On David Malouf
Black Inc, 2019
Reviewed by JEAN-FRANCOIS VERNAY
“Identity can be experienced in two ways. Either as a confident being-in the-world or as anxiety about our-place-in-the-world; as something we live for ourselves, or as something that demands for its confirmation the approval of others.”
David Malouf (1)
Published by Black Inc in association with the University of Melbourne and the State Library of Victoria, Nam Le’s On David Malouf is the fifth volume in the Writers on Writers Series. This hybrid exercise in literary sensitivity, halfway between biography (that of a prominent Australian writer) and personal memoir, aims at eschewing the typical university-level critical practice engaged in close readings. Such analyses are mainly to be found in academic exegeses of which Malouf’s work has often been the focus, with no less than 8 theses and countless monographs.
A former academic, David Malouf (born in 1934) has grown over the decades into a prolific writer tapping into various genres: poetry, novels, short stories, essays, drama and libretti. At the core of his œuvre lies the idea that Australia needs to be re-imagined, constructed verbally in the form of literary and cultural representations. Throughout his literary career, Malouf has unflaggingly served this myth-making process in the imaginative space of his fiction. By combining mind and body, the individual and nature, past and present, place and identity, his books substantially treat polymorphic exile inherent in the Australian postcolonial condition. Beyond the multiple Australian accolades, Malouf has reaped an impressive harvest of international literary prizes such as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Australia-Asia Literary Award, the Impac Dublin Literary Award, the Prix Femina Étranger, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and he was even shortlisted for the 1994 Man Booker Prize.
This potted introduction is all the more necessary as On David Malouf is a slim monograph not so much about David Malouf as it is about Nam Le: his background and lineage, his childhood and schooling, his literary tastes and aspirations, his writing gigs, but also his vision of identity and immigration politics. The book-length hommage is divided into four sections whose titles are poetically playing with alliterations: Prime, Pigeon, Patria, and Peril. The first section establishes the elective affinities between Malouf and Le; the second part discusses sovereignty and territory in relation to communities; while the penultimate and last chapters cover Australian identity, history and politics. In these sections, Nam Le turns into a social commentator whose insightful observations might occasionally stir the pot, as this one: “The White Australia policy may have been abolished in the ’70s but all non-whites know it’s as deeply situated in our DNA as our Western inheritance.” (90)
No matter how erudite, Le’s roundabout way of paying tribute to Malouf is executed in a rather formal prose with a taste for sophisticated words and Latin phrases. The following excerpt aptly encapsulates the essence of Le’s literary hallmark and somewhat convoluted arguments: “Auden, to whom we both owe early and enduring faith, writes in Horae Canonicae that we should ‘bless what there is for being’. This is as close as I come to creed. This is what I see in Malouf’s eidetic writing. We share, I think, a sense of wonder towards a world that is both sui generis and palimpsestic, sacred with beauty and mystery — against which epiphany serves not as literary reaction but as dialectic of being alive. The world makes us. We can, in our small way, through our writing, perform the mimic miracle. Make a new world.” (20) Not to put too fine a point on it, it is unlikely that most readers, who are not university undergraduates enrolled in literary studies, will understand what eidetic, palimpsestic, epiphany and dialectic mean.
Nam Le starts by sharing his first engagement with David Malouf’s work, which dates back to Year 12, when Remembering Babylon (1993) was placed on the VCE list. The first part of a colonial period diptych which was eventually matched by Conversations at Curlow Creek, Remembering Babylon is stylistically described as “a sentence-level novel” (7) and David Malouf as a poetic wordsmith “attuned to the molecular level of syllable and sound” (7). While Nam Le opens a productive dialogue with the intimacy of Malouf’s mind style, he rarely touches on the philosophical and psychological implications of Malouf’s variegated narratives, most of which lie beyond the remit of this book-length essay. Out of the thirty-nine books listed at the end of On David Malouf, Nam Le only draws on five novels (Johnno, An Imaginary Life, Harland’s Half Acre, The Great World, Remembering Babylon), one short story collection (The Complete Stories) and two non-fiction books (12 Edmondstone Street, A Spirit of Play: the Making of Australian Consciousness). Le eventually lists the commonalities between his background and Malouf’s to reveal the hidden connections which underly their writing lives: poetry, euphony, literary erudition, philosophical influences, to name a few.
The last section is perhaps the one which pays the greater tribute to the Brisbane-born “multivalent writer” (68). Given the diversity and prolificness of Malouf’s fine writings, Le’s bird’s-eye view of such complexity becomes a perilous exercise in conciseness. The latter can only be expressed through thematic binaries which converge in a coincidencia oppositorum of sorts: “There is, in Malouf, a tendency towards wholeness. He creates tension through binaries (self/other, mind/body, past/present, human/non-human, human/world, European/Australian, Australian/Aboriginal, civilised/primitive, adult/child, experience/innocence, inside/outside, white/black, fate/free will, etc.) and then yearns, and seeks, naturally and inexorably, to syllogise them — often through lyrical transcendence — into reconciled wholes. At bottom, this is his entire method. At its best, it results in writing that is surpassingly beautiful, moving and profound.” (80)
The reader’s pertinacity (I’m deliberately using this word as a discreet hommage to Le’s style) will be rewarded as the Melbourne-based memoirist provides useful insights into Australian history and culture in his polished and intellectually mature essay.
David Malouf, A Spirit of Play: The Making of Australian Consciousness (Sydney: ABC Books, 1988), 99.
Jean-François VERNAY’s The Seduction of Fiction (New York: Palgrave) and A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press) were both released in 2016. His latest book, La séduction de la fiction (Paris: Hermann, 2019), the sequel to his Palgrave monograph, deals with all the cognitive mechanisms underlying literary passion.
Global South Salon
We were thrilled and honoured to have participated in an exciting, free public event at the World Literature and Global South Conference (23-25 August, 2019) co-hosted by Peking University and the School of Languages at the University of Sydney, convened by Professor Yixu Lu.
The Global South Salon is a creative submersion into the colloquium themes from diaspora writers and translators who live and work in Sydney, and whose ancestries trace to the Global South. They have lived in the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Africa, Mexico and Australia. They share resistant imaginaries.
The writers were introduced by Dr Toby Fitch with a brief introduction by award-winning poet Dimitra Harvey.
Featuring six award winning writers: Mario Licon Cabrera, Anuapama Pilbrow, Lachlan Brown, Debbie Lim, Michelle Cahill, Christopher Cyrill.
This stellar conference featured authors from Argentina, China, Egypt, Indonesia, the Phillipines, Myanmar, New Caledonia, and New Zealand, with keynotes by Alexis Wright and Gauri Viswanathan. Alexis Wright is an Indigenous Australian writer best known for winning the Miles Franklin Award for her 2006 novel Carpentaria and the 2018 Stella Prize for her “collective memoir” of Leigh Bruce “Tracker” Tilmouth. Gauri Viswanathan is the author of Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (Columbia, 1989; 25th anniversary edition, 2014) and Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief (Princeton, 1998) which won several awards.
The conference also featured a launch of a documentary screening of Gangalidda political leader Clarence Walden, a witness to the cruel racism experienced by Aboriginal people during the 1950s and 60s on the remote Doomadgee Mission in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The documentary addresses the enormity of the political struggles with governments and mining companies in the modern era. Here is a link to the ABC’s audio recording of Nothing But the Truth,
(Credits: Interviewer: Alexis Wright. Sound Engineer: Russell Stapleton / Ben Denham. Producer: Ben Etherington)
The creative component of the conference is curated by acclaimed author and academic, Nicholas Jose.
Sergius Seeks Bacchus
by Norman Erikson Pasaribu
translated by Tiffany Tsao
Reviewed by DMETRI KAKMI
Born to a Muslim father and a Protestant mother, Norman Erikson Pasaribu was raised in Jakarta, Indonesia, but his roots lie in the ethnic Christian Batak community of Sumatra. Though he writes in Indonesian, Pasaribu’s poetry collection Sergius Seeks Bacchus (translated by Tiffany Tsao) is a vehicle for queer voices outside western Anglophone experience, offering a glimpse into a world that is all too real for non-conforming individuals in much of the contemporary world.
As of this writing, in more than seventy countries it is a crime to be gay. In ten it incurs the death penalty, and in no country in the world are LGBTQI people treated equally under the law. Exposure, humiliation, forced medical intervention to affect a ‘cure’, and curtailment of basic freedoms are everyday realities. ISIS tossed gays from minarets, and in Chechnya men and women suspected of homosexual practices are incarcerated in concentration camps. In parts of Indonesia, homosexuality is illegal under Sharia Law and punishable by flogging.
This in effect is the shadow under which Pasaribu writes—the kind of world western urban gays might believe was left behind in the 1970s, with the rise of gay liberation. And although the poet writes about Indonesia, his references are recognisable and relatable because they are drawn largely from a western pop culture ethos that pulls in television, magazines, social media, as well as the Judea-Christian tradition. Even Dante Alighieri gets a look-in with poems such as “Inferno”. “Purgatorio”, “Paradiso”, and “La Vita Nuova”, representing the symbolic journey of ascent and renewal that is at the heart of the book.
From the outset, however, Pasaribu evokes the spirits of Sergius and Bacchus, two early Christian martyrs who, like Saint Sebastian, have been absorbed into the global male queer sensibility. Mixing defiance and submission, all three are part victim, part rebel, true believers who suffer for their convictions; and, therefore, transcend oppression and persecution. As seen in the eponymous poem, death is not final but a doorway to redemption.
Snake-like, you shed your short-lived skin
and commence/continue your quest. Now the light from on high
passes through you. You’re luminous. Meanwhile, out west
in decrepit Rome sits Galerius, oblivious his end is nigh.
You seek your beloved — he appeared to you in your cell,
his body glowing silver as he whispered, Endure,
for I will always watch over you. With him you will rise
up to heaven and wonder at how familiar
it all feels. Hand in hand, you two will stroll the streets,
introducing one another to everyone you meet.
Far from saying homosexuals are better of dead, Pasaribu disavows doctrinaire notions of martyrdom in favour of an earthly paradise in which same-sex couples walk hand-in-hand without fear. His lines are metaphor for a lapsed Christian who follows in the footsteps of gay club anthems like ‘Go West’ by the Village People (later covered by The Pet Shop Boys) and ‘In the Evening’ by Sheryl Lee Ralph.
An admission. As an atheist who has lived most of his life in Australia, I had trouble getting my head around the notion that gay people continue to hide in the 21st century, especially to appease religious dictates. It seemed retrograde, like reading a book about homosexuality from the 1950s. But such is Pasaribu’s sleight of hand that he quickly popped my insular bubble to remind me what life would be like if I still lived in Turkey, where I was born. Indeed, most of my Turkish gay friends seek shelter in the closet or sham marriage.
The most revealing poem in this regard is ‘On a Pair of Young Men in the Underground Car Park at fX Sudirman Mall’. Here two young men sit in a Toyota Rush ‘parked in the corner of level P3,/stealing a little time and space for themselves,’ and poignantly ‘exchanging kisses wide-eyed — keeping watch as one/for security guards or janitors’ that might interrupt their stolen moments.
Two things stand out in this cornerstone poem. First, the poem recalls the tone set by C. P Cavafy, the Greek godfather of all queer clandestine confessionals. Second, the secretive location, (simultaneously public and private), brings to mind early Christians worshipping in catacombs beneath Rome streets, awaiting their turn to rise and take over.
Literally and metaphorically driven underground by unorthodox desires, Pasaribu’s primary stance is seeking; his is a restless questing as his cast of characters search for a shared history that is textually present but remains elusively out of reach. And because the queer body politic walks a fine line between visibility and invisibility, acceptance and rejection, it could be said that this collections is about absence in presence, and presence in absence.
Despite advances in some parts of the world, the homosexual is still contested territory. Both present and absent in society, the homosexual is made painfully visible and inextricably invisible through obsessive, circular, discourse that seeks to simultaneously comprehend and to exclude. This contradiction is central to Pasaribu’s poems. Caught in the crossfire are men and women who continue to assert the validity of their lives against a tyrannical ideology.
The other emblem Pasaribu draws on is the tree—not surprising, given the book’s original title was Like Trees. But Pasaribu had a last minute change of heart, perhaps to align the book with evolving queer narratives; and, more important, to signal that in each of the fifty-nine poems the emphasis is on pairing, bringing people together, whether in love, quest, or Socratic dialogue.
As an animist, I lean more towards trees than to Christian iconography. That is just as well since the tree is a universal archetype that can be found in different traditions around the world. They are symbols of physical and spiritual nourishment, transformation, liberation, and union. Moreover, Jungian psychology sees the tree as a symbol of individuation, bringing together the feminine and masculine principles.
In light of this, it is interesting to follow Pasaribu as he weaves a path between doctrinaire religion and tree-worshipping paganism. This is best seen in “He and the Tree” where an individual stands at the border of civilisation and the natural world, seeking forgiveness from the tree that shelters his car from the sun in the company parking lot. As the tree listens, it remembers his friend who was ‘ripped from the earth for being too close to the foundation’, thus losing a chance to tell his friend ‘how much he loved him’.
If he were here, he would take him to a church. At the altar
they would be joined together before god, who had three branches
— like a tree — and their children would fill the lot, every
single square inch, so that someday everyone who passed
would think a forest had sprung up in the city’s heart.
The man hugged the tree and tree hugged the man.
This poignant, wryly observed poem would have been an ideal way to end the collection. It brings together the book’s main symbolic and ideological positions in an act of compassion and empathy that yields fruit; and that in a way is what Pasaribu hopes to achieve in this slender but weighty tome that both affirms and transcends the classification of queer poetry.
DMETRI KAKMI is a writer and editor based in Melbourne. For 15 years he worked as a senior editor at Penguin Books. His fictionalised memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. He is the editor of the acclaimed children’s anthology When We Were Young. His new book The Door and other Uncanny Tales will be published in 2020.
Alexander Alexandrovich Blok was born in 1880 and died in 1921. He is celebrated as the foremost of the Russian symbolists. His first book was entitled Verses about the Beautiful Lady.
Ночь, улица, фонарь, аптека,
Бессмысленный и тусклый свет.
Живи ещё хоть четверть века —
Всё будет так. Исхода нет.
Умрёшь — начнёшь опять сначала
И повторится всё, как встарь:
Ночь, ледяная рябь канала,
Аптека, улица, фонарь.
|Night, a street-lamp and a chemist’s
Night, a street-lamp and a chemist’s.
This lustreless, meaningless globe.
Have twenty more years, or some more.
No one’s ever known an exit.
You’ll die. Start it all over again:
everything repeats the past.
Night, an ice-cold ripple
in the canal, a street-lamp and a chemist’s.
Paul Magee is author of Stone Postcard (2014), Cube Root of Book (2006) and the prose ethnography From Here to Tierra del Fuego (2000). Paul majored in Russian and Classical languages, and has published translations of Vergil, Catullus, Horace and Ovid. He is currently working on a third book of poems, The Collection of Space. Paul is Associate Professor of Poetry at the University of Canberra.
Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva was born in 1892. She left Russia in 1922, returned in 1939, and was to die two years later. She is celebrated as one of the greatest Russian poets of the Twentieth Century. Her first book was entitled Evening Album.
За этот ад,
За этот бред,
Пошли мне сад
На старость лет.
На старость лет,
На старость бед:
Рабочих — лет,
Горбатых — лет...
На старость лет
Собачьих — клад:
Горячих лет —
Мне сад пошли:
Сад: ни шажка!
Сад: ни глазка!
Сад: ни смешка!
Сад: ни свистка!
Мне сад пошли:
Скажи: довольно мýки — нá
Сад — одинокий, как сама.
(Но около и Сам не стань!)
— Сад, одинокий, как ты Сам.
Такой мне сад на старость лет...
— Тот сад? А может быть — тот свет? —
На старость лет моих пошли —
На отпущение души.
To cope with this underworld
you’ve sent me, and madness,
make it a garden
for the years that age.
For the years that age,
for the griefs I’ve to live through,
the years of work coming
and the groanings in my back.
For the years that age.
Bone for that dog.
For the hell-burnt years.
A garden in the breeze
for their refugee.
Bless me with a garden
and nobody there,
a soulless place.
Garden no one steps in.
Garden no one looks in.
A laughterless garden,
a no whistling there
bless me with a garden.
Nothing has a scent there,
not a soul.
Speak: you’ve tortured enough.
A garden on its own.
But don’t come near me here or there.
Yes, he says, it’s as alone as me.
That’s your garden for me and the years
I age. That. Or your paradise?
Bless me in the years that age.
Deliver me from here.
Paul Magee is author of Stone Postcard (2014), Cube Root of Book (2006) and the prose ethnography From Here to Tierra del Fuego (2000). Paul majored in Russian and Classical languages, and has published translations of Vergil, Catullus, Horace and Ovid. He is currently working on a third book of poems, ‘The Collection of Space’. Paul is Associate Professor of Poetry at the University of Canberra.
The Grass Library
by David Brooks
Brandl and Schlesinger
Reviewed by JACK STANTON
“If only ethics operated on the one plane,” (137), David Brooks laments in The Grass Library, which, like his previous work, evades neat classification but falls somewhere in between memoir and philosophy. On one level, The Grass Library urges his readers to reconsider their relationship with our fellow earthlings, through his own disenchantment with eating animals. To summarise the narrative, however, would be reductive. On the macro level, the story begins when Brooks and his wife T. Become vegan, beginning a chain of events that results in them exchanging their life in Sydney for a farm in the Blue Mountains. This is precisely what makes the book interesting: he knows how to locate and illuminate the ideologies that underpin daily life, in a way that blooms naturally from his own experiences.
From what I take away, Brooks’s central argument is that our dominion over animals is mostly a product of a particular state of mind, an entitlement, which “has difficulty navigating the rough terrain of reality” (213), a difficulty enforced by ancient social/cultural/historical “fences” established between animals and humans. For Brooks, these fences are ideological, fixed in the ways we talk about animals.
Indeed, writing about animal rights and vegan/vegetarian activism has a long literary tradition behind it, one that Brooks self-consciously writes within. He is in good company, the likes of Tolstoy, Kafka, Mary Shelley, and Plutarch. Tolstoy was famed for denouncing eating animals as profligate and senseless. “A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food,” he writes, “therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite.” What Tolstoy saw as moral responsibility actually reversed the hierarchy of power, with humans, at the pyramidion, seeking to protect rather than exploit those beneath them.
Brooks writes about his metamorphosis from an omnivorous Sydneysider to owner of his refuge farm in the Blue Mountains, a fresh vegan seeing the world anew, all the while trying to find a harmony with animals, forever writing down his observations of how humans should (or were meant to) live. I use this word, metamorphosis, rather than a less-decorative cousin, such as ‘change’, because there’s something essentially creatural in Brooks’s becoming. He transgresses “fences”, (51) a metaphor for boundaries within the human mind and language. “You don’t realise the guilt you’ve been carrying around until you no longer feel it,” he writes. (10)
On the surface, The Grass Library tells a simple story. In the Blue Mountains, he begins to establish a sanctuary for wayward animals, most notably their dog Charlie and four sheep: Henry, Charlie, Orpheus, and Pumpkin. But in true essayist style, Brooks tells the reader they’re in for more than what’s on the narrative surface—“this book isn’t about veganism, or guilt,” he writes, “but ultimately and more simply it’s about discovery and wonder: wonder, and wondering.” (10)
Which is true: Brooks doesn’t moralise. He focuses on identifying problems about writing about animals in the first place, because already I’d started to encounter these [problems], the way the language seems stacked against them, conditioning us, subliminally, to keep up the cruelty. (17)
Here, I agree with Brooks. Consider the French: fruit de la mer. Fruit of the sea. This is what Brooks means by a “fence” in language.
But before getting too far ahead, a brief aside á la subliminal conditioning. When Brooks suggests “if something seems untenable then perhaps is it because it suits the status quo to have it seem so” (17), he is urging readers to challenge their hardwired, default setting. In his speech ‘This is Water’, U.S. writer David Foster Wallace argued that our default setting is the belief that we are the absolute centre of our own universes. He further argued that being able to recognise your default setting and push against it was the “no bullshit” real life value of a liberal arts education.
But are these just semantics? Or do the words we use to talk about animals have real life meaning in our treatment of them? Predictably, Brooks argues in favour of the importance of language and its relationship to reality, quoting Friedrich Nietzsche’s phrase “we see all things through the human head and cannot remove that head.” (25) Here’s an example. While discussing his first two adopted sheep, Henry and James, Brooks writes against traditional wisdom, which advises don’t give them names . .. because then you won’t be able to use them, by which is meant kill them, or to do so readily the other things you need to do to them. (52)
This juncture in language is best seen through binaries, such as pet/livestock, common/endangered, wild/tame, and so forth. These distinctions “masquerade as recognition of some value inherent in the animal itself.” (74) In other words, the use (or misuse) of language positions animals as property, closer aligned to a ‘thing’ than a person, and, Brooks opines, people don’t often name their property; it’s considered strange to befriend your fridge.
In Katoomba, Brooks witnesses two tragedies. During the first, he sees ducklings swimming in his pool. Some have drowned. Their mother swims beside them, idle, either confused or unsure about what’s happened. He scolds himself. The ducklings have drowned because the pool’s water level has declined. The tired ducklings couldn’t escape.
The second tragedy is even more minuscule. A cicada trapped inside its own shell, midway through its metamorphosis. It’s here, using the microscopic world as a gateway to the philosophical one, that Brooks’s The Grass Library is at its most compelling. He creates this gateway by pondering the above two tragedies, thus:
If the word tragedy can’t accommodate a drowned duckling or a cicada trapped in its own larval shell then we must ask not only how much of its use to us is a tool for defence of our own self-centeredness and misguided mastery, but also how many other of our implicit, unquestioned, and seemingly innocent assumptions might be the same. (129)
Like any considered perspective, Brooks pre-empts and refutes the stances contrary to his own. He isn’t bothered by accusations of anthropomorphising, responding with an accusation of his own, namely that “barbarity itself begins with the thought that we are so different from the creatures we live amongst that we cannot know or even hazard how they feel.” (25) Yet another fence in the mind.
Besides, what Brooks has set out to achieve in The Grass Library pretty much depends on being able to speculate on, and empathise with, the animals he lives alongside. He describes the book as a narrative turned “upside-down” (68), not about his life with T. in the mountains, or only ostensibly so. Instead he has devised a narrative in which “the animals that are normally suppressed or swallowed by a story, or serve as accessory to it, have been brought toward the ‘fore’, and humans play a more supporting role.” (68)
And true to the upside-down nature of this meditation on animals in philosophy is a scene from the opening pages that has stayed with me, a scene in which Brooks sees a spectre from his past, a version of himself wandering along Martin Place, while he was protesting the use of battery cages. Brooks, a senior lecturer at USYD, is crammed into a cage in Martin Place, wearing a chicken mask—watching the vice-chancellor of my university walk by, brushing aside some of my fellow protestors in the same cavalier way I might have used myself a year or so before. (11)
Yes, the anecdote is attractive for its amusing imagery. But it also conveys a powerful second image behind the immediately comic idea of Brooks wearing a chicken mask, because here we see the strength of Brooks’s metamorphosis of the mind. Throughout The Grass Library he has tried to see the world through their eyes, wearing an animal mask while he writes.
JACK CAMERON STANTON is a writer and critic based in Sydney. His work has appeared in The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney Review of Books, Southerly, Mascara Literary Review, Overland, and others. He teaches at UTS.
Paul de Brancion is the author of about fifteen novels and poems. He is regularly involved in transversal artistic projects, with contemporary art centres or music composers (T. Pécou, J-L. Petit, G. Cagnard, N. Prost, …). He lives and works between Paris, Corsica and Nantes. Where he organises and presents “Les Rendez-vous du Bois Chevalier”, annual events dedicated to literature, science and poetry.
He is editor-in-chief of the magazine Sarrazine, president of the Union des Poètes & Cie and representative in France of the WPM (World Poetry Movement).
Ça fait tout drôle, ce manque de légèreté. Des maisons, des meubles, des tapis, des mauvais livres, une sorte d’indélicatesse du goût. Comment peut-on survivre à cet environnement d’un si mauvais genre ?
Profusion, c’est le mot en français. Excès. Mor avait quelque chose d’excessif que je craignais infiniment. Il était dangereux pour moi d’être en relation avec elle. Même mon amour pour elle était inconvenant. Elle parlait très vite et beaucoup. Un déluge de mots était prononcé et je m’éloignais en marchant le plus loin possible du courant continu de ses phrases. Elle était le maître de la vérité. Elle priait et sa prière était un écroulement. Elle ruisselait devant le Seigneur Dieu. Comment peut-on dire cela sans être fauteur de scandal ?
Je n’arrive pas à rassembler une idée globale ou une image fixe. Toujours mouvante, elle était toujours mouvante, émouvante, éprouvante, épouvante, Mor.
Cette nuit cauchemar, cauchemère, j’en ai honte. Je crois qu’elle est tombée par terre dans l’entrée de damier noir et blanc froide et humide de l’enfance. Elle portait une longue robe bleu-gris sombre qui collait à son corps. Elle était allongée, elle se sentait faible. Je suis venu pour l’aider. Elle n’a pas appelé. Elle était allongée sur le sol, ses yeux étaient fermés et le teint blafard. Je sentais son cœur qui battait la chamade. C’est la fin pensai-je avec émotion.
De fait, elle est morte du cœur, d’une faiblesse du cœur et non du cancer qui rongeait ses entrailles. Voilà, cela arrive enfin. Presque soulagé parce que j’ai attendu ce moment précis toute ma vie. Je les considérais, elle et le vieux panard mon père comme immortels, éternels, alors c’était cela, ils pouvaient bien mourir, eux aussi. On y était arrivé. Le grand passage de Mor.
Elle est morte d’une attaque cardiaque. Elle avait pris beaucoup de médicaments. Son corps était en train de pourrir. Il a été décidé de ne pas lui inoculer des produits stabilisateurs qui empêchent qu’elle ne pourrisse de l’intérieur.
Translator’s note: In Danish, 'Mor'means Mother. The original version of this poem was written in French, Danish and English. French and English were common to mother and son but Danish was his alone.
It feels weird, this lack of lightness. Houses, furniture, carpets, bad books, a sort of indelicacy of taste. How can one survive in such a hopeless kind of environment?
Profusion, that’s the word in French. Excess. There was something excessive about Mor that I feared greatly. It was dangerous for me to have a relationship with her. Even my love for her was unseemly. She spoke very quickly and a lot. A deluge of words was delivered and I walked as far away as possible from Mor’s continual stream of sentences. She was the master of Truth. She prayed and her prayers tumbled down. She gushed in front of the Lord God. How can one say that without stirring up a scandal?
I can’t put together an overall idea or a fixed image. Always moving, she was always moving, emotional, difficult, frightening Mor.
That nightmare of a night, nightmother, I’m ashamed of it. I think she fell over on the cold and damp black and white checked porch of our childhood. She was wearing a sombre long blue-grey dress that clung to her body. She was stretched out, she felt weak. I came to help her. She didn’t call out. She was lying on the floor, her eyes closed and her complexion pale. I felt her heart beating wildly. This is the end, I thought emotionally.
In fact, she died of a heart disease, a weakness of the heart, and not of the cancer that gnawed at her entrails. There it was, happening at last. I am almost relieved because I’ve waited all my life for this precise moment. I always considered them, her and that old dog my father, everlasting, then this was it, they too could die. It had happened. Mor’s great passing.
She died of a heart attack. She took a lot of medicines. Her body was rotting away. It had been decided not to inject her with any stabilising drugs to stop the deterioration of her insides.
Formerly a music educator and writer, Elaine Lewis created the Australian Bookshop in Paris in 1996. She met poet Jacques Rancourt and began translating for the Franco-anglais Poetry Festival. Her book Left Bank Waltz was published by Random House Australia in 2006. She is currently co-editor and book review editor of The French Australian Review, the journal of the Institute for the Study of French Australian Relations and is a committee member of AALITRA (Australian Association for Literary Translation). She has translated poetry from Guadeloupe, Haiti, Switzerland, Canada, La Réunion, Belgium and France, published in La Traductière and Etchings (Ilura Press).
by John Kinsella
Reviewed by GABRIELA BOURKE
Can art make things happen? John Kinsella says ‘yes’. ‘Poetry functions more directly in cultures at different times, but it is part of most things we do. Consciousness of poetic language informs reading the newspaper as much as it does listening to songs on the radio.’ (Watts 2013) Kinsella’s most recent novel, Lucida Intervalla, is set in a frantic and failing world almost indistinguishable from our own, except that the things we fear happening – coastlines that are no longer coastlines, fire hail raining from the sky – are already happening. Lucida Intervalla might be read as a deliberative novel, one intended to provoke discussion and inform change, or it might be read as a novel resigned; to climate change and climate denial, to fallen cities and interminably displaced refugees, to an end ‘…without style. So bland. So fated.’ (233)
The world may be plummeting ever closer to self-destruction, but Lucida grants it little attention. As a child, she creates self-portraits in vomit and menstrual blood, the latter for which she is expelled. References to rising temperatures are rife and the planet seems on the precipice of collapse, if not already there. If this novel is a bildungsroman describing Lucida’s trajectory from troublesome child to super-celebrity; it is also one reflecting the gradual and uncomfortable movement of humanity toward accepting what is has done: to the earth, to the animals, and to ourselves, ‘…drowning and choking on its own goo and efflatus’ (219). This is unsurprising from Kinsella, a self-proclaimed anarchist pacifist vegan (link to Kinsella’s blog provided below) who coined the terms ‘pleasurism’ and ‘leisurism’ to describe acts of environmental degradation for, you guessed it, the purposes of pleasure and leisure. Uneasy and destructive relationships between humans, other species and the natural environment appear often in this novel. Wildlife is synonymous with road kill and forests only exist in conjunction to bulldozers. Young Lucida keeps mice as pets, one of which aggressively procreates and then eats its own offspring (32). Although mice are identified as herbivores and it is true that they can exist as such, they are opportunistic eaters who feed on what is available, much like humans. The incorrigible Pinkie, then, with the blood of his own and others’ infants on his snout, is the harbinger of society in this novel as in life.
This is the battle that rages between the old and new world in Lucida Intervalla, foregrounded by measured references to Aristophanes’ The Clouds. Lucida’s big break comes in the form of a trip to interview an aging and reclusive artist who has rejected the brave new world and retired to Centralia – a state which thus far does not exist, but is borne from the tentative idea raised by former Territory and federal MPs to merge parts of South Australia and the Northern Territory into one state. This move is touted as being a significant opportunity to reinvigorate this part of the country by taking advantage of its relative proximity to Asia, but Centralia as represented by Kinsella is as weary and shrivelled as the artist who has taken up residence there.
‘He is an artist and he should be in his prime…but his brushes dried with the wet and he’s not even done a sketch. It’s gone, whatever he had and whatever he hoped for. In the open, he is confined. In the open, and the blue sky, he is isolated. The birds are thoughts flitting by, or pecking at their stems. The heat haze shimmering within a few metres is the mirage he’ll never reach, never have.’ (50)
Centralia is hot, dusty, uninhabitable but for the regular delivery of water and other resources. The earth will not provide, not for aged celebrities nor ‘stray cows with calves, nibbling at the thin sheen of dead grass soon to be skin and bones…’ (54) yet it is from this dead earth that Lucida mines her fortune, capitalising on the fame that comes with proximity to celebrity. ‘Industrialism, consumerism, greed and general rapacity seem universal wrongs to me,’ says Kinsella (Watts 2013).
Lucida is an anti-heroine in that she actively profits from these things. At one point, envious of an author’s success, Lucida along with her team of managers and creators put together a book branded with her name which is published ‘…in a first print run of three million copies which took out a large chunk of forest’ (173) while the e-version ‘ate the energy from a dozen power stations around the world’ (173). Trapped and unable to cope with a conversation concerning indigenous land rights, she interrogates the speaker about the ways in which rodents are poisoned on his farm (183). This refusal to participate in imperative discussion concerning the future or lack thereof of postcolonial society repeats often throughout the novel, as each reference to climate change is followed by the increasingly desperate responses of deniers, each person willing to make positive changes stymied by the raising of a separate topic that successfully halts progress of any kind. This distraction away from imperative discussion of indigenous land rights toward an altogether unrelated – and comparatively unimportant – topic is an apt example. These kinds of unproductive conversations where significant issues are countered by irrelevant rejoinders abound in the media. Perhaps Kinsella, a vegan of many years, has participated in fruitless discussions with those claiming that the growing movement toward rejecting animal agriculture is pointless when rats continue to be poisoned in the process of wheat production.
Passivity is a violent act in Lucida Intervalla. Pro-Green artwork is funded with mining magnate dollars, activism is inefficient and often tainted with that which it seeks to reject and overall, things seem fairly hopeless. The characters are frogs sweating in water fast coming to the boil, unable or unwilling to leap out. And yet, perhaps Kinsella’s forlorn imaginings are deliberative. Perhaps the call-to-action is to jump from of the pot as quickly as possible, in any way possible. Lucida is an antonym to John Kinsella. He notes ‘[Lucida] …doesn’t like me much, and would disagree with most of what I have to say. She determines her own paths, many of which I find frightening.’ (Acknowledgements) Lucida is not a likeable character, but she is painfully familiar to anyone who has chosen to circumvent the difficult conversation and engage in behaviours we probably shouldn’t. She’s familiar to us all.
Humans should leave well enough alone, according to Kinsella. ‘People don’t have to occupy every square metre of the planet. Some places should just be left to do their ‘own’ thing.’ (Watts 2013) Reading is to be enjoyed, and books don’t need a takeaway to be satisfying, but if Lucida Intervalla is to continue to be speculative fiction rather than contemporary fiction, we need to do better.
Ryan, Tracy, and John Kinsella. 2019. “Mutually Said: Poets Vegan Anarchist Pacifist”. Poetsvegananarchistpacifist.Blogspot.Com. http://poetsvegananarchistpacifist.blogspot.com/.
Watts, Madeleine. 2013. “Interview With John Kinsella”. Griffith Review. https://griffithreview.com/articles/interview-with-john-kinsella/.
GABRIELA BOURKE is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at USYD
by Lindsay Tuggle
Reviewed by HELEN GILDFIND
The striking title of Lindsay Tuggle’s poetry collection is immediately defined in her preface:
A fever incident to sailors within the tropics, characterised by delirium in which the patient fancies the sea to be green fields, and desires to leap into it. (ix)
This title, Tuggle’s preface, the book’s dedication to her dead sister, Kate Middleton’s introduction, and the notes that complete the text, provide an intriguing and welcome frame through which readers can ‘leap into’ Tuggle’s darkly beautiful worded-world.
Tuggle’s preface notes that: ‘Every elegy needs an author. And then, an autopsy’ (ix). The themes and impulses shaping her book are thus clear, and she describes her collection as an:
ossuary to a constellation of deaths, some sudden, all strange. It is also a catalogue of medical and mercurial oddities, curiosities that call forth the exquisite corpse hard at work beneath our living flesh. The echolalic duet between what is lost and what is left behind. The phantom limb. The wandering womb. The book bound in skin. The face that ghosts itself. The fever dream that ends in drowning. (ix)
Tuggle clearly loves language that is ‘diagnostic, archaic, hysteric, mesmeric’ (ix). She writes knowing that the ‘management of thresholds / is perilous business’ (49), and her collection thus maps the obscure imaginative landscape that joins the living to the dead, the personal to the universal, and the abstract to the concrete.
Tuggle’s collection is divided into two suites. The first shares the title of the book, and is introduced by three eerie quotes, including ‘We need a dead woman to begin’ (Hélène Cixous), and ‘One need not be a chamber to be haunted’ (Emily Dickenson). In this suite, we meet a woman who cannot live ‘within her limbs’: she feels ‘on fire’ and ‘cut to pieces’ (34). We meet another woman (the same woman?) who ‘wakes to remember / her garnet cluster of early deaths’ (9). We glimpse ‘wrists / graced in the master’s hand’ (8), ‘mouthfuls of gravel’ (41), ‘bruised’ and ‘bandaged’ tongues (3, 5), and ‘feral anorexics’ (5)—including ‘the concave half of a sister’ (5).
This reference to ‘a’ sister shows how it is never quite clear who the subject and object of these poems are. This ambiguity is elaborated by the poems themselves: ‘Some days her face obliterates my own’ (15), and ‘we wear / each other’s faces’ (4), and ‘I trespass her name as my own’ (25). Of course the reader assumes, as they’ve been directed to, that such phrases refer to an actual ‘sister,’ and Tuggle’s ambivalence towards this relational identity is expressed when she refers to the ‘ambiguous wound’ (19) of her loss, to the ‘old grievances’ (‘shame’ and ‘blame’) that riddle such relationships (20, 21), and to the archetypal sibling emotion of jealousy—expressed when she looks upon a female corpse and wonders: ‘do I covet her still / diluted by sleep.’ (5) The narrator chillingly concludes: ‘I love the dead more than you / always will’ (6). Tuggle’s ambivalence towards the ‘biological gift’ (21) of a sister can also be read from the poems’ most common structural constraint of couplets—two lines, coerced into a relationship, across time and space.
More ambiguity is built into this first suite by reference to other deaths, including that of a man who lay ‘lay unfound’ for days (27), and the ‘integral burial’ of a flooded town where the ‘measure of loss’ lies in the ‘submergence of trees’ (31):
in the vanishing tendency
of the object
is watery and burns.
The wet are pretty. (33)
This deadly flooding is mirrored in a later poem, when a woman ‘walks in blindfolds’ into ‘bitumen tributaries,’ where ‘drowning ends in a glassy sprawl’ and roadside altars whisper ‘fire soars’ (41). As above, such vivid and violent references to suicide, death, drowning, burning, basalt and glass are often juxtaposed against the ostensibly trivial notion of ‘prettiness.’ Is drowning ‘a pretty way to die’ (19)? The ‘pretty suicide guide,’ would say so: ‘beauties never harm their faces’ (27). Of course, there’s nothing benign about the value of feminine beauty. This is made clear when the narrator looks upon a female corpse and thinks: ‘she’s prettier now / in coffined silhouette’ (5). Isn’t this the ideal woman? Pretty—and inert, silent, and surrendered to others’ devouring gaze? The narrator defies this value system: the female which dazzles (3) her gaze is a ‘raving’ (39), ‘ungroomed and carnivorous’ (3) ‘slattern’ (41).
The second suite of poems responds to the work of anatomist and naturalist Joseph Leidy (1832-1891), and the poet and naturalist Arsène Houssaye. Both men shared a bibliophilic ‘fetish’ for ‘anthropodermic’ books—that is, books bound in human skin. These books were normally created by surgeons, with Houssaye’s own book of essays bound in skin sourced from the ‘unclaimed’ body of a French, female mental patient (63,64).
The woman (women?) alluded to in this second suite call out to the women-sisters of the first—relating the latter’s more personal specificity to the more universal history of ‘the diasporic womb’ (56). In the first suite, the very ambiguity of the poems’ subject-object allows them to enlarge on their own anyway, especially in the poems referring to medicine and asylums, like in ‘Asylum, Pageantry’ (‘it is best not to dream for long / here medicine disallows her florid stutter,’ 3), and ‘The Heretics’ Asylum’:
The physician knows nothing
of angels with proper names.
Reverence is permitted only
toward unseen patients,
an innate distrust of that
which can be embodied
in a creed. (24)
In the second suite, we enter a world where a woman is literally disembodied—torn from her skin:
A splayed book attracts all the gazes.
You are the title closeted gazelle.
Just another posthumous seduction
To best display her character
no other decoration is placed. This
book deserves its own human cover. (53)
Sickened, furious—and utterly entranced—the reader asks: what does the woman deserve? This ‘brutal homage’ (54)? Here, the woman becomes another version of the inert ‘pretty’ female corpse in the first suite—one which others can literally ‘open’ and inscribe their own ‘creed’ into. This ‘echolalic duet’ between the first and second suites thus evokes the notion of an everywoman—an anywoman—who literally fights-to-the-death against patriarchy’s reduction of her to ‘flesh / toying architecturally with bone’ (56).
What Flannery O’Connor says of prose, surely applies to poetry also:
‘The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning… A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.’
In Calenture, two sisters are absolutely more than the sum of their parts, and the sophistication of Tuggle’s tightly crafted, cryptic and compelling ossuary—her home for the bones of the dead—becomes evident with each reading. Like the best poetry, this book is first and foremost an experience—one which no analysis can do justice to.
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1970 (c. 1957), pp.96-102
H.C. GILDFIND (hcgildfind.com) is the author of The Worry Front, published by Margaret River Press.
by Jo Langdon
Reviewed by WILLIAM FARNSWORTH
On opening the first pages of Jo Langdon’s second collection, Glass Life, one might, at first, have the sense of reading through a poet’s travelogue. Among the first few poems there are descriptions of the modernist Hauptbahnhof station in Berlin or the glaze ice sculpture of the nativity scene (Eiskrippe) in Graz, Austria. Here, a theme integral to the collection is implied: fragility and strength in balance with each other; a starting point for Langdon’s lyrical journey of introspective musings and wanderlust.
Through the snow glazed landscape of central Europe, Langdon’s poetry evokes an emotional sincerity that is not unlike flicking through undiscovered diary entries. Her emotional inclusivity combined with her technical ability is on par with the best of contemporary feminist poetry, and indeed many of her verses are dedicated or are in direct reference to poets whom she admires. Some of the titles or epigraphs are from poets such as Barbara Guest, Emily O’Neill, Eleni Sikelianos or Denise Levertov. The poem “Making love & omelettes” takes a line from poet and theorist Veronica Forrest-Thompson’s “Pfarr-Schermz (Village-Anguish)”. Feminist artists are referenced; in “After Ana Lily Amirpour,” Langdon expresses clear admiration for the Iranian filmmaker’s visual landscapes and her tongue-in-cheek attitude to the world.
These referential phrases and dedications are a small part of what makes the collection so rich. Any poet who puts their pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards) will very quickly identify other writers, past or present, to whom they owe a debt of gratitude. These dedications are like words of thanks that are now a part of Langdon’s own works in one way or another. In her poem, “Felt” we encounter the sense of dissecting the very reading of poems:
She says. ‘I felt your message
but haven’t read it
Hook & hold
of words—the glide
& chime of tram
to lights; the city
Langdon immerses the immediate reactions of interpretation with the emotional impact of the work. We see a writer who is both writing and unpacking her poetry at the same time. She analyses the link of writing to the ephemera of rain, water, city and traffic, ending with the phrase which is quoted from, once again, Veronica Forrest-Thompson’s poem, “Cordelia: or, “A Poem Should not Mean, but Be”” itself a line derived from “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish.
Langdon is careful, though, not to let these intertextual references override her poetic task. “Then” and “Apropos” are two favourites of mine, and her two prose poems “Biographic” are delicately phrased narratives of immense power concerning the early life of her Oma in Holland ‘(a)fter the girls’ home,’at the time of the second world war. Here, the focalisation shifts from personal to public; the image of the navel is pivotal. It evokes the stigmas of poverty and pregnancy, partially exposed by insinuation:
…To jam on bread her moeder
said, What, you’re pregant as well now? This new shame. How
awful, she said later. What happens to the navel, how it opens out.
Reading through this collection, one sees more than mere reflections of memory and thought but also, and in the style of feminist poets such as Adrienne Rich, there are reflections on beauty and sadness. The speaker finds her own place in the world around her as a writer, whether witnessing the sadness of others or understanding her own, which, to me at least, seems to reflect the power of poetry as a therapeutic device. These are poems that seem to inspire the necessity to write.
Although many poems are about specific memories and experiences, Langdon keeps us invested through phrasings and aspects that many can identify with. Two poems exemplifying this are “Negation” and “Blues of Summer”. Both are about unwanted attention dramatising uncomfortable feelings experienced by women, the harassment instantly recognisable by Langdon’s choices of words, her skilful lineation and enjambments as in this cameo from “Negation”:
the time I pretended to leave
a train towns early
because of a man
with a wedding band, whose fingers
travelled more than once
to my knees.
This uncomfortable scenario precedes the description of yet another, becoming surmised and controlled by a more defiant voice:
I like to think
I would be fiercer, now. By sleeper
each town sped
and later in the same poem, that confident register imbues the language, lingering in the reader’s consciousness:
Views— like words — flare and go:
Surmising these experiences from anger, to recovery and release of tension, makes Langdon’s poetics an activism that is poised, thoughtful and emotionally charged.
The iconic, “Blues Of Summer” begins with one of her finest opening lines: ‘Pretend beauty and hope it shows …’ This beautiful yet angry poem about body image and the male gaze, which are key themes, is one of the very best of this volume. Characteristically, the images are precise and there is deft control of the shifts between public and private address. The poem maps out the constrictive power exercised on the simple act of walking along the beach into a battleground. Langdon evokes the steely power of the gaze, outwardly and inwardly, whether it be casting doubt over one’s own view of oneself or the dangerous call outs of men:
Breathe in hard to hold
the shape of you—pin back
shoulders & see
that your ankles don’t collapse.
This jetty is full of men & lit cigarettes
smoke & weed
in water, sliding soft.
Hard-won resistance to misogyny couples with disciplined emotional sincerity in poems such as these. Nonetheless, they seem directly lifted out of life and dramatically transformed. This is a poetry of insistence and empowerment, which, to put it simply, deserves to be read.
Glass Life is a fine achievement. This is a book of extreme delicacy and beauty, from its gorgeous cover, by the artist Susanna Majuri, which reflects the poetry and its aims wonderfully. Langdon’s poems are sweet, tender, angry, exciting, reflective, sad, and ecstatic, all varying on differing ideas, phrases and situations. Its key themes of fragility and strength are what keep these poems consistently powerful, reflecting through experiences and thoughts that are like the vagueness of lost memories yet recovered through the looking glass of poetry and its own fragile power.
WILLIAM FARNSWORTH is a 22-year-old writer who works and lives in Geelong and Melbourne writing poetry, articles, and reviews in various publications. He has worked in theatre and in film for the past 4 years, distinguishing himself in touring plays about Australian history and co-founding Geelong’s first LGBTIQ film festival: GPFF (Geelong Pride Film Festival).