately huddling and howling. All children have been 
Tabaqui, lying for scraps from any father or mother,

These repeated lines now carry a little more weight, perhaps a suggestion of forgiveness, but really they are softening the reader up for the chilling final line:

and it isn't for the tiger the wolves come.

That gets me every time. Reading it in March 2022, on the 19th day of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine it’s hard to get beyond that reference. In that context, apart from the putrid implication that Ukraine somehow provoked the attack, the line implies Putin and his wolves are pretty cowardly in attacking Ukraine rather than going after the real tiger enemy, the USA. But the poem has explicitly moved away from the Russia/Ukraine relationship, so the line is even more chillingly open-ended. Perhaps China will be a wolf for ‘famished Morrison’ and Australia with him. But the reference doesn’t need to be tied down. The poem is about a general syndrome, and the dangers it points to, at geopolitical or interpersonal levels, are real.

So the poem does indeed take us, as the lines I quoted near the start of this blog post suggest, to fear.

* Examples abound in Ox in Metal. Maiden reminds us that on the day of the celebrated misogyny speech Julia Gillard’s government reduced support for single mothers (‘Diary Poem: Uses of Iron Ladies’); she characterises the White Helmets in Syria as a false flag terrorist operation (‘Death-Wish Moths’); she reminds us that ‘Menzies made up the South Vietnamese invitation’ (‘There Seems an Easiness’); she describes the leaks of the Pandora, Panama and Paradise Papers as ‘a CIA self-amusing / parody of Wikileaks’ (‘Pandora and her Sisters’); she describes Joe Biden as ‘dreamy with dementia’ (‘The peace prize’); one of her characters notes that US drones and aircraft have killed many women and children in Afghanistan (‘Clare, George and Abdul Ghani Baradar’); another asserts that ‘most of the almost two hundred dead / at the airport in Kabul were shot / by naive young America soldiers’.

Sarah Holland-Batt’s Fishing for Lightning

Sarah Holland-Batt, Fishing for Lightning: The spark of poetry (UQP 2021)

Between March 2020 and March 2021 Sarah Holland-Batt had a weekly column about poetry in the Weekend Australian. Each column focused on a recent book of poetry, all but two of them Australian, and was accompanied by a poem from that book. University of Queensland Press has done a great favour to those of us who don’t read The Australian by collecting those columns into this richly engaging book. Here’s how Holland-Batt describes the book:

I offer some suggestions about how to learn to pay attention to poetry and what poets do. In these essays, I am writing for readers who are out of touch with poetry, or who want to learn more about it, and even those who think they hate it, as well as for those who have already found a place for poetry in their lives. Some of these essays focus on opening up and demystifying poetic forms – the elegy, the ode, the sonnet, the villanelle – while others focus on poetic style and techniques. Many also offer some historical context. Poetry is, after all, an ancient art so durable and powerful that it has lasted millennia. Much of what poets do today still connects to prehistoric poetry that was sung and spoken prior to the invention of the written word; where I can, I illuminate those historical links.

That’s pretty much a perfect description. Sarah Holland-Batt has racked up an impressive list of awards and honours as a poet herself and she’s an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at QUT. While these essays benefit from her broad knowledge of poetry and her love for it, they don’t patronise their readers or leave them eavesdropping at the door of a closed shop conversation – both things that tend to happen in critical writing about contemporary poetry.

Take, for example, the essay first published on 11 July 2020, ‘The Sonnet Sequence: On Keri Glastonbury’, which begins:

In the winter of 1962, stoked by amphetamines, the American poet Ted Berrigan compulsively wandered the streets of Manhattan at all hours, and began writing his first book, The Sonnets: a book length sequence that sings up New York’s Lower East Side in all its grimy, fast-and-loose glory.

The essay spends a lively page on The Sonnets, its role in Berrigan’s subsequent career as a poet, and its status as ‘a touchstone of a poetic generation’. Having deftly evoked this precedent (no need to belabour us with the history of sonnet sequences from Petrarch to Christina Rossetti), it spends roughly two pages on general description of Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets, and rounds off with a page-long reading of one poem, ‘The Pink Flamingo (of Trespass)’: how it exemplifies the preceding generalities, how it is an exception, and how the poem itself works. It ends with an observation that arises from this close (but not too close?) reading:

Like many of the poems in Newcastle Sonnets it leaves you both with the feeling of having been let in on a joke by an insider, but also left slightly on the outer too: like Newcastle itself, as Glastonbury suggests, this is both a comfortable and disorienting place to be.

By the time we reach the poem itself, we are well equipped to read – and enjoy – it.

I picked this essay because I blogged about Newcastle Sonnets (here), and the comparison is instructive. While I hope I communicated my enjoyment of the book, most of my blog post was taken up with its difficulty, with my own sense of being an outsider. Reading Sarah Holland-Batt – on this poem and on any number of others – I realise (again, at last) that reading poetry isn’t about nailing down a clear meaning: not quite understanding, or even being mystified, can be part of the enjoyment.

Anyhow, I can endorse Holland-Batt’s own sentiments: whether you are out of touch with poetry, or want to learn more about it, or think you hate it, or have already found a place for it in your life, I’m pretty sure you could find some joy and light in this book.

Added later: I have one major discontent with the book, namely that there doesn’t appear to be a sequel in the works. I’m pretty sure another 50 new poetry books would be there for the SHB treatment if she were up to it. She could ‘do’ Jennifer Maiden, Adam Aitken, Kit Kelen, Pam Brown, Ouyang Yu … to name just the poets near the top of my To Be Read/To Be Blogged pile.

Australian Poetry Anthology 4

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--------------Their synchronous glide was broken
by one pair of wings, and then another, that worked
 the air, not quite in time, and over again they wheeled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Southerly 72/3: Islands and Archipelagos

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 72 No 3 2012: Islands and Archipelagos

1southerly723The title of this issue of Southerly, ‘Islands and Archipelagos’, refers to its subject matter, but it could just as easily refer to its form: a literary magazine, archipelago-like, is a gathering of diverse entities, each with its own integrity but all having something in common, whether a theme as in this case or something less tangible, like a tone, or an ethos, or a presiding personality.

I enjoyed my island hopping. My favourite moment is the bravura opening sentence of ‘Outcast of the Islands: Malinowski Amongst the Modernists’ by David Brooks :

If there could ever be such a thing as a True History of Modern Thought, at least one chapter would have to trace that set of strange, 
neglected, yet teasingly-almost-direct lines between a heterogeneous
 crew of squatters, graziers, country postmasters, district magistrates, missionaries, and employees of the Overland Telegraph recording details of Indigenous Australian life and culture in the mid- and late- nineteenth century and the desks of Edward Tyler at Oxford, James George Frazer at Cambridge and Emile Durkheim in Paris, and, through them, and a number of other significant late-nineteenth-century anthropologists, to the likes of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Sigmund Freud (see, for example, the first half of Totem and Taboo), Marcel Mauss (Essay on the Gift) and so many other key figures in early twentieth-century thought and aesthetics that one wonders whether the Simpson Desert or the Trobriand Islands should be given a place – a quite significant place – amongst the generating landscapes of Modernism.

Yes, that is just one sentence. The article not only delivers on the sentence’s promise but ends with a link to a provocatively titled companion piece, ‘Origins of Modernism in the Great Western Desert: An Introduction’.

Tying for second favourite moment are:

  • Michael Sharkey’s poem ‘First Eleven’, eleven stanzas consisting of phrases that evoke an Australian baby-boomer childhood, presumably to the age of 11. Much of it might be inscrutable to people of other generations and other places, but I was born in 1947, a year after Sharkey, and his deft hand worked nostalgic wonders in me, even in the minority of phrases that didn’t touch directly on my own experience:

    The Royal Visit. Easter Show.
    My sherbet packet. Liquorice stick.
    My shop-bought pie. My Iced Vo-Vo.
    My Cracker Night. My Jumping Jack.
    My father’s gas mask. Old blue tunic.
    My small sister in the clinic.
    My six-stitcher. My first duck.
    The choko vine. The dunny truck.

  • Michael Jacklin’s ‘Islands of Multilingual Literature: Community Magazines and Australia’s Many Languages’, which prises open the subject of Australian literature in languages other than English. I’ve always felt odd about the portrayal of 1950s Australia as monocultural and monolingual: Italian and other southern European languages were part of the soundscape of my 1950s north Queensland childhood; one of my best friends in primary school was Chinese; my farmer father played poker with a Greek, a Korean and a Yugoslav; in the 30s and 40s my magistrate grandfather spoke to Italians who appeared before him in their own language. This essay discusses evidence, including a journal from Brisbane in the 1930s, that there has long been lively, linguistically diverse literature in the Australian context, much of it invisible to the mainstream literary establishment.
  • a new poem by Jennifer Maiden, always a thrill. ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Ethiopia’ is in part a polemical essay, taking issue with some feminists who are ‘well in favour / of ethical security’. I’m not sure what ethical security is (Google is no help): it’s related to rigid ideological narrowness, I think, and may have elements of self-serving moralism. Feminist ‘fandom for Gillard’ is a symptom. My regular readers know that I often feel like an outsider with contemporary poetry (and by the way I think that’s more about me as a north Queensland boy than about the poetry). With this poem, I probably get the references more than most readers: not the Ethiopian art or the story of Sylvia Pankhurst, which are central to the poem and beautifully fleshed out, but the passing allusions – to Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, and her cutting of the supporting parents’ benefit on the same day; to the earlier poem ‘A Useful Fan’, neatly encapsulated here as ‘trying to inhabit Abbott interestedly’; to a set-to on the Overland web site described as her ‘daughter the fire tiger’ (itself a reference to an earlier poem, ‘The Year of the Ox’) defending her ‘on a hostile magazine site now given / to ethical self-security’. Paradoxically, familiarity with the references predisposes me to foreground the detail of poem’s polemics (I want to argue about her view of Overland, for example, and I’m not sure about the connection she seems to be making between some feminists and abortion), rather than the poem’s central thrust, which I read as captured in the description of doves in Ethiopian art as

    aware of complex peripheries,
    well-mannered with watchfulness,

As well as these pieces that topped my pops, there are learned essays on issues facing real islands and islanders, on Andrew McGahan, Randolph Stow, Drusilla Modjeska, and the rock band the Drones. There are short stories (especially Sandra Potter’s ‘“an empty ship in these latitudes is no joke”’, a lightly annotated list of things taken to and from Antarctica, and Terri Janke’s ‘Turtle Island’, a not-quite-ghost-story, not-quite-love-story, not-quite-war-story set in the Torres Strait in World War Two). There are other excellent poems and nearly 70 pages of reviews, plus the overflow in The Long Paddock, which includes a fine review by Sarah Holland-Batt of Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight.

A final note: the spectacularly beautiful cover, reproduced above, is described on the contents page as Sue Kneebone’s Continental Drift, but it’s actually a detail from that work, which I recommend you have a look at on Sue Kneebone’s web site.