The Nonchalant Garden, the first full-length publication of poetry by Tasmanian Liz McQuilkin, is so finely sequenced that it must be reviewed accordingly. The book lacks chapters yet can be divided into three: family history, language and death; fauna—specifically, birds—and flora; family life, sexuality and language.
The opening poem ‘By the Pool of Siloam’ suggests a passage from John Chapter 9: ‘Jesus made clay, and anointed mine eyes, and said unto me, Go to the pool of Siloam, and wash: and I went and washed, and I received sight’:
Here, at my desk, lines on a map
rise up in towering cliffs
and I’m back in The Walls,
standing again on King David’s peak
Beyond, I see a hundred lakes and tarns
like shattered mirrors cradled in folds of hills,
tread lightly …
down to the Pool of Siloam, sit on its mossy bank
The poem ends almost as it begins with a striking image:
I’m here, at my desk, with a map of The Walls
and there, still there,
by the Pool of Siloam.
McQuilkin is simultaneously at home and in The Walls of Jerusalem National Park—the collection’s first garden, enormous and hundred-eyed, like all-seeing Argus—awaiting vision; her messenger Hermes, a patron of poetry.
Later, in a series of four daughter-father poems about longing, absence, distance and loss McQuilkin introduces, yet never directly addresses, her father, ‘whose boots I knew / better than the man.’ He’s a kind of Grinch:
Each Christmas Eve I watched him
assemble his collapsible canoe,
I waterproofed his hiking-boots,
rearranged the everlastings
on his Tyrolean hat.
The boots and the Tyrolean hat are reminiscent yet not imitative of phrases from Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’. This poem, however, ends with ambivalence:
At home, he planned, tracked contours, plotted trips –
a restless guest. I watched
and waited to be invited.
Over time, the presence of the father diminishes. In the astutely titled ‘How Mother Cooked Her Goose’ he’s mentioned only in passing. In ‘Happy Make-believe’
[he] sits behind his paper,
sipping sweetened coffee.
The front door clicks again, he’s gone
until tonight, late, again.
And in ‘The Colour of Regret’, the final poem in which he appears, he’s inert and
Before his death McQuilkin
undid his watch,
wound it, reset it,
as if corrected time could alter course,
placed the watch on his wasted wrist.
He didn’t speak but watched me
Ultimately she ‘couldn’t cross / the barrier he’d built / to block affection’, couldn’t express her love of him, and he was taken by death, ‘white-grey’, the colour of regret.
In a series of four daughter-mother poems about teaching, cooking, storytelling and loss McQuilkin also never directly addresses her mother. One senses she can’t. In the daughter-father poems one senses she won’t. Together, these eight poems depict how the individual responds differently to different memories (themselves gardens), to different griefs (also gardens).
In ‘My Out-of-Step Mother’ McQuilkin’s mother’s students choose at lunchtime ‘to linger / on reading, writing, counting with coloured rods, / painting at easels’ inside her classroom; ‘[o]utside, some act scenes from Shakespeare’s Dream: / Puck and Oberon stalk the Grade 2 playground,’—another kind of garden, with its own unique customs—while ‘Titania makes her bower beneath a willow’. Though her students ‘smile’ and quote from Dream
[t]he other teachers mock and make life hard,
they think her children too young for the bard.
In ‘Happy Make-believe’ ‘her dressing gown is dark green velvet’, like grass; she is soft, loving, unlike her husband, ‘not yet ground down / by hard work / or hurt’. She is the Storyteller for McQuilkin and her brother. For them she selflessly ‘[builds] … a world / of happy make-believe / while hers collapses’.
In ‘Perfect Timing’ she waits ‘white-haired’ for death at ‘The Home’. She admires its garden, ‘the eucalypts and wattles’. ‘Her silver-blue river, the Derwent, / fills her gaze, fires her mind, sets her free’. ‘She likes all she sees’, ‘smiles’, ‘generously thanks’ her ‘darling’ daughter (no such kindness in the daughter-father poems) before dying ‘in her sleep, / neatly, her timing perfect:/ July 19th – birth day and death day’. This poem’s peacefulness, its ‘white’ sharply contrast the frustration, the ‘white-grey’ of ‘The Colour of Regret’ (which immediately precedes ‘Perfect Timing’) and clarify the dissimilarities of the daughter-mother, daughter-father poems.
Among these serious poems are ones that spark with wit:
elders pinkly grin
broken teeth and betel-nut;
yellowed eyes see deeply,
grizzled heads nod silently
with the certainty:
We’ll teach you more in this year
than you could teach us
in a lifetime.
(‘Volunteer Teacher in PNG’)
‘Word Music’ through ‘Hospital, Home’, nine poems, focus on language and death, two metaphysical gardens. The first explicitly addresses the collection’s title:
its measure is rhythmic, trochaic;
a powerful prayer, a refrain
if I say it lightly – now and again.
There, that’s nonchalant.
Death also seeps into three poems about one of McQuilkin’s children: ‘Last Day of Leave’, ‘So Much More to Say’, and ‘Soldier’s Mother’. These are war-themed, as frank as the lyrics of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, and refreshingly free of cliché. In the third she is ‘haunted by a painting, a Pietà’:
Jolted by news of Taliban attacks
I see my son sacrificed
Here, the important junction of religion and war underscores their dysfunctions.
In the first section’s penultimate poem the family cat (which sometimes appears as a scourge of the domestic garden while simultaneously conjuring up the opposite: the wild gardens of other continents, their wilder feline inhabitants) is the ‘Angel of Mercy’, ‘a soft stepping presence’, ‘a heat-bag at my waist’.
In ‘Hospital, Home’ ‘sweet, heady scents – / jasmine trespassing the fence / Pierre de Ronsard gracing a trellis’ supplant
rattling hospital plates
rumbling trolley wheels
fast-pounding, anxious feet.
This poem’s garden is a space where a former inpatient can
stretch out on warm summer grass
feel the velvet shoots fondle [their] pale fingers
watch the blue-gums touch the arc of the sky.
Family history, language and death are intricately linked in the first section’s poems. The most compelling is ‘One Last Time’, for its portrayal of release from suffering. Musical, it acknowledges Billie Holiday’s most famous song: ‘strange fruit / dangling against the dawn’. Here, the garden is an assuager, its ‘grass strained up / to reach, console, the limp bare feet’ of the ‘lover / [who] hanged himself’. It is a burial ground for memory: ‘She’ll let the sadness surface / just this one last time’.
The sky’s most (in)famous inhabitants are avian in nature; it is fitting that the second section, which focuses on fauna and flora, begins with poems about birds. The first is an elegy:
Open your window to stillness at sunrise,
open your door to a garden bereft
of preening and feeding and song.
(‘A World without Birds’)
‘The Morning Falters’, the eighth bird poem, also elegiac, shifts the focus from sky to earth: ‘A bang against the window-pane: / a small bird falls’, and the collection segues from fauna to flora. In ‘Terra Firma’, the first of the flora poems, the poet prepares a garden bed for a new rose, an ‘exotic bloom’:
I watch my gloved hands turn the soil –
see different hands, dark-skinned,
gritty with earth worship
as knowing fingers search for seeds.
It’s a precise poem about how humankind has altered the world:
Once, Gondwana’s garden
bore this woman fruits
to feed her family.
I drive far for food,
reap harvests of commercial greed
plant fancy hybrids
‘Hannah Blows Gently’, ‘On the Terrace’ and ‘Summer Bliss’ sift childhood innocence, flowers’ determination, and sex, respectively. In the third poem McQuilkin ‘approached the burning bush / not listening for the voice of God’; she saw
on every open flower
a pair of bronze-green insects
locked in congress
on a bed of soft white petals
The ‘love-song nectar / drifting from [an] open door’ lures her into the home—another kind of garden, perhaps the absolute—that she shares with her husband.
The third section, about family life, sexuality and language, is cleverly seasonal, beginning with a poem about autumn leaves, continuing with that golden garden: ‘It’s home with the vegetables and shrubs … // It’s shopping at leisure … // It’s a weekly long weekend of seven days … This mortal coil / is here to be enjoyed’ (‘Retirement’).
‘Middle Child’ asserts the poet’s love of a daughter who ‘had inbuilt radar’, who’d ‘swoop and grab, / make a game of pairing [socks]’, who would come alive—‘ash-blonde hair escaping pigtails’—with ‘[no] big sister to steer the conversation, / no small brother teasing for attention’. Both poems are joyful and generous, like many from this section.
Two of the collection’s most impressive poems attend to depictions of women. One, ‘dressed as tradition decrees / for a classic white wedding’, is chastised for premarital sex: ‘the veil sensing the lie // … envelops her / …. to cloak the pretence’ (‘The Bride’). Others are ‘plastic mannequins’, ‘life-sized dolls’ that won’t say ‘I have a headache’; they ‘Won’t wither with each winter / but stay as beautiful and buxom / as the day you open the carton’. (‘The Perfect Woman’, a poem that very faintly echoes aspects of Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Applicant’.)
McQuilkin returns to language in the final three poems. The playful ‘In Bed with Billy Collins’ contains wonderful puns: the American poet himself is the ‘bell-like cadence carrying the poem / forward’. The poem ends as it begins, with iambic pentameter: ‘while I lie richly satisfied in bed’.
The poem ‘Iambic Pentameter’ is humorous:
Weak / strong, weak / strong, it’s so predictable.
And why five beats – five feet – to every line?
Why not six feet? Let them crawl, insect-like
across the page.
… two is bliss,
a poised and happy biped of a poem.
Bugger, it’s back. Another pentameter line.
‘Writer’s Cramp’ ends the collection:
I need my muse to loosen up,
take risks, let go, rebel[,]
release my brakes of diffidence and caution
let me feast
The muse did. So did the poet. Her apprehension’s undue. McQuilkin is a fine grammatical gardener, landscaper of cadence, caretaker of punctuation. In her book the garden is many things: green-thumbed and weedy; exotic and familiar; an agent of destruction and creation. Above all, it is nonchalant, much like the voice of this poet who skips between free verse and formal, who writes with such confidence, ease and flair poems so intimate, pared back and fluid that they evoke those from Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Wisława Szymborska’s Here and Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees.
May Liz McQuilkin’s autumn be long and generous; let us hope to read a second full-length collection.
*note: this review takes its title from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Work Without Hope’
The Nonchalant Garden
Walleah Press, 2014
64 pages, $20.00
Stuart Barnes is a poet and poetry editor of Tincture Journal. In 2014 he was named runner up in the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. Bend River Mountain (Regime Books, 2015), with Robbie Coburn, Nathan Hondros, Rose Hunter, Carly-Jay Metcalfe and Michele Seminara, is forthcoming, as are readings at Queensland Poetry Festival and Brisbane Writers Festival. He tweets as @StuartABarnes
Review by Camilla Patini
On December 6, 1989, a 25-year-old man burst into an engineering school, the École Polytechnique de Montréal, in Canada. Declaring ‘You’re all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!’, he shot fourteen women and wounded ten others. The killer, Marc Lépine, then turned the gun on himself. A later investigation found that he claimed to be ‘fighting feminism’. His suicide note revealed he was deeply upset about women—feminists in particular—working in roles traditionally occupied by men. The letter, which the police refused to release to the public, read: ‘Would you note that if I commit suicide today it is not for economic reasons […] but for political reasons […] Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker […] I have decided to put an end to those viragos’.
This massacre is the focus of “I Hate Feminists!”, written by Melissa Blais, a doctoral student at the University of Quebec and the country’s leading scholar on the issue. Originally published in French in 2009 and translated into English last year, it draws on a wide range of articles and editorials published in Montreal and Toronto newspapers as well as the film Polytechnique (2009). In the book, Blais highlights feminist responses to the massacre, showing that what should have led to an outcry against violence towards women functioned instead as a catalyst for anti-feminist backlash. She also takes a careful look at the social context in which the violence occurred, insightfully exploring changing attitudes towards women and the more aggressive side of the men’s movement.
“I Hate Feminists!” was published to great success and received overwhelmingly positive reviews for shedding light on an event which had until then received little critical attention. There is no doubt that Blais’s analysis is both interesting and compelling. However, it is also often repetitive and makes for dry reading at times. The translation lacks fluidity and Blais’s voice can become submerged beneath endless lists of facts and quotes.
But this is a small quibble—there is still much in the book to commend. Highly relevant, it comes at a time when instances of gendered violence have gained more prominence in the media and there is greater recognition of the issues with which women in particular are faced. Many commentators and journalists are now openly critiquing these types of massacres through a feminist lens, highlighting implicit assumptions about male ownership and entitlement. Indeed, when a year ago, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger went on a killing rampage in Santa Barbara, leaving six people dead and seven injured, journalists—many of them intellectually respectable—argued that it was a feminist issue. (In a YouTube video, Rodger had claimed that he wanted to prove himself the ultimate ‘alpha male’ and take revenge on all the ‘sluts’ who had sexually rejected him. He also resented other men for getting the women he ‘deserved’.) British journalist Laurie Penny labelled the massacre ‘misogynist extremism’ and linked it to a wider context of sexism and gender inequality. She powerfully drew out the massacre’s implicit lessons about male ownership, demonstrating how Rodger felt entitled to young women’s bodies, attention, love and respect.
When violence of this nature occurs (and most violence is perpetrated by men), appeals to the mental instability of the killer are often used to dismiss or justify the crime (as if one’s psychological state were an excuse or defence for mass murder!). This defence is all too familiar—the media today is still quick to describe men who kill their families and then themselves as being ‘under stress’. Similarly, as Blais illustrates in the book, at the time of the École Polytechnique massacre, the press chose to ignore the overtly political message of the attack, instead depicting Lépine as suffering from what some quasi-psychologists called a ‘crisis of masculinity’.
Commenting on the attack, Blais has stated: ‘When I became a feminist, around the year 2000, I was puzzled to see that some were still reluctant to talk in political terms about the attack. It seemed as though the most efficient way to dismiss the feminist explanation was to reduce everything to the psychology of a single madman’. Indeed, a psychiatrist at the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital in Quebec was quoted in the newspaper La Presse as saying that Lépine was ‘as innocent as his victims and himself a victim of an increasingly merciless society’. In reality, stress does not cause people to commit murder or to kill in such violent ways: people who suffer from mental health problems are more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators. Regardless—as Blais demonstrates—Lépine was virtually absolved of his crime through the use of such spurious reasoning.
It would seem that despite growing recognition of domestic violence as an issue disproportionately affecting women, and despite wider recognition of the sexism women face on a daily basis, many continue to deny this reality, and women are regularly told to ‘shut up’ about issues that matter to them. Blais’s analysis shows that not only did the press try to hide Lepine’s intentions but that it actively suppressed and dismissed feminist voices. In the worst cases, articles failed to even mention that the victims were female, and feminist interpretations were co-opted by the men’s movement to serve their own agenda. Some men claimed that the system was reversed and that oppression was something suffered by men, not women(!). Others expressed sympathy with the killer, stating in letters to the editor that they identified with Lepine’s anger. It was, as Blais shows, a difficult time to be a feminist: many who expressed contrarian views were threatened with violence (by men) and faced significant public backlash.
Blais’s analysis is bleak but finishes on a relatively positive note. She takes pains to show that despite the masculinist backlash it was still possible to agree on the importance of fighting violence against women. She also examines the commemorations of the massacre which took place between 1999 and 2005, and observes that although feminists could not exert much influence on the discourse in the years immediately following the attack, they did in the decades following. Blais contends that—although it may not appear to be the case—a greater number of people are now able to view the massacre as being motivated by misogyny and, contrary to popular belief, appeals to the mental instability of the perpetrator have become less common. Yet ultimately, Blais is right to conclude that there is still much work to be done. Women’s equality has, unfortunately, yet to be achieved.
“I hate feminists!”: December 6, 1989 and its Aftermath
Spinifex Press, 2014
Increasingly viewed today as kitsch and ‘creepy’ — a lazy, catch-all expression — taxidermy was once regarded as equal parts art and science. Before photography, the only way for urban dwellers to experience exotic fauna — apart from in zoos, which were few — was through the medium of taxidermy. As well as serving up convincing museum gallery dioramas to satisfy popular curiosity, skilled taxidermists also made a sizeable contribution to the vital scientific endeavour of taxonomy. It was the domain of skilled artisans who also happened to be knowledgeable naturalists. Given the inevitable irony of raising wildlife awareness through killing it and arranging it in lifelike poses, modern naturalists are understandably moving away from taxidermy. Kristin Hannaford’s Curio attempts to shine a spotlight on this once proud craft to afford it the credit it is due.
Curio frames its enquiry into antipodean taxidermy with the lives and work of two late nineteenth-century women, Jane Catherine Tost and her daughter Ada Jane Rohu. The poems in the collection explore the pair’s arrival in Australia from England, their work as taxidermists and naturalists, and their time as proprietors of ‘The Queerest Shop in Sydney’, Tost and Rohu — Taxidermists, Furriers, Tanners and Island Curio Dealers. A poem bearing the shop’s nickname catalogues its quirky wares:
fancy work and flower making gewgaws, marvellous birds,
beasts and reptiles oddities prepared and mounted to order that are
and strange discharge of a continent. Minutiae of curiosities furs, tanned
an assortment of mixed lollies: snakes, frogs, sharks’ teeth, black cats and Pyrmont rock
It doesn’t take the reader long to realise that Hannaford is a meticulous researcher and Curio is all the more robust for it; however, there are instances when she seems to become a slave to citation. The full version of the poem quoted above reads quite messily due to the chopping and changing of italicisation that denotes direct quotation from a copy of the shop’s catalogue. Most of Curio’s poems begin with a slab of explanatory text that denies the reader the satisfaction of solving the poetry’s finely crafted mystery. All too often, Hannaford’s deft imagery loses some of its power because the moment of drama has already been signposted in the extensive historical notes above.
Nobody is lining up to accuse a poet this meticulously well-researched of any sort of reckless fictional liberty or wilful inaccuracy. Given this, Hannaford might have afforded herself a greater degree of creative freedom instead of being constantly hamstrung by history.
Arguably, the best sections of Curio are the ones that explore the craft and skills of taxidermy. ‘Introduction to the Aesthetics of Birds’ gives insight into the importance of studying living subjects in the wild in order to prepare and pose realistic taxidermy.
Your White-Faced Heron should appear tentative, neck retracted and settled,
as if contemplating the missed arrival of the tide; the greyness of the day.
There is no practical, how-to guide to the preservation and display of animals here, but the reader is allowed to experience the sights, sounds and smells of the taxidermist’s world. A found poem called ‘Tools of the Trade’ comes from an esoteric handbook and draws us in with its macabre mixture of vulnerable anatomy and cold steel:
You require a skinning knife, the blade long and narrow,
with a hardwood handle of box — blood & dirt
will clean with ease, dissecting knives, a scalpel,
post-mortem hooks (for mammals), scissors
with a long and fine point (especially useful for wings),
a three-pronged impaler for insects, a bodkin or awl for poking
The poem that best combines the collection’s parallel themes of history, science and gender is ‘Wanted: Taxidermist’ in which Jane Tost applies (successfully) for a taxidermy position at the decidedly male-dominated Australian Museum.
My hands have summoned
alpacas, apteryx and thylacines, examples
of my work can be seen
at the International exhibition; the School
of arts: I worked also
for four years at the museum of Hobart Town —
I have references
if you require, specimens for perusal,
I feel myself fully competent
to undertake the arrangement of skins,
to navigate the pouched
peculiarities of antipodean fauna
The poem’s introductory information, whilst again giving away a bit too much, does helpfully inform the reader that Tost was likely the first professionally employed woman at the august museum.
Though the poems throughout Curio piece together the professional and personal stories of Jane and Ada, the narrative is neither linear nor complete. We glean a species of insight into the lives of these trail-blazing women through their work, but much of their personality and character goes unexplored. There is sometimes a sense that we are seeing through their eyes, but rarely that we are hearing their voices. Most poems are written in the third person and could be observations of Hannaford, Tost or Rohu. In ‘Blood and Bone’, after being informed by the factual chunk of explanatory text that Ada’s first husband had died and her second had left her, the opening lines state:
They don’t understand, these women,
that this is how it goes.
Is the speaker one of the husbands? Perhaps it is Ada referring to other women and their idle chatter about her situation. Perhaps it is the poet commenting back through time. Whatever the answer, Hannaford’s ambiguity injects a welcome and needed element of mystery into the collection. This feeling of distance stems from her reluctance to employ guess-work and is actually one of the more positive by-products of Curio’s sometimes edge-dulling historical accuracy.
Many other poets might have confected a purely fictional voice and fleshed out a more satisfying and complete narrative, but in doing so, these poets would have likely misrepresented two fascinating figures of Australian science and history. Kristin Hannaford’s Curio treats its subjects with an appropriately scientific degree of objectivity and the result is a very fine volume of contemporary Australian poetry.
Walleah Press, 2014
68 pages, $20
Benjamin Dodds is the author of Regulator (Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2014). His work has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2014, Antipodes: Poetic Responses, Stars Like Sand: Australian Speculative Poetry, and on Radio National’s Poetica program.
Review by Amanda Hickey
The Albury family of Sydney’s Elizabeth Bay are about money and social standing, and although they appear prickly and self-absorbed, it is the father’s eightieth birthday celebration, so they are coming together in their grand harbourside house, determined to make it a good show.
The Beach Volcano by Goulburn author Nigel Featherstone is his third and final novella in a series that began three years ago. In this volume, the prodigal son, Canning, returns to the Albury fold after an absence of 25 years spent developing a successful career as rock musician Mick Dark (think Nick Cave).
He is the type to upset any apple cart—in his dress, in his music and most definitely within his family dynamics. On returning to his childhood home he feels like ‘a tourist who had stumbled on a house-museum open twenty-four seven’.
Along with Vernon, the pompous father, there’s a brittle, decaying mother, two sisters bent on protecting the status quo, a true friend who loves chooks and a plain-speaking teenage boy who strikes at the heart of the matter.
Most of us have mixed feelings about our siblings or parents and it is this terrain that Featherstone first covers before teasing out, with rumours and poignant flash-backs, a thriller-like drama.
Mick / Canning lives in Tasmania and remembers what growing up in the family was really like: the disconnect between them was palpable, ‘as if the five of us just found ourselves occupying the place like squatters’. On arrival he is greeted with good-humoured barbs: ‘so they let you off the island’; or are they put-downs?
Featherstone skilfully weaves Australia’s class-driven colonial past into the strands of this modern family—these pillars of the establishment who now like to sit around discussing parochial NSW politics and, for Canning, ‘making accusations about people I didn’t know and didn’t care about’.
What Canning does care about is the truth. He’s lived long enough as an artist on his own terms to know that truth, even painful truth, is the core component of an authentic moral fibre. And he arrives carrying information that he knows will blow the family apart.
The underlying question of this unforgettable novella is, perhaps in biblical terms, that the sins of the father will be visited on the sons—and so this son is determined to put the record straight. However, even though Canning likes sitting in churches to ‘stare at the stained-glass windows and try to feel what faith might be like’, his quest is not driven by any religious conviction.
Sensing his simmering moral outrage, family members determinedly try to throw him off course. The mother confronts him, voicing her disgust at his work and throwing down her own gauntlet: ‘I will not be surrounded by fake people’.
The irony is not lost on us as we watch them eat food served from platters with ‘domed lids’. Not unlike John Cheever before him, through his likable protagonist, Featherstone unpicks the threads of a successful family to reveal a hollow and corrupted core.
The family acknowledges his success only because it has recently crept into films. ‘Does it pay well?’ he is asked. (A question, no doubt, the author has also heard many times.) Featherstone’s writing is etched with dry humour and there are double meanings everywhere: ‘Plus I never wanted his money, or to be frank, his interest’—so Canning sums up his failed relationship with his father. Yet nothing is static as they circle around each other exploring, little by little, the ties that bind them.
The characters are fully formed and big enough that they could have carried a longer work. The story line too has enough shifts for a full-length novel, but it is to the author’s credit that his prose, precise and deliberate, has enhanced the work by paring it back to a novella.
The centre-piece scene is the building of a beach volcano, which is, for Canning, a happy memory of his father: ‘I could see the boy he once had been’. It’s a sentimental recollection of Canning’s and he can’t resist showing his newly acquainted nephew how a beach volcano is made. But on this occasion the beachside ritual goes painfully awry, a striking metaphor for the oppressive secrets carried by his parents.
Like watching an Ingmar Bergman film, we find there are tensions within the relationships that are so taut, we become increasingly uneasy about what lies ahead as we wait for the next confrontation in the family drama.
The unsolved Sydney mystery of the missing boy that once inspired Canning to write a hit song titled ‘The Water Boy Never Dies’, pays homage to other Sydney tragedies in and around its harbours. Most of us would have forgotten the story of Graeme Thorne, a school boy who was kidnapped and murdered (his body left in a grotto near the Spit) after his parents won the first Opera House lottery. Yet social realist artists like Nigel Thomson explored the underbelly of Sydney’s genteel class in the same way Mick Dark / Canning Albury has done in his songs, or as Nigel Featherstone is doing in this novella.
With striking imagery, the twin themes of music and water are elegantly interwoven through The Beach Volcano. Canning fondly remembers swimming naked at night. ‘I’d look along my body. How pale it seemed in the harbour water, as white as a cuttlefish.’
Whatever misgivings he may have about Vernon, he also acknowledges it is he who gave him his love of both water and music. And music is more than just a job or even a passion: ‘these things are a part of the body, not abstract notions, not extensions, but the centre of self’. Echoing the hero’s thoughts, in its own narrative structure, The Beach Volcano too, rises and falls to a compelling beat.
Canning eventually wonders whether, in building a fan base of hundreds and thousands that adore him, perhaps all that matters is ‘that just one heart is enough’. Enduring literary fiction is driven by universal insights into the human condition and Featherstone beautifully reveals this one.
For Canning, the family’s truth, even if it’s ‘a disturbance’, must eventually come out. He’s confident that if he takes things apart, the truth will ‘put them back together in a different and better shape’. The reader is not so convinced. The Albury family is so misshapen we cannot help feeling that Canning is a little naïve and we wait with bated breath until the end.
THE BEACH VOLCANO
Blemish Books, 2014.
140 pp; $24.95.
For a very limited time Blemish is offering a massive 80% discount on the electronic versions of Featherstone’s novellas. To purchase the e-books, and to claim the discount, head here and then put the relevant code into the coupon field. For The Beach Volcano use VARLUDO4S6; for I’m Ready Now DTS1RW4H2L; and for Fall on Me AEBE9D5AE6.
Review by Robyn Cadwallader
John Kinsella’s latest collection of poetry, The Vision of Error: A Sextet of Activist Poems is, as Kinsella says in a speech on video link to the book launch, ‘an activist book … with one purpose in mind … to facilitate conversations about the necessity … of change’. It is a call to action with a desire for communication. It is surprising, then, that much of the poetry is so difficult to understand.
This is not an easy thing to say. Kinsella’s credentials are impressive. He is well known on the Australian literary scene; he has published more than thirty-five collections of poetry and two novels; he has worked as an editor and critic; he is a Fellow of Churchill college, Cambridge University and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia. It is easier, perhaps, to consider the reader — myself — lacking in perception, awareness, the patient skills of careful reading.
The book’s focus is, as the title suggests, error: the powers of capitalism, corporations, pollution, climate change, and governmental abuses of power, most especially in the death penalty, the subject of the final poem, ‘“The Killing State” / The Murdering State’. The desperate plight of the natural world is a dominant theme.
‘Harsh Hakea’, the first poem, reads as a gathering of thoughts, musing and anger; it shifts between close observation, personal recollection, outbursts of anger, passages of wordplay, soundplay and highbrow philosophical and literary allusion. The shifts occur quickly, apparently at random, with the appearance (whether intended or not) of thoughts jotted down as they occurred. There is an atmosphere of the land, and the writer of the diary, being besieged:
I will learn to block out the assaults of scramble-bike riders
I will learn to block out the gunshot that ravages animals and birds
in the valley
I will learn to block out the riproar of U-turning jets while their pilots
ready for war
I will learn to block out my shifts in body chemistry and reception theories
that undo the way I see (17)
And his resistance is a stance that seems hand-in-glove with a resistance to literary conservatism :
Please place on my grave, ‘he resisted’,
And wasn’t hookwinked by the lyric
or its digressions, remouthings
or retextings. Nor by epics,
nor damned elegies. (10)
He resists also in that most practical of ways, by planting hakea:
A sharp one, groundcover, to hold and ward
off: ah ah ah; letters don’t correspond to sound,
no matter your languages;
HARSH hakea; (11)
Just as the groundcover he nurtures is prickly, and necessarily so, apparently, his words attempt to unpick and undermine the conservatism of accepted ideas. In his launch speech he says that his poems interact with other texts; they have philosophical subtexts, and play with ideas that should be ‘pulled to bits’, not ‘displayed in museums’. His words are passionate: ‘This is a reactionary time, my friends. Horrendous things have taken place in Australian poetry and elsewhere, over the protectorship of ideas.’ Unfortunately, however, he pulls apart ideas through complex literary and philosophical allusions or perhaps simple playing with sounds — though often one would need to be in the ‘philosophical loop’ to know what is really at work:
Mine. Jacques Prevert. Script. Paradise.
My intimations make exhibits.
Just a coterie quells ululation emphatically sonorous.
Prevent relationships evincing vigorous reality trepidations.
And so on. There are many sections like this, where it is easy to give up, either through anger or despair.
The cost of all this resistance to literary conservatism is communication itself, a cost felt most strongly in a book that addresses issues with which many readers may have strong sympathies. It is not a new thought to suggest that paradoxically, Kinsella’s activist poems end up speaking mostly to the academy, or to his own thought processes (see the online reviews by Anthony Lawrence, Geoff Page, Simon Patton). The reader is mostly left outside.
And so it is worth returning again to his launch speech where he suggests that activism is always a form of propaganda, but ‘although I may rant I hope it’s not propaganda … it’s too paradoxical and too disturbed at points, to fall into that particular trap’. Therein, perhaps, is something of the difficulty of reading this collection, where meaning becomes confused, if not collapsed, under the tensions of Kinsella’s various ambitions. Does his desire to appeal beyond the emotional and manipulative methods of propaganda lead to his use of abstruse philosophical allusion? Perhaps. Or maybe he cannot resist the temptation to play within the academic world of thought.
Nonetheless, the focus returns intermittently to animals, the weather, insects, and plants, close observations of life, as in ‘Requiem’:
November. Shiny green growth
of eucalypts, late spring burst to link
little moisture around — even now the storm is sparing
in its downpour — and heat; humidity
drives the sparkle of growing tips,
These concrete images come as a much-needed grounding, but there is a sense of the poet musing, gathering a thought that runs out, trails of thought in stream-of-consciousness writing where the strange ‘logic’ of associations is known only to the poet. In other poems, such as ‘Harvest Ban’, the moments of detail clearly draw upon a deep intimacy with and between place, weather, emotion and atmosphere.
Humidity has altered the timbre
of bird chatter — wagtails
confront a partner’s call,
confront below the veranda. (53)
As the poem develops, the poet references his past life in this place but pulls away; it is the land and its plight that is most intensely felt:
The trees on the hill are dying.
Years of drought. The watertable drops
beyond the stretch of roots. Neighbouring
properties are drinking the last drops dry, running
Their bores like addiction, making rainbows
in fifty-degree heat over their lawns. You crazy fucking bastards!
I am not writing poetry for entertainment: it’s dying
here, dying! We are turning this place into the sands
of of Egypt. The canon is a crown of death —
seventy-foot high York gums
rattling like dragonflies. (62)
In lines like this, Kinsella’s pain at the land’s suffering are evident, and the seriousness of his writing becomes clear. There are times when plain speech communicates with power. It is unfortunate, then, that despite such a deeply felt love of land, Kinsella’s poetry ultimately keeps away the reader, the possible activist and companion in his cause.
The Vision of Error: A Sextet of Activist Poems
5 Islands Press, 2014
126 pages $29.95
At first blush The English Monster comes across as yet another historical criminal procedural. These are crime genre novels set in a historical era and usually full of anachronisms. Often the protagonist is the first of his (or her) kind to start to use a more modern forensic approach to solving some dastardly crime. In this case the year is 1811, the crime, known as the Ratcliff Highway Murders, is a real one involving two families brutally slaughtered in London’s East End and the detective is a former sailor turned River Policeman with a shady past. But The English Monster is much more than this and to label it as crime fiction for the genre trappings described above would be to do it a vast disservice.
The broader agenda of the novel is flagged early on. Interwoven with the 19th Century murder mystery is the story of a young sailor called Billy Ablass back in the 1560s. Billy has left his wife in Oxfordshire to go to sea and make his fortune. He ends up befriending a young Fancis Drake on a trading mission to Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese empires are on the wane and a new global force, an English force, is rising. The ‘trading mission’ turns out to be the Royally endorsed start of the slave trade. The ships scour the west coast of Africa, kidnapping tribes-people to be sold as slaves.
The book takes its time connecting the dots. The stories of the growth of the slave trade and the murder investigation circle around each other in a way that is not immediately obvious. But it is in the collision of these two tales that the thematic heart of The English Monster lies – in the inexorable rise of the British empire on the back of slavery and piracy.
And just in case it is not abundantly clear, one of the characters lays it out in reverie towards the end of the novel. He muses about ‘the birth of a great Triangular Trade: goods carried to Africa, exchanged for slaves, which were in turn exchanged for sugar which were in turn exchanged for British goods, and on and on went the great machine’. The London merchants caught up in the Ratcliff Highway Murders were just small cogs in this machine. But the novel makes clear that the birth of Britain’s nation of shopkeepers rested on the success of this Triangle.
Despite aiming for something deeper, on its surface The English Monster remains an enjoyable confection that effectively brings industrial revolution London and its seedy foundations to life. Lloyd Shepherd effectively manages to mix the facts of a real crime and real larger-than-life characters like magistrate John Harriott and a young Sir Francis Drake with speculation, invention, and a vivid supporting cast.
The English Monster is itself a bit of a monster mash of genres. Part murder mystery, part ghost story, part historical fiction, part thriller. And there may well be a monster worthy of Mary Shelley or Robert Louis-Stevenson at the melancholy heart of The English Monster. But by circling all of these elements around the question of who or what that monster really is, this is an experiment that, in the most part, works.
It’s Alive! : The English Monster or The Melancholy Transactions of William Ablass
Washington Square Press, 2012
Panache and Bravado and Extraordinary Luminosity: Omar Musa’s Parang and Judy Johnson’s Stone, Scar, Air, Water
Review by Lucy Alexander
It’s striking that the works of hip-hop artist and Australian Poetry Slam champion Omar Musa and prize-winning contemporary poet and novelist Judy Johnson reflect so well against one another. Where Musa’s work cuts an edge with a sharp slick blade – the parang’s many uses rolled about in Musa’s clear and definite style – Johnson’s poems trace the edges, the places where the cut and tear have left their mark, in their various stages of healing and decay.
Each of these poets starts in an intimate space – where the voice is set and the location defined – and transports the reader to ‘elsewhere’. In Musa’s case this is often to the jungle of his real and imagined Malaysian homeland. In Johnson’s she travels back in time to reveal remarkable tracts of Australian heritage and history. In this, these two books sit so well side by surprising side. They are strung together with similar themes of location and belonging, of how the personal explodes outwards to reveal the universal.
Musa has a video to promote Parang (which is Malay for a large knife that can be used as a tool or a weapon) and in it he recites the opening poem ‘A trance’ while he walks through the mist created in the Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery of Australia, and speaks briefly about what drives him to write poetry. With this piece he demonstrates that he is not only cross-cultural but also cross-media. He knows his audience, he is speaking to them directly – his poetry is there to be consumed, as it should be. But what strikes home about this promotion is that this poetry-writing thing is not what he’s known for: the video is acting as a bridge (as indeed his poetry and his persona does) between the tough-guy rapper image and the more contemplative side to his work.
Johnson has no promo video, but if you’re seeking to be impressed the poems in this collection have accumulated a long list of prizes and accolades. The longer poems are winners of the Banjo Patterson Award, the Patricia Hackett Award, and highly commended in the Newcastle Poetry Prize.
At the centre of these two books is this notion of place, or more specifically, of where the speaker is located, extending even the displacement of this voice. The titles are also worth comparing – Musa’s knife blade – which can ‘with a swish calligraphic/take a head/clean/off’ to Johnson’s Stone Scar Air Water: ‘to tell you how it once stood apart/stone, scar, air, water./And fail the moment pen touches paper/the two becoming one’. Each element of the collection, in some way a marker on the map of the body, a movement in the landscape.
With his subtle knife, Musa does have the capacity to leave the scar that Johnson traces through her poems. But, it seems, he also bears this scar himself. As he reveals in ‘In Amsterdam’: ‘the cold air stripped me of edges/and left me dancing/pure’. In Musa’s poetic the scar redeems, the very moment of being sliced open by the cold of the air, separating him from what he loves and longs for, allows ‘…joy & strength/& the perverse freedom of the lost’. The very title of the poem locates him in the measurable world, but what he explores is the arcane and unmapped spaces of the emotion, the heart’s remains.
Parang is full of panache and bravado. It delivers a heady tropical jungle of wrenching delicacy, balances the blunt instrument of telling and explaining with finely wrought writing as shown in ‘The Parang and the Keris’, which is central to this collection. Demonstrating his understanding of form, Musa uses the line of the poem as the edge that is sliced. The repeated ‘I’ resembles the blade itself, the handmade parang, which, unlike its magical cousin the keris ‘… is not heaven forged/blade five-waved,/smelted from metoric iron,/divine’. The clue to this poem happens at its centre, where Musa’s almost song-like lyric impulse tells us:
found the iron ore
in a river bed,
heated it bright, hammered the red hot
until sweat ran in my eyes
beat it into italic font
sharpened the blade
and carved my history in its handle.
The poetic device and the knife blade are at once the language and form of the self, a self-reflexive simile that can cut and be cut at the same time. The italic ‘I’ represents more that the persona of the poet, but the knife he wields in the dialect of the poem. A lot is achieved through this poem that would be lost in the spoken word or song that Musa often works in, and shows a multidimensional understanding of the capacity of the written poem to focus and play with language and form. This is why this is a book of poems, and not an album. As Jeet Thayil endorses on the back of Parang:
Never mind page versus stage. This is poetry: listen.
But perhaps it is the very use of this ‘I’ (extended to ‘my’ throughout Parang) that begins to gnaw at the reader. And the very confidence of the primary voice of the collection – that takes Dransfeildian pleasure in the woven word – begins to lecture, sweeps the knife a little too close to the reader’s nose and starts to insist instead of sing. In tracing the journey of the poet’s own revelations, perhaps the book as whole begins to bleed at the slice marks, and instead of writing from the personal to the universal it stays located too close in?
There is a chance that this criticism of Parang would go unmentioned if not for the comparison with Stone Scar Air Water, where Johnson takes on the voices of many characters, letting them speak for themselves. She thus breaks out of the confines of the poet’s self and the personal story. That is not to say that embedded within these characters there is not some element of the poet or no poems in the collection that explore the poet’s own experience. But Johnson goes on challenging the reader to find within the poems fictional selves based on real characters, and here she reveals the scars and slice marks of history.
In the longer sequences Johnson asks the reader to listen to the character’s more intimate thoughts, a technique that Musa employs, but only in terms of his poetic character’s self. Here, Johnson erases that self to become Mary Watson (a white woman trapped on Lizard Island in 1881) or Rose de Freycinet (who in 1817 stowed away on her husband’s ship) both of whom perish in pursuit of their freedom. Their stories are the scars on which we have built our modern life. They are feminist stories, and yet they are told with clarity of language that immerses the reader so completely in their experience that it is not until we step aside to take a breath that we see the pattern of the knife blade on the map. As Rose de Freycinet says towards the end of her sequence:
What else would be left
having searched and plundered every corner
of the earth’s vast pocket
but to turn it inside out
and expose the black lining?
Or in ‘Michelangelo’s Daughter’ where deteriorating from the scars caused by abuse the character models a figure from plasticine in the asylum commenting on: ‘A soul’s apparent muscular squirm/under its fallen circus tent’. Here Johnson seems to be drawing attention to not only on the act of creation (the poem, the sculpted object, the child) but also Johnson’s own place as author of the poem, somewhat theatrical, somewhat illusory in her ‘fallen circus tent’ façade.
Though it is interesting to note, throughout Johnson’s collection the I voice is reserved for fictional poetic characters, in the title poem ‘Stone, Scar, Air, Water – after Wang Wie’ the I is in abundant use. It is a personal sort of poem that shows off Johnson’s ability to take the ordinary and explode it into image after image of extraordinary luminosity.
Husked between seasons in this cinnamon air
I watch the sails of skiffs
on the birdbath lake
dip beaks to the tinseled water and realise
my heart’s adrift.
She writes of a personal longing, with finesse and clarity : ‘Leaving only words to recapture/detachment…’ and this seems to be what Johnson’s collection is circling around. The possibility to express the mood exactly and be true to both form and function of the poems while remaining at a distance, as far as language will stretch and the imagination follow.
Stone Scar Air Water
Walleah Press, 2013
Let’s talk, briefly, about fights. Humans love a fight – fighting is among the first things we do: the fight for breath, for attention, the fight to be heard so that we can be fed. And it doesn’t stop in childhood – we continue fighting for things we don’t have or for things we no longer have and want back until we can’t anymore. We fight on public transport and we fight in sporting matches, sometimes in our offices, in our homes. We fight disease; those suffering from cancer speak about the sickness as if it’s a contest. We fight to live and we fight not to die.
Despite this, we are supposed to think of fighting as barbaric, an act that epitomises the absence of civilisation; surely, we mutter to ourselves, there are other ways to work this out. Fighting is seen as primitive because it is. What happens, then, when civilisation and everything that comes with it – development, progress – is itself the problem?
The Coral Battleground by Australian poet Judith Wright is about a fight for preservation. It tells the story of the campaign by small but determined conservation groups to save the Great Barrier Reef in the 1960s and ’70s. That you know what the Great Barrier Reef is and have a fixed picture of it in your mind when you see its name, that you have maybe visited it or have vague plans to visit it or have received a postcard with a picture of its sapphire waters on the front is evidence that they won this particular fight. Wright famously said of the Reef that it is ‘the closest most people will come to Eden’. Her paean to it is an insightful, sometimes compelling, at other times tedious discussion of bureaucracy which ranges from the Queensland Government’s refusal to act on the outbreak of a then-small plague of Crown of Thorns starfish, to oil-drilling and limestone mining, to the fight to have the Reef – as a whole – protected. Because of the efforts of the conservationists, the entirety of the Reef, stretching from Cape York to Fraser Island, became a marine park where oil exploration continues to be illegal.
That the small conservation groups faced considerable challenges is an understatement; at the time, the Reef was not even considered a single entity, nor was it clear under whose authority the Reef was. The campaigning of the conservation groups helped to solve these problems, which in-turn helped to clarify the issues that they were facing, but there was also a continuing, and shocking, lack of biological knowledge about the Reef, not to mention a pathetic tug of war between the Queensland and Federal Governments over it. The cause of the conservationists is helped along at various points by sympathetic Prime Ministers, benevolent legal firms, and the fortune of the misfortune of damaging natural disasters and oil rigs and tankers blooming around the world like springtime cherry blossoms to catastrophic effect. Also helpful in putting the issue at the front of the public’s minds was an attentive media, especially The Australian which was pro-conversation during the period. Funny, hey?
There can be poetry in the idea of time taking things for itself, leaving us to wonder what could have been – in literature, the permanent loss of Homer’s Margites, for example. Too, there is something poetic about things being saved from the proverbial, and literal, fire – think of Max Brod’s refusal to put a lighter to Kafka’s work. Wright, one of Australia’s pre-eminent poets, sees no poetry here. The Great Barrier Reef isn’t something that time can swallow, it’s something that, save for apocalyptic calamity, humans can choose to either preserve or to kill. The style Wright employs is reportorial – very little of her own insights or experiences beyond the Reef are part of the story, and much of the time she is speaking in the first person plural – this is the conservationists’ story: ‘Rather than dramatising our encounters, I have chosen to give the facts and little more.’ Aiding in its readability is the fact that the founding members of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland were not trained biologists or lawyers and so they were all forced to break complex legal and biological information down into terms they could understand themselves.
Wright’s story of the Reef doesn’t so much as end as it does simply stop. There was no clear victory, and Wright and the other conservationists were under no illusions that the Reef would be safe forever after. ‘To me,’ Wright wrote in her Foreword to the 1996 edition, ‘it’s a kind of miracle that things have gone so well for the Great Barrier Reef.’
Let’s talk about fights again. Fights are at their dumbest when it’s a repeat of a previous fight, something that’s already been had out. The only party that likes the idea of a rematch is the loser. The Coral Battleground was first published in 1977; that it has been reissued this year by Spinifex Press is not a coincidence – things have stopped going well for the Great Barrier Reef. With plans to dump millions of tons of dredged sand inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the Federal and Queensland Governments don’t see a 2000km-long reef anymore, they see something resembling a rubbish tip. Wright was writing at a time when there was little knowledge of reefs not only locally but also globally. It could be argued that it doesn’t take reams of ecological studies to know that the Great Barrier Reef is special, but it shows a particular kind of foresight on the part of the various conservation committees to believe that it was indeed worth protecting. Now, we know so much more – and, yet, in an astounding and special display of fuckwittery, the ecological knowledge we do have doesn’t seem to matter. In a recent article on the Reef for New Scientist, chief research scientist at the Centre for Tropical Water & Aquatic Ecosystem Research at James Cook University Jon Brodie wrote: ‘Of the three big threats to the Great Barrier Reef – climate change, coastal development and agricultural pollution – only the latter is being managed on the basis of good science, and then only to some extent.’
‘Australia has something that exists nowhere else on the face of the earth,’ wrote Wright. ‘The idea that anyone would take the remotest chance of damaging the Reef is beyond belief.’ The Coral Battleground is a statement of property, a loving statement, but with the clear message that the Reef belongs to the people. People working together saved it, and people working together can save it again. But – and you know what’s coming next – in the same way that we have the power to save it, we have the power to both kill it or idly allow it to be killed. Wright, in closing, points out that the fate of the Reef is symbolic of the fate of the planet – when it’s doing okay, the rest of the place is doing okay. The Reef is about to be tested again.
The Coral Battleground
Spinifex Press, 2014
On the second page of Janet Galbraith’s first poetry collection, re-membering, there is a definition, a kind of sub-title: ‘to both remember what has been and to put together’. The ‘and’ here is vital because both activities are wound together in the collection. The poems do not simply look back and recall, but in the very act of such remembering so much is gathered up, brought back together: trauma, grief, love, healing, bodies, the lives of others, stories of those both known and unknown:
The blood red screams
are not only mine.
I am neither the end
nor the beginning
but one among many
call me in
call me out
call me to remember
and I will.
And I do.
There are evocations of raw, scarring pain and moments of quiet engagement with the body, both self and others, and with the natural world. In this way, the eight sections in the book, some dealing with a specific time or place, weave together as a testimony to re-membering.
And this re-membering is both a spiritual and a visceral, profoundly bodily process, as the first poem of the collection makes clear:
I am knitting a body
flesh flesh and spirit
a child shattered
It is ‘a becoming/sewn with shards’. (‘Patchwork’)
Given such personal material, there is always the danger of therapeutic poetry, the kind that helps the poet, but does not have enough distance from the experience to communicate to the reader. This is not the case here, because Galbraith’s careful crafting of words offers perspective at the same time as it recalls, and because she is so conscious of her place in a community of others, now and in the past, who have suffered and who offer healing.
The dispossession she describes is multiple: the wounds of the child, the adult, the people, the ‘wounds of history/countries stolen/the contradictions of who we are’ (Your Country). Perhaps the most confronting poems are the five untitled ones in the section ‘and…’ that begins ‘the child is trapped/in a box/filled with rats’. The imagery is powerful, almost too much — huge clowns, an exhausted rag doll, sharp claws, a hoe used as a weapon — but the strength of these poems is in Galbraith’s ability to hold back, to say just enough, to let the spare words speak.
The section ‘un-worded’ tells stories from a psychiatric ward: ‘Words shot me in the chest …/Screams and wails were the best I could do/and these were bigger than the oceans’ (‘Words’). Yet there are moments of wry humour and companionship, two people on a couch, watching a chef on the TV:
Brown skin holding
white toes entwined
we ogle the knife.
(‘For you who have beautiful feet’).
The moments, though, are tenuous, the poems all the more touching for their refusal to romanticise:
sitting in the gutter with a smoke
we keep each other company
But not too much
The collection is threaded through with signs of healing: from the body, from others, from story, and from nature. The body recovers, slowly and tentatively, but with a quiet strength. ‘Our Breath’ is a short, lovely poem that focuses the senses on the day: the light and wind in the trees, the call of a bird, traffic that sounds like the ocean. Finally, all of this gathers into the body itself, a gentle claiming of self and companionship:
We are alone
Breathing our breath
In and out.
The touch here is delicate and clear, allowing the few words to work so well.
A dominant theme of the poems is the possibility of restoration — not the glib celebration of pain, but the hard work of allowing wounds to fertilise what can be, ‘nourished by the decomposing debris/of what has been’ (‘Something Other’). In some of the poems dedicated to others, Galbraith’s generosity of concern seems to bring its own recovery in the larger vision of the world. And so there is concern not only for dispossessed Indigenous people, but for asylum seekers. ‘The Return (SIEV X)’ is a carefully balanced poem that is both subjective and objective at once, where the poet seems to relive and identify with that place of horror, panic and drowning of the SIEV X victims, yet to simultaneously recognise herself among the ‘us’ that turn away, because she lives in this country. But that isn’t the end of the story: Galbraith is co-ordinator, in Jaara country, of the Castlemaine Vigil in Recognition of Aboriginal Sovereignty and in Solidarity with Refugees.
One of the strongest strands in the poems is the power of ancestors’ stories to rescue and strengthen. They are
like worn accumulating roots
reaching deep under the water
into the muddy soil
so that when I fall in
give me a place to touch
beneath the silt
where all that has been
the material on which I walk.
(‘A Place to Touch’)
Again the apparent detritus, the silt, becomes a source of life. And as with other poems, nature is more than image, but intimately bound into story and relationship. The earth ‘sings me/caresses me/through the hands of a woman’ (‘Re-membering’).
In the final section, ‘writing’, words are restored enough to counter the earlier ‘un-worded’ section. Here, words seem to belong to the natural world. In ‘Yesterday’, a cicada visits the poet as she sits at her table writing a story about a cicada. As narrative and nature meet, the conjunction of words with the insect that sings so loudly and renews itself through shedding its skin, is suggestive of the power of words to recover and heal; ‘yesterday’ becomes ‘now’, and vice versa.
The cover design of this book has a simple series of images running across the centre from back to front: ten film frames of a bird in silhouette taking off over water that reflects the images, wings just touching it in the first frame on the back. Some of the images are blurry, the reflections even more so, the body and wings of the bird both strong and delicate. I’m put in mind of a still lake in the morning. It is a wonderful cover because all of these elements are gathered into this book. Memory is not static or absolute, not everything is clear, and flight demands work and muscle, but is ultimately beautiful. In the short blurb on the back, Suvendrini Perera writes of Galbraith’s ‘deceptively simple lines … saturated with meaning’. It is an apt description; on the cover, the still images, read together, from left to right, become movement, flight. And so it is with this collection where experience, thought, love and craft gather together.
Walleah Press, 2013
79 pp, $20.00
The blurb for An Officer and a Spy refers to its subject – the Dreyfus Affair – as ‘the most famous miscarriage of justice in history’. This is a big call and, as a quick straw poll of my colleagues and friends demonstrated, probably an erroneous one. Which is why Robert Harris’s new novel on the subject is so important. The Dreyfus Affair is important for what it can teach us about turn-of-the-century Europe and the forces that shaped both World Wars. But more critical are lessons around the misuse of the judicial process, the dangers that lie in the unchecked power of the military and secret services, and the manipulation of racist and nationalist sentiments which still resonate strongly.
Alfred Dreyfus was a French military officer accused of spying for the Germans in the dying years of the nineteenth century. German military power was building, France was still smarting at its loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1870, and the people were looking for someone to blame. Enter Alfred Dreyfus, the perfect suspect – he was Jewish so, in the eyes of the majority of the French people, not really French, moneyed, and had family in Germany. Dreyfus was arrested, questioned, put on trial and found guilty of treason. The verdict was based on evidence that was deemed too secret for either Dreyfus or his lawyer to see, handed directly to the judges by the secret service, and never made public. Dreyfus, who consistently protested his innocence, was convicted on that evidence. Ritually humiliated, Dreyfus was summarily packed off to Devil’s Island, the first (and only) prisoner sent there in over 30 years.
Harris’s story is narrated by Colonel Georges Picquart, a key but minor player in the original Dreyfus trial. Rewarded for his service at the trial, Picquart is put in charge of the ‘Statistical Section’ – the French secret service, and the area that had gathered the ‘evidence’ on Dreyfus. Picquart, a military man, does not support spycraft as a tool of war, he sees it as underhand and dishonourable. But it turns out that he is pretty good at it, and he begins his own covert investigation into Dreyfus. In time he identifies a second German spy in the French military. He soon realises that, rather than two, there has only ever been one spy and that Dreyfus was framed by the Statistical Section at the bequest of their political masters. And this is when Picquart’s troubles really begin.
Despite his commitment to and belief in the army and his ingrained anti-semitism, Picquart cannot deny the evidence. He decides that something needs to be done – that the army, and the country, can only be saved by revealing the rot within. The novel charts Picquart’s attempts to achieve this by revealing the army’s greatest secret – that Dreyfus was innocent, that the dossier used to convict him was ‘sexed up’. But the army has too much riding on the idea of Dreyfus as a traitor and the nationalist sentiment that the conviction supports. No one wants the truth or the embarrassment that it will bring and Picquart finds himself in a Kafkaesque world where he is the one put on trial and the traitor he has identified is not only protected but promoted by the army.
Robert Harris has written a number of historical novels. His authorial eye has wandered over the Bletchley Park code breakers during World War Two in Enigma and the Roman world of Pompeii. In each of these cases, as here, he assumes that many readers will know the basic outline of the story – that the codes will be broken, that the volcano will erupt. And yet, despite the end never being in doubt, he manages to deliver a riveting novel full of revelation and tension. An Officer and a Spy, despite being based on a history of court cases and correspondence, has an number of spy-thriller and courtroom set pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Homeland – piecing together rubbish from the German Embassy to recreate secret documents, bugging a German officer’s club by putting a listening device in their chimney, clandestine meetings with informants.
The Dreyfus Affair was a series of court cases and hearings, and transcripts of these are on the public record. The characters are all historical and the story is underpinned by a significant amount of historical documentation. And in the Author’s Notes, Harris refers to the reams of letters and reports that have only recently released by the French government archive. While he claims to be faithful to this record, Harris manages to breathe a significant amount of life into these proceedings.
The Dreyfus Affair occurred over a century ago but the themes of trials based on restricted information, the power of the security services and the military to protect their own and cover up mistakes, the power of racist ideology to drive political responses, the use of the media to whip up nationalistic sentiment, are very much still with us. If not the most famous miscarriage of justice in history then at least one of them. Harris does not have to work hard with this story for the parallels to be clear and he makes the exploration of them engaging and thought provoking. One would think, given its international prominence and lingering memory, that we would have learnt some lessons from the Dreyfus affair. But all we seemed to have learnt is how to do it all better.
An Officer and a Spy