The State of Australian Reality: Roanna Gonsalves’ The Permanent Resident and Anthony Macris’ Inexperience and other stories

Posted on September 19, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by David Thomas Henry Wright
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

Roanna Gonsalves’ The Permanent Resident and Anthony Macris’ Inexperience and other stories are both short(er) story collections. Both were published in 2016 by University of Western Australia Publishing. Both explore contemporary definitions of Australian-ness and all that does (and does not) entail. Both highlight the importance and necessity for the short(er) story form as a requisite cultural space to reconfigure and reimagine the kaleidoscopic possibilities of Australian reality and fiction.

Australian permanent residents are holders of a P.R. visa who may remain in the country indefinitely, but are not citizens. Such status is the circumstance (or goal) of the numerous Sydney Goan Catholics of Gonsalves’ collection, The Permanent Resident. These characters include: a recent divorcee who has a boozy night out; a medical receptionist who debates taking the blame for a doctor’s mistake, and a woman who struggles to find Sichuan peppercorns at a local shopping centre on Easter morning. To summarise these stories is to reduce them to a list of everyday events mixed with a few scandalous headlines. Yet Gonsalves has an incredible ability to make these seemingly mundane actions utterly surprising: not only her protagonists’ choices, but the moral judgement she bestows upon them.

‘Curry Muncher 2.0’, for example, details the events surrounding Vincent, an international student from Bombay who is brutally beaten at a train station. Beyond the cruelty and kinesis of the violence, it is the perspective and eventual epiphanies of the narrator (also an international student, a co-worker in the same Indian restaurant who lives in the same Sydney suburb) that inflict the deepest impression. Reflecting on Vincent’s physical and verbal abuse, the narrator undermines the insult ‘curry muncher’, noting: ‘The way I understood it, curry, being a liquid, could be eaten with rice or one could even drink it as one did rasam and even sambhar. But there was no way one could munch curry as if it were a biscuit.’ (59) Later, when attempting to find a police station to report the crime, the injured Vincent refuses to let her walk home. The narrator notes: ‘I could not argue with the chivalry of a victim’. (62) Such narratorial wisdom, the delivery of which fluctuates between humourous and heart-breaking, pervades all stories in the collection, conferring them with aching poignancy. Tragicomic observations mixed with the occasional impressionistic metaphor illumine her characters’ entire souls. In ‘CIA (Australia)’, for example, the narrator describes the Aussie accent ‘like a waterfall, unable to be captured as it rushed over a rocky precipice’. (93) On occasion, this combination of specific detail, confident minimal action, intimate perspective, defamiliarised locale, and a penchant for the mot juste matches Alice Munro at her best.

‘The Teller in the Tale’ depicts the difficulty (literally and figuratively) for immigrants to comprehend and incorporate the narratives of their parents. The story echoes (or rather, is a variation on) the events in Nam Le’s Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice (2012).[1] The collection also includes notable experiments. ‘Christmas 2012’, for example, is a wry portrait of an Australian-Indian family sitting down to an ‘Australian’ Christmas dinner. ‘First Person’, a piece of flash fiction, scrambles text from randomly selected tourist websites providing information about Indigenous culture. The result is an effective meditation on the fogginess of contemporary understanding of Indigenous communities.

For the most part, however, Gonsalves’ collection opts for realism (in the Chekhovian sense of the word), and in this regard The Permanent Resident is a resounding success. In Two Directions for the Novel, Zadie Smith writes:

In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene. These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.[2]

Like most of Gonsalves’ collection, Macris’ Inexperience and other stories begins with a similar approach towards lyrical realist narrative, but mid-way abandons these conventions.

This is a curious work that defies typical classification. The first half of the book, titled ‘Inexperience’, depicts the relationship struggles of a middle-class Australian couple as they attempt to travel through Europe. The second half, titled ‘Quiet Achievers’, is broken into three ‘other’ stories. The first, ‘Nest Egg’, details with great pedantry and relentlessness the narrator’s plan to save (or hoard) money. The second, ‘Triumph of the Will’, follows a shopkeeper’s struggles as a recently erected mall steals his customers and devours his profits. The final story, ‘The Quiet Achiever’, depicts the visits to a clinic where the narrator’s cousin has been driven to a nervous breakdown by the failure of his business.

The acknowledgements page reveals that the text has been assembled from works written and published in various journals (Southerly, Australian Writing Now, Antipodes, etc.) over the course of several years. The novella ‘Inexperience’ convenes three short stories: ‘The Ham Museum’, ‘Cloudscape with Cassette Tape and Duracells’, and ‘Sydney-Madrid’. While at times the bricolage is noticeable, the novella follows the conventions of traditional realism. An Australian couple go to Spain (via Aeroporto Leonardo da Vinci) and then Paris. Upon arrival, the narrator delights at the stylish Italian toilets, relishing his ability to piss in and on style. But European tourism, like his relationship and ironic sense of humour, fails to deliver. On the level of drama (and indeed, on the level of travelogue), the work is satisfying enough. But when contrasted with the accompanying short story cycle, the first section takes on a deeper sadness. The magic of Inexperience and other stories lies in its wider construction and contrasts.

Towards the end of ‘Inexperience’, the narrator writes: ‘you didn’t have to work so hard to be middle class in Australia. Being middle class in Europe looked like a real chore, with bad weather to boot’. (107) In a traditional novel, this would be the end of the first act of a romantic tale or a potent educational moment in the development of a Bildungsroman. In Inexperience’, however, the story simply ends with a bittersweet tierce de Picardie as the narrator recalls happier moments from his failed relationship. In the stories that follow, romance as well as classical notions of ‘character’ are abandoned. Inexperience and other stories describes itself as ‘a novella and accompanying story cycle’. Certainly, the works that follow ‘Inexperience’ provide accompaniment, or perhaps counter-melodies, to the initial refrain. The voice that emerges, constructing the hypothetical ‘nest egg’, can barely be regarded as ‘fiction’; it is reminiscent of the paragraphless prose of Thomas Bernhard or William Gaddis’s posthumously published Agapē Agape (2002), an extended bombast of stream-of-consciousness that depicts ‘the collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look’.[3] One even wonders if the protagonist of ‘Inexperience’ is still narrating. Is he also the subject of ‘The Quiet Achiever’? Or does the text simply have an evolving style and force of its own?

‘Triumph of the Will’ differs again, depicting a down-on-his-luck character, similar to Bellow’s Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, [4] though the beauty of the character seems absent. As Bellow’s novella (and indeed, The Permanent Resident) shows, the classical conventions of literary realism still have much to offer. The ‘Quiet Achievers’ half of Inexperience and other stories, however, is decidedly not romantic, thus setting up contrasts within the work as a whole, making it all the more tragic.

While The Permanent Resident displays the power of lyrical realism as a mode to depict Australian reality, Inexperience and other stories hints at new perspectives for the literary form. In addition, the daring combination of tradition and experimentation displayed in both collections emphasises the extent to which the short story form is taking the forefront in leading Australian literary culture.

 

[1] Nam Le, The Boat. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2008.
[2] Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind. Hamish Hamilton: London, 2009, 71.
[3] William Gaddis, Agapē Agape. Viking Penguin: New York, 2002, p 2.
[4] Saul Bellow, Seize the Day. Viking: New York, 1956.

The Permanent Resident
Roanna Gonsalves
UWAP, 2016
280 pages, $24.99

Inexperience and other stories
Anthony Macris
UWAP, 2016
230 pages, $24.99

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David Thomas Henry Wright has been published in Southerly and Seizure. Recently, he was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards inaugural Digital Literature Award. He was also shortlisted for the T.A.G. Hungerford Award, the Viva La Novella Award, and the Overland VU Short Story Prize. He has a Masters from The University of Edinburgh and has lectured at China’s top university, Tsinghua, where he developed courses in Creative Writing and Australian Literature. He co-edited Westerly: New Creative and is currently a PhD candidate at Murdoch. Find more from David at his website.

 

 

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.

 

 ________________________________________________________

Reading in an Undiscovered Library: Pulse – Prose Poems as Collaboration

Posted on June 23, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Lucy Alexander
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

The woman has borrowed arms and legs.
She walks on a tightrope in front of the
watching crowd. They stand back as in-
structed, and do not attempt to become a
bigger part of what is happening…

It is difficult to find an adequate definition of prose poetry. If we say that prose poems are ‘literary works which exhibit poetic quality using emotional effects and heightened imagery but are written in prose instead of verse…’[1] we come close to what is happening in this volume. But, the line breaks do seem consequential. In the above quotation, the very specific slicing of in-/structed, calls into question the idea of prose gently working its way across the line of sight and breaking only at the margins, while the poetic line is broken in a considered way. Was it editorial choice? Or is the wider margin here suggesting that the text forms the column structure that is expected from a poem?

Pulse – Prose Poems breaks many conventions. Immediately upon handling, the volume requires the reader to become resourceful in their reading. There are no author acknowledgements for each of the individual pieces. No page numbers. The narrow columns of words crouch low on the page as if ready to spring from the corners. The volume itself defies expectation, much as the writing in it does.

The cover image of textured curtains in the sunlight is by Colin Knowles. The title is the only text that appears on it. Not until the title page are we introduced to the editors (Shane Strange and Monica Carroll), or the concept of the ‘Prose Poetry Project’:

The Prose Poetry Project was created by the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI) in November 2014, with the aim of collaboratively exploring the form and composition of prose poetry. The ongoing project aims to produce both creative and research outcomes stemming from the resurgence of interest in the prose poem.[2]

Pulse is the second anthology collected through the collaborative work of the Prose Poetry Project, a collection of some twenty poets – academics and PhD candidates and writers – brought together from the UK and Australia (with a taste of NZ and the US via the Netherlands and Tanzania). Pulse interrogates the way prose poetry is created, consumed and categorised. The text also questions the way we readers we imbibe our prose and poetry. The volume invites the reader to sample fragments of work – somewhat like a wine tasting. Rather than guzzling a glass we are challenged contemplate the depth and character of each page (the pieces are rarely longer than this, often shorter) and to focus and concentrate on the flavour and mystery.

Each of the poetic fragments is stripped of its context and its authorship. It insists on being read from its own translucent vial. In their introduction, the editors explain that they:

wanted to show that the collaborative vigour of the (Prose Poetry) Project didn’t arise from any individual or select group of voices, but from the broad mixture of contributions … to emphasise that these works might be read less as poetry and more as a series of fragments (from) some undiscovered library.

As the second volume from the Prose Poetry Project (and maybe the selection process is explained in their first volume) this assertion from the editors raises questions of inclusion and segregation; surely the Prose Poetry Project is a select group of voices, as any anthology must be by its very nature? Here, rather than a call for contributions, the published volume collects pieces from the ongoing collaborative project. The contributors are all working in the field of cultural and creative research and perhaps, while highly qualified to play with convention, do not necessarily represent a broadest mixture of contributors?

Contributors are, however, geographically varied. Fourteen of them are working in Australia and six in the UK. The subject matter of their work extends from discussion of the form itself, (the patient concluded that, like many addictions, poetry was a way of learning to die.) through the blues (thelonius monk brings his finger down/ and hooks a skin stretch moment out to the/ boundaries…) to butterflies (The difference between butterfly and spud/ is that butterfly is to cut almost entirely in/ half and spread the halves apart…); from duck’s conversations (‘Because’, Says Mother/Duck ‘I equate significant milestones in/ your life with the inevitable narrowing of/ opportunities in mine…’) to genocide, war, (During the Gombe War, chimpanzee killed chimpanzee: is that massacre?) and to the natural world’s events, small and large (Bright drops of blood on the pale green underside of the leaves he saw were ladybirds…). The poems take their lead from one another and build new, startling images from what went before. The Pulse of the title is the continuum of the gentle play between the contributors who riff and almost seem to improvise over one another’s analogies, themes and phrasing.

In the first of the two sequences in the volume the themes of music, water and farming play through the works. The pig is a recurring theme, as are famous men: Seamus Heaney, John Wayne and Bob Marley swim to the surface and dive out of sight again; the pig appears and reappears throughout this section, to trot along with his brothers, be farmed and consumed as bacon. While the individual pieces don’t call and answer one another, they do overlap and pick up words, concepts and phrases that are echoed and reverberated. In the second sequence the pieces often start with a bright colour — focusing the beginning of each work in a visual field. Occasionally there are blank pages in the book as if to suggest that a new ream of riffing, a new runnel of thought, is to be explored.

If the collection is there to represent the ‘vigour’ of the interactions of the authors within what must be a continuing series of artistic relationships, more information on the editorial choices, or on the way in which the pieces were informed in relation to one another, would create an interesting context for the curious reader. The editors say: ‘We wanted to concentrate on the way these pieces wove threads through each other into longer fabrics: resonating images, themes, narratives, motifs, ideas and connections’. Perhaps — when the works are stripped of their context — this is a lot to ask of a reader who is just glimpsing a page from the ‘undiscovered library’. However, it could also stimulate new ways of reading, allowing the reader to explore how the individual pieces are mixed together, and how they relate to one another in terms of their creation.

But it is also possible that in our conventional reading we are too interested in context, in wanting to know who the poet is and why they are writing what they are writing. When seen through this lens Pulse – Prose Poems is successful in that it creates space, both metaphoric and literal, for the prose poems to just be what they are — and to make no apology for that. As the introduction states: ‘these works might be read less as poetry and more as a series of fragments’.

Once the reader becomes comfortable with the Prose Poem form and the spare and often gritty nature of these works, the writing does leap off the page to ‘surprise and delight’, as the cover blurb describes. The pieces themselves are highly quotable and beautifully crafted. Lines that gleam out through the windows of the library asking to be remembered:

We found old starlight lying at an angle on the cellar’s clay floor…

I am content that every star should find its own declension…

He told me to wallow in the present like a hot bath…

Some pieces work as small parcels of definitions, asking the reader to pause and revel in the language (‘A miller’s thumb’). Others are memories, imaginings, what could almost be called micro-fictions — a complete story told in some tens of words.

There is this though: Pulse – Prose Poems offers a substantial problem for the reviewer. How to discuss individual works with no titles, no author and in the absence of page numbers? At the back of the book there is an index of first words that link the works with their author. So, while bucking certain rules, this text also offers something for those of us who want to know who wrote what – but requires us to do the work. It’s also hard for a reviewer to guide you to particular pieces or memorable lines without number and title conventions.

While it’s interesting for a collaborative project to be so collaborative that the individual is lost within the project itself, is this what the published volume of finalised work should reflect? At the end of the volume, just before the biographies of the contributors, there is a note that two of the poems included here have been published elsewhere – presumably with the author’s name firmly attached. This raises interesting questions about the nature of publication and how contributors might be paid and acknowledged for their work. As Paul Munden seems to bitingly remark in the closing poem of the collection: ‘The author would/ like to recall one of his recent prose/ poems. Sadly, he cannot identify which’.

It is clear that through their decisions to omit conventional markers from book form the editors did not want Pulse – Prose Poems to be read in the same way you would a poetry collection or a book of short stories. It is also clear that the authors are masters of their art — the journey with them through the library of their collective thoughts is certainly one worth taking.

 

[1] Literary Devices. Accessed 10th May 2017

[2] Axon Journal, ‘The Prose Poetry Project’. Accessed 10th May 2017

Pulse – Prose Poems
The Prose Poetry Project

Edited by Shane Strange and Monica Carroll
Recent Work Press, 2012
50pp (approx.)

____________________________________________________________

Lucy Alexander is a Canberra based poet and writer of fiction. She specialises in making piles of words and then sorting them out based on what they mean. Recently she’s been fashioning poems with the 365+1 project, marking up her fictions with edits and formulating a secret project that revolves around dogs. She’s often inspired to write about her family who are all expert time-thieves. She does much of her writing when everyone’s asleep.

CATCHING UP WITH A COMMUNICATIVE UNIVERSE: Michelle Cahill’s Letter to Pessoa (Angela Serrano)

Posted on May 9, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

Letter to Pessoa is Michelle Cahill’s debut collection of short fiction. The stories are told from a single, often first-person perspective, with many written in an epistolary format. The narrators are from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, often educated, articulate, sensual souls who think about books and theory and sex and love. They don’t have racism at the forefront of their consciousness; however, by presenting the world through the eyes of diverse narrators, these stories do nevertheless subvert the dominant, monocultural view.

In addition to advocating for greater acceptance of avant-garde work by writers of colour, Cahill has had a long and successful career as an award-winning published poet, and it shows in her prose. For instance, here is an excerpt from the title story:

‘Church bells gag. Beyond the rooftops the sky crushes me with its vivid blue. The old man at reception nods sympathetically. He guesses I have my suicidal hours. Aren’t we ever restless? Rebellious clerks for whom the streets are never desolate, littered with cigarette butts and last night’s pardon … Speechlessly, the city has its way with me.’

It is a remarkably lyrical description of the mundane act of leaving one’s hotel room and exploring the urban landscape. Observe the attribution of intent to strangers and the features of the landscape. There is a sense of self-aware self-absorption here. Everything seems to literally speak to the narrator; in this and all the other stories, the universe is communicative. German-American poet Lisel Mueller in her poem ‘Monet Refuses the Operation’ wrote ‘I do not wish to return to a universe of objects that do not know each other’. [1] Mueller’s poem has the Impressionist painter Monet refusing to treat his cataracts because blurry vision allowed him to see the way colours and objects blended and bled into each other, always interacting, never strictly isolated from each other as common perceptions of boundaries and distance would have it. In Cahill’s fiction, objects are actors. ‘Dust blinds’, ‘light burns holes’, ‘orchids stretch their strong, sweet tentacles’. Each glance and gesture is meaningful, and the narrators are confident of their ability to decode the implicit. This is not a detached and unfeeling universe; it is a universe that gets up close and personal.

The universe speaks not just through the living but through the dead. ‘Letter to Derrida’ had me imagining the handsome French-Algerian philosopher as being as intimately near to the letter-writer as a heart is to a heartbeat:

‘By sheer coincidence we passed between dusty shelves of the Archives Husserl at the École Normale Supérieure. Only to find we were star-crossed and you not quite mid-sentence, paraphrasing Heidegger … whilst citing Hegel in the service of Aristotle, so far inside the performance of translation that wherever we found ourselves that day was a place curbed and vanishing, a fact we relished though it would remain forever unresolved … You once told me there are traces of us in everything.’

It is difficult to recognise traces of ourselves in stories about revolting situations. ‘Chasing Nabokov’ is about an Economics student who tumbles into an affair with a Russian writer forty years her senior. The story appears to be about the young woman’s reckless pursuit of, and passionate devotion to, an unattractive, married, significantly older man dismissed from his previous university teaching job because of alleged paedophilia:

‘I knocked on his door and waited, feeling disconsolate and submissive. He opened the door and grabbed my hand … We hardly spoke, our mouths wet with hunger. Like a beautiful piece of prose being read with renewed inspiration, we made love in a room with worn carpets … I had forgotten the urgency of our delirious lies.’

However, not unlike the narrator in Yoko Ogawa’s masterful and similarly themed novel Hotel Iris, this Lolita figure is always reflexive, never unaware of the capriciousness of contingency and the fleeting character of even the most torrid romances. Her perspective, her opportunity to have a voice in this literary space, matters. Just as importantly, she has much to say about silly longings, and how love makes callow youths of us all.

Some of Cahill’s stories feature more politically charged situations. Even in these, the material is handled with similar grace and nuance – less shout, while still being full of substance. ‘The Sadhu’, for instance, is about a Nepalese-Australian woman and Irish man’s visit to a charismatic sadhu who has impregnated an Italian enlightenment seeker. ‘Sleep Has No Home’ is about a Muslim girl experiencing the first-hand effects of the failure of governance and diplomacy on her family and on her body. The narrator in ‘Biscuit’ is a west Nairobi-born cat who also happens to be a cancer survivor, exploring a society collapsing from within.

In these stories, and others in the collection, race and global inequality could very well take starring roles. Instead, Cahill’s psychological portraits treat the characters’ suffering as a universal injury. The reader doesn’t have to be of a particular ethnic background to ‘get it’. At the same time, there is no glib attempt to be ‘colour-blind’. ‘Ethnic’ names and settings abound in this work. It is a different way of working with the reality of racialisation and racism in English-language literature.

Michelle Cahill

This, to me, reads as a way of saying that not unlike ancient Greek myths and European fairy tales, stories by non-white writers about non-white characters can speak across cultures and generations. As a young Australian woman of colour, I daresay this is a good thing, in an Australia where people of colour are often regarded as having nothing important to say about anything that isn’t directly race and racism-related (and sometimes not even then). Literary nonfiction, poetry and fiction about racism’s harmful and enduring impact on the lives of people of colour contribute compelling reasons for readers to work towards immediate changes in behaviour and policy, not to mention enhancing the potential of literary language for describing subaltern experiences. However, limiting the range of Australian POC writing to racialised experiences, and to those alone, benefits no one. Good, anti-racist writing about living in Australia whilst non-white can, should, but doesn’t always have to be about experiences of persecution by white Australians. It doesn’t have to give the white Australian elephant in the POC living room the power of being the standard against which every little joy or worry is weighed. If we are to accept and live by a commitment to intersectional understandings of social inequality, we are also committing to a recognition that even racialised peoples know that their lives do not solely revolve around what white people can do to them. The following passage from Ghassan Hage’s (2014) review of Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s novel The Tribe expresses this thinking beautifully:

‘Anti-racists need to strike a balance between acknowledging the power of racism to negatively affect peoples’ lives and, at the same time, not giving too much power to racism in a way that boosts the racists’ exaggerated sense of self-importance… The racialised can, sometimes heroically, carve for themselves what I have called ‘resilient’ spaces. That is, spaces where people live their lives with a sense of normality without being constantly haunted by the representations produced by the dominant culture about them… [not adopting] the usual defensive position of the ‘constantly worrying about what the dominant culture is going to say about this’ posture. This is in itself a very important form of anti-racism.’ (Italics mine)

This fiction collection showcases far more than Cahill’s ability to inhabit the viewpoints of a diverse range of characters, or craft beautiful narrative paragraphs. Letter to Pessoa contains moving stories about the intersections of not just multiple layers of identity, but of thought and sense, the sublime and the profane, grand universals and intimate particulars. Without any didactic statements, Letter to Pessoa contributes to the anti-racist advocacy a compelling demonstration of an Australian woman’s ambitious, sweeping literary and intellectual vision beyond firefighting, gesturing towards more inclusive ideas of canon-worthy, standard-setting greatness. It is a remarkable first fiction collection; I hope it won’t be the last.

 

Letter to Pessoa
Michelle Cahill
Giramondo Publishing, 2016
216 pages, $24.95

References
Hage, G. (2014). ‘Writing Arab-Australian Universes’Overland Literary Journal. Viewed April 9, 2017
Mueller, L. (1996). ‘Monet Refuses the Operation’, from Second Language, Louisiana State University Press. Viewed April 9, 2017
Ogawa, Y. (2010). Hotel Iris, trans. S Snyder, Picador, New York

Notes
[1]  Mueller, L. (1996). ‘Monet Refuses the Operation’, from Second Language, Louisiana State University Press. Viewed April 9, 2017

____________________________________________________________


Angela Serrano
is a 2017 Hot Desk Fellow at the Wheeler Centre. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Overland, Archer, Peril, Pencilled In, and elsewhere. She is a millennial Filipino-Australian Melbourne writer, a hot-blooded yogi, and a soprano in training. Find her on Twitter @angelita_serra and on her website.

Digesting Grief: Krissy Kneen’s Eating My Grandmother: a grief cycle

Posted on March 21, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

(edited by Robyn Cadwallader)

In Krissy Kneen’s 2009 memoir Affection, her grandmother Dragitsa Marusic (aka Lotty Kneen) was introduced as the family’s best storyteller, and as a person who did a lot of cooking. A woman whose precise cultural heritage remained mysterious even to her immediate family, Dragitsa could reliably be found in her kitchen preparing a ‘haphazard’ mix of Egyptian and European dishes – including ful medames, vegetables stuffed with rice, and hand-rolled gnocchi.

Steeped in stereotype as the trope may be, grandmothers continue to retain a reputation for being great cooks. So it’s meaningful (if confronting) to encounter the Kneen of Eating My Grandmother: a grief cycle literally eating particles of her grandmother’s ashes. From the opening section, ‘Prelude’:

I pick a grain of her, stolen from the urn
place it on my tongue.
Her body.
My blood.                          (4)

This act appears to be spontaneous — it could be interpreted as a moment of divine possession, which is appropriate given the obvious allusion to the Christian Eucharist. The practice of Holy Communion (i.e. the ritualistic consumption of bread and wine as symbols of the ‘body’ and ‘blood’ of Christ) itself is subject to interpretation — some Christians believe that Christ is literally present in the Eucharist, while others consider it to be only a symbolic re-enactment of the Last Supper. With regards to Kneen’s act of consumption, it would seem she is unsure of what, exactly, motivated her decision, and that she is using poetry as a tool to understand her own behaviour. There are moments that fixate on the literal — on page 8 she asks ‘What part of her have I secreted away?’, suggesting that she swallowed the ash so as to keep a physical part of her grandmother (‘Her hand?’, ‘Her legs?’) inside her own body. But as the book progresses, the act begins to reverberate with metaphysical significance. For instance, the lines ‘She is the rain coming / and the sand filling us up’ (p. 21) suggest that her grandmother’s spirit has merged with the elements – although whether this is directly connected to the ashes in Kneen’s stomach, is unclear.

While Affection voluptuously charts Kneen’s sexual past, Eating My Grandmother records her experience of grief in the months following her grandmother’s death. It is also, incidentally, Kneen’s first work of poetry. In her own words: ‘Poetry was like a new language I learned to speak in the bleak heart of grief. I had never written poetry before but suddenly the flow of verse was unstoppable’.[i]

Poetry is as much about words as it is about silence. On the page, this silence is registered as the white space that surrounds (and sometimes threatens to engulf) the lines and stanzas. A poem is so often about what isn’t said, and the crafting of poetry can feel more like erasure than creation.

It makes sense, then, that Kneen turned to verse while she was grieving. The abrupt line breaks that characterise Eating My Grandmother sever the flow of Kneen’s prose, creating the sense of a person trying to speak through their tears, of talking while taking in ragged gulps of breath:

I dig
a hole
for what remains.
A hollowed earth
to swallow
grit that might be bone or rock or salt.  (3)

Eating My Grandmother makes reference to some of the people and places that appeared in Affection, however a prior knowledge of Kneen’s personal history is not necessary to understand (or enjoy) this work, as the language glistens with lucidity. Lovers of poetic ambiguity might be frustrated by this, however the style suits its subject well because it gazes unflinchingly at the starkness of grief – demonstrating how it can be ugly, uncomfortable, and at times maddeningly unremarkable.

Which isn’t to say that Eating My Grandmother is unbeautiful. There is rawness, yes, but there is also musicality, warmth, and humour. The pleasurable assonance of ‘mire’, ‘silence’ and ‘drive’ in part viii of ‘Fugue’, for instance:

I want her storm to spill its wrath
to thunder down and sweep away.
Instead there are stodgy muffins
thick sugared bread.
My mouth is empty of her
my phone is empty of the messages
that might extract me from the mire.

We race the deluge
and it is nothing.

We wait in damp silence
And we drive.                   (31)

The darkness in this work is counterbalanced with playfulness and wit. Just like laughter at a funeral, the comedic moments in Eating My Grandmother are what make it so affecting. Kneen compares her grandmother’s ashes to cat litter/fish tank gravel — images that work to undermine the churchy seriousness that is so often adopted when people speak of death. Then there’s the line ‘sepulchral degustation’ (19), which leavens the horror of eating ashes by making it sound like something you might read on the menu of a contemptibly fashionable inner-city restaurant. Speaking of food:

My friend ate her placenta.
A piece of her child
fried with garlic, oregano, thyme.
The first one.

The second placenta was frozen
transferred to our freezer
beside the breasts of chicken and the leg of lamb.
She didn’t like the taste                                               (34)

Krissy Kneen. Photo credit: Anthony Mullins

The motif of eating reoccurs throughout, and we follow as those granules of ash travel through the digestive tract of the poem. Eating and sex are both acts of life — of propagation and survival. In part vii of ‘Fugue’, the two are combined in a series of stanzas that depict an act of lovemaking, followed by another course of ashes (which she swallows in the bathroom ‘with the skin still flushed’). She speaks of sex as an affirmation of life: ‘and only the promise of sex can wake the blood… I flare to life briefly, breathlessly, the drowned resurrected’ (p. 29). Kneen’s fusion of sex, death, and eating brings to mind the Ouroboros; the ancient symbol of a serpent eating its own tail, representing cyclicality and infinity.

However it’s the smaller, seemingly ordinary details in Eating My Grandmother that best capture the experience of grief, because they communicate that unnerving sense of the world just carrying on, as if nothing significant has happened, in the wake of the death of a loved one. The final section, ‘Cadenza’, opens with:

In Coles
in the picnic aisle
a packet falls.
Inside
there are plastic knives

The pointless sound
of nothing
hitting ground

is what breaks me.                        (85)

It’s an image that chimes, perhaps oddly, with a song lyric from the 2016 album ‘Skeleton Tree’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: ‘I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues’. It’s an image that is vulnerable and human – even artists still need to participate in the ordinary rituals of living – and it works to broaden a personal experience of grief out into something more universal. The supermarket might seem like an unlikely place to reflect on mortality, but then again, these large, well-lit spaces of anonymous congregation may well be just as suited to existential contemplation as any church.

Poetry is such an exciting medium because it facilitates discovery. Eating My Grandmother transcribes a mind attempting to extract sense from the apparent senselessness of death, scrutinising the minutia of everyday existence for clues. The last section of the book (‘Cadenza’) signifies that the grief cycle is near its end — but there is a sense that more could have been discovered over time. It will be intriguing to see where Kneen’s poetry ventures next.

 

[i] Media Release: Eating My Grandmother: a grief cycle, UQP Marketing & Publicity, 24 June 2015

Eating My Grandmother: a grief cycle
Krissy Kneen
University of Queensland Press, 2015
92 pages, $24.95

_______________________________________________________

Louise Carter’s
poetry has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2012 & 2015, Westerly, Seizure and Meanjin. She is a member of the Writing & Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University, where she is slowly undertaking a Doctor of Creative Arts.

The Mother Load: Consolation and Happiness in Lorraine McGuigan’s Blood Plums and Lucy Williams’ internal weather

Posted on February 24, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews


Review by Phillip Hall

These two books from Walleah Press explore our intimate familial relationships in ways that prize domestic security while interrogating the many things that would threaten it, including death and bereavement, the separation of parents, and pedophilia. These collections are as beautiful and nourishing as they are searching and defiant.

Lucy Williams opens her book, internal weather, with the poem ‘born’. This poem has such long unpunctuated lines that its run-on of words seems to concertina in-and-out, provoking the reader to anticipate those unmarked clausal breaks and creating a sense of the glorious ill-discipline of a life overtaken by events and forever enriched in the process. Like most of the poems in this collection, this one revels in a type of powerful stripped-down lyricism that is both direct and full of questions. So ‘born’ reads:

time has caught you switching planets your eyes
blinking off my tented skin like dust the real bluestone
gaze searching for an honest love after so many months
we separate like lovers both of us missing familiarity your new
soul my old heart stunned after battle and warm with the
blood of your arrival I held the day like a grudge and couldn’t
let it go my body a suitcase tagged for returning careful as
a hypnotist to tap the root of any small memory did you
know me then my slack my slack stomach like gift-wrap all my old
clothes fitting your mother at twenty-nine feeling eighteen a
head jammed with promises things I’d always/never do too
shocked to move we knelt like statues in a park while the
world admired us like a late night summer carnival all cool air
colour and smell you are smooth as a river stone my sunken
navel set like a diamond this thin brown belly line deliberate
as a tattoo for the courage it took me to grow around you like
ivy is the courage I get to keep time has caught you switching
planets your hologram eyes blinking off my tented skin like
dust (1)

There is a remarkable subtlety here in the way Williams controls the rhythm of these plastic lines that celebrate the moment of childbirth with such naturalistic realism. And the allusion to Judith Wright, with the image of baby and mother being ‘separate[d] like lovers’, is a clever tribute to the way in which Wright pioneered the exploration of these subjects in poetry.

Williams continues to explore this bond between mother and baby, broken in childbirth, in ‘magnolia’ which begins:

the after-birth is a test a memory frozen five months the
day thawed it out like a hard frost its ghost moves inside
me again as though my heart has fallen and bled my body in
the mirror remembers you before we met your blind faith
knocking a closed fist under ribs we plant the tree before rain
your father turns the earth free I am both surgeon and spirit
the grey plait of your umbilical is a broken dream what can
it tell me about us? (3)

Partly, of course, it tells us that parents will do all, almost, anything to protect their children — especially when they already know loss. So ‘miscarriage’ concludes with:

I’m sorry you will never learn
about the human heart — unbuttoned
like a giant pocket
and all the things that spill
every time we trip
and all the things that stay (4)

The ‘human heart’ can ‘learn’ loss and it can also adapt to domestic uncertainties as ‘almost six’ concedes. This poem opens:

Almost six you have already learnt
that love can end and be replaced
and never without sadness
you divide yourself between your father’s house and mine
and when you are gone my heart
floats out above me, ungraspable.
It aches like some phantom limb I read about. (12)

This exploration continues in ‘house’ that begins:

When you moved it was out of exile
the house that held you in let go
and your expatriate thoughts found home
the same suburb but a softer breeze.
Your husband stayed on, stenographer of all your motives
Guilt like spoiled fruit between you.
In the new house a timely dust settled and was wiped off
every room contained a piece of your jigsaw heart.
Your daughter philosophised about her two lives
and screamed on the street
caught between her mother and father
like a lucky find that neither one could keep. (19)

Lucy Williams

While ‘house’ and ‘almost six’ are a little more prosaic than ‘born’ and ‘magnolia’, as though Williams does not quite know how to get the most out of these shorter punctuated lines, they do confront bravely the guilt felt by many parents who fear the damage they may do to their children. In the very moving poem, ‘to my parents on the death of their son’, these roles are reversed as the grown child now strives to protect their parents:

after his body had been removed from the house
in the zippered bag you did not look at
like a crime scene on the small screen
had somebody left the television on?
you felt like the watchers of a foreign grief
that poor mother and father
your luck like a charm warm
at the base of your throat
your six children scattered but tight
in all those years loss had swept through
and left everybody standing
and now this
after his body had been removed
too warm a night to leave it
the empty room stood as though
it had never held him (54)

This poem captures so intimately the empathy that draws parent and child together. And it concludes with such unsentimental, yet startling, simplicity:

after his body had been removed
you sat at the kitchen table
and closed your eyes
thought of the son you loved
how quickly he left the body on the bed
shook off the disease like sweat
and walked quietly with his dog
into the bush (55)

Williams reads these emotionally fraught interior states — this ‘internal weather’ — as stories of birth, childhood, love and death. To these fundamentals of existence Williams ‘throws open every door to our hearts and walks in’ (5).

Lorraine McGuigan’s Blood Plums shares the preoccupations, and many of the poetic techniques, of Williams. This collection opens with ‘Mothers – 1957’ and its celebration of breastfeeding, and the love of a grandmother. This poem, however, is a little predictable and prosaic and is not as memorable as the powerful, ‘Bones’, which follows. This poem juxtaposes childbirth and the fierceness of maternal love with imagery of the random destructiveness of war:

this comes back in dreams
face down in sour black earth
where are they  a mother’s fingers
dig  rumble  of tanks  the crack of
sniper’s gun  echo in her ribcage

ear to ground she thinks about
continental drift  feels the plates
trembling below  shifting  scarred
with age and repeated collision
she would move mountains

in the darkness a memory nursing
a newborn  its sweet brain pulsing
flash of bayonet  the walls too thin
too thin  her fingers rake the soil
where are the bones (7)

This poem so cleverly uses the space between words to capture those uncertainties and fears of being a mother amidst a world at war. And if the world is a precarious place for a nursing mother and her newborn, it is also damaging in other ways, for a girl sent by Child Welfare to live with her aunty and uncle. ‘Games’ and ‘Night Fishing’ are frightening in the way they so directly broach the devastation caused by pedophilia. ‘Night Fishing’ reads:

It’s not my idea, going off with the men.
First time for everything my aunt insists,
pressing a torch in my hand and so I find
myself in uncle’s boat, the oars creaking

like tired bedsprings. My uncle is a born
hunter, his friends say, with a taste for
the kill. I know other things about him,
things he warned me not to mention.

When the moon pushes through cloud
uncle gets busy, as he calls it, bending,
feeding lines into the dark. If he went
overboard, his oil-skinned bulk snagged

by weed, who would try to save him?
His mate can’t swim and I could drown
myself. Uncle is excited. You beauty!
A long-finned eel! Its fleshy lips

remind me of someone. I shudder as
he aims a knife at the head, missing
the eye. Turning away I flick the torch
on and off on and off and on. (10)

Lorraine McGuigan

There is so much bravery in the way McGuigan confronts these criminal episodes, rendering them with such visually dramatic language, and while clearly allocating blame, also establishing the qualities of great artistry. So much of the dread is created by what is left unsaid and that final image of the torchlight flickering like a distress beacon is so cruelly open-ended — it brilliantly encapsulates the powerlessness of the child trapped in this relationship.

Not all of the poetry in Blood Plums, however, is as powerful as ‘Bones’ and ‘Night Fishing’. McGuigan tackles many subjects and sometimes earnestness trumps technique. She writes about the homeless in Melbourne and about refugees, and there are poems that respond to works of fine art and to favourite writers such as Billy Collins and Pablo Neruda. Like Williams she also writes of the loss of an unborn baby through miscarriage in ‘Birthdays’ (14). Amidst the unevenness, though, there are many highlights. In ‘Scars’ (15-17) she writes a beautiful narrative poem celebrating the love between mother and daughter, again exploring a mother’s instinct to protect against the inevitability of hard knocks. And there are a series of poems that in a directly intimate way commemorate the life of her partner, Kevin. Poems such as ‘December Morning’, ‘The Viewing’, ‘Milk’, ‘Snapshot’ and ‘Nandina Cottage’ are unforgettable in the way they so simply evoke a poetics of grief. As McGuigan tells us in ‘The Viewing’, a poem that remembers a day shared at the beach with Kevin:

They walk into
shallows as warm as a rockpool,

tide tugging at their feet. Somewhere
a sandbar is about to collapse.

In ‘Blood Plums’ McGuigan writes:

Returning after the treatment
they talk of making jam, wonder
if they still have time.

The ancient tree is shedding
its burden; on the ground plums
shrinking, turning deeply into

themselves. Stepping over
the fallen they tug at limbs
discover fruit spared by birds.

He looks tired. Lips bleeding
juice she presses her mouth to his
stamps him with the inedible

taste of her. He offers a magenta smile.
Slow dissolve of light this humid
afternoon but all too soon

winter dark, nights touching zero.
And in their bed the giving
the receiving of warmth

old flesh picking up a memory,
scent of desire. While outside
stripped bare, the tree hangs on. (59)

I find the simplicity of this language and imagism, and the subtle way McGuigan allows line division to cut-across her grammar, thus corralling her grief, deeply moving.

In this writing, as in the poetry of Lucy Williams, there is something deeply satisfying and nourishing. Both poets celebrate the way our lives find meaning in parenthood and domesticity while at the same time keeping a saddened and defiant eye on life’s many frailties and losses. This is a poetics of suburbia that challenges us not to retreat but to accept that it is in this world, with all its brokenness, that we must find solace, or not at all.

 

Blood Plums
Lorraine McGuigan
Walleah Press, 2014

81 pages, $20.

internal weather
Lucy Williams
Walleah Press, 2014

64 pages, $20.

____________________________________________________________

Phillip Hall
is a poet, reviewer and essayist working as an editor with Verity La’s Emerging Indigenous Writers Project and as a poetry reader at Overland. From 2011 to 2015 he lived in the Gulf of Carpentaria where he ran sport and camp programs designed to re-engage and foster emotional resilience, cooperative group learning and safe decision-making. In 2014 he published Sweetened in Coals. In 2015 he published Diwurruwurru, a book of his collaborations with the Borroloola Poetry Club. He is currently working on a collection of place-based poetry called Fume. This project celebrates First Australians in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria. Phillip now lives in Melbourne’s Sunshine (western suburbs) where he is a very passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club.

 

A MERCY BRANCHES OUT: 
The Poetry of Maurice Manning
(Tamara Miles)

Posted on November 11, 2016 by in Verity La Reviews

I am never quite certain, as I read the poetry of Maurice Manning, whether his heart lives in a foreign country — the one he might call heaven — or whether it is tucked behind a jar of moonshine hidden somewhere in a Kentucky holler. The characters that populate his poems are all caught up in their daily living, with its work and curses, its strategies for loving and coping.  The poet stands in their yards and houses, observing it all with wonder.

Many of his poems reflect his home state of Kentucky and the colorful people and other creatures who have been his companions in that culture of farming and family among the apple trees, where he knew careful beauty, holiness, whittling, and games of mumblety-peg.  He teaches English at Transylvania University and regularly serves as faculty at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. His greatest joy, a baby girl, arrived in 2015; before her, he explained recently, ‘the way of love was crookedy, now clear/the rhyme I’ve listened for is here’. All of his future poems, he claims, will be written with her in mind.

He looks for grace in couplets and free stanzas that breathe in the occasional rhyme, in both unusual and common experiences: a woman driven up a tree by a bear and then rescued, a man tilting his eyes away from beauty as it stands in his doorway, a speaker conducting an endless one-sided conversation with a God named Boss.

That Manning — or the persona under which he writes in Bucolics, loves this God, there’s little doubt.  The tender affection with which the poet/speaker addresses him is at once touching and surprising:

394864       O green-thumbed Boss
       you save a seed for me you sow
       it in the furrow of my eye
       as if seedtime Boss is a little bit
       like sleep I think inside my eye
       you keep a little patch of green.

       (XXVI, Bucolics)

But that he is also keenly aware of a kind of ongoing estrangement is just as evident, as in this passage from poem XXII (also in Bucolics):

       …it doesn’t matter how
       I feel about it what I want
       from you is nothing Boss compared
       to what you want from me you want
       it all to always go your way.

In the lines that follow, he grudgingly points out that Boss would just as soon have a briar (‘for its thorns’) as the daisies the poet might offer. Also, in ‘Dead Tree, Two Crows, Morning Fog’ (from The Common Man), he reminds us,

       I didn’t make the world
       the way it is, so black and white
       sometimes it’s blinding.

In other words, he seems to say that he is not responsible for the troubles of this world, with its endless divisions — someone greater, a distant and stubborn creator is responsible.

In her book Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry, Louise Gluck has observed that poems are ‘autobiography, but divested of the trappings of chronology and comment’. In Manning’s poems, we hear his true voice and see his life unfolding in episodes from different times and perspectives: a child, at times, at other times a man in love or remembering love — and heartbroken about it in each case because it is not what he dreamed it would be. Like T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, he finds that his efforts to communicate, to share himself fully with a woman, leave him disappointed. What he writes about women bears a kind of muddy generosity toward their depth and remoteness from men. His approach to death is similar. It can be ‘a mercy, the vision blurred and burning there,’ the speaker of ‘Moonshine’ (from The Common Man) claims.

Manning wants to write what is true — no doubt; the speaker claims in ‘Three Truths, One Story’ (The Common Man), that everything he is saying is true. The truth, however, is couched in a turnip seed, both an actual seed and a man named Turnipseed with whom the speaker is familiar. That he is also acquainted with a family by the name of Stonecypher reveals his captive interest in deciphering the truth, which some people seem to clutch like stones in their hands. He seems concerned, to some extent, about appearing blasphemous or offending God in word or action; for example, in the erotic poem ‘The Hour of Power and the Sassafras Tree,’ the speaker interrupts the lovemaking scene with talk of another poem about two tomatoes, which he claims he hasn’t written yet, and his joy at ‘slurping up the juice’ (The Gone and the Going Away).

thecommonman-198x300In the same poem, reverting back to Laney Cain’s country body and her offer of her virginity to him, he claims not to believe in religion, then admits, ‘but I have one, or it has me/and once or twice, it’s gotten me in trouble,’ which is why he says to Laney, who is enjoying their sexual play, ‘The Lord is surely watching us’. Also, in the poem ‘A Blasphemy’ (The Common Man), in which he references God as Old Yam and Elder Sweet Potato, the speaker nevertheless acknowledges his reverence in prayer: ‘I need you now up there to give my people happiness,’ and admits that calling God by these irreverent names is both ‘pretty funny and kind of sad’.  At other times, God is ‘Boss’ and the speaker talks casually to him as he might to a long-distant, familiar employer whom he respects and feels comfortable with, but never gets to meet face to face. This ‘you above,’ he observes in ‘Blasphemy’… ‘doesn’t say too much’.

In his collection of essays on poetic invention, The Weather of Words, Mark Strand has referred to poetry as a way of ‘setting our internal house in order, of formalizing emotion difficult to articulate’. Manning’s efforts to articulate his emotions are delivered beautifully through the sustained monologue of Bucolics. He approaches the same ideas, the same struggles, from many fresh angles, using visual and sound imagery, diction, and rhythms that appear to arise on their own out of the message.

Raphael Cushnir, author of Setting Your Heart on Fire, has pointed out that the ways the naturalist, the hunter, the scientist, and the rancher see a wolf are unique to their individual paths.  Yes, and the way a poet sees a wolf, or a rooster, is also unique.  In one poem, Manning refers to Boss as a rooster who has lost his last feather but still carries with him his barnyard identity:

       you just can’t get above your raising
       now that makes two of us the way
       you spring from nothing nothing Boss,
       I wonder if you hatched yourself

       (XIII, Bucolics)

This wondering, this questioning heart that Manning offers to Boss is reminiscent of a moment in Robert Hass’s ‘Shame: An Aria’ (from Sun Under Wood), in which the speaker describes looking at a woman’s face, turned toward him:

       the face she wants you to see, and the rest
       that she hopes, when she can’t keep it hidden, you can somehow love
       and which, if you could love yourself, you would. (46)

Similarly, Manning’s poems to Boss are from a speaker who wants to love, wants to know and be known, but understands that if this is to happen on any deep level, both he and the God who holds himself back have to show their true faces. This requirement is extended to his readers in ‘The Burthen of the Mystery Indeed’ (The Common Man), where he writes,

       I need
       to know if you are shamed or glad,
       if this is doom or grace, because
       I know the terrible side of you
       would burn it all if you could, this spot
       of time outside of time, this place
       of too much kindness for your kind.

This poem, like Manning’s work overall, invites readers to look at the faces they are hiding, and accept the burden of knowing.

*

References

Cushnir, Raphael. Setting Your Heart on Fire. New York: Broadway, 2003.
Gluck, Louise. Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry. Hopewell: The Ecco Press, 1994.
Hass, Robert. Sun Under Wood. Hopewell: The Ecco Press, 1996.
Manning, Maurice. Bucolics. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007.
Manning, Maurice. The Common Man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2010.
Strand, Mark. The Weather of Words. New York: Knopf, 2000.

You can read more from, and about, Maurice Manning over at The Poetry Foundation.

____________________________________________________________

photobw-1
Tamara Miles
teaches English at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College in South Carolina. She is a proud member of Irish writer Jane Barry’s online international creativity salon known as That Curious Love of Green and a 2016 contributor at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Recent publications with her writings and artwork include Fall Lines: A Literary Convergence; Love is LoveO’Bheal Five Words; Pantheon; Love is Love; Unlost Journal; Apricity; The Tishman Review; Subprimal Poetry Art; Flash Fiction Magazine; and Auntie Bellum.

photo credit: Steve Cody

photo credit: Steve Cody


Maurice Manning
has published several books of poetry, beginning with Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions (2001), which poet W.S. Merwin judged as worthy of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, and followed by A Companion for Owls (2004), Bucolics (2007), The Common Man (2010), and The Gone and the Going Away (2013). He has received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and other fine art fellowships.

Many of his poems reflect his home state of Kentucky and the colorful people and other creatures who have been his companions in that culture of farming and family among the apple trees, where he knew careful beauty, holiness, whittling, and games of mumblety-peg.  He teaches English at Transylvania University and regularly serves as faculty at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. His greatest joy, a baby girl, arrived in 2015; before her, he explained recently, ‘the way of love was crookedy, now clear/the rhyme I’ve listened for is here’. All of his future poems, he claims, will be written with her in mind.

Maurice’s new book, One Man’s Dark, will be be available from Copper Canyon Press in late December.

 

The Right Amount of Danger: Benjamin Dodds reviews Sarah Holland-Batt’s The Hazards

Posted on September 9, 2016 by in Verity La Reviews

hazards3Sarah Holland-Batt has made a friend of variety. As we saw in her debut collection Aria and see again in her follow-up work The Hazards, she well and truly embraces the diverse. Unlike many poets whose second offerings tend to narrow in focus and theme, often at the expense of the new, the unexpected or the exciting, it is refreshing to see that experience and success have not diminished Holland Batt’s vibrant menagerie of poetic subjects.

3538From the femme-fatale jellyfish of ‘Medusa’ to the world contained in the dark spaces beneath ‘The House on Stilts’, from the tiny zealot of ‘The Capuchin’ to the enigmatic pose of ‘Goya’s Dog’, The Hazards leads the reader from one acutely observed situation to the next. By no means, though, is the kaleidoscopic composition of Holland-Batt’s second collection a scattershot one. Binding most of the collection’s pieces, keeping them integrated and marking them as unmistakable parts of the whole, is the ominous presence of danger and harm. In some poems, hazard lurks in the margins as dark accident, in others it comes in the form of direct threat. Though these poems range far afield in terms of subject matter, Holland-Batt’s colourful miscellany is corralled into one thematically cohesive volume and afforded a darkly binding gravity through her repeated employment of ‘hazardous’ narrative complication.

While The Hazards explores an impressive range of subjects, including historical events, international travel, childhood recollections and a decent amount of ekphrasis, some of the most striking poems focus on nature. Many of the collection’s best pieces concern the animal kingdom. By marrying the wildness inherent in animal poems with the creeping threat that runs through The Hazards as a whole, Holland-Batt creates poetry that is at once richly imagistic and deeply unsettling. The powerhouse opener ‘Medusa’ sets the tone for so much of what is to follow. The poet offers a jellyfish narrator building a picture of herself through scalpel-sharp images.

 

          I have always loved the translucent life,

          the concentricities

          blooming around me

          in a ripple ring of nerves.

          If I let my shadow cinch in,

          whatever the soul is

          billows out like hollow silk.

 

The unusual speaker goes on to reveal a darker side to her beauty, a cold edge that will become prevalent throughout the fifty or so poems to come.

 

          I glide savage, a stinging chandelier,

          a brain trailing its nettles

          through the anemone swell

          and forests of stiff sea fir.

          Malice swarms through me in a surge.

 

There’s threat of a different kind in ‘Life Cycle of the Eel’:

 

          Sexless, according to Aristotle,

          born of the slime of sea rocks

          or the guts of wet soil.

          Today I thought I saw

          a silvering eel climb

          out of a country stream

          and snake its visible heart

          through the soaked grass:

 

The eel makes for an ugly and interesting oddity, but in this poet’s hands, it becomes more. Here, it is an intruder into our territory, a spontaneously generated space invader trespassing in the realm of humankind. The poem ends with striking paranoia as the creature departs the scene,

 

          its head turned from me

          like an omen,

          unknowable, knowing.

 

Holland-Batt invests the animal with insidious intelligence and agency that leave the reader in a state of disturbance.

‘The Vulture’ forces us to spend time with an exquisite grotesque. Spot-on phrasing makes the close encounter more than worth our time, as the bird

 

          …leans out of himself

          into morning, baggy shoulderblades swivelling

          in a loose swoop…

 

The portrait of this much-maligned creature with its ‘raw pink skin rolled on the skull/ in slack waves’ is a deft one. Holland-Batt puts the animal’s ugliness on display, but lets it have the last laugh. The vulture is no pathetic clown. He has cleverly made himself death’s ally.

 

          His eye flowers darkly.

          Self into self without summit,

          he gorges in silence, strops his beak,

          then hoists out of the corpse on awkward wings,

          veering up into the wind’s periphery

          as if returning from a foreign country,

          diving straight into turbulence.

 

Covering different ground to the nature poems, the collection’s ekphrastic writing considers an eclectic variety of artwork. ‘Interbellum’ takes Edward Hopper’s 1947 painting Summer Evening as its inspiration. The poet evokes sights and sounds of a warm evening spent on a lit porch.

 

          Listen: each minute subtracts

                        a cricket’s voice

          from the wind

 

          then another enters, flares

                        like a cigarette

          to take its place…

 

Still, there’s more shade than light here as flitting moths

 

                                 …dogfight

                         to the death, to claim

          their ration of light.

 

‘Primavera: The Graces’ reframes one of Botticelli’s best-known paintings by firmly placing in the foreground its allusions to mortality. ‘No time for angels now./ It is Spring. Death is in the trees.’ This is a novel approach, considering the conventional reading of the artwork that centres around the birth and renewal that come with Spring.

At the close of the collection, the reader encounters a poem that shares the collection’s title. ‘The Hazards’ places its narrator between the ocean and a Tasmanian mountain range. This part of the coast is known as The Hazards and its sudden appearance in the mind of the reader serves to physically embody all of the collection’s instances of danger. The setting presents menace in the form of huge ‘humpbacked rocks sloping down to the sea’. Stark isolation is profound in the ‘awful calm clear green all the way to the Antarctic’. Also present in the poem is the object of the speaker’s affection, a (presumably American) man whose ‘mild Midwestern college cut’ seems jarringly out of place in the wilds of Tasmania. He strides out into the water ahead of our narrator.

 

          I saw you as a stranger might see you then,

          your head straining above the surface

          like a diligent retriever’s, your eyes fixed ahead

          as though the future were an island

          you needed to reach without me,

 

The book’s final hazard is that of longing and desire in what may be an unworkable long-distance relationship. The geographical setting echoes the daunting interpersonal barriers facing the couple.

This is a book dealing in beauty, nature and art. Sarah Holland-Batt infuses these subjects with a carefully calibrated degree of shadow; any darker, the poems would verge on the melodramatic, any lighter, they would not be nearly as rich or engaging. With The Hazards, Holland-Batt strikes the perfect poetic balance of tone and subject matter. May her future work be just as compelling.

 

The Hazards

Sarah Holland-Batt

UQP, 2015

93 pages, $24.95

 

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benjamin-dodds
Benjamin Dodds is the author of Regulator (Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2014). His work has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2014, Meanjin, Cordite and on Radio National’s Poetica program. He blogs at benjamindodds.wordpress.com and tweets @coalesce79.

Australia’s Conflict of Values over Live Exports: Backlash by Bidda Jones and Julian Davies

Posted on August 12, 2016 by in Verity La Reviews

live exportReview by P.S. Cottier

As I was reading Backlash, the NSW State Liberal Government and the ACT Labor (with a dash of Green) Government announced that they would both abolish greyhound racing in their respective jurisdictions. When this happens, in mid 2017, I believe it may be the first time in Australia that a whole industry will close based on animal welfare concerns.*

The campaign against the live export industry is different, in that it is not calling for an end to beef cattle and sheep being raised in Australia; it is not a demand for an end to farming. About three million animals are sent overseas per year to meet their fate.  While this export represents the ‘largest planned mass transport of animals in human history’ (Backlash, p189), it actually involves only a small proportion of the number of animals raised in Australia.  Most are killed at home for our own people, and for export as meat.

Backlash is a fascinating book in that it deals with the ethical and political background to live export, while having an actual narrative shaping the discussion of these issues. The narrative pivots around the 2011 program ‘A Bloody Business’, with the lead-up to that Four Corners exposé of slaughter of cattle in Indonesia, and the follow-up, forming the arc of the story. There is a colourful cast of characters in the book, ranging from Barnaby Joyce to Lyn White of Animals Australia, through to one of the authors, Bidda Jones, who ‘leads the science and policy team’ at the RSPCA.

In 2011, after the program was broadcast, live export was briefly banned under the Gillard Government.  The ‘backlash’ of the title refers to the reaction of subsequent governments and the industry to that decision, and the way that criticisms of live export have been managed and distorted.

The detail in the book will fascinate those who would like an insight into how our political system works. The committees, the enquiries, the lobbyists, the spin merchants and the media all take their places on the pages. Canberra residents and fly-ins will recognise some of the places in which discussions, both official and non-official, took place.

I can remember the rallies that occurred after the broadcast of the program, and attended the Canberra one, where the author (Jones) apparently spoke, although I can’t remember that. (I was too busy patting dogs.) For me, and for many other people, the revelations of the Four Corners program demanded a response. Indeed, the public response was unprecedented. Over 100,000 letters to the PM were generated within a few weeks through the Ban Live Exports site, for example (p102).

Backlash coverHowever, the Abbott Government has since closed down animal welfare committees and abolished parts of the relevant department that concerned itself with animal welfare. These moves are detailed in Backlash. Malcolm Turnbull has not changed this, although the Productivity Commission has recently said that an independent national animal welfare body should be established.

There is an obvious impossibility in enforcing Australian standards of slaughter once the cattle leave our shores, and the book investigates the minimal standards that do exist, and the ways that these minimal standards are now only subject to self-regulation in practice. Having all animals slaughtered in Australia would obviously create more jobs here, and avoid the industry’s exposure to rabid fluctuations in the market, which are an inevitable part of this trade.  It would mean that the way animals are killed can be monitored and legally enforced.

I find it fascinating that one of the tactics used by the animal welfare groups in publicity material was to name the animals portrayed in the footage of violent slaughter. If not humanising them, this elevates them closer to the status of a pet; that privileged caste of animal that crosses into the household. This is, I believe, why greyhound racing may actually be on the way out (despite NSW Labor’s shameful support of the industry); people see dogs as a special category. Cattle (the word derives from the same old French one that gives us ‘chattel’) or livestock are not often given this status. Malcolm Turnbull’s website contains a sub-blog apparently written by a cute pet dog called JoJo (now egregiously out of date); this type of anthropomorphism is a staple of the web, but is not so often extended to other animals, particularly the ones that most of us eat.

Some of the responses to calls for animal welfare are quite hilarious, implying that ‘city-slickers’ have no right to comment on how animals (except, one assumes, the JoJos of suburbia) are treated. This is in stark contrast to the supermarket chains, which are responding to pressure by consumers and animal welfare groups and sourcing more ethically produced meat and eggs. The urban and the rural are inextricably linked, and all Australians have a right to comment on what our governments allow, whether it affects animals, people, or both. The moves towards a cessation of ‘mulesing’ (stripping away a sheep’s skin to avoid fly-strike in the Australian wool industry) show how those with little direct experience of raising animals can bring about positive changes in an industry, and Backlash touches on this.

In amongst the fog of ugly manoeuvring that Backlash navigates, a few things shine brightly, primarily the gut-wrenching commitment to hard work by the various animal welfare professionals. People like Bidda Jones and Lyn White. Occasionally even a politician emerges over the ramparts of murk; Andrew Wilkie has been a consistent spokesperson for animal welfare, for example.

Backlash also describes how farmers have been recast as the victims of the temporary stay on exports. This is despite the fact that most farmers are not engaged in live export, and many argue that its existence distorts the industry and holds Australia back from gaining a reputation for ethically produced meat. New Zealand, for example, has concentrated on exporting meat based on such a reputation, and does not export live animals for slaughter elsewhere.

After the outrage at the Four Corners program, and the temporary suspension of exports, there has been the development of a system designed to track each head of cattle from Australia to slaughter. (Sheep are not individually tracked.) Backlash examines how this system seems to have inadequate safeguards, and the government seems content, if not delighted, to stand back from any real role in regulation, thus avoiding responsibility. Attempts to introduce ‘ag-gag’ legislation, whereby anyone filming inside private facilities is necessarily committing an offence, walk hand-in-hand with such policies. (The attempt to legislate was by a private member’s bill.)  Without such film, it is impossible for anyone outside the industry to know what is happening. Such people are to be commended, not treated as criminals.

The arguments that Australia can improve animal welfare outcomes by exporting animals to countries with dubious welfare practices is dissected by this book. A special sort of slaughter box we exported, for example, has been shown to contribute to animals’ suffering, and the whole idea that we can enforce our own expectations in another country is highly problematic. The oft-repeated argument that we have a responsibility to export meat is, of course, not an argument for live export, and is also subject to scrutiny in Backlash.

The actual journey of animals for weeks in inadequate conditions is as important as the way they are killed, and the book thoroughly details this aspect of the industry, which is less dramatic than the slaughter, but arguably, at least as cruel.

Indeed, the thoroughness of Backlash is admirable, and my only criticisms are minor.  Firstly, I did not like the fact that so many people featured in the book as involved in the campaign against live export also provided blurbs for the back. No-one believes that blurbs are neutral missives fallen from the sky, but many of these seem a little too embedded. Secondly, the cover’s bleakness, while in some ways appropriate to the content, showing an extreme close up of an animal’s body against a black background, is rather off-putting, and may discourage a casual reader. Both of these criticisms are of presentation, rather than of the content, which is invaluable.

I hope to live to see the end of live exports, as it is a stupid and brutal industry, providing only insecure employment to people and certain pain to animals.  The vested interests supporting the industry have a great influence on the Government though, far more than is the case in the greyhound industry (putting aside the gambling lobby, of course). Barnaby Joyce is quoted in the book from a press release: ’If it’s protein and walks on four legs or hops on two and is bigger than a guinea pig than we are going to try and find a market for it’.

Animal welfare is back on the back-burner, it might seem, at least as far as live export is concerned.  But the numbers of responses generated by the Four Corners program show that the ground is shifting. Backlash is an important book, detailing one incident in the long process of sentience being accorded respect. Cattle are not dogs, but gradually they are being seen as so much more than four-legged commodities.

* True, there was once a bounty on koalas, that may have resulted in as many as eight million being slaughtered for fur.  Whether the cessation of that trade was based purely on animal welfare concerns is another issue.

Backlash: Australia’s Conflict of Values over Live Exports
Bidda Jones and Julian Davies
Finlay Lloyd, 2016
208 pages, RRP $22

____________________________________________________________

Penelope

image credit: Geoffrey Dunn


P.S. Cottier
is a poet, anthologist and writer who lives in Canberra.  She wrote a PhD at ANU on animal imagery in the works of Charles Dickens.  Her latest book is a pamphlet called Paths Into Inner Canberra, which describes a bike ride and the animals that live near, if not in, Parliament House.  This work was described as ‘engaging’ in The Canberra Times.  Her blog as pscottier.com is updated with a new poem nearly every Tuesday, and she even reads poems in public.

 

 

Parts of An Enticing, Profit-less Whole: Finlay Lloyd’s Smalls

Posted on May 13, 2016 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Nigel Featherstone

It is a widely held view that the publishing industry is currently going through a rough patch. Or, to put it more dramatically, it is in the fight for its life. Amazon, the Global Financial Crisis, and e-books are considered the body-blows from which the industry might not recover. And then there is the matter of an apparently dwindling readership. Of course, publishers and ‘bricks and mortar’ bookshops continue to exist, and so do readers, but it is probably true that those responsible for putting written work into the world are more risk-averse than ever. For example, most Australian publishers believe that they need to sell 2500 copies of a novel to make their efforts economically worthwhile, i.e. turn a profit. Sound achievable? Some Australian publishers claim that they can sell only 500 copies, with another couple of hundred sold if the work wins a major prize. As to short-story collections and poetry? They are labours of love, in most cases produced and distributed by the writers themselves.

FullSizeRender1-1Despite the undoubted – and daunting – challenges, it could also be said that Australia continues to enjoy a healthy publishing ecology. Penguin Random House, Allen & Unwin, and HarperCollins are examples of the big end of town, publishing work by some of Australia’s most prominent writers. Text, Scribe, Black Inc. and Affirm are just some of the mid-sized publishers who not only produce work by current household names but by future household names. Then there are the small or ‘micro’ presses, which are essentially loungeroom operations (they haven’t yet become big enough for the garage) and exist because of their dedication to literature.

Based in the bush just outside the small country town of Braidwood, an hour’s drive east of Canberra, Finlay Lloyd is a resolutely ‘non profit’ and, dare it be said, eccentric press that is dedicated to the physical book; in their world, e-books are not an option. The content could be considered literary and/or experimental, whatever those terms mean, and production values are high. The first publication, When Books Die (2006), involved a series of essays that in a way outlined the manifesto of the press. In the introduction written by ‘Finlay Lloyd’, the fictitious publisher (the press is the brainchild of novelist Julian Davies and artist Phil Day), the question is asked, ‘What if no books existed?’ As part of its staunch commitment to the physical book as cultural artefacts, and a reaction against what it calls ‘celebrity-driven’ publishing, since 2013 Finlay Lloyd has been producing a series of ‘smalls’ in which a diverse range of Australian writers are given 60 pages to do as they wish; they are published in a set of five, with the most recent set published in 2015.

In Fragments of the Hole, prominent musician, comedian, and TV identity Paul McDermott provides a selection of poems that read as nursery rhymes. There is a girl made entirely of bread who longs to go outside but when she does so she is befriended by a conniving – and hungry – sparrow. There is a girl ‘who cried an ocean/but she could not cry a boat’ (‘The Girl Who Cried An Ocean’, p 43). There is a boy who watches himself sleep until he is spirited away against his will:

FullSizeRender4

I once was a child

Who dreamt I was sleep

And crept into my room,

On softly padded feet.

On the bed I saw myself,

And in my ear I spoke

Until the sleeper, who was me,

Rolled on his side and woke

(from ‘Asleep/Awake’, p 49)

With these poems, McDermott reveals a childlike fascination for how the world works, but also a horror at random injustices or straight-out cruelty. Typical of Finlay Lloyd books, this volume includes many hand-drawn illustrations, in this case by McDermott himself, giving the exercise an almost Spike Milligan aesthetic.

FullSizeRender3 (1)Novelist and short-story writer Carmel Bird provides a pleasantly rambling ‘Tasmanian memoir’. Bird finds focus on a group of English women who, in 1852, volunteer to board the Princess Royal and sail to Tasmania as part of a government-supported program to fix the gender balance of the colony, which at the time was dominated by male convicts. There is a novel’s worth of material here, but in Fair Game Bird offers enough to reveal yet another disturbing story about the dark island state. Despite the purposefully disjointed structure, the author’s highly crafted prose and empathy for the women’s experiences results in a moving work.

Emerging writer Phillip Stamatellis also dishes up a playful memoir-essay, documenting a range of remembrances about his childhood spent in his family’s café in a regional town on the NSW Southern Tablelands. Cleverly, Stamatellis balances historical anecdotes with contemporary observations, which not only give the work a multi-layered structure but also a meta-like quality.

We sit at a table right on the gutter; an Alfa Romeo is parked close enough that if I stretch a bit I can touch the hood. I marvel at Stu’s ability to roll a cigarette with one hand. The sun is shining and Belmore Park’s garden beds and trees are in full bloom.

‘How’s the book going?’

‘I’m struggling.’

‘What with?’

‘Memories…This place or what it used to be,’ I say waving my hand at the café. ‘Things are all jumbled up. I’m not sure what’s important, what’s worth remembering and how to make sense of it all.’ (p 27)FullSizeRender2

In parts Growing Up Cafe would have been improved with a closer line edit, but there is a frankness and bravery to Stamatellis’ writing that is very easy to enjoy.

In Don’t Leave Home, Timothy Morrell offers a selection of humorous micro-essays about his experiences travelling the world. There is the Pacific Island holiday, the trials and tribulations (for all concerned) of becoming lost in translation, and the ubiquitous notion of going nowhere further afield than an international airport. The writing is lively and often laugh-aloud funny, with Morrell coming across as a sarcastic David Sedaris. ‘Generally, the more you pay for the hotel room, the more difficult it is to operate the shower’ (from ‘Notes on Hygiene’, p 28).

In Trace, Cassandra Atherton delivers a suite of prose-poems about love, eroticism, obsession, and entrapment. Each piece reads as an artful slice of stream-of-consciousness; in Atherton’s hands, a word not only provides its own meaning and life but is used to spark a new series of thoughts and observations, often resulting in gut-wrenching conclusions. Helpfully, there is a terrific wit at play, and the author, a recent Harvard Visiting Scholar, is in full control of her work.
FullSizeRender

Passion. As sticky as soft drink. Passiona. Pasita. I once
told my lover that I was glue. That I was stuck
on him. That we were bonded together like superglue. That there was no solvent that would separate us. But now I say that I am his ivy. I cling to him. Wrap myself around him. But he tells me that ivy slowly crushes
the life out of a tree. Until it falls. And I remember
that ivy can be dangerous

(from ‘Yellow’, p 30)

When I was at school I wanted to be a marine biologist.
I wanted to be called Marina. Or Shelly. Or Sandy. I wanted to study marine life. I wanted a collection of twisty shells. The ones with the stripes on them. In a sand-encrusted jar. I wanted all the smooth glass that the ocean could deliver onto the shore

(from ‘Marina’, p 37)

There is no doubt that these lovingly produced mini-books shine when approached as a set, so the similarities and contrasts become part of an enticing whole. Finlay Lloyd’s ‘smalls’ offer a unique experience that delights the adventurous reader and shows the endless possibilities of the written word. It also demonstrates what publishers – even those with scant resources and far from the metropolitan publishing hubs – can do when profit is taken out of the equation. Long may Australia have a diverse and vibrant publishing scene, and here’s hoping Finlay Lloyd continues to publish work that otherwise would not see the light of day.

 

FRAGMENTS OF THE HOLE
Paul McDermott
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10

FAIR GAME
Carmel Bird
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10

GROWING UP CAFÉ
Phillip Stamatellis
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10 

DON’T LEAVE HOME
Timothy Morrell
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10 

TRACE
Cassandra Atherton
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10

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Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of adult fiction and creative non-fiction. More at www.opentopublic.com.au