Tag Archives: Tony Birch

Journal Blitz 3

Here are some notes from a third journal catch-up binge. One more blitz and I’ll be temporarily up to date.

Jill Jones and Bella Li (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Volume 6 (2018)

This is Australian Poetry Inc’s sixth annual anthology of member’s poetry. The editors’ foreword begins with the question, ‘What could Australian poetry look like at the moment?’ and goes on to suggest that this anthology could be one way it looks. I love that refusal to be definitive. And I don’t envy the editors the task of selecting what turned out to be 64 poems from nearly a thousand that were submitted. Hard enough for me as a mere blogger to name poems that meant something to me.

I turned down page corners as I went (yes, I read – and mutilated – the hard copy, leaving the digital version unsullied on my desktop). Here are the poems with dog-ears:

  • Kevin Gillam, ‘call it that’: 34 lines of three one-syllable words that capture the deep relief of ‘fat rain / call it that’ after a long dry
  • Rachael Mead, ‘Catastrophic Fire Danger: level 6’, which is painfully topical just now – ‘I scan the blue for smoke. Plants, words, thoughts /all crackle to dust in this catastrophic light.’
  • Toby Fitch, ‘Cultivate a New Foot’: tantalisingly almost coherent, rich wordplay – ‘incredibly the gossiping planet / will still be there on the weekend / no madder how many selfies weaken the collective / labour / bargaining agreement’
  • Gareth Jenkins, ‘Dream sequence’: I probably noted this because Gareth Jenkins read beautifully at the recent Francis Webb reading. It’s 10 very short (one to three lines) poems that have the uncanniness of dream.
  • Brenda Saunders, ‘Figures in a landscape’: a First Nations voice speaks back to a colonial painting of Sydney Harbour – ‘I am not in this picture. Invisible, I fall / easily into shadow, watch the ladies walk / float white as sails on water.’
  • Jordie Albiston, ‘gasp’: previously unpublished, this feels as if it’s from a longer sequence – some great upheaval in the ocean and ‘our strange & / elusive beast of the deep flipped & flopped / in an agony of light & without / any sound drowned in a great flood of air’
  • Tyson Yunkaporta, ‘No Cure for Colour Blind’: I haven’t understood this poem yet, but there’s a lot in it about traditional knowledge (‘You can’t hear that story boy’) and Indigenous perspectives.
  • Elanna Herbert, ‘SIEV221 File Note: to mothers waiting’: A Christmas Island landscape, sneaks up on the subject of deaths at sea announced in its title – ‘If this was a different page / in the novel of Christmas Island / this would be the postcard beach.’
  • Zenobia Frost, ‘Taming the Shrew’: a sweet poem about a key moment in a tung woman’s life that had the perhaps unintended consequence of making me want to see the movie 10 Things I Hate About You
  • Tricia Dearborn, ‘Therapist, dreamt’:a kind of love poem to a therapist, the kind that probably wouldn’t pose ethical issues for said therapist
  • Jeff Guess, ‘Transgression of the Trees’: a lament for ancient trees cut down for roadworks, which, though it was published a year ago, could be a poignant response to current violence against sacred trees in Victoria
  • Alison Flett, ‘Vessel’: An almost Proustian moment in which a child begins to understand something – ‘a first meme / which will repost versions of itself again / and again in her brain

As with previous AP anthologies there are no stars, but much excellence. There’s a huge variety of forms, and I hope I’ve given you a sense of the range of subjects.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 233 (Summer 2018)

This issue of Overland kicks off with ‘26 January – or thereabouts‘ by the venerable Marxist historian Humphrey McQueen, a brief history of the Australia Day holiday that takes effective potshots in passing at any number commonly believed fallacies. Here are some fabulous factoids from the article:

  • It’s not just the left and First Nations peoples calling for a change of date. Conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey and Hugh Morgan, mining magnate, have each pitched for a different day.
  • In the early 20th century Irish Catholics (my lot) celebrated ‘Australia Day’ on the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians (24 May). The Red Cross instituted ‘Australia Day’ on 30 June 1915 and 1916.
  • Though Victoria and South Australia pride themselves as having been established as ‘free colonies’, the South Australia Company actually ‘floated on chattel-slavery’ (a phrase McQueen, sadly, doesn’t unpack) and ex-convict John Pascoe Fawkner may have a greater claim to be founder the Victorian colony than land thief Batman.
  • ‘Invasion Day’, a term now reviled as a Marxist invention, is anything but: ‘Invasion’ was the word used by small-l liberal (Sir) Keith Hancock in 1930, and even more tellingly by the right-wing historian Sir Archibald Grenfell Price in White Settlers and Native People (1949). Marxist McQueen sinks the boot into soft-left Labor Party figures by pointing out that ‘the academic convention of using “invasion” did not stop Queensland ALP premier Wayne Goss from erasing the term from the school curriculum’.
  • Terra nullius is ‘a doctrine formed only in the late nineteenth century in relation to the status of the polar regions. That the High Court accepted terra nullius in Mabo confirms the venerable legal doctrine of Judicial Ignorance.’ I knew this from reading Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy (my blog post is here), but the furphy that it was there from 1788 is so well established I’d forgotten the reality.

That’s not the whole article: McQueen comes up with some positive though hardly serious suggestions for alternative dates, but I’ll leave you to read them for yourself.

Of the regular columnists, Alison Croggon’s , ‘On the #MeToo movement‘, written before the Geoffrey Rush court case was concluded, is complex as ever. Tony Birch’s column, ‘On bullshit‘ is a fabulous rant against university bureaucracy. Giovanni Tiso ruminates on the wistful belief that we can learn things from tapes under the pillow while sleeping, in On learning French while you sleep.

Of the other articles, ‘The eleven best Australian essays of the past 3,533 days‘ by Dean Biron is a spectacularly self-indulgent piece that manages to convince me that the eleven essays he singles out are worth looking up; ‘Hand on heart‘ by Elfie Shiosaki draws a line connecting letters written to the WA ‘Protector of Aborigines’ by Aboriginal parents a century go and the 2018 twitter hashtag #IndigenousDads; ‘Power ballet by Kirsten Krauth speaks from within women’s wrestling fandom.

Jennifer Mills, Overland‘s fiction editor for many years, writes in defence of utopian/eutopian and dystopian fiction in ‘Against realism‘ and then serves up a quartet of short fictions of decidedly dystopian bent, of which ‘Noplace‘ by Claire G Coleman and ‘Idle hands‘ by Wayne Macauley grabbed and held me.

The poetry section (yes, the poetry is gathered in one place – all the easier for poetryphobes to ignore, you might say) is filled with riches. My favourite single poem is ‘Blessed be this sadness‘ by Omar Sakr, a meditation on suffering that has Les Murray’s ‘A Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’, acknowledged, in the background. My favourite lines are from ‘Learning‘ by Allison Gallagher:

I am learning to live inside a broken thing
when I call this body a wreckage in the middle of the night
you ask me not to speak about your home that way

Overland always features the results of a literary competition. In this issue it’s the Fair Australia Prize, an annual competition supported and funded by the National Union of Workers, and is made up of five general prizes worth $3000 each and three prizes for union members worth $1000 each. All the prize winners are worth reading, especially Laura Elvery’s short story ‘Your cart is empty‘ which raises chilling prospects and then chills from another, unexpected direction, and Miriam Jones’s winning essay ‘Care and cooperativism in early childhood‘, which argues that early childhood workers are ideally placed to take on the project of finding alternatives to capitalist ways of organising work.

As I write this, I’ve been reading news of Jacinda Woodhead’s departure as editor. I guess I have a couple more of her issues left to read. I’ll miss her.


Michelle Hamadache (guest editor), Southerly Vol 78 No 1 2018: Festschrift David Brooks

David Brooks has retired as editor of Southerly after two decades in the chair. In this issue, Southerly‘s community of writers and scholars celebrates his contribution, his work and his person.

The only festschrift I’d read before this was one I copy-edited decades ago. It honoured a distinguished psychology professor on his retirement and consisted of a number of learned papers about his contributions to his field. David Brooks, and Southerly itself, being concerned with literature, this festschrift isn’t that straightforward. Some pieces are very personal, even intimate, replete with private jokes and tales of shared meals; others, especially the poems, have no easily discernible connection to Brooks. Only by the contents page could I tell whether some pieces were part of the festschrift or belonged in the ‘Unthemed’ category, and in the end I decided it didn’t matter. What counts is that Brooks and the Southerly community can see the connection – the overarching effect of this issue is to demonstrate the existence of that community as warm, sometimes passionate, and far-reaching.

There are poems, short stories, and articles discussing Brooks’s writing that range from a sober overview from Judith Beveridge to ecstatically personal, which is as it should be. There is frequent reference to his veganism and advocacy for ‘non-human animals’, including the rescue sheep who share his life in the Blue Mountains. Two letters address him personally – from fellow-vegan poet John Kinsella and Greek scholar Vrasidas Karalis. Brooks himself speaks in a poem, a short story and a long interview with Andrew Burke.

It’s a good read over all, and full of excellence. I just want to single out three surprises.

In ‘Letter to David Brooks from a Certain Greek Friend’, Vrasidas Karalis seizes the moment to expound about Australian literary life, reaching a kind of climax of idiosyncrasy in this paragraph:

As a privileged outsider, I felt that the sacrificial act that established the new covenant of Australian poetry was the suicide of Adam Lindsay Gordon, renewed periodically by Francis Webb’s madness and Michael Dransfield’s drug-induced death. There is always something odd and tormented in Australian poetry, despite Les Murray’s efforts to make everything cosy, tamed and over-poetical.

(page 89)

Linking Lindsay Gordon, Webb and Dransfield as Christ-figures is pretty wild, though interesting, but I’m in total awe of a world-view that sees truculent Les Murray as trying to make everything cosy.

The second surprise is a piece of serendipity. I read the Southerly after quoting those lines from Allison Gallagher in the Overland. I was brought up short, then, when I read, also in Vrasidas Karalis’ wide-ranging letter:

I never understood why many writers are so tormented by the idea of home: there is one home only – our body (or on some rare occasions someone else’s body)

(pag 91)

Third surprise is the short poem that ends the journal: ‘Ballad’, eight previously unpublished lines by Bruce Beaver, which begin:

I'm off to Hullaboola, where the climate's never cooler
than a ringside seat in Hell, they're growing corn there
That pops the while it's growing, and the reason why I'm going
Is because I hate the name and wasn't born there.

This is listed as part of the festschrift but as Beaver (I’ve blogged about his poetry here) died in 2004 he can’t have written it with this publication in mind. On the one occasion when I met David Brooks he expressed great admiration of Beaver, so I guess that’s why these lines are here. It’s also somehow fitting that they are bouncily metrical and have lots of conventional rhyme, completely untypical of Bruce Beaver or of David Brooks, so after quite a lot of seriousness it’s a lovely bit of cheek to end on.

Journal Blitz 2

I still have nearly a year’s worth of subscribed journals on my TBR shelf. Here some gleanings from a second catch-up binge.

Andrew Galan and David Stavanger (guest editors) plus Toby Fitch (Big Bent editor), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 8 Number 2: Spoken

This issue of APJ is in two parts: ‘Spoken’ comprises 42 poems intended primarily for performance – ‘Spoken Word’ creations; and ‘Big Bent Poetry’ is 19 poems commissioned to be read at a series of LGBTQIA+ events at literary festivals in 2018. Sound recordings of both sections are accessible at the Australian Poetry home page, australianpoetry.org.

The Big Bent poems may have been commissioned for performance, but they are mostly ‘page poems’, compressed, elegant, needing to be taken slowly; the Spoken poems are definitely ‘stage poems’, with declamatory rhythms and big gestures, one of them actually including stage directions.

I’m a long way from being a Spoken Word aficionado, but I love Bankstown Poetry Slam and was pleased to recognise a number of its stars here. Sara Saleh’s ‘InshAllah’ offers a multitude of meanings for that expression, of which my favourite is, ‘InshaAllah is the answer / when there are still questions but no answers to give.’ Ahmad Al Rady has a group of three short, tantalisingly oblique poems (on rain: ‘wet bullets crave the warmth of flesh’). In Omar Musa’s ‘Christchurch’, that earthquake-ravaged city is a setting for a break-up poem (‘I don’t believe in miracles any more, just bridges – some you walk across, some you jump from’).

There are strong Aboriginal voices, including Lorna Munro, whose ‘cop it sweet’ evokes the ravages of time on her inner city Aboriginal community, and Steven Oliver of Black Comedy fame, with a brilliant list poem, ‘Diversified Identity’.

Other poems that stand out for me are Emilie Zoey Baker’s ‘Hey, Mary Shelley’, in which the speaker imagines herself inhabiting Shelley’s body ‘like a flexible ghost’; Emily Crocker’s ‘the refrigerator technician’, a breakup, or near-breakup, poem full of sharp domestic metaphors; Tim Evans’s ‘Poem Interrupted by’, in which the speaker answers a phone call from the Abyss (this is the one with stage directions); and the anthem-like ‘Forget’ by the late and much-missed Candy Royale. The section ends with a photograph of a splendid graffiti mural at the Newtown hub featuring Candy Royale with a halo made up of the words, loving instead of hating, living instead of waiting.

Coming to this issue late means that I’ve actually read a couple of the Big Bent poems in books published in the meantime. It was a pleasure to re-encounter Tricia Dearborn’s ‘Petting’ and Kate Lilley’s ‘Pastoral’. Of the others, I particularly warmed to joanne burns’s shit-stirring in ‘a query or two’, which includes:

is there a point to getting grumpy
if you're addressed as 'sir' by
a sushi seller or a supermarketeer –
better than being addressed as nothing
or no one service is better for the sirs
of this world.

There’s also ‘(weevils)’ by Pam Brown (I don’t understand the title, but it’s a terrific poem); ‘my human’ by Quinn Eades (he’s the poet who appears in both sections – ‘my human’ is spoken by a dog); ‘A Song of Love’ by Omar Sakr; and ‘Bathers’ by Zenobia Frost (a longish prose poem that takes a Rupert Bunny painting as its starting point). There’s a lot of excellence to choose from.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 232 (Spring 2018)

First thing you notice about this Overland is the stunning collages by guest artist Bella Li, especially the front and back covers – a great waterfall among skyscrapers, and oceanside apartment blocks bursting into flower. Bella Li’s artist’s statement can be read on the journal’s website, here. (Most of the contents of this issue can be read on the website. The titles here link to them.)

As always there are excellent columns by Alison Croggon (‘On memory‘ – ‘The human capacity for delusion isn’t so much a bug as a feature’), Giovanni Tiso (‘On remembering to back-up grandpa‘ – a touch of dystopian technofuture) and Tony Birch (‘On Kes‘ – the role of books and an imagined falcon in his childhood, plus a sweet present-day harking back).

Overland always includes the results of at least one literary competition. This time it’s the VU Short Story Prize and the PEN Mildura Indigenous Writers Award. The winner and runners-up for the former are all terrific: in How to disappear into yourself (in 8 steps) by Katerina Gibson the narrator juggles an internship, a paid job, motherhood, a possible new relationship, and cultural complexity, and the story stays lucid; in Dear Ophelia by Erik Garkain a trans man who works in a morgue speaks to a trans woman whose corpse he tends – it’s a little teachy, but I just now many of us need teaching; Nothing in the night by Ashleigh Synnott is a short, gripping, surreal piece which Bella Li’s collage illo suggests is set in a dystopian future, though I’m agnostic about that. Her eyes by Maya Hodge, winner of the PEN Mildura prize, takes that moment when you look into a baby’s eyes and understand something profound.

I’m always grateful for Overland‘s poetry section, currently edited by Toby Fitch. This issue has nine poems, of which the two that speak most directly to me are Peripheral drift by Zenobia Frost (who also got a guernsey in Big Bent Poetry, above), which begins:

Turns out you can still pash in a graveyard
at 28, though by now my fear of spooks
has faded into a more realistic fear of people

and Patternicity by Shey Marque, a terrific evocation of a tiny sandstorm that includes the wonderful word ‘apoidean’.

Of the articles, the ones I have been talking about compulsively are The bird you are holding by Ashleigh Synnott (who also appears as one of the VU Prize runners-up) and Against apologies by Joanna Horton. Each of them makes a case for keeping in mind our common humanity, or at least our common struggles. Among other things, Synnott provides brief literature survey of the concept of ‘precarity’, and Horton, while agreeing that talk of ‘privilege’ is useful, argues that apologising for one’s privilege is actually buying into neoliberal individualism:

We desperately need a politics that frames a comfortable, stable life, one as free from oppression as possible, as a right to be fought for, not a privilege to be denounced.

‘Making the desert bloom’ by Barbara Bloch is a trenchant criticism of the Jewish National Fund’s activities in the Negev/Naqab desert. Like Chris Graham’s ‘So much like home‘ in the previous issue, she draws parallels between the treatment of the Palestinians and colonialism in Australia, which chimes with my sense that Israel is not a special rogue case, but part of a planet-wide pattern.

I’ll just mention finally that I was delighted to read ‘Everything that is courageous & beautiful‘ in which Nell Butler argues that Paul Gallico should be brought back from obscurity – ‘from the dead’, she says. The Snow Goose, the book and the record of Herbert Marshall’s reading, was one of the joys of my childhood.


David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Michelle Hamadache (guest editor), Southerly Vol 77 No 3 2017: Mixed Messages

Southerly is a literary journal. I expect culture warriors of the right would say it was infected by the Gay-Marxist-feminist agenda, but it’s a broad church, with no avowed political leanings like Overland (or for that matter Quadrant, which I rarely read). David Brooks, retiring co-editor, has come out as seriously vegan, as has John Kinsella, who has a poem and a story i this issue. Yet Debra Adelaide’s story, ‘Festive Cooking for the Whole Family’, makes a cheerful mockery of vegans, among others, as her Christmas hostess wrestles with the complex dietary and other demands of a large family gathering.

David Brooks’s article ‘Seven Gazes’ (for which I broke my rule not to read anything that mentions Derrida in the first sentence) wrestles with the challenge of moving outside the human bubble to understand what is happening in the Gaze (his capitalisation) of ‘non-human animals’, and if he is aware that there’s something potentially risible in leaving the door of his house open so the sheep can drop in, he gives no sign of it; John Kinsella’s ‘Roaming the Campsite’, a sharp short story told from the perspective of a neglected child, doesn’t push any belief system, and his poem ‘Graphology Soulaplexus 36: loss’, despite its hi-falutin title, is a straightforward and beautiful elegy.

One pleasant surprise is ‘Poetic Fire’, an article written by Thea Astley when she was a school student, reproduced here because Cheryl Taylor has an article about Astley’s novels that refers to it, and the editors have kindly made it immediately accessible. In these days when schoolchildren are playing a major role in fighting for action on climate change, it’s good to have another reminder not to patronise the young. (I broke another rule, not to read Eng Lit scholarly articles about books I haven’t read, and read Charyl Taylor’s article: her use of the school-student essay is deeply respectful.)

Among other excellent things are ‘Fresh Food People’ a short story by Nazrin Mahoutchi about a small, diverse group of migrants in a food preparation business. I broke another rule (not to read excerpts) and read Peter Boyle’s ‘Excerpts from Enfolded in the wings of a Great Darkness‘, a tantalising seven pages from a long poem in progress:

who picks among
the clothes left
by those stripped bare
for mourning

Who rinses their hands in
water that can no longer
cleanse

Who goes to hear
the hymns of forgiveness
but clutches in one hand
the prayer beads of vengeance

S K Kelen’s ‘More Words: Uses for a Father’, a joyous list poem that does what the title says, speaks to my condition as a new grandfather, though ‘cricket bat whack kick / box new fun’ isn’t on our agenda just yet.

And that’s all from me. Thanks for persisting to the end. I expect to do a ‘Journal Blitz 3’ post, but not for a little while.

Journal Blitz

I just realised with something like horror that my To Be Read shelf contains at least a year’s worth of unread journals. So here goes with what I intend to be the first of several catch-up posts, each following a catch-up reading binge.

Gig Ryan (guest editor), Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 8, Issue 1 (2018)

In her Foreword to this issue of APJ, guest editor Gig Ryan, herself a formidable poet, writes:

No poems here can be straitjacketed entirely into any one category, as each poem, being its own summation, is also necessarily an experiment, an exploration, kicking towards the impossible.

The same is true of the journal as a whole. It’s not a directory, a survey or a sampler; there are no thematically labelled sections, or indicators of hierarchy. It reads like a mildly chaotic conversation among more than fifty word users, which the reader is invited to enter.

There are many excellent poems, some by poets I already know and love, some by people who are new to me. I’ll just mention one that has stuck with me: Andy Jackson’s ‘No Lament’, which is a response to Judith Beveridge’s sonnet, ‘Quasimodo’s Lament’. The latter poem looks at Quasimodo (‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’) from the point of view of an able-bodied person, the former from that of someone with a physical ‘deformity’. Jackson’s poem begins with the first word of the equivalent line in the Beveridge’s. It’s not a calling out, but a ‘departure’, and the effect is to open up a profound dialogue between the two points of view. Here are the first four lines of each:

From Judith Beveridge’s poem:

Crazed carillonneur, will you ever stop hauling
yourself into the cathedral’s dim vaults?
Will you ever stop imagining Esmeralda’s hands
running along the canted bones of your spine
(from 'Quasimodo's Lament', Meanjin 2017, on the web here)

From Andy Jackson’s ‘No Lament’:

Crazed? – only the mob in us deserves that word.
Your self, your body, calm and attentive at the rope,
will always draw out those strong and slanted notes
running across every imperfect surface.

There are half a dozen essays, including an interview by Matthew Hall with the editors of Lionel Fogarty Selected Poems1980–2017 (re.press 2017), which is surely of interest to anyone who cares about contemporary Aboriginal poetry. There’s also an essay by Duncan Hose on John Forbes, marking the 20th anniversary of his death, which includes some close reading; and a discussion of rhyme by Dennis Haskell.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 230 (Autumn 2018)

I read this Overland selectively, skipping articles that looked at first blush to be about where the universities are getting it wrong, or arguing that, say, the marriage equality Yes movement wasn’t radical enough. So who knows what I have missed?

Here are some wonderful things I didn’t miss:

In ‘On Jack Charles‘, Tony Birch writes that for Aboriginal people, ‘sovereignty – an imposed colonial concept – is a complex and contradictory notion’, and as a way to understanding what Aboriginal sovereignty might mean quotes Jack Charles as saying that ‘he could not walk by a person in need – any person in need – as an Aboriginal man claiming the right to Country’. It’s not often you stumble across such profundity.

I wouldn’t want to skip the regular columns by Alison Croggon (On seeing in this issue starts from her extreme myopia and goes to surprising places) and Giovanni Tiso (On writing while foreign: ‘the effortless travel of our writings across the global marketplace of late capitalism is the grotesque mirror image of the hardening of the boundaries between nations and people’).

Overland always includes the result of a literary competition. In this one, it’s the Nakata Brophy Prize for young Indigenous writers. The first prize, ‘haunted house‘ by Raelee Lancaster, counterposes two traditions (European an Indigenous) of ghost stories in a way that creates plummeting depths beneath an apparently simple surface.

There are other excellent poems, including Allotment #10, by Laurie Duggan, an addition to one of his long-running series.

Decades ago, a flatmate of mine had a poster on his wall that compared the situation of Aboriginal people living in remote communities with that of Palestinians. ‘So much like home‘ by Chris Graham spells out the parallels: things have not improved markedly for either group. ‘Israel,’ Graham writes, ‘ has built a blunt, overt system of apartheid; Australia has built a polite, covert system of apartheid.’

Of the four short stories, the two that most claimed my attention both dealt with the ethical questions that arise when you mistakenly give something you have no right to. Baggage claim by Paddy O’Reilly and Tea ceremony by Michelle Aung Thin both this murky area, the former with youthful corruptibility in its sights, the latter with something more nuanced but no less grim.


David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Michelle Hamadache & Christopher Cyrill (guest editors), Southerly Vol 77 No 2 2017: The Long Apprenticeship

Southerly is the journal of the English Association, Sydney, which means it’s formally tied to EngLit academia. Given that, and the title of this issue it’s no surprise that there are a number of essays and fictions here about the long haul of learning to write, or just the long haul of life:

  • Desmond O’Grady on Muriel Spark’s nurturing times in Tuscany as a young woman
  • Elizabeth Hanscombe on how her writing career has been spent exploring events from the past that ‘appear to have a beginning and an end’ (‘They do not’)
  • Carol Lefevre on the nature writer J A Baker and his influence on her own career, quoting Richard Jefferies somewhere on the way, ‘The earth is all in all to me, but I am nothing to the earth: it is bitter to know this before you are dead’
  • James Bedford’s touching memoir of his father, with beautifully deployed family snapshots/

There are works from people at the start of their creative careers. The striking cover is a detail from My Contemporary Tribe, created by Phoebe Martyr when she was a high school student in 2016 (you can see the whole work here). There are three short stories by students at the Sydney Story Factory.

There’s a glorious wealth of poetry and short fiction, including some in translation. George Toseki’s ‘Finger Bun’, in which baklava is deployed to great effect as a peacemaker among factory workers from a range of ethnic backgrounds, gets my guernsey for the most fun. Invidious though it is, I’ll mention just one poem, joanne burns’s ‘lemon aid’ for the fabulous word comatoastie.

Of the reviews, I’d pick Lachlan Brown’s of Melanie Cheng, Australia Day (2017), which places the book in the context of ‘the contemporary succession of engaging and innovative collections of short stories by Australian writers from diverse backgrounds’.

The most challenging article for me is John Kinsella’s ‘Reading and (non) Compliance: Re-approaching the Text’, which – to attempt a crude summary – urges EngLit teachers to always incorporate creative writing into any teaching of poetry, by encouraging what he calls non-compliant reading. Not being part of the EngLit academy, I can’t tell whether his proposal is as radical as he appears to be claiming, or commonplace, or way out in the top paddock. One paragraph, though, came to me like a clarion call, an urgent challenge for me as a blogger about texts. I’ll give it the last word in this blog post:

A text is a living entity and should be teated as existing contingently and contiguously within and with a vulnerable ecology that is under threat, a biosphere that is collapsing due in no small part to human behaviours – especially corporate and state exploitations of the fragile, remaining ‘natural’ habitats. No text, whatever it is, can be read outside this context of damage.

Overland 230

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 230 (Autumn 2018)

Overland provides the significant pleasure every quarter (or even more often if you can read on the web) of argument, analysis, fiction, poetry and visual art informed by a leftwing perspective. I think it would probably be a pleasure even for people whose politics are antagonistic – they could still enjoy engaging with minds that are engaging with things that matter.

Because I’m three issues late and short of time, I won’t attempt to review this issue. Instead, here are some excerpts that leapt out at me.

From Rise from this grave by Tony Birch, which tells the story of Camp Sovereignty, the Aboriginal protest at the park known as Kings Domain during the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games:

Kings Domain is clogged with imperial monuments, statues of civic leaders, celebratory plaques and war commemorations, offering a sanitised, largely fictional history of colonial occupation.One of the most imposing monuments os a stature of George V, ruler of empire. Its plaque explains that it was a gift from the people of Victoria to the crown; today it serves as a perpetual reminder of who we once were, and who many continue to regard themselves, despite periodic rumblings of republicanism. King George looks pensively across the gardens to the Shrine of Remembrance, which itself is h=guarded by an eternal flame.
In occupying the Domain, Black GST [Genocide Sovereignty Treaty] staked a claim on both its past and its present.

From On the passing of internet time by Giovanni Tiso:

There is the permanent ‘now’ of the social media exchange. But even there, even on what goes by the absurd name of ‘my Twitter timeline’, there is a user who sends day-by-day dispatches from the Second World War and another who types out the diaries of a long-dead writer.

From Myth & consequence by Georgina Woods:

With global warming, the spectacle of change has been brought into a time perspective that a single human life can understand. The comforting illusion of immutable environments has fallen away.

From On water by Alison Croggon:

I feel at home on Twitter, where the evanescent thoughts of millions of people (and even more millions of bots that are, nevertheless, programmed by people) slip past in a turbulent Heraclitan stream. Like the sea, Twitter is full of pollution. But at least I can filter it.

Swimming with aliens by Jennifer Mills:

The first time I make eye contact with a cuttlefish I am shocked by the familiarity of the animal’s gaze. I know that their eyes are a case of parallel evolution, that their similarity to our own in form is a 600-million-year-old coincidence. I know that I could be projecting. Nonetheless, the experience of catching a cuttlefish’s eye is uncannily like catching the eye of an intelligent human. It seems to react just as a human’s would: widening a little, studying the stranger for a moment, then looking politely away.

From From Grenfell to Gulgong and back by Brigid Magner:

Incredibly – given his later literary achievements – [Henry] Lawson’s formal schooling lasted only three years. Opinion is divided over why he left school. Local legend has it that John Tierney, the schoolmaster, accused Louisa [Lawson, Henry’s mother] of plagiarising Byron in one of her literary pieces. leading to a ‘falling out’.

From Limbo by Nicole Curby:

Jafar arrived in Indonesia hoping, like many others, to travel to Australia by boat. His was one of the boats that the Australian government so proudly stopped. His is the ‘life saved’ by bureaucracy. But, he says, it’s a life barely worth living.

From Unspooling by Laura Elvery, winner of the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize (there’s always a literary prize in Overland):

Don’t name it. Don’t wonder about its sex. Don’t send out for a handmade silver oval pendant half the size of a postage stamp to wear around your neck. Don’t feel bad that you sprinted up a hill, in the cold, in the dark. Don’t google anything.Don’t seek out that TV show you mainlined those few days to take your mind off what was happening (Never again, even though, truth be told, it was a terrific show.) Don’t look at the  pale, soft things you bought to put in a bassinet. Don’t forget your good posture. Don’t forget your exercises. Keep it up.

From Guarded by birds by Evelyn Araluen, winner of the Judith Wright Poetry Prize:

I know little of this ceremony
have only collected for the coolamon
carved from river red
to carry water to carry child to carry smoke
_________to carry you to those who watch
_________and hope there will be a place for you

Overland 229

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 229 (Summer 2017)

overland229My blog post about Overland 228 ended with a lament that I had lost my copy before I could finish reading it. To my surprise and delight, a couple of days after my blog post went up, I received a replacement copy in the mail with a friendly note from Jacinda Woodhead. I don’t know what pleased me more, the kindness of the gift or the fact that someone on Overland‘s staff had read my post all the way through. (I realise just now that I didn’t write to thank her. Better late than never: Thank you, Jacinda, especially for the chance to read Jennifer Mills’ conversation with Peter Carey.)

There’s lots of good stuff in issue 229, but I’m travelling and have to be brief. So here’s a list of things I found particularly wonderful:

  •  ‘Indefatigable Wings‘ by Allan Drew, which argues the case for the continuing influence John Milton, of Paradise Lost fame. The argument doesn’t completely convince, but it’s refreshing.
  • Napalm, guns & underwear‘, in which Aotaroan / New Zealander Michalia Arathimos tells the story of her Maori environmental activist partner’s arrest (and subsequently release) on terrorism charges. It’s a tale of dangerous absurdity.
  • Sleeping the deep, deep sleep‘ by Dean Biron and Suzie Gibson, an essay about the state of the world which begins with the photograph of the Earth taken from Apollo 17 in 1972 and ends with Voyager I’s 1990 photograph. Carl Sagan’s description of the latter photograph as showing ‘a tiny blue dot suspended in a sunbeam’ takes on tragic resonances. (I also liked the phrase ‘rouge states’, which may have been an original typo or, I hope, a typo quoted from the Spectator.
  • On sovereignty‘, a column by Tony Birch spelling out the epochal implications of the Turnbull cabinet’s summary rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Every edition of  Overland includes the results of at least one writing competition. (Long may the practice continue!) This issue has the third Fair Australia Prize, sponsored by the NUW in partnership with the MEAA and the NTEU: a poem, a short fiction, an essay and a cartoon. The Member Winner, ‘Beyond the Bridge to Nowhere‘ by Michael Dulaney, an essay about lead pollution in a South Australian town, is among the outstanding pieces in a generally excellent issue.

Overland 227 & 228

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 227 (Winter 2017)
—-, Overland 228 (Spring 2017)

overland227It’s not that I read Overland out of obligation, but I do feel guilty if I leave an issue sitting on my to-be-read pile for too long because – among other things – Overland offers left perspectives that aren’t all that easy to come by elsewhere in the Australian media. So here’s a slightly guilty blog post about the two most recent issues.

The star of the winter issue (No 227) is Evelyn Araluen. The journal kicks off with her article ‘Resisting the Institution: On Colonial Appropriation, which takes recent activism around statues commemorating colonial ‘heroes’ as a starting point, and develops into a (for me at least) powerful introduction to the field of decolonial theory (as opposed to postcolonial theory):

Decolonial theory provides the Indigenous subject with the tools to deconstruct and challenge colonial infiltrations into our worlds and minds, but decolonial practice within the academy is restrained to that which the institution regards as profitable. In other words, it is safely contained within the classroom, in the form of critical frameworks, unsettling questions or creative-thinking asseignments. Outside of the university, I have given late-night workshops on decolonial theory to anywhere between two and 200 people, often squished together in a leaky tent.

Later in the journal her short story Muyum: A Transgression, winner of the Nakata Brophy Prize for Young Indigenous Writers, is equally powerful and challenging.

There are the regular columnists, Giovanni Tiso (on owning and keeping books), Alison Croggon (on kindness as a political act), Tony Birch (on his family history, racism and the Australian constitution) and Mel Campbell (on where writers’ ideas come from –  ‘an idea is a promise, not a commodity’). There are solid articles on the gambling industry (by Dan Dixon), tiny presses that publish poetry in Australia (Kent MacCarter), GLBTQ+ politics in contemporary Singapore (Ng Yi-Sheng), Professor Richard Berry and scientific racism (Helen Macdonald), and how much social transformation we can really expect from technological advances under capitalism (Lizzie O’Shea). ‘Pregnant in Mexico’ by Tina Cartwright is a tiny memoir that feels as if it was carved, to good effect, from a longer piece.

There are two short stories in addition to Evelyn Araluen’s prizewinner. ‘Broken zippers‘ by George Haddad, which could serve as a grim companion piece to SBS’s Struggle Street, stands out for me.

There are fourteen pages of poetry. The two poems that spoke most strongly to me are ‘Crossing Galata, Istanbul‘ by John Upton, a tourist poem acutely aware of the limits of its touristic perspective (that’s a mangled quote from Adam Aitken), which captures the feel of Galata Bridge in Istanbul; and ‘The Apology Day breakfast‘ by Ali Cobby Eckermann, which is what it says on the lid, but with a deep, bitter-sweet twist.

The winter issue features the weird photomedia work of guest artist Yee I-Lann.

overland228Sadly, I hadn’t read all of the spring issue (No 228) before it mysteriously went missing on a trip to the supermarket. as a result my vote  for the outstanding items mightn’t be completely valid. But I recommend this edition for Eileen Chong’s poem ‘The Task’ and Olivier Jutel’s article ‘Paranoia and delusion‘.

The Task‘ (do read it at the link; it’s short) is at first blush a straightforward childhood memory of eating crabs, but it drew me in on a number of levels. First, a splendid moral complexity: the crabs have eyes, so we – and the remembered child – know they’re sentient, so there’s no minimising of what’s involved when they are killed and pulled apart, but at the same time there’s frank enjoyment of eating them. Then the opening – ‘We fished with lines, not nets’ – suggests a whole other, metaphorical reading: so by the time we reach the final couplet there’s a strong sense that we’re not talking about crabs any more, at least not only crabs, but something about Chong’s creative process as well:

I left the claws to the others,

preferring only what I could mine
through my own precise undoings

Olivier Jutel’s article is a formidable intervention into the general conversation about Donald Trump.

Domestically, he has mobilised, however chaotically, the most retrograde forces in American society, who experience through him a carnivalesque transgression in ‘Making America Great Again’ one tweet, post and triggered liberal at a time.

He had me at ‘carnivalesque’. The article goes on to rip into the ‘liberal’ media’s obsession with the Russia connection, seeing in it a revival of Cold War emotions, and argues that the Democratic Party is completely at a loss for an adequate political response to the Trump phenomenon, falling back on, among other things, ‘the libidinal deadlock of politics as comedy’. I can’t claim to have followed the whole argument (Jutel is a PhD candidate who quotes Lacan), but if you feel the need of a gust of fresh air amidst the abundant Trump-based sarcasm and despair, this could be the article for you.

Again the regular columnists are worth reading: On coal by Tony Birch (who quotes Murrawah Johnson, spokesperson for the Wangan and Jagalingou community, ‘We’ve seen the end of the world and we’ve decided not to accept it’); On experimentalism by Mel Campbell; On confusing reason and authority by Alison Croggon. Giovanni Tiso has a full-blown article, ‘Dynamite for the people‘, a lively piece on the European anarchists of the late 19th century, and how they differ from 21st century terrorists.

There are, as always, solid articles: Jessica Whyte on the politics of human rights; Mark Riboldi on virtual reality in fact and fiction; Roqayah Chamseddine on conspiracy theorists, those that are nutty and those that turn out to be right. I lost my copy before I got to Michael Brull on Saudi Arabia and Qatar or Chris di Pasquale on religious freedom under the Soviets: they’re up on line or soon will be, but I have trouble with sustained reading from a screen, so I’m sadly giving them a miss.

I did read the winners of the VU Short Story Prize: the winner, Breeding Season  by Amanda Niehaus, and first runner-up, Wharekaho Beach, 1944 by Allan Drew are both excellent. I missed the discussion between Jennifer Mills and Peter Carey about his short story ‘Crabs’, first published in Overland an amazing 45 years ago. It’s a nice idea for an institution like Overland to revisit past glories – I hope there are more interviews like this in the pipeline.

 

Vincent and Neale’s Unstable Relations

Eve Vincent and Timothy Neale (editors), Unstable Relations: Indigenous People and Environmentalism in Contemporary Australia (UWAP Scholarly 2016)

unstable.jpg

‘Be led!’

Murrawah Johnson, a Wirdi woman, was speaking last November to a mainly non-Indigenous audience in Sydney about the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Council’s campaign against the proposed Adani coal mine. ‘You have to learn how to be led by Indigenous people,’ she said, not hiding her frustration at the colonialist attitudes of some (many? most?) conservationists.

In some ways this rich, accessible and multi-layered collection of essays is a response to such expressions of frustration, including widely broadcast ones such as Noel Pearson’s criticism of conservationists during the Wild Rivers Act controversy in Queensland between 2005 and 2014, or Marcia Langton’s 2012 Boyer Lectures, in which she accused the white conservation movement of having for 40 years made deals with state governments ‘to deny Aboriginal people their rights as landowners and citizens of Australia’. The writers, being academics, don’t stoop to reminding us that Langton’s research for those lectures was funded largely by mining companies: they meet evidence with evidence, argument with argument. I find it hard to convey the intense pleasure of reading this kind of sustained, thoughtful, evidence-based writing in the Twitter–Trump Abbott-slogan era.

Not so long ago, the general assumption among white Australians was that there was, in the words of Neale and Vincent’s introductory chapter, ‘an essential affinity between Indigenous interests in and relations to land and water, on the one hand, and environmental objectives on the other’. That has changed. The underlying assumption in this book, however, is not that there is an essential antagonism but that relations between environmentalists and Indigenous people in Australia have ‘long been “unstable”‘, and take on ever more diverse forms. The book seeks ‘to learn more about the current status of environmental–Indigenous relations through the use of specific, empirically grounded case studies’.

Contributors include activists, historians, geographers, anthropologists and one or two people who aren’t easily classified. Though there are plenty of notes and bibliographies, the book is very readable, the kind of academic writing that addresses a readership outside the academy. Though as far as I can tell all but one of the writers are non-Indigenous, or ‘settler-Australian’, many Aboriginal voices are quoted, and most of the writers are explicit in their commitment to the ‘green–black alliance’.

The book embraces complexity. It kicks off with a look behind the headlines of Queensland’s Wild Rivers Act controversy of 2005–2014 by Timothy Neale, and then a fascinating exploration by Jon Altman of the complexities of Kuninjku people’s responses to the huge and environmentally damaging growth in buffalo populations in their part of Arnhem Land.

Richard J Martin and David Trigger travel to the Pungalina on the Gulf of Carpentaria, and describe the kinds of intercultural negotiations that are needed there between Garawa people, cattle station owners, the tourism industry, government agencies and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (an organisation that has established a wildlife ‘sanctuary’ there).

Jessica Weir tells the story of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations’ (MLDRIN) success in bringing an Indigenous perspective to struggles around water in the Murray–Darling system.

Robert Leviticus discusses ‘wilderness’, a problematic term that is too often understood as erasing Indigenous people. He goes on to discuss the views of David Lindner, ‘a practical conservationist who has never been a member of any organisation, but who has worked on the wetlands of the South Alligator River in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory since 1972, and lived near or next to them since 1979, shortly after they were included in the newly declared first stage of Kakadu’, a kind of Crocodile Dundee but with less bullshit, and a better articulated respect for Yolngu relationship to the land.

Eve Vincent turns her ethnographic eye on the ‘greenies’ who follow the lead of a Kokatha woman whom she calls Aunty Joan, and manages to be both very funny (often enough at her own expense, as one of the group she is describing) and enlightening about crosscultural issues.

Stephen Muecke discusses Indigenous-Green knowledge collaborations at the James Price Point Dispute 2008–2012. The earlier settler  colonialism, he argues, has been superseded by extraction colonialism, which is even more disengaged  from the region. He quotes Nyikina leader Anne Poelina as saying that ‘we are all being colonised: it is not a black or white question any longer’.

Michaela Spencer looks at two cases of Indigenous people and environmentalists trying to work collaboratively within a neoliberal framework.

In the next three essays, activists speak.

Monica Morgan, Yorta Yorta activist, talks about the campaign to have national parks declared in the Barmah and Millewa river red gum forests  on the Victoria–New South Wales border, in which she was a key leader. She articulates a key challenge in alliances between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people on conservation issues:

One of the things we learnt was that it doesn’t matter how much – and I don’t want to be confronting to you – but however much non-Indigenous people say they are committed, in the long run they are committed to their society. I think it’s ingrained within the education: it’s ingrained with their thought patterns that they concede and they’ll work within a status quo. And I think our rights are seen in that way as well. […]

Always our people were forever saying, ‘ Well we don’t recognise your system but we acknowledge it’s there.’ we tried to push the boundaries and lay down, ‘This is who we are and this is what we think, based on our traditional knowledge.’

Whether in the end you are going to agree with it or not, it’s entirely up to you. And of course they never did.

Dave Sweeney, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s nuclear-free campaigner, and Anthony Esposito, who has worked on many environmental organisations and traditional owner organisations, both describe decades of struggle to rise to that challenge in their activism. Sweeney finds ‘profound and convincing sense’ in something  Bruce Pascoe wrote in his book Convincing Ground:

The blacks didn’t die, and the whites aren’t going away.

Tony Birch, novelist, has the final word in the book, arguing that ‘new conversations, framed through humility, are required to shake Western discourses from a sense of arrogance and apathy’. I’ll give the final word in this blog post to Dave Sweeney:

We’re the beneficiaries of crime. SO that brings with it the responsibility to actively address that. It also brings with it the requirement to suck up stuff even when it’s unfair, because there’s a bigger picture. At the same time, I don’t reckon it does an individual or a nation or a movement any good to just say ‘sorry’ all the time. Those environmental activists, those who are locking on at Jabiluka, those who are doing stuff to try and actively make a difference, did not poison waterholes. hey are the inheritors, they are the beneficiaries, but they didn’t do that stuff. And they are actively, in their life, trying to undo that stuff.

Environmental activists shouldn’t make the mistake of getting burnt, saying sorry, or, the opposite, saying ‘get lost, that’s unfair’ and withdrawing. And on the other side, Aboriginal people are generally are amazingly generous of spirit and continue to slap us around a little bit, continue to jerk the chain, remind us of the power imbalance. But don’t have it set in concrete that you cannot ever be other than a colonial thief. Otherwise we’re in a frozen, no-good zone.

 

Overland 225

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 225 (Summer 2016)

overland225.jpegI’m late at getting to this issue of Overland – sorry! One advantage of lateness, though, is that just about everything from this issue has been uploaded to the Overland web site, so I can give lots of links.

There’s always a prize or two in Overland. Nº 225 has the Fair Australia Prize, supported by the National Union of Workers, and the Story Wine Prize, whose winners get to appear on the labels of wines produced by The Story Wines, a small Melbourne company.

The Fair Australia Prize includes prizes for poetry, fiction, a cartoon and an essay. Of the winners, Stephen Wright’s essay On setting yourself on fire, stands out: it begins with the horrifying phenomenon of self-immolating Tibetan monks and expends into a rumination on the demands of activism. (Incidentally, he talks about dozens of monks, but I believe it’s more like hundreds – see Martin Kovan’s article in a 2013 Overland.)

Only the first place winner of the wine prize, ‘Sweeping‘ by Cameron Weston, appears in the hard copy journal. It’s a masterly piece of compression. The runners-up are online.

Elsewhere, as always with Overland, the articles provide useful counterpoint to the mainstream narrative, with an occasional oddity. The one I found most interesting was ‘The antis‘ by Liam Byrne, about the campaign against conscription in the First World War. Byrne starts with the assertion that this is a forgotten piece of Australian history, which surprised me, but if he’s right – in spite of writing as if the campaign happened almost entirely in Victoria thing, he has done a good job of jogging the collective memory:

At its root, the conscription campaign was about the future of a country being decided by the mass of people who lived in it. It was about them deciding who would go to war; either those who chose to, or those the government selected. This act of mass democracy unleashed social energies in an act of political creation. It was a time when the working-class citizens of the country, so often denied a political voice, made themselves heard.

There are essays on Donald Trump (accompanied by an image of Trump as the Joker) and Pauline Hanson (by Vashti Kenway, a nice reminder when read alongside David Marr’s Quarterly Essay that parliamentary politics is not the only game in town), on class, women (one on Joan Didion’s influence, one on ‘feminine’ robots) and Indigenous Australia (‘Cultural appropriation is not empathy. It is stealing someone else’s story, someone else’s voice’ – Jeanine Leanne) . An article on Julia Gillard’s speeches sets out to discuss their poetics, but pays attention mostly to the manner of their delivery and their reception by the press and social media. Another on the state of the working class  gives university lecturers, hardly the group most people would think of as typical workers, as a key example of increasing precariousness. Alison Croggon’s regular column distinguishes interestingly between invisibility (sometimes desirable) and erasure (definitely not desirable).

There are two fine short fictions apart from the prize winners – Liam by Tony Birch and  Agistment by Alex Philp.

The big poetry feature is a collaborative work, On the occasion of Gig Ryan’s sixtieth birthday. Seventeen Australian poets contributed two stanzas each to a Sapphic ode for the event. The result is as impressively impenetrable as much of Ryan’s work.

There are some fabulous illustrations. Sam Wallman, who did the cover art, has a double spread that beautifully fills the promise of its caption, ‘Hand made signs at the anti-Trump rally in New York City on the first Saturday after the election November 2016’. Brent Stegeman gives us Donald Trump as the Joker and Pauline Hanson as a literally flaming redhead.