by Jaya Savige
Reviewed by J. C. MASTERS
This is what happens when you binge
on beauty: eventually the orgy kills
(‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’, 19)
If you’ve ever sat in on a literature class, at some point you may have heard someone mention Charles Baudelaire’s description of modernity from The Painter of Modern Life (Le peintre de la vie moderne,1863). His essays are often quoted when describing the transition that Europeans in the 19th century underwent, from functioning as a primarily agrarian society to one that depended on industry and embraced new technology built on principles of speed and transition. Baudelaire defined modernity, and the new sense of ‘being modern’, as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, (and) the contingent”, and suggested that instead of looking to the past for guidance, individuals should embrace the “transitory, fugitive element” of modernity.
Fast forward a little over 150 years later, and though we live in a very different world to the one he described, Baudelaire’s words are still appropriate for describing the sense of fleeting impermanence and rapid, unceasing change that our world tends to impress on its occupants. I am reminded of this when I first open Change Machine by Jaya Savige; from its opening to its conclusion; it is transformation of the self and world that carries Change Machine through to its end. The unevenness and dense patchwork of Savige’s poetry, spread across four chapters titled ‘Mean Time Between Failures’, ‘Biometrics’, ‘Hard Water’ and ‘There There’, results in a deliberately kaleidoscopic collection that depicts the subjective individual at the heart of the world’s flux. At times quietly reflective, and at other times wry and snarky, Change Machine is the story of a stone navigating an ocean; mired in sand but bent and smoothed by the waves outside its command.
Savige’s poetry chronicles the impact of various forces that determine the shape of individual experience. There are moments of both tranquility and motion, interspersed with a variety of referential signposts that assist in orienting the reader in space and time. Many of Savige’s references are specific to his own experience, though others who grew up in Australia in the 80s and 90s will recognise various cultural touchstones, such as his suggestion that ‘For a stack of platypus at the corner store,/Pac-Man was our minotaur’ (‘Études’, 18). Mentions of poetry, literature, art, science and history abound: ‘Rimbaud in Salatiga’ (7) borrows from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) and begins: ‘This is how the world ends/with strange foliage, ficus and tamarinds’, while ‘a pissed-off Apollo, deciduous Daphne’ mix in ‘Wingsuit Lessons’ (87-89). References pulled from a Western cultural canon mix with modern Australia (‘I interrupt one of the Maroubra boys/to mock his neck tattoo of Ouroboros’ (‘Inferno’, 29), while poems such as ‘The Keeper’ (30) recount aspects of the years Savige spent in London and overseas. However, though the allusive signposts pile almost galette-like on top of each other, it feels like Savige does this intentionally (and as deliberate distraction) while the paradoxical permanence of memory eddies underneath, accentuated by winking jabs at himself and others:
‘The number of fools is infinite,’
replied the man from Eccles Street,
but not the famous bit about there being nothing new under the sun.
It is as though Savige is challenging the reader not to be carried away by his nods to NASCAR or James Joyce (‘the man from Eccles Street’ references Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Joyce’s Ulysses) but to ride the wave through to the moments of stillness. Closer to the end of his collection, ‘Coloratura’ lists a number of pop culture moments connected by semi-colons (‘Kylie’s hotpants; Dame Joan’s coloratura; Angus Young for mooning Illinois; Michael Hutchence’s death by autoerotic asphyxiation; [etc.]’) heavily struck through with a black line, suggesting the pieces that make up a life, though coloured by these moments and cultural memories, are not defined by them.
Change Machine is self-reflexive and playful. Savige is proficient and impish in his flirtations with language, and uses cultural markers as entry points into a poem such as the delightfully named ‘Bach to the Fuchsia’. His musing on childhood favourite The NeverEnding Story in ‘The Nothing’ uses the movie’s idea of the creeping, all-encompassing Nothing to describe the sense of alienation that has become attached to modern life as perhaps its most infamous condition:
Compared to the Nothing that is nowhere
yet engulfs all Fantasia
in The NeverEnding Story, all other celluloid villains
a child encounters seem vanilla:
none of Scar, the Queen of Hearts, Cruella de Vil,
Sid Phillips, Voldemort, Vader or Jabba
comes close to its sublime incomprehensibility
There are echoes of Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Snow Man’ (1921), which concludes ‘For the listener, who listens in the snow,/And, nothing himself, beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’ ‘Snow Man’ is often discussed in terms of its perspectivism, which suggests that the only way to know reality is through the subjective experience of the self. Savige compares the Nothing from The NeverEnding Story (‘He knew the void, the gist of entropy’) to other ‘celluloid villains’ that are ‘vanilla’ in comparison to the movie’s ominous emptiness. Celluloid means ‘of film’ and references motion pictures and cinema, but the word also implies the one-dimensionality of these childhood monsters; they are single cells in comparison to the multicellular organism of the Nothing. The ‘sublime incomprehensibility’ of ‘the void, the gist of entropy’, is subsequently seen everywhere by the speaker of the poem, once he recognises the Nothing as both existential chasm and the threat of the self’s eventual end that haunts awareness (‘Then you saw it everywhere: in Villon and Nin;/Boundary Street; an episode of Friends; a wind chime;/and later still, in the car park of a crematorium,/say, or a clinical waste disposal bin.’)
The reference to his partner’s miscarriage, explored in more detail in poems like ‘The Cobra of Djemma el Fna’ (5) and ‘Tips for Managing Subsidence’ (70-71), is just one of the many bodies that permeate Savige’s work. He explores human bodies, bodies of water and land, bodies of work, and Savige’s own, but for all the larger and various embodiments of subjectivity, Savige’s poetry manages to create a sense of enduring intimacy that crosses the divide between author and reader. His ode to the humble spork (‘for you were always a bit like me, spork: a half-caste gook, an incendiary Spock’) in ‘Spork’ (78-80) discusses the impact of his half-Asian heritage while growing up in Queensland:
beamed in by genetic monsoon and plonked down hard
onto a patio on an island
that gave the most rousing ovation to One Nation;
a slap in Pop’s face,
who’d fought in the Pacific;
up-close physical proof of the peril, produced
in his own
The distance created in this poem by praising ‘the cutlery of choice in war and prisons’ means that it is heavy with the unsaid. At times, what is unsaid has a more impactful presence in Savige’s collection, due in no small part to the motley of images he collects and arranges. The postmodern proliferation of signs and symbols has tended to function as a postmodern challenge to dominant Western narratives that prioritise a narrow group of ‘classics’ as markers of high culture. Savige aptly reconstructs a vision of what Jean-Luc Baudrillard termed the ‘hyperreal’; an endless generation of images that are copies of copies, while losing any connection to an original. Within hyperreality, experience is composed of auto-referential exchanges and ‘the murderous power of images’ kills any existence of reality beyond that which exists in the reference itself. Savige’s observation in ‘Coloratura’ (94) that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ (referencing a passage from Ecclesiastes 1:8-10) reveals his postmodern playfulness as deliberately and tightly constructed.
However, one of the effects of Savige’s pastiche is that the iconoclastic assortment of references become just that; pieces of a larger poetics, all equal in allegorical value. In a way, it artfully composes a patchwork quilt of Savige’s life where we are able to take in the cacophony of colour all at once, but it also means that things that could afford to stand out are given the same hierarchical and referential power as Pac-Man and the Maroubra boys. I speak more specifically of Savige’s use of Indigenous place names in poems such as ‘Mirrigin’ (15):
I wish I could say precisely where Yugambeh
ends and Bundjalung begins, but we only had the crumbs
of Indigenous history, local or otherwise, at school.
We were flat out distinguishing Mayor Quimby
of The Simpsons from Chief Quimby
of Inspector Gadget. And sometimes I feel like a fool
or a fraud when I speak with Sam or Tara June, or anyone
really, about the place I come from, grew up in.
While the prophesied effect of hyperreality is that originals are decimated, there is little acknowledgment within Change Machine that this is what is actually taking place, despite the poetry’s strong Antipodean flavour. The original First Nations inhabitants of Australia are given cursory acknowledgment within the collection, and while this lack of presence is noted within ‘Mirrigin’ as being symptomatic of their wider absence in Australian history and culture (which tends to be circumscribed to the last 200 years or so), without greater signposting of significance, Australia’s black history sinks into Savige’s sea of symbolic exchanges.
As the collection evolves, it seems to slow down while simultaneously speeding up. Individual poems, sentences and stanzas get longer, while the flickering rush of images creates a familiar medley. Though it becomes obvious that this is an extended march through the bureaucratic culture machine, Savige’s own self is a constant presence. Quotes from popular songs, newspapers, literary criticism, and 18th century journals dot the pages, while Savige’s ‘Notes’ at the back of Change Machine helpfully explain some of his more obscure references. (This, perhaps, is a kind nod to his audience; one cannot best navigate modern life without advice and assistance from those better-travelled.) Stylistically, longer exhalations formed from luxurious sentences (‘behind the wreck, further up, where the angelfish are flashing/in and out of the rust, and the moon wrasse nose you while egg-hunting’ (‘The Offing’, 32) are counterposed with the crisp staccato of lean word-towers in poems like ‘Work Do’ (21), that emulate the mechanised clicks of clock-in clock-out employment:
By the fourth chapter, ‘There There’, structures are breaking down and we are left with the self-reflexive pieces of a poetry under pressure. There are hints of this earlier within other chapters; ‘Her Late Hand’ (41) in ‘Biometrics’ splits the poem into two columns and you can read it holistically left to right, or take each column separately. Alone, the right-hand column begins:
din, gnat whir
hard tin wing
nth drawing I hart,
Savige’s reflections accelerate until they are mostly held together by the community of meaning he has built for us. It is as though language, so ably wielded throughout, has succumbed to the demands placed on it. Context is your map to rebuilding these pieces, which also reflects the necessity of context when navigating the pictures and sounds of an urban environment. In Change Machine, language is simultaneously a vehicle to and obstructor of meaning. In the right-hand column of ‘Her Late Hand’, the final stanza reads ‘rh, giant wind/grand within/writing hand’, which asserts the place of the subjective individual in communication. The emphasis on phonetics helps give the poem a concreteness; words are Savige’s building blocks of meaning but also symbolically function as the divide between the sign and signifier – a divide which is echoed in the distance between image and missing referent, and the Self and the Other. This is highlighted in poems such as ‘Stagger Lee at Her Majesty’s’ (82-83):
Like salacious columnists
we’re in bits just witnessing
‘The Body’ sluice
through a bank of tail
ored suits, still
hot as lime juice
on a torn
cuticle, to blithely dis miss the crab mousse–
two decades on from the all-out
of her work for Diet Coke in ‘88.
My patois is a heady mix of am
Savige’s ‘patois’ is demonstrated moreso as the collection wraps up. Change Machine ends with the phrase ‘ache hoof hour crate cram shelled wren,/hand haul off there shelled wren to calm’ in ‘Cinemetabolic’ (98-99), though interpretation becomes possible when surveying similar phrases like ‘you shld quit it at ones’ and ‘–yelp, use gassed it–’, which offer clues into his phonetic play. His recollections of an Australia where ‘Chook, Buddha, Wayne, Stink and Rod/rarely conferred/and even when they did they talked/around it:’ (‘Hard Water’, 63) communicate the place- and time-specific role of memory in building the self, which is a self that exists in the physical body as much as the mind. In trying to reconcile the cultural imbalance that has historically privileged mind and reason over the feeling, living body, Savige uses language’s physicality through sound and structure to underscore the importance of the body as the central arbiter of modern experience.
Ultimately, we, as much as the cavalcade of modern life, are change machines. Bodies penetrate all levels of Savige’s poetry in the guise of machines, and machines in the guise of bodies. After the cascade of references ends, we are left with the collection’s exquisite humanity and colour, which are the quiet skeletons in the densely allusive works. Savige’s Change Machine is an extended meditation on the influence of history and culture on the self, while also skilfully exploring how individuals cut across the din of modern life to embrace moments of personal connection.
J.C. Masters is a postgraduate student in English Literature at University of Sydney. She tweets @_jclyons
A Kinder Sea
by Felicity Plunkett
Reviewed by J.C. Masters
Growing up on the coast, I felt like the sea and I were easy and old friends. The water framed my first two decades of life; smeared in sun cream and rash vests, my parents would take me to the beach on weekends where I would happily sluice myself in salted air and water. I realised later that I only ever knew the edge of the ocean where its fingers and toes gently touched mine. The one time I was caught in a mild rip, I was panicked-filled with the crystal understanding this was a stronger and fiercer swell than I had known. I knew the water’s strength in much the same way I know the universe is big: as a concept relative to my own smallness. Felicity Plunkett in her new collection, A Kinder Sea, seems to have no such reservations or fear. Her work reads as though she is immersed in the same deep place where the bedrock heart of the sea collects people’s daydreams and elegies. She speaks with penetrating insight and at times, a heartbreaking clarity.
Plunkett is a Sydney poet and critic, and her first collection – Vanishing Point (UQP) – won the 2008 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for several others. UQP’s Q&A with Plunkett, published on the book’s release, asks her what the collection is about and her answer starts to unlock the expansive space the poems contain:
‘There is a widely-quoted and heartfelt letter from Emily Dickinson, in which she wishes her friend ‘a kinder sea’. That she probably never wrote this letter highlights the imaginative space A Kinder Sea occupies: it is a book of unspoken hopes, unmourned losses, of mute and unprayable prays and letters never sent.’
The imaginative space in this collection swells at the same point where sea touches land, with Plunkett having a foot in both camps but neither in both. Paul Celan’s quote that poems make their way to readers like messages in a bottle, used to begin the long poem ‘Glass Letters’ (6-17), is an apt description for the way Plunkett’s poetry caresses and then plunges into the heart of you, crossing the divide between writer and reader. The collection is tenacious and tender. It explores the spaces between solitude and isolation, resilience and dissolution, art and traumatic experience, and vitality and loss, while her technical skill means the barest of ripples articulate the thunder of the moving sea floor.
A Kinder Sea is divided into five chapters – ‘A Corner of the Sea’, ‘Carmine Horizon’, In Search of the Miraculous’, ‘Grace’, and ‘Heartland’ – and accompanied by an introductory poem, ‘Sound Bridge’ (1-2). The chapter titles also describe an ocean journey, an extended metaphor that Plunkett wields to explore relationships, solitariness, connection, and the body. In this respect, the nautical craft of the sailor becomes the worded craft of the poet, each carrying them above the tense sea-glass potential of chaos and loss. The first poem ‘Sound Bridge’ begins with Plunkett’s son and meditates on the struggle of releasing a child into the world:
My son sings the Lacrimosa in Hodonín: joy-
bright teens with a hundred Moravian choristers. Lurch
and tangle, the holding, the letting-
Quiet music: tension, strings and frame
of what we can’t teach, because we are still
learning: what I can’t protect you from, can’t
come close to, must damper, love. Words untrans-
latable, but we feel their heft, close: light
Lacrimosa, part of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass and a movement from Mozart’s ‘Requiem in D Minor’, frames the melancholy background to watching a child grow up. Plunkett’s enjambment, used liberally in this poem, emphasises the dual nature of this process. The ‘letting-/go’ is divided between stanzas, showing the space between the hyphenated ‘letting’ breaking off into nothingness and the forward-moving ‘go’ beginning motion in a new line. Line breaks are used to break up compound words, except for when she splits the whole word ‘untrans-/latable’ in the fifth stanza, suggesting that there are parts of this experience that cannot cross the divide between language and meaning. Additionally, the change in this process is between the actors, not the scene; Plunkett notes it is ‘The same/question, same notes in new throats, same lesson strung/across centuries’ but this question is described in terms of the ‘Lurch/and tangle’ of wanting to hold on while needing to let go. The poem compiles the opposing forces acting on Plunkett – similar to the ‘Quiet music’ and ‘soaring bars’ that her son sings – and we are given a clue to a larger purpose that lies quietly but solidly in the collection: the role of poetry and art in healing the self and filling the gap between self and other. ‘As in the piano’s belly, a bridge’ suggests the between-space where individuals can connect and where one can move from being at sea to back on land. The symbol of the bridge also features in her third-from-last poem ‘Bridge Physics’ (82-3), which opens with a quote explaining that two forces act on a bridge at any one time: compression (a force that seeks to compress or shorten) and tension (a force that seeks to expand or lengthen). These opposing forces frame her collection; ‘Sound Bridge’ and ‘Bridge Physics’ enclose her poetry with a controlled but dynamic push-and-pull, resulting in a book that quivers with kinaesthetic potential. It feels a bit like the collection is balancing on the head of a pin: the poems encompass smallness and bigness, silence and roar, and they tightly compress language while expanding through symbolic and allegorical potential.
The push-and-pull of the tides is mirrored in her longest poem, ‘Glass Letters’, which is separated into 12 stanzas of six couplets each and spread across 12 pages. The regular motion of the elegiac couplets bring to mind tidal movements, while the poem is balanced between smooth sentences and jagged edges. It has a number of allusions between the work of poetry and the in-out work of the water; ‘Words wash/and maul me. How diligently we fish/for a noun to release/our correspondence into grace[,]’ while ‘Brine/and absence pickle/your arrival.’ The imagery in these beginning poems set the scene for Plunkett to explore the likenesses between the behaviour of the sea and the experience of the self. It provides a backdrop to poems that detail what I have heard described as ‘big feelings’: the emotions and moments that threaten to drown us, and how art can act as a lifeline in these moments.
‘Songs in a Red Key’ (29-31) depicts Plunkett’s time in St Vincent’s Hospital, with the recurrent call of ‘red keys please’ breaking through the stanzas intermittently. There is a routine when asking for pain relief in a hospital; only one nurse at a time has the keys to the safe, but two people are required to open it and witness you taking the allowed medication. In any ward in any hospital across the country the semi-regular cry of ‘Who has the keys?’ can be heard echoing across rooms and puncturing the quiet. This poem has a regular but razored rhythm, imitating the sharp flashes of memory that piece together a time of sickness. Plunkett intones ‘Doctor, I have swallowed a glass/alphabet’ and the words sting in their jumpiness:
I need your blade to unstring
me, song’s puppet: shaking,
humming, undressing, putting on
slash-backed robes of distress
as though for some mortuary
curtain call, where jagged
breathing staggers still
from each of us laid cool
in Ward EM-U 4-2
red keys please (29)
As the phrase ‘red keys please’ is repeated, the tone of the poem changes slightly and Plunkett notes ‘my hubris muted/below drug’s sea levels’ and ‘Night’s shadows lose their hold’. The final line – ‘prosody neonate-fragile/dreaming of song and flight, ready/to batter jamb, sash and snapped/cord: open into air’ – describes the separate feelings of the self expanding into a red-keyed morphine haze and a mother’s world expanding when a child is birthed into the open air. The ‘snapped/cord’ is literally snapped between lines, and functions dually here as the self’s medicated release of the pained body and the cord cut between mother and child. Another poem ‘Three’ (68-71) explores comfort and kindness during times of pain and injury. The epigraph is a quote about the importance of being kind, while the poem’s second page ends with the phrase ‘Always alone/when pain climbs to ten.’ Doctors will often ask patients to rate their pain out of ten so they can gauge change over time. Plunkett implores another, describing their head resting against hers, and says she has only ‘small gifts’ to give: ‘a poultice of godless/prayer, mute infusion’, while from their ‘torn mouth’ they offer ‘consolation, calm’. These poems artfully describe what Elaine Scarry has called the “combination of isolation and exposure” that characterises pain. It reminds us that though we may reach across bodies to connect with others, in pain we are unavoidably drawn back into our self’s centre and settled in our own mass. In these times, kindness is a floating buoy given to people in pain to reel them back to shore and remind them that they will emerge in time.
As the journey into Plunkett’s poetic sea continues, her experimentation with form and sound increases. Individual words do the work of hundreds, while poems in rhythmic stanzas meet free verse arrangements. The recycling of lines in ‘Waiting Room’ (78-79) echoes the monotony of time spent waiting, while ‘Cyclone Plotting’ (36) and ‘Bloody Days: Monochrome’ (57-58) are turned 90 degrees to the left and printed in landscape. ‘Cyclone Plotting’ is a prose poem compiled of sentences beginning ‘The danger is that’ and the effect is cumulative:
The danger is that if I’m not lifted out of this hot storm everything will open, slippery and roof-shaking. The danger is that I have invented you, and your hip bumping mine promisingly. The danger is that the rain will wash away by lightning-flash glamour. (36)
Plunkett’s poetic world tilts on an angle and is reflective of the way that when danger comes, it comes all at once, immediately and overwhelmingly. It also ends with the phrase ‘The danger is that.’, though it is not obvious if the phrase ends the poem by re-emphasising that which has already been said, or if it opens out into possibility. The other landscape poem ‘Bloody Days: Monochrome’ is list-based and defamiliarises us to Plunkett’s experiences. These are not memories described in loving detail and delivered from one mind to another; this is an edited recounting stuttering across restricted form and bursting out of the weak spots in its seams. When reading it, I wondered how we would view our own lives if they were listed in pieces and turned on their side. Would my most vivid memories, described sparingly on an angle and totalled sequentially, still ring the same way to me?
Dawn clouds, red as history, press down. I linger under sky-soft counterpane.
Bells that peel the day into segments.
Seams of lost memories. I speak to children about forgetting.
Rising, a flush that says the muse is on her head: the weight of it, the deciding-to. (57)
Many of the sentences bring to mind Plunkett’s school days, from her first years to ‘8./My last school residency, three years ago’ and finally, ‘9./Small voices bring me to my knees.’ Like Plunkett’s first poem, we have come full circle: her earlier reflection that it is ‘same notes in new throats’ (‘Sound Bridge’, 2) finds her bearing witness to her children. There is also a subtle suggestion here: though we learn our tables and grammar at school, Plunkett’s fine-tuning of school tropes suggests a wry rebellion that can come from dismantling the rules of the system. Within the parts of our lives that require neat lists, Plunkett offers the option of literally and metaphorically turning them on their side, dividing the lines so each sentence seems to float in the air, unattached to its isolated number. This is indicative of her collection as a whole: though she has a number of free verse poems, other poems sit in neat couplets or quatrains and are rhythmically regular. It suggests that for Plunkett, form is more effective when wielded rather than abandoned.
Some poems are not as strong as others but in such a tight collection, even an unnecessary word here or there is noticed. I found some parts in ‘Yellow’ (26-28) slightly redundant, with some stanzas losing their punch because of this:
Big. Big as loneliness.
At our wedding he cried
and cried. She darkens, shoves
scrambled egg into a child’s mouth.
The joy of having once
been wanted congeals. She spoons
a final mouthful. (26)
Here, cogent imagery of congealing egg juxtaposed with a cut-piece from a happier time delivers the impact. Parts like ‘Big. Big as loneliness.’ and ‘darkens’ are already inferred by the strong images, reducing the effective delivery of the stanza overall. However, this feels slightly like splitting hairs because the collection as a whole is powerfully compelling. Plunkett has a unique talent for articulating precise emotional moments, while her experimentation with form and language is expertly employed and never slips into gratuitousness. Some poems manage to weave a vista into words (her closing poem ‘Inclined’ (89-90) is one standout example of this) while others expand effortlessly into emotional landscapes.
Each poem in A Kinder Sea functions as Paul Celan’s message in a bottle, crossing divides between then and now, alone and comforted, poet and reader. Plunkett builds bridges out of sentences, paying homage to journeys that ended in nowhere, words left unsaid, and love felt so deeply it defied language. Reading A Kinder Sea felt like having a hand held out to me; in isolation, adrift in our own oceans, Plunkett reminds us that there are ways back to shore.
- Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: OUP, 1987), 53.
J.C. Masters is a postgraduate student in English Literature at the University of Sydney. She tweets @_jclyons
By Ellen Van Neerven
Reviewed by DANIEL SLEIMAN
In reading poetry, we look for those rare moments where a creative sequence of words thoroughly subjects our thinking, our feeling and our knowledge to a momentary realisation of reinterpreted or interrupted truth. There are many of those moments one finds while reading Ellen Van Neerven’s poetry collection Throat (2020). Take these three lines appearing in different poems.
Take me to the back of your throat, I’ll stay
Language is empty without ceremony
Climate is our only bank
Neerven can say so much with so little. In fact, that’s poetry’s appeal and the/ir craft in writing reflects the tightness and complexity of its form. They display a matured economy of expression but are as comfortable writing longer narrative-driven verse.
One of my favourite pieces in Throat is only ten words long and finds its place in the section called ‘Whiteness is always approaching’. It is a title, which based on the section’s themes, could have easily worked as ‘Whiteness is always encroaching’.
I was a perfect GF but sometimes I was black.
These words are presented on two full pages, the otherwise emptiness or silence gives them so much more meaning. One is tempted to even continue the writing with their own insecure reflected prepositions in the empty space. There is so much more to be said, and those thoughts are instinctively taking place in the reader’s cognitive play.
The conscious stylistic choices are also replete throughout the collection. The use of the Aboriginal flag along with text in ‘Logonliveon’ serves as a punctuating reminder, self-identification and reconstructed meaning to fit the changing moment of technology and living. A treaty is drafted and presented to the reader questioning the/ir relationship with the production of the book but also of white Australia—a status quo, often neglectful of Aboriginal voices on the question of sovereignty. Australia of course remains the only Commonwealth country without a treaty with its Indigenous population.
‘Treaty’ presents the reader with so many questions to unpack. And Neerven does that poignantly. Hard truths demand hard questions. Neerven takes up the role not only of a poet but as an educator. The book comes with a reading list for ‘Whiteness is always approaching’. It includes writers like Ghassan Hage, Toni Morrison and Vivek Shraya. The white reader is undoubtedly urged to spend some time in this section.
‘Expert‘ and ‘White Excellence‘ are two poems that really hit the nail when it comes to white presumptions, white language and the critique of Black Excellence centred around the white gaze.
Think I got
a non-Indigenous girlfriend
who thinks she’s an expert
don’t know how she got her expertise
There have been too many white ‘experts’ on what matters to Black people. This was especially noted during the #BLM movement where Australian TV panels got a lot of flak for not inviting any Black speakers on issues that directly affected them.
‘White Excellence’ comes in many forms but my favourites are the ones who cook for me. Listen, make space. Buy black books, buy black music. Never assume to know what we think or what we want.
T.S Eliot once wrote that poetry is ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’. There is a measured concern in Neerven’s writing, whether it’s the devaluing of Indigenous languages, connection to land and water or gendering. It is a judgment both in critique and insight, but one that opens conversation rather than shutting it down. Whilst subtlety has always been the measure of art, there is nothing wrong with calling a spade a spade, and Neerven even titles one of their poems ‘Call a spade a spade’ where they take issue with the mealy mouthed semantics in our everyday political discourse. Don’t say ‘no worries’ say ‘I worry’.
In ‘Four Truths and a Treaty’ they write:
We gotta talk about sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in the community. No point pretendin it don’t exist.
As a queer Black writer, Neerven explores the sometimes-knotty intersection of sex and race politics. It is a lived experience, and it comes through in their words both genuinely, and in exploratory ways giving no defining answers but retaining our attention nonetheless vividly and honestly. In the section titled ‘I can’t wait to meet my future genders’ their poem ‘Body Flow’ imparts a resounding expectation or even resignation in describing their body.
I guess it would be fitting to describe my body here.
nothing to hide
hips in the wrong place
Neerven’s writing however is anything but unambitious, with Throat being her third published work following on from Heat and Light and Comfort Food. It is a work that tackles familiar themes, but one that is done with a uniquely sustained style and an undeniably fresh voice; a voice that one can return to on the page and in recitation and find added nuance and meaning and a reason to care. One cannot help but to find a certain affinity with the poems, and the writer, as one reads and rereads Throat. It feels like a crush.
In ‘Crushed‘ Ellen writes:
All my crushes
have been books
What a wonderful way to think about our relationship with books. With a red, sinuously coloured cover featuring lips, eyes, and with an evocative title in Throat many readers will feel attuned to Neerven’s latest work.
- T.S Eliot, ‘The function of criticism’ first appeared in the journal he founded, The Criterion, Vol 2, No 5, Oct.1923
DANIEL SLEIMAN is a Canberra based freelance writer. You can find his articles and works in Eureka Street, Crikey, The Quo, Meanjin, Peril, SBS and Overland.
by Intan Paramaditha
Reviewed by GABRIELA BOURKE
Reading Intan Paramaditha’s The Wandering during a global pandemic and in a time where all but essential travel within state borders is forbidden is a strange experience. In the author’s acknowledgement included at the end of this book, Paramaditha writes that the novel was ‘…conceived in New York, published in Jakarta and written over the course of nine years as I moved across continents…’. The imposed stasis in which I read this book though forced a contemplation of some of the most pressing themes of the novel: how do power, position and privilege determine where you’re allowed to go, and perhaps even more importantly, where you’re allowed to stay? Paramaditha’s ‘choose-your-own-adventure’, second-person narrative invites you to jet-set, from Jakarta to New York to Berlin and beyond, the impetus of the story depending on the choices you make and those choices formed by your own desires, ambitions and longings. The Wandering considers what freedom means, in a world where a yearning for elsewhere underpins so many of our encounters, and where travel is borne of boredom for some, but terrible desperation for others.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s line ‘Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living’ occurred to me more than once while reading this novel. A create-your-own adventure story imparts a responsibility: of choosing right, making choices that will carry you to a satisfactory ending. In fact, the decision fatigue I was already feeling as a result of moving house in corona-times was exacerbated by the requirement of choosing a path through the narrative, and by my desire to ‘choose right’. My first foray brought me to an end all too quickly – an ending that did not bring me the satisfaction for which I yearned. Retracing my fictive footsteps and finding a new way resulted in a relationship with an old, white man who seemed to have an obsession with young, Asian women. How did I get here? I wondered, despairing, moving backwards again, hoping there was a better way, and then again, backwards and forwards, realising as I did so that usually a novel, like life, won’t give second chances. In life, death signifies the end of one’s story on earth, whereas The Wandering gifts its reader that fantasy of acting on hindsight. Unhappy with reaching an untimely demise, I return to the point where I can salvage my life. Unfulfilled by a relationship, I travel back, choose someone else, carry on once more.
So who has the freedom to make mistakes? This is the fundamental idea on which The Wandering is built. Who has, as Tiffany Tsao puts it on the back of the book, the freedom to wander the earth? Not Fernando, with whom the narrator flees the US upon Trump’s election in 2016. Not Meena, the narrator’s friend and neighbour whose freedoms are curtailed by geographic and financial borders. What about the narrator herself, who has agreed to a lifetime of wandering, denied forever the opportunity to return home? Paramaditha’s commentary on the nature of globalisation and neo-liberal consumer-capitalism is both thoughtful and provocative. The realisation that the ‘you’ of the story and the ‘you’ who is me reading the text are chasms apart in terms of the restrictions placed on our passports is discomforting. The Faustian pact on which the story is premised forces a consideration of other real-life pacts made by people bargaining for their freedom as borders are erected and both the freedom to move and the freedom to stay is forbidden to all but a privileged few.
The Wandering poses questions, rather than providing answers. The encounters between people and places may bring home the sad realities of life for many, but somehow Paramaditha retains a sense of playfulness and spontaneity that makes this novel fantastically readable. For a novel premised on a Faustian pact and peppered with allusions to Greek mythology and Indian philosophy, sections like the blow imbue liveliness into references that otherwise might be slightly stuffy.
‘How will I be able to reach you when you’re travelling?’ asks Demon Lover. He looks despondent.
You stare at him, stupefied.
‘For God’s sake! Stop snivelling. Since when does a devil need a visa?’(6)
The Qur’an quoting, Cerberean-chihuahua toting Hecate is another good example of this novel’s light-hearted reimaginings of well-known myths and symbols, which provide a necessary counterpoint to the grimmer elements of the story.
In leafing through the book in readiness to write this review, some names and places leapt out at me that I did not encounter on my first reading. This is surprising, as I was diligent in my attempts to locate and travel along all of the offered narratives. I’m interested by these stories I’ve not read, and interested to consider why I’ve not reached them. Are some strains of the narrative too far out of my comfort zone that I subconsciously avoided them? Is not reaching these stories indicative of some truth about my own identity, about the limitations of myself and where I’m willing to go, what opportunities I’m willing to run with?
Paramaditha’s novel allows for a uniquely individual experience, and one which might be borne from the reader’s cultural, financial, generational or other background. An individual’s experience of this book is likely to be as diverse as one’s experience of the world – an admirable feat, and one in which it’s worth immersing oneself. The Wandering may have had some teething issues, but it’s strong enough, creative enough, joyful enough and certainly ambitious enough that I’m already looking forward to Paramaditha’s next book.
GABRIELA BOURKE is a sessional academic and doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney. Her work explores the representation of nonhuman animals in contemporary literature. Her work appears in Southerly and Mascara Literary Review.
Petra White lives in London. Her most recent book is Reading for a Quiet Morning (Gloria SMH 2017).
Because I was permitted to
I waded through water.
Eyelashes still as the tiniest fronds.
The pond pure sleep,
a demon thrust down into the dark,
the nestling of elm roots.
Then the slow drip of colour
in the mind, a friend
for the seconds the light held.
I walked out into new darkness,
where I was permitted to go,
the moon waiting for me
like a piece of enchantment
I was taught to resist.
The moon, with its grey blotches,
white as as my father’s face.
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
Unseasonable as a warm winter, pale on an utterly rainbow afternoon.
Not begging to be heard, not begging at all.
Here, everywhere, outside the window, on the streets and in the parks
danced men with twig like women in their ravenous arms, a dance
like that of creation, half terror, half the terror of love.
I fumbled into my small
red revolting car that smelt of rain and clattered with dirty coffee cups.
In traffic waited like a stumped parrot on a rod.
Then windows wide, the brashest air gushing in.
I drove and drove and never ran out of fuel.
And the road did not run out, the world turning in the sun’s glimpse.
Unbearably fresh the yellow flower fields
blazing in the heat
like crowded slabs of hell
the yellow flowers
blazing like tomorrow,
when I land and weep
the yellow flowers blazing like my skin
behind a hot windscreen,
pounding me into the here, the trickle of sweat.
When body becomes body,
only the flowers seem to sing.
See the muscular roos they leap above the nose-tickling weeds,
their flanks curved like machinery, paws bristling about the thin line
that is neither heaven nor hell but the tickly brush of the instant, barely tolerable.
Oh humans. Grainily composed of future and past,
who are, Rilke said, forever saying goodbye.
Suppose I got my teeth down into the instant, and lived there,
who would I know? The ‘open’, he called it.
How a spaniel enters a room and is instantly part of it,
how he knows just enough to get by,
fixing on a human like an apple grafted to a pear.
How a woman puts her head in her hands after a difficult conversation, how another says,
I am a tree planted halfway up a hill, I cannot spread my canopy to the top.
How the human hope sparkles everywhere.
Where is the chorus that wails around the car,
who sings the notes that make suffering true?
Melancholy silvers the tongue with ice,
freezes the self.
More light, more light.
Soul sits on a high shelf and eats breakfast,
the moon is a broken cabbage below her.
The god that created hell
and the hell that created god.
The strange joy of desiring nothing.
Wide sweep of road
and the waving spinifex know no minutes.
Only blank sunshine, desert.
The car carries nothingness,
empty seatbelts glinting in the light.
I stopped at a roadside diner and ordered chips, the only food, with ten different sauce bottles,
prepared in the bubbling silence and grubby neon light of the lonely diner
where nine people lived in the midst of vast planetary scrub and wind-bent trees,
feeding giant road-trains that arrived and left with a million lights dancing
each driven by one poor-postured man all day and night in solitude.
Colossal swathes of road like time, stretching before and after.
I sing the whole human package with its clutch of knowings,
the heart with its grappling of love, statistically half open a quarter of the time.
The body that travels like Ophelia into the estuary with hands outstretched
and nothing in them but reeds and echoes
of when the dust of the present washes off the fingertips entirely.
A journey unfolds of itself as the road unfolds beneath the tyres.
And then I turned toward death, my durian-scented hitch-hiker.
Life, he said, that reddish glow, it yet haunts your cheeks.
He spoke and as he spoke I could not choose but hear.
I stand like an animal with life and death intermingled in me, not unlike you
who have never felt more alive.
What if I offered to take you off your own hands now?
What would you say?
He said, like one who could not politely be refused.
The smell of chips ghosted the car.
The black road had gripped my soul.
I prayed for a stay of dawn.
And I clutched his thready arm.
Can we be friends instead? Will you visit me again?
Before long, he said, before long.
And vanished, leaving me with the long haul of life.
Always asking, what next, what now?
The formal voice that sings the formal notes.
By David Stavanger
Reviewed by DAVE CLARK
I recently attended a training course that looked into depression. As I sat, sipping on an Earl Grey tea, the presenter went on an acronym spree, throwing them around like a farmer with an excess of seeds. I was beginning to feel lost with the terminology when a lady across the room called out.
‘None of this will help the people I work with.’
We all paused in wonder. The presenter, flustered by what they felt was an unnecessary interruption, ploughed ahead with the phrasing that he knew, continuing to lock many of us out of the discussion. The lady threw her hands up in the air and called out again.
‘This isn’t how people describe their experience of mental illness.’
Sweat pooling on his brow, the presenter was now the one who seemed lost.
‘Well, um, you’ll have to find ways of explaining it to them,’ before reverting back to jargon that put the barriers back up.
Working in the field of mental health as a counsellor, I have seen for many years how the language used around mental health can block people out of their own experience. It constrains them, shames them. People can be reduced to a number, a label, a stereotype, a problem, an illness. Their find themselves on the other side of the door, locked out of their own story.
David Stavanger’s latest collection of poetry, Case Notes (UWA Publishing, 2020), picks up a crowbar at the outset and pries open the door for more than a peek inside. As the poems unfold, there are times where his works cut open a hole in the wall and leads the reader through, bypassing dehumanising phraseology and into an intimate, raw and illuminating insight of lived experience with mental illness.
The book of thirty-seven poems steps immediately into the impact of bi-polar depression, suicide, medication and electroconvulsive therapy, revealing them with wording that puts skin and bones back onto mental health. About medication, he writes,
‘They taste like a mixture of chalk and talk shows’
About the complexity of depression, we see that ‘he wants guarantees that can’t be given’ (p12) and that ‘Certainty is the strangest thing’ (p23).
No hard-and-fast words that package it up neatly. Instead, Stavanger steps beyond bland phrasing and poignantly describes an intricate world of ambiguity. His poem, ‘Electric Journal’, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Newcastle Poetry Prize, sees the writer trying to keep hold of his mind. Stavanger is able to breathe words into corners of mental illness that are usually, at best, misunderstood, and often, disregarded.
Halfway through the book is a poem called ‘P is for Power,’ listing roles starting with ‘P’ who hold influence. Patient is not one of them, and Stavanger uses his writing to claim some of his power back, and in doing so, giving some to the reader. This is a compelling skill and one that I was moved by throughout the collection.
The works not only deal with mental illness. They pivot into balding, bingo, fading relationships with fathers and being a father to his son. And yes, dogs. Dogs are mentioned over fifty times in Case Notes, including a discussion between the writer and his dog in ‘Dog Minding.’ Who’s the writer and who’s the dog is up in the air and adds to the enjoyment of the piece.
I found a trilogy of poems about his relationship with his Dad especially touching. The lines
there’s no way
to resurrect the living’
will surely strike home for anyone who has found it difficult to relate with a parent and the regret over what has been, and what continues to be, when looking at those figures that raised us. There is a tenderness expressed in these writings, lamenting that it is possible to have a pulse and yet still not be fully alive.
Another topic to explore in his works is the one around toxic masculinity. ‘How to be an Alpha Male’ highlights the destructive façade of the social script fed to many of us men over the years. It is an area that needs to continue to be discussed and pulled apart, and I would be interested to hear more of it from Stavanger’s satirical perspective.
Not only is there clever pivoting of topics throughout the collection, Stavanger uses an array of forms – free verse, lyric, cut-and-creatively-paste from discussion forums, poetic memoir, prose – to keep the reader’s interest up. And throughout is a playful, wonderfully absurd use of language. At no point did I find the humour degrading his experience of mental illness. Rather, the black humour and flat-out whimsy provided a clever counterbalance to the weight of what he addressed and left me laughing at regular intervals.
In the poem ‘Mental Health Week,’ he writes:
‘If you tell them such things
they will tie you to the nearest chemist.’
There’s this outstanding line in ‘Male Patterns:’
‘In the savannah of middle-class suburbs
you seldom see a bald man lose a street fight
with a wheelie bin’
And also this cracker – ‘I got into $ for the art’ (p76).
These turns of phrase occur at a pleasing rate and caught me off guard every time. I dare anyone to read his glossary of terms at the back of the book and not burst into a blazing smile.
Each line in this book is well-crafted, bumping you further along a path you didn’t know you were walking down, but glad you did traverse. In a recent interview with Jackie Smith (Smith 2020), David spoke about how he wrote some poems as an unreliable narrator. To my reading, this cleverly reflected the variability we find in our own minds, regardless of the state of our mental health, sometimes stumbling along to who-knows-where. Case Notes does this with deliberate vulnerability and incisive wit.
I agree with Ali Whitelock’s (Rochford Street Review 2020) assessment of the book, that it gets inside you and reminds you of your humanity. In a world where stigma and acronyms and labels predominantly fill up the experience around mental illness, this work pushes that aside to reveal a beating heart and a mind fighting hard to get itself back. It brings clarity and gives an approachable language to complexity. That is a welcomed feat. And while he says in interviews that he does not write for awards or his peers, it is no surprise that four of the poems in this collection have been shortlisted for prizes over the years. Unsought-for but worthy recognition for one of Australia’s finest contemporary poets.
The final three poems in the collection release some of the pressure built up from a tightly coiled selection, showing us an author finding hope, recovering in the waters of the ocean and a sauna. He remarks at the start of the final poem, ‘New Age,’
‘We dream, we heal, we are reborn’
To capture in poetic form the struggle of mental illness and the steps towards healing is an achievement. To capture it in a way that leaves the reader wanting more of it is a sign of a collection worth reading, recommending and reflecting upon. And whether it was Stavanger’s intention or not, this work provides one more key to the doors that usually lock people out of their own experience when it comes to mental health. Thanks to the poems in Case Notes, the barriers of stigma and acronym-filled-labels are one step closer to being undone.
Rochford Street Review, 2020, Reaching inside you: Ali Whitelock reviews ‘Case Notes’ by David Stavanger, https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2020/09/03/ali-whitelock-reviews-case-notes-by-david-stavanger/. Accessed 2/10/20
Smith, Jackie 2020, Exploring ‘Case Notes’: an Interview with David Stavanger, https://jackiesmithwrites.wordpress.com/2020/05/16/exploring-case-notes-an-interview-with-david-stavanger/. Accessed 2/10/20
Stavanger, David 2020, Case Notes, UWA Publishing, Australia.
DAVE CLARK in an emerging writer-poet who does his living and breathing in Alice Springs. He works as a counsellor and enjoys reading, photography and giving voice to silenced stories. His works have appeared in Verdant, Adelaide, Glow and read on 8CCC and ABC Radio.
by Victoria Hannan
Reviewed by MEGAN CHEONG
In lockdown, distance regained some of its former authority. For six of the last twelve months, many Melburnians have lived, worked and didn’t work within a five kilometre radius of their home. My parents live 22 kilometres away, and though there isn’t a great tradition of hugging in my family, I spent much of lockdown longing to see my two-year-old wrap his arms around his grandfather’s neck.
I think it was this particular longing which made me feel, acutely, the distance between Mina and Elaine in Victoria Hannan’s Kokomo.
‘I guess you know why I’m here,’ she’d said the day before as she’d pulled out a wooden chair to sit opposite Elaine at the table.
‘Why don’t you tell me,’ Elaine said, her voice taut.
‘Mum…’ Mina studied Elaine’s face, her long thin nose, her cool blue eyes; she looked older, tired, just as sad. She wanted to hug her mother, but instead she reached over and put her hand on Elaine’s hand. Her skin felt cold like paper. They sat there for a minute, their hands touching. ‘Are you –’ Mina started, but Elaine stood.
It has been seven years since Mina left to work in London, and 12 years since Elaine last stepped out the front door of the family home. When Elaine is seen out on the street, Mina is called and immediately flies back to Melbourne full of questions that Elaine seems to have no intention of answering.
Across the road, the Chengs offer a different model of family life. Both Kira and her mother, Valerie, wrap their arms around Mina when they first see her after her long absence. Their house smells like ‘fabric softener on just-washed sheets’ (10) and glows golden, ‘warm light beaming from all the windows’ (33). The contrast between Elaine’s cool reception and Valerie’s garrulous welcome is so stark that I am briefly worried about the dimensionality of the characters. I am tired of reading mothers whose lives seem to begin and end with motherhood, mothers like a stain on the intricate tapestry of the protagonist’s past. Then, gazing at a family portrait of the Chengs in matching red velvet outfits, Mina is struck by a feeling, a ‘want’ that ‘growl[s] and stir[s] deep down inside her’ (11), a surge of unmistakably sexual desire that interrupts my mounting indignation about the prevalence of flat literary mothers.
This kind of uninhibited swerve characterises the acuity of Hannan’s depiction of Mina’s psyche as a tortuous network of lacunae and hunger. Though it is a rare pleasure to read a novel set in Melbourne, and so to be able to fill out the details of the brown brick porches and the birdsong, Kokomo is deeply rooted in the psychological, presenting readers with a highly filtered version of reality. As Mina circles in and around her childhood home, her thoughts range from Melbourne to London, past to present, love to sex, cycling endlessly back to Jack, her co-worker and the object of the desire that permeates the novel. She tugs compulsively at the screen of her phone, waiting for a message, some kind of contact, some sign of reciprocal feeling:
She looked at the message to Jack again. Delivered. Ignored. She knew his phone was never out of reach, that he slept with it under his pillow, that he looked at it when he woke up, in meetings, constantly. He must’ve seen her message. He must’ve. This was the longest they’d gone without talking since they started working together just over a year ago. She reread the message. Maybe it was too cold.
I’m too cold, she thought. I’m a bitch. I should’ve said something cute, something sexy. It should’ve been a small x, two? One big, one small. I’ve fucked it all up.
The swarm of assumptions and images that rush in to fill Jack’s silence and the way in which Mina obsesses over the orthography of her message is uncomfortably familiar. In the moments between Mina and her phone, Hannan captures the work we put into constructing ourselves with embarrassing clarity, yet something beyond flirtation is at stake here. For Hannan, the social media age is one of distance and longing. The distance between who we are and the person we carefully curate in text messages and posts only adds to the distance between me and you. In Kokomo, social media is a form of surveillance, everyone watching each other without ever reaching out, the ‘double tap…an easy substitute for friendship’ (64).
The distance between what is real and what is imagined is situated at the focal point of the novel. As well as struggling to rediscover the self that was swallowed up by the tragedies of her past, Mina works hard to reach Elaine, the Elaine buried under years of motherhood. And far from neglecting the character of the mother, Hannan makes a poignant centrepiece of Elaine’s life in a way that reminds me of all the stories and all the living stored up in every one of us. All of it within reach if you just reach out.
MEGAN CHEONG lives and works on Wurundjeri land. She is currently working as an editor and completing her Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Her work can be found in Overland and Farrago.
Yumna Kassab is a writer from Western Sydney. She studied medical science and neuroscience at university. Her first book of short stories, The House of Youssef, has been listed for prizes including the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, Queensland Literary Award and The Stella Prize. Her writing can be found online at Kill Your Darlings, Sydney Review of Books, Peril Magazine, Meanjin, The Sydney Morning Herald and now Mascara Literary Review.
Woman // Her Words
Alexis, 37, 1994
You can bring the horse to water but you can’t make it drink. You try to help people: you give them things, you teach them, and what do you get for your efforts? Nothing, absolutely nothing.
In the 70s, they gave them houses, they gave them jobs, food, they sent them to schools but you take the man out of the jungle but you damn right can’t take the jungle out of the man.
Those homes, drive 20kms that way and you’ll see what’s left of them. They took off the windows first. Then they started building fires in their homes. If they were hungry, they’d loot the general store and bugger the handouts we gave them.
Karmila, 22, 2007
Australia says no? That’s funny. There he is beating the crap out of you and you’ll tell him: hold a minute while I call this number. As if you’d ever do that. That’s well and good for people like them but you know who survives in the end? The one who keeps her head down and her trap shut.
Brigid, 41, 1988
We went for two weeks. We thought two or three days for the wedding to set our nails, get our hair done, and then they’d go off on their honeymoon, and we would be free, but by the time you factor in the jetlag and the little one being sick, we had a couple of days to ourselves, and the next thing you know, we’re packing our bags and heading home. Still it’s a lot more civilised than this circus of monkeys.
Ebony, 20, 2011
A woman walks into a bar, alone. People are going to talk to her. If you don’t want that, don’t go to bars.
Josephine, 52, 2008
You’re pretty adventurous for a Muslim girl. How do your parents feel about you going on these trips by yourself?
Marlene, 29, 2005
Everyone knows he hits her. It’s so obvious. How many times can you walk into a wall or a door? So far I’ve heard it’s a door, the wall, she tripped down the stairs, her hair got stuck in the drier, it’s from kickboxing. I don’t see why she doesn’t just pack up and leave. It’s that simple. Get your things together and go. You don’t need him. It’s not only that. You get tired of the stories. I don’t want anymore of it. Stop spinning your lies. We all see through them.
Amal, 41, 2018
I only listen to female musicians. I’ve had enough of men singing about hoes and bros.
Zizou, 65, 1992
The purity of the bloodline must be preserved. Our traditions, we have had them for thousands of years and just because we’re living in this country doesn’t mean we let go of what our people believe. These are our ways. They are your ways. Don’t you ever forget that.
Samah, 32, 2016
I knew the moment I saw him he was gay. He was wearing jewellery. I wanted to say to her: can’t you see it? It’s so obvious. I wonder if he’ll tell her or if it will drag on for months.
Francesca, 37, year unknown
I got sick of him calling me sweetie and honey. He’s my manager. It’s so unprofessional. And he’s only two years older than me. That makes it worse. So on Saturday, I sent him an email. Would you mind – I put this in the email – not calling me sweetie or honey in the interest of maintaining a professional relationship? I haven’t heard from him yet.
Saaeda, 72, 1999
She should be a teacher. Or a nurse. Those are good jobs for a girl. No engineering or being a mechanic. What man wants to come home to a wife with dirty fingernails?
Hala, 46, 2006
They brought up my carbon footprint again. What about the impact of your travelling on the environment? Don’t you care about the environment? So I said to them: what about the carbon footprint of you having kids? That shut them up.
Najwa, 5, 1987
There was a woman in the bank. She had a moustache. Mum said she’s not a man.
Marina, 40, 2001
I feel I have two woman trapped beneath my ribs. The first one – she wants to live an ordinary life – go to work, come home, cook, clean, sport on the weekend but the other one says that’s not good enough, you need to do more, you need to be living a super exciting life. Most days I have no clue what’s exciting anymore. You know what excites me, what turns me on? Staying at home with a cup of tea and a book.
Sam, 63, 2017
Every year, I like to go away somewhere new. I go away overseas…a week to myself…a new country. It keeps my mind fresh. It stops me from being bogged down in my routine.
Kathy, 59, 1990
I’m still wondering what I want to be when I grow up.
Marjane, 37, 2016
I wish she’d stop playing the victim. You’ve got it tough? So do the rest of us. The difference between us and you is we don’t sit around complaining about it. We get on with it.
Salam, 49, 2013
Lots of mums bring in their kids pretty young. They don’t want to but they have to. This is an expensive city to live in and they have bills, a mortgage, they have older kids in sport and so on but given the choice they’d want to be spending the time with their kids. We have a few newborns at the moment. I feel sorry for them. I get to hold a woman’s baby while she’s off working to make ends meet. You see it in their faces. It’s guilt, pure and simple. They know they’re missing out on time with their baby. I remember the first time I told a mum her daughter had taken her first steps that morning and I thought she would be excited, that this was good news, but it made her feel terrible that she’d missed out on her kid’s first step. Now I say nothing. I let them believe they said their first word at home, that when that little one takes a step in the living room, that is their first step.
Angeline, 28, 2003
We all assume that people are telling us the truth. We act as if there aren’t a million ways people lie. It might be the detail left out, it might be the choice to remain silent for a whole bunch of reasons. When you get a version of events, you think it’s the complete version. Nine times out of ten it’s not.
Shereen, 32, 2018
I am tired of living in the suburbs where nothing ever happens. These places are made for work and there’s nowhere to play. Each weekend, I go east to seek out new people and experiences because it’s so dead here. I mean literally nothing happens.
Zena, 21, 1994
You say a sentence, you dismiss an entire person’s life.
Zeroic, 35, 2018
My mind is not for sale.
Leila, 22, 2000
If something is destined for you, then it is destined for you. You don’t fight it, you don’t argue with it. In life, you have to surrender. Not everything is in our control.
Konsta, 42, 2017
You wouldn’t believe what she did. She called me up to ask if she could have a slice of cake. I thought she was joking because who would eat someone else’s birthday cake? She laughed as she ate my cake. She actually had the nerve to go ahead and eat it without me.
Brodie, 24, 2019
The crime is so much worse on paper.
Pearl, 73, 2004
Our lives were made out to be lesser than theirs. It took me years to see that.
Nicole, 45, 2004
Modern feminism has lost its way. Once upon a time, women protested with “Take Back the Night.” It took me ages to understand what that even meant. Take it back where? What does it mean to Take Back the Night? And you realise that there are black spots in every city. You simply don’t go there if you know what’s good for you. Maybe it’s like that for men too. I don’t know but as a woman it’s drummed into you where you can and can’t go. You are taught to fear while men, it seems, are the captains of their destiny and go where they please. And you have to ask how do we go from that – protesting we should have the safety in dark places – to a politician advising a woman to not walk in the local park at night because that’s asking for it. We have to remember a victim should never be blamed for the crime. The onus is on the criminal, for society to act and say clearly this is not acceptable. I blame feminism. Somewhere along the way, we gave up. Maybe we just grew tired of our demands not being heard. There are times in life you accept your lot, you throw up your hands and you accept your place in the machine.
Mimi, 9, 1989
Mummy went crazy. They took her away. Daddy cooked our breakfast. I tie my hair and my friends plait it.
Cass, 32, 2006
Whatever you do, don’t cross the river.
Ursula, 35, 2001
You could say she had enough. It’s easy to reach breaking point. Every single day, there’s so much crammed in, so much to do, there’s bound to be something left undone. So she packed her bags and left just like that, no warning. Her daughter says she took one suitcase, the neighbours say she walked off with her handbag and sneakers in a Kmart bag. She caught the 11:09 train. She hasn’t called, she doesn’t answer anyone’s call but she’s kept the same number. You can call it. It’s not disconnected or anything. Her daughter wanted to declare her missing but the police say they knocked on her door, made sure it was her, asked some questions and then closed the case. The police had these words to say to anyone who asked. “She’s a woman best left alone.” Her daughter says: are the police saying that or were those her exact words? Either way, does it matter?
Disclaimer: Any resemblance to real people, living or otherwise, including their speech, is purely coincidental. The writer refuses any responsibility for words or whole sentences misheard. Years and names have been changed to protect the identity of the speaker.
Nicole Smede is a musician, poet and educator of Worimi and European heritage, exploring a reclamation and reconnection to ancestry through language, poetry and song. Her work has been broadcast on national and international radio, published in anthologies and journals and features on ferries, in visual art and sound art works. Nicole is grateful to live, learn and create on Dharawal country. https://nicolesmede.com
I hear voices of ancestors
crossing this country
with an anxious energy
I tread carefully
amongst old Lore
old grandmother trees
to ancient summits
where songs ebb
and flow with the wind
the songlines of my body
stirring the spirit within.
platypus in Gatthang
The landscape vibrates loud
beaming brightly from boulders
an intense hum of wings
where fearless thrill seekers
deep sea divers
rocky shelves overhead
trembling under our feet
stoney shoals set
immersed in cool silence
we tread tranquil waters
toward the embankment
we tread water
and the soundtrack rings loud
in our ears.
Yellow blossoms –
like bright shards of light
disrupt this green and grey landscape
they’re early this year.
Damp moss softens
underfoot moulded steps
and I ascend this rocky slope
does it, like the trees
recall my last visit?
birds in syncopated song
cut through crisp air
like the cold to the tip
of my nose
all is alive
in an awakening spring.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain
by Mirandi Riwoe
Reviewed by KATELIN FARNSWORTH
‘Meriem hopes that her wounds too will mend, that her jagged edges and disfigured depths will fade. Disappear. That one day she is restored enough to abide a loved one’s touch upon her skin’
I like stories that are raw, unflinching in their portrayals. Stories that pull you apart in some way, stretch you out, move you slowly, deeply, viscerally.
Dirt, sweat, rust, red, blisters, gullies, scrubland, blood. Cicadas and birdsong. These are some of the arresting images Stone Sky Gold Mountain conjures up. Bristling with poetry, almost every line in the book cuts in, places you somewhere else. Unsettling and thought-provoking, Stone Sky Gold Mountain is an accomplished piece of literary writing from a controlled and highly talented author. Indeed, Riwoe has many awards under her belt already, with a Stella Prize shortlisting for her novella The Fish Girl (Seizure, 2017) and a recent The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award for Stone Sky Gold Mountain.
We begin with Ying, and her brother, Lai Yue. Arriving in North Queensland, to a Chinese settlement, the two siblings hope to earn enough money to travel back home and buy back their enslaved siblings. It is 1877, the Gold Rush era. The camp they live in prickles with violence, teeming with gut-wrenching horrors and racism. Heavy but yet not difficult to read, Riowe is careful with her displays of racism; the writing is never didactic or moralising; instead the prose feels free and honest, acknowledging a harsh and sick reality without trying to glorify or shock for shock’s sake. In male dominated goldfields, Ying disguises herself as a boy, terrified that the truth will be uncovered.
Atmospheric, bringing to light an aspect of history in colonial Australia that’s often forgotten or simply disregarded, the story, particularly at the start, progresses slowly and took me time to digest and understand. But I am better for it. This isn’t a book that should be read quickly, although the writing is lush, full, and deep with nuanced observations. I think this is a that book yearns to be sat with, to linger within you, right inside your body, to be felt. Riwoe is one of those special writers; creating worlds and putting words together that truly feel transformative as you read, allowing you to uncover new layers of understanding all the time.
Strongly character driven and sparser on plot, the narrative shifts between three perspectives (Ying’s, Lai Yue’s, and Meriem’s). Lai Yue finds work as a carrier on an overland expedition; in Maytown, Meriem is a white girl, disliked and excluded by the town, working as a maid for local sex worker, Sophie. Ying befriends Meriem, finding a joyful space away from her brother, who is desperately unhappy and self-destructive. While an unlikely friendship, Ying and Meriem strike up a close bond. The relationship between Ying and Meriem was a pleasure to read, touching in its sentimentality without being cloying or over the top. While their verbal communication is light, they communicate in other ways; gifting food and sharing what little they can with one another. It was these scenes I loved these most, the gentleness the two of them shared was striking:
‘Merri smiles, revealing pink gums…Ying smiles back at her, her face softening into the tree. The air is muggy with the threat of rain and smoke…they listen to the comfortable dollop of a fish breaching the water’s surface, and along the river’s shingle banks, the branches of the paperbarks reach for each other and entwine’ (chapter 25, location 2160)
Ying also finds comfort working for Jimmy, a local shop owner. Each character in the novel is rendered convincingly:
‘Jimmy has the grace of a crane, his soft face is long and his hair thins a little on top. Behind his spectacles his eyes are kind. He doesn’t allow spitting, smoking or swearing in the shop, and always insists on a washed face, clean hands’ (chapter 10, location 1064)
The tone and mood of the novel is deployed seemingly effortlessly. The language is unpretentious but always vivid, original, captivating. All three characters wrestle with their own demons in varying ways. When a serious crime takes place in the town of Maytown, suspicion falls on Ying. The book shows us the best and worst of people, culminating in an exciting and well-paced finish.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain is consistently powerful, filled with tension. It’s well-paced and readable, despite its heavy themes of pain and loss. Feelings of connection and displacement are dealt with unflinchingly, and we are drawn intimately into the characters, into their emotions and challenging circumstances.
Significant questions are explored throughout – questions of identity and self, belonging, gender, resettlement, and migration. A destabilising story, the novel breaks down many of the dominant narratives we know about the nation called Australia, giving space to marginalised voices and examining ‘us and them’ notions. The narrative suggests history has not been accurately understood or documented, and as you read, questions rise to the surface: How far has this nation really come in its own prejudices? Do we know the full story? Can ever know the full story? In subtle terms, it poses the question: Do we, white Australia, even want to know the full story? Do we care?
‘Perhaps he doesn’t have loved ones across the ocean far from here, waiting for him. Perhaps they are lost. She has heard of her countrymen who have fled violence and homelessness to come to this place. But to not return! She’s never considered the idea’ (chapter 10, location 1029).
Without sanctimony, the book asks the reader to examine their prejudices, to consider the stories they’ve been told, and the stories that are still continually shared and perpetuated.
History, or we what know of history, does not always tell the truth, is not always accurate. In Australia, stories go unheard all the time, unacknowledged, pushed to the sidelines, forgotten about. With a refusal to listen, Australia is land of hidden layers, unheard narratives, and narrow view points. It’s these hidden layers the book is occupied with, giving voice to the unvoiced, making space for the those who’ve rarely been given such room.
As Mindy Gill writes in Sydney Review of Books ‘there is the way things have been told, and the way things were’. In other words, in this colonised land, single perspectives become the only perspective. Stone Sky Gold Mountain deftly challenges these skewed angles, asking us to reconsider what we think is true, and why we think it’s true. In doing so, the novel unpacks and disrupts our notion of this country and its brutal past (and ongoing present). This is brave writing, and Riwoe allows breathing space for the reader to sit between words, to consider what has been left absent, and imagine from there.
Riwoe steers the narrative ahead confidently; the writing is finely structured, with intricate detail and lyrical descriptions. An acute book of extreme strength, from its depictions of the land, to its layered characters, readers are invited to break open stale ideas and pre-conceived notions. With depth and insight, Riwoe digs into structural racism in a novel that I suspect will reveal more with each subsequent read. Rendered in enthralling and exquisite detail, Stone Sky Gold Mountain gives us a way in to realties we may never before have encountered in our reading. It deserves all of its awards.
Gill, Mandy, https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/riwoe-stone-sky-gold-mountain/
KATELIN FARNSWORTH is a writer from the Dandenong Ranges. She has been published in Overland, Tincture Journal, The Victorian Writer and Award Winning Australian Writing 2015 and 2017. Her manuscript ‘Found Again’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Penguin Literary Prize.