Jake Goetz lives in the southern suburbs of Sydney. He has also lived in Munich, Germany (2011) and Graz, Austria (2013) where he studied on exchange. His poetry has appeared in The Sun Herald, Rabbit, Voiceworks, Jaws (Austria), Tide and Otoliths. He completed a Creative Writing Degree at the University of Wollongong, receiving an Asiabound fellowship to Sun Yat-Sen University in China. He is a fiction editor for Mascara.
… still dreaming
of Russian Pacific seas
sprouting Swedish palms
and a Peruvian woman
with lorikeet eyes
as breathing – the morning
like a border-less idea
wie in einem großen kreis angeordnet
aber mit anderen namen
wind carries the sound
of a train to my door
and i think of waves forming
only to fold like impatient arms
in the local medical centre
and how unnatural it is
to look at the self
in the mirror
tree stump sits on brick ledge
wet from rain, dew hangs
from iron fence, could be watery eyes
peering into the late-morning
but it’s mostly dew and a Cockatoo sounds
cigarette burns, feet rest upon pebbles
as shade separates the yard
and a plane moves like a container
of consciousness, banking left
over the Royal to tip out into the city
Prithvi Varatharajan is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, and a freelance producer of literature and arts programs for ABC Radio National. He is writing his PhD thesis on the radio program Poetica, which aired on ABC RN from 1997 to 2014. He has published scholarly, critical and creative writing in various Australian and overseas journals and books. His article on a Poetica adaptation of John Forbes’ poetry is forthcoming in a special issue of Adaptation titled ‘Adapting Australia
the streets are wide open
leading you through a bleak
and beautiful future
rain slakes down,
slashing at the jacket
you hold dearly
by its sleeve, your chin
we leg it over the bridge
to a dimly imagined
lights of the park,
brilliant in their unreality
glisten as we pass
their globes hold pure warmth
that ebbs into the night
like a promise of happiness
Country. Car Window.
division of road,
its sleek black skin
the white, a crumb-trail
to a near horizon
the white, the pulse
above the road
shabby in a tree
rogue hay bales
on a field
so vast the eye
blurs at its edges
and a fence of slouching steel
lengthens to a darkening
with apparent ease.
Lưu Diệu Vân, born December 1979, is a Vietnamese poet, literary translator, and managing editor of the bilingual Culture Magazin. She received her Master’s Degree from the University of Massachusetts in 2009. Her bilingual works have appeared in numerous Vietnamese print literary journals and online magazines. www.luudieuvan.com. Her publications include 47 Minutes After 7, poetry, Van Nghe Publisher, (2010), The Transparent Greenness of Grass, flash fiction, Tre Publishing House, co-author (2012), Poems of Lưu Diệu Vân, Lưu Mêlan & Nhã Thuyên, poetry, Vagabond Press, co-author (2012).
Michael Brennan is a Tokyo-based writer and publisher. His most recent collection Autoethnographic was short-listed for the Victorian Premier’s Award and won the Grace Leven Prize. He established and runs Vagabond Press, one of the most prolific publishers of poetry in translation from Asia Pacific. His first collection translated into Vietnamese translated by Lưu Diệu Vân is forthcoming from Hanoi-based AJAR Press, and a second collection in Japanese, titled アリバイ, translated by Yasuhiro Yotsumoto and in collaboration with Korean artist Jieun June Kim was released in July 2015.
You’re a message in a bottle cast into the
ocean forty years ago at the end of a great
conflagration in a country no one cares much
for anymore. Drifting in that ocean of yours,
there are the great things to ponder: sky and
ocean, and you between with the message
you carry that no one has read. It’s all so
heartless in its ways, this mystery that was
halfway through when you awoke. Even if
you knew the beginning you doubt it’d make
much sense and somehow know now the end
will be a let down compared to the horrors
you’ve been imagining in the quiet moments,
which are many. Still, the sky is endless and
the ocean deep and its warm here inside the
unnameable. When you drift back to the
haste in which you were written, that long arc
of inertia that sent you out into the breakers
and the days heading out to open ocean, you
feel a little teary with everything that’s
passed and the hope that started it all. Some
nights, rocking on the waves under the stars,
you remember being in pieces on the shore
and her hand quickly scribbling you into
being, the distant cracks of gunfire bursting
distance, the night sky bright with burning
buildings and those rough voices getting
closer, when she stuffed you in your glass
cell and sent you on your way. It’s true you
will never get out and so you’re left to
wonder what witness you bear: an
accusation, a plea for mercy, a suicide note,
perhaps a last ditch love letter.
Noah in love
‘If one of us dies, I’m moving to Paris.’
That’s how it started, love, liquid and light,
no escape clause, no pre-nup, a cardigan and
fluffy slippers and the refrain of per capita
happiness indexed against inflation. #2+2=5.
LOL. It’s a business strategy, gimlet, not a
song! We’d friended on Facebook. I’d been
distracted, cruising drunk, hoping for just a
little disambiguation, to be fluently human as
YouTube. Then the fateful day she updated
her status and a little part of me died. I’d
followed their relationship for months,
lurking on the edge, thrilled by the
singularity, of love posted, cascades
intoxicating, distant and sweet. I learnt
French, then tried my hand at Java, PHP,
HTML, wanting to slip under the skin of
things, to get to grips with the apparent
devotion, the lack of context, the ease of
emotion. Think of it, Wherever US is, WE
are!! I’ve downloaded everything, I’m
learning every move she made on the
Boul'Mich' late last summer. I’m a study in
readiness, the promise of reincarnation.
Mi là mẩu tin trong chiếc chai bị ném vào đại
dương bốn mươi năm trước vào điểm cuối
cơn đại hỏa hoạn ở một đất nước chẳng ai
màng biết đến nữa. Trôi giạt trong đại dương
của mi, ngẫm suy bao điều to lớn: bầu trời và
đại dương, mi lẫn ở giữa cùng lời nhắn mi
đeo mang chưa ai từng đọc. Quá đỗi vô tình,
điều huyền bí ở khoảng giữa lúc mi tỉnh dậy.
Ngay cả khi đã biết điểm khởi đầu mi cũng
hồ nghi liệu điều ấy có ý nghĩa gì và cớ
chừng bây giờ biết rằng điểm cuối kết sẽ là
nỗi thất vọng so với những ghê rợn mi đã
tưởng tượng trong những phút lặng im, rất
thường. Thế mà, bầu trời vẫn bao la và đại
dương sâu thẳm, và nỗi ấm áp bên trong điều
không thể gọi tên này. Khi mi giạt trở lại lúc
mi được viết nên trong hối hả, vòng cung lê
thê của sự trì trệ ấy đã đẩy mi vào những con
sóng lớn, và trong những ngày trôi ra biển
rộng, mi rưng rưng nghĩ lại tất thảy những gì
đã qua và niềm hy vọng đã khơi nguồn mọi
thứ. Nhiều đêm, lênh đênh trên sóng dưới sao
trời, mi nhớ thuở còn là những mảnh rời trên
bờ và bàn tay nàng thoăn thoắt những nét chữ
thành hình mi, tiếng súng gãy vỡ lạnh nổ dòn
từ phía xa, đêm rực cháy những tòa nhà và
những giọng nói nặng nề càng lúc càng dồn
gần, khi nàng nhét mi vào nhà tù thủy tinh và
đẩy mi đi. Sự thật là mi sẽ không bao giờ
thoát khỏi, nên mi chẳng thể làm gì ngoài
việc tự hỏi mi đang cưu mang nhân chứng gì:
một lời kết tội, sự cầu xin tha thứ, tâm thư
tuyệt mạng, hoặc có thể là một tình thư tuyệt
vọng cuối cùng.
Noah đang yêu
‘Nếu một trong hai ta chết, anh sẽ chuyển tới
Paris.’ Chuyện bắt đầu như thế, tình yêu, chất
lỏng và ánh sáng, không điều khoản lối thoát,
không hợp đồng tiền hôn nhân, một chiếc áo
len và đôi dép bông cùng sự kiềm chế của tỷ
lệ hạnh phúc trên mỗi đầu người tính theo chỉ
số lạm phát. #2+2=5. LOL. Đây là chiến lược
thương mại, mũi khoan, không phải bài ca!
Mình đã kết bạn trên Facebook. Tôi lúc ấy
rối bời, chuếnh choáng say, hy vọng dù chỉ
một chút gì sáng sủa, để nhuần nhị con người
như YouTube. Rồi đến cái ngày định mệnh
nàng cập nhật trạng thái mới, trong tôi chết đi
một phần. Tôi dõi theo quan hệ của họ hàng
tháng trời, ẩn mình bên lề, phấn khích với
tính chất độc đáo, của tình yêu được công bố,
say sưa như thác chảy, xa cách và ngọt ngào.
Tôi học tiếng Pháp, rồi thử cả Java, PHP,
HTML, mong muốn ngụp sâu vào mọi sự,
gắng thấu hiểu sự thành tâm hiển lộ, sự thiếu
ngữ cảnh, sự thanh thản của cảm xúc. Nghĩ
xem, Nơi Nào có HAI TA, thì MÌNH ở đó!!
Tôi tải về mọi thứ, tôi tìm biết từng chuyển
động của nàng tại Boul’Mich’ vào cuối hè
vừa qua. Tôi là đối tượng nghiên cứu của sự
sẵn sàng, một hứa hẹn của hóa sinh.
sweetened in coals
by Phillip Hall
Reviewed by JANETTE DADD
Jacques Raubaud, at the Sydney Writer’s Festival of 2014 made the observation that poems differ from novels in that if they do not stir a memory then the poem will not be successful. The poet has precious time to invite the reader, to establish rapport and empathy. It has to be, by skill of the writing, a quick strike.
This might be a problem for Phillip Gijindarra Hall in his book sweetened in coals. Hall writes about place with a gentle passion; in fact he writes about three places. His subject is the bush, the people of the bush and the place where his heart finds peace and encouragement, within his family.
Hall is known for his work with Aboriginal Australians, and has been honoured by members of different ‘countries’. He is a long distance endurance bushwalker working with Aboriginal communities and the youth of these places. It is from this background and the obviously strong family ties he has, that his book of poetry springs.
Therein lies the problem. It is well known that most Australians are urban dwellers and coastal inhabitants. This makes Hall’s task hard. How can he stir memories for his readers if these readers have never been to the bush nor had exposure to its sounds, scents and creatures? Also, there are many Australians, especially people new to this continent, who have no understanding of the outlook, the cheeky humour and philosophy of the Indigenous people of our land. Hall quickly lets his readers know his position on, and passion for, a different telling of Australian history in his first poem, Carpentaria Running the Flag, its finishing lines being …….
landscape where a charged sphere percolates
Know this writer invites you to open yourself and learn more about the First peoples of our continent.
The book itself is comprised of three sections – Dwelling, Praise and Home. I found the section Dwelling the most powerful of the three parts for two reasons.
Firstly, it is in this section that Hall subtly reminds us of the story of Australia before European settlement. In poems such as “Palimpsest”, “Dystopian Empire” and “colonial heads“, Hall invites us to look beneath the surface and behind the history of white settlement Australia. He invites us to see just how clever, ingenious and nuanced Aboriginal culture is.
Secondly in poems such as “Habitation” the poet stirs memories for me with his descriptions of remnant rainforest on steep edges of farms……..
A green catbird forages ahead yowling
from a tangle of vines
You break in on a stand of
ironwood and turpentine.
These are images that take me back to living at Comboyne. Our farm was on the edge of the escarpment above Taree. I can practically smell the bush when I read, but I have a memory Hall has touched, so the poems have place for me. Would they work as well for an urban- dwelling Australian? I am not so sure.
“Dwelling” is an important piece of writing that slowly and meticulously reveals the history before ‘history’. It is important because people of British ancestry and our more recent new settlers need to know this history and move towards the respect that should be shown for this ancient place and its people. Perhaps then, the attitude of begrudging assistance can be changed and the different views and philosophies of Indigenous Australia be upheld as valid and important.
The second section, Praise, has a wholly different tone and presentation. It is as if Hall is enjoying a time of rest between his strenuous walks. Here are short descriptive poems of different Australian fauna. Again, because of memories stirred, I find many enjoyable poems. “This Creation” is an example of Hall at his best, capturing a natural vision with few words but with each carrying a great power to stimulate the mind’s eye:
leathered angels seeding
a Daintree, gallantly reclaiming
Then there is “Creative Tension” where Hall compares a spider’s web construction to a radio telescope, each facing skyward to track movement. “Willie” is a cleverly set-out poem, line breaks devised to mimic the movements of the Wagtail. It’s a successful poem.
The third and final section of sweetened in coals is titled “Home”. As the name implies there are poems here for his family – well, really poems dedicated to family and friends are scattered throughout the book. I especially like “A Humble Fire” – for his son Aidan, nearly three – which I thought a rather predicable poem until the last line.
Finally Hall is however, back in the bush or his Borroloola Class and maybe this is the most telling part of all. Here is where this writer is most at home, in the bush, walking, observing and recording. Back in his element, his joy, his love, his sense of meaning becomes apparent.
Hall takes us and drops us in many different places. His top-end poems I relate to less than when he is in NSW, especially the Southern Highlands. He is in my country then and I know the land he talks of. Is it important to know where we are? At one level – no – as the words are powerful and evoke images easily, at another level – yes – because knowing the place can add extra meaning to the reading. It is important to make use of the reference notes available for some poems. The added depth of meaning and knowledge is worth the flick to the back.
Hall has an unerring respect for the bush and its people. For some readers, with little experience of Australia outside of our slick urban scenes, this work will perhaps not be successful. There are no memories caught in his words. However, there is another audience who would enjoy the work, cover to cover. There are people who do not truly breathe until they have their sacred bush around them. I know people I will share sweetened in coals with; and I know they will relish Hall’s ability to capture, in words, what they experience as one of life’s great pleasures.
JANETTE DADD has had two books published with Ginninderra Press: Early Frosts in 2013 and Eve’s Tears in 2000. She has also had work published in various anthologies. Janette is a performance poet, presenting her work at venues on the South Coast of N.S.W. She is presently studying for a Bachelor of Fine Arts through Curtin University.
by Nicholas Jose
Reviewed by GAY LYNCH
Nicholas Jose explains his take on the term ‘Bapo’ in the introduction of his collection of short stories of that title:
an unusual kind of Chinese painting that tricks the eye into thinking it sees a collage of fragments. The word literally means ‘eight broken’, where eight is a Chinese lucky number and broken (damaged, worn) suggests that luck has run out, and if it has, that there’s another kind of luck in simply surviving… (1)
Bapo offers Jose an effective metaphor – ‘a kind of writer’s reprisal’ – for his eclectic selection of stories published over two decades. His introduction suggests that the Bapo technique enabled him a more writerly flexibility of ‘sketchiness, (and) sentiment’. The Bapo metaphor is slippery enough to incorporate others: performance, weaving, and the opening of a painted fan to reveal a book – a breath of air. While not arranged chronologically, the stories bow to various generic conventions. Apart from a few in the second half, all of them channel China. but it would be foolish of me to enforce too much thematic linkage. Going by the journals listed in acknowledgements the stories have been gathered together as a retrospective of Jose’s short fiction.
Having studied Chinese modern history in my late teens, I valued the concept of intellectuals slaving like peasants, despite such human industry breaking creative spirit or inviting accidents. I thought myself a Maoist but had no idea about the great man’s excesses. Years later I visited my daughter in Shanghai. She had been working on engineering projects, shoring up buildings as they sank into the River Pearl/ Zhujiang/Yangtze delta. I fell in love with the city’s historic precincts and the quiet dignity of Chinese people; but I saw old men in back streets of the French concession, bent double, trudging, step by agonising step, towing heartbreakingly heavy pallets of bricks. In fact, I saw many elderly people with abnormal gait, untreated osteoporosis, congenital dysplasia in China. How does one feed, house and educate the largest population in the world? For years, we shrugged off this question because we didn’t know the full Mao story. Burdened like the West with retiring Boomers, China will soon need babies, to work in factories within fifteen years time. In Bapo, Jose captures the fallout from China’s turbulent twentieth-century history and its impact on twenty-first century artistic expression.
Jose is a kind of bapo in persona, a collage built from experiential layers, reminding us of his rich life as a scholar, visiting professor, chair of creative writing, editor of Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, public intellectual, translator, Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing from 1987-1990, and in situ activist in Tiananmen Square. His diverse interests cluster around some common ones: China, outback Australia, art and academia. Many of his themes interpolate narratives that evolve in disparate settings (Adelaide, Beijing, Borrolaloola, Hong Kong, Lake Mungo, Melbourne, Sydney, Taipei). I don’t know if he’s laboured in the fields.
Bapo is divided into two sections but, interestingly, not into eighths representing the eight artists he writes about who formed a collective, The preface refers to ‘eight broken’ people: ‘people on the road, remembered, imagined, forgotten almost’; shards indeed. Some narrations showcase ficto-critical playfulness and others are almost totally omniscient. Most of the stories are narrated in third-person limited or selective, but some from first person (singular and plural), or second person perspective; most are set during the 1990’s, a dramatic period of Sino-Australian history, particularly for Jose who experienced the Tiananmen Square mow-down first hand, offering shelter to artists, musicians and political activists at the Beijing Australian Embassy.
Part One begins with ‘Donkey Feast’, a meditation on a black and white photo taken five months after the massacre. It tells of eight survivor artists distinguished in the story by the initials of their names, who form a collective. The story is narrated twenty-four years hence by ‘Plus one’, an expat Australian – I’m the one who took the photo’ – whose education takes place ‘in Adelaide in the 1960’s’ (11, 17). The authorial voice and some shared biographical details suggest some slippage between memoir and fiction (41-42).
Jose sets the Beijing scene in seemingly authentic detail and offers ironic accounts of the artists’ personal travails after Tiananmen; the impact this has on their health and their loved ones. Their hardworking women are out of the shot, a practice that has historical veracity. It is well attested that communist comrades carried the patriarchy with them on their shoulders. This story touches on many of China’s problems: lost and stifled art, rebuilding, endemic cigarette smoking, pollution, food scares, an ageing population and rejuvenating traditional practices, and its post 1990’s relationship with Australia. The closing image of the artists ignoring an injured man feebly waving a hand from an overturned donkey cart speaks volumes (21). Invisibility enables survival. Many Chinese writers and artists have been silenced by imprisonment, a fact confirmed for me when writing letters supporting the release of Chinese dissidents for PEN.
‘Ha-ha-ha!’ begins with the protagonist’s ninety-five year old grandmother’s observation that ‘in a crisis governments always make the wrong decision.’ It ends when the artist-teacher turns the tables over a game of Go on government officials’ artistic interference (21). It plays with Eastern ideas about loss of face and truthful utterances. The twist also relieves the plot’s building tension. Several of Jose’s stories show this satisfying symmetry: ‘Kong: Fossil’, for instance, begins and ends with the placing of a fossil in a child’s hand.
I am especially taken by the middle section stories. Most of the stories contain intertextual links signifying that the author is a man of refinement, interested in the fields of music, art and literature but the references are not gratuitous, and commonly anchor the Chinese settings in the book. This is particularly so in ‘One Fine Day’, its title a quote from a Noel Coward play, circa-1930s, Shanghai. Madame Butterfly and The Mikado are mentioned (42); Marjorie Flack Kurt Wiese’s The Story About Ping (43). In fact, Jose takes Ping’s name for his girl protagonist. He moves naturally from one story to another, embedding some within frame stories: for example, Ping standing at a bus stop reluctantly listens to another girl’s life story that resembles Madame Butterfly’s (44). The main story ends with a melodramatic teaser that fits his opera theme (50): ‘jumping from the balcony was not the right answer’. Jose quotes Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans), Australian Sino-scholar, and he references Lu Xan, Macbeth, Dorothy Sayers, William Blake, and Tosca. Some stories are more densely intertextual than others. References come easily to the author, often providing structure for his plots in an allegorical way.
A moody evocation of places suggests that he likes layers of meaning. He offers no simple answers to complex questions even in domestic dramas. ‘Marriage Bonds’ features a household of three, a ménage à trois with all the excitement, longings, and destructive jealousy that accompanies such groupings. As a counter-sexist ploy, in ‘Empress and Shaman’ he dramatises the story of two ruthless competing women who double-cross each other after a lifetime of friendship (81-104).
For Jose, aesthetics plays an important human function in the face of national trauma. He writes eloquently and figuratively, using deft and culturally appropriate similes: ‘long black whiskers and a mane like Genghis Khan’ (11); ‘New artistic influences came in, which he digested with an iron stomach, like the strong man who chomps his way through engine parts. Cubism, surrealism, constructivism…’(22). Simple metaphors are effectively applied such as, the rain ‘polishes fat ducks’ (136) or ‘The severed plait sat in her lap like a fish.’ (219). Metaphors are also used in a reflexive way to inform the writing: for example, ‘how to decide which pronoun to shelter under’ an idea he sustains over a long paragraph.(197).
Jose frequently applies complex metaphors as conceits. On seeing desperate beachcombers scraping shells from rocks, an international studies academic muses:
He had chipped away, scraped and deposited his own buckets and bags of shell grit…
In the morning when the tide came in and the rocks were covered again with the lapping waves of the sea, no one would even wonder whether the surface of the rocks below had been changed by anybody’s scraping.’(72).
Black humour enlivens the text, underlining important political issues – ‘He married, not the Vietnamese girl, but a pale-eyed white woman who got pregnant from a drop of rain.’ (39); documents smuggled out of Hong Kong are ‘stuffed inside a gift of silk underwear for the Minister’s secretary,’ in a diplomatic pouch (92); ‘an Aboriginal man played a Chinese folk tune on a didgeridoo and a noted Shanghai bird-imitator whistled Waltzing Matilda.’ (98) The narrator’s voice is adept at double speak – and irony: we learn there was ‘little difference between an appointment and an ambush in Hong Kong,’ (85); about ‘hope that takes its toll.’ (65); a ‘bumper harvest’ is juxtaposed against ‘Clouds of pesticide’ (63-4). In ‘The Old Socialist’s Last Song’, conference delegates become bi-partisan, especially after the announcement of the Chernobyl disaster, united over the world’s absurdity. They joke about the irony of capitalism ‘thriving in China’ (73).
Powerful metaphors illuminate meta-texts: ‘Then democracy bred change, reform, freedom. Like a great whale surfacing, a hidden fellowship of the people declared itself, and in millions repossessed the city.’ (37); [Kong: Fossil] ‘the lines on his face, were as light and ghostly as the fretting of dead leaves.’ (40); ‘China was a kind of glue.’(55)
Sexuality is evoked with sensuality and cleverness – ‘A pair of bicycles couple against the wall. Under the bridge two men shelter from the rain, the penis of one thickening between the thighs of the other, who flutters like a moth.’(105) At other times it is explicit: ‘Working his thighs, he was able to milk the White-Haired Pig lovingly, to squeeze the flesh as if every ounce was gold. He longed for gold rings to put through those tough old nipples.’ (107)
For the most part, the prose is sure-footed and bold, as one would expect from a Professor of Creative Writing and well-published writer. A range of plot devices, including the encapsulating of character in group-photos is used (67). On several occasions Jose gestures towards ficto-criticism: ‘let’s call him Robert’ (146). He sometimes uses allegorical conventions for convenience: ‘the son’ as protagonist…. (36). An occasional bounce in point-of-view distracted me and undermined my identification with the protagonist (39, 156).
Narratives are focalised through men and women, old and young, Chinese and Australian. In ‘Marriage Bonds’ the first-person narrator addresses an author’s freedom to write in any setting and from any perspective, thereby offering a fleeting glimpse of himself.
Jose depicts character in a variety of ways. Insightful sketches in ‘The Old Socialist’s Last Song’ enliven the text, while deeper studies frame complex psychological interplay, for instance in ‘Angled Wheel of Fortune’ (135-142). The playful start to Martha, Arthur and Robert’s ménage à trois in ‘Marriage Bonds’ is soon underscored by deeper and darker themes: ‘He was given at twelve as a toy to his father’s boyfriend,’(148).
Each chosen register fits its protagonist in attitude and idiom, suggesting restraint on the part of the author: for example the pragmatic free indirect style through which we see ‘the son’ in ‘Kong: Fossil’:
‘Little sisters, sometimes two to a room. He had to clean up the sheets and towels after the clients had gone. Sometimes he had to heavy the men, to handle their passion. Occasionally he had to slap the girls, or bash them, or dry their eyes. He also cooked them rice.’(38).
Jose’s mastery and cultural understanding of China is profound and he curates a mass of local knowledge and historical material with great humour and an engaging authorial voice. I noted his distinction between northern and southern Chinese people, China being a large country comprising many regions and ethnicities.
The collection develops a kind of elastic cohesion with the exception of five short pieces in the second section: ‘George’, a story about a cigarette smoking orang-utan, telegraphs an Adelaide childhood with trips to the Zoological Gardens; ‘After the Show’ about a young man and his partner in Rome and his memory of time spent there as a boy as companion to his grandmother; ‘The Aunt’s Garden Story’; ‘The Disappearing Book’ the poignant story of a literary agent with dementia; and ‘What Love Tells You’ seem off-subject and strangely out of place. ‘Diamond Dog’ a story about a Chinese Sydney girl saving a dog from a python completes the suite suggesting that people need to inhabit or create narratives before they belong in a place. Jose belongs in this way to China, having inhabited and created narratives–more than most expats– bringing him a larger stake in the place. If the previous four stories offer only echoes of China or illumes a national ‘way of telling’, the last completes the circuit.
Australia now owns a close relationship with modern China. Not only do we share regional interests but also Chinese people constitute our second largest group of émigrés. The country has become an important trading partner in mineral resources, primary products, tourism, real-estate and popular consumer goods. A Chinese/Australian relationship can increasingly be secured with ren – ‘forbearance of give and take’ – as the story ‘Loving China’ shows. Jose’s truthful but compassionate voice enacts his ren in Bapo because the collection bears expert witness to a particular historical period in China. In addition, these lively, intelligent and engaging stories furnish readers with a colourful retrospective of Jose’s shorter literary works.
GAY LYNCH is an honorary research fellow in creative writing and English at Flinders University. Her main interests lie with Australian settler-history, contemporary literature, and creative writing pedagogy. She has published papers on these subjects, as well as Apocryphal and Literary Influences on Galway Diasporic History (2010), Cleanskin (2006), an adult novel, short stories in contemporary anthologies and educational children’s texts. She is presently taking a break from teaching to complete an historical novel.
by Sheng Keyi
translated by Shelly Bryant
Reviewed by JENNIFER MACKENZIE
He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined
Paul Celan ‘Death Fugue’ (1)
Sheng Keyi has taken Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’ as the title for her new novel, which has been translated by Shelly Bryant. The novel, which lightly disguises its connection to the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, begins in the city of Beiping, capital of Dayang, where the sudden appearance of a tower of excrement precipitates civil unrest and violence. Subsequently the main character, Yuan Mengliu, a doctor and former poet, finds himself in the utopian society of Swan Valley. There, language is employed in the service of the state, a state which is a eugenic meritocracy, a meritocracy eerily similar to the Dayang activist poet, Hei Chun’s book The Genetic Code of the City-State (82/3), with poets being granted supreme status if their verse is eulogistic. In an earlier novel, Northern Girls (2), also translated by Shelly Bryant, Sheng demonstrated her debt to the ribald comedy of the traditional and contemporary Chinese novel, but has in Death Fugue developed it into a refined satirical allegory depicting a society satiated with extraordinary wealth and which has become so pacified that its citizens can accept and justify any restriction on their freedom.
Although the connection in the narrative between the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the violence in Round Square, home of Beiping’s Wisdom Bureau, is what strikes the reader initially, it is the connection between political activity and writing, or poetry in particular, which lies at the heart of this enthralling, and at times confronting novel. With its intense focus on nature, the novel reminds us of the centrality of landscape in Chinese literature, and is in many ways a provocation on this subject. Place and emotion are inextricable elements of this literature, and in ‘Death Fugue’ the land of Swan Valley, as a site of allegory encompassing political philosophy, emerges as less of a place than an emanation of Mengliu’s state of mind, as a full-blown nightmare registering trauma and pain.
Death Fugue begins by introducing the principal character, Mengliu. He was once an acclaimed poet, a member of the revered group, known as the Three Musketeers. After the trauma of the massacre in Round Square, he gave up writing poetry and trained as a doctor, finding some solace in medicine. World-weary, he is essentially a romantic and a libertine, aware of and disturbed by his unknown origins. His orphaned state comes to haunt him every time he plays the chuixun, an instrument left to him by his unknown father, and which he successfully employs to seduce women. He pines for his lost love, Qizi, who disappeared at the time of the unrest, and rather like a character from Kundera’s novels, finds a way to be at a distance from current society, while ironically observing it through random seduction.
Objectification and distance, however, are not working for Mengliu consistently. Memory, trauma and guilt accompany him through life, and his playing of the chuixun reflects that refrain. Central to this state is his abandonment of poetry, which generally fits into his new image as a man of medicine in a depoliticised society. The central figures in his consciousness are the poets he once associated with, and their lovers. Through these figures, Sheng Keyi presents her central theme: what should poetry be? These poets either died as martyrs like Bai Qiu, whose rousing poetry he took to the grave, developed uncompromising ideologies like Hei Chan, or became traitorous like Jia Wen, a mole and trickster who Mengliu happens to fatally confront in his hospital operating theatre. Abandoning poetry has resulted in Mengliu paying a huge price ontologically, but he continues to value writing as an ethical calligraphic act.
How Mengliu continues to value poetry can be seen when he is mysteriously transported to Swan Valley. Here, all is beautiful on the surface, a wonderland of nature. This idyllic environment perhaps has its origins in Sheng Keyi’s experience. In an interview with Jane Perley (3) she discussed how her childhood village had a lush natural environment when she was growing up there, but now ‘all that has gone, replaced,’ she said,’ by factories that pour poisons into the river and smelly ditches filled with trash’.
In Death Fugue, this lushness of nature is eroticised, particularly through the character of Juli, (with whom Mengliu lives and attempts to seduce.) Juli appears to be almost a plant herself, surrounded in her home by an abundance of flowers so dense it is almost comical. Nature is also politicised; for example bird-shaped flowers seen blooming abundantly are considered to be ‘the spiritual blossoms of Swan Valley’, standing for ‘liberty and independence’ (51), and this is also connected with the violent suppression of protest in Dayang:
A faint smell of blood was detectable, sometimes seeming to come from the flora and fauna, sometimes from the sewer, and sometimes from a certain class of people who couldn’t seem to rid themselves of it no matter how often they bathed… The water in the moat there a violent scarlet stream. (20)
Mengliu in Swan Valley notices ‘the screech of birds as they whizzed by like bullets’ (21). When Juli’s red hairpin catches the light, ‘it was as if the sky was on fire. There was gunfire, fighting, killing, blood, tank-trucks rolling, and smoke (77).
As can be seen from the above examples, in the first section of Death Fugue, the narrative moves between Beiping and Swan Valley, and it becomes apparent that Swan Valley is a projection of Mengliu’s turbulent consciousness. The lushness and beauty, the extraordinary wealth and harmonious existence of the citizenry are all there to conceal the ugly truth from these same citizens of a society proclaiming freedom but in fact enforcing a totalitarian eugenic agenda. By providing a fermented tea which induces loss of memory and fosters acceptance of social rules we can see that Swan Valley’s social organisation illustrates the novelist’s take on contemporary society, where wealth fosters political passivity:
All of us born in the 60s were born with a sense of responsibility…those who came after us were more individualistic with nothing inside them except a desire for material gain. … It’s only natural that the people felt they had nothing to worry about. (83)
For Mengliu however, the beauty of the landscape is constantly blown apart by images of the massacre. At the site of a waterfall, ‘the sound of the water falling from that terrible height reminded him of the rumble of the tanks as they lumbered towards him. (38) And on a walk through a forest:
The fear of not being able to get out of the forest enveloped him. The forest at night reminded him of the scene so many years before, when young people grew like trees in Round Square, waiting for rain to come and cleanse them. The forest was silent and furious, bearing great sorrow and helplessness… (197)
This disrupted visual space can also be seen in frequent references to the traditional sage of Chinese poetry, writing and meditating in a remote and beautiful location; Swan Valley then, and nature itself, appears as a trope for the act of writing, and by its very absence in that society, writing as ethical field. The citizens constantly urge Mengliu to return to poetry, but as he complains, writing for them is a tame affair:
Esteban [a citizen of Swan Valley] had invited Mengliu to watch the rice-planting ceremony. The scenery as they walked along was glorious, and Esteban urged him to compose a pastoral idyll, in the hope that he would slowly recover his identity as a poet. Only the people of Swan Valley had the idle time to treat poetry – a bold and powerful mastiff – like a pug. Poetry was a raging fire not a rhetorical game. (99)
Part Two of ‘Death Fugue’ dwells on the consequences of the sedation of the population of Swan Valley, although some do break free of the spell, even if inadvertently. Horrors burst through the surface of beauty, revealing a society practicing ruthless natural selection, giving them at the age of 50 the promise of a nursing home with every facility. However an anonymous note discovered by Mengliu reveals the nursing home to be in fact a crematorium:
‘I’m sorry, but I have to tell you a harsh reality. The truth is, you are living in a sheltered society where the truth is hidden… The nursing home is an execution ground for the elderly. Living people are thrown into ovens, as if they are burning pieces of wood. Please break open the gate of the nursing home and have a look inside. You will find no one there, only ghosts.’ (302)
Sheng Keyi, in ‘Death Fugue’ has composed a work which is bold, humorous and tragic. The second section of the book loses some of the focus of the first, with unnecessarily picaresque longueurs, which detract from the serious revelations which appear almost incidental as a result. Swan Valley, as Mengliu comes to realise, is a product of Hei Chun and Qizi’s utopian ideas. The novel ends with a scene of sham cultural production, with Mengliu seen on a boat, celebrating the shooting of a film called ‘Death Fugue’, while his former lover, the anaesthetist-turned-poet Suitang’s voice, ‘amplified to fill the room, was brimming with an embellished beauty.’ (375)
1. ‘Death Fugue’, Paul Celan, trans Michael Hamburger, www.poemhunter.com
2. Northern Girls, Sheng Keyi, trans Shelly Bryant, Penguin 2012
3. ‘Chinese Writer Tackling Tiananmen, Wields ‘Power to Offend”, Jane Perley, New York Times,A4, Oct 11, 2014
JENNIFER MACKENZIE is the author of Borobudur(Transit Lounge, 2009), republished in Indonesia as Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, Jakarta, 2012). She has presented her work at many festivals and conferences in Asia, most recently at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Myanmar (supported by the Australia Council for the Arts) and at the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators Conference in Singapore
The Deep North
by Bronwyn Lea
Edited by Paul Kane
Reviewed by ANTHONY LYNCH
Think of the north, and in Australia we might think of Queensland, in particular the far north of that state. Or, we might think of the northern hemisphere – Europe, North America. Or Australia’s most immediate northern neighbour, Papua New Guinea. The north also suggests extremes of heat or cold. Having lived in Queensland, the United States and Papua, with time also spent in Europe, Bronwyn Lea has inhabited parts of all these geographic and cultural spaces. The Deep North comprises selected poems predominantly from Lea’s two major collections to date, Flight Animals (2001) and The Other Way Out (2008), but includes also a number of poems published subsequent to the latter collection. This ‘Selected’, the second volume of Braziller’s series of Australian poets (the first was Robert Gray’s Daylight Saving), draws heavily from Lea’s time in these various locations.
We need not of course read Lea’s title so literally. The title after all plays with an inversion, given we more popularly associate ‘deep’ with the south, particularly in a North American context. The north here represents a range of imagined ‘elsewheres’, physical and mental. But Lea’s poems do derive strongly from engagements with place and the people and relationships that have occupied her. Reading poems as ‘personal’ can be fraught (as well as nostalgically humanist), but certainly Lea offers in part a confessional mode while never lapsing into the maudlin rumination this might suggest.
Despite including poems written over a ten-year period, this selection pursues certain themes. The superb opening poem, ‘Born Again’, sees the narrator’s/poet’s ex-husband arrive out of the cold desert in North America – a visitor less welcome than the sparrow nearby scratching for seeds in snow. After a year’s absence he has returned, having found god who ‘forgave all of his trespasses’, though the narrator has not similarly forgiven: ‘My heart has a long ledger.’ The ex has come to collect the couple’s daughter. The narrator gathers a few belongings for the daughter, makes him wait outside. When she comes back out, her ex is kneeling in the snow, which has collected on his shoulders, the backs of his shoes, his upturned palms. The moment brings an unexpected ‘intimacy we never shared’. The poem closes: ‘Sometimes grace / comes like that, it falls like snow.’ (3).
This poem lays the groundwork for others that follow. The figure of the former lover in particular, recalled with tenderness and wit, recurs. ‘The Photograph’ retrieves the same setting (in an earlier period) as the opening poem, the narrator and man on the ‘dusty porch’, dog curled at the man’s feet, the couple’s fingers entwining as they reach for their beers. There’s a rare hint of nostalgia, and of rue: ‘In the photograph / we don’t ever let go.’ (32).
Such a subject can easily lead to a voice of bitter regret, vindictiveness, or maudlin self-pity. Lea resists all of these, and writes instead with mature reflection on the nature of intimacy and of memory itself. In this, she shares common ground with Tracy Ryan, whose Unearthed (2013) also measuredly, assuredly, addresses a former spouse. Lea shows how language is both helpmate and obstacle in conducting a relationship and in conveying its provenance. ‘Driving into Distance’ is a meditation on the tension of between ‘I’ and ‘thou’ and the strange beauty of ‘little losses’ (67).
Lea’s is very much a poetry of what’s observed and felt ‘in the moment’. There is no particular indication here that Lea is a self-declared Buddhist, but aspects of Buddhist philosophy – observance of the present moment and of the natural world, acceptance of change and adversity, the retrieval of grace in small acts – are often present. The selection in fact ends with ‘Hand of the Bodhisattva’, an observation of a first century AD Indian statue, and perhaps a gently ironic counterpoint to other poems dealing with feet – the most playful of which is ‘Standing in Bette Davis’s Shoes’, composed of lines delivered by Davis from her most famous (and famously feisty) roles.
Lea is also on the front foot in ‘Orthograde’ and the sequence ‘Seven Feet & Where They’re From’, the latter responding to John Forbes’ ‘Four Heads and How to Draw Them’. Reflecting on the position of feet in cultures including Greek, Chinese and Aboriginal Australian, this sequence is also an eloquent metapoetic play on the foot (we might of course think of metrical feet in verse), most strongly in evidence in the seventh poem, ‘The Etymological Foot’, in which the foot’s place in adage is gently subverted.
Most poems are told from an implicitly or explicitly female point of view, but ‘The Cairn’ and ‘One of the Horses at Marly’ are told from non-human perspectives. Both cairn and horse address humans who are moving from one place to another but barely able to locate their own selves let alone navigate their environment. As series editor Paul Kane observes in his introductory note to this ‘Selected’: ‘Travel, of course, is always displacement and it functions here as an image of inward dislocation’ (ix). Or, in the words of the horse from Marly: ‘O // human too dizzy to see, you shoot / an arrow & it stabs you in the back’ (56). By the end of ‘The Cairn’, we discover the one being addressed is ‘Bronwyn’, continuing the exploration of self that began earlier with the poem ‘Bronwyn Lea’, in which the arrow is as much emblem of injury as it is of Cupid’s love: ‘My name fits me perfectly as the arrow fits its wound’ (9).
The wound is a recurring though not overworked motif in this collection, most often manifesting as a sense of loss following the absence/departure of the lover. Longing, including sexual longing, is a hallmark of absence, but, as in ‘Found Wanting at Zen Mountain Monastery’, female longing is often experienced differently to its male counterpart:
Desire or craving, he says
(he means to say thirst),
is the cause of all suffering.
(He is the one who will not remember me more,
the one who lets my face fall
without shock like vapour
from his mind.) (72)
Not that, thankfully, the female is a victim without agency:
So the woman fired up her motorbike,
rode through the hills to the monastery,
left her credit card with the office monk
and walked into the zendo. (73)
Many of the poems, including those dealing with the past, are written in the present tense, giving personal history an immediacy. Lea also demonstrates her quiet attention to form, moving from free verse to unrhymed couplets, tercets and quatrains, with occasional forays into haikus, most notably in the excellent ‘A rush of butterflies’, which deftly builds on themes addressed earlier in the book:
By my foot, a skink
fixes an eye on me – more
devoted than you. (77)
Longing and loss never manifest as self-indulgence. As Kane notes: ‘Lea has that capacity to imagine and identify with the other, even (with “fierce tenderness”) those who have caused her pain’ (xi). And absence, as experienced by the narrator or others, can be sensual:
as the Japanese woman
turns her nightgown inside out
to dream of her absent lover –
constructs of seams and loose threads
facing the world, the seeming seamless
elision of silks against her flesh
in daylight she watches her body age (‘The Nightgown’, 26)
‘The Poet’s Bed’ might remind us of Donne’s ‘The Sunne Rising’, sans lover:
The sheets have been changed
since she lay here, maybe even the mattress,
but the frame remains the same: (27)
And sometimes the abandoned marital bed is a liberation, as in ‘Women of a Certain Age’ who are:
waking to the sound
of their breathing …
… The dawn will be theirs to hold
a little while – its lightness – they will forget
some of what they have experienced
and remember what they were born with, (12)
In the deep north of memory, Lea nevertheless recalls, with eloquence and tenderness, some of the experience she has gained. And, without bitterness, some of what she has lost.
ANTHONY LYNCH is author of the short story collection Redfin and the poetry collection Night Train. His reviews have appeared in a various publications, but most often in The Australian and Australian Book Review. He is the publisher for Whitmore Press (http://whitmorepress.com), which specialises in poetry.
by David Brooks
ISBN 978 0 7022 5352 2
Reviewed by NADIA NIAZ
How can we
Be so arrogant, to think that our
souls are worth so much?
David Brooks poses a cogent question and one that has often been asked by writers. Surely the act of writing is one of arrogance, the act of preserving our own thoughts an act of egotism. Expanded to the way modern humans interact with their environment the question remains valid, even essential. But the question of our value is not just an interrogation of our arrogance as a race – it is also a vital component in creating and re-creating ourselves, in understanding not just who we are, but how.
There is a meditative quality to the poems in Open House that seeks to answer these questions, but gently. There is through much of the book a sense of a breath held for a moment of contemplation and then gently released. It is the kind of book one must read slowly so that each poem, each line, may sing itself into being and back, and us with it.
Some readers may find the length of Open House daunting – most books of poetry published today are fairly short and self-contained and may be read in an afternoon. And yes, this book does demand a lot of attention, but it is also the sort of volume that you can come back to in a quiet moment, the sort that you can dip into the way we do into our favourite music albums, and revisit the bliss of its music.
Open House constitutes a poetic, and sometimes actual, journey. Each of the five sections that comprise this volume has its own distinct character while also retaining a logical relationship with the others. The poet’s voice rings out clearly through each, carrying the reader from poems about place, history, and loss all the way to the last section, which conveys a quiet wonder and delight at life and existence.
This is not to suggest a linear progression so much as a development of interconnected interests. While the first book is more solidly grounded in history, the present exists in it as well, and while the last book feels more about the present – or perhaps just conveys more presence and immediacy – the past is given its due.
‘A Place on Earth’ interrogates the poet’s sense of belonging, truth, guilt, and the quest for peace and meaning. Themes as disparate as Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, looking back at one’s youth, night trains, and quotidian intimacy, sit comfortably side by side and often flow into each other. There is a historicity to these poems – a sense of things observed and absorbed, but not let go. Perhaps, as in the blood from ‘The Assassination of Benazir Bhutto’ and the dust coating all things in ‘Dust’, it is history itself that persists in holding on.
This changes considerably at the beginning of ‘September’. Suddenly there are images of abundance, ripeness, pulchritude, and a relaxing of sorts. This is however quickly juxtaposed with images of sexual abuse and a grittiness that shakes the reader out of the trance of plenty. The poem ‘Nona’ may be the best encapsulation of the nature of this section. In it, Brooks describes an old woman as carrying the history of the town (and perhaps, by extension, of the nation), “a kind of midwife to the day” (32) performing such tasks as are necessary to transform it into a place where travellers may find comfort. With her death, “another part/ of the village/will flap untended in the Boria, another/ house lose its hold.” (33). There is a great noticing, as Rilke might phrase it, of people, things, animals and birds – the smallest creatures are given attention. In contrast, the reduction of ‘pederast priests’, to two words seems an act of righteous contempt.
‘Open House’ brings the reader back to Australia. The title of the section (and the book itself) suggests an inspection, which in turn implies an invitation to come in and browse, assess, and judge what one sees. However, as with actual inspections and open houses, much of what we are shown is curated and translated and so it is here. As in the rest of the book, each poem is crafted with great thought, attention, intelligence and feeling. Brooks seems a poet entranced by life in its variety. The opening poem, ‘In the Kingdom of Shadows’ sets the tone:
In the Kingdom of shadows, world without end,
slugs traverse the prairies of the soul,
mice enter the pure land,
cockroaches conquer the valleys of death.
In the Kingdom of shadows, dominion
of cats and sugar gliders,
moths are mastering the constellations, spiders
whispering their histories to the stars.
In this section, the quotidian and ordinary are made as evocative as the lofty and philosophical because he has understood that both must exist for there to be life.
‘Report from Blue Mountains’ is another shift in mood. It is less contemplative and more direct. The rest of the book seems more the ‘report’ and this section its defense as the poet seems to be in communication with others for much of it. This does not diminish the poetry, but rather adds an element of the conversational to a book comprising mostly soliloquy thus far. It is not that there are no other people in the book – indeed there are many and they are well described characters or beautifully rendered spectres – but that the poet seems to talk to as well as about them here. Here the poet seems to be stepping out more fully into the present world rather than examining it from afar.
The final section, ‘Reading to the Sheep’ repeats the now familiar themes of nature, the observation of creatures, domesticity, but in it the poet seems even more present than in the previous section.
If I’ve regrets
whose life is without them?
If I have debts let the creditors come.
The rain this morning
was like the first rain,
the sun in your eyes the first sun.
(‘Birthday Poem’, 146)
Unsurprisingly, sheep appear rather often in the poems and although they may not seem the most poetic of animals, their solidity and solemnity, their presence in the immediate moment, is effective. This feels like a good way to close this meditation on life and place and belonging, this journey through not just looking at things but seeing them and experiencing them by being open to them. The observer necessarily changes the observed, but seldom is the observation so gently and yet thoroughly presented. This is no aggressive investigation but rather a letting be that echoes concepts of mindfulness and meditation. Muck like the best haiku, the poems feel both complete and resonant.
Brooks is not a strongly political writer, but his views on animal rights are evident. Politics and poetry – particularly in English – can be an uncomfortable fit, so it is further evidence of Brooks’ mastery of the form that these poems often have an odd sweetness to them despite the brutality they describe. Brooks knows to turn the lens onto himself and his own actions and let the message grow from that presentation where lesser poets focus instead on the message to the detriment of the poetry.
Brooks not only captures the minutiae of life and turns it into poetry that makes the reader catch her breath – finding poetry in the mundane is almost the mission of the modern-day poet and writer and many do it well – but also takes the frankly anti-poetical and weaves it into poems that remains accessible and open as well as multi-layered and tantalising.
The quiet, unassuming nature of his poetry that comes through even though each poem is brilliantly structured and considered is what places Brooks in the league of the greats. You don’t so much read these poems as hear them sing themselves into being in your mind, as if they were always there, waiting to be awoken.
NADIA NIAZ is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and Cultural Studies from the University of Melbourne where she teaches Creative Writing. Her work has previously appeared in TEXT, Strange 4 and The Alhamra Literary Review.
by Ivy Alvarez
Reviewed by ANGELA STRETCH
For every verse novel there has to be a starting point, a line in a letter, a speech or a phrase with symbolic meaning, or an image. In Disturbance, it is an inquest into the death of three family members.
Ivy Alvarez introduces us to a spare, judicious survey of a wide range of daily experiences,which begins when a number of half-apprehended intuitions fall into place, the shudder of realignments travel through the body like an electric current, raising goose bumps that herald the imaginative grasp of a sociological truth. Alvarez’s lyrics are strikingly modulated to specific human registers as if she had the killer’s demons tested, then submitted them to the rigors of nothing less than a whole human drama. What drives us? What drove Tony, a husband and father to a family murder suicide?
While I was reading Disturbance, a homicide took place in the Riverina (NSW), at the hand of a respected farmer. The perpetrator turned the gun on himself, after murdering his wife and three young children. The rural community continues to struggle with the fact that ordinary men, men who are seen as good men use violence. Alvarez’s depiction is a chilling parable to the brutal tragedy that unfolded, west of Wagga Wagga. In both cases the victims affected were from small-town middle class families, who’s nearest and dearests had received no forewarnings about the unfathomable acts that were to happen. In Disturbance the family are framed as being wealthy, with an up-for-sale home valued at fewer than two million. They are owners of a BMW and hold a life insurance policy worth three hundred thousand. Tony seems an average sort of country Dad, with a hankering for hunting, golf and a swinger for a mistress. The mother Jane is troubled with the banalities of her estranged relationship with Tony and the drudgery of her domestic life. In the poem Warning (49), we glean Tony’s possessive nature, his building reproach. There are diametric complexities between the two families but the grim reality of violence is evident.
Born in the Philippines and raised in Australia, Alvarez settled in Cardiff, Wales where she wrote her first collection Mortal (2006), a reimagining of the betrayal of the Greek goddess, Demeter and her daughter Persephone to the underworld. The narrative sustains its power because it is the speech not of just one person, but the souls of a mother and daughter. The maternal origin points us to the source of the world, the point of intersection between nothing and something. In Disturbance, her second book, Alvarez responds to a real account of a double murder suicide that happened in the United Kingdom and like all effective incendiaries she confronts history and comes to terms with an array of cultural influences, a complex, divided inheritance; the daughter who didn’t choose to survive, the mother who didn’t choose to die.
These are strong poems which move fluently between the living and the dead, the reported past and the recorded present. There is a perverse malevolence that gnaws at you in the second poem from the circumstantial evidence listed, quantified by duration, frequency and moral accountability. The post-mortem begins in Nuclear family:
They met 27 years ago
One emergency number
dialed at 7.11 pm
(Nuclear family, 8)
Alvarez traces the tormented, catastrophic history of the family members, embuing them with only flashes of emotional colour. Witnesses are shadowed by questions of what might have passed, as are we, who try to read between the lines and fathom the family’s irreversible fate. The story pulsates with the biographical measures of a family’s destruction attested to by the local community, neighbours, the estate agent, journalists, the Detective, policemen, the mistress, and even the local priest.
The self-evident sometimes has to be restated, reinterpreted and questions recreated about characters to get behind the mask. A dialogue between the public and the private spheres is an important part of a good narrative and poets continue to set the standard in searching for a deeper reading of the humanity of the lived life, and a vivid sense of the life once lived. In this portrayal the extraordinary comes into view in the mainly private spheres of Dad, Mum, son, surviving daughter and the other more than twenty voices that are both directly and indirectly involved.
Alvarez seems compelled to share her understanding of dyfunctionality. We may not know it comprehensively, but the book offers us at least a dramatic core that performs or perhaps explains. She provides cumulative details, evidence and testimonials, chiseled on the page in various forms, playing with sequencing and time.
The words of the Operator who received the call for help hang in the air:
The phone rings: laughter and shrieks.
Another crank call, two cranks in ten minutes.
I just got here.
The minute hand swings over.
It’s 7.11 pm.
And much later we hear from a Witness:
We’re laughing − a rare thing.
After dinner and we’re at the sink.
We hear a car on the gravel drive. Our laughter dries.
And so it must have happened by increments across the community— that slow withdrawal of voices, the silence falling as the conversations between people querying the unexpected, suggests something intense and morbid had taken place.
off the record?
five thousand per dead body
but we don’t look at it
(The estate agents, 14)
There’s a shiver of black humour, or rather a notation of bodily memory that reaches home to acknowledge the curiosity of why things happen.
I don’t know what could have set him off
I cannot understand
how cows know
to chew in unison
(A neighbouring farmer, 15)
The poems succeed by inflection, as different circuits are rewired, allowing us to register subtleties not previously accessible. Alvarez provides us with a sense of comprehension through the views of a community numbed, a complex socio-economic layout of whom and where to place the blame, to seek justification for actions made and to perhaps identify the warning signs and be more vigilant in the recognition of these signs.
What is captured is a capacity for monstrous indifference, a means to register murder, sociopathy and violation. The tragic genre is the poet’s intent, an archetype of assemblages generated by one expectation leading to the expectations of the next. In The Journalist speaks III, this non-fiction verse narrative achieves a stage pitch.
all complexity flattened to a headline
‘Three shot dead in village’
Black cameras crowd in,
flashbulbs white as maggots.
She gives them a flat, dry stare,
The surviving daughter who releases her statement.
(The Journalist speaks III, 50)
Disturbance is a book of dark intensities and deeply felt connections, haunted and haunting, at once brooding, sensual and lucid. A smaller cast of characters would make logistics simpler, but the reasons for domestic violence are just as compounding. The apparently simpler observations by a cast of characters play out a vital role; to speak out from within community, take on a deeper responsibility that incorporates some element of recognition of this major societal issue.
Alvarez’s diverse upbringing may have provided her with the social and political purpose to write about domestic violence from varying points-of-view. In doing so she has developed an elliptical but determined way of approaching her subjects that pushes forward an array of directions by turning back and engaging in a past she has imagined.
ANGELA STRETCH is a Sydney based artist, curator, writer and organiser. Her work uses language and poetry through different mediums and has been exhibited and published nationally and internationally. She is the coordinator of the Sydney Poetry Program at the Brett Whiteley Studio, AGNSW.
the thin bridge
by Andy Jackson
ISBN 978 0 9873866 4 9
Reviewed by CAMERON LOWE
Andy Jackson’s chapbook The thin bridge (Whitmore Press, 2014) is preoccupied with the human body. If I counted accurately, the words ‘body’ or ‘bodies’ appear in twelve of the twenty-six poems in this slim collection, and of the fourteen other poems the body is present as subject, or part subject, in nearly all of them. If this seems like overkill, it also gives The thin bridge a powerfully unified set of thematic concerns which works effectively in the chapbook form.
If the body is central to this collection, it should also be said that in many of the poems it is a starting point for broader reflections. The book’s first poem, ‘What’s possible between us’ (and it seems important that the question mark is omitted here), introduces the reader, somewhat tangentially, to the preoccupation with the body:
I part the vertical ocean of clothes
and find you there. Spider,
it is almost terrifying to me – suspended
only by the work of your own body. (p. 1)
It is a startling and haunting image, and of course, it is not just the spider’s body that is being evoked here. Yet it is a question the poem poses prior to this—‘Who knows what we’re capable of?’—that resonates throughout The thin bridge. And who is the ‘we’ in question here? One’s initial expectation, given the poem’s title, is that this will be a poem addressing a lover, and that the ‘we’ relates to a couple. However, the poem elides this expectation, producing a destabilising effect for the reader. As with many of the poems that follow this first one, there is a curious tension between the personal and a sense that the poems are probing broader issues. It is a clever dynamic that makes you want to reread the poems, to tease out what might really be at stake.
There is a strong autobiographical element to these poems—as well as a persistent lyric ‘I’—and it is perhaps worth noting that Jackson has Marfan’s syndrome, a condition that affects the body’s connective tissue and can lead to a range of medical disorders including heart disease and spinal curvature. I raise this because on one level the poems appear to demand this sort of biographical reading; the focus on the body—its shape, its frailties, and our responses to physical form—is such an important theme of the book as a whole. Additionally, such biographical information adds a layer of poignancy to a poem such as ‘Desensitised’, where there is a cheeky metaphorical play on the spines of library books, which the poem’s speaker must ‘push…back to vertical’ (p. 10).
Jackson has a talent for striking, and at times confronting, imagery. ‘Mother’s Day’, for instance, brings to mind Barrett Reid’s agonised ‘The Absent Heart’:
They crack open the bone
gates of your chest
to rechannel the paths
your life runs. Five hours
busy around the opened
chasm – machines and
surgeons. (p. 20)
Or, in ‘A certain type of poem’—which might hint at a Charles Simic influence with its ‘immaculate walls of an abattoir’—we are presented with another haunting image:
A life support system, humming after the body is taken / away (p. 7)
‘A language I didn’t know I spoke’, the poem that provides the collection’s title—it’s not exactly a ‘title poem’—is, curiously, one of the few poems in the book that doesn’t display a preoccupation with the body. Rather, the poem appears more concerned with connections between the human and natural world, and makes reference to ‘something obscure we have in common’ (p. 24). It is an interesting poem, in which the poem’s speaker goes on a bush walk and has an unusual encounter with a bird. My initial reaction to the poem was, perhaps ungenerously, that it indulges a little too much in the mysticism of communing with nature. I say ungenerously because the poem eventually deflates any pretensions of special insight on behalf of the poem’s speaker by the remark ‘I…feel / absurdly human’ (pp. 24–25). The poem’s final image, of ‘crossing back / over the thin bridge’ (p. 25), which presumably is a literal bridge but also a metaphor for the passage between different states of being, or states of awareness, is handled with a subtlety that Jackson exhibits throughout the collection.
For all of its considerable strengths, The thin bridge is also a little uneven. The travel poems in the middle of the book, in particular, are something of a flat spot, and seem misplaced in this collection; it might have been wiser, from an editorial viewpoint, to omit them. Few poets are able to successfully write convincing poems about exploring foreign places; as a reader, or at least for this reader, it always feels like being made to look at an album of someone else’s holiday snaps. The poem ‘Reaching and leaning’, which involves a hike in the Muir Woods of California, again provokes an uncomfortable feeling of being invited to share in some kind of mystic experience for the poet:
Standing still and writing this, the voices carry,
all the voices in my head, reaching
and leaning into light, this desire
that shares something with the wood,
the sap, the fingertip seed.
I place my palm against a sapling,
leave a trace. (p. 19)
This is a minor hiccup however, and the book’s final poem, ‘The bike itself’ (p. 35), is a brilliant choice to conclude The thin bridge. There is a temptation to read the poem as an oblique summation of the collection’s preoccupation with physical form; an abandoned bike is slowly picked apart until the object no longer resembles itself, and a half-demolished house is ‘only an empty frame / surrounding a fireplace’ (p. 35). And yet, as with the book’s first poem, ‘The bike itself’ is elusive and ends the collection on a wonderful image:
…Memories not even
lavender-patterned wallpaper can hold onto
lift into the sky, like pollen or dust in reverse.
CAMERON LOWE lives in Geelong, Victoria. His two book-length poetry collections are Porch Music (Whitmore Press, 2010) and Circle Work (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013).