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 The sunny, even sanguine, suburban domesticity of  ‘Stepping through Glass’, from that collection, has been replaced by something more bleak and grey, like the sky in the book’s cover portrait, ‘The Fisher Girl’, who might easily be the eponymous ‘Lass’ herself.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

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
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’
( confirms it).
I am not a God-fearing man.


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


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



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

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.



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

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.



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.



TRUTH IN THE CAGE (Mohammad Ali Maleki)

Posted on June 20, 2017 by in Discoursing Diaspora

A photograph, taken by Mohammad Ali Maleki, of his notebook on Manus Island

You can find my whole life in my poems like a letter to God —Mohammad Ali Maleki

Translated by Manus Island detainee Mansour Shoushtari 
Edited by Michele Seminara and Marilyn Beech

A Dream of Death

My dears, I know these are stories are old:
but please, I ask you, listen.

I was once young and happy, like you.
I used to jump from one wall to another—
I was so healthy and fresh.
I came to live in peace beside you.
I sought asylum in your country because of my bad luck.
But for a long time now I’ve felt alone in this place,
terrorised by bad memories.

I don’t know why they tortured me,
why they cut my wings and feathers.
They treated us all like animals, they put us in this cage—
What kind of help was that?
It’s as if they went to a feast and left us tied up,
like livestock, outside.

They played with my spirit and soul for years.
They played as if I were a piece
on a chessboard.
In the final moment of each game
I am always trapped.

I’ve lived with fear in this cage.
At night I have no peace because of nightmares.
The doctor said I had no choice:
so I took the pills he gave me
and sat by the fence
for hours.

And still I take the pills
and sit by the fence for hours.
At first my mind stops, then I dream.
My thoughts are killing me.
They take me to my death.
I see strange events in this camp
and in the other one.

Suicide and self-immolation are always on people’s minds here.
Once this was just in our imaginations—
But did you see that all those dreams have now came true?
You all know what’s going on
in the Manus and Nauru hells.
There are rapes, burnings and hangings.
Many have said goodbye to their lives.

Do you see what the mental pills do to us?
When you see or hear us, from far away,
you say, They are some crazy, stupid people!
Let me tell you, it’s all because of those pills;
it’s not our fault.

One day, like every day,
I took those pills: I had no choice.
I fell deep into a dream, was sunk there for hours…
In my dream I saw that I was dead.
They put me into a rotten coffin
and shrouded me in pale, second-hand linens
taken from the rubbish.

When they wrapped me in those linens, my soul stepped apart—
I was suspended in air.
They were carrying me to the far corners of the cemetery.
I wished I could have died beside my parents,
died in peace, in their embrace.
I looked for a familiar person to hold my coffin
but there were only strangers there damning and cursing me.
They did not care for what they held;
they did not cry.

We came to the exiled cemetery
and they threw me into a hole with hate.
There was a stony pillow under my head.
The shrouded linens were rotten on my body.
How terrible and frightening it was,
inside the grave.

I saw many animals make their way into my grave.
My soul saw how they ate my body:
they left nothing but some pieces of bone.
Just yesterday I had talked and laughed
but now it looked as if I had never even been human.
They threw soil on my coffin;
they didn’t put a headstone there.
They wrote no name and no address.
No one in the world knew who I was.

In my dream I screamed, Parents! Know I died!’
I saw my parents dressed in black, because of my death:
how deeply they cried out and wept.
Mum tore at her face until there was nothing left
undamaged and there were blood and tears
flowing down her face.

Her hair had already turned white from our separation,
even before my death.
My father had begged, Son, what kind of migration is this?
Now mum fainted from sorrow, whispering, I have no sign of his grave.
And tears flowed from Dad’s white eyelashes, as he cried,
It was our dream to see your wedding,
but we’ve heard of your death instead

I woke in horror, the dream heavy on my heart.
Wishing I had not hurt them by dying,
by failing to have that wedding day.

Understand, please: I wish to live healthily, like you,
to say goodbye to these damn pills.
For three years I’ve taken them
and now I’m deeply tired, hopeless and depressed.
How do I explain the hurt of this hard, bitter life?
I swear to God, every night I wish to die,
and every morning, I wish not to be alive.
Then because my thoughts are killing me
I have no choice but to take these damn pills!

Should I thank your government for this?
Is this the care you give to refugees?
That you make addicts here, and mental illness?
Only God can help us.
Put yourself in our families’ shoes for a second.
Put your children in our shoes too.
If this is rudeness, please forgiven me;
I make obeisance to you.
And I ask God to also forgive those who tortured us—
They know not what they d0.



I washed my hands with clean water
to erase the bad habits of my friends.
I escaped from my homelands and my home
so as not to be in touch with them anymore.
I travelled alone, on a dangerous path,
hoping to find some peace.

Now we gather here from different countries,
with different languages and cultures.
All the faces are strangers to me,
all the races—black, light and white.
I am comforted that in my estrangement
there are no old, familiar friends:
not knowing that these new people
are in fact the same friends with different faces.

These new friends form groups.
I watch to see how they behave.
There is a group that are very kind, like brothers,
who help when you are in need.
They always treat you fairly.

There are some who only pretend to be friends—
They’ll stab you in the back at once.
There are many who are silver tongued,
always busy backbiting others—
their tongues sting like snakes!

There’s a group who take your property,
always stretching out their hands.
They know how to pretend to be innocent
and how to beg and cry like a child.

There are some who are jealous,
always looking to compare.
You have to avoid these people
because they do not deserve friends.

Another group are the enemy,
always starting fights.
We know what they intend to do;
they just think to beat us down.

Then there are those who travel
from far away to help and support us.
This group are just like angels—
We kneel before them!

But there’s another group who come here,
because they want to have sex with us.
It’s another kind of slavery,
taking sexual advantage of the already enslaved.

Friends, don’t be upset with me—
I just have to tell you the truth.


Truth in the Cage

You, who we came to seek refuge from,
why do you treat us so badly?
The world won’t always be the same.
Like a ball rotating for millennia,
it never stays the same.

Before you, many others had power;
now they are no longer in power.
Death, as a form of justice, is no escape.
In death, only goodness remains,
but evil will not be forgotten.

You, who say we are illiterate
and accuse us of being uneducated terrorists—
Why do you judge us?
You call us whatever comes out of your mouth.
We brought three things with us when we were born:
discipline, mother wit and realisation.
You tried to take these away from us
but you couldn’t because they are congenital.
Realisation and mother wit aren’t related to literacy;
having these just means we are human.

If you see fault it’s because you’re looking
through the eyes of a wrongdoer.
You’ve taught us so many bad things here;
I hope God doesn’t forgive you for this.
You’ve taught people to become gamblers:
to keep busy they gamble day and night.
But we haven’t seen a winner, even once.
The gambler is always a loser.

You’re playing a bad gambling game with our lives.
Some people here have learnt how to smoke marijuana.
They’d never seen marijuana before!
Then you call these people addicted ones—
It is you who’ve turned these people into addicts.
They use drugs to hide from their depression,
then you say, These people are sick!
Who made them sick?
Many have gone crazy in here. Why?
Because you put their minds under pressure.
Men become crazy because their minds can’t go on.
They spend their time talking with themselves.

You’re killing us, and then you call it policy!
You say, These people are imprudent,
but think, why are they imprudent?
A long time in this detention camp has taken their wisdom away.
We’re unable to make right decisions now
because we can’t focus to think clearly.
It’s natural that this should happen, but not congenital.
Look how nervous, crazy and restless your guards are—
How can we possibly be calm in their presence?

Finally, you called us wrongdoers:
but it is you who brought us here illegally.
We didn’t know this place until you brought us here.
You’ve played with us all in different ways.
You’ve showed a bad face to the world—
but that isn’t our face.
The money and power are in your hands.
The law is in your hands.

I have nothing more to say to you.
Judge us by any means you like.
Be careful though, because what will you feel
when your time finally comes?



Mohammad Ali Maleki is an Iranian poet and avid gardener who has been living in detention on Manus Island for four years. His poem ‘The Strong Sunflower’ was the first work published on Verity La’s Discoursing Diaspora project. Since then, Mohammad’s writing has been published by Bluepepper and by the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group. He has been a featured poet on Rochford Street Review, and his poems and letters have been included in the Dear Prime Minister project and at the Denmark Festival of Voice.  His poem ‘Tears of Stone’ was shortlisted for the Red Room Company’s New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016 and received Special Commendation for extraordinary work in extreme circumstances.


“I’ve met so many who have lost so much. But they never lose their dreams for their children or their desire to better our world. They ask for little in return – only our support in their time of greatest need” — UN Secretary-General, António Guterres. 

Please consider signing the UN Refugee Agency’s With Refugees Petition asking governments to work together to do their fair share for refugees.



The Chrome Pony (Scout Fisher)

Posted on June 13, 2017 by in Out of Limbo

It’s easy to question your sexuality when you wake up for your morning piss and have to clean the glitter out of your foreskin. Or when sequined dresses give you a hard-on. Mum rang the other day to ask which shade of foundation best matched her peacock blue eyeliner. I told her shell-beige and then redefined my boundaries by masturbating over a Czech gangbang for the next two hours. I cleaned up with a pair of fishnet stockings.

My apartment is a clash between vaudevillian costume warehouse and hipster boutique. Feather boas wrestle with striped cardigans on my shagpile carpet, while in drawers and dressers secret wars are won and lost between fake nails, high heels, powders, lashes, brushes, sponges and ancient aftershave, two-dollar razors and stale socks. My greasy road bike has toe-clips, fixed gears and a shiny blue beehive wig in its basket. A poster of Alfred Kinsey hangs above my bed, his Scale reminding me of my own gradual slide. And then, of course, there is all the glitter.

Glitter spreads through apartments like stars spread through galaxies. It shimmers and glimmers, exposing darkness and foreign spaces. It is infinite. To attempt to rid your house of glitter is futile, there is no team you can call, no special formula sold for $9.95, no predatory species to introduce, all you can do is submit.

The apartment’s air is thick with stale smoke and the sweet smell of unfinished alcohol. I open the window and the room inhales a clean breath of air, and the debauchery and arguments of last night wash out with the breeze onto the street below.

A trail of black ants teems in through the window, persistent little fucks. I track them down the wall and drop to my knees as they traverse the carpet, joining in the search for their destination. They weave through the shagpile forest, then follow invisible chemical trails up a wooden leg and gather in circles on the kitchen table. The small workers harvest the sugary impressions left by overfilled cups and glasses while the bigger ones guard the perimeter of the group.

My phone shakes the table. It’s Lilly.

‘Heya,’ I say.

‘Where are you,’ she demands with a familiar tone that implies culpability; stern, yet with a twang.

‘At home. Where should I be?’

The answer with Lilly is always somewhere else.

‘It’s Saturday, you said you would take Dane to his game.’

‘Oh shit.’ My hand slips from under my head and hits the table, the ants scatter like diamantes. I know nothing about soccer and dread the two hours of forced palaver with the imbecilic soccer Dads. None of which are hot.

‘Why can’t you?’ I ask, as the ants reorganize into their roles.

‘We’ve had this planned for over a week, I have work,’ Lilly forces.

‘The female ant is always the worker, right?’

‘What are you talking about, John?’ I hear concern sink into her voice. ‘Have you been on another bender?’

Lilly jumps between conclusions like a rampant STI. ‘No, the ants are just back again,’ I reply.

‘Okay, well I think the workers are infertile, which means Dane — who is your child in case you’ve forgotten — disproves your “worker” theory. Maybe I’m the queen.’

‘I think I’m more qualified for that role, honey,’ I laugh. Then I become conscious of my finger twirling a strand of hair, and stop.

She laughs too. The shared mirth feels good, another coat of paint on the ugly wallpaper of our past.

‘Well, are you coming or not, kick off is in an hour.’

‘Yeah, yeah, wouldn’t miss it for the world. I can’t have him tonight though. I’ve got a show at the Pony.’

‘Okay, drop him off after.’

‘See you.’ I hang up and silence refills the room. It feels deeper than before, as if our conversation left a vacuum. Even the ants have disappeared; probably back to their nest, sharing the sweet plunder with the colony.


My hangover creeps into the silence like a Trojan carrying a pounding headache.

If I’ve got the kid today I’ll need a clear head. His energy is both beautiful and overwhelming. It can get on top of you if you’re not prepared. The cure for any hangover is the three S’s: shit, shower and shave.

To save time I sit on the toilet while I work the electric razor over my chin and neck. Tiny hairs fall onto the porcelain seat, and eventually join the other nondescript scum that lines the floor.

In the shower I turn on both taps and push up against the cold tiles. The gas heater protests with clunks and rattles and then finally acquiesces. Warm water flows through the old iron pipes. The pressure swings between sharp needles and a dribble.

I soak up what water I can, lather soap over my body and face then scrub off last night’s skin. I shed the lipstick and mascara and sticky glue left from fake eyelashes. Pools of pink and blue eye shadow gather around my feet before disappearing through the drain. Manly thoughts resurface in my head.

Once dried, I walk over to the sliding wardrobe to decide the day’s attire. I pull open the male door and grab a pair of light blue jeans, an Adidas polo shirt and my fluoro orange trainers.

Inside my fridge are more condiments than food. In the back I find a Tupperware containing some old dumplings. I eat them while standing, skol a cup of water which tastes like bourbon and descend the two flights of stairs onto the street.

My apartment sits above a second-hand bookstore. It was once quietly dilapidated, another business withering into obsolescence in a town still shuddering after its steel industry collapsed. That was until the owner bought a coffee machine and hired a barista. Now I am forced to push through chairs and tables and people and their breakfasts every time I leave my apartment.

My car is parked in the industrial estate two blocks over. To park on my street now costs two dollars an hour and to acquire a permit from the council is $120. The industrial estate is free. Except for the broken window I had to have repaired last month.

It takes three attempts to turn the engine over and a heavy foot on the accelerator. In the rear vision mirror blue exhaust fumes drift out into the blue sky. The old green Corolla is one of this town’s many failing assets, slowly rolling towards its expiry date.

Lilly lives in the neighbouring suburb. She moved out nearly two years back and took Dane with her. Our break-up was what many would call civilized, though I doubt if that is possible. We smashed things, cried and shouted words that can never be withdrawn. Her name remains on the lease of my apartment and we are comfortable enough to share dresses and makeup, even though she completely lacks style.

I pull into the driveway of her two-bedroom home. A home the same as any other home on the street. White doors, blue roofs, shitty grass and mailboxes constantly full with letters addressed to Mr and Mrs Williams or Petersham or Fitzhenry, notifying them of the contention of their mainstream lives.

The car convulses as it stops. Dane shoots out of nowhere and appears next to my door. He is already dressed in his soccer uniform — blue shorts and blue shirt with a white seven on the back. I think seven is the number worn by his favourite player, some dark-skinned Spanish guy.

Dane looks quite professional in his red leather boots with studs, which I think were an expensive Christmas present, his long socks pulled up over his shin pads. I motion for him to stand back so that he won’t get hit by the door, and when he refuses to move I gently push it into him to create room to climb out.

‘How’s it going kiddo?’ I ask.

‘Dad!’ he shouts, and jumps onto my legs. ‘You’re late.’

‘I know, I’m sorry mate. I got caught in traffic,’ I lie, into his eager blue eyes.

‘That’s okay, kick off isn’t for another hour,’ he says.

I silently curse Lilly for rushing me without reason.

‘Big game today?’ I ask him.

‘Yup, if we win we get a place in the finals.’

‘Woah, that’s great,’ I reply, with as much enthusiasm as I can muster. Being a dad sometimes feels like an unavoidable cliché, just another costume to be worn. Once you have a child you are provided with these scripted conversations — from blockbuster movies, trash books, and other fathers — which, if accurately followed, get you recognized as a good dad.

‘Then you’ll receive a big trophy to add to your collection,’ I say.

‘Mum reckons I might win best and fairest this year,’ Dane replies, while standing on my feet. His studs start digging into my toes, reminding me of bruises left by a pair of red stilettos.

‘Where is your Mum?’ I ask, as I move him onto the grass.

I look up to see Lilly watching me from the doorway.

‘Hey, Lilly.’

‘Your car sounds like a tired prostitute with her last client of the night,’ she says.

‘Yeah, she has nearly earned her retirement,’ I reply.

‘Have you been checking the oil?’ Lilly asks, as she walks over, eyeing the car with a mix of disdain and pity.

‘I’m not really sure how,’ I reply, feeling unsteady as the gender seesaw shifts. Our hug is forced and lifeless, like two plastic dolls jammed together.

‘Well is the “check engine” light on?’ she asks.

‘Look, Lill, I don’t know what that is but I’m sure it’s fine. The car has survived this long.’

‘Well the engine sounds louder than usual. You know if you kept the oil topped up it would survive much longer.’

‘Don’t you have work?’ I protest.

‘Not for twenty minutes, it’s only a half day.’

Based on our stock of old arguments I predict the outcome of the conversation. Lilly turns into a bitch and then I lose, so I hasten the process.

‘Okay, fine, how do you do it?’

Lilly goes back inside to find some oil, leaving me with Dane.

They say kids look like their mums when they’re older and their dads when they’re young, but there’s little similarity between Dane and me. His hair is beach blonde and bounces and curls; mine is stone brown and sits flat against my face. His thin lips share nothing with my full lips. His chin is already more pronounced than my own.

‘So how is school?’ I ask him, reciting the lines.

‘I have three girlfriends,’ he boasts while fetching his soccer ball. He passes it to me.

‘Three, well done, what are their names?’ I ask. I mistime my kick and the ball shoots out onto the road.

He runs after it and passes it back over the gutter in a long arc. His coach claims he has the best leg on his team.

‘Rose, Clare and Stacey,’ he says, ‘but I think three is too many, I need to only have two.’

‘Oh no,’ I say, and kick the ball into the bushes this time, ‘but which girls will you keep?’

A frown creeps into his face. ‘I don’t know, I love them all.’

Lilly returns with a bottle of oil and an old rag. She opens the driver side door and fiddles with something under the steering wheel which causes the bonnet to pop up. Her movements are precise and methodical, as if filling a car with oil was somehow natural for her.

She walks around to the front and says to Dane, ‘Did you tell your dad about father’s day at school, yet?’

‘Not yet’ he replies, then turns to me. ‘Mrs Prior said everyone can bring their dads to school on Father’s Day. Will you come please?’

‘Sure thing,’ I say, with instant regret. I look over to Lilly for consolation but her head is busy under the bonnet.

‘Mrs Prior said our dads can tell the class about their jobs, so I told her my dad is a dancer, and she said she’s very excited to hear about your job.’

Even though I can’t see her, I know Lilly is smiling.

‘Did you tell Mrs Prior what type of dancing Daddy does?’ I ask.

‘No, I thought it would be more fun if it was a surprise,’ Dane says.

‘Alright, well maybe it’s best if we keep that a secret until Daddy decides to tell them, okay?’

‘Okay,’ he replies, and runs over to the bush in search of his ball.

I picture Dixxie Coxx performing for Dane’s grade three class, all dolled up — a sparkling beehive wig, drawn eyebrows and pink blush, my size 11 feet jammed into towering heels to accentuate my otherwise flat and hairy bum, which is barely concealed beneath a red sequin dress — while Mrs Prior, the kids and their stalwart dads, proudly dressed in uniforms of tool belts, police badges, ties and blazers, all shift uncomfortably on small plastic chairs in the dimmed light as I sing a tune from No Doubt, most likely Just a Girl, which I bring to life with a sexy dance routine. Thrusting my manicured hands, gyrating my padded hips, I wink at the neighbours and high-kick the air while wide eyes stare at the flat patch where my dick existed before it was taped between my butt cheeks, and Dane joins in on the chorus — take a good look at me, just your typical prototype — his naivety protecting him from the years of abuse to which he has just been condemned.

I jolt as Lilly slams the hood of the Corolla. ‘Should be alright for a few more months,’ she says, as she rubs her greasy hands on a rag.

‘Thank you,’ I force, shaking off my reverie.

Dane jumps into the car and shuts the door.

‘Guess it’s time to go,’ I say to Lilly as I get ready to leave. ‘I’ll drop him back after the game.’

‘Bye,’ she says.

I turn the ignition expecting a battle, but the car starts first time. I will never let Lilly know that she helped, I think as I reverse out of the driveway and head to the soccer fields.


Soccer dads are the bullies of the adult world. Before and after the match they congregate in packs around the canteen, masticating old Chiko Rolls and meaty pies while grumbling nonsense to one another. Phrases like — ‘He’s a good forward, but I think he would play better in midfield’, ‘The wife is giving me the shits at the moment’, or ‘The trip to Bali was nice, though the locals are a bit dodgy’ — get passed around like an old cum rag.

The whistle for kick-off is blown and I congratulate myself on eluding conversation up until now. I pull out a book and hide in its pages among the ambience of shouting dads, referee whistles and panting kids.


At half time I see Mick approaching me from the corner of my eye. Mick is the alpha of the soccer dads, a title most likely awarded because he shouts the loudest at his kid.

‘How’s it going, mate?’ he asks as he slaps my shoulder. Mick is one of those men that feels compelled to touch during conversation. The way his wife sulks around the canteen in those desperately low cut tops, it seems like he should spend more time groping her – there are plenty other men that would.

‘Dane is playing a ripper,’ he says.

‘Yeah he’s got a good leg on him.’ I repeat the coach’s phrase.

‘You bet, mate.’ Mick says. ‘You coming to the pub the sarvo?’

It is the soccer dad’s weekly ritual to drink beer at the local RSL after the game while their children eat deep-fried food and play in the playground.

‘I can’t, mate, I’ve got work tonight,’ I say, caught off guard without a prepared excuse, knowing it will lead to…

‘Yeah right, where do you work again?’

To which I respond ‘Oh, just at a club in the city.’ I nearly say honey at the end but cram the word back into my mouth.

‘Alright,’ Mick says, and the sound of the whistle draws him back to his spot on the sideline.

I return to my book.

Dane receives Man of the Match for the “great goal” he scored. He begs to catch a ride home with one of the other parents so he can go to the RSL and get hepatitis from the monkey bars while the dads drink mid-strength beer and argue over the game. The parent — I forget his name — offers to drop Dane at his mum’s afterwards, and I’m happy to oblige, knowing I will need some rest if I’m planning to rock the Pony tonight.

I give Dane a hug goodbye, though he seems distracted, eager to celebrate his success with his teammates. I never understood team sports growing up.

I drive home alone. Smooth jazz drifts out of the radio, bobbing and riffing with rolling patience, like a deep sigh of contentment. My eyelids grow heavy.

I park the car and walk the two blocks in a daze. The people sitting at the benches and tables outside my apartment look much the same as before — coffee, food and boredom — except they are now eating meaty bready things instead of eggs.

I tramp up the stairs to my bed, lie down and pass out.


When I wake up, I am disorientated by the darkness. As my brain struggles to identify the time I reach in all directions until my hand finds my phone — 7:00. Fuck.

I draw on that dream of Dixxie performing at Dane’s primary school for inspiration. I tuck my brown hair into the beehive wig and my saggy penis behind my bum (the most action he’s got in weeks). I glue on fake eyelashes that defy gravity. I slide my red sequin dress over padding I tailored out of an old couch cushion. High heels add height and curves. I spread colourful blush, mascara and eye shadow all over my face like a rainbow bukkake. Disguise the man, liberate the diva.

Femininity seeps into my body. My shoulders and neck loosen and my head assumes a bobble. My hands fall at the wrist while one knee bends, pushing out my arse. I stare into the stand-up mirror and my gorgeous eyes flicker back. My glittery lips pout and whisper silent secrets of seduction.

I play my song and go through my routine. My arms flair out with rhythm and cadence, my hips swing and gyrate as I give the air around me an erotic lap dance and a definite hard-on. I become aware of each angle my body creates; like a calligraphy brush, I draw shapes of sex appeal with my reflection.

When the song finishes, I snap back into the moment. My skin tingles as if I’ve had an orgasm. I grab my handbag, blow a kiss to the mirror and my heels echo through the stairwell as I glide down to the street below.

The Chrome Pony is a twenty minute walk from my block. Depending on the time of night, and levels of drunkenness, either whistles or insults spurt out of the gross men I walk by. Some stop to take pictures, others for a phone number.

There was a period when I first started queening, where I drove to work to avoid the harassment. Now I dance in the attention — each passing comment feels like a flash of a fan’s camera, an ode to my rarity. Being straight is easy, but being bent is fun.

There is already a long line zig-zagging between the ropes outside the Pony. The punters are begging for a glimpse of our secret beauties. I sneak around the back into the alley, and hide my nose in my perfumed wrists to avoid the stench of acrid urine. I knock on the door and wait.

Mr. Rogers answers with a hug and kiss on the cheek.

‘Dixxie,’ he shouts. ‘You look fabulous.’

‘Aww, thanks baby,’ I blush, and strut past him into the backroom.

‘Your show starts in ten,’ he says, as he pours me a strong gin and tonic.

He hands the drink to me.

‘There’s a little blonde scout from the Glory here to take you away from me. Don’t get any ideas.’

The Glory is the most prestigious club in town — the Moulin Rouge of drag.

‘A girl?’ I quip, to hide my interest. ‘Since when did a fucking woman scout for drag queens?’

‘Girls can do everything boys can, Dixxie,’ he chides, and walks to the front of house, leaving me alone to prepare for the show.

I hear the crowd cheering for one of the young calves, probably Suzy Xtravaganza or Fanny Balding. They come in dressed as their favourite super-models — Miranda Kerr or Adriana Lima — buying their costumes instead of creating. No feathers or glitter or opulence. Those queens shed their capes for reality, and lose their power along the way.

The applause echoes through the walls and charges my body. From head to toe I can feel the adulation, the people cheering. It’s a physical high, a good high, an addictive high.

Finally I hear my introduction.

‘Ladies and Gentleman, tonight, our featured queen, the sassiest, sexiest, sauciest girl in town, the star rider of the Chrome Pony, and an all round feisty bitch, Dixxie Coxx.’

I channel the most womanly of women. Tina Turner, Coco Chanel and fucking Joan of Arc. I strut out onto the small uneven stage in the old, seedy bar and feel as if I am a princess receiving an Oscar. The lights dim and the cheers dissolve into silent anticipation. The song starts.

‘Strike a pose, strike a pose,’ Madonna sings, and the tingling begins.

I glide my arms to my left and right with precision.

‘Vogue, vogue, vogue.’ My lips and tongue roll over each word in total sync. Then the spotlight blasts into me and the drug hits my bloodstream.

‘Look around, everywhere you turn is heartache. It’s everywhere that you go.’

My mind surrenders to my X chromosome.  I give myself up to the goddesses. The body takes the reigns and guides my hips and legs and back. I drip sex and power and desire with every movement. I court the punters, seduce them; we share our hidden desires in a sexy conversation using the language of the body.

‘Oooh, you’ve got to let your body move to the music.’

The words come from deep inside me. The air thickens with excitement. My consciousness is freed. As I slide onto my back and raise one toned, perfect leg, we erupt in sweat and joy and pleasure, and reach a shared climax.

‘Vogue, vogue,’ Madonna sings, as I lay there in ecstasy, hovering in the space above my body.


After the show, the scout from the Glory approaches me in the back room. She has a nose ring and long blonde hair that sits either side of her milky cleavage. Her butch confidence reveals her sexuality. Whether it is the sensation from the show or her, I suddenly feel aroused — my penis gently tugs at its binding between my butt cheeks.

‘Hey, I’m Brigitte. I work for the Glory,’ she says, from between full lips. ‘That was hot.’

‘I’m glad you liked it, honey,’ I reply, and then stiffen my back and shift my weight off my right foot.

‘Would you be interested in dancing for us?’ she asks, and for a moment I think she says ‘me’.

‘Let’s talk,’ I reply.

We find a table and stools in a dark corner at the back of the pub. Two strawberry daiquiris arrive shortly after. Brigitte discusses the Glory — the pay rates, the wild nights, the sorority of queens — and all I can think about is fucking her. It’s like all my pent up masculinity has broken through a dam and is flooding my psyche. Her boobs, her lips, her legs. Her voice is a rope slowly pulling me into heterosexuality

‘Drag queens act like girls because girls aren’t allowed to act like girls anymore. If a girl was to perform as a queen does she would be labelled as a slut or a show-off,’ she says, clearly a feminist.

I drink another daiquiri and pretend to listen to her ranting.

‘It is only men that are truly allowed to enjoy a feminine sexuality,’ she claims.

Brigitte is naughty, a deviant. A deviant can spot a deviant. In the subtle stares, the crossing and uncrossing of legs, the smile upturned at one side. She is whispering sex, sex, sex.

I spend the next hour flirting with her, totally unconscious of wearing fake eyelashes and a wig. And when the bar closes I convince her to come home with me.

We hop out of the taxi, both aware of our plan after making out in the back seat for ten minutes. The front of the bookstore is empty, no furniture impedes us. We giggle up the staircase as our drunken bodies knock into the walls.

I kick my heels off at the front door and push my wig on the floor as she climbs onto my bed.

Kneeling on all fours, she works her jeans down to her ankles, exposing a round peachy arse. With one final throb my penis breaks free from its sticky tape shackles and bursts between my legs. I rip the tape off my foreskin, hike up my dress and stumble towards her awaiting bum.

I grab her hips as I thrust into her, my polished nails leaving red marks on her milky skin. Padding slips from under my dress while she moans and moans.

Our bodies slap into each other and our genitals become one, as the poster of Kinsey stares down at us, somehow smiling.




Scout Fisher both writes and teaches writing. Though he spends most days attempting to unfold his origami-shaped thoughts.

SHAPING THE FRACTURED SELF (editor: Heather Taylor Johnson)

Posted on June 6, 2017 by in Book Extracts, Heightened Talk

(Anne M Carson)

‘There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.
– Leonard Cohen

If I was ceramic I’d be kintsukuroi,
pottery which has been knocked,
dropped, broken into shards then
mended with gold or silver lacquer,
a delicate meander of liquid gold
flowing into the breach. Kintsukuroi
the word a whole world, evoking
the kind of place where mending
is valued more than the break,
where old is treasured more than
new, where putting things back
together is an art form, things more
beautiful for having been broken.


(Andy Jackson)

‘I would be giving in to a myth of sameness which I think can destroy us.’
– Audre Lorde

sometimes I wake into a quiet sadness
blood pooling in my mouth
bones on fire – this is the worst
and best thing that has ever happened to me

one morning I couldn’t walk
the white coats
gave me a chair – I became an adult
while they tried to work it out
the closest was marfanoid habitus
’til a sudden knife in the chest
gave me enough points for the full diagnosis
hearing it, I felt sick

I have mitral valve prolapse, regurgitation
multiple pulmonary nodules
I get short of breath and produce
excessive mucous (clearly I’m very attractive)
my joints are hypermobile
and dislocate (they go out more than I do)
I’m the walking rubber-band

comments and names at school
don’t cross your legs, you look disgusting
spider-woman, anorexic slut
other things I can’t write

doctors accused my parents of abuse
threatened me with feeding tubes
ironic, it was only all this pointing at my bones
that gave me an eating disorder

since I joined Chronic Illness Peer Support
they can’t shut me up
we go on camps, socials, talk about whatever we need to
I meet the most incredible people
and call them my friends
(my dog helps me enormously with my grief)

I’m so motivated people find me exhausting
started studying nursing
but they told me I was too unwell
cried so hard I broke a rib – now it’s psych

I haemorrhaged every day for eighteen months
clots bigger than my hand
doubled over in pain until I passed out
I think about my future a lot
imagine a husband, two golden retrievers
a blue house by the beach, veggie patch
all the people I will help
life is extraordinary and so are you

now look at this photo and tell me
you still want sameness


(Stuart Barnes)

after Gwen Harwood

I know them by their lips. I know the proverb
about immediacy. Many slip
and shatter on sheer concrete, the older, the glass.
They held the common cold in hieratic,

are octopus-suckers. I imagine them
thus, lying facedown on acupuncture tables.
I apprehend firebirds. Their fearsome vacuum
surfaces disturbance. Flying saucers

might inscribe similar discs of stillness
in cereal: formations of purple, rose:
thirteen moons, an earth, a sun in syzygy.
They order qi, are venerable remedy.

They never play hard to get. Foul deed, foul day they aren’t.
All bell, no whistle. Anti-insurrection.
A trance in sudsy buckets; rinsed, their lips
await others’ blue skin. Love, their love is blind.


What lies beneath my skin
(Rachael Mead) 

The ringing phone ratchets me into tension.
It is everything and nothing,
filling the place poetry used to be.
Management only works in practice
and right now I’m all about theory.
The circling around guilt’s drain.
The awareness of performance
– the inability to stop. The anger.
Everything turned inward.
I prefer silence and when I talk
it’s all repetition. I let the phone ring.

Fear of death drops away like a silk
dress slipping from its hanger. The
knife rack, the rafters are pregnant with
possibility. I know what to do.
Walk the dog. Sometimes, this is all.
The gum trees raise their lacy fists, a
level of defiance I find impossible.
The glitter of creek water,
the black field of stars.
I put myself in the path of wildness and
let it fill my long and hollow bones.


Her arms and legs are thin
(Fiona Wright)

for Pip Smith (and after T. S. Eliot)

Do I dare
Disturb the universe? Do I dare to eat a peach?
When I can’t see what remains
and in short, I am afraid
and I cannot know what stands within my reach;
and there is time yet for a hundred indecisions
and a hundred visions and revisions, every time
before the taking of a toast and cup of tea.

I sit in sawdust restaurants of insidious intent
and there is time yet for a hundred indecisions. I wait.
My glass hands lift and drop a question on my plate:
do I dare to eat a steak, the squid, a peach?
Have I the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
(And they say ‘But how her arms and legs are thin!’)
I lick my tongue instead into the corners of the evening.

In short, I am afraid. And though I have wept and fasted
(And they say ‘But how her arms and legs are thin!’)
Although I’ve measured out my life, checked every whim,
They try to fix me in a formulated phrase
and I don’t dare see what remains –
I’ve simply bitten off the matter with a smile.
(I know it never can be worth it, after all.)

And this is not what I meant
not it at all.

How can I spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways,
how can I dare to eat a peach
when I know I am no prophet?
They say ‘But how her arms and legs are thin!’
They say I’ll learn the moment of my greatness.
They try to fix me with a formulated phrase.
They say it could have all been worth it
but this is not what I meant.

This was never what I meant.
This is not it, not it at all.


Ten Things I Love to Hate About You
(Beth Spencer)

1.   Someone once described it as like walking across a room in the dark and no matter       which direction you go a board flies up and hits you in the face.

2.   Noticing, gradually – from the subtle clues amongst the cheery posts and triumphs        – the number of people in my Facebook feed who are living with a hidden illness.

3.  A change of government and the social terrain shifts; suddenly feeling like a        criminal again.

4.  The grief for all that never was. All the books, the friendships and loves, all the     children and grandchildren. All the students. All the clients. All the travels and        adventures. (Scaling inner mountains instead.)

5.   The exhilaration that rises with hope from a new theory or treatment or diagnostic      piece of the puzzle. And then under the surface (forged by too often), bracing for        the crash.

6.  Writing lists of how things have improved, to remind myself. (Because it’s        necessary. The reminding. And it has. In a way.)

7.  Writing lists of strategies and actions for the bad days when it’s hard to even      remember (or move) to consult such lists. But then I do. And that search for the       small obscure window, pushing against and through (don’t cut yourself), and then        finding the next little window, and the next.

8.   Salvaging a long difficult day spent prostrate by writing one not-great but not-awful       poem just before midnight. (Yay.)

9.  Imagining the events and parties and gatherings looked forward to with joy (but      then not up to going) laid out end to end in one long glorious summer of love. A        beautiful able-bodied parallel world.

10.  Learning (and unlearning and learning again) to embrace the space I be. Because      maybe, in the constellation of the universe, every misshapen star, every strange       permutation, is desired by life itself to be experienced and added to the mix. The      force of everything demanding everything. Even this. Learning and unlearning,      and learning it again, and again. (And again.) Until the star becomes the centre        (and shines).


On the eternal nature of fresh beginnings
(Peter Boyle)

This body next to you, said the German expert on design, is your ideal self – what you climbed out of once and have since forgotten about. Like gills and dialogues with rainbows, like your life as a ruminant quadruped, it has been erased from your waking story. When the time is right you will step inside it and it will transport you. Do not look at the claws that dangle from its withered right arm – consider only its wings. Say to yourself the word ‘Perfection’. Be confident. All the stars of the universe were placed millennia ago far inside you.


Of course not all great art has its genesis in pain, and not all pain – not even a fraction – leads to the partial consolations of art. But if lancing an abscess is the surest way to healing, can poetry offer that same cleansing of emotional wounds? Shaping the Fractured Self showcases twenty-eight of Australia’s finest poets who happen to live with chronic illness and pain. The autobiographical short essays, in conjunction with the three poems from each of the poets, capture the body in trauma in its many and varied moods. Because those who live with chronic illness and pain experience shifts in their relationship to it on a yearly, monthly or daily basis, so do the words they use to describe it. Shaping the Fractured Self is available from UWAP. Poets will be reading from the book next Tuesday, 13 June at Sappho in Glebe. 

Heather Taylor Johnson is the editor of the anthology Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain (UWAP, 2017). She moved from the US to Australia in 1999 to begin a post graduate degree in Creative Writing. She received a PhD from the University of Adelaide and, while doing so, found a husband and had three children. Her first novel was Pursuing Love and Death (HarperCollins 2013) and her second is Jean Harley Was Here (UQP 2017). Her fourth book of poetry is Meanwhile, the Oak (Five Islands Press, 2016). She’s been writing reviews of poetry and fiction for various literary magazines for more than a decade and regularly reviews film for InDaily. She was the poetry editor for Wet Ink during the term of its publication and is currently the poetry editor for Transnational Literature. She’s co-edited two anthologies but Shaping the Fractured Self is her first solo effort.

Heather has lived with Meniere’s disease for almost half of her life and finds the illness keeps making its way into her writing. Having given a paper at Oxford on poetry-as-illness-narrative and having expanded her thesis to include lyric essays and novellas – the stuff of her current work-in-progress and something she will speak about at the NonfictioNow conference in Reykjavik – Heather is a passionate proponent of illness narrative.

A Sorry Memento, or Sorry Lamento (Teena McCarthy)

Posted on June 2, 2017 by in Black Wallaby (Ngana Banggarai): Emerging Indigenous Writers' Project

Teena McCarthy, ‘A Triple Gin on the Rocks’. Photography, ochres, organic house paint, charcoal. Location: my Grandmothers Country, Broken Hill, NSW, 2016

A Sorry Memento, or Sorry Lamento

Teena McCarthy, ‘Sorry, Sis’. Cardboard, ochre and soy wax with lavender oil, 2012.


The night bird sings
its mourning song.
The day beckons,
light through shadow.
It feels hollow
but sinks me
and a kind of weight follows
leaching into every crevice.
‘Don’t cry baby, please don’t cry.’

You were nothing but a promise.

Return to silence
to the quiet and calm
of the night tide
hitting the shore,
like a slap that’s been
worn before.




Portrait of Teen McCarthy by Bill Hope, ‘The Essence of a Woman’, 2013.

Graduating in 2014 from University of NSW Art and Design with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Distinction, Teena McCarthy has exhibited extensively for the past seven years. In 2011 she curated iNTervention Intervention, a protest exhibition about The Northern Territory Emergency Response Act. In 2014 McCarthy’s work was exhibited in Monuments to the Frontier Wars, curated by Damien Minton, who later invited her to appear in the Redfern Biennale 2015 and 2016. Djon Mundine OAM curated her in That I May be of Service – Motto of the Clan Foley, an exhibition about activist, actor, academic and original member of The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Dr Gary Foley, at The Rocks Discovery Museum(2014-15). McCarthy was selected finalist in The NSW Parliament Aboriginal Art Prize 2014 and 2015, and her commissions include the cover of UNSW Law Faculty’s Reconciliation Action Plan (2015), a painting which is now part of UNSW’s permanent collection. McCarthy was the featured artist in Old Lands – New Marks, an exhibition in Artlands Dubbo 16 curated by Djon Mundine OAM for Western Plains Cultural Centre, and she also featured as a performance and visual artist in the successful Contemporary Arts Festival in Kandos, Cementa 17, curated by Ann Finnegan. McCarthy recently exhibited in a group show, Summer Sojourns 17, at Simon Chan’s Art Atrium, Bondi, and all enquires regarding her work can be addressed to this gallery.