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

Posted on May 9, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Cahill

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Posted on March 21, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

(edited by Robyn Cadwallader)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We race the deluge
and it is nothing.

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

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

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

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

Krissy Kneen. Photo credit: Anthony Mullins

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

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

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

The pointless sound
of nothing
hitting ground

is what breaks me.                        (85)

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

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


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

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


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

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

Posted on February 24, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Phillip Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This exploration continues in ‘house’ that begins:

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

Lucy Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorraine McGuigan

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

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

They walk into
shallows as warm as a rockpool,

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

In ‘Blood Plums’ McGuigan writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Blood Plums
Lorraine McGuigan
Walleah Press, 2014

81 pages, $20.

internal weather
Lucy Williams
Walleah Press, 2014

64 pages, $20.


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


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.



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.


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



                         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 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 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



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 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:


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.

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.


Paul McDermott
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10

Carmel Bird
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10

Phillip Stamatellis
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10 

Timothy Morrell
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10 

Cassandra Atherton
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10


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




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.

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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.


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.’

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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!’


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.


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.


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:

        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
        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.


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

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

Martin Langford

Puncher & Wattmann, 2015


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

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.’


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) 

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 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.