Tag Archives: Toby Fitch

Journal Catch-up 15

Here I am once again with two journals, each of which has produced another issue after the one I’m writing about.


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

I’ve just read a tweet quoting Helen Garner about Heat series three:

So slender and elegant, nothing wasted, nothing grandiose – and beautiful work.

Beautifully said!

The third issue is true to Heat‘s original goal to publish culturally diverse voices. It has a bit of a theme going:

  • ‘Australian Capital Territory’, a short story by Madeleine Watts, in which a man and a woman search in and around Canberra for somewhere to have sex, and finally succeed in a manner that is most satisfactory to them, the watching kangaroos and the reader. So, sex.
  • Small Talk’ by Kenneth Chong, a very different short fiction, presented as a kind of abstract memoir, about a young man of faith dealing with troubling issues. So, sex and religion
  • ‘Cain’s Feast’, a short story by Mexican writer Aniela Rodríguez, translated by Elizabeth Bryer, in which a young woman is seduced by a priest and a young man takes revenge. So, sex, religion and violence
  • Tongue Broken‘ by Kate Crowcroft, not so much an essay as a collection of disparate thing connected with the author’s research on the tongue (she has completed a PhD and has a book coming out on the subject). It does one of my least favourite things, presents a word’s etymology as if it offers a kind of magical access to the word’s inner meaning. But the rest is variously lively, unexpected and informative. Also: religion and violence
  • Five terrific poems by each of Jarad Bruinstroop and Iman Mersal, the latter translated from Arabic by Robyn Creswell. Discreet sex, but no violence.

Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 245 (Summer 2021)
(Much of the content is online at overland.org.au, and I’ve included links)

Overland is always so full of interesting things that I can’t possibly name every item. Here are some things that stand out for me in this issue

Of the articles, one or two of which are too academic for my blood, the two that stand out for me are:

  • Perpetrators‘ by Rachael Hambleton, about her complex relationship with her father, who spent much of his life in prison. The essay expands into profound reflections on grief, punishment, the prison system and intergenerational trauma.
  • What lies beyond the vortex‘ by Mauricio Rivera Ramirez, which focuses on the novel La vorágine (1924) by José Eustasio Rivera. Though the subject may seems unpromisingly niche to a general reader, it includes fascinating insights into the colonial rubber trade in Latin America.

I’m often intimidated by the poetry section in Overland, edited by the marvellous Toby Fitch. I mostly enjoy the poetry but have no idea how to talk about it. In this issue, I was delighted to find a poem by Eileen Chong, ‘Dream kitchen’ (sadly not on the Overland website at the time of writing), which narrates a dream of the poet’s grandmother’s kitchen with wonderful surrealist gusto and ends in an echo of classic Chinese poetry:

_______________________-____I knew it was only a dream,
because I was in my bed, alone. I was far from her, and home.

There are three excellent short stories:

  • The first to lose‘ by Hop Dac, a story of Vietnamese-Australian family life
  • Machine works‘ by Jordon Conway, a brilliant sketch of work, class, relationships and integrity in the context of forklifts, lathes and vehicle repair.
  • Fontanelle‘ by Sarah Walker, an excellent companion piece to ‘Machine works’, a semi-futuristic piece about the work conditions of long-distance truck-drivers.

Then, tucked away up the back, there are the 2020 Emerging Older Poets Mentorship (one poem) and the five poems shortlisted for the 2020 Oodgeroo Noonuccal Indigenous Poetry Prize, including Claire G Coleman’s witty ‘Blame Ireland’ and the prize winner, ‘Choice cuts‘ by Mykaela Saunders, a long, fiercely anguished meditation on the commodification of Indigenous culture:

–how to hold onto my integrity
when cold neoliberal logic drills into me
and the colonial vacuum sucks the marrow from me as fodder

Next time: Heat 3, Overland 246, an issue of Australian Poetry, and – if I can overcome my reluctance to read journals online – Southerly 79:3.

Journal Blitz 12

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


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

Let me walk you through this issue of Overland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guest artist for this issue is Stephanie Ochona.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Journal Blitz 11

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vern Field (editor) Island 159 (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

It’s like painting the Harbour Bridge.

November verse 2.5: Homophones

There may be a better word for this kind of poem, and it may be much more widespread than I know about. I’ve met it in Toby Fitch’s poetry, and I’ve read one poem by Jaya Savige (‘Coonoowrin (Crookneck)’ in Southerly: 80!). It’s a lot harder than it looks.

My version of the idea is to take an existing text and rewrite it so that the words sound the same, or can be made to sound the same with a bit of distortion, but have completely different meaning, or even perhaps no meaning at all. Please don’t take the quality of my offering as representing the best the form can offer.

I’ve given the original text for this at the bottom in smaller type. I didn’t want to deprive you of the dubious pleasure of trying to spot the original.

Disingenuous
I forgot, brought showdirts,
I conned eel with hat.
Bit though's loose.
Eye m'nut, gunner.
Cop's legend hit a stray Lear.
Eye m'nut, gunner:
cope Thetan bee,
have a fast stray lens.

I’ve got broad shoulders. I can deal with that. But those slurs, I’m not going to cop sledging of Australia. I’m not going to cop that on behalf of Australians.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, responding disingenuously to President Macron’s accusation that he lied

Journal Blitz 10

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

This is dangerous ground.

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

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

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

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

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


Vern Field (editor) Island 158 (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toby Fitch’s Sydney Spleen

Toby Fitch, Sydney Spleen (Giramondo 2021)

There are four poems with the title ‘Spleen’ in Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (1857). Toby Fitch’s Sydney Spleen is roughly structured around those poems – its first three sections begin with his version of one, and the third section finishes with his version, or perhaps re-imagining, of the fourth.

The translations are a long way from word-for-word French-to-English transcriptions. Only the first of the four preserves Baudelaire’s conventional line-by-line layout, but even in it the Fitch version moves the action from Paris to Sydney, and in its final couplet, rather than two court cards muttering sinisterly about their defunct loves, the looming climate catastrophe disinters ‘whole centuries of fear’. On close reading, though, these versions astonishingly true to the originals – recreations of the same mood of disgusted melancholy in a different cultural, geographical and ecological context. (I have had quite a bit of nerdy fun comparing these versions with other more conventional ones. If you’re also inclined that way, you can find Baudelaire’s first ‘Spleen’ and a handful of English translations at fleursdumal.org. The Fitch version is online here.)

In the rest of the book, poem after poem vents its spleen on this city and this country, articulating – to quote the excellent back-cover blurb – ‘the causes of our doom and gloom: corporate rapacity, climate change, disaster capitalism, the plague, neo-colonialism, fake news, fascism’. They do it with gusto, with dazzling wordplay, and with the engagement of a parent of small children and owner of an ailing small black dog.

I’m not a critic or a scholar. Mostly, I read poetry for pleasure, and even though in a number of the poems in this book I have no grasp of their organising principles or structures, there is almost always something to give pleasure. I feel a little the way I did on first hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ or ‘Desolation Row’ – the words have a magic that doesn’t depend on me understanding them. For example this, from ‘New Work Metaphorics’ (page 19), which seems to be the inspiration for the book’s cover:

I've got over 73
tabs open in my hot
skull right now, one of which
on death-cult capitalism says, There
are more important things than living and
I agree with the whole of my man-o'-war
heart still beating its stung drum.
Skeletal, diaphanous, I am
traversed by grace,
a windowpane

The image of multiple open tabs in one’s hot skull is fabulous. I don’t understand that man-o’-war image, but I love it.

There are poems that play around with the n + 7 game invented by the Oulipo poets in the 1960s – you take a passage and replace every noun with the one that comes seven after it in the dictionary. A pretty soulless activity you might think, but when you do it to a certain kind of public utterance, and tweak it a little, the results can be savage, as in this mangled mash-up of Scott Morrison’s ‘I will burn for you’ and ‘This is coal’ speeches (in ‘Captain’s Cull’):

I will burnish for you every deadbeat, 
every single deadline, so you can achieve,
your amnesties, your assemblies, your destinations.
That is what's at the torch of my aid. 
And this is coalface. Don't be afraid. Don't 
be scared. An ideological, pathological 
feedback of coastline won't hurt you.

There are poems that use homophones to similar effect, like this, from ‘The Last few Budgets in a Nutshell’:

Wort I'm swaying is, Barry, the primonastery
has my combpleat confit dense. It's imply
inTrumpting bracket creep and I tink the sir plus
is a goner schtick. HoWeber the diss royalty of sum
has been outray juice.

So many levels of splenetic wonderfulness in ‘the sir plus is a goner schtick’!

There are found poems, including one that claims to have been copied verbatim from the label on a bottle of water, and others that play around with found texts. There are prose poems that may be accounts of dreams, especially a sequence titled ‘Pandemicondensation’. And there are poems that take us on a ride through conversations with the poet’s young daughters, online idiocies, dire environmental news, encounters with the police, and more, all tossed in together but somehow making a whole.

The part of the book I really love is the fourth section, a single prose poem in 25 parts called ‘Morning Walks in a Time of Plague’. It’s exactly what the title says. The poet goes for a morning walk during Covid lockdown with his partner, their two young daughters and their little black dog. In the first eight parts they go to the lovingly evoked ‘chicken park’. I’ve been to that park with a little girl more than once, and am delighted that it has been immortalised. Here it is:

In the rest of the poem, they go to Camperdown Cemetery, whose celebration in verse I’ve already blogged about (here).

Both these places come wonderfully alive in what purport to be – and I believe mostly are – straightforward accounts of daily visits to these locations. Sometimes the adults join the girls’ imaginative play, which mostly involves unicorns, or alicorns to be precise. Occasionally they yell at them. Sometimes they get lost in their phones, reading news about the pandemic or plague-related texts from Boccaccio, Defoe, Camus and contemporary scholars, the latter via Twitter. The narrator is aware that the late John Forbes lived nearby (I’m guessing it was in the sunlit brick building in the photo above), and quotes lines from his poetry. The two imaginative worlds co-exist easily with the natural world of high winds, dropping pine cones and orgiastic lorikeets. Once the poem moves to the cemetery, the context broadens out to include precolonial and colonial history, as well as a pervasive sense of mortality, and, oh, a hint of Lovecraftian horror. All this happens in unforced prose narrative, so that one barely notices the dark, melancholy undertow: the dog’s body is failing, the girls have little accidents, there are countless tales of the buried dead, they come across a dead bee, and all the time the pandemic looms just outside the poem’s frame.

It’s hard to find a short passage that conveys the pleasure that this poem gives, but here’s an attempt, from the 17th part, featuring the poet’s daughters Evie and Tilda:

Once we reach a clearing, Evie spots an alicorn flock in the 
sky. They eat the belly-sized candlenut leaves we offer them.

When we reach the other swamp mahogany, in the 
northwest, it's clear the lorikeets are coming and going 
between the two, raucously. The tree's thick chunky brown 
bark looks super tough but up close is pliant, squidgy.

Tilda needs to do a 'bush wee', which ends up going down 
the backs of her legs into her gumboots.

On the way home Evie finds a feather which I decide is
from a pigeon, though she says it has too much shine.

In the back alleys we meet, perched on a back gate, a black-
and-white cat adept at keeping his distance from our loose 
hands. 

It is forbidden to spit on cats in plague-time, writes Camus.

See what I mean? This is funny, affectionate, and melancholy all at once. The play between adult and children is fresh and respectful. There are notes on nature and some acute social observation – the cats of Newtown are notoriously self-possessed. These paragraphs quote The Plague, feature My Little Pony figures, and arguably allude to Bluey. With apparent effortlessness, they invite us into an intimate world. The tiny hints of something being amiss, in the description of the tree’s bark and the trouble with Tilda’s wee, are unstrained, and we could almost forget there’s a pandemic on, but the cat sets off an association that reveals the pandemic is always hovering in the poet/father’s mind.


For quite a few years now I’ve enjoyed the fruits of Toby Fitch’s labours as organiser and MC of poetry readings, editor and critic. I’ve heard him read, I’ve read a number of his poems in journals, and I’ve tagged him in this blog a number of times (here’s a link). I used to see his distinctive unruly head of hair behind a stroller in the local park (not the chicken park) accompanied by the small black dog. But though he has had seven books of poetry published, Sydney Spleen is the first I’ve read. I’m very grateful to Giramondo for my review copy.

Journal Blitz 8b

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Journal Blitz 8a

I’m chronically behind in reading the journals I subscribe to. I’ve had seven goes at dragging myself up to date by blogging about a batch in one post. But blog entries get unwieldy when they deal with several very different publications, and I wouldn’t blame my readers fro giving up after the first screen or so. So this time, there’s just the one journal:


Ellen van Neerven, David McCooey, Felicity Plunkett and Eunice Andrada (editors), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 10, Number 1: modern elegy (2020)

At the 2019 Melbourne Writers Festival, poets Ellen van Neerven, David McCooey, Felicity Plunkett and Eunice Andrada met with Jacinta Le Plastrier, publisher of the Australian Poetry Journal, on a panel called The Heart Bent for a discussion on ‘the ethics of elegy and writing on and from love’. Jacinta suggested that the panel members put together an issue of the APJ on the theme, and this excellent publication is the result. No one could have guessed that a pandemic would come along to make the theme of elegy – a formal lament for the dead – bitingly relevant.

The journal is divided into four main sections, each wth a foreword by a different editor, a brilliant solution to the question of how to co-edit.

Each of the forewords ruminates on the nature of elegy. Ellen van Neerven invokes the context of the terrible happenings of 2020 – the ravages of country, Indigenous culture and First Nations people in Australia and around the world, and the rising up against racism that followed the deaths of George Floyd and David Dungay. In the thirteen poems she has selected, she says she feels ‘the energies of these pieces and the futures these poet don’t wish to mourn’. David McCooey writes, ‘We all live elegiac lives. Loss is endless, and the things we lose pile up like the debris in the wings of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.’ Felicity Plunkett starts from Denise Riley’s Say something back (2016), a book of poems that centres around the death of the poet’s son, and writes, ‘The question of what the elegy – and, more broadly, the elegiac mode – can and can’t do is one the poems in this anthology approach from different angles, counterpoints in an extensive song.’ Eunice Andrada hopes ‘that through engaging with these elegies, we can widen our collective vocabularies when attempting to offer language to our loss’.

Behrouz Boochani has a special place. His ‘Forgive me my love’, hand-written in Farsi and translated by Moones Mansoubi, stands alone before all four sections. Even if it was drivel it would have justified its place, given his heroic history as a beyond-marginalised Australian writer. But it’s not drivel:

Forgive me, my angel!
I am not able to caress your gentle skin with my fingertips.
But I have a lifelong friendship with sea zephyrs
and those zephyrs strum my nude skin here, in this green hell!

What follows is extraordinarily rich and diverse. Well established writers have beautiful work here: Jennifer Maiden (‘Meteors’, since published in Biological Necessity), Eileen Chong (‘Cycle’, in A Thousand Crimson Blooms), Evelyn Araluen (‘FOR POWER FOR PRAYER FOR PROMISE FOR PEACE’, in Dropbear), Toby Fitch (‘Spleen 2’ in Sydney Spleen, which is on my TBR shelf), Andy Jackson, Sam Wagan Watson, Jordie Albiston, Tricia Dearborn, and more.

There must be something in this collection for all tastes and moods. I want to mention three poems by poets who are new to me.

Winnie Dunn’s ‘God in the Margins’ dramatises three episodes from a young woman’s life involving menstruation, contraception and herpes. They are told in straightforward vernacular, but with footnotes that link to texts from Hebrew, Christian and Muslim scripture. The effect is stunning: hard to demonstrate by quotation, because the thrill of the poem lies in the way the footnotes create a kind of cosmic miasma around the scenes of demotic Western Sydney life.

Merlinda Bobis’s ‘Air: For my parents and all who passed (2018–2020)’ starts with a school music teacher telling students, ‘Open your lungs when you sing’ and contrasts it to her dying parents’ difficulty breathing on their deathbeds. Here’s the poem’s turning point:

Death gags us, or swallows
all the air and never ever
gives it back, but today
walking in Haig Park,

under the cedars, I chance
upon a Chinese woman,

alone she sings with the beat
of a tambourine I hear
before I see, we're trees and trees
apart, socially distanced
but what amplitude her air,
its rise and fall of notes

giving back, giving me back 
a song I cannot understand 
except that it's lament

Perhaps I responded strongly to Elena Gomez’s ‘Death and all his friends’, because I read it just after hearing a review of the movie Fast and Furious 9, but it’s a terrific poem even if you’ve never heard of the franchise. it enacts the way emotions evoked by movies and TV shows – in this case a Fast and Furious movie, an episode of Gray’s Anatomy, and Jurassic Park – can be a vehicle for grief that has nothing to do with the movie. I desperately want to quote the poem’s surprising, brilliant and devastating last four lines, but that really would be a spoiler.

Tucked away at the back of the journal are two related sections: ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ – five poems from an event at the 2019 Melbourne Writers’ Festival (not all by Melbourne poets); and ‘Introducing the Tagelied, the Dawn Song’, a brief essay by Nathan Curnow followed by six poems – by poets including Cate Kennedy and Bella Li – that are either examples of the form or relate to it somehow.

So poetry is thriving in Australia. I’m pretty sure copies of this journal are still available for Australia Poetry.

Journal Blitz 7

Given the lack of government support for the arts in general and literary magazines in particular, it’s no small miracle that so many of them survive and continue to publish excellent work. I do my little bit, subscribing to three and buying an occasional one-off as the spirit moves me. Then I find time to read them, sometimes falling terribly behind.


Jessica L Wilkinson (editor), Tricia Dearborn (guest editor), Devika Belimoria (artist), Rabbit 31: Science (2020)

Rabbit is a ‘journal of nonfiction poetry’. I don’t subscribe, and I’ve only read one previous issue, Number 10 (my blog post here). Like that issue, this one is beautifully designed – it features gorgeous images made by Devika Belimoria using a mysterious (to me) process involving acrylic paint and macrophotography.

The Science issue is edited by Tricia Dearborn, whose poetry I love. Whereas Tricia’s own science-related poems tend to be accessible to a non-specialist reader (as I have testified in blog posts here, here, and here), some of the poems she has chosen here are dauntingly technical. But one good thing about anthologies is one can skim, though I didn’t skim very much at all.

To give you a taste, here’s a sampling of opening lines:

From ‘Perpetual Motion’, a series of prose poems by Amit Majmudar:

Amazonian nomads, last studied in the 1940s in Brazil (in that
anthropologist's recordings of their dirges, you can hear chainsaws buck
alive in the background), had a religion based on the quest for eternal
life – only immortality wasn't a quality, as it is for us, but a place they had
to keep walking to find

From Jacqui Malins, ‘If you’:

If you are reading this I may be dead
or alive and you have survived past
infancy

Jilly O’Brien, ‘No Laughing Matter’, which is a prime example of what Tricia Dearborn’s editorial describes as ‘science at play – revealing the world, cracking bad jokes and considering the big questions’:

Pierre met Marie in the lab
He had his ion her

Jaya Savige, ‘Starstruck’:

I cannot honestly claim to have met Stephen
Hawking. But once I was skidding down the steepest 
bridge in Cambridge – in the rain, on my rusty BMX 

As well as the science poems, this Rabbit contains the winners of the 2020 Venie Holmgren Environmental Prize, with clear and accessible notes from the judges; a number of articles including one by Tricia Dearborn about her own poetry’s relation to science; a stimulating interview with Astrid Lorange; an essay adapted from a performance piece; and several reviews of recently published books of poetry. All good reading.

I have taken Rabbit 31 into the sauna with me over a couple of weeks. It was ideal reading in that contemplative environment, but alas, it’s bound with glue, and my copy is now pretty much a loose-leaf gathering of poems, images and articles. (Also I was mocked for inappropriate sauna behaviour.)


Elizabeth McMahon (editor), Southerly 80!, Vol 79 No 1 (2019)

Southerly, Journal of the English Association, Sydney, has turned 80, and though no issue has appeared since this one came out in 2019, rumours of its death were apparently exaggerated. At least, the website is back up and running.

As befits a journal of such longevity, this Southerly has something for a range of tastes: poems, stories, memoirs, critical articles, notes about literary history, and a substantial number of reviews. A handful of contributors have been around for the majority of the journal’s lifespan, while others are writers appearing in print for the first time.

In ‘A Bell Note’, David Brooks, retiring editor, offers a fascinating account of his years in the chair, including the difficulty of producing the journal with mostly unpaid labour (contributors are paid, but not editorial staff) in an environment that has become increasingly hostile to literary magazines, or at least to the notion of funding them. His account of the role of literary magazines in the funding economy is worth quoting:

The government was using the journals as a means, on the one hand, of arm’s-length funding of writers (through their payments to contributors), so that, at ground level, it did not have to involve itself in deciding which writers to fund, and, at another level, the journals’ decisions as to who was worth publishing and supporting aided the Board in its decisions concerning which writers to give individual grants to. The journals, in other words, were supported because they were a vital filter in the government’s wider program of support for Australian writing. But increasingly, in the last two decades, this ground has shifted. Literary journals continue to perform this same function, but it’s now largely for the publishing industry; to the government they are supplicants, mendicants.

Richard Nile’s ‘Desert Worlds’ is a survey of the way literature has portrayed the Australian soldiers’ sojourn in Egypt in 1916. It’s almost as if the proponents of patriotic myths should be very glad of the disaster of Gallipoli, because without it those gallant men might now be remembered as racist, sexist, drunken hoons.

Alison Hoddinott’s ‘Poetry and Musicophobia’ does a quick tour of distinguished poets and other writers who have been, not deaf like Henry Lawson, but tone deaf – unable to hold or even recognise a tune, even while being extremely sensitive to the musicality of language. There are amusing anecdotes about Hal Porter, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Plath, among others.

’Editing Daniel’ is a brief account of the life and work of Daniel Thomas, art historian and gallery director, written by Hannah Fink, co-editor of Recent Past: Writing Australian art, the first collection of Thomas’s writing.

Jumana Bayeh’s ‘Australian Literature and the Arab-Australian Migrant Novel’ glances at a couple of pages of Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story where, she says, an Arab-Australian character appears in an Australian novel for the first time, then goes on to a fascinating discussion of two much more recent novels by Arab-Australians, Loubna Haikal’s Seducing Mr Maclean (2002) and Michael Muhammad Ahmad’s The Lebs (2018), with Edward Said’s Orientalism as theoretical backdrop.

There’s a wonderful variety of poems, including: the melancholy ‘wrap’ by joanne burns (whose apparently is reviewed by Margaret Bradstock elsewhere in the journal); the harrowing ‘Explant (caveat emptor)’ by Beth Spencer (I had to look up breast explant surgery to understand this poem); Anne Elvey’s poem in memoriam Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Grevillea Robusta’; and Jaya Savige’s ‘Coonoowrin (Crookneck)’, on which I spent far too much time and still have only deciphered less than a quarter. Just in case my reader shares my love of impossible word puzzles, here’s the opening of that last-named poem:

Hushbound, mountchain, coiled for-kin ache
revenant, calm. Warm hay be stark enigma flags, but cannot 
rarely be sore heart to tune and luck upon your sighin'?

Decoded:

Husband, mountain, [unintelligible] 
[unintelligible], come. We may be [unintelligible], but can it
really be so hard to turn and look upon your son?

If you can fill in the blanks, the comments section is open.

Of the reviews, Michelle Cahill made me want to read David Brooks’s The Grass Library; Toby Fitch reviewing Dave Drayton’s P(oe)Ms offered valuable insight into some contemporary poetics; Oliver Wakelin on Luke Carman’s Intimate Antipodes, perhaps inadvertently, caught me up on some literary gossip.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 237 (Winter 2019)

As a marker of how far behind I am in my Overland reading, while I was reading this issue, the last one edited by Jacinda Woodhead, the fourth edited by her successors, Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk, has landed in my letterbox.

Mind you, Overland isn’t all that committed to timeliness either. The punchiest article in this issue, ‘Crocodile tears‘ by Russell Marks, is a blistering criticism of a book published in 2016, Cathy McLennan’s Saltwater. After noting that the book met critical acclaim and won awards (not to mention modified praise from bloggers such as me, link here), it goes on:

All of this should come as a surprise because Saltwater‘s myriad problems could have excluded from publication altogether.

Drawing on his own extensive experience as a lawyer working with and for First Nations people, he makes a very convincing case that Cathy McLennan’s memoir of her time as a young lawyer working for an Aboriginal legal service in Townsville is full of poor legal practice which the older McLennan seems to endorse, is misleading in many ways and feeds a racist agenda, while distracting readers from its reactionary politics by ‘vivid and shocksploitative descriptions of her clients and their lives’. (I searched online in vain for any rebuttal of the article.)

The only moment that felt seriously dated was a citation of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth in Hannah McCann’s ‘Look good, feel good‘, an otherwise excellent article about the emotional labour of beauty salon workers. Though The Beauty Myth may well hold up, it’s hard to imagine an article in Overland these days quoting someone who so bizarrely argues against masks and basic contact tracing mechanisms.

My other highlights in this issue were: ‘Only the lonely‘ by Rachael McGuirk, discusses the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug ‘Ice’ from the perspective provided by her family’s long-term, harrowing experiences with drugs, mental illness and the justice system, ‘Inspired and multiple‘ by Rebecca Ruth Gould and Kayvan Tahmasebian, who describe their process of co-translating poetry as ‘a dance in chains’; ‘At the crossroads‘ by Con Karavias, a history lesson about the German revolution that raged from 1918 to 1923, but will never be restored to mainstream respectability because to do so would be to acknowledge that conservative forces unleashed Hitler and Nazism in order to crush it.

Of the four short stories, ‘Womanhood‘ by Mubanga Kalimamukwento, a Zambian coming of age story involving female genital modification, had most impact on me. ‘The Sublime Composition‘ by Gareth Sion Jenkins incorporates elements of Microsoft Word’s track changes feature in a deconstruction of an incident recorded in Thomas Mitchell’s journals of exploration, but it’s an extract from a work in progress, a taste rather than a meal.

In the eight pages of poetry, I loved the way ‘Tenor and vehicles‘ by Shastra Deo and ‘Learning‘ by Jini Maxwell resonated with each other. One begins:

Fact: things are like other things. Supposition: liking
tweets is like a simile. 

The other:

There is a very fine line
between writing and just sitting down

Overland has a number of regular features:

  • a guest artist. Number 237 has Matt Chun, who is currently – or was in January 2020 – the Children’s Literature Fellow at the State Library of Victoria, and who brings a children’s illustrator’s sensitivity to these sometimes necessarily grim pages.
  • three columnists: On failure by Alison Croggon; On the school as utopia by Giovanni Tiso; and On writing in water by Mel Campbell
  • the results of at least one competition. This time it’s the 2019 Fair Australia Prize (FAP), an annual prize co-sponsored by the United Workers Union and Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. The winners – two short stories, an essay, a poem and a cartoon – share a fresh directness in the way they address issues facing working people in Australian and, in the general fiction prize winner, in India.

And three more journals are now on the shelf above my desk …

Journal Blitz 4

I subscribe to literary journals partly for pleasure and partly as an act of civic responsibility, and lately (only lately?) I’ve neglected to keep up with reading them. This is my fourth blog post in five months reporting on a catch-up read, starting this time with a journal I don’t actually subscribe to.


The Blak Women’s Brow Collective (Editors), Blak Brow (#40 of The Lifted Brow 2018)

Though I’ve heard plenty about the Melbourne-based The Listed Brow, this is the first issue of I’ve read – it came to me by way of the Book(-Swapping) Club.

When the editors of The Lifted Brow approached Paola Balla, whose bio describes her in part as a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman based at the Moondani Balluk Indigenous Centre at Victoria University, she ‘saw the opportunity to work collectively and went for it’ (the quote is from the journal’s editorial). Edited by a collective of Blak women – Blak, a note on the inside cover explains, was coined by artist Destiny Deacon in 1990, and names the lived experience and identity of urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples – Blak Brow has a strong collective feel, and is rich with voices speaking of the lived experience of Blakness.

There are strong individual voices: ‘Fight or Flight’, a wicked short story by Melissa Lukashenko; ‘Fern Your Own Gully’, a poem by Evelyn Araluen that savages the May Gibbsian version of the bush; ‘Because of You I Can’, a pair of short essays by poet Ellen Van Neerven and her mother Maria Van Neerven-Currie; ‘The Crucial Voices of Aboriginal Women’, an account by Celeste Liddle of the struggle to be more than a token Aboriginal presence on panel presentations.

But those are exceptions: while all of the voices here are strong and clear, most of them carry a sense of representing a constituency. The powerful first speech of Lidia Thorpe, first Aboriginal woman to be elected to a lower house seat in the Parliament of Victoria, is given in full. She captures the tone of most of the writing in Blak Brow when she says: ‘I have been inundated with messages from Aboriginal people across the country. I speak today on behalf of them.’ Even intense accounts of personal experience – ‘Binak’ and ‘A Room with a View’ – are followed by brief essays explaining that they are ‘composites’, the first ‘bringing together the real experiences of young women’ who have come under youth justice supervision in Victoria; the second, written by Vicki Roach, ‘a composite of [her] own and many other women’s lived experiences of finding housing when released from gaol’.

It’s a very rich collection of poems, song lyrics, fiction, art, journalism, scholarly writing, speeches to parliament and to a Federation of Community Legal Centres symposium, memoir, reports on art projects and academic ventures, and more. Some of it, as in the WAR response to attacks on their members, is very raw. As a middle-class white man in my early seventies, I was challenged, informed, delighted, and then challenged some more.


John Kinsela (guest Editor), Australian Poetry Journal 9.1: resist (2019)

This is a brilliant collection of poetry. John Kinsela, guest editor, says in his unusually long introduction:

We have a collective responsibility to live justly, and to work for mutual justice … , understanding each other, and respecting difference. Again, poetry is one of the most effective and linguistically affecting ways of achieving this. The poem as thing in itself is … a form of ‘agora’ in so many ways. Even very disparate issues of justice can find common ground.

The poems cover a huge range of ‘issues’ in a magnificent diversity of voices and poetic forms, and a strong sense emerges of ‘common ground’. As I read, I started out turning down the corners of pages I wanted to revisit and/or mention here, but soon gave up because there were too many – this blog post would have ended up as little more than a list. I’ll restrict myself to just a couple poems – passing over some wonderful poems in silence! (Oh well, almost in silence. Let me mention Evelyn Araluen’s ‘Mrs Kookaburra Addresses the Natives’, which like her ‘Fern Your Own Gully’ in Blak Brow, makes very funny and very unsettling use of language from May Gibbs’s children’s books; Eileen Chong’s ‘Rot’, on violence against women; Sarah Day’s ‘Nation’, on bullying; Dan Disney’s ‘let us rejoice’ an eerie mash-up of speeches by Scott Morrison and (I think) Hitler; Lisa Gorton’s ‘EKPHRASIS I. THE NYMPH OF FONTAINEBLEAU’, which juxtaposes an art critic’s comments on a painting with narrative about the exploitation that accompanied its creation; Jennifer Maiden’s ‘Umbrage in Vault Seven’, a current adventure of George and Clare; Jaya Savige’s ‘Spork’, on racism within a family. The list could go on.) I’m pretty sure that anyone interested in poetry or social/political issues will find something here that strikes a deep chord.

A little more detail on two moments in the collection.

The first is Toby Fitch’s ‘The Last Few Budgets in a Nutshell’. At a quick look this just looks weird. It begins:

Torquing about debt is always exshiting but
weaken nut and muscle knot becomb a carbone
cuppy of the Labna Putty.

The penny drops, and you realise that a politician’s speech (perhaps a particular one, perhaps a composite) has been tortured. There’s probably a word for this process: key words are replaced by words that sound something like them so that ‘Talking’ becomes ‘Torqueing’, ‘we cannot’ becomes ‘weaken nut’ and so on. For the reader then, there’s a double perception: we read the words on the page and hear the original. To do this and make it something more than just a bit of nonsensical clever-dickery is a challenge, and Toby Fitch pulls it off: those first lines give a whiff of the biting satire that he creates. This poem has stayed with me because its technique so beautifully captures and even generates the feeling one has when listening to political spin, and also perhaps a little because it makes me feel smart!

My second moment is call-and-response pair of poems by Kaitlen Wellington (‘It’s about time’) and Alison Whittaker (‘In response to Kaitlen Wellington’s “It’s About Time”‘) respectively. It took just a slight deviation from alphabetical order to have these poems appear consecutively (Rae White’s ‘Rainbow confetti pixels’ graciously allowed Alison Whittaker’s poem to nudge ahead of it in the queue).

‘It’s about time’ is very straightforward – the speaker goes ‘walkin old tracks’, reconnecting with traditional Indigenous knowledge, ‘lookin for some sarsparalla’:

Walkin, walkin
sticks, stones
dreamin track her, there
watch ya step.
We surrounded by the richest green,
earth's soil moist,
dry leaves scatter our path,
we are locked in our country's
secure embrace

It’s not just a bush walk, at least not what a seventy-something whitefella like thinks of as a bush walk. ‘A sea eagle is ‘lettin us know, / “It’s about time youse come walkabout here”‘. The final stanza begins:

We know what to do now:
unite, fight and teach.
Let our mob know
ain't no takin our culture away no more.

It’s a good poem. I was seduced by its idiosyncratic spelling, especially of ‘sarsparalla’, because that’s how we pronounced it in my North Queensland childhood – though we were talking about a softdrink, not a bush medicine. I could feel its seriousness, and then moved on … to Alison Whittaker’s response.

She begins with a question, ‘What does it mean to resist in this colony?’ and goes on to describe the cycle of necessary work – ‘in the courts of the public or in institutional tribunals’ – and necessary self-care. ‘I become a consistently self-optimising tool. In some ways, indistinguishable in discipline and form from that which I am resisting.’ Kaitlen Wellington’s poem brought the insight that there must be more than that cycle. She concludes: ‘What’s the point of making a nicer colony, when you can breathe sovereignty?’

This poem and this response to it offer something profound, not just for people who are the targets and survivors of colonisation and genocide, but to anyone up against any oppressive force. If you get a chance to browse this journal, do flip through to page 99 and read to the end of page 101. But don’t stop there.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 234 (Autumn 2019)

This issue of Overland is bookended by two excellent articles from the Wrights.

Alexis Wright, in Telling the untold stories, begins with the problem facing writers in today’s increasingly chaotic world:

The question for the writer of stories is how to fight your way through imposed boundaries of indifference, ignorance, or political interests, and to perhaps learn how to do this by not getting directly into the ring and wrestling the pig ‘because a. it is only going to get dirty, and b. you will get dirty as well’.

and she relates this to the survival of aboriginal stories through the catastrophe of colonisation. It’s a magnificent essay, an excerpt from her Stephen Murray-Smith talk given in December 2018 (available in full online here).

Fiona Wright (probably only a very distant relation) writes about Tinder in State your intentions. Sometimes intensely personal, sometimes confidently snarky, this is a beautifully executed mosaic picture of what it is to be young and happily(?) single today.

Of the regular columnists, Tony Birch’s On thinking is the stand-out. Writing partly as a tribute to Deborah Bird Rose (my review of one of her books here), who died at the end of 2018, he quotes her:

Any conversation we humans may wish to start up concerning the living world, our place in it and our responsibility toward it must bear the knowledge of the terrible harms we have done and continue to do.

and pits that against Tony Abbott’s famous remark, ‘Climate change is crap.’

There are four pieces of short fiction – In Cassilis by Louis Klee, Buried time by Mykaela Saunder, ‘Into the valley’ by Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi, and ‘The melancholy new patriot’ by Corey Wakeling – introduced by Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk, who at the time of publication hadn’t yet been announced as due to become joint editors of Overland late this year. There are just three poems, the place-getters in the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, by Julie Jedda Janson,  Joel Scott and Ross Belton.

As well as these, there are articles on Cambodia (That bird is for us by Adam Curley, which takes an episode of something called Survivor as his starting point), Kashmir (Combat breathing by Tim Robertson), burning-off as a gross and destructive distortion of Aboriginal firestick farming practices (The fire cult by Katherine Wilson), current prejudice against Chinese people (Not all yellow and white by Gabriel Ng), and an essay on swimming pools and the beach that makes an excellent companion piece to the ABC doco series The Pool (Aqua Profonda by Gavin Scott).

The cover and moody internal artwork for this issue are by photographer Hoda Afshar.


I was going to include a review of Southerly 78.2, which I’m still reading, but if you’ve read this far I think you deserve a rest, so I’ll save that for the next catch-up blitz.