by Michele Seminara
Reviewed by ANNA COUANI
Not so long ago, publishing a first book of poetry was akin to dropping a pebble into a bottomless well. Today, although the poetry scene is a confined one, Engraft by Michele Seminara finds itself in a much more vibrant situation. After only a few months, the book has been launched four times in Sydney, Melbourne and Newcastle and has been widely publicised in social media. Engraft was launched by Martin Langford in Sydney, Saba Vasefi at the International Women Writers Festival in Parliament House in Sydney and by Anne Walsh in Newcastle. The people at Island Press, all from the old Poets Union days, all volunteer labour, as well as other collaborators in Michele’s literary network, should be commended for their level of organisation and promotion, usually something peculiar to the major presses.
Because of online publishing and commentary and the democratising effect of it, it’s so much easier now for a writer to be embedded in the literary scene and become a voice within it rather than having to wait on gatekeepers to allow admission. The embeddedness of this book is partly due to the fact that Michele, as a mature person entering the literary scene, has quickly moved into editing and publishing, working with Verity La and publishing reviews in online journals such as Mascara. And she is able to sell her book from her own blog, a testimony to the loosening of the publisher’s reins, maybe only possible in the small press context where the author is more empowered.
Michele’s maturity and life experiences inform the poetry and are crucial to it. The cover of the book, an image of a flower made of petals with multiple uplifted hands like a supplicant, belies the work within it. Not the work of a supplicant, but of someone who has entered the literary scene and gotten down to business. This approach is evident in her poem Slip where she exhorts:
Oh be still, Ruth, I admonish, and do not lie
at the master’s feet — but rise
from your fate and know that you are God!
If you were asked — to turn that corner,
walk into that room, say yes
to that dance — would you?
Or would you answer
(quickly, so as not to wake the unborn) — No!
Then watch in awe as this life slips away.
The title Engraft is an appropriate one for the collection. It suggests the mature perspective of a writer who understands the conundrum of originality and how we’re all writing inside a set of conventions. But it also refers explicitly to the fact that some of the poems are hybrid. Some are found and remix poems from the texts of other writers, mostly iconic writers of the past like Kafka, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Lowell, Plath, Joyce, Duras. In some cases, the language Michele uses mimics the slightly archaic language and conventions of some of those writers. In a sense, this process matches the emotional intensity that Michele injects into her work, departs from the prosaic, the deadpan. In Engraft, she rewrites Shakespeare’s sonnet 15:
Man is conceived upon this sullied stage
and like a seedling grows, but then decreases.
He vaunts his youthful sap in brave conceit,
till wasteful time decays his day to night.
Everything holds but a little moment –
even your perfection cannot stay.
So I’ll make war with time and as he takes you,
make love, and with my pen engraft you new.
The subject matter of the poems often seems intensely personal and autobiographical but then it’s not quite clear whether that’s because she’s assembling lines from other writers, finding equivalents to her own experience in their work, or simply writing in a high emotional key about her own experience. There is substantial inflected affect throughout the work and a mood of excitement and enthusiasm. There are a number of poems about writing and the need to write. In the poem, Dog, the writer compares herself to a dog driven to sniff in the long green strands/of its siren-muse,/burrowing to inhale/the prized and pungent self. She cleverly alternates between being pulled into writing like a sniffing dog but then also being jerked back out of it:
World jerks my neck, master to
slave, and drags me
from word’s wonderment
There are allusions to highly dramatic events and interactions, drawing the reader into a seemingly autobiographical disrupted narrative of some sort. The work is tantalising but you’re left thirsting for facts of the writer’s life, curious to know what all those dramas are, that are suggested but not made explicit.
ANNA COUANI is a Sydney poet, teacher and visual artist. She a was involved in small press publishing and writers’ groups from 1975 till 1992. Her most recent chapbook is Small Wonders (Flying Islands Books, Macao, 2012). She currently runs an art gallery in Glebe, Sydney.
Hook and Eye
By Judith Beveridge
Braziller, Ed Paul Kane
Reviewed by MICHELE SEMINARA
Judith Beveridge’s Hook and Eye is a collection of previously published poems selected to showcase the highly regarded Australian poet’s work to an American readership. The poems are for the most part imaginatively — rather than autobiographically — conceived, lyrical while still remaining largely outward looking, and full of the sensual imagery and sound-play for which Beveridge’s work is prized. Yet what is most striking about the book, comprised of work written over a twenty-five year span, are the enduring and distinctive spiritual concerns of the poet, and how these inform her praxis.
As Maria Takolander points out in a recent review[i], the book’s first poem, ‘Girl Swinging’, seems deliberately placed to give the reader insight into (perhaps even guidance for entering) the poet’s creative practise.
I often think about
the long process that loves
the sound we make.
It swings us until
we’ve got it by heart;
the music we are.
The process of creation rather than the creation itself is paramount, a process which (like Beveridge) ‘loves’ playing with ‘the sound we make’ and which ‘swings us’ until we come to understand, at a heart level, ‘the music we are’. There is a profound desire for personal transformation: the speaker, longing ‘to be a symphony / levitated by grace-notes’, turns quietly within, ‘listening to myself’ until ‘that feeling comes / of being lifted into the air’. Takolander has convincingly argued that lyric poetry is fundamentally a poetry of embodiment and senses a paradox here in the way the remembered sensations of the girl’s body ‘swinging’ generate the adult speaker’s spiritual disembodiment. Yet it is not merely sensory experience which leads to this state – it is the poet’s attentive focus upon the girl’s sensory experience which foreground a form of mindfulness and lead the narrator of ‘Girl Swinging’ to her own kind of lyric elevation. Beveridge’s poetry could perhaps be called a poetry of conscious embodiment; here, physicality acts as tool for deepening the narrator’s awareness until she rises into a space of ‘…clear singing / …above / the common rattle / of chains’.
The life of the future Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, and also that of his antagonistic cousin Devadatta, are the subject of Beveridge’s previously published poetic sequences ‘Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree’ and Devadatta’s Poems , extracts from which appear in this collection. In one such poem, ‘The Kite’, narrated by Siddhartha as he progresses towards enlightenment, the image of a boy expertly controlling a kite in the wind suggests how he might gain similar control of his own errant mind – how he might learn to make it ‘sing’.
Today I watched a boy fly his kite.
It didn’t crackle in the wind – but
gave out a barely perceptible hum.
At a certain height, I’d swear I heard
it sing. He could make it climb in
any wind; could crank those angles up
make it veer with the precision
of an insect targeting a string…
The word ‘hum’ here carries dual meanings. It evokes the same sense of musicality, of ‘singing’ as an analogy for poesis as in ‘Girl Swinging’, yet it also carries a spiritual meaning. ‘Hum’ is suggestive of ‘Aum’, an English translation of the Sanskrit symbol ॐ, which, tellingly, has no exact linguistic meaning but expresses the non-divisible unity of of the body, speech and mind of an enlightened being. It is mantra, or enlightened sound, believed – in the Buddhist tradition – to vibrate at frequencies capable of setting up harmonic resonances within the mind/body of the practitioner, frequencies capable of unblocking internal energies obstructing an experience of our true nature – ‘the music we are’. In ‘The Kite’, Siddhartha has an epiphany when he realises it is not through the practise of asceticism, or withdrawal from the world of the senses, that he may learn to make his mind ‘hum’ like a kite, but by directly and consciously engaging with the world. Like the narrator of ‘Girl Swinging’, Siddhartha’s mindful focus upon sense perceptions hones his awareness and helps his mind ‘fly’.
The dual meaning of the word ‘hum’ is revealing and offers a way of understanding Beveridge’s poesis as a type of sacred ‘singing ’. She states: ‘Sometimes I want the effects of my poetry to be subliminal, as if the poems were tuning forks vibrating at a pitch just out of ear-shot, but which are secretly changing the structure of thought and feeling.’ [ii]
As the practise of mantra and chanting in many spiritual traditions attests, sound is a powerful tool for mental transformation; perhaps, for Beveridge, poetry, like mantra, is a form of spiritual practise.
The poem ‘In the Forest’ further explores the theme of the transformative power of mindful observation:
… But sometimes,
watching a butterfly emerge, I sense
my own eyelids flutter in the strange
puparium of a dream. O, I don’t know
if I’ll ever wake, changed, transformed,
able to lift on viridescent wings.
But as I watch, I feel my mind enter
a vast space in which everything
connects; and a grasshopper on a blade
of grass listens intently with its knees.
(‘In the Forest’)
This poem, narrated – like ‘The Kite’ – by Siddhartha, is reminiscent of the famous story by Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou, who, upon waking from a dream of being a butterfly, ‘did not know whether he was Zhou who had dreamed of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhou’[iii]. In ‘In the Forest’ we once again encounter a distrust of the conceptual – ‘I don’t know’ the speaker tells us; a focus on the power of observation when co-joined with pure sense perception – ‘I watch’, ‘I sense’; and an emphasis on how one must ‘feel’ one’s way into the ‘vast space in which everything / connects’. To ‘feel’ is to experience emotionally as well as physically, suggesting that perhaps the two must unite if Siddhartha is to enter the ‘vast space’ of enlightenment. The synaesthetic image of the grasshopper listening ‘intently with its knees’ symbolises the interconnected nature of this vast inner space. However, the image is not simply expressive, but a scientific fact: grasshoppers do indeed listen with their knees, implying that for Siddhartha the mental state ‘in which everything/ connects’ is less a fantasy than an achievable reality.
The spiritual world view which informs Beveridge’s poetry is evident not only in her choice of subject matter and the meticulous detail of her imagery, but also in the way she uses an array of speakers to narrate her poems. In his Note On Judith Beveridge at the beginning of Hook and Eye, Paul Kane remarks that Beveridge has said she is ‘not at all interested in writing about herself’, observing that this ‘attitude of self-effacement…opens up the world of the poet rather than the poet herself’. It also opens up the concept of the ‘I’ in a way that many Eastern spiritual traditions do; by using imaginative characters (Prince Siddhartha, Devadatta, various fisherman) to ‘author’ the poems in the book, Beveridge explores and shifts around the ‘I’ in ways which suggest ‘I’ is not a set concept. Certainly, as a poet, she is more interested in inhabiting the ‘I’ of others, in examining what it is in the human psyche that unites us.
Of course, not all of Beveridge’s poems deal overtly with Buddhist subjects. ‘To the Islands’ is a poem which uses the spiritual metaphor of rowing to a far-off shore as the basis for both an auditory meditation and a manifesto on how the speaker plans to journey:
I will use the sound of wind and the splash
of the cormorant diving and the music
any boatman will hear in the running threads
as they sing about leaving for the Islands.
(‘To the Islands’)
The speaker of this poem eschews conceptual knowledge as a method for undertaking her journey, admitting, ‘Look – I don’t know // much about how to reach the Islands’, instead layering auditory image upon image, each becoming more subtle – as the mind that perceives such subtle sounds would need to be, and as the mind that reads them gradually becomes:
Meanwhile I’ll use the sound of sunlight
filling the sponges and a diver’s saturated
breathing in the lungs of an oarsman
rowing weightless cargo over the reefs.
The strength of imagist poems like ‘To the Islands’ is that they allow the reader to experience for themselves a process of mindful awareness. It is common in Beveridge’s poems for the syntax, like the mind in its ‘watching’, to meander, the lines cascading over the stanza breaks and the sentence structures never quite concluding . This sense of flux is expressed, unsurprisingly, to greatest effect in the watery poems of the book – the ones excerpted from ‘Driftgrounds –Three Fishermen’, where the images don’t so much build as flow, often in the progressive tense, giving the reader the experience of flowing along with the narrator.
The mouth of a little fish had just sipped away a star
from the river, a lyrebird was opening the day, volunteering
to be a bell. We were watching an egret prod at the nutrient
dark, its beak one tine of a fork catching what floats, just
as the sun began cracking the trees awake. The bird’s song
reached us, then it sharded into the river’s cold glass.
In poem after poem of Hook and Eye we are similarly invited to ‘watch’, ‘hear’ and ‘feel’ experiences directly along with the poet via her sensual imagery, syntax and sound play. The effect on the quality of our own awareness is cumulative, subtle, yet palpable; we can feel our minds slowing, focusing and deepening.
In a guest post for The NSW Writers’ Centre on poetry and spirituality Beveridge wrote:
Throughout history, poetry has always been the most powerful and effective form for addressing and exploring deep spiritual questions. Partly this is because poetry is connected so intimately with the breath. Poets know that the breath can act as an interpreting spirit, something which will help move, uplift and carry lived experience into rhythms and tones which allow both writer and reader to feel as if they are in communion and intense dialogue with the world around them.
Poetry as an art form employs repeating structures of sound, image and rhythm, and this patterned approach enables both writer and reader to access knowledge in non-discursive ways. Patterns can lead to insights and revelations which may not be attained or reached through logical or rational methods alone. [iv]
Beveridge could be describing her own poetry here: it is she who is the master of ‘show don’t tell’, not merely imaginatively presenting a scene but subtly shifting her reader’s very perception. Like Grennan in the poem ‘Grennan Mending Nets’ the poet helps us to feel our own minds ‘drift’, to experience how good it is ‘to just let fish and weather turn [our] head; to sit and work / taking thread from warp to weft’. Reading Hook and Eye we find ourselves shaking our heads the way the eponymous Delancey does, ‘just working / it slowly – like a sieve at the water’s edge’ of Beveridge’s poems. Or perhaps if – like Beveridge in her writing – we have been especially attentive in our reading, we may find ourselves, like Devadatta in the final poem of the book, ‘At Rajkote, After the Rains Retreat’, emerging from our poetically induced meditation with an awareness so sharp we ‘could reckon / a hare’s smell down to a point, accurate as a compass’; have our thoughts come ‘as airily as insects skimming / over a pond’; or experience ‘a peace come over’ us which has ‘the equanimity / of snow’. If poetry is capable of inducing such sublime experiences, surely it is the poetry of Judith Beveridge.
[i] Takolander, Maria. ‘Review Short: Judith Beveridge’s Hook and Eye.’ Cordite, 16 June 2015. Web. 10 August 2015.
[ii] Takolander, Maria. ‘Review Short: Judith Beveridge’s Hook and Eye.’ Cordite, 16 June 2015. Web. 10 August 2015.
[iii] Mair, Victor H. Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. New York: Bantam Books, 1994. Print.
[iv] Beveridge, Judith. ‘Making Space for the Inner Life: Judith Beveridge on Poetry & Spirituality.’ The NSW Writers’ Centre, 2013. Web. 5 August 2015.
MICHELE SEMINARA is a poet, editor, critic and yoga teacher from Sydney. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Bluepepper, Tincture Journal, Regime, Seizure, Plumwood Mountain and Social Alternatives. Her first collection, Engraft, was published by Island Press this year. Michele is also the managing editor of online creative arts journal Verity La.
Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945
by Michael Farrell
Reviewed by ROBERT WOOD
Michael Farrell’s Writing Australian Unsettlement is necessary reading. It is a welcome contribution to a small field. However, Farrell’s work has several areas that are problematic and that are also symptomatic of wider issues concerning poetry and politics in today’s society. It should be seen then as a starting point, an opening up, rather than a definitive statement or end of a conversation.
Part of the modern and contemporary poetry and poetics series edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis for Palgrave Macmillan, the aim of the book is to ‘unsettle’ Australian poetics. This is taken here to mean the work of undoing assumptions, firmness, bedrock as it is currently constituted in Australian literary criticism, particularly in a nationalist canonical iteration. Farrell returns to ideas of unsettlement time and time again, giving a variety of definitions, particularly in the introduction. Somewhat later in the work he states:
The hunt is on for new, formerly useless poetries, perhaps poetries in Perloff’s terms that are ‘by other means’; other languages and genres (like diaries) that may, if not constitute a new ‘model of a national Australian literature’ at least foster new reading and writing networks of the history and the contemporary that attend to different literacies, including that of the visual. (84)
This is a book then not only about content and form, but intended as a sort of speculative methodological reading enterprise. This is through examining poetry from the colonial period from Bennelong’s letter from 1792 until various twentieth century texts until World War Two. For a review that discusses the contents of the book at length please see Matt Hall’s in Cordite.
As worthy as that enterprise is, that desire to make a ‘new’ thing, Farrell is also indebted to, if not limited by, past discourses, languages, tropes, motifs. Indeed, it is one of the ironies that he deploys the following quote from Martin Harrison early in Writing Australian Unsettlement:
Borrowed terms like ‘pastoral’, ‘urban’ and ‘landscape’ for instance, may work very differently or simply may not work at all when applied to Australian poetry. (1)
It is ironic because over the course of the book, Farrell relies, too much in my opinion, on imported, metropolitan theory, framing and quotation for legitimacy. Witness the repeated use of ‘______ says insert quote’ from Freud to Bataille to Deleuze to Sontag (117, 157, 171). These are often used without criticism – theory remains deployed rather than challenged – and one apparent result is that the observation of poetry cannot stand alone without participating in an elaborate citation ritual that only reaffirms the canon of European continental theory. To buttress the continental theory is the North American field.
Consider the following passage:
Meanwhile the critical tools have also been developed to begin to read this work, whether as ‘exophonic’ or appropriative writing, or in terms of visual prosody (Perloff); in terms that resist the dematerialisation of language and parataxis (Silliman and other language writers); through theories developed from visual poetry (Cluver, Willard Bohn); theories of space, textual criticism, and archival work that read the page as a page rather than as a hoist for a message, that recognise the freedom of handwriting and resist the hegemony of typography (Davidson, McGann, Werner and Howe); or that account for the ‘non semantic’ (Forrest-Thomson). These theories themselves draw on criticism associated with concrete poetry and works such as ‘Un Coup de Des’ as well as the histories of the avant-garde. (83)
If Europe is good for theory, North America is good for the academic work of today. Primary among these is Marjorie Perloff, who supplied a blurb on the book’s back cover and who is invoked with regularity. However, Perloff seems to me to be the arch settled and settling critic of the white American avant garde. As a node in the network of contemporary writing, one might question not only her relevance for work on colonial Australian poetry but also her politics. Witness recent criticism of her by Mongrel Coalition, Fred Moten, Kim Chen, C A Conrad and others.
This heavy quotation and reference is evident throughout. I recognise how it mocks some undergraduate idea of academic writing and enables assemblage, a defining part of the work, to be meta-commented upon. Yet this seems at odds with an independent impulse, with autonomy as a political and authorial subject position as possibly enabled by the Harrison quote early on. This is, of course, not to establish a false binary between voice and assemblage either, or to dismiss a speculative enterprise. Paradox is, of course, not a failing in and of itself, but the implication of such importation is to undermine the importance of the local. It might appear global, but it is possibly a colonised manoeuvre. There is a lot of Australian literary criticism in the archive and reading against the paradigmatic straw man grain might have enabled a different perspective. As it stands one can find in Clement Semmler or Vincent Buckley or others, a complicated way of reading that might not be as settled as Farrell makes out. This is supported by the lack of discussion of the Australian field in general. To take only genocide studies what of important work by Attwood, Reynolds, Tatz (161)? The broader question to ask then is: why can’t we apply an unsettled reading to theory and field and not only poetic text?
This framing is despite the fact that Farrell is a very adept close reader. When it comes to the Australian poetry in and of itself there is nuance and insight. Readers should pay attention to his criticism of Norman Harris’ ‘Letter to Jim Bassett’ (104) and drover bush texts (186). This insight is there too in the section on Ngarla songs. However, in some of the Indigenous sections there is slippage that I think is symptomatic of Australian academic culture more generally (25). In one passage that talks about the democratic semiotic possibility of the equals sign Farrell writes it ‘resembles Indigenous philosophy rather than settlement sentiment’ (80). I would be interested to know how one can sustain such binarism. There are several other moments like this. This collapsing of specificity may, though not necessarily, be read as an ahistoricising gesture, for it collapses important distinctions and arguments. How should ‘we’ collapse Roe and Neidjie, Bandler and Pearson into a thing? It flattens the diversity in other words, which people on the inside of the discourse may find important. This is not, though, a defense, in a positivist sense, of linearity, or of cleanliness, just a comment on the need for consistent attentiveness to frame and context. Indeed, the heterodoxies, contradictions and complications of a thing, if it could be said to exist, called Indigenous philosophy remain submerged in Writing Australian Unsettlement precisely because the texts quoted are Freud and Deleuze not Indigenous people themselves as they exist in ethnographic and self-authored texts (see Deborah Bird-Rose, Sally Treloyn, Magabala Books (Various).
Mascara readers may be particularly interested in chapter 3, which examines Jong Ah Sing’s The Case. Farrell writes against other critics, who ‘in demonstrating their concern with The Case’s biographical and historical significance, largely treat its poetics as a barrier to truth and usefulness, rather than as a contribution to a remarkable assemblage of a new kind of English, and of a new kind of poetic text’ (66). Instead Farrell makes the compelling claim that the poetics of Sing’s work are important in and of themself and ‘how Jong’s inventive practice unsettles notions of Australian writing’ (67). It is one text I would like to seek out for myself, particularly for its visually arresting style that Farrell discusses.
Settlement as a word has currency in academic debates now, but the elasticity of its deployment in this work, undermines a politically astute and historically attentive reading. You can’t build an empire on sand, but nor can you build a humpy on water (see 157). Notwithstanding its problems, Writing Australian Unsettlement, is a major intervention in the dialectic of un/settlement and makes for entertaining and challenging reading. It is necessary for those with an interest in Australia, avant garde reading techniques, colonialism and poetry.
ROBERT WOOD has published work in Southerly, Overland, Plumwood Mountain and a variety of academic journals. He is currently completing a PhD at UWA and is a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly. His next book, heart-teeth light-bitten crownland, is due out from Electio Editions later this year.
I’m Not Racist But….
by Tim Soutphommasane
New South Books
Reviewed by JARNI BLAKKARLY
Discussion about race and racism has been forcing its confrontational self into Australia’s mainstream public sphere quite a bit lately. It has been so visible and tangible that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for those who would rather not discuss it to ignore the topic entirely. Adam Goodes has brought it to prime-time Footy. Low-quality videos filmed on the smartphones on public transport have brought to YouTube. A bunch of burly men with neo-Nazi tattoos violently shouting on the streets about Muslims taking over the country has brought it to our evening news. These are incidents, which most of the righteous chorus of well-meaning voices are willing, even proud, to condemn. However, for many taking the discussion one-step further is where you hit a snag. Tim Soutphommasane’s latest book I’m Not Racist But… addresses those voices.
The book, which has been published to mark the 40th anniversary of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), invites the reader to examine the larger story of race in Australia’s identity. With both broad strokes and fine detail Soutphommasane paints the picture beyond the news-cycle statements of Andrew Bolt and former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, beyond the superficial utterances of condemnation, which tends to consume all the space for cultural dialogue provided to the topic. With a detailed examination ranging from European invasion and the Stolen Generation, White Australia and Reclaim Australia, Soutphommasane walks a line somewhere between history, essay and think-piece.
For the most part it comes off, though there are times it feels slow as it goes through a fair amount of ‘Racism 101’ before moving into more in depth discussion. Soutphommasane leads his target audience towards better understanding the idea of an underpinning systematic racism deeply ingrained in the Australian psyche and existence; he leads slowly and gently. He also seeks to bring a broad church of people into the conversation. For example on topics such as whether Australia’s refugee policies are inherently based on racism, he quotes thinkers who agree and disagree (though he leans towards agreement). Those lost in the book shop searching for Angela Y Davis, Edward Said or Malcolm X, for more radical voices, should definitely keep looking.
‘Is Australia a racist country?’ is the question and the premise on which Soutphommasane begins his musings. It is a question he says many people ask, but is a redundant conversation. Despite starting from a simple place, Soutphommasane does move beyond it and he goes into depth and detail. His unpacking of the social and historical context surrounding the introduction of the legislation of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), which is the focus of the book, is particularly fascinating.
The RDA is certainly an interesting focal point, not necessarily because of the protracted and abandoned, political debate that surrounded the proposed changes to section 18C of the act that would have made it legal to “insult” and “offend” on the basis of race, but because the way the RDA has become synonymous with the debate about racism in Australia in a way it had not been prior.
It would be easy for many who are following the deteriorating situation for refugees on Manus Island and Nauru or reading the statistics for Indigenous imprisonment to forget that we even have legislation that criminalises racial discrimination. It would be fair for some to scratch their head about how effective it has been.
In the legal case against Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt that brought about the discussion on 18C, Bolt’s breach resulted in a mandatory apology from the publication. However 18C and the RDA as a whole has become a rallying point for Australia’s multicultural community since it has come under attack from the Liberals. That particular clause has taken on a symbolism far beyond its legal ramifications. It provides a focus point for a broad range of Indigenous and migrant community groups that are finding new powerful ways to fight back and have their voice heard.
As Soutphommasane points out the RDA for seeking to set the national tone politically. ‘Indeed, for most of the period since Federation, Australia displayed features of what Historian George Frederickson calls an ‘overtly racist regime’,’ writes Soutpahommasane.
He argues while it is easy to be cynical and sceptical about how much change has happened to the underlying racism of the Australian national character, the outward disavowal of the ‘overt racist regime’ is a deeply persisting challenge.
He also discuss the practical outcomes brought about from the RDA legally for such situations as anti-discrimination rules in employment and housing.
Soutphommasane also points out the oxymoron that our constitution continues to allow for separate laws for different races and the conflict between the two documents. He advocates for a removal of the clause which is one of the central arguments in favour of the controversial Indigenous ‘Recognise’ campaign. The highly divisive ‘Recognise’ campaign, which itself has many prominent Indigenous supporters and critics who advocate for a Treaty instead.
He suggests a major differences between the RDA and its American equivalent, the US Civil Rights Act 1964, was the way in which it was achieved. He points to the international sphere and Australia’s signing of the International Convention on the elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination as driving factors of the RDA legislation, not domestic politics.
Whereas in the United States civil rights legislation was enacted as the culmination of a right struggle, the push for Australian racial equality was never accompanied by the emergence of a social movement, at least of the equivalent scale.
He argues this had an ongoing and lasting impacts in the way many Australians perceive race, as something to cringe about and avoid discussing at all costs. While the RDA was the symbolic and legal end to the White Australia policy he says the way in which it was done, coming from Canberra not from the streets, has also provided a barrier to the conceptualisation of a multicultural Australian identity.
The White Australia policy was inaugurated as an official statement of nationhood, but its renouncement was never granted the same moment. It was largely through sheepish embarrassment rather than proud conviction that White Australia was gradually dismantled in the 1950s and the 1970s. Its passing was not marked with any national sense of fanfare or finality…As well, there was no seminal moment for the advent of multiculturalism. The transition from White Australia to its successor national myth, in some senses, remains ongoing.
He also runs through the intense uphill battle in parliament that the legislation faced in the three failed attempts by Gough Whitlam’s first attorney-general, Senator Lionel Murphy. The successful fourth shot by Whitlam’s second attorney-general Kep Enderby was in 1975, the final year of Whitlam’s government. Soutphommasane contends that the history and achievements of the RDA which have long since been ingrained into our society are under-appreciated.
He has a very good point and one only needs look across the Pacific to how things could be much worse in terms of open and overt racial vilification in the name of ‘free-speech’. To America’s constitution which allows the public hate speech today of organisations such as the Klu Klux Klan and others.
Each chapter of the somewhat dry essays of Soutphommasane are broken up with short contributions from a ‘who’s-who’ list of prominent Australian writers. Christos Tsiolkas describes a racially charged scene at a swimming pool steam-room, Maxine Beneba Clarke recounts university anecdotes highlighting White Australians’ denial of casual racism and blindness to micro-aggressions. Alice Pung and Benjamin Law both delve into their up-bringing and Bindi Cole Chocka unpacks her layers of identity.
Soutphommasane’s book comes in the context of the 18C debate and the political scrutiny being applied by the ideological-right of the Liberal party. In part, it can be seen as a call to arms to defend what is an essential underpinning piece of legislation in Australia’s Commonwealth Law.
He is far harsher on the nation than the standard ‘let’s just celebrate multiculturalism’ narrative that is commonly heard from politicians and promoters of local council ‘culturally diverse’ food-based events. However he is also diplomatic and more balanced in his criticisms of the Australian state than those who point to Indigenous imprisonment rates, Border Force and our immigration detention system and argue we live in a state where racial systems of violence are a defining factor for non-white people on the margins.
He brings his optimism about Australian society and its potential to the forefront and marks the importance of how far we have progressed in immigration and multiculturalism since the White Australia policy. He stresses the urgent need to address Indigenous rights and also acknowledge and combat social ‘casual racism’. At times he leans on clichés and dry broad sentiments. ‘While no one law can ever eradicate the social evil of racism – no one law can ever banish hatred, ignorance and arrogance – an instrument such as the Racial Discrimination Act does make us stronger and more united,’ he writes in his conclusion. He notes that the importance of the Act, as well as its uses in society, is a constantly evolving one.
Soutphommasane is staunch and defiant on the need to protect the achievements Australia has made on multiculturalism. He ends on a hopeful note that the ability for increasingly honest and difficult discussion and work will contribute towards the building of what he sees as a better nation.
JARNI BLAKKARLY is a freelance journalist who has done work for Al Jazeera English, Griffith Review and ABC Radio National among others. You can follow him on Twitter @jarniblakkarly.
Inside My Mother
by Ali Cobby Eckermann
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
Since the appearance of her popular first collection, Little Bit Long Time, in 2009, Aboriginal poet, Ali Cobby Eckermann, has produced five more books including a couple of verse novels, the second of which, Ruby Moonlight, won the NSW Premier’s Prize in 2013. Along with Samuel Wagan Watson and Lionel Fogarty, she is one of the most prominent Aboriginal poets writing at the moment.
According to its author, Inside my Mother, grew out of a period of mourning and overseas travel which proved therapeutic. This fourth collection has a core of powerful and moving poems — and a number of others which are a little less forceful. Eckermann’s family has been affected by the “taken away” syndrome for three generations and the impact of this is the genesis for quite a few poems. “First Born” and “The Letter” are just two of them.
In the latter a mission girl who is learning typing begins: “Dear Mother / The Mission is good. /The food is good. / I am good” before “ripp(ing) the page from the typewriter” and starting a new one which begins “Mummy / Where are you?” It’s all over in twelve lines. The narrative strategy is simple, as is the vocabulary, but the point is indelibly made. Mainstream readers who find this too simple altogether and who demand the “whitefella” sophistication of, say, Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery, are probably missing the point. Cobby Eckermann’s poignant distillation here is just another thing that poetry can do well. There’s no need for a hierarchy.
An interesting, and relatively unusual, dimension to Inside my Mother is how Cobby Eckermann deals with the tensions within Aboriginal families and culture, not just the pressures from “outside”, as it were. “I Tell You True”, for instance, is a dramatic monologue from the viewpoint of an Aboriginal woman explaining her addiction to alcohol. It’s in a stricter form than most of the other poems and is modified by, rather than couched in, Aboriginal English.
The narrator’s reasons for despair, one in each stanza, include a daughter “burnt to death inside a car”, a sister dead who has “hung herself to stop the rapes” and a mother who has been killed, “battered down the creek” — a death for which the speaker herself is partly blamed by her own family. “Their words have made me wild / I can’t stop drinking I tell you true / ‘Cos I was just a child”.
It’s significant that the speaker doesn’t disclose the race of the perpetrators. This is a further sign of Cobby Eckermann’s political sophistication; she doesn’t just keep on hitting easy targets. The poem also ranges more widely by implying that domestic violence like this is not unique to any one group or the product of a single cause.
There’s no doubt, however, about who the guilty are in Cobby Eckermann’s “Kulila”, a poem written entirely in Aboriginal English and voiced by one of the “old people” who still remember the massacres of an earlier century. “don’t forget ’em story / night time tell ’em to the kids / keep every story live // … sit down here real quiet way / you can hear ’em crying / all them massacre mobs “ Dramatic monologues like this one were the forte of Kevin Gilbert, the Wiradjuri poet (1933-1993). Cobby Eckermann (b. 1963) makes good use here of a strategy and linguistic authenticity which non-Indigenous poets can employ only at some risk should they wish to ventriloquise on behalf of Aboriginal people.
Occasionally, as in the beginning of the book’s final poem, “Evacuate”, Eckermann’s language is not strong enough for its task. “today I shall relinquish / my body // I shall process my / dreams of tragedy”. Although we have seen a number of tragedies throughout the book, the phrase “dreams of tragedy” remains unfocussed and over-explicit.
For this reader two other relatively minor shortcomings in Inside my Mother are the lack of a glossary for important words from Aboriginal languages and the poet’s abandonment, for the most part, of traditional punctuation, a strategy now a hundred years old and not as effective as its users are inclined to imagine.
The fact that punctuation is commonly foregone in much contemporary free verse does not, in itself, establish its effectiveness. The small, momentary confusions the reader often experiences through this convention can sometimes be a good thing artistically (analogous, for instance, to the clever use of enjambment) but it can also distract from the main thrust of the poem, a factor even more important when the poetry is political, as much of Cobby Eckermann’s work is.
This reminds us too that the role of politics in Aboriginal poetry has always been an inevitable and a difficult one. Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920 —1993) admitted this when she once (inadequately) described her own poetry as “sloganistic, civil rightish, plain and simple”1. Some of her best poetry was when she approached important problems indirectly. Lionel Fogarty (b. 1958), on the other hand, has often, in his idiosyncratic way, turned the language of the conquerors against themselves, using “ English against the English”2. Fogarty has argued that the way Aboriginal poets “write and talk is ungrammatical, because it doesn’t have any meanings in their spirit”3. This can lead to a poetry of strong feeling (often anger) but which may not be as effective politically as it intends to be.
Ali Cobby Eckermann (and, to an even greater extent, Samuel Wagan Watson) steers between these two extremes and her poems, for the most part, tend therefore to work more effectively, both aesthetically and politically, than they might have otherwise done.
Inside my Mother is a worthy addition to Ali Cobby Eckermann’s growing body of work. It is packed with things that non-Indigenous Australians need to know or be reminded about — while, at the same time communicating effectively, I would imagine, with the still-disenfranchised Australians for whom she is increasingly a spokeswoman.
1. Kath Walker, “Aboriginal Literature” Identity 2.3 (1975) pp. 39–40
2. From Preface to New and Selected (1995) by Lionel Fogarty http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poems-book/new-and-selected-poems-0214000
GEOFF PAGE is an Australian poet and critic. He has edited The Best Australian Poems , 2014 and The Best Australian Poems, 2015.
Small Acts of Disappearance
by Fiona Wright
Reviewed by EMMA ROSE SMITH
‘I just saw Fiona Wright,’ says my friend over the phone. ‘At least, I thought it was her.’
A statement that wouldn’t be out of place at a poetry event or around the streets of the inner-west of Sydney. But my friend is not in Glebe or Enmore; she’s been sent for a few weeks, for her own wellbeing, to one of Sydney’s private mental health institutions.
‘I didn’t know whether to say hi or not,’ she says. ‘I mean, you never want to publicly know anyone from these places. What was I going to say: I like your poetry?’
This was about a year ago, before Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance was published, before any one of its essays featured in Overland or …. My friend and I had read Wright’s poetry, heard her on the radio, seen her do readings. We did not know that she was open about her condition and was in fact researching its details, contradictions, and existence in humans and literature, as the topic of her doctorate.
In one of the essays in the collection, ‘In Increments’, Wright describes the visceral experience of being admitted to a day program for eating disorders. This was years before the longer-stay program where my friend saw, but decided not to greet, her. During the program, Wright is questioned by the doctors for her garrulous attitude. She loses weight, and is kicked out. Desperate, she eats cake every day in an attempt to gain enough weight to be accepted back into sessions. She writes: “I cried a lot. ‘You’re living my dream,’ the dietician said. I smiled, though I wanted to slap her, and hard.”
Each of the essays in this collection covers a different element of illness: as it is seeded in youth; as it takes hold in uncertain times; as it is experienced as a foreigner; as it is treated by various practitioners. Wright also assesses the appearance of illness in fictional and nonfictional writings by writers such as Christina Stead, Carmel Bird, Tim Winton, John Berryman and Louise Glück. Anorexia is rendered with an honesty and humility I’ve never seen before, by descriptions of its contradictions, its inner complexities, its varying effects upon varied humans. It is seen within the context of addiction; of deception; of a desperately certain foundation amidst the life’s uncertainty. In an essay on the miniature, Wright explains the mistaken conflation of smallness with control:
This is a false and contradictory kind of command: the more control we try to exert over our eating and our food, the more our illness asserts itself and the less able we are to operate autonomously . . . We possess the world, perhaps, but in the process we are dispossessed of our own selves.
She was sick, with a denial of that sickness, for several years before the dispossession could be held apart and called what it was.
It would be irresponsible to discuss Small of Acts of Disappearance without an analysis of the societal structures that contributed towards its creation. Wright is capable of accessing healthcare treatments, despite the detriment their price tag has had upon her; however, not all who experience hunger may be able—financially or otherwise—to enter private healthcare. Australian eating disorder treatment in public systems is hard to reach, says Wright:
No state has more than about eight public hospital beds for adult eating disorder patients; these beds are all in locked psychiatric wards, the waiting lists are often up to thirty-six weeks long and only available to the critically underweight and medically imperilled. I had to fight, and fight hard, to get the treatment that I needed.
Small Acts of Disappearance is not social criticism and doesn’t claim to be; but considering the aforementioned limitations, it’s clear that institutional structures are in stark need of reform.
Wright also dissects hunger in the context of her stay in Sri Lanka, where many citizens go hungry without choosing to do so. She notes that the food she threw out in this time could have supported some of Sri Lanka’s homeless population. The disposal of resources is itself a privilege that is met with blankness by those who cannot afford waste. She writes: “In Colombo, my hunger was obscene. It was not predicated on need, on poverty or parentlessness or war, corruption or greed . . . My own denial was something as incomprehensible to my local friends as the hunger they lived alongside was to me.”
If we are to utilise intersectionality in our reading of Wright’s essays, we must ask: How do class, education, whiteness, heteronormativity, ability, and other social factors influence mental health? How do they influence our capacity to access care, and feel safe doing so? How might someone of different circumstances experience anorexia or another hunger disorder? Wright notes, but does not properly address, the myriad embodiments of hunger beyond her own. “Illness is a foreign country,” Wright declares in ‘In Group’. “We do things differently here.” And the natures of ‘hunger’ range as widely as that of the people who live alongside it.
Small Acts of Disappearance changed my ways of understanding food, vulnerability, and control. Midway through grocery shopping, I remembered Wright’s descriptions of the textures of food, “choking up in my throat, as glutinous as craft glue.” I thought twice about buying rice. I decided to try not to use the word ‘binge’ in casual conversation. ‘In Hospital’ mentions the shock Wright received encountering mainstream usages of sickness discourse, after finishing an eating program. “A waiter brought a brownie to my table with my coffee and called me ‘naughty’.”
Wright herself had misconceptions about the control of food: “I couldn’t see myself as one of those women—I thought that eating disorders only happen to women who are vain and selfish, shallow and somehow stupid; it took me years to realise that the very opposite is true.”
I read these essays as a poet, and also as someone with lived experience of other kinds of obsession. From both perspectives, Wright’s clarity and generosity of expression contribute towards the rendering of a resounding text. Within the urge to sate curiosity, to seek causes and convenient vocabulary, the reader encounters sentences built with years of thought: “I think sometimes that the drive to hunger, the drive towards smallness, is about precisely this: we feel so uncertain, so anxious about our rightful space within the world, that we try to take up as little of it as possible.”
Wright speaks eloquently of the ways we choose hunger. As a way of exercising agency in the midst of life’s pandemonium. As a reduction of the inelegancies of the self, its clumsy inaccuracies. As a method to focus. (“I still find it so difficult to think, to write, to work, after I eat; how my thinking feels so much sharper, more vivid, when I’m hungry.”) Wright’s ending essay, ‘In Hindsight’, contains the undeniably clear announcement: “When I was hungry, I felt alert and intense and alive along every inch of my skin, and I felt unassailable.” It is not difficult to apply these reasonings to other methods that we utilise to get on with our lives: exercise, medication, meditation, sex, alcohol; any number of the superstitions and rituals that we engage in to best let our creative projects blurt out from within us. All methods are flawed; but sometimes it’s the closest thing we’ve got to something that works.
EMMA ROSE SMITH writes manic poetry, smelly-lady nonfiction, and fiction that overuses the word ‘ululate’. She is often mistaken for a vegetarian. Her chapbooks and zines, including ‘Goonbag Mystic’, ‘Fingerbang’, ‘Pull Out the Pop-Schlop’, and ‘Pink Bets’ are available from her lounge room. She is starting a collaborative literary index of events and submissions (http://spokensydneystories.tumblr.com/), and drafting her first novel.
by Sarah Holland-Batt
Reviewed by TIFFANY TSAO
The first poem of Sarah Holland-Batt’s The Hazards provides a fitting opening for a collection so beautiful, so cold, and so much about the coldness of beauty. The eponymous jellyfish speaker of the poem ‘Medusa’ is unapologetically cerebral—‘a brain trailing its nettles’, a mind ‘vain and clear as melting ice’. So much so, in fact, that the speaker seems to exist as a drifting organ of ‘bitter reason’, separate from the organs where the capacity for feeling and compassion reside: the nerves ‘blooming around [it]’ and the soul which ‘billows out like hollow silk’.
One might dare to read the medusa of the poem as avatar for the poet persona. In a 2014 interview with Jacinta Le Plastrier published in Cordite, Holland-Batt remarked on the importance of the cerebral in her composition process: ‘My poems are acts of thinking […] I know that this is different for other poets, who are perhaps more impressionistic and have a more Romantic conception of their own poiesis. For me, writing poetry is a wholly conscious process […]’ (1)
Indeed, the overall tone of the collection is detached, rational. The poems are technically flawless, consistently gorgeous, but often unsettling. For if the poet is the predatory medusa, and by extension, the Medusa of Greek myth who turns the objects of her gaze into stone, then the implication is that poetry-making is as brutal as the paralysis of a hapless victim—the textual equivalent of turning the living into the statuesque dead. Poetry as enacted by The Hazards is premeditated violence. So is art at large, the collection posits, as well as the creation and appreciation of the beautiful in general. And it is this quality of calculated violence, this mingling of the cerebral and visceral, that makes The Hazards so powerful, so disquieting, so moving.
The intertwining of beauty and violence is most apparent in the poems ‘Approaching Paradise’ and ‘Beauty is a Ticket of Admission to All Spectacles’. The first poem reveals that death and pain are fundamental elements of a beach paradise:
You will find paradise in a whiting
drowning in a bucket of freshwater,
in the jammed blade of a fishscale
like quicklime under the thumb.
The sublime requires sacrificial victims: ‘the bloated body washed in’, ‘bikini-clad tourists jerked out by rips,’ and ‘A shark’s slit corpse […] / its head yanked on a hook like a sacrifice. / Its shank is smooth and black as paradise.’ (20)
In the second poem, art’s beauty makes the horrific pleasurable, admitting the imagination even to that ‘you do not want to enter’: gory alternate versions of the scene depicted in Goya’s La muerte del picador in which the bull dies instead; Judith in the act of beheading Holofernes before Klimt paints her portrait. Because of their beauty, ‘[t]hese things are easy to enter’. Slaughter is made bearable, its severity diminished: the speaker remembers a crow her father shot one Easter, ‘the tyranny of its open eye, / as wild and dark as anything’ belying the reality of its defeat.
Paradoxically, entering into another’s experience facilitates disengagement from it. And it is this unexpected pairing of entry with detachment that makes the collection’s take on violence and artistic beauty more than a mere parroting of W.H. Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, which suggests that emotional detachment is born of an inability to enter into the experience of another. It is by entering into the mind of the concubine in Ingres’ Grande Odalisque that the poet-speaker of ‘Against Ingres’ carries out her own unflinching objectification. There is no sympathy here for the woman, no retrieval of her humanity. Even as we have access to her thoughts—her fellow concubines, the sultan’s garden, ‘fat, lazy Nilüfer who scratched graffiti into the walls’—she remains unsettlingly object-like, inhuman:
her back patient as polished maple,
a line the colour of buttered toast
unfurling down her spine in an arabesque
to her tailbone and buttocks,
which are long and slumberous as a mare’s.
The model may turn her back on Ingres to protect her inner life against ingress. But the poet’s breaching of that inner life, its historical canvas, enables her to enact a more thorough objectification still. Even when we know the woman’s mind, we find, ‘Here there is nothing’.
‘Reclining Nude’ is troubling for the same reason. The painter’s dehumanising of his model comes from a purposeful distancing, a refusal to engage emotionally with the woman he tells ‘to crawl, spread / her legs, grind her arse like a pig’:
She has kernelled another body in her body there,
perhaps one of his, it doesn’t matter, he can’t
remember if he has had her, the point is,
she understands largesse […]
But the poet goes further. She shows us glimpses of the model’s passage from pink girlhood into ‘monstrous’ obesity. She walks us down the fluorescent halls of the model’s dream life. She reveals to us that behind the model’s face, most likely ‘intelligence lives, / here the rational, the sceptical’. And because she is able to access the model’s interior in this way, her cruelty to the model far exceeds that of the painter: if he portrays the woman as grotesque simply because he does not care about her inner being, the poet portrays her as grotesque outside and in, ‘rump, hog, beast’ through and through.
It is by entering that art does its worst violence. Holland-Batt reveals how the several paintings that inspire ‘An Illustrated History of Settlement’ turn the scene of invasion into nothing more than landscape suitable for a picnic: ‘sky boiled’, ‘a choppy wedge’ of water, a black man with ‘a toothpick spear’. The invaders are rendered innocuous by colonial representations: ‘heads knotted with tidy black ribbons’, ‘[f]aces fat with apple-cheeked Englishness’:
This is where the eye enters.
And often leaves.
The Hazards exposes the mechanics by which cruelty is made breathtaking; and in doing so, is itself breathtakingly cruel. But this cruelty reaches almost unbearable levels when the poet-speaker, refusing to spare even her self, turns her own person into the object of infliction. In ‘No End to Images’, it is the speaker who is invaded—by a relentless stream of memories that strip her bare, transmuting her suffering into beauty for the reader’s benefit:
No end to the hour I stood and shook
like a leaf in the shower’s privacy,
no end to my name, snagged like a burr,
no end to the body which is colossally small
with its pains and plainer longings.
No end to grief, never any end to that.
‘The Invention of Ether’ (and its telling title) gives us insight into the attractions of of numbing oneself when the heartbroken ‘I’ still
[…] cling[s] to the sting
like the slobbering octopus
I failed to rescue
from boyish torturers
on a Sicilian beach:
hopelessly suctioned, unable to release.
Aid is found in the anesthetisation of the heart. And if protecting the self from invasion is to be gained only by invading the inner lives of others—probing their interior space to find relief in the coldness of intellectual exercise—then so be it.
‘Desert Pea’ is a sparse poem. Compact like its title, it is a mere page long, composed of ten two-line stanzas. It provides stark contrast to most of the other poems, their language opulent and luxurious and finely tuned, like clockwork nightingales. Nestled in the middle of the collection, it sets down in plain words the theme this review has spent over a thousand words elaborating: the refuge of the intellect in a world where raw experience simply cannot be borne.
I cannot stand
the certain world:
rock grass and thistle,
invading my eye.
Give me night, the stars
streaming past me
huge and soundless.
Give me the silence
of the mind.
1. Jacinta Le Plastrier interviews Sarah Holland-Batt in Cordite, 10/9/2014
TIFFANY TSAO received her PhD in English from the University of California, Berkeley. Her written work includes literary criticism, fiction, poetry, reportage, and essays. She is Indonesia Editor-at-Large for Asymptote, an online literary journal specializing in contemporary world literature and translation.
by Ajay Navaria
Translated by Laura Brueck
Reviewed by MEETA CHATTERJEE-PADMANABHAN
Unclaimed Terrain by Ajay Navaria translated by Laura Brueck, and published in Australia by Giramondo cannot be described complacently as a ‘good read’. That is not what it set out to be. The stories are provocative and unsettling. There is serious heart- rending sadness in some and dark humour in others. Angry, lyrical, passionate, and political, the seven short stories published in the almost pocket-sized book demand a different kind of reading. This is indicated in the dedication in the book which reads, ‘To the characters in my stories, who fight for their dreams of justice, and to the tradition that teaches us to struggle for dignity, equality, and freedom.’ Solidarity with the Dalit (meaning the downtrodden) is established right in the beginning. This review begins by providing an overview of Dalit literature and then looks at one short story in some depth followed by a survey of some of the stories in the collection.
Since the 1960s, the work of Dalit writers began appearing in regional languages of India such as Marathi, Hindi, Tamil (earlier works have been recorded in Tamil), Telugu and others. In most Dalit writing the personal is political. The narrative of pain and misery, when told from the perspectives of characters in Dalit literature challenge upper caste values, the discourses of all religions and particularly, forces a reassessment of Hinduism as a peaceful religion. The national discourses of democracy and progress are also unsettled in the stories. The vulnerability of Dalit bodies, the difficult fight against untouchability, the struggle for education and access to even the most basic standards of living is painfully written into their stories. The accumulation of disturbing autobiographical details and a generous use of profanities disrupt the conventional reader’s expectations. These attributes define Ajay Navaria’s work.
Anand’s introduction brilliantly contextualises the collection and points to elements that are vital to the understanding of the stories. ‘Suffice it to say, every name emits a radioactive signal called caste. Every name is a parade of imagined history; the announcement of privilege or the lack of it’ (xii). The stories, indeed, parade the history of an oppressed people.
My favourite story in this collection is ‘Subcontinent’. It dazzlingly juxtaposes the past in the village that the protagonist and his family leave behind because of atrocities suffered, and the present with the trappings of middle class living made possible by a quota-enabled government job and a lecturer’s position in a city. There are a number of dimensions to the story, too intricate to deconstruct here. However, there is a glorious description of a dawn that captures with economy the trajectory of the story:
My eyes opened, and I saw a broken piece of the sky, quivering in the square of the window, trapped. An immense black cloud had seized the feeble sun and wrung it, breaking its legs. It seemed as if night were near, but suddenly a lone ray pierced the cloud like a horse and arced across the room. The whole room was a-shimmer in the din of hooves as if lit by the wavering flame of an oil lamp, unsteady but continuing to burn. Perhaps this horse did belong to the sun –the lone, seventh horse of the Sun God’s chariot.
The ‘seventh horse’ evokes memories of the famous Indian film director, Shyam Benegal, who captured the realities of the lives of victims of high caste violence. His film ‘The Sun God’s seventh horse’ gestures towards the need to take action and the necessity of retelling stories from different perspectives. In this short story, the protagonist sets out to do just this.
The story uses flashback and techniques of stream-of-consciousness to tell the story of Nankya, the Dalit bridegroom who transgresses caste rules by riding a horse to his wedding. A harsh punishment follows: assault, rape, extortion and a deep emotional scar that remains unhealed long after the incidents are over. The village panchayat members, the panditji (priest) and the police are the perpetrators or are complicit in the atrocious acts. Years later when the protagonist, a victim of the assault, Siddharth Nirmal, becomes a Marketing Manager and reflects on the incident, he is still unable to control his rage. He rejects his ‘lowly Hindu roots’ and embraces the slogan, ‘Jai Bhim’ to celebrate Ambedkar as his hero. The story ends with Siddharth plotting ways of seeking revenge.
Navaria uses intertexuality, as a literary technique that recalls other texts from different perspectives. In ‘Hello Premchand’, Navaria rewrites the story of Mangal an orphan, a character out of Premchand’s story. Munshi Premchand (1880-1936) was an acclaimed Hindi writer considered to be progressive for the era he lived in. In Premchand’s story low caste characters such as Ghisu and Madhav, who are sweepers, are delineated as incorrigible villains. In ‘Hello Premchand’, Ghisu and Madhav are given dignity. The pre-determined fate that, ‘a bhangi will always be bhangi’ is dismantled in ‘Hello Premchand’. There is a twist in the tale. By refusing to be a night soil carrier and a sweeper, by gaining education and migrating to a city, Mangal lays claim to equality with the upper caste members in his village. The story signals a re-envisioning of possibilities for Dalits in modern India.
The message in ‘Hello Premchand’ is destabilized in ‘Scream’. The nameless protagonist seeks to educate himself, but the day before his secondary school exams is sodomised by thugs belonging to a higher caste in his village. Despite this traumatic incident, he finishes his education with the help of Christian priests, but is compelled to migrate to Mumbai, to prepare for his civil service exams. Instead, he becomes a gigolo, but falls in love with a woman whose husband kills him out of jealousy. It is the ghost of the protagonist who narrates the story. For me, the story is a bit contrived and misses some of the narrative possibilities that it creates. However, there are other stories that tell interesting tales with great economy and irony.
‘Yes Sir’ views the Dalit plight with sardonic humour. The Brahmin peon Tiwari waits on his lower caste boss, Narottam Saroj, Deputy General Manager, with uttermost resentment. A kind act on the part of Narottam, brings about a change in Tiwari, so that the grateful Brahmin peon, gushes about repairing the low caste Narottam’s toilet. A tongue-in-cheek role reversal is enacted in the story.
‘Sacrifice’ is a heart rending story of a little boy having to surrender his pet goat. Not only does he have to give up his pet, he is also forced to hold onto its legs as the animal is slaughtered. There is a parallel tale of a Dalit man having to give up his love to her heartless high caste relatives. The story weaves together notions of betrayal, guilt and reflections on common sense of humanity.
‘New Custom’ is a well-crafted story that examines the prejudice that a Dalit academic suffers as an ‘untouchable’. Despite being an educated man and having achieved success, in his village, he is is not allowed to forget that he is ‘untouchable’. ‘Tattoo’ beautifully captures the anxieties of a Dalit man who joins a gym. He is mortified that the smart looking customer service officer would find out that he belongs to a low caste from the tattoo on his forearm. He is equally embarrassed about his gym shoes which he polishes endlessly but refuses to get new ones. There is an unexpected turn of events. The light hearted ending is a welcome change.
Overall, Ajay Navaria’s fascinating and disturbing collection of short stories adds to the growing body of the rich Dalit writing that exists. Dalit literature is becoming part of the curriculum in Indian universities and there is a growing interest in Dalit literature abroad. Laura Brueck’s translation captures the nuances and subtleties of Hindi very competently in English. Giramondo makes a remarkable contribution to Dalit writing by publishing this outstanding collection and a laudable service to Australian readers by bringing the collection of stories to Australian shores.
MEETA CHATTERJEE-PADMANABHAN is a lecturer in the academic language and literacy at the University of Wollongong, NSW.
Behrouz Boochani graduated from Tarbiat Madares University in Tehran with a Masters Degree in Political Geography and Geopolitics. He hoped to complete a PhD however due to the political nature of his writing as well as the discrimination against, and genocidal practices of the Iranian regime toward the Kurdish people he was prevented from doing this. Mr Boochani began working as a journalist both freelance and for various newspapers in Iran. His passion is the revival of Kurdish language and culture, a culture suffering under the practices of genocide for centuries. For many years Boochani would secretly teach children and adults their mother language, a particular Kurdish dialect from the region of Ilam. Behrouz Boochani also founded, edited and wrote for the Kurdish language magazine, Werya. He has been incarcerated in Manus Island Detention camp for almost 28 months now. During his time in the camp he has continued to write about the human rights abuses he and hundreds of other men experience daily. He passes much of this information to Australian and international journalists. Bocchani also continues to write about the land of his belonging, Kurdistan, culture, politics and language. His articles are published in Kurdish newspapers and online journals. PEN International is calling for his request for asylum in Australia to be determined urgently.
The airport was entirely empty and quiet. There was only a propeller aircraft that was supposed to take us to a far-flung island. I became restless again. I wanted those officers to get on the plane quickly and take us on board so that then the airplane would fly.
I love flying.
The atmosphere was too heavy for me, particularly with the presence of those vultures standing right beside the plane and toying with their cameras. With their crammed back packs, the officers boarded the plane. They were like soldiers ready to be sent into a battlefield. Some of the officers were shaking hands with the reporters. I felt that they were partners in crime.
F was the first person to board the plane. He needed to walk approximately fifty meters between the bus and the plane’s stairs. The officers had parked the bus far from the plane on purpose in order to make us feel deeply humiliated. Two muscular officers put their hands under F’s shoulder and took him to the plane in an extremely degrading manner. Although F was a tall person, he was like a fawn, a prey for two wild lions: the two officers who held him firmly dragged him towards the stairs. Those reporters too, focussed all their energies into taking the last photos of us, so as to not loose those pure moments.
I was confident that they enjoyed destroying our human dignity. It was clear that F stepped reluctantly, however, it did not make any difference since those two giants were taking him by the arm. They did not care about him. They took him like a piece of flesh to the plane at a steady speed. When they approached the stairs, two other men took F up the stairs. There was another person waiting for them at the top of the stairs who was filming everything. It was the scene of the day repeated every two minutes. The only difference was that one piece of flesh changed its place with another piece of flesh.
An image of F was flashing through my mind: I saw him sitting on the bow of the boat continually looking to the front and sometimes at his watch. I even recalled his repetitive questions: ‘How far is Australia?’ I remembered, too, that night, the last night, when he remained grimly silent as the hurricane hit the boat. He was holding me with his two hands in a dreadful darkness. He was frightened. Now, all his agonies had ended here. In that scene, he looked more like a dangerous murderer who should be tied as he was moved by two muscular men. These events were all taking place in the land of Australia. They were taking place in the Australia that F had counted down the minutes until he arrived. He had survived such deep fear because of this ambition.
It was the Myanmarese’s turn. He seemed weaker than the others. He was short and skinny. After taking some steps, he was shaky on his feet and was about to fall down. The officers raised him up. He was more like a person who is being taken to the gallows. When I was in Iran, I had seen a similar scene. I wished the man would not reveal his weakness and confusion. He had been a brave person whose courage crumbled. He was the one who had traversed the ocean. He should not have been scared of an absurd tumult and cruel cameras. He needed to try to summon his remaining courage and act in a stronger manner. He took a couple of steps further, turned his head and looked at our bus. It seemed he had left someone or something behind. Or maybe, he could not find anything or anyone to lean on in those debilitating moments, except us. Yes, he did not breathe a word during the half day we had been corralled and we had considered him as a stranger. We had not even offered a puff of the cigarette. We were the only people that he knew in this short time. We had a shared grief. We were all in the same boat. He was about to be thrown in to a dark and unknown future; a future which was supposed to continue on an Island. During the rest of his journey to the plane’s stairs he was more like prey dragging along the ground. There was no determination in his feet. He did not even take a single step. After a while, he was on board.
After some others, my number was called: MEG45. I got used to that number eventually. They regarded us only as numbers, no more than that, and I had to set my name aside for a long time. When I was called, my ears started moving. My name, which was a part of my identity was of no use, and all day long, sometimes, nobody even once called me Behrouz. I tried to attribute a new meaning to the nonsense number with my imagination. For instance, Mr Meg. But there were many people like me: Meg. What could I do with that rubbish number! Throughout the whole of my life I had always hated figures and maths but now I was forced to carry this number. It weighed on my soul and I had no remedy but to bear its heaviness. At last I tried to make the number relevant to an important historical event. Nothing came into my mind other than the end of the Second World War in 1945. However, whoever I was or whatever I think, the number was announced and MEG45 had to follow a route which F and others had taken before.
I confess that I was stressed out, a feeling that combined with anger and ended up as a lump, a piece of sorrow that pressed my throat. What crime did I commit that they wanted to take me by my arms on board? If they had shown me the way, I would have happily sprinted towards the plane and got on it. This situation reminded me of the desperate Myanmarese guy. I thought: I must not appear weak in front of all these eyes gazing at me. I’d had similar experiences in more dreadful circumstances. At least this time I had been eating food for a month; I had a bit of colour on my face and my body did not stink of ooze. However, what could I do with my clothes? A yellow t-shirt which was two times bigger than me reached down to my knees. Clack clack was heard, when I walked with the thongs. My appearance was like nobody. I had never seen anyone dressed up in that way. For example, the short sleeves reached down to my wrist. It was a terrible combination of colours: a yellow t-shirt, black shorts and bare feet which ended in a pair of thongs. By wearing those clothes I was degraded in practice, no matter who I was or what thoughts I had.
Put what I just mentioned aside. How on earth could I pass through in front of so many cameras? Particularly, those young and blonde girls who were extremely excited about taking photos, photos closer than close. I must not reveal my weakness. Finally I took a leap in the dark and got off the bus. Those two giants were waiting for me. All of a sudden, they locked their arms around mine and moved towards the plane. I held my head high and took long steps in order to finish the torturous scene as soon as I could.
I passed the interpreters firstly. They were dressed in green clothes and were standing watching us without any reason. Maybe they wanted to come to Manus Island with us. They did not look like passengers. I glanced over at the interpreter who seemed not to intend leaving us. There were nothing in her face. Even her smile which had previously formed as a question in my mind in the first place, disappeared. I was unable to understand her; she was highly ambiguous. She seemed both careless and worried. Perhaps, what made her look even heavier was what I felt was a common agony in her black eyes. It was an agony that had caused me to get further and further away from my past and the land that I belong to. There was no doubt that she went through agony like me just because of being labelled as Kurd, being labelled a greedy creature in the Middle East, the one who has always been a fly in the ointment for governments; who is always talking about strange topics like freedom and democracy. Once, she had abandoned everything like me and come to Australia. No matter what means she used to get here, whether a decayed boat or a plane, by looking at her, I felt that I reminded her of a bygone pain. I felt I reminded her of the days that she was considered an extra creature in the Middle East. I felt that this concept evoked in her a feeling of hatred and sympathy towards me.
We approached the reporters. One of the blonde girls took some steps closer and while she was kneeling she took some artistic masterpiece photos of my ridiculous face. She was definitely able to create a wonderful scene. She would show it to her editor and would be praised by him or her. In a shot from a bottom angle, my thin body was undoubtedly a masterpiece in those loose-fitting and slovenly clothes. I still held my head high and mounted the plane’s stairs with a sense of pride. But those steps were more like the steps of a person who was running away.
I finally got on board. I was directed to my seat and collapsed in a heap. There was no sign of my false pride anymore and I kept my head down. A degraded person, someone who had been humiliated and become worthless. Someone who felt all those people either sniggered in their minds or perhaps cried for him. Through looking at my unkempt appearance and seeing those two officers who pulled me like a dangerous criminal, people should hate coming to Australia. I was the one who ought to make them detest the idea of coming there. The piece of sorrow grew several times as much in my throat and was about to suffocate me. I took some deep breaths so that a part of it might find a way outside and make me breathe easier. After a while, the ex-jailer from Iran who was with us also came on board but no longer chattering and laughing like he had during that day. He sat next to me.
The number of officers on board was the same as us. Two officers sat down on two seats next to the ex-jailor and I. They were watching us carefully in order to avoid us conducting any dangerous activities or misbehaviour. After a while, the plane took off and climbed. We got far and farther away from Christmas island; the island we had almost died in the ocean to reach.
(translated from Farsi to English by Moones Mansoubi)
by Libby Hart
Pitt Street Poetry
ISBN 9781922080387 (paperback)
Reviewed by HEATHER TAYLOR-JOHNSON
To say that Libby Hart’s third book of poetry, Wild, was a highly anticipated one is to take into account that her first book, Fresh News from the Artic, won the Anne Elder Award and was shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Prize, while her second, This Floating World, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Awards and the Age book of the Year Awards. In my opinion, Wild is the best Libby Hart book to date.
Wild speaks of the animals: from the whale to the horse, from wolf to fox, and especially the birds. The poems are layered in their depiction of creature as majestic singular and as creature connected to humankind, heaven and the earth. Some poems deal with humans as the ‘wild’ or nature and the cosmos as the ‘wild’, but still there is a dependency on animals. The opening poem sets us up for the interconnection:
this is where the whirlwind stops.
Right here, among dark incantation.
Look around you, use those grizzly eyes,
for soon you’ll turn polar – a bulk of light
with clumsy paws. The blood-thud of constellation
shall roar inside your ears.
The poem is called ‘Ursa Major: Ursus arctos horribilis’, referencing both the constellation (which translates to ‘larger she-bear’, part of which forms the Big Dipper in North America and the Plough in the UK) and the grizzly bear. The title is of the heavens while the subtitle is the earth-bound animal. In this poem, one cannot live without the other, thus the subject and object become confused, morphing into one and the same.
The titles of all of the poems in the first section follow this twofold rule: the main title references the poem in much the way any title of a poem would, while the subtitle gives the Latin, scientific name to add complexity to the reading. The subtitles also work, however, to consolidate and simplify meaning. Take, for example, ‘Vespers: Hirundo rustica’, translated as ‘Vespers: Swallow’:
A spell of words
then a loosening of fault line,
black miracles spill from my breast.
One hundred swallows
ravenous and open-mouthed,
each menace of wing eye-loaded apparition.
Calligraphy of wildings,
auguries of the oldest longing,
dark lessons skimming the squat field.
The line between the hearing of vespers and the watching of birds is blurred in the first stanza, allowing the rest of the poem to exist in a complemented state of beauty and spirituality, so meaning becomes complete through interconnectivity. Consequently, there is such a bird as a vesper sparrow, making Hart’s choice of swallow an interesting one.
This first section of the book is called ‘Huginn and Muninn’, after the Norse myth of two ravens that fly all over the world to bring information to the god Odin. ‘Huginn’ is Old Norse for ‘thought’, while ‘Muninn’ is Old Norse for ‘memory’ or ‘mind’. In the book’s notes, Hart writes that the ravens ‘whisper the things they have seen or heard,’ and that the poems ‘are to be read as such whispers.’ When I ask myself what it is I like so much about Libby Hart’s poetry – and this would answer to all three of her books, but especially Wild – I have to answer that it is her power to whisper. She seems to do this in every poem, whether they are in the first section or the second (the later, ‘Murmurations’, maintains the theme and character of the book but loses the subtitle and gains some urbanness).
‘Stag: Cervus elaphus’ begins and ends with the imperative ‘Hold still’. This works to capture a place of tranquility at the start, where the stag is imposing, royal, superb. The repetition at the end forces us to take in that image again, and it as if we are inhaling one last time before we finish reading the poem, before the stag disappears. The mood then, it must be said, is like a whisper.
In the title ‘And then, and then’ repetition works as well, though this time we are left with an invisible ellipses, punctuation which suggests something further, though not of a new course and not definite, either. A whisper, rather than a shout.
‘Augury’ uses the third stanza as a whisper:
I have touched the lightning-struck tree.
I have spilt salt and broken mirror.
I have watched animals flee woodland.
And every treat grew to calamity—
to veiled message, winged riddle.
All of these actions suggest, as the poem says, calamity. However the word ‘veiled’ works with transparency while ‘winged’ works with wind, so the resultant calamity is not what one would expect. It is quieter. Working with strong action verbs throughout (‘spilt’, ‘broken’, ‘flee’) and ending with no verb at all leaves us with an image, rather than a scene, suggesting, again, something akin to a visual whisper.
In ‘Buffalo’, ‘a dark hale hollers’ more than once and in return, dead things like ‘bones’ and ‘bundles of pelts’ listen. The leading verb is piercing while the ensuing is muted, the dichotomous placement encouraging the quiet to triumph.
Even the cover of the book works with a whisper’s tone: the implication of the title ‘Wild’ in great contrast with its plain text and bottom-left positioning and the predominantly blank white canvas.
As with her other books, place is important, and though Hart is a fine example of a major Australian poet, there is very little ‘Australia’ to her poetry. Wild is dominantly an ode to Ireland and the animals, the birds, the nature and the northern stars the poet encounters there. Hart once told me that she feels as if she’s in exile from Ireland, unable to live in her own spiritual home because of citizenship. Some researchers of diaspora might find fault in that, but most poets probably won’t, home becoming metaphorically, rather than historically, positioned. Poetry allows these substitutes and thus opens up definitions. What I get out of Hart’s connection to Ireland is a deep and thirsty respect coated in a thick fog of longing. Her depictions of the foreignness feel local and her references to Irish poets are many.
In fact she references many poets in her work, quoting them, responding to them and remembering them, and the range is vast, from the Romantic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, to the contemporary Sarah Jackson. So too does she write about writing and the creative process, though these poems are subtle in their motif as they reference mythology, folklore and history – another complex layering of interconnectedness: this one between poet and who came before.
This is another fine book from Pitt Street Poetry, and Libby Hart a perfect addition to the Pitt Street poets. I hope all involved are gearing up for a long shelf-life, commendations and future reprints.
HEATHER TAYLOR JOHNSON is the author of three collections of poetry and a novel, Pursuing Love and Death, HarperCollins.
She is editing an anthology of poems on disability, The Fractured Self.