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.

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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

 

____________________________________________________________

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

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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.
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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

____________________________________________________________

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

 

 

 

A Review of the 2016 Sydney International Women’s Poetry & Arts Festival

Posted on April 20, 2016 by in Verity La Reviews

FullSizeRenderby Michele Seminara

One of the major feminist festivals in Sydney, the third annual International Women’s Poetry and Arts Festival took place at NSW Parliament House on March 16.

The international event strove to honour subaltern writing and multicultural cohesion, supporting female poets, writers and artists from across a wide range of artistic expressions, cultures, sexual orientations and languages. It promoted seventeen female poets, writers and artists whose work explored feminism, gender equality, social justice, discrimination, creative transformation and intercultural understanding.

9The festival showcased the work of Indigenous, refugee, migrant, LGBTI and Muslim as well as Australian feminists, and aimed to foster discussions about decolonising arts and literature, the role of the arts in feminism, ending violence against women, and overcoming marginalisation. The festival was founded on the shared conviction that arts and literature are essential to the vibrancy of our communities, with a focus on supporting change by building coalitions based on solidarity, inclusion and diversity, and replacing discrimination with empathy.

1 (2)

Kween G, Saba Vasefi, Eleanor Jackson

The event was hosted by the Green’s Member of Parliament Dr Mehreen Faruqi, a finalist in the 2015 Daily Life Woman of the Year Award for leading the way in positive social change. It was directed by Saba Vasefi, a respected voice of the transnational feminism movement who was a recipient of the Edna Ryan award for making a significant contribution to feminism, and also a Premier’s Multicultural Medal for Arts and Culture. The night was emceed by outspoken hip hop artist Kween G, producer of the news feature for Alchemy’s ‘Stolen Generation’ special, which was awarded a silver medal in the United Nations category.

4.

Aruna Gandhi, Jenny Munro, Judith Beveridge

The festival was launched by poet, prominent activist and winner of the National Indigenous Human Rights Award, Jenny Munro, who read a powerful selection of her personal and political poetry to a rapt audience. Saba Vasefi performed a poem which was inspired by her own childhood experience of the war between Iran and Iraq, and which addressed the issue of compulsory hijab for female students in Iran. She also launched Engraft, the first collection by poet, critic and editor Michele Seminara, stating:

‘Engraft charts the darker waters of the human psyche, exploring themes of abuse, loss, family dynamics and the role of women as mothers, lovers, artists and spiritual beings. It is Michele’s fierce commitment to witness with clear eyes the challenging and joyous experiences that unite us as women which give the poems of Engraft their power.’

3 (1)

Gloria Demillo, Sarah Connor

Acclaimed poet Judith Beveridge, recipient of the Dame Mary Gilmore Award, the NSW Premier’s Poetry Prize and the Christopher Brennan Award for her outstanding contribution to Australian poetry, read a moving selection of her poems, and Sarah Connor, independent female hip hop artist, writer and poet, gave an exciting performance, summing up her creative motivation in the lyric: ‘I don’t aim to speak for anyone / but to document our times /so that when we’re dead, the next can still visualise / the stories that we live through, akin to, a world view / something bigger than me, and bigger then you!’

5

Hawraa Kash, Dr Kate Lilley, Yarrie Bangura

Dr Kate Lilley, queer feminist poet and Associate Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at the University of Sydney, read poetry based on her experiences as a young woman in Sydney, and Eleanor Jackson, Filipino-Australian poet and two-time winner of the Midsummer Poetry Out Loud Slam and a National Poetry Slam finalist wowed the audience with her spoken word performance.

Yarrie Bangura, a writer, public speaker, textile designer and visual and performing artist born in Sierra Leone, who was forced to flee her country due to civil war, gave a powerful performance, and Indian choreographer Aruna Gandhi presented a stunning traditional Indian dance solo.

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Dr Leslie Cannold, Dr Mehreen Faruqi, Jane Caro, Adjunct Prof. Eva Cox

Prominent writers, commentators, artists and scholars — such as author, novelist, commentator and award-winning advertising writer Jane Caro; commentator, activist and Adjunct Prof. Eva Cox; and researcher, public speaker and educator Dr Leslie Cannold — took part in a lively panel discussion on the future of feminism, chaired by Dr Mehreen Faruqi. The panel debated the importance of transnational versus international feminism, questioning whether a focus on gender issues went far enough, or if the feminist movement needed to address multilayered discrimination —such as discrimination based on race, social status or sexual orientation — in order to move forward.

2

Zainab Kadhim, Michele Seminara, Gabrielle Jones

Gabrielle Journey Jones, Co-Founder and CEO (Creativity Encouragement Officer) of Creative Womyn Down Under, performed and spoke about her experience of being from both Maori and African American backgrounds, while Hawraa Kash Hawraa’s performance was inspired by the experiences of herself and her loved ones during war in Lebanon, and her lifelong struggle to fit into a society which imposes its traditional social constructs on women.

Poet Zainab Kadhim drew creative inspiration from her Iraqi father and Thai mother, addressing themes of identity and performing a poem about her migrant father’s experiences since leaving Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war. And performance poet Gloria Demillo recited work which addressed the challenges all young women face in patriarchal society.

7The festival supported, and was supported by, the Full Stop Foundation. The Full Stop Foundation’s focus is stopping sexual assault and domestic violence – full stop. They work to expand trauma counselling services for those who have experienced sexual assault and domestic violence, and to change the attitudes and behaviours that allow violence against women and children to occur.

The Festival was partnered by distinguished academic, human rights and feminist organisations such as Daily Life, Sydney Peace Foundation, Sydney University, Amnesty International, Asylum Seekers Centre, Settlement Services International and Peril Magazine.

6 (1)The event was advertised in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Chinese and English. Twenty complimentary tickets were offered to those from Indigenous, refugee and asylum-seeker backgrounds. The Sydney International Women’s Poetry and Arts Festival also joined with the Women Poets International Movement (MPI) for the third year in row to bring this inspiring human chain festival, celebrated in over 50 countries worldwide since 2011, to Sydney.

 

________________________________________________________

Michele Seminara is a poet, critic and managing editor of Verity La. She blogs at TheEverydayStrange and is on Twitter @SeminaraMichele.

 

Claiming Ground in the Imagination of Place: Martin Langford’s Ground

Posted on February 12, 2016 by in Verity La Reviews

Luna cloud

Luna Cloud, by Carmel Byrne


Ground is Martin Langford’s latest book and it features on its cover a black-and-white photograph of cloud. In choosing this clever image, Puncher & Wattmann’s cover designer Matthew Holt is echoing many of the issues raised in Langford’s poetry: that in our multifarious approaches to ‘ground’ we think we are imagining and possessing something that is solid when really our notions and desires are as nebulous as fog. As Langford has said himself:

        Landscape art is … subject to the charge that ‘we can only bring who we are to the         subject’. Therefore, so the claim goes, it is invalid, a mistaken focus, where people         think they are seeing landscape, but are only seeing themselves … Landscape art,         moreover, is accused of being the complacent and pious expression of an         identification with the status quo … Ultimately, landscape art is vilified because         landscapes are insentient, because they carry in them more that is irredeemably         alien than we are comfortable with.  (2005, pp 70-71)

Langford’s own ‘landscape art’ is keenly aware of these issues as it develops a poetics of place attuned to the progressive ethical orientations of both ecocriticism and postcolonialism.

Langford knows that all ‘pastorals perch on delusions’ (p 116) and that:

        The land was a miniature clearing of prayer for our barley.
        An acre of scratched dust watched closely by silences.
        Knots in the stomach. Was this all there was to the land?   (p 111)

Colonialism, and its values of reducing ecosystems to a value of human possession, stomp on this ‘ground’ at a terrible cost:

        What you do
              with a turpentine forest
              is level it flat –
              for the piles, for the cash –
        then roll in the homes, and their sets.   (p 75)

Of dozer drivers clearing the land, Langford writes a sympathetic portrait of two workers who ‘nod/when they meet … but don’t say much’ and as they ‘climb on board’:

        they have to be careful – round uneven ground.
        mostly, it’s straightforward: Annersley patient,
        but elsewhere; Eric as distant as ever from light
        on her neck – the small birds around them panic;
        the wreckage of torn root and dust mounting up as they go.   (p 115)

Langford’s ecocriticism, and affinity with the natural world, is also informed by the living sciences. So he writes with great care, and attention to the details, the following description of a native eucalypt forest:

        On these ridges, trees lose their bark,
        not their leaves. The new year begins
        with a forest-wide casting of skin: nude pinks
        and salmons that cross-hatch the fabric
        of burnt ones. Splayed trunks lean out
        into sunlight – composts of heaped rind
        and scroll. They harden and crack
        to shed last year’s corruption.   (p 101)

In reviewing Eric Rolls’ A Million Wild Acres, John Cameron, the great Australian academic of place, argues that the best environmental writing:

        Informs the reader about the bird and tree species and their surprising         interrelationships; it provokes the reader to question received wisdom about the         history of the Scrub, to wonder how humans beings and animals can possibly         cohabit; it inspires the reader to pay closer attention to his or her own         place. (2004, p 35)

ground_310_440_sSo the best writing about the natural world is place-based and it informs, provokes and inspires: it compels the reader to consider the social justice and ecological implications of their lives; to connect with their environment by feeling wonder, but also respect and care. Martin Langford, like Eric Rolls, fulfills these lofty ideals; but Martin Langford’s eyes are not only focused on ecocriticism and natural history: he is equally concerned with values of postcolonialism.

As you might expect in a book dealing with the colonial project of dispossession/possession, there are many references to such historical figures as Captain Cook and Governor Phillip, and to their participation in the colonial project. In ‘Human’ Langford has Cook advised before his Pacific voyages:

        Remember, wrote Morton , RS, to the collier’s master,
        No European Nation has a right to conquer
        
any of their country. Conquest can give no just title.   (p 41)

In response to this warning Langford imagines:

        But how could Cook take that to heart? With so much
        to gain? All that courage, that skill, pissed away?
        So he hauled up the colours at each watchful landing,
        sang the King’s praises, and cheered.   (p 41)

As Cook sets sail on his first Pacific voyage, Langford writes, with great imagist beauty, of the ‘explorers’ in their hulls:

                                        Always,
        this green floor collapsing,
        these nowheres of spray:
                          this breasting-away
        through the worlds
        we had thought we had known.   (p 13)

In ‘The Detectives of Light’, Langford recreates, with brilliant lyrical irony, the moment that the navigators return home to their colonial offices:

        For years at a time
        they had breasted the cloud-dreams of shorelines –
        the sky-bleed, the storms –

        and now they were home, the detectives of light,
        shuffling, in rooms thick with interests:
        boxes of artefacts, orchids;
        charts dense with patronage;
        moonrise distilled into ink –

        the great seas just salt on their fingers –

        the captains drawn close with their theories,
        their sad, earnest talk.   (p 19)

This is a stunning piece of historical recreation, and while the poem may have been stronger by omitting the final stanza, thus concluding the poem with that brilliant image of ‘the great seas just salt on their fingers’, this poem is an important moment in the Australian project of interrogating its colonial maritime past.

Langford continues to use irony as he unpicks colonialism’s threads in ‘Phillip’:

Martin Langford

Martin Langford

        Phillip insisted
        traditional hunting grounds
        could, without friction,
        accommodate soldiers and convicts,
        a whole fledgling town.

        Everyone busy
        and everything calm and polite!

        Until, it would seem,
        understandings could not be avoided.            (p 24)

Langford does not resort to obscurity to keep a poem afloat; the juxtapositions and word plays are stunning adornments to clear communication; opening opportunities for the interrogation of colonialism’s crooked paths.

As Langford writes in ‘A Marvel’:

        And if, now, it can seem a puzzle –
        the way we inhabit a country which others once owned –
        I like to say it’s a marvel – like sonar in bats.   (p 40)

Langford has many poems that also confront the reality of massacre of First Nations people in the act of dispossession. So ‘The Dispersals of the Native Police’ begins with such understated yet unforgettably evocative violence:

        The first thing dispersed
        was the skin
        of the shoulder or neck –
        this in a spray of bright red
        over seedheads and grasses.   (p 29)

And concludes with:

             Still the dispersals continued:
        memory, mindfulness, frayed into blanks
        in the choices and shifts of white stories –
        so new owners, taking the view,
        might walk with a spring to their step –
        might breathe deep – as if this land came free.   (p 29)

But the inheritors of colonialism’s violent land-conquest carry with them a sense of guilt as they write to the Gallipoli dead:

        We weren’t fair dinkum
        until
        we were authorised
        by your deaths.   (p 98)

This is because:

        Your blood
        washed away
        our anxieties:
        about …
        the need to tell tales:
        about Cain, and Cain’s sons,
        or the rights of a non-farming people.   (pp 98-99)

Later this poem observes:

        There had to be bloodshed

        a hot scree of carnage     (p 99)

The poetry in Ground is a major contribution to the continued development of an Australian postcolonial poetics because it is not only charged with its interrogations of colonialism but is also so richly evocative in its lyricism, imagery, juxtapositions and word plays. The book is not perfect. There are one or two moments of unfortunate banality, such as in the micro-poem ‘A Need’ (p 12); and some carelessness in word choices. In ‘Achronicas’ the Nepean River is described as ‘gouging its way through the strata’ (p 3). In a poem that is referencing the science of geology, otherwise so effectively, surely that word ‘gouging’ would be more apt in describing the process of glacial action in grading those deep ‘U-shaped’ valleys, not the fluid movement of water running or cutting or slicing through the landscape. But apart from these moments Ground is a most startling poetry of place highlighting our many approaches and actions in controlling, possessing and imagining our land.

References:

Langford, Martin (2005) Microtexts, Island Press, Woodford.

Cameron, John (2004) ‘Sandstone Stories: Place Writing and Education’, Southerly, vol 64, no 2, pp 33-38.

Ground
Martin Langford

Puncher & Wattmann, 2015
$25

____________________________________________________________

Phillip Hall is a poet and essayist working as an editor with Verity La’s ‘Emerging Indigenous Writers Project’ and as a poetry reader at Overland. 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 Indigenous people & culture in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria. Contact pagh910@uowmail.edu.au

Martin Langford has published seven books of poetry, including The Human Project: New and Selected Poems (P&W, 2009), and, most recently, Ground (P&W, 2015). He is interested in the way we try to imagine ourselves beyond our biological inheritance, and in the way we project our social and imaginative spaces. He lives on the northern outskirts of Sydney, and the landscape of that area often features in his work.

In Microtexts (Island 2005), a book of poetics, he argued for poetry’s engagement with the other, and against the enlargement obsessions of our standard narratives. He is the editor of Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse 1788-2008 (P&W, 2009).

He has had a long-term involvement in the organization of poetry events, has directed the Australian Poetry Festival three times, and is the Deputy Chair of Australian Poetry Ltd. He is the poetry reviewer for Meanjin, and reviews and contributes articles about poetry for a wide range of journals.

His work has been translated into French, Chinese, Italian, Spanish and Arabic.

 

 

 

Maintaining the Strange Fire: David Stavanger’s The Special and Rob Walker’s tropeland

Posted on November 20, 2015 by in Verity La Reviews

The specialReview by Lucy Alexander

David Stavanger is also Ghostboy… or Ghostboy is also David Stavanger — whichever way you like to approach it, they are both responsible for the poems in The Special. This cleft in the authorship provides a way to approach poems that writhe with memory, stop to caress madness, celebrate knotted ambiguity and the unconventional. In the Acknowledgements Stavanger thanks Ghostboy for ‘maintaining the strange fire when all I want to do is sleep’. Perhaps it is from this dreaming state that Stavanger rises, bringing with him words that are both confronting and comforting.

rob-walker-cover-170x240In his collection tropeland, rob walker (does the lack of capitals suggest another alter ego — a thief-wanderer perhaps?) tends to want to pull the thread and unravel ideas and assumptions with both a wry insight (the thief?) and playful verve (the wanderer?).

Both poets come from the living breathing poetry scene (Stavanger in Brisbane and walker in Adelaide) so these alter egos exist where it is more usual to have a performance name: a tag to be remembered by. Maybe too, there is a sense in which the translation from spoken to written, from transient voice to permanent print can be more easily done with a fracture in the speaker of the poem. (‘I wake up living’ Stavanger says with some surprise, as the last line in his collection.)

Imagine the two of them sloping into an empty pub, putting their elbows on the bar and talking in the tongue of their respective collections, as the robber and the ghost. rob talks about tropeland, telling David it’s a place he recently visited, which is sometimes in Japan and sometimes ‘leaves itself deliberately empty/ for the distant sound of a lone/ dog’; a place where ‘sweat from armpits impersonates/ cinnamon bark and vanilla pods.’

David nods with interest and says: ‘Two things/ you don’t want to die of/ a mouth full of salt/ the right girl.’

rob passes him a drink, leans in close and adds: ‘sodium chloride: turning mouths inside out/ too little our nerves close down’.

Both poets have an interest in salt, its chemical breakdown — that sodium and chloride, toxic on their own, can be brought together and melded to make something so seemingly benign as to be essential to human life. The partnership of sodium and chloride can be extended as a metaphor for the poet’s interaction with the world, where toxicity mixed with insight and language becomes essential to life, if not quite benign. The duality of the chemical breakdown of common table salt fascinates both walker and Stavanger equally and reveals something at the heart of each collection: that each poet’s creative impulse is to bring the unlikely together and observe the fallout. As walker observes, ‘at one with water in the sea yet either may be/ estranged, desalinated’. For Stavanger it is more closely aligned with balance: ‘two things/ you must not remember/ that song on the radio/ what happened to your shadow’.

In Stavanger’s poems the clear sight gets muddied, the images, startling and raw, occasionally brush up against the mutterings of someone out of their mind, then loop back as if to remind the reader not to judge too quickly. For Stavanger the subject dictates the form: sometimes the poems come in couplets, sometimes in lists or paragraphs, even a survey in the poem ‘Survey’. He plays with the complex irony that the irrational is often better able to articulate and expose the state of things, to take us by surprise by revealing truths that sound like old aphorisms:

      Two things
      you left behind

      a mouthful of fingerprints
      bullets without a hole.

Or, here in the two-line poem ‘Light’:

      in the dark                there’s enough space to forget
      in the dark               forgetting is never enough

These lines read like something your (poetic) grandmother might have repeated to you — and yet, they are also remarkably fresh.

rob walker. Photograph by Martin Christmas

rob walker. Photograph by Martin Christmas

walker seems to swim in language, and he is dolphin-quick with his word play and banter: ‘vegans flesh out proposals/ meat is doing it tough’. But there is more range of tone here, more flicking in and out of focus. The poems in tropeland seem to have four main categories: intellectual poems (‘tropeland’, for instance, or ‘Return to Sorrento’); poems that give nature a voice (‘Bird Dreaming’); poems that play with language (‘String Theory Unstrung (a Particle of Faith)’ and ‘Speaking in Tongues’); and finally poems that make social comment, either on a personal level (like the two father poems ‘Against the Grain’ and ‘Transcendence’) or as part of a wider critical cynicism, evident in ‘Clearing the Caravan Park’.

The chief difference in the tone of these two collections is that rob is toying with his readers. Many poems are tongue in cheek — like ‘Ethel Malley’s Sonnet’ (Ethel Malley being the sister of the more famous Ern), as if walker can’t quite bear to take it all seriously. Stavanger seems entirely serious, until you meet poems such as ‘in-laws’: ‘…your arm fell to the floor/ I knew the signal well ready to be eaten’. walker is playful until he’s in full voice; Stavanger is serious until he’s lulled his reader into believing his tone is that of the author — then he delights in demolishing the very assumptions he’s encouraged.

Meanwhile, back in the pub, the poets sit with their elbows on the bar. David explains how the meaning of The Special spins on an axis; how his book divides into six parts, each one picking up and refracting stories that crystalise like salt; how he embraces optimism (‘sheer terror’) and pessimism (‘you don’t need a heart’) and how poems can be prayers to offer up what’s left when life’s done with you (‘if you own something long enough/ you will part with yourself’).

‘Secrets!’ rob cries, turning the conversation his way, with a tilt of his trilby (see author photo) while David adjusts his scarf (see author photo). tropeland is based around secrets, a secret life of secretion…

‘I am a lapsed psychologist…’ David tells rob earnestly.

‘I play the shakuhachi…’ rob counters.

‘I collect names/ Florence Annie Bird, Heaton Himes, Walter Weakes…’

‘I interviewed Ethel Malley…’ rob’s eyes sparkle.

Both collections explore the father/son relationship, particularly the role of the father. walker’s book is dedicated to Jack Walker, and Stavanger is ruthless in his observations of Dad in ‘the inheritance triptych’. There are poems in each book that explore the erasure of memory and the loss of the beloved father before the physical body is finished living. To walker, his father ‘achieved a kind of benign transcendence/ only those around you/ feel the eternal depths of sorrow…’ — that last line suggesting a limit has been reached in articulating the burden of those left behind. Stavanger, on the other hand, tells the story from the underside, in shorthand, fast: ‘I am a dark one, if I let it run I only see bridges and water. Dad goes the other path trying to convince himself through others. Mirrors don’t catch his fall.’

11051848_10153485186158110_3541068255460325796_o

David Stavanger

Stavanger puts his hand on rob’s arm and says in a whisper which echoes on the bar’s empty floor: ‘I put my wine down and study what remains./ In this room of empty chairs, I am the ghost and he is the/ father’. (Reader, wonder with me: is he having us on?)

‘I’ve never shaved another person, let alone my father…’ rob replies.

David puts down his wine. rob looks at him quizzically, wanting more rascal word play. But David has become morose: ‘thinking. using a microwave. drinking. voices from the pillow. not talking to yourself. talking to yourself. talking to taxi drivers. parenting…’ David’s voice reaches a low monotone.

rob wants to look away, but cannot. The performance is mesmerising…

David continues: ‘calling friends and telling them the truth. eating cheese as a way out. antidepressants for dessert. drinking coffee to relax. not going down swinging. clapping at weddings. praying. often. believing’. He drinks the dregs of his wine.

‘it’s all entropy/ and things bleeding/ into something else/ I’m tired of hearing about your lover/ and shards of things…’ rob says, perhaps a little insensitively. ‘A quote from the section ‘Bile’, you see,’ he adds, seeing David’s smile harden.

David looks into his empty glass: ‘my lover cries sometimes/ she dreams I have cancer…’

rob turns to David and says sharply, but not unsympathetically: ‘…my balding father/ hair stolen not by time but radiation/ you sit on the bed in your tracksuit pants… and your future is inoperable…’

David replies: ‘I ask the Doctor What’s gone wrong?/ she says There’s no way to inoculate against the future…’

‘I swallow the lump in my throat…’

‘That’s a bloody awful line, rob.’ (David has broken out of the game-of-quotes.)

‘I lump the swallow in my throat?’ (rob is quick on his toes.)

‘Better…’ David signals the bartender for another glass of the house wine and winks at rob: ‘you can tell him he’s a failure/ it won’t make you a success/ antidepressants don’t measure dedication/ they’re just another face to face this mess’.

Rob sips his own glass and then: ‘hold the abalone shell/ to your ear/ and they may/ find a family/ resemblance’.

‘touch him when he curls up like a tumour. if he asks you to leave, stay. if he reaches for your throat call the police. If he asks for his wife, take the phone off the hook.’ David takes a draught of his wine, looking at rob just as mischievously as he could have wished for.

Both tropeland and The Special have a playful side — walker’s overt and Stavanger’s more subtle. Like the exact balance of sodium and chloride ions in salt, perhaps it is the two-sided nature of the poets themselves that expose their delight in language and expression without shying away from darker subject matter. For instance Stavanger wrote ‘on time’, ‘bear’ and ‘survey’ — poems which explore the experiences of cancer patients — in his collaboration with Mummy’s Wish (a foundation working with mothers with cancer who have young children). Stavanger’s focus is more minute, allowing in some ways for a tighter collection. walker’s poems cover a larger range of subject matter and seem to have been written over a longer period of time, collecting their atrocities in passing (‘Yamamoto Sensei Snaps’ and ‘Clearing the Caravan Park’ for example). In both collections, the poems share a common thread of gleeful amusement in the sinister; their strongest poems are the ones that refuse to look away just because the subject is uncomfortable.

 

The Special 
David Stavanger
UQP Poetry Series 2014
RRP $ 24.95 (83pp)
(Winner of the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, 2014) 

tropeland
rob walker

5 Islands Press 2015
RRP $25.00 (97pp)

____________________________________________________________

Lucy Alexander is a Canberra poet who has published two books of poems (Fathoms in 1997 and Feathered Tongues in 2004). She is a sessional academic at the University of Canberra and also a mother to four kids. She writes a regular poem on poemation@wordpress.com and also reviews for Verity La. Recently she was runner up in PoetryInAction and a finalist in HardCopy 2014 for her manuscript of fiction, Quarantine.

David Stavanger is an award-winning poet, writer, and cultural producer. In 2013 he won the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, resulting in the release of The Special (UQP), his first full-length collection of poetry which was also awarded the 2015 Wesley Michel Wright Prize. At the 2014 Queensland Literary Awards he received a Queensland Writing Fellowship to develop his next two collections. David is also the Co-Director of the Queensland Poetry Festival. He is sometimes known as pioneering Green Room-nominated ‘spoken weird’ artist Ghostboy, performing solo, with multi-instrumentalist Richard Grantham, and previously with the band Golden Virtues at festivals across Australia.

rob walker writes poetry, music, essays, short stories, reviews, occasional Christmas cards and shopping lists. Some of these have been published all over the world. This year he has published Tropeland (a collection with Five Islands Press) and Policies & Procedures (a chapbook with Garron Publishing) with a new forthcoming collection with Ginninderra Press in 2016. www.robwalkerpoet.com

What spark ignites an activist? khulud khamis's Haifa Fragments

Posted on October 14, 2015 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Amanda Hickey

FullSizeRenderWhat is the spark that ignites an activist?

Is it an event, a family grievance, a brush stroke of history? Or an undeniable truth that breaks open the frozen core of one’s heart?

Thanks to our nightly news we are familiar with those seemingly endless stories about Palestinians struggling to live in the disputed territories of Gaza and the West Bank. But what of the Palestinians who stayed behind and integrated with a newly established state of Israel.  Where are their stories?

The heroine of Haifa Fragments, Maisoon, is a Palestinian Israeli. She is a Christian, independent-minded activist and the world she lives in is conflicted, messy, uncertain and paradoxical.  In the context of ongoing narratives we’ve heard from the Middle-East conflict, Maisoon’s feminist landscape is not one that we easily recognise. Yet in this powerful debut, this is the setting that author khulud khamis confidently writes about.

Page one: ‘it was 1948, Haifa’s last battle’ – and immediately we know this is a story of history, memory and loss; yet also of survival, adaptation and hope. The women of this city are the driving characters in this book and it is through them that we explore the lingering effects of war on individuals, couples and families.

With razor sharp imagery – ‘on that one night she wanted to stop the bare barrels with her bare body …’ – khamis demands that her readers not just engage with her story, but know what it feels like to be a silent witness to the senseless killing that comes with war.

Yet it is not through horror, but through the seductive charms of our senses that we are lulled into this schizophrenic world. The souk with its ‘strong bitter smell of kahula with cardomom’ entices us and coexists alongside the tension that is part and parcel of Maisoon’s daily life: ‘Weapons always make her edgy, especially when slung over the shoulders of boys.’

We follow Maisoon as she makes her first visit – thief-like – to the partitioned territory: ‘I’m not welcome in this part of the world. I’m not one of them. I’m a citizen of the state that occupies their land. I have a blue ID in my wallet. I’m a traitor’.

She’s in love with a young Muslim, Ziyad, who seems oblivious to the suffering of his own people. It drives Maisoon crazy that he does not seem to feel the way she does or recognise the suffering of an injured eleven year-old victim, ‘Fragments of a missile intended for someone else shattering her body in half’.

She goads and prods him until he snaps: ‘You revel in the misery – it’s what keeps you alive. It fills you up and drugs you to the bone. It’s what gets you through the day. Not me. I want to live my life …’

This is the first time she has heard him voice his true feelings. Yet he still can’t reveal that he is the survivor of a suicide bomber who now haunts him. When the spectre of the bomber appears before him ‘Ziyad tries to ask him why … but the words turn into ash inside his mouth.’

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khulud khamis: photo by Talma Bar-Din

It is life’s juxtapositions that fascinate khamis as she explores the contrast between Palestinians living comfortably in Israel against those struggling to get by in the West Bank, and she has her heroine walk a tightrope between those two very different worlds.

Maisoon is mentored, financially and creatively, by her Haifa employer – a compassionate Jewish woman who fuels the creative freedom that she desperately needs. Her passion spills over into her volunteer crisis work helping Palestinians in the struggle zone – people like Abu Sufian, a father who needs a five-hour permit to help his son get medical care in Israel. He is disempowered by the restrictions he lives with, yet also grateful to the Israelis for providing a lifeline: ‘I don’t understand these Yahud. With one hand they kill us, and with the other hand they offer us life. I really don’t understand them.’

There seems to be much to do in this troubled world with its hierarchy of suffering. Maisoon cannot understand her parents’ passivity until she finds a cache of her father’s old love letters. Reading his forgotten poems, she suddenly realises he too was once like her – a talented, creative, rebellious force – before being weighted down by his own tragedies, including the loss of his first love. More importantly, ‘when he saw that the struggle over home was turning into a religious war’, he lost all hope and faith forever.

Writing emotional content is extremely hard, even harder when one’s characters are fiercely intelligent. Emotional intensity can strip down language, often to its basest level, so that dramatic moments can end up reading like scripts from an episode of reality television. Thankfully khamis is adept enough to avoid this and delivers well-drawn characters that are smart, dramatic and deeply philosophical.

In spite of Maisoon’s activist proclivities, Haifa Fragments is not really an activist novel. Not at all. It’s a series of beautifully sketched love stories – of Maisoon’s, her parents’ and her good friend Shahd, who lives in the West Bank and is in love with a doctor. And it is an exploration of different kinds of love: of unexpected sensual lust, the joyful companionship of true friends, love borne of profound grief and the grounding love that comes from a deep, almost spiritual appreciation of one’s heritage and land. But etched through these love stories are also arguments around politics, nationalism and injustice. And despite the tragic narratives that are woven through it, Haifa Fragments’ focus on love makes it a tale that is ultimately uplifting, and a satisfying read.

 

Haifa Fragments

By khulud khamis

Spinifex Books, 2015

173 pp; $26.95 (print) $16.95 (eBook)

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Amanda Hickey is a Sydney-based journalist, formerly with SBS, blogger and filmmaker with a passion for the arts, peace and social justice. She is the Australian producer of We Are Many, an international documentary feature by Amir Amirani, about the global peace protest of 2003 to stop the invasion of Iraq. It has its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival next week, a Queensland premiere at the BEMAC on November 2 and a final premiere at Canberra International Film Festival on November 7. It will be released next year. 

khulud khamis is a Palestinian writer and activist, born to a Slovak mother and a Palestinian father. She holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Haifa and works in the field of social change. She is a member of the feminist organisation Isha L’Isha – Haifa Feminist Center. She lives in Haifa with her daughter. This is her first novel. khulud publishes some of her writings on her blog at HaifaFieldnotes.blogspot.com

All Nature Seems at Work
in Liz McQuilkin’s
The Nonchalant Garden

Posted on July 31, 2015 by in Verity La Reviews

FullSizeRender3Review by Stuart Barnes

The Nonchalant Garden, the first full-length publication of poetry by Tasmanian Liz McQuilkin, is so finely sequenced that it must be reviewed accordingly. The book lacks chapters yet can be divided into three: family history, language and death; fauna—specifically, birds—and flora; family life, sexuality and language.

The opening poem ‘By the Pool of Siloam’ suggests a passage from John Chapter 9: ‘Jesus made clay, and anointed mine eyes, and said unto me, Go to the pool of Siloam, and wash: and I went and washed, and I received sight’:

        Here, at my desk, lines on a map
        rise up in towering cliffs
        and I’m back in The Walls,

        standing again on King David’s peak

        […]

        Beyond, I see a hundred lakes and tarns
        like shattered mirrors cradled in folds of hills,

        […]

        tread lightly …
        down to the Pool of Siloam, sit on its mossy bank

        and listen.

The poem ends almost as it begins with a striking image:

        I’m here, at my desk, with a map of The Walls
        and there, still there,
        by the Pool of Siloam.

McQuilkin is simultaneously at home and in The Walls of Jerusalem National Park—the collection’s first garden, enormous and hundred-eyed, like all-seeing Argus—awaiting vision; her messenger Hermes, a patron of poetry.

Later, in  a series of four daughter-father poems about longing, absence, distance and loss McQuilkin introduces, yet never directly addresses, her father, ‘whose boots I knew / better than the man.’ He’s a kind of Grinch:

        Each Christmas Eve I watched him
        assemble his collapsible canoe,

        […]

        I waterproofed his hiking-boots,
        rearranged the everlastings
        on his Tyrolean hat.

The boots and the Tyrolean hat are reminiscent yet not imitative of phrases from Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’. This poem, however, ends with ambivalence:

        At home, he planned, tracked contours, plotted trips –
        a restless guest. I watched
        and waited to be invited.

        (‘Alpine Sportsman’)

Over time, the presence of the father diminishes. In the astutely titled ‘How Mother Cooked Her Goose’ he’s mentioned only in passing. In ‘Happy Make-believe’

        [he] sits behind his paper,
        sipping sweetened coffee.
        The front door clicks again, he’s gone
        until tonight, late, again.

And in ‘The Colour of Regret’, the final poem in which he appears, he’s inert and

McQuilkin-cover-lowres        tied down by tubes,
        his pallor merging
        with white-grey hospital walls.

Before his death McQuilkin

        undid his watch,
        wound it, reset it,
        as if corrected time could alter course,

        […]

        placed the watch on his wasted wrist.
        He didn’t speak but watched me
        watching him.

Ultimately she ‘couldn’t cross / the barrier he’d built / to block affection’, couldn’t express her love of him, and he was taken by death, ‘white-grey’, the colour of regret.

In a series of four daughter-mother poems about teaching, cooking, storytelling and loss McQuilkin also never directly addresses her mother. One senses she can’t. In the daughter-father poems one senses she won’t. Together, these eight poems depict how the individual responds differently to different memories (themselves gardens), to different griefs (also gardens).

In ‘My Out-of-Step Mother’ McQuilkin’s mother’s students choose at lunchtime ‘to linger / on reading, writing, counting with coloured rods, / painting at easels’ inside her classroom; ‘[o]utside, some act scenes from Shakespeare’s Dream: / Puck and Oberon stalk the Grade 2 playground,’—another kind of garden, with its own unique customs—while ‘Titania makes her bower beneath a willow’. Though her students ‘smile’ and quote from Dream

        [t]he other teachers mock and make life hard,
        they think her children too young for the bard.

In ‘Happy Make-believe’ ‘her dressing gown is dark green velvet’, like grass; she is soft, loving, unlike her husband, ‘not yet ground down / by hard work / or hurt’. She is the Storyteller for McQuilkin and her brother. For them she selflessly ‘[builds] … a world / of happy make-believe / while hers collapses’.

In ‘Perfect Timing’ she waits ‘white-haired’ for death at ‘The Home’. She admires its garden, ‘the eucalypts and wattles’. ‘Her silver-blue river, the Derwent, / fills her gaze, fires her mind, sets her free’. ‘She likes all she sees’, ‘smiles’, ‘generously thanks’ her ‘darling’ daughter (no such kindness in the daughter-father poems) before dying ‘in her sleep, / neatly, her timing perfect:/ July 19th – birth day and death day’. This poem’s peacefulness, its ‘white’ sharply contrast the frustration, the ‘white-grey’ of ‘The Colour of Regret’ (which immediately precedes ‘Perfect Timing’) and clarify the dissimilarities of the daughter-mother, daughter-father poems.

Among these serious poems are ones that spark with wit:

        elders pinkly grin
        broken teeth and betel-nut;

        yellowed eyes see deeply,
        grizzled heads nod silently
        with the certainty:

        We’ll teach you more in this year
        
than you could teach us
        
in a lifetime.

        (‘Volunteer Teacher in PNG’)

‘Word Music’ through ‘Hospital, Home’, nine poems, focus on language and death, two metaphysical gardens. The first explicitly addresses the collection’s title:

FullSizeRender5        I love the sounds words make:
        like nonchalant, my favourite,

        […]

        Vo-lun-ta-ry eu-tha-na-sia:
        its measure is rhythmic, trochaic;
        a powerful prayer, a refrain
        if I say it lightly – now and again.

        There, that’s nonchalant.

Death also seeps into three poems about one of McQuilkin’s children: ‘Last Day of Leave’, ‘So Much More to Say’, and ‘Soldier’s Mother’. These are war-themed, as frank as the lyrics of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, and refreshingly free of cliché. In the third she is ‘haunted by a painting, a Pietà’:

        Jolted by news of Taliban attacks
        I see my son sacrificed
                                                       for what?

Here, the important junction of religion and war underscores their dysfunctions.

In the first section’s penultimate poem the family cat (which sometimes appears as a scourge of the domestic garden while simultaneously conjuring up the opposite: the wild gardens of other continents, their wilder feline inhabitants) is the ‘Angel of Mercy’, ‘a soft stepping presence’, ‘a heat-bag at my waist’.

In ‘Hospital, Home’ ‘sweet, heady scents – / jasmine trespassing the fence / Pierre de Ronsard gracing a trellis’ supplant

        rattling hospital plates
        rumbling trolley wheels
        beeping alarms
        fast-pounding, anxious feet.

This poem’s garden is a space where a former inpatient can

        stretch out on warm summer grass
        feel the velvet shoots fondle [their] pale fingers
        watch the blue-gums touch the arc of the sky.

Family history, language and death are intricately linked in the first section’s poems. The most compelling is ‘One Last Time’, for its portrayal of release from suffering. Musical, it acknowledges Billie Holiday’s most famous song: ‘strange fruit / dangling against the dawn’. Here, the garden is an assuager, its ‘grass strained up / to reach, console, the limp bare feet’ of the ‘lover / [who] hanged himself’. It is a burial ground for memory: ‘She’ll let the sadness surface / just this one last time’.

*

The sky’s most (in)famous inhabitants are avian in nature; it is fitting that the second section, which focuses on fauna and flora, begins with poems about birds. The first is an elegy:

        Open your window to stillness at sunrise,
        open your door to a garden bereft
        of preening and feeding and song.

        (‘A World without Birds’)

‘The Morning Falters’, the eighth bird poem, also elegiac, shifts the focus from sky to earth: ‘A bang against the window-pane: / a small bird falls’, and the collection segues from fauna to flora. In ‘Terra Firma’, the first of the flora poems, the poet prepares a garden bed for a new rose, an ‘exotic bloom’:

        I watch my gloved hands turn the soil –
        see different hands, dark-skinned,
        gritty with earth worship
        as knowing fingers search for seeds.

It’s a precise poem about how humankind has altered the world:

        Once, Gondwana’s garden
        bore this woman fruits
        to feed her family.
        I drive far for food,
        reap harvests of commercial greed
        plant fancy hybrids

‘Hannah Blows Gently’, ‘On the Terrace’ and ‘Summer Bliss’ sift childhood innocence, flowers’ determination, and sex, respectively. In the third poem McQuilkin ‘approached the burning bush / not listening for the voice of God’; she saw

        on every open flower
        a pair of bronze-green insects

        locked in congress
        on a bed of soft white petals
        nectar-rich.

The ‘love-song nectar / drifting from [an] open door’ lures her into the home—another kind of garden, perhaps the absolute—that she shares with her husband.

*

The third section, about family life, sexuality and language, is cleverly seasonal, beginning with a poem about autumn leaves, continuing with that golden garden: ‘It’s home with the vegetables and shrubs … // It’s shopping at leisure … // It’s a weekly long weekend of seven days … This mortal coil / is here to be enjoyed’ (‘Retirement’).

‘Middle Child’ asserts the poet’s love of a daughter who ‘had inbuilt radar’, who’d ‘swoop and grab, / make a game of pairing [socks]’, who would come alive—‘ash-blonde hair escaping pigtails’—with ‘[no] big sister to steer the conversation, / no small brother teasing for attention’. Both poems are joyful and generous, like many from this section.

Two of the collection’s most impressive poems attend to depictions of women. One, ‘dressed as tradition decrees / for a classic white wedding’, is chastised for premarital sex: ‘the veil sensing the lie // … envelops her / …. to cloak the pretence’  (‘The Bride’). Others are ‘plastic mannequins’, ‘life-sized dolls’ that won’t say ‘I have a headache’; they ‘Won’t wither with each winter / but stay as beautiful and buxom / as the day you open the carton’. (‘The Perfect Woman’, a poem that very faintly echoes aspects of Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Applicant’.)

McQuilkin returns to language in the final three poems. The playful ‘In Bed with Billy Collins’ contains wonderful puns: the American poet himself is the ‘bell-like cadence carrying the poem / forward’. The poem ends as it begins, with iambic pentameter: ‘while I lie richly satisfied in bed’.

The poem ‘Iambic Pentameter’ is humorous:

        Weak / strong, weak / strong, it’s so predictable.
        And why five beats – five feet – to every line?
        Why not six feet? Let them crawl, insect-like
        across the page.

        […]

        … two is bliss,
        upstanding verse,
        a poised and happy biped of a poem.
        Bugger, it’s back. Another pentameter line.

‘Writer’s Cramp’ ends the collection:

        I need my muse to loosen up,
        take risks, let go, rebel[,]

        […]

        release my brakes of diffidence and caution
        let me feast
                                        on wild
                                                                      and wanton
                                                                                                            words.

The muse did. So did the poet. Her apprehension’s undue. McQuilkin is a fine grammatical gardener, landscaper of cadence, caretaker of punctuation. In her book the garden is many things: green-thumbed and weedy; exotic and familiar; an agent of destruction and creation. Above all, it is nonchalant, much like the voice of this poet who skips between free verse and formal, who writes with such confidence, ease and flair poems so intimate, pared back and fluid that they evoke those from Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Wisława Szymborska’s Here and Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees.

May Liz McQuilkin’s autumn be long and generous; let us hope to read a second full-length collection.

*note: this review takes its title from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Work Without Hope’

The Nonchalant Garden
Liz McQuilkin

Walleah Press, 2014
64 pages, $20.00

_____________________________________________________________

Stuart Barnes is a poet and poetry editor of Tincture Journal. In 2014 he was named runner up in the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. Bend River Mountain (Regime Books, 2015), with Robbie Coburn, Nathan Hondros, Rose Hunter, Carly-Jay Metcalfe and Michele Seminara, is forthcoming, as are readings at Queensland Poetry Festival and Brisbane Writers Festival. He tweets as @StuartABarnes

On the Importance of Fighting Violence Against Women:
Melissa Blais's "I Hate Feminists!"

Posted on May 23, 2015 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Camilla Patini

1417739430277On December 6, 1989, a 25-year-old man burst into an engineering school, the École Polytechnique de Montréal, in Canada. Declaring ‘You’re all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!’, he shot fourteen women and wounded ten others. The killer, Marc Lépine, then turned the gun on himself. A later investigation found that he claimed to be ‘fighting feminism’. His suicide note revealed he was deeply upset about women—feminists in particular—working in roles traditionally occupied by men. The letter, which the police refused to release to the public, read: ‘Would you note that if I commit suicide today it is not for economic reasons […] but for political reasons […] Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker […] I have decided to put an end to those viragos’.

This massacre is the focus of “I Hate Feminists!”, written by Melissa Blais, a doctoral student at the University of Quebec and the country’s leading scholar on the issue. Originally published in French in 2009 and translated into English last year, it draws on a wide range of articles and editorials published in Montreal and Toronto newspapers as well as the film Polytechnique (2009). In the book, Blais highlights feminist responses to the massacre, showing that what should have led to an outcry against violence towards women functioned instead as a catalyst for anti-feminist backlash. She also takes a careful look at the social context in which the violence occurred, insightfully exploring changing attitudes towards women and the more aggressive side of the men’s movement.

“I Hate Feminists!” was published to great success and received overwhelmingly positive reviews for shedding light on an event which had until then received little critical attention. There is no doubt that Blais’s analysis is both interesting and compelling. However, it is also often repetitive and makes for dry reading at times. The translation lacks fluidity and Blais’s voice can become submerged beneath endless lists of facts and quotes.

But this is a small quibble—there is still much in the book to commend. Highly relevant, it comes at a time when instances of gendered violence have gained more prominence in the media and there is greater recognition of the issues with which women in particular are faced. Many commentators and journalists are now openly critiquing these types of massacres through a feminist lens, highlighting implicit assumptions about male ownership and entitlement. Indeed, when a year ago, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger went on a killing rampage in Santa Barbara, leaving six people dead and seven injured, journalists—many of them intellectually respectable—argued that it was a feminist issue. (In a YouTube video, Rodger had claimed that he wanted to prove himself the ultimate ‘alpha male’ and take revenge on all the ‘sluts’ who had sexually rejected him. He also resented other men for getting the women he ‘deserved’.) British journalist Laurie Penny labelled the massacre ‘misogynist extremism’ and linked it to a wider context of sexism and gender inequality. She powerfully drew out the massacre’s implicit lessons about male ownership, demonstrating how Rodger felt entitled to young women’s bodies, attention, love and respect.

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Plaque at École Polytechnique commemorating victims of the massacre

When violence of this nature occurs (and most violence is perpetrated by men), appeals to the mental instability of the killer are often used to dismiss or justify the crime (as if one’s psychological state were an excuse or defence for mass murder!). This defence is all too familiar—the media today is still quick to describe men who kill their families and then themselves as being ‘under stress’. Similarly, as Blais illustrates in the book, at the time of the École Polytechnique massacre, the press chose to ignore the overtly political message of the attack, instead depicting Lépine as suffering from what some quasi-psychologists called a ‘crisis of masculinity’.

Commenting on the attack, Blais has stated: ‘When I became a feminist, around the year 2000, I was puzzled to see that some were still reluctant to talk in political terms about the attack. It seemed as though the most efficient way to dismiss the feminist explanation was to reduce everything to the psychology of a single madman’. Indeed, a psychiatrist at the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital in Quebec was quoted in the newspaper La Presse as saying that Lépine was ‘as innocent as his victims and himself a victim of an increasingly merciless society’. In reality, stress does not cause people to commit murder or to kill in such violent ways: people who suffer from mental health problems are more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators. Regardless—as Blais demonstrates—Lépine was virtually absolved of his crime through the use of such spurious reasoning.

It would seem that despite growing recognition of domestic violence as an issue disproportionately affecting women, and despite wider recognition of the sexism women face on a daily basis, many continue to deny this reality, and women are regularly told to ‘shut up’ about issues that matter to them. Blais’s analysis shows that not only did the press try to hide Lepine’s intentions but that it actively suppressed and dismissed feminist voices. In the worst cases, articles failed to even mention that the victims were female, and feminist interpretations were co-opted by the men’s movement to serve their own agenda. Some men claimed that the system was reversed and that oppression was something suffered by men, not women(!). Others expressed sympathy with the killer, stating in letters to the editor that they identified with Lepine’s anger. It was, as Blais shows, a difficult time to be a feminist: many who expressed contrarian views were threatened with violence (by men) and faced significant public backlash.

Blais’s analysis is bleak but finishes on a relatively positive note. She takes pains to show that despite the masculinist backlash it was still possible to agree on the importance of fighting violence against women. She also examines the commemorations of the massacre which took place between 1999 and 2005, and observes that although feminists could not exert much influence on the discourse in the years immediately following the attack, they did in the decades following. Blais contends that—although it may not appear to be the case—a greater number of people are now able to view the massacre as being motivated by misogyny and, contrary to popular belief, appeals to the mental instability of the perpetrator have become less common. Yet ultimately, Blais is right to conclude that there is still much work to be done. Women’s equality has, unfortunately, yet to be achieved.

“I hate feminists!”: December 6, 1989 and its Aftermath
Melissa Blais
Spinifex Press, 2014
$24.95

 

____________________________________________________________

Camilla Patini is a writer and student at the Australian National University. She has been published in various places such as Lip Magazine and Woroni. She has been an ACT Writers Centre Blogger in Residence and a Papercuts and Buzzcuts editor. She has also live-read for Scissors Paper Pen and rip publishing. Find out more @camillapatini.