The Gentle Art of Releasing (Janette Dadd)

Posted on August 22, 2017 by in Clozapine Clinic — The Frater Project

(Edited by Alise Blayney & Tim Heffernan)

Bones                      

You’re in my dreams now.
I can’t get rid of you.
​​​​Your smell lingers on my nostril hair.

After seventeen weeks
​​​​it was mostly bones the fisherman found —
​​​​bones visited by scavengers.

At night I breathe you in
while waves arch above me,
​​​​their fine spray freezing me to the marrow.

 

Early Frosts

In raw weather what keeps you warm?
How do you deny the chill of knowing?

One phone call
and the chill curled
like a millipede inside her.

No rain; early frosts; him gone.

She wondered —
had he become one of the hollow people who sleep
under leaves and barter all the nothing they have
for a chance to escape from a world they no longer choose?

Her winter skin itched under coverings
like mites had bored in,
taking up lodgings.

Seventeen weeks she waited
while under her mime of living
she scratched herself raw.
Through bitter winter to spring she walked
towards the confirming thaw.

It came.
His winter skin
had shrivelled and flaked away
in fierce mourning winds,
bleached of blush, smile, laughter, fears,
leaving just stained rocks and jigsaw
bones to piece together.

 

The Gentle Art of Releasing

Tears we did not invite or even notice
salt our lips and tongue.

We cry privately in some corner
of a home, hospital, jail cell,
boarding school or boat taking us away
from family and country.
No public display, just tears.

We don’t wail our loss,
berate our enemy.
Even friends grow tired of that;
or fearful, not knowing what to do.

So we learn the gentle art and practise it
in sunny lounge rooms, bland hotels,
bleached shacks on a desert’s edge,
refugee camps with bodies
pressed close together.

 

____________________________________________________________

Janette Dadd has had two books published with Gininderra Press, Early Frosts in 2013 and Eve’s Tears in 2000.  Her work has appeared in the Five Islands Press anthologies The Best Poems of January 2006 and Voices from the Meadow, and in the Poets Union anthologies Sun and Sleet and Prismatics. Janette is a strong advocate for the poetic voice, facilitating Poets in the Vineyard over a number of years and organizing the Poetry Slam for the River of Art Festival. She has also been an Australian Poetry Café Poet and had work published in their member’s anthology.

Paper Riddles (Lindsey Danis)

Posted on August 15, 2017 by in Out of Limbo

(Edited by Callie Doyle-Scott)

Freshman year of high school, someone hands me a note and a piece of candy. I eat the candy but puzzle over the note. Really it’s a series of numbers. It doesn’t make any sense. This is how Chris comes into my life: on paper, in riddles.

We attend an elite independent day school in the suburbs of Boston, filled with the entitled children of wealthy parents who all look like they stepped out of a J. Crew catalog, their LL Bean backpacks sagging with calculus problems and irregular French verbs. I’m drawn to glitter eyeshadow, fishnets, and cargo pants rather than khakis and sweater sets. I listen to Tori Amos instead of Dave Matthews Band. These things automatically make me an outsider, and they caught Chris’s attention.

My best friend is a chubby math geek from a trashy suburb. She scribbles and doodles and morphs the numbers on the note into letters by taking the square root of each coded numeral. Decoded, the note says something about coincidence and the colour of my eyes before asking whether I’ve been trying to say something all semester long as we passed in the hallways.

The note is romantic. At least we think it is, blushing and whispering, freshman girls who have never been kissed, but it’s also totally weird since I don’t know the guy who sent it.

We ask around in the hallways. The gay guy I crush on tells me he knows Chris and can pass him a note if I write one. What’s he like? I ask. Since Chris seems to think we have some sort of connection, I want to know.

He’s nice, my crush assures me, showing me Chris’s yearbook photo so I can put a face to the name. With his long hair, pimpled skin, regulation blue blazer and striped tie, Chris looks smart and a little bit feminine. I’m not instantly attracted to him, but I am curious. Plus, the seniors have already left school, getting out a month early for a capstone project. It feels unfair that someone I’ll never see in person gets the last word.

I write something open-ended and teenaged back. Like thanks, and no, and maybe let’s meet for coffee? Only we don’t meet right away. We trade another set of notes, then talk on the phone, and finally decide to get ice cream. He picks me up in a beater car.

Chris is tall and reedy, polite and engaged, but what are we doing? The sheer teenage awkwardness of it all makes me shy, so we fall back on discussing books and music. He orders strawberry ice cream and talks about how excited he is to go to McGill. I tell him about the YMCA trip I’m taking to Israel and Egypt. It feels exciting to be taken seriously by someone who’s a little weird, like me, and who survived my high school. By the time he drops me off, we can’t stop talking. I feel like I’ve known Chris for a long time and that sense of being understood gives me a high beyond mere attraction. Maybe we were cosmically connected, like he thought.

By the time I’m back from the Middle East, he’s at college. We swap massive eight-page letters penned in cramped handwriting. Whenever a new missive arrives, I take it upstairs and savour it, rereading the lines to know everything I can about Chris. When he mentions the Griffin and Sabine series, I special order every book. Scanning the fanciful, lust-filled letters for clues to what is happening, I feel certain this is life-changing.

Meanwhile, I join the gay-straight alliance to spend more time with my crush. He drags me to a citywide meeting and I freeze. It’s great that all these other kids are out and proud, but I’m just here to be an ally. I hang around, keeping my mouth shut, waiting for him to drive me home.

Chris drops out of McGill halfway through freshman year. He moves into his parent’s basement and our letters boomerang closer, until he moves to L.A. for a program in radio or audio, something technical and masculine and almost outmoded. I cannot understand how a smart misfit like him would willingly leave a top-tier university for his parent’s basement. I sink deep into his letters, needing to know what college, what life, will be like for me.

When summer comes again, I decide to go to camp. I offer to help teach fencing because it sounds fun, and I’m bored of the standard arts and crafts activities. I bond with the counselors who teach it, short Jewish women who attend rival Ivy League schools. Halfway through the summer I start arriving early to lessons. I lie on a flat rock beside the dining hall and watch entranced as one dark-haired instructor leads the campers back and forth in the fencer’s crab-like walk. You’re the best assistant, she says one day, her voice velvety in my ear. All the campers love you. They all want to hang out with you instead of fence. You’re so much more useful than the other staff. I am conscious only of her touch on my arm, the sudden nearness of her voice, and an unfamiliar trembling in my stomach.

I seek her out in my free time and memorise the way her hands move to punctuate her thoughts, how saliva collects in the corners of her mouth. I can’t stay away from her and I don’t understand it. But by the end of the summer I have two plans: I’m going to take fencing lessons when I get home, and I’m going to visit her on campus.

In the fall, Chris returns from L.A. and we meet in downtown Boston. He wears a suit and tie, his long hair pulled into a low ponytail. He appears suddenly grown-up in a way that confuses me. His job is mundane and doesn’t suit him, but he seems alright with it. I swallow my disappointment in his humdrum life: wasn’t he capable of so much more? We go another long period without contact.

It’s spring of my junior year. Prom is coming. So are the Indigo Girls, who’ve been a favorite band of mine for years. Taking Chris to the Prom feels like, if not my one shot at a high school romance, then a way to give our story a meaning that eludes. On the phone, I make awkward small talk before blurting out an invite.

No one’s ever invited me to Prom, Chris says. Sure.

We go for pizza. I buy a sparkly blue one-shoulder dress and try to decide how to style my chin-length hair.

A girl from the gay-straight alliance, Susie, finds out I’m going to see the Indigo Girls and offers my friend and me a ride to the show. Susie is a greasy insomniac poet whose older sister is best friends with Chris. We’ve grown friendly from the literary magazine and our connection is confirmed when we realize we’re both toting around The Bell Jar in our L.L. Bean backpacks.

The night of the concert, we huddle in front of the stage and talk until Susie offers me a sip of her Nantucket Nectar. Her petite hand brushes mine as I take the cup and the watermelon-strawberry juice shocks my mouth with its sweetness. I’m knocked off guard by her touch. She steps closer, and everything shifts.

While my head is still spinning, my friend leans over and says to Susie, At school everyone thinks we’re lesbians. But we’re not. They just think that cause we hang out a lot. My friend pulls me toward her. We like boys. Susie looks to me, waiting for a correction. I try to meet her eyes, but can’t say anything.

When the music starts, we crowd close to watch the musicians. There’s a rainbow light display and I point it out. Susie puts her arm around my shoulder and I am rooted to the spot, her skin against mine, suddenly wanting something my brain riots against. I’m drawn back to the fencing instructor and all those afternoons of careful observation. What I wanted then and what I want now crystallises, and a cold fear drowns my longing.

Prom plans are made without my knowledge. Chris’s family has a house on the Cape and we will all be sleeping over afterwards — Chris and I, and Susie and Susie’s date, a girl she’s been seeing from a wealthy western suburb. Chris sits down with my mother and explains how safe we will be and how no one will be drinking. I am left with nothing to do but go along.

I was looking forward to Prom, but when the big night arrives it feels empty. People I don’t like and never talk to mill around in fancy dresses, their shoes discarded under tables. No one eats because they don’t want to look fat. Susie is there with the girl and it isn’t a big deal for anyone, except me. We sit with her friends, who aren’t my friends, and I long for the formal event to be over because I can’t even talk to Chris over the music. I feel alone in the crowd.

I’m relieved when it ends and Chris and I drive down to the Cape. We’ve seen each other so few times that each occasion feels momentous. We lie in the grass and look at the stars, the ocean crashing beneath us as we wait for the others. I feel like I’m supposed to be in love with you or something, Chris says, but I’m not. His words cut to the bone. He’s not. He’s not? What has all of this been for, then? I study the stars as his words float between us, grasping onto the sound of the waves hitting the seawall, desperate for something to steady me.

Susie and her date arrive and we stay up, talking about nonsense. I push away thoughts about what I want, because I’m too nervous to say any of it out loud. Chris and I fall asleep on separate sofas; Susie and her date sleep in the guest room. Later they tell me they left me a bed and I try not to think about them squeezed into one twin together.

Back at school, I feel sick over how cowardly I’ve been. I pour my feelings into poems scribbled in margins during free periods and classes. The words won’t stop coming. A couple of weeks later, I see Susie again when the GSA holds a party to watch the Ellen coming-out episode. My old crush convinces me to read one of my poems. I sputter through an apology of sorts for squirming away from Susie at the concert. I need her to hear this, even if it’s difficult to grab the breath to acknowledge it. Susie sits next to her girlfriend; they hold hands, but her eyes are on me. She comes over afterwards and places a cool hand on mine. I like your poems. Then she too is gone.

Prom was the last time I tried making Chris, and myself, into something we weren’t. My expectations for a traditional high school romance fell apart under the nascent realisation that he could never be the person I really wanted. His rejection stung, but mostly because our relationship had all the trappings of a fairy-tale, so I’d let myself believe we had some cosmic connection, like he’d always said. It was becoming harder for me to ignore the fact that I just wasn’t that kind of girl. Even though his rejection on prom night shook me, I worried more about how things had ended with Susie. More than anything I wished I’d been brave enough to grab her hand when she reached for me, and face what I’d resisted.

 

____________________________________________________________

Lindsey Danis is a writer living in the Hudson Valley. Her work has appeared most recently in Razor Literary Magazine, Mortar Magazine, and AfterEllen. When not writing, you can find her cooking, hiking, kayaking, and traveling. Find her on Twitter @lindseydanis or at lindseydanis.com.

 

THE HEART OF AUSTRALIAN DARKNESS: An Interview with Mark Brandi

Posted on August 8, 2017 by in Lighthouse Yarns

Verity La is all about new and exciting voices in Australian literature, so allow us to introduce you to Mark Brandi. Mark has been published, broadcast and shortlisted in journals and competitions in Australia and internationally. He graduated from a criminal justice degree and his career includes roles as a policy advisor and project officer in the Victorian Government’s Department of Justice, before changing direction and deciding to write. Mark’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Age, the Big Issue, and is often broadcast on Radio National. He is the winner of the 2016 UK Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger for his first novel, Wimmera (Hachette, 2017), which he developed during two residential fellowships at Varuna, the writers’ house at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Growing up Italian in a rural Victorian town has influenced much of Mark’s work.

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

INTERVIEWER

Congratulations for Wimmera. It is an enthralling, multi-layered, and intricate novel. What was your inspiration for writing it?

BRANDI

Thanks so much.

It grew quite organically (I’m not a planner, in writing or in life), so the precise inspiration is hard to nail down. When first drafting, I tried to let things flow – there was little self-censorship, and I was mostly guided by what felt right for each character. Still, looking back, I can see a few sparks which may have lead to Wimmera.

Growing up Italian in a country town definitely inspired the setting. I’ve spent almost all of my adult life in the city, but much of my writing is still drawn to those rural roots. There must be some unresolved concerns, some kind of truth I’m seeking – I don’t know what it is exactly, or if I’ll ever find it … more like an itch, I suppose. I keep scratching at it.

But my previous career also played a part. I studied criminal justice and worked pretty extensively in the system, including a stint as an adviser to the corrections minister. With three older brothers also working in policing, it was probably inevitable that a crime would feature in my writing (even if I never set out to write a literary crime novel). Although, thinking about it now, some of my favourite books also feature a crime at their centre, even if not identified within the genre.

Speaking of, Albert Camus’s The Outsider hit a particular nerve. I loved his restrained, pared-back style – he allows the reader to enter that sunstruck Algerian world, to walk those hot streets. But more than that, the subject intrigued me – a community judges a man not for his crime, but for his failure to take part in social norms. While I read it many years before I began writing Wimmera, I think it planted a seed.

INTERVIEWER

There is a sense in the novel about the innocence of boyhood, which is contrasted with the messiness of male adulthood. Is that how you see the work at a thematic level?

BRANDI

I’m pleased you picked up on that.

When you’re a child (or a teenager) your world can seem very small, revolving in a tight orbit of family, friends, and school. When those structures inevitably shift and fragment, it can be difficult to know your place.

I think that’s true irrespective of gender, but perhaps more unspoken among young men. It’s definitely a factor for the boys in Wimmera, and compounds the impact of what transpires.

The innocence of their boyhood is also heightened by the period (1980s), as well as the rural location. It’s probably a terrible generalisation, but a different parental mindset seemed to prevail back then, with kids often let loose from the house with little monitoring (especially in rural areas). As long as you were home by dusk, all was okay.

That sense of freedom, a blissful naivety, is something I wanted to capture – the warmth of friendship and the seemingly endless summer holidays, alive with possibilities.

But there are also unspoken dangers, which are sensed by the boys, though not fully understood. Those darker elements are part of an inscrutable adult world, obscured from their view and understanding, but increasingly (and worryingly) apparent to the reader.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk about those darker elements. There’s a darkness to masculinity, and there’s a darkness to the particular form of masculinity that emanates from rural Australia (no matter what the era). In writing Wimmera, what was your approach to exploring and rendering the darker side of the narrative?

BRANDI

I think that’s true (about the darker aspects of masculinity). And perhaps it can be especially stark in rural Australia, where physicality tends to dominate. Also, in small rural communities, men can often significantly outnumber the female population – this can become quite toxic, and dangerous.

But there’s no ducking it (when writing that darker side) – you have to go inside the heads and hearts of those characters. Whether it’s the schoolyard bully, the dickhead in the local pub, or the dangerous predator – as a writer, you try to understand what makes them tick. It’s only then you present a rounded view, some light and shade that shows the complexity of human nature. Very few people in this world are ‘all bad’ (or, ‘all good’, for that matter).

In the case of Ronnie, writing his scenes was always draining. Initially, my process was more academic, tapping into my experience in the justice system. But the story forced me deeper, made me delve into the motivations, urges, and careful manipulations of an extremely dangerous man – someone who picks his targets carefully.

I had to walk in his shoes and try to understand his proclivities (whether I liked it or not). It was gut wrenching, but completely necessary if I was to do the story justice.

INTERVIEWER

For you, is writing fiction an act of compassion and/or empathy?

BRANDI

That’s a great way to think about it.

It’s sometimes said that compassion is empathy put into action – so perhaps the act of writing is compassion in itself.

Most of my writing is focused on character, so there has to be empathy (if I’m to do it well). That isn’t to say I need paint a sympathetic portrait – empathy and sympathy are too often confused.

That point is relevant also to your previous question, with respect to the darker aspects of the story. When exploring the more malevolent figures, I had to approach their world with a degree of care, being mindful of the sensitivity of the issues for some readers. That said, no one wants to read flat caricatures of villains – it never seems real.

It might be stating the obvious, but people are incredibly complex. In seeking to understand (and vividly depict) those who might do terrible things (or good things), we need a degree of empathy (even if we might not always admit to it). Characterising people as ‘evil’ only takes you so far – this isn’t to excuse or diminish their crimes, but to better understand them.

But, as writers, we need not lay this all out on the page – so much is often better left unsaid and for the reader to uncover. Cormac McCarthy is a master of this – there is so little interiority shown of his characters, but you still feel a deep understanding and respect shining through them.

INTERVIEWER

You have mentioned Camus and McCarthy. Who are the other novelists that have inspired you?

BRANDI

I’m most attracted to writers whose characters dwell outside the mainstream.

As a kid, I enjoyed Stephen King – I’d often steal his books from my brother, and I loved scaring myself to death. I read Salem’s Lot far too many times (which probably explains my irrational childhood fear of vampires). King has a real knack for creating characters you care about.

As an adult, my preference is for lean, sparse prose – MJ Hyland’s This Is How is a standout of the last few years. More recently, I enjoyed Jesse Ball’s A Cure for Suicide and How to Set a Fire and Why, and Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation. I suppose I admire novels (and novelists) that trust the reader, allowing space for us to invest ourselves, to add our own interpretation.

I also loved Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows for its delicate depiction of young people grappling with troubled family life. Similarly, both Sofie Laguna (The Eye of the Sheep) and Sonya Hartnett (Golden Boys) show the lives of children with nuance and subtlety.

And while she’s known more for her non-fiction, I’ll cheat and include Helen Garner. I recently read This House of Grief and was struck by the writing – her dignified and respectful portrayal of tragedy is, at times, breathtaking.

INTERVIEWER

What are your hopes for Wimmera?

BRANDI

Accolades are great, but what matters is the conversation with each reader.

One of the most gratifying things has been hearing from those who have read the book and felt a connection to the story and its characters. Reading is, after all, an intensely personal experience.

All the stories I’ve loved become part of who I am – they never quite leave me. So my greatest hope is that readers might engage deeply with Wimmera, and that Fab and Ben (and yes, even Ronnie) might linger long after they’ve read the final page.

*

Wimmera can be purchased from Hachette Australia

_____________________________________________________________

Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis 2012)

Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of adult fiction – his contemporary dramas plunge into family dynamics, new relationship types, masculinity, history, and the lure of secrets. He is the author of three novellas: The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014), I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), and Fall on Me (Blemish Books, 2011). His novel Remnants (Pandanus Books, 2005) was published to acclaim, as was his story collection Joy (2000). In 2015 Featherstone was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretti for a new work that is being composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featherstone is also the author of 50 stories published in Australian literary journals including the Review of Australian Fiction, Meanjin, Island, and Overland, as well as in the US. Between 2007 and 2014 he was a frequent contributor to Panorama, the weekend magazine of the Canberra Times, and the Fairfax Media network more broadly. Featherstone has also written for Australian Book Review, BMA Magazine, and Capital. He has been awarded residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains), Bundanon (Shoalhaven River), and the Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage, courtesy of the Launceston City Council, Tasmania; in 2013 he was a Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy/UNSW Canberra. Featherstone was the founding editor of Verity La (2010-2014), for which he received a 2012 Canberra Critics Circle Award. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. Visit Nigel’s website for more.

The Ship (Nathan Curnow)

Posted on August 1, 2017 by in Flash Fiction, Lies To Live By

The radio says there’s an overnight storm arriving at 1am, so he sets the alarm clock on the floor of his room, beside his mattress in the bare apartment. After twenty years of marriage he was almost back to living in a student share house, but he discovered a cheap one bedroom across town that’s as empty as his allocated car park. He knew calling it quits meant financial disaster, now he’s renting for the rest of his life. He needs time to find his feet and he’ll find them soon, a lie that he’s telling his kids.

The storm driving in is meant to get wild. It’s been weeks since the last one hit. He’s been trying to keep busy with twelve-hour shifts and watching dvds on the laptop. He barely earns enough to contribute to school fees, meet rent and buy fresh food. It takes a month of saving to go on a date because he pays for her meal like a gentleman. Is this what he chose, this separateness, a life he can barely afford? Travelling is out, so he rides each storm, like the one that’s coming in tonight.

His alarm starts squawking like a pirate’s macaw, so he slaps it in the face. What he’s about to do might be an ancient pastime, which makes him feel less pathetic. The gale is battering every angle outside, beating windows in aluminium frames. The gutters are clogged and the rainwater falls, splattering on the concrete beneath. He’s half asleep as the storm hauls the trees, a branch scraping the corrugated fence. A new world has arrived that doesn’t cost a thing, so he lies there just like he’s practised.

He imagines he’s travelling in the bowels of a ship, as if everything led to that. He’s on an adventure, far off the coast, in a liminal wave of chaos. He’s alone but seafaring, lurching along to a destination that’s bound to come—the eye of a storm, the ocean bed or calm water with a fine horizon. Wherever he’s going, something is happening and he’s been waiting for something so long. Tonight it’s as if he rebuilt his life, going places after years of coping.

He stays in that ship as long as he can, before the storm passes and sleep returns, before morning and the choices he’ll have to make, like what he’ll cook just for himself. One day he’ll remember that man on the floor imagining beneath the covers. He’ll have company then, a new wife perhaps or maybe an irregular lover. No one will know that he’d wake at night while his kids across town slept through. But there must be others in their own low ships, with only weather and a way to be.

 

____________________________________________________________


Nathan Curnow
lives in Ballarat and is a past editor of Going Down SwingingHis previous books include The Ghost Poetry ProjectRADAR, and The Apocalypse Awards (Australian Scholarly Publishing). He has won numerous prizes and appears regularly at festivals across the country, although he is often thrown by his notes.

 

 

Lyricism, Imagination and Vigour: Michelle Cahill’s The Herring Lass (Reviewed by Ben Hession)

Posted on July 25, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

(Edited by Robyn Cadwallader)

It has been a long time between poetry collections for Michelle Cahill, but her latest, The Herring Lass, proves the wait has been worth it, with a range of poems that mix elements of taut, strong lyricism, imagination and intellectual vigour. The Herring Lass is Cahill’s third full length collection, appearing just after her recent book of short stories, Letter to Pessoa, though many of its poems were written and published roughly concomitant to the pieces in Pessoa.

Those familiar with Cahill’s work will recognise a definite shift in tenor from the poems in her first collection, The Accidental Cage. The sunny, even sanguine, suburban domesticity of  ‘Stepping through Glass’, from that collection, has been replaced by something more bleak and grey, like the sky in the book’s cover portrait, ‘The Fisher Girl’, who might easily be the eponymous ‘Lass’ herself. ‘The Herring Lass’ character is singularly burdened as she ‘tramps from port to port’ and ‘stands by a trough in the dark, guttering cold’. This poem, which opens the collection, sets much of its tone.

The overall trajectory of Cahill’s work is marked, in The Herring Lass, by a move away from the glistening, pure inventiveness of The Accidental Cage to a consolidation and continuation of the direction begun with her second collection, Vishvarupa. In this latest book, Cahill concentrates on precisely crafting rhythms and meters to provide a holistic, palpable sense of her subjects, be they human, animal, or landscape. Cahill has always been a lyric poet, and in The Herring Lass the tensions between the formal strictures of lyricism, and the modern world and postmodern interrogation, provide her work with a distinct vitality. In many of the poems, tension is set within dramatic monologues in a variety of voices. For instance, in ‘Interlude’ we see an NGO executive caught between the fraught personal world of past and present marriages and family, versus the cynicism and angst that develops from compassion-fatigue in a climate relentlessly hostile to refugees. The mood of haltered frustration is mirrored by almost staccato rhythms: ‘I could write more — hours spent in earshot of innocent/ men tried by narrow halls, waiting for visas’. (19) Similarly, in ‘Day of a Seal, qw1820’ both rhythm and split line structure suggest the perspective of a creature caught in a climate of disjuncture, whose kind are routinely slaughtered for money. This in turn carries overtones of its wider implications: the colonial imperatives of economic exploitation and autochthonic dissolution:

 

Tuesday afternoon, Bass Strait’s shadows

ring the slaughter sands.

A man in sandals reeks as he wheels his rage

with a pivot, swings his heft.

A half-caste. I watch him clench the haft,

before the first blow shocks.

He braces and repeats.  (22)

 

Rhythm and form carry an Imagistic direct detailing of the scene and establish a vivid realism that avoids sentimentality. The creation of character echoes something of the alternate, but complete personages, or heteronyms, employed by the author in Letter to Pessoa, where pastiche is used to educe aspects of personal identity that render it a pronounced and self-reflexive creation. In The Herring Lass, such postmodern effects are more subtly employed as the author allows her characters to be autonomously embodied, becoming emblematic of the individual’s struggles with colonialism, identity, historicity and gender. They come to ‘live’ out their alterity amidst prevailing cultures which either marginalise them or have erased them altogether. One of Cahill’s achievements in The Herring Lass is the degree to which she has been able to give these characters ‘life’.

This is particularly so in ‘Thylacine’, and its companion piece, ‘The Vanishing’, where the native species hunted to extinction become an object of plunder to be exhibited as an item of conquest, and neither science nor art can bring them back from the dead. The current of rhythm and meter ironically carries the history of the thylacine as a simultaneously indigenous threat and spectacle. The creature of the latter poem is hunted with an empty, voyeuristic gaze:

 

Have I slept for a week already?

A finger puppet in snow, a Visitorian?

The post-identity theory and cli-fi symposium

may never make amends. Before Twitter

or the allegory goes viral. (25)

 

The Tasmanian tiger’s self-awareness here makes it a focus for our empathy, thus deepening the sense of its loss. The breadth of the spectacle renders this loss an even greater, societal one, as much as anything purely ecological.

Cahill explores the potential of the lyric to create identity as a tool for deconstructing the often concealed mechanisms and history of power and displacement. In ‘The Grieving Sonnets’, the landscape becomes the narrator. The fourth sonnet sees Bindi Irwin become a signifier of celebrity, and the embodiment of a white substitute for a loss of the richer spirit of the place, condemned to what the first sonnet describes as ‘history’s hole’. With its other references to native fauna, as well as ‘harbourside galleries’ and jet skis and fibreglass boats speeding by, ‘The Grieving Sonnets’ gives us a recognisably Australian space and thus invites us all to be mourners, wherein grief becomes an act of awareness that must also be political.

Michelle Cahill

In ‘Youth, by Josephine Jayshree Conrady’, identity is explored as a take on Joseph Conrad’s fictional voyages through the eponymous character’s own gender fluidity over a world of sea borne journeys. Via Josephine, Cahill offers a kind of counterpoint to the cis-masculine narratives of the past, including Conrad’s own, simultaneously deconstructing them and opening the space for alternate narratives.

Yet the monologue is not the only strategy that proves effective in The Herring Lass. For example, in ‘Harbour’, a Heaney-esque Scottish world dominates the poem, but is finally disrupted by the displacement experienced by an African refugee and his flashback of ‘Zambia’s swamps — all the drowned past’. And in ‘After Fukushima’, lyrical poetry becomes negated in a manner that echoes Theodor Adorno’s response to the Holocaust with the concluding line: ‘No figures of speech — nothing to speak of’.

Not that all of The Herring Lass is political, and in ‘Night Roads’ we see Cahill’s command of her medium. The poem captures succinctly the night-time chaos created by a ten tonne truck veering off the road: ‘Radios freeze, phones tri-tone between GPS signals,/ power cuts, fallen trees. Each hand-written envelope/ is bundled, tied to the hope of tomorrow’s promise’. (29) But this is neatly supplanted by the morning’s ‘minor narratives’ and softening blanket of snow that covers the landscape, including the skid-marks. ‘Renovations’, meanwhile, offers a humorous insight into a post-marriage domain. And ‘Taboo’ takes aim at notions of feminine propriety versus the casual fling.

Cahill has described herself as a literary activist, but she is not a polemicist. The Herring Lass demonstrates Cahill’s strength of balance, measure and maturity as a writer. Perhaps, however, the breadth of her ability may have also been used against her, as her poetry might not be considered ‘Indian’ enough, or ‘Australian’ enough to be easily packaged and marketable. That Cahill has received numerous invitations to speak on culturally and linguistically diverse issues in Australian literature yet still found it difficult to get The Herring Lass published here could be attributed to her understandable refusal to have her writing readily contained within a CALD box. Ironically, the history of literature is replete with white, European poets writing on the exotic or the ethnic ‘other’. Maybe it has been white privilege which has enabled this and which is threatened by the tables being turned. But in this denial of availability of good work, the loss is the reader’s. With Letter to Pessoa winning the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing as part of the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards this year, Australian publishers might yet prove to be more receptive to Cahill’s work generally. One may hope so, and that her muse is not too distant from her, so we may see another volume of poetry, sooner rather than later.

 

The Herring Lass
Michelle Cahill,
Arc Publications, 2016
78 pages

____________________________________________________________

Ben Hession is a Wollongong based writer. His poetry has been published by Eureka Street, International Chinese Language Forum, Cordite Poetry ReviewVerity La, Mascara Literary Review and Bluepepper, as well as the Live Poets anthology Can I Tell You A Secret? Ben’s poem, ‘A Song of Numbers’,  was shortlisted for the 2013 Australian Poetry Science Poetry award. Ben is also a music journalist and is involved with community broadcasting.

 

 ________________________________________________________

Poems From Glasshouses
(Stuart Barnes/Leigh Backhouse)

Posted on July 18, 2017 by in Book Extracts, Heightened Talk

Untitled, 2016, by Leigh Backhouse


ENDONE® Oxycodone hydrochloride 5 mg

Blister-white tablet engraved with ‘ENDONE’
on one side, break bar the other.
It does not take the place of your doctor
or pharmacist: opium or morphine:
Accident or Emergency.

Store it below ground, above ground, in
an unlocked cupboard. Store it in the bathroom,
store it near the sink. Leave it on every
window sill, leave it in the car. Swallow
it before meals with a glass of nausea.

Do not show your pupils, abnormal,
do not show your restlessness, do not show your goose
-flesh, do not show your fast heart rate, do not show your new
-born child to a doctor or pharmacist.

 

Port Curtis Road’s End

The inability to weep furrows the
pit of my gut like a plough. I, a bull’s-eye,
Port Curtis Road’s end. Why won’t you return my
calls. Cows gawk. Wind scallops algae-

green water, grass and fingers. Pop … Pop … Fish?
My heart, too, is scalloped. The A1, a crane
pirouettes. The iPhone pumps Let England Shake.
I scratch at a plump mosquito bite, inner

right knee. My mind pumps also: Why won’t you re-
turn my calls, return my calls, ret
Ducks startle, zip the river as though a dredge
were suctioning their webbing. Heehaw. Heehaw.

Hush. Hush. I marvel at my indifference.
I also gawk, at the cows’ simplicity.

*

I turn to a gathering murmuration.
Starlings dip below this bridge then boomerang,
passing over easy meat, to Uluru-
shrewd Mount Archer. Dead white gums. Tonight you’ll wail

Your neck’s burnt, yet proffer no aloe. Bottle-
green shards, hectares and farmhouses. Shadows
crane from left to right, lengthen: I gabble O’s,
sculpture a hedge of tiny white stones: Oxy-

codone: bulging disc: God, I’d kill for a drink.
Something larger’s taken to the air: a rap-
tor, black against unmoving clouds. A foolscap
saccule swishes: Thoroughbred horsehair: a syn-

chronization: Grey Goose, Raven Ale, Wild Turkey. I
narrow blinders: tropical boondocks widen.

 

Black Cockatoos

after David Brooks

Red-
tailed Bedouins
of Poetry, black
cockatoos embroider
the sun into us,
seam-rip it asunder.

*

On the Fitzroy’s
bank at midday,
cracking seeds of eucalypts
that outrank Council, a hundred
Banksian black cockatoos,
a paroxysm of commas.

*

With their subtler
complex-
ions, the females infinitely
more beautiful
than the ludic-
rously coloured gatherers.

*

The gospel according to the locals:
‘Four black cockatoos
kreeing seawards
means four days of rain’
(burkesbackyard.com.au confirms it).
I am not a God-fearing man.

*

Should black cockatoos
know
that theirs are the colours of life?
Indefatigable black
and needlepointed into this
starry orange and yellow.

*

Imprisoned
black cockatoos
long-lived as man
neglectful beneath the same
white sun, its ROYGBIV illusion
destroyed by the tiniest prism.

 

Matrimonies

Their delicate armies sway
   the ambiguities of space.
Feel in your hands, before you play,

trembling in warmth, and rising,
the agitation of the strings.
It would be comforting to sing

      to the solid mercy of water.
Grasshoppers click and whirr.
      I am high on acid rock, on wandering glitter.

I feel your pulsebeat through my fingertips.
Look, where the grass grows more intense:
grows luminous in distance,

shaping my lips. I lie
      among dazzling visions, lying
to the fine edge of clarity:

The season for philosophy draws on.
Sparrows flock to my pond.
Verses flow in a never-ending torrent.

Death has no features of his own.
Music’s much more than flesh and bone.
What’s all this but the language of illusion?

 

These poems are excerpted from Stuart Barnes’ award winning collection Glasshouses (UQP).

Note: ‘ENDONE® Oxycodone hydrochloride 5 mg’ is a remix of ENDONE® oxycodone hydrochloride CMI

‘Matrimonies’ is a cento from Gwen Harwood’s ‘Reed Voices’, ‘The Wasps’, ‘A Music Lesson’, ‘Songs of Eve I’, ‘Moonlight’, ‘An Old Graveyard’, ‘Looking towards Bruny’, ‘Carnal Knowledge II’, ‘Mappings of the Plane’, ‘Night Thoughts: Baby & Demon’, ‘Oyster Cove Pastorals’, ‘Shellgrit’, ‘Dust to Dust’, ‘Night Flight’, ‘Littoral’, ‘Thoughts before Sunrise’, ‘Three Poems for Margaret Diesendorf’, ‘A Public Place’, ‘Death Has No Features of His Own’, ‘A Music Lesson’, ‘After a Dream’

____________________________________________________________

Photo: Leigh Backhouse


Stuart
Barnes
was born in Hobart, Tasmania, and educated at Monash University, Victoria. His first poetry collection Glasshouses (UQP, 2016) won the 2015 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Prize, was commended for the 2016 FAW Anne Elder Award, and was shortlisted for the 2017 ASAL Mary Gilmore Award. Stuart‘s learning Catalan and translating Imma Tubella’s Un secret de l’Empordà into English. Since 2013 he has lived in Central Queensland and been poetry editor for Tincture Journal. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter.

*

Leigh Backhouse is a photographer and can be contacted on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

Burroughs Does Oz (Joe Dolce)

Posted on July 11, 2017 by in Arrests of Attention, Heightened Talk

____________________________________________________________

The Burroughs from Snowy River

Burroughs of the Overflow

Burrough’s Five Heys

*Cut-ups sourced from The Man from Snowy River and Clancy of the Overflow by A.B Paterson, Five Bells by Kenneth Slessor, and Shaddap You Face by Joe Dolce.

____________________________________________________________

Joe Dolce is a singer, songwriter, composer, poet, and the writer and performer of the most successful Australian song in history. He was shortlisted for both the Newcastle Poetry Prize and Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s Poetry Prize in 2014, and was the winner of the 25th Launceston Poetry Cup. His poetry has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2015 & 2014, and has been published in Meanjin, Monthly, Southerly, Cordite, Canberra Times, Quadrant, Australian Poetry Journal, Overland, Contrappasso, and Antipodes (US). Joe is a recipient of the Advance Australia Award. He is presently on staff at the Australian Institute of Music, teaching Composition, Ensemble and Personal Tutoring in setting lyrics and poetry to music. His forthcoming book, On Murray’s Run, 150 poems and songlyrics selected by Les Murray, will be published by Ginninderra Press in Oct, 2017.

Professional Conduct (Phillip Hall)

Posted on July 7, 2017 by in Clozapine Clinic — The Frater Project

Jan Senbergs, ‘Otway Night’, 1994, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, AGNSW

 

Professional Conduct 

After Jan Senbergs, ‘Otway Night

With all the swagger of Buckley’s and none I bark
my soprano cacophony, like a howling
jackass, anchoring
a calling to be needed, to toss
zeal like a king tide
on rocks. On my left a sweeping
river bend through Devil-Devil Dreaming
where an ancestor trickster capitulates
to sorry-business and separation, a gleaming
outcrop of quartzite eroding to rubble
with baked earthen cracks creeping
to small drifts of sand. On my right
white-barked eucalypts stand
starkly skeletal before the dark
diamond-tessellated trunks of palms,
the crowns of fronds crowding
the lagoon, a big place pregnant
with the genesis of life. From my animal skin
hat a densely claustrophobic scavenger
wailing the land into being
and fastening a corroboree dance pose
to earth: ochre body paint, leafy dance anklets
and loin cloth. On my chest I emblazon
the racists’ taunting
as a king plate, executive bullying
manifest in self-harm, reducing me to a ratbag’s
dreaming avatar
– part man/part bush/part bird –
a precarious evocation of night’s
load when grog will give license

and release.

 

Discharge

Charged up like the family tree swilling
with FASD I was a christ doll
crossing ungentlemanly
margins, a perfect
fool for trauma’s inhalation
where intervention
obliged blood weeping, a gravity swelled
in remote miniature
with executive hounding
a cruel rip of whitewash tumbling
dreams:

craving worth I believed
my trade was sport
and camps to reengage and disrupt
through reward, but a partnership
of mine trust and office-bound leaders wanted
another cheeky dog:

prejudiced, I wanted
much from vocation, transgressing
boundaries, rubbing
myself out:

so when air evacuation requisitioned
I went valium-quietly
into the single-engine
straight-jacketed cabin, sailing roughly
into the tropical supercell’s spawned
black anvil.

 

____________________________________________________________

phillip hall (3)


Phillip Hall 
worked for many years as a teacher of outdoor education and sport throughout regional New South Wales, Northern Queensland and the Northern Territory. He now resides in Melbourne’s Sunshine where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. His publications include Sweetened in Coals and (as editor) Diwurruwurru: Poetry from the Gulf of Carpentaria. He has poetry collections forthcoming with Canberra University’s IPSI series called Borroloola Class (due for release in September 2017), while UWAP will publish Fume in February 2018. Phillip loves to cheer.

Comet Child (Judyth Emanuel)

Posted on July 4, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

Child I was under the weight of dark dark universes. Heavy weighed a lot of scary roars chucked at me but in my mind. Grew short too small for age five years. When in 1964. Ages ago now. In prettified place I lived sixties. Saw these times paths cemented crazy paving led to front doors pleasant houses on Wonga Avenue near Bantry Bluff. Always summer picnics at the beach. Face slathered pink zinc cream melted. Made my nose look stupid. Always sat alone on the sand. Warm sand dreaming between toes. Always not digging the sand with yellow plastic spade. Not even building a sandcastle. But just. Child gazed at far horizons any ones. And my mother got worried. About what. Always far horizons. Where my mind was. So decided it was. Confidence mine needed a boost. Get doing dancing, gymnastics, joining the school choir.

First square danced bite my lip. Dark dark universe this midday heat bore down stared down. At what. No that way. Second grade class all perspiring. What did why performing silly square dance. On boiling concrete. In school playground. Who people these made me. Dark universe roared. I felt this weight of gawking hands, clapping eyes clapped. Parents, teachers, entire school crowded in circle watching twenty wilting children. Started on the right foot. No. No turned this way spun a bit wrong. I trying really hard tried trip sashay allemande left-hand swing. But the dark. The roar. The terror I fled. Celestial child in flight fright. Faster than a comet in orbit. In her blood that solar system streaked through. Jelly legs running. Skedaddled quick. Where cometed straight into concrete kindergarten toilet block. After me fat Miss Hassel let her go. Old Hassel not fast enough this flesh wobbler like elephant in baggy cotton gingham. Stench of sweat underarms wet spit hissing,

‘Come Back Here Ernestine.’

But that darkest and roared. So fragile Phillip awful embarrassment. Turned quite pink at the had to dance twirl, chain right hand star with another boy. Why because. The last girl partner available was on the run. I was. I was. Safe now kneeling in front of the loo smelled of wee. Eyes watering. Mouth vomiting milky breakfast into that toilet bowl. Then trembling hand pressed the flush button. Just as this happened. Roll of toilet paper unraveled life of its own rolling under the door across the floor white strip rolled away away.

Next junior gymnastics got a bit confident in. Skipped wildly with older girls. I flailed little penguin arms skidding along surface of the ocean. Had burst of inspiration like a sea creature darting from its shell. I did shrieked this great confidence.

‘Hooray! If you’re happy and you know it, stamp your feet.’

Stomped little feet of happy. But Miss Hassel grabby dragged me from gymnasium. Into the corridor. Fatty hands shouted slapped me for showing off.

‘Stand in that corner Ernestine. Face the wall. Nobody likes a show-off.’

Struck across the cheek. Slapping stung tears show-off. Stomped anxious in my head. Now this creature. Delicate tendrils hacked off by cranky teacher. Off off off with her head.

 

Third thing to bring myself to self-confidence. School choir rehearsed what for. This gala concert. Mr Wright, the choirmaster instigated. Mr Wright leaden man. Cheap suit, springy hair, disgusting moles, intense eyes all grey. He conducted the choir as if plucking large bugs from the air. Sometimes scolded us kids bug-eyed.

‘Whatever is the matter with you Ernestine? I see a bulge in your cheek Reginald. I forbid bubble-gum. Spit it out this minute. Why are you frowning Ernestine? Quit fidgeting Susie, Bobby, Tracy, Sarah-Jane. You’ll all be the death of me.’

His own eyes got even more alive barking,

‘Do your best children. Sing sing sing from your heart. Yes, that’s it, wherever I may die…’

I squeaky sang. Wondered what death of me was. No one said. And why did Mr Wright’s eyes bark. All at the same time. So this practicing one song. Over and over I love a sunburnt country.

Not long later the night of the performance. Last row lined up tall boys behind us ten girls. Dressed in tartan uniforms. Higgledy piggledy lengths. Skirts supposed to be two inches below bare knees. Those were every school rules. The time choir us all took right places on this big stage behind red velvet curtain blocked out the universe. But I knew. It was out there. I knew it.

Mr Wright raised his arms sleeves rolled up hairy. Flicked the conducting baton. Which was just a pointy stick. The signal. Stage curtains whooshed apart. Saw jam-packed solar system rustled excited parents all staring excitement at us me. Voices hummed. Seemed like growling beasts. Cameras flashed all at stunned choir. This universe came at me. Bright menacing sight blinded. My palms seeped. Great tempest of quivering birds lurched from stomach to bowels. I shut mouth dry tight might heaving. Legs clenched together terrified of peeing my pants. Everything hurtling to me. Avalanched at me.

Mr Wright sniffed. Mr Wright glared me hard. Went into my brain. Don’t you dare. Run. Arched his two pinkies this crooked signaling at that pianist. Erect spine seated at piano. Poised to erupt. She smashed loud out the opening chords. We children us began to sing, I love a sunburnt country…her beauty and her terror the wide brown land for me.

My mouth opened but nothing came out. Not sick birds beauty the wide brown land. Run I thought. So I ran. Comet child dashed away away from devouring faces. From harsh rap rap rapping of Mr Wright’s stick. I beauty. I terror. And wide brown land. This none of it for me.

Miss Hassel stood big angry sweat in stage wings. Large horrified. Hands on hips outrage, she wrinkly mouthed,

Come.   Back.   Here.   Ernestine.

Children’s voices rose in unison sweet I ran. Sounded sort of chirruping. But much louder, higher madder. Every what choir child must stay put face the music. Wherever I may die, I know to what brown country my homing thoughts will fly. I knew. And the brown country homing thoughts flying I might die. But didn’t want anyone to see.

My mother missed the sight of me comet child scarpering across the stage. She just saw this. In the first row, the blank space where I wasn’t. Where should be standing but wasn’t. She did I expected anxiously half rose from her seat. Strained her neck. She must have.

The end of the performance. I heard enthusiastic parents clap talk all at once,

‘That was pretty good.’

‘Those kids knew every word by heart.’

‘Someone should tell Pamela to keep her knees together.’

‘Mr Wright seemed a bit cross.’

I thought he was.

‘Why did the littlest girl run?’

Because of joke of why did the chicken cross the road. Why. To get to the other side.

Chairs scraping I heard scraped on the wooden floor. The audience shuffling outside. I remembered about trestle tables loaded with aluminum kettle pots. Of this scalding tea everyone. Paper plates laden with iced finger buns lamingtons baked by the other mothers and transported inside Tupperware containers to provide supper every person there. I knew about this.

But wondered. Did my mother hurry backstage? She did somehow found me comet stalled bent at the waist. Wishbone shoulders hunched shuddering child retched the dark and roar, bile, phlegm, the showing off, skipping, singing, doing my best tried tried hard, the wherever I may die. Everything of the nothingness left inside child I was. And cried,

‘Sorry Mum.’

All the same time at. All all all. Brown thoughts. Sunburnt homing. Died dying inside tiny child.

My mother, always dying for a cup of tea. Never knowing what to say, except said,

‘Listen Ernestine you’ve got to try harder. Singing will help you grow bigger.’

Now I understood. This obvious. This shocking torment. This terror of performing in public. I now knew had prevented me from growing taller.

 

A slow burning comet waited. And waited to dazzle. I did. Reached far horizons of ten, twenty, forty years. Floods, fires famine stuff like that. Maybe love, hate, sort of a life. Really scorched through my veins. Got to my brain. I mixed them these things. Churned the lot. I whirled whirled didn’t throw up. Again. Faced the dark universe lost the fear. Wrote the roar in my head out with. This. Unstoppable how a comet child blazing across wide brown land. On very path of crazy paving zig zag. Solar system kissed me. Lots. Sloppy kisses. Something tossed bunches of roses. Maybe stars. I caught some. Gossamer comet grew much much bigger. The closer got to the sun. Which everything bright wonderful all okay. I couldn’t explain. Then now. It just was.

 

____________________________________________________________

Judyth Emanuel has short stories published in Overland Literary Magazine, Electric Literature Recommended Reading, Literary Orphans, Verity La, Intrinsick, Fanzine, Quail Bell, STORGY, One Page and Joiner Bay, and The Margaret River 2017 Anthology. Her stories are forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Thrice Magazine, and PULP Literature. She is a finalist in The Raven Short Story Contest, semi-finalist for the Conium Review Flash Fiction Contest and shortlisted for the Margaret River Short Story Prize. In 2016 she was awarded a Residential Fellowship at Varuna Writers House NSW. And her collection was suggested for the Writer’s Victoria Personal Patron’s Scheme. In 2013, she was accepted into the One Story Writers Workshop at the Centre For Fiction in New York. Find Judyth on her website, on Facebook and on Twitter @judythewrite.

 

 

 

 

Hello Dolly (Rebecca Jessen)

Posted on June 27, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

It is at once an ordinary and extraordinary Sunday. I am at home in Toowoomba with my girlfriend, and most of the daylight hours are spent assembling an IKEA flat pack bed. A task not to be underestimated. There are sore muscles and coffee cravings by the afternoon. There is a much-needed trip to a café, two mocha frappucinos and a triple choc muffin. Then there are Mum’s missed calls, the text, the urgency of them that makes me afraid to pick up the phone. The feeling that something bad has happened, the feeling that I can’t find out what, not here, in this ordinary café in an ordinary town on an ordinary Sunday afternoon.

I wait until I’m no longer in public—until I’m in the car, driving home with my girlfriend—to call Mum back.

‘Mae died,’ Mum says, through tears.

‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ It comes out quickly, both surprised and not.

‘When can you come down to Sydney?’ Mum asks.

I cry into my frappucino the whole five-minute drive home. Oddly, this isn’t the first time I’ve cried into a frappucino. And I know it won’t be the last.

My life has been steadily punctuated by the loss of loved ones, and still, this will be the first funeral I’ve been to. I was too young when Mum’s dad died. I was too in shock when my stepfather died. My experiences of loss up until this point have been private showings.

Later, my girlfriend sits me down and talks me through what will happen at the funeral. She knows loss as deeply and profoundly as anyone I’ve ever known. Her advice is practical, helpful. There will be a casket, there will be flowers, it will be more about the people who are left behind than the person who has left. This makes sense, in a strange, complicated way. There’s a chance family will fight, people might have a little too much to drink, there may be arguments over property, money. Grief does something to people and it is never what we expect.

The week is lost to work, negotiating days and times, flights, and long messaging sessions with my teenage sister. This isn’t her first loss, but she feels it just as keenly as if it were.

The day of the funeral comes and my girlfriend and I are awake and in the car before dawn. I’m flying out from the new airport, just out of town. My girlfriend waits with me until the security gates open, and as we’re saying goodbye, I say ‘Drive safe,’ and then, ‘Will you let me know you get home okay?’

She looks at me seriously. ‘Bec, I’m not going to do that. It’s a twenty minute drive.’

‘But the roads are dark and unfamiliar,’ I say.

She smiles, kisses me goodbye. When I land, there will be a message.

I leave on a plane too small to contain my nerves. I sit next to the right wing, and as we take off I watch the propellers spinning, the smoke rising from the small wheels, thinking that surely, these wheels will catch fire, with this friction and speed, surely these small wings will not lift us up, keep us there. I think about the way taking off feels so much like something safe being pulled out from under you. How many times I have felt that exact feeling. How quickly it can all change.

We fly into the sunrise and I see the view that I had missed earlier. The airport is surrounded by mountains—or hills, depending on your perspective. As we cross the border, I watch the early morning mist snake through the valleys of parts of the landscape I have yet to learn the name of.

When I arrive in Sydney, I catch the train west. Mum and my sister are waiting for me at the train station. The car ride home is quiet; Mum asks about my trip, how early I woke, what I ate on the plane, how small the plane was. These are easy questions to answer.

My sister sits in the front and sometimes she catches me watching her watch herself in the side mirror. We both smile when this happens. She takes the gum out of her mouth and drops it out the window. I shake my head at her, but she isn’t looking. She turns up the radio and sings along to a song I’ve never heard before. After a minute or so she changes the station and starts again.

When we get home, Mum and my sister both go to their bedrooms to dress for the funeral. Mum asks me to wake up my teenage brother, Shaun, and tell him to get dressed too. I walk into his dark bedroom and nudge his shoulder lightly until he wakes. He pulls me into a hug when he sees me and I wonder how this has affected him.

I stand in the kitchen and make a piece of vegemite on toast. The butter here is soft, even from the fridge. At home in the winter, the butter hardens, refuses to yield.

Mum comes out holding up two black jackets.

‘Which one?’ she asks.

I look from one to the other. I can’t tell the difference between them, so I ask her to try them on. She goes into the bedroom to do this, even though she’s wearing a shirt underneath. When she comes out wearing one of the jackets, I nod, ask her to show me the other. When she comes out wearing the second jacket, I say ‘Can you show me the first one again?’

‘Michael is meeting us there,’ Mum says. Then she picks up the phone to call him. To make sure that is what he is actually doing.

The four of us pile into the car and it could be any other day, we could be going anywhere, perhaps to the local shops to pick up groceries, or a little further, to the Westfield. We leave fifteen minutes earlier than we mean to. It doesn’t rain as predicted, but that will come, later.

My sister keeps her window down the whole trip and I shiver beside her. Mum is playing AC/DC’s The Live Album at full volume. As we speed down the highway ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ plays and I keep getting hung up on the line ‘knocking me out with those American thighs’, thinking, it’s such a great line. My sister complains the whole way through the song, begging Mum to play some ‘real music’.

Mum sighs, switches over to the radio and complains about never getting to choose the music she listens to in her own car. ‘Cheerleader’ comes on the radio and my sister shouts, ‘Turn it up.’

The first time I heard the song I was convinced that the singer was actually saying ‘Oh, I think that I’ve found myself a jellyhead,’ when really, he had been saying ‘cheerleader’. I was in the car with Mum and my sister at the time too; I had turned to my sister and asked her if he was saying jellyhead. My sister fell into a fit of laughter, and then embarrassment. I had become the uncool older sister. When the song comes on now, on the way to the funeral, my sister and I look at each other and start laughing. It feels strange to laugh like this now, but it doesn’t feel wrong.

We’re all quiet for a while, and as we navigate through the Sydney traffic and the erratic drivers I think about how small the lanes feel. Every time we pass by a car in the next lane I bring my shoulders in, as if the lanes are too tight, or the car too big for us to pass unmarked.

Our family doesn’t talk. We prefer the music loud and the windows down. We talk most when we’re worried about something, like when Mum asks my sister for the third time if she has turned the hair straightener off.

‘But what about the electric blanket, Olivia?’ Mum says.

My sister sighs, ‘Yes, Mum.’

This happens every time we get in the car with Mum.

My sister takes car selfies with me in the background looking miserable. Mum tells me I look nice and I think that my great-grandmother would have wanted that, for me to dress nicely. She loved to dress up, even if she had nowhere to go. Whenever we visited her in the nursing home, no matter the time of day, she was always waiting in her pants suit, with her best jewellery on and freshly sprayed hair.

When we get to Bankstown we drive straight past the turn-off we would normally take to visit my great-grandmother. I look back as we pass and think of my previous visit. How I somehow knew it would be the last.

I had seen her only weeks earlier, visiting Sydney for Mum’s birthday. We had dropped in on the way home from the airport. Marnie hadn’t been expecting us. She hadn’t been expecting us to see her like that, lost in the bedsheets, in her nightgown, her hair uncombed and without hairspray. We hadn’t stayed long: there were too many of us, overwhelming the room with so little to say. As we were leaving, Marnie uttered, ‘Where’s Rebecca?’ She had always insisted on using my full name, she thought it nicer—proper. But we had never used her full name and neither had she.

I moved closer to the bed. ‘Hello pet,’ Marnie said, reaching for my hand. I saw that she still had the framed newspaper article of me next to her bedside. Every time I saw her, she would tell me, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ She was the only person in my family to tell me that I could do good things. She saw something in me, something that even I couldn’t see.

Marnie squeezed my hand with what must have been all her strength. It was like saying goodbye. Perhaps she knew then what we wouldn’t know for weeks.

 

We are one of many cars that drive into the cemetery grounds, and as we pass the gravestones, my sister remarks, ‘Wow, so many dead people.’

Mum finds a park and turns off the engine. We are half an hour early. Who gets to a funeral early? It feels wrong. It’s cold outside so we sit in the car and wait for the rest of the extended family to arrive. Mum opens her door and lights a cigarette. The ash occasionally blows back through my window and settles on my jeans. I realise I have cat hair on my jacket and it feels disrespectful somehow.

‘Imagine if the coffin opened?’ my sister laughs.

I turn to her and attempt a serious look that immediately fades into a smile. It’s so like our family to be early for a funeral, sitting in the carpark making inappropriate jokes about dead people.

It’s nearly time for the funeral to start so Mum shuffles us all out of the car and we walk over to the chapel. The rest of the family are already there, making acquaintances with the funeral director. I can tell this makes Mum unhappy, left out somehow.

This is the first time the extended family has been together in a long time. We stand gathered close together in our own family groups, making small talk about the cold, the venue, our plans for afterwards.

‘I’ve been reading your blog,’ my aunty says to me.

‘Oh yeah?’ I say.

‘Yeah,’ she smiles, ‘It’s really interesting. Are you going to write about this?’

‘I don’t know,’ I reply. But I do know. I had already been writing in the car on the way to the chapel. What else is there to hold onto, if not these moments?

The funeral director approaches us; she tells Mum that the ceremony will be filmed, burned to DVD, sent to the family. In what circumstances would I ever find myself wanting to watch such a thing?

The ceremony goes much like I had expected. It is, after all, just another ritual. There are parts of it that are exactly like what you see in the movies. The speeches; the laying of flowers on the casket; yellow gerberas—Marnie’s favourite—this I had never known; reminiscing about the person who has passed; speaking of them in good stead; the carefully curated playlist. These are all markers of this ritual, moments that can be planned and played out in procession. We cannot plan for our own reactions, our own grief taking shape inside of us, the small details we will learn about the dead, the many things we could never have known, or never had the chance to know.

We knew my great-grandmother by many names. The adults in the family called her Dolly, or Mae. Us kids preferred the more affectionate ‘Marnie’. Her parents called her Dorothy, so in some way, Dolly seemed a natural progression, a mark of ownership perhaps. Some attempt to shift closer to the identity she had shaped for herself, closer to her own sense of belonging in the world.

‘Hello Dolly’ plays as the funeral concludes and all I can think of is how none of us will ever say those words again. I think of going home and downloading the song, downloading all the songs they played at her funeral. This is something I have done before; my own private ritual. This is the way I mark loss; the carefully curated playlist; the yearly, almost devotional listening.

It isn’t until I’m forced to grieve with others that I realise how private an act of grieving is. But perhaps I have always known this. I have always grieved privately, in my own time, on my own terms. Funerals feel so public, even when they’re not. You’re asked to lay yourself bare in front of others, all the while grief is turning you inside out.

As we leave the chapel, walking solemnly one behind the other, there are other families gathered outside. All around the funeral grounds, in fact, are families, waiting to play out their own rituals. I think about all of those people and who they might have lost. And all of the people after them, all going through what we have just been through. The endless cycle of grief and remembrance playing itself out over and over every single day.

In the carpark the talk is of directions and logistics. My grandfather is attempting to organise our procession, working out where everyone has parked their cars, where we will all meet to follow behind him.

‘I have no idea where I’m going,’ Mum says, lighting a cigarette.

‘Just wait there,’ my grandfather says, ‘I’ve got some timber to give to Shaun before we leave.’

‘Go help him,’ Mum says to Shaun, who lopes off after my grandfather in search of his car.

My older brother Michael stands by our car, waiting, then says, ‘What’s this doing here?’ and points to a piece of chewing gum stuck to the car door.

I smile at my sister.

‘Bloody Olivia,’ Mum says.

Shaun comes back with a grin and an armful of timber offcuts, motioning for Mum to pop the boot so he can unload them. Every time I fly down to Sydney to see my family, Shaun has a new project on the go. Years ago I helped him build a mini skate park using Paddle Pop sticks and a hot glue gun. He’s moved on to more sophisticated projects now. This time he’s building a small replica of a Boeing 747, using wood, cardboard, and—to Mum’s dismay—power tools.

Mum follows behind the other family members to the Bankstown Sports Club for the wake. We are going to lunch at a Chinese restaurant in the club. This had become Marnie’s favourite place to eat. Before the oxygen tank, before she could no longer leave her room except to go to hospital, before she became bedridden. We form an unconventional funeral procession; two 4WDS, a ute and Mum’s black Commodore with the pink numberplates.

My sister takes a grieving selfie to post on Snapchat. I look over and see myself in the background again, both of us looking miserable this time. I stare out the window as we rush through suburbs I’ve only ever known as names of train stations. I see a man carrying a small, yellowing mattress, hoisted up on his shoulder. Behind him walks another man, carrying a wooden bed frame.

Lunch is civil, respectful. There is a toast to my great-grandmother and her fondness for an afternoon shandy; a table full of Chinese food; a plate of fortune cookies—mine says ‘make the most of time with family’. There are photo albums passed around the table—even a few family portraits taken of our own; there is talk of future reunions that we’re all too polite to admit will never happen; and a final course of deep-fried ice cream.

My grandfather settles the bill and we all slowly leave the restaurant. Mum and my cousin slip out quietly for a much-needed cigarette, my older brother lags behind the rest of us, answering the third phone call in as many hours from his girlfriend, my sister checks in on her Snapchat selfie and my aunty tells me again that she’s been enjoying reading my blog.

We all stand in the club foyer, waiting for Mum and my cousin to finish what must by now be their second consecutive cigarette. There are the obligatory hugs and kisses from everyone, and when Mum and my cousin come back inside, we do it all again.

‘Well, have a nice life up in Toowoomba,’ my grandmother says, and it almost feels final.

‘You better not write about me,’ my cousin says, grinning but not joking as he waves goodbye.

As we’re driving home, the rain starts, just as predicted.

‘Yep, here it comes,’ Mum says.

‘There’s a Hungry Jacks, Mum. Can we stop?’ my sister asks.

‘You just ate,’ Mum replies.

When we get home I help my brother unload his timber from the boot. We take it out the back and leave it on the outdoor dining table.

‘We’ll put it in the shed tomorrow, okay? When it’s not raining, cause I don’t want it to get wet,’ he instructs me.

Inside, I see Mum place the single yellow gerbera from the funeral in a vase with no water. I know that by tomorrow, it will have wilted.

 

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Rebecca Jessen
lives in Brisbane and is the award-winning author of Gap (UQP, 2014). She is the 2015 winner of the QLD Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award. Rebecca’s writing has been published in The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, Overland, Going Down Swinging, Cordite Poetry Review, Tincture Journal and many more. Rebecca is currently studying her Honours in Creative Writing at QUT. She is writing poems about the queer future. Find more at Rebecca Jessen.