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.

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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!’

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Hawraa Kash, Dr Kate Lilley, Yarrie Bangura

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

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

 

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

Posted on February 12, 2016 by in Verity La Reviews

Luna cloud

Luna Cloud, by Carmel Byrne


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In response to this warning Langford imagines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

        the great seas just salt on their fingers –

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

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

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

Martin Langford

Martin Langford

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

        Everyone busy
        and everything calm and polite!

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

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

As Langford writes in ‘A Marvel’:

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

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

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

And concludes with:

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

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

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

This is because:

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

Later this poem observes:

        There had to be bloodshed

        a hot scree of carnage     (p 99)

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

References:

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

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

Ground
Martin Langford

Puncher & Wattmann, 2015
$25

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Phillip Hall is a poet and essayist working as an editor with Verity La’s ‘Emerging Indigenous Writers Project’ and as a poetry reader at Overland. In 2014 he published Sweetened in Coals. In 2015 he published Diwurruwurru, a book of his collaborations with the Borroloola Poetry Club. He is currently working on a collection of place-based poetry called Fume. This project celebrates Indigenous people & culture in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria. Contact pagh910@uowmail.edu.au

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

Posted on November 20, 2015 by in Verity La Reviews

The specialReview by Lucy Alexander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Two things
      you left behind

      a mouthful of fingerprints
      bullets without a hole.

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

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

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

rob walker. Photograph by Martin Christmas

rob walker. Photograph by Martin Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

‘I play the shakuhachi…’ rob counters.

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

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

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

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David Stavanger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I swallow the lump in my throat…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

tropeland
rob walker

5 Islands Press 2015
RRP $25.00 (97pp)

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

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

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

What Spark Ignites an Activist? khulud khamis's Haifa Fragments

Posted on October 14, 2015 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Amanda Hickey

FullSizeRenderWhat is the spark that ignites an activist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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khulud khamis: photo by Talma Bar-Din

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

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

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

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

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

 

Haifa Fragments
By khulud khamis
Spinifex Books, 2015
173 pp; $26.95 (print) $16.95 (eBook)

____________________________________________________________

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

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

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

Posted on July 31, 2015 by in Verity La Reviews

FullSizeRender3Review by Stuart Barnes

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

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

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

        standing again on King David’s peak

        […]

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

        […]

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

        and listen.

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

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

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

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

        Each Christmas Eve I watched him
        assemble his collapsible canoe,

        […]

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

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

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

        (‘Alpine Sportsman’)

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

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

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

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

Before his death McQuilkin

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

        […]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among these serious poems are ones that spark with wit:

        elders pinkly grin
        broken teeth and betel-nut;

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

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

        (‘Volunteer Teacher in PNG’)

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

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

        […]

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

        There, that’s nonchalant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

        (‘A World without Birds’)

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

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

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

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

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

        on every open flower
        a pair of bronze-green insects

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

The poem ‘Iambic Pentameter’ is humorous:

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

        […]

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

‘Writer’s Cramp’ ends the collection:

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

        […]

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

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

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

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

The Nonchalant Garden
Liz McQuilkin

Walleah Press, 2014
64 pages, $20.00

_____________________________________________________________

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

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

Posted on May 23, 2015 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Camilla Patini

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

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

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

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

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Plaque at École Polytechnique commemorating victims of the massacre

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

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

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

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

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

 

____________________________________________________________

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

 

Species, Specimens and Stuffing: Kristin Hannaford’s Curio

Posted on April 10, 2015 by in Verity La Reviews

quollReview by Benjamin Dodds

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
    the queer
and strange discharge of a continent. Minutiae of curiosities furs, tanned
    revealed —
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 Curio (1)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:

Incision:

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.

Curio
Kristin Hannaford
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 2014Antipodes: Poetic ResponsesStars Like Sand: Australian Speculative Poetry, and on Radio National’s Poetica program.

What Lies at the Core of a Successful Family: Nigel Featherstone’s The Beach Volcano

Posted on January 30, 2015 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Amanda Hickey

The Beach Volcano_Nigel Featherstone_ Blemish Books_ 2014 (300dpi)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.

Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis 2012)

Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis 2012)

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
Nigel Featherstone
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.

A deeply felt love of land and the possible activist: John Kinsella’s The Vision of Error

Posted on September 26, 2014 by in Verity La Reviews

A deeply felt love of land and the possible activist: John Kinsella’s The Vision of Error

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.

Kinsella - smallThe 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.

John-Kinsella-ecoverThe 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,
flowerings?    (35)

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
John Kinsella

5 Islands Press, 2014
126 pages $29.95

A Monster Mash of Genres:
Lloyd Shepherd's The English Monster

Posted on August 22, 2014 by in Verity La Reviews

A Monster Mash of Genres: <br >Lloyd Shepherd's The English Monster

English MonsterReview by Robert Goodman

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
Lloyd Shepherd
Washington Square Press, 2012
398pp