Tag Archives: Vivian Smith

Rhyme #4 and Southerly 75/1

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 75 No 1 2015: Elemental (The Journal of the English Association, Sydney, Brandl & Schlesinger)

Rhyme #4: What’s in a title (with anagrams)?
Blow the wind southerly, Southerly, southerly,
rattle our windows and slam dunny doors,
blow off the same old stuff, bring on the Otherly,
bust up the torpor that stifles these shores.
The name holds promise that the journal
challenges what seems eternal –
our bow to all that’s from the North,
our faith in all it issues forth.
The title tells us what’s been hidden:
a home-made tool that truly hoes
this soil, as surely hot it grows.
Shout, lyre! Play something that’s forbidden.
The RSL you knew is now
A rusty hole, a sacred cow.

s152I have a love-hate, or at least an affection-irritation relationship with Southerly.

As one who was educated before what someone in this issue calls ‘the cultural turn’, which I guess refers to the rise of Theory and cultural studies in the academy, I am often left whimpering uncomprehendingly in the dust of the more scholarly work – of which there’s a fair bit in this issue, including at least five examples of reviewers indulging in clever exegesis of a book or other work’s title (hence my rhyme above). On the other hand, there is always something that more than justifies the price of admission.

In this issue, two essays – ‘Oi Kaymeni (“The Burnt Ones”)’ by George Kouvaros and ‘Angry Waves’ by Dael Allison – are wonderful.

Kouvaros’ essay begins with his mother’s reluctance to watch the 1950s movie A Place in the Sun on TV, and fans out to tell the story of her emigration from Cyprus, then to reflect on the role played by Hollywood movies in the lives of people in peasant cultures facing rapid modernisation and sometimes massive dislocation. An excerpt:

Recounting this history helps me to understand the events that shaped my mother’s personality. It also provides an opportunity to clarify two interrelated propositions. The first is that migration is not just about a dispersal of individuals  across continents; it is also about a dispersal of the narrative details that we use to understand the people close to us.

His second proposition, which has to do with a movie’s unchangingness as opposed to that of living people, leads to the realisation that for his mother ’embedded in the film’s story was her own history as  a sixteen or seventeen year old cinemagoer’.

What he writes is specific to his mother’s life, and to the history of Cyprus, but it will resonate richly for anyone of a certain age who loves the movies.

Dael Allison writes about the impact of climate change on Kiribati (pronounced Kiribass – Kiritimati is the Kiribati spelling of Christmas) from the point of view of a westerner who has lived, worked and had friendships there for some years. As you’d expect, the picture is alarming – the brunt of climate change is and will be felt by those who have done least to cause it. Allison’s wealth of detail and observation and quotation brings the situation home sharply. For instance, the recent damage done on Kiribati, unlike that on, say, Vanuatu, is not the result of cyclones, but of tidal events which bring the angry waves of the essay’s title; unlike the damage on Vanuatu it cannot be quickly healed because coral reefs do not regenerate as forests do. There’s no cause for total panic:

Unless there is a massive global catastrophe like a melting Antarctic ice shelf sliding into the sea, Kiribati will not all become unliveable at once. But the process of relocating villages because of inundation, coastal erosion or salt contamination due to wave over-topping of the fragile freshwater lens, has already begun. Projections suggest entire atolls may become uninhabitable in the next generation. Some islanders say they will stay on their land despite that outcome.

There are other treasures: ‘Wyenondable Ashes’, Alice Bishop’s memoir of losing  her family home on Black Saturday 2009; ‘St Thomas’ Churchyard’, in which Roslyn Jolly takes a closer look at the gravestones that dot her local park, formerly a colonial cemetery; ‘A Richer Dust’, where John Stephenson finds resonance between a passage from the Aeneid he happens to be reading and a ‘sentimental conversation’ from a week earlier, and arrives at a sweet elegiac moment.

The poems that stand out for me are Dugald Williamson, ‘Caprice’; Pam Brown, ‘Twelve noon’; Stuart Cooke, ‘Old World’; Laurie Duggan, ‘After a storm, Brisbane’; David Brooks, ‘Choosing to Stay’ and ‘Silver’ (which only a vegan could have written); and Brett Dionysius, ‘American Love Poem’ (not a sonnet, not set in Queensland, but terrific).

Of the short fictions, Moreno Giovannoni’s ‘The Bones of Genesius’ make one look forward to Tales from San Ginese, the book he is writing about his birthplace; and Claire Corbett’s ‘The Trillion Pearl Choker’ is a weird tale of the forces of nature fighting back on the climate change front.

As a rule, I don’t read Southerly‘s reviews of books I haven’t read, of which there are many here. But I did dip this time. Felicity Plunkett introduces her review of a book of criticism with a selection of trenchant quotes from writers ‘writing back’ to the critics; Nicolette Stasko makes me want to read Peter Boyle’s Towns in the Great Desert; Vivian Smith and Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s grey hairs lend distinction to the review pages; Kate Livett draws attention to a timely new edition of Judith Wright’s 1971 account of a battle to save the Barrier reef, The Coral Battleground:

Weirdly, although this battle for the Reef took place from 1969 to 1975, Wright’s text initially reads as if it could be taking place today, with the ridiculous ‘postmodern’ political moves made by Bjelke-Petersen’s government, such as employing an American geologist with no knowledge of biology, let alone marine biology, to do a three-week survey on the Reef.

And now for a little grumpiness. Some of the writers here would do well to read Joseph M Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. One essay in particular  veered from banal to incoherent to impenetrably technical. I persevered for a while, but threw in the towel when principle appeared as an adjective – just a typo perhaps, but in that context very dispiriting. And what’s with the US spellings throughout – harbor, jewelrymeter (as a measure of distance)? In the absence of a statement that this is policy, it creates the impression that the English Association, Sydney is made up of people who don’t care much about the language.

SWF 2012: The Weekend

First, a photo from Friday night. This is Tamar Chnorhokian, who read first in Moving People. That’s not a sponsor’s logo in the background, the story was set in a supermarket. You can see what I mean about the performers having nowhere to hide.

And now a sprint through my crowded weekend. My only serious queuing experience of the Festival was for the 11.30 session of What Would Edith Do? on Saturday – I got there before the previous session finished and so was comfortably towards the front of the queue. Edith Campbell Berry, the main character in Frank Moorhouse’s Dark PalaceGrand Days and Cold Light, may not have seized my imagination, perhaps because I haven’t read the first two books, but she has clearly been important to many people. I went to this hoping to find out what I’ve been missing and I got what I was after. Emily Maguire, novelist, discovered Edith in her late teenage years as a model of how it might be possible to live – rising to challenges and living nervously out of one’s depth rather than settling for the life mapped out by social expectations. She said there had been a number of times when she had actually asked herself the WWED question. Sadly, she deemed only one of them suitable for public exposure, but as it involved being invited to speak at a function in North Vietnam when she actually had no idea of the purpose of the function or who the Party functionaries thought she was, it was a perfectly satisfactory anecdote. The other panellists, journalists Annabel Crabb and Cynthia Banham, had come to the character later in life, but managed to convey the appeal. I realised that Cold Light is all aftermath: a woman who has lived daringly and intelligently, challenged convention in her private life and made a contribution on the world stage, returns to Australia in the 1950s where there is no place for such a woman and lives on scraps for the rest of her life. For those who have seen Edith riding around Geneva in a cowgirl suit or (is this really what they said?) stroking Anthony Eden’s head in her lap, the third trilogy is heartbreaking. Frank Moorhouse wasn’t there, but the best line of the session was his. He had told Annabel Crabb that one of the advantages of having spent 20 years with a single character was that she can now do her own PR and he doesn’t even have to turn up.

National Treasures was another poetry session that wasn’t quite what I had read the advertising to mean. I thought the participants – Mark Tredinnick, Vivian Smith and Judith Beveridge – were going to talk about Australian poetry they treasured, and read some to us, plus some of their own. What we got was excellent, but it wasn’t that: Judith Beveridge stayed firmly in the chair role, and the others talked of their own writing careers, and read from their work. When he was 15,  in the 1940s, Vivian S had sent off poems to The Bulletin, then pretty much the only place that published poetry in Australia. He received encouraging responses from the literary editor, Douglas Stewart, advising him to ditch the archaic poeticisms and recommending that he read contemporary poets such as T S Eliot. Decades later, Mark T was similarly advised by critic Jim Tulip, but the poets he recommended were William Carlos Williams, Robert Gray and Vivian Smith.

Tasmanian Aborigines was next, in which Lyndall Ryan talked to Ann Curthoys about her new book, a rewrite of her 1981 book on the same subject. Inevitably, the session involved a revisiting of the so-called History Wars: Keith Windschuttle had singled Professor Ryan’s 1981 book out for his accusation that lefty historians had fabricated evidence of massacre and his claim that in fact the original inhabitants of this country had just faded away when the Europeans arrived, possibly because of their inherent weaknesses. Windschuttle has been thoroughly discredited as a historian, of course, but it was interesting to hear Ryan’s take on the episode now. Asked what difference his intervention had made to our general understanding of Australian history, she said that paradoxically he had driven her and other back to interrogate their sources more thoroughly, and where in her first book she had focused on Aboriginal resistance, she had now looked at ‘settler activism’ and found that the evidence indicates that the violence of the frontier was much worse than historians had previously understood. Massacre, for instance, looms much larger in the new book than it did in the original.

Anne Curthoys was warm and personal as her interlocutor. She opened with a wonderful quote to the effect that in order to write history, one needs to have a deep commitment to the subject that relates to some great love or business in the present, and asked Lyndall Ryan what this love or business was in her case. But Professor Ryan was not to be seduced away from her calm, scholarly demeanour, and answered in terms of the breakthroughs in research since 1981. The question in my mind, which I didn’t get to ask, was along the same lines: as a white Australian, uncovering the evidence of terrible things done by your own forebears, how do you keep your composure, or if (as I think would be desirable) you lose your composure how do you keep your scholarly integrity? I guess I’ll just leave that one hanging.

Then I was back to the sun-filled Bangarra Mezzanine for Poetry Australia with Robert Gray, Rhyll McMaster, Tricia Dearborn, Geoffrey Lehmann – and the unfulfilled promise of Robert Adamson. It was a dazzling session – the sun was low over the Harbour and from where I was sitting it was impossible to look directly at whoever was at the lectern. Speaking less literally, it was okay. Each of the four poets read from their own work – some startling eroticism from Tricia Dearborn (I mean that in a good way), two poems from Rhyll McMaster that had me reaching for my pen to write down brilliant lines I knew I’d forget, in a scribble I now can’t read – her new book, Late Night Shopping, is now on my To Buy list. Geoffrey Lehmann read ‘Parenthood’, which begins ‘I have held what I hoped would become the best minds of a generation /  Over the gutter outside an Italian coffee shop watching the small / Warm urine splatter on the asphalt’, and lives up to the promise of it opening. Almost as if in direct reference to Ali Alizadeh’s scathing Overland review of the Lehmann–Gray anthology, Robert Gray read a number of John Shaw Neilson’s limericks.
In the short Q&A, someone did tactfully name the elephant in the room. A bookseller from Perth, she said that the anthology Australian Poetry Since 1788 was selling brilliantly. But, she said, she didn’t understand how a fine poet such as Fay Zwicky hadn’t made the cut. Ali Alizadeh, John Tranter, Peter Minter and other fierce critics of the anthology might have asked the same question but added a hundred names and whole classes of poetry, and gone on to challenge the inclusion of limericks. Here it was a genuine question rather than an attack. It seems to me that what was missing in the selection process was the intervention of someone who knew the field  and could veto the editors’ eccentricities. I can see why it would be hard to resist modifying the general perception of John Shaw Neilson by including a swag of limericks, or to include 14 poems by ‘Bellerive’, whose poems never even made it to the literary pages of the Bulletin of his time. But that’s when an authority figure needs to step in and rap someone over the knuckles.

Oh my paws and whiskers, across the road again to see Hilary Mantel on a huge screen in the Sydney Theatre talking about Bring Up the Bodies. What can I say? She was magnificent, and I’ve now got the book on my iPad. A friend of mine couldn’t read Wolf Hall, because he couldn’t tell who was being talked about a lot of the time – the book would say ‘he’ and expect you to know it was Thomas Cromwell. Evidently a lot of people had the same difficulty, because this new book says ‘he (Cromwell)’. As Michael Cathcart, interviewing Ms Mantell from our stage, said, you can almost hear the author saying, ‘Is that clear enough for you?’

[Added on Wednesday: The Literary Dilettante has an excellent account of this conversation here.]

Gluttons for punishment, we rushed from the theatre and drove to Marrickville for an evening of youthful cabaret/burlesque, which might have been on a different planet, but that’s another story altogether.

On Sunday, I only managed one event, The Oskar Schindler of Asia? in which Robin de Crespigny (pronounced Crepny) and former people-smuggler Ali al Jenabi conversed with ABC’s Heather Ewart (who is much smaller in person than she seems on the TV screen). This was 2012’s equivalent of last year’s conversation with David Hicks. Like Hicks, Ali al Jenabi is being treated unjustly by the Australian government. Although the title of the session is a quote from the judge who tried him for the crime of people smuggling, the government is so committed to the demonising term ‘people smuggler’ or at least so terrified of being attacked by the snarling Tony Abbott  if they are seen to be soft on such people, that al Jenabi, who seems to be a perfectly decent man who has endured terrible things, remains on a bridging visa pending deportation, even while all his family are now Australian residents.

It was a great Festival. Now I have to get back to work.

Not a 68er

Vivian Smith, Along the Line (Salt Publishing 2006)

Having mentioned the ‘sixty-eighters’ a couple of times on this blog, I poked around on the net to find out what I was talking about. It looks as if the idea of a distinct ‘generation of 68’ among Australian poets can be traced to John Tranter’s 1979 anthology, The New Australian Poetry: the work of twenty-four poets from Australian poetry’s most exciting decade. The notion of a ‘generation’ was challenged almost immediately by, among others, Rae Desmond Jones (‘the … highly successful anthology and the polemical introduction had only marginal relevance to each other’), but it has lived on. More recently, as one might have predicted, the 24 68ers have been portrayed as a mob of up-themselves, cliquish poetry warriors, and – also no surprise – have been defended against those charges. (The article by Alan Wearne on that last link demonstrates nicely that reality is more complex, interesting and benign than the labels might suggest.) When the Tranter anthology came out I was distracted by being a new parent and earning a living and the like, but during the late sixties and early 70s I had been a regular at poetry readings in Sydney (and once, memorably, in Canberra) and can testify that the poetic times were pretty exciting. I have a copy of a 1971 publication, We took their orders and are dead: An anti-war anthology (edited by Shirley Cass, Ros Cheney, David Malouf and Wichael Wilding), which captures some of the feel of the Moratorium Poetry Readings where elder statesmen of Aust verse like AD Hope shared a stage with as yet un-labelled 68ers like John Tranter or Vicki Viidikas and quite a few in-betweeners like, say, David Campbell. (The 68ers themselves, of course, are now either dead or approaching elder status.)

All of which is a convoluted lead-in to Along the Line, which I bought a while ago as my contribution to Salt Publishing’s Just One Book campaign. If memory serves, Vivian Smith read at those long-ago Moratorium readings. He’s certainly got a poem in the anti-war anthology. But he’s not a 68er – and not just because John Tranter didn’t include him. The poems in this book have a quiet formality that shows none of the influences or impulses  that besotted the young ones in those heady days. The poems don’t spread across the page like spider webs catching and displaying apparently random flies of perception. They aren’t Chinese boxes or monkey puzzles. Neither the Ramones nor Bob Dylan are referred to even once. Iambic pentameters rule and straightforward subjects dominate: there are many arrivals in Sydney, the poet’s home, and at least as many returns to Hobart, where he grew up; there are poems about poetry, poets and painters, depression, friends alive and dead. I used the word ‘quiet’ , and that is the overwhelming effect: quiet reminiscence, quiet elegy, quiet observation, quiet wit, even, in ‘Deathbed Sketch’, some quiet philippic. Something of a quiet achiever, then, and reading him is a quiet pleasure.

Incidentally, ‘Return to Hobart’, the poem that appeared in the 1971 anti-war anthology makes another appearance here, unchanged except for much improved editing, which makes me realise that this is not a collection of new poems, but some kind of unspecified retrospective, which accounts for a sense of temporal dislocation –  the poet’s daughter is a little girl on one page, for instance, and quite grown up a couple of pages later, and all those comings and goings between Sydney, Hobart and the rest of the world don’t have any discernible sequence.

Rather than say more about the poetry, let me declare an interest. Vivian Smith was the supervisor of my aborted MA thesis in the mid 1970s. Of course it wasn’t his doing that the thesis came to nought, though I wish I’d got my facsimile copy of Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Expeditions back from him before leaving the university. (Vivian, if you chance to read this and happen by some miracle to have those books still in your possession, I love your poems, please drop me a line …)

I have a vivid memory of a Year 3 elective in which Dr Smith gave a series of lectures to a tiny scattering of students. He was a quiet, unassertive lecturer, poles apart from, say, David Malouf, who lectured us with passionate brilliance on the Jacobean playwrights. At about the third lecture, there may have been only three of us in the audience – me up the front dutifully taking notes, and two older women (they must have been at least 28), one of whom has since gone on to wield power and influence in the ABC and elsewhere, the other to do impressive work as a journalist and writer, leaning together like grumpy conspirators. As Dr Smith was discussing the two main kinds of poetry being written in England during the post-war years, open and closed poetry if I recall correctly, the future journalist interrupted his flow:

‘Excuse me, but aren’t these generalisations almost completely meaningless?’

She had a point. Dr Smith responded quietly, modestly, and not at all defensively, ‘Yes, but they provide a structure that allows me to talk about the poetry.’

And he continued with the lecture, of which I remember nothing else. (Maybe I should be explicit here: I’m not suggesting that the poetry in this book is ‘completely meaningless’: rather that it isn’t out to impress, or seduce, or dazzle, but offers itself as a mind at work and play, take it or leave it.)