John Kinsella’s most recent books of poetry are Firebreaks (WW Norton, 2016) and Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems (Picador, 2016). His most recent book of short stories is Crow’s Breath (Transit Lounge, 2015). He is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University, a Professorial Research Fellow at UWA, and Professor of Literature and Sustainability at Curtin University.
Australia’s New White Paper on Defence and Blake’s Illustration of Dante’s Inferno, Canto 21: Devils Proffering Protection
Smug as pulling an all-night session cooking the books,
a half a trillion is sucked out of the country over
half a decade, all those zeroes, all that decimation.
A regional power. A projection of force. Consolidation
behind borders. Balance. ‘De-coupling from economy’
so fall or fail, the percentage will stay steady for Defence.
Horns and pointed tails, they get drones. With drones
you can go anywhere through the three worlds. North
or south, east or west. Investment. Capability. Readiness.
This is already less of a poem because it does more than
suggest. It is not allowed to do its own work. Language
is the loser here. The fluted gowns of Dante and Virgil
can’t bring enough solemnity or joie de vivre to this
unique and happy moment. The musculature of devils
is something addictive, awe-inspiring. At first,
they use reasonable language, but if challenged
they smell of burning and so do you. This is the acid
used in manufacture, and it’s the by-products
of Innovation, Industry and Co-operation. No use
resorting to personal insults as the spreadsheets
are filled in. Electronic warfare. Flesh-hooks
new punctuation marks. Think of it this way:
a novelist, one who has no empathy with the bush
in any real way whatsoever, stays for a few weeks
among the parrots and eucalypts, and captures
a bit of the stereotypical for his page. The renditions
of urban culture or colonialism or small towns
need rounding out. He is writing a White Paper
on habitation and nature. The edges where, say, a possum
rubs against the tin roof, or pokes its nose into food stores,
or pisses through the ceiling. Or maybe the essentialism
of parrotology, its scope for global renovation, a redemptive
unleashing on the thinktanks of the world. Policy. Inspiration.
Defending the wealth of words none of us can feel whole.
They are sieved through the orb-weaver’s web, through
Defence Department computers. That not-quite blood
red Blake gets. A watering-down. Sickly. Water spitting
on the barbecue hotplate. Redemption for the Australian
factory floor now home-made cars are gone. Rackety cockatoos.
On Blake’s Illustration for Canto 8 of Dante’s Purgatory: Kammmolch (Great Crested Newt)
The vipers are asleep.
The pond with shadows
cut away on the Spitzberg
is frozen solid, bristling
with sticks poked in to test
viscosity, then locked into place.
This is the breeding
refuge of the Kammmolch,
red list species.
Off their face, young men
and women, boys and girls,
stagger around its bleak eye.
They settle on a fallen conifer,
a bench of moss, and stare.
The Kammmolch awaits
the pond’s release,
unravelling of winter.
hover over beech and oak,
seeing through to the forest
floor, the sad youth.
Down in the Neckar
and Ammar valleys,
are getting workovers.
Citizens are crossing swords.
So many interferences.
The paths through the forest
are bituminised. Once, on terraces,
grapes were grown. Down below,
where the Kammmolch once ranged,
sediment accrues. The fragment
of forest looks to diversity
to absorb the come-down
from methamphetamines, that look:
Kammmolch hoping to breed
where forces have shut them out.
Tread carefully in your withdrawal.
May the pond take eggs and light.
Fresh News from the Arctic (Anne Elder Award), This Floating World (shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and The Age Book of the Year Awards), and Wild (shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards).
We possess nothing in the world,
but I’m listing all I’ve ever wanted.
It’s only one thing,
turning and turning in my mind
like this amulet
in this open palm that knows you.
Knows your mouth sweet, your rough cheek.
It knows well this love comes with hex marks.
With you: letter-burner, light-bearer.
Heart of wildfire, heat of unquenchable prayer.
With you: my soul’s single spark.
Foxtrot. India. Romeo. Echo.
My fresh sting. My breath spin,
each time I turn and turn in your hands.
Note: “We possess nothing in the world” is from “The self” by Simone Weil (Simone Weil: an anthology, edited and translated by Siân Miles, Penguin Books, London, 2005).
by Pan Zijie
maninriver press, 2015
ISBN 10: 0987473352
Reviewed by OUYANG YU
Shortly after I received a copy of Beijing Spring, in Melbourne, for reviewing, I got on my way to Canberra for a visit and read the book in one go on my flight there. Immediately, a number of things, quite suggestive absences, caught my attention: there are no blurbs on the back and no author biog, things that one reads before one plunges into poetry.
Other things emerge, in the book, and, now, a few days after, from memory, without reference to the physical copy of the book and perhaps out of sequence, too: beginnings of lines or sentences that serve as high-lighted titles, some in larger font sizes than others; Beijing Spring, the title of the book, that reminds one of a similarly titled pro-democracy political magazine based in New York, known as《北京之春》（beijing’s spring）, and that is also a reference to the period of political liberalization in China in 1978 and 1979; retelling of stories in martial arts films; letters to an unknown recipient, or perhaps the poet himself, or, as suggested at Amazon online bookshop, ‘to a famous revolutionary poet’ (http://www.amazon.com/Beijing-Spring-Zijie-Pan/dp/0987473352/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1456873105&sr=8-1&keywords=beijing+spring%2C+pan+zijie ) from a ‘sister’; and travels around Beijing in a ute.
But if you take it to be a book of political poems you’d be wrong although the cover photo suggests blood and flowers, symbols of revolution, when, on closer inspection, they actually are the debris of firecrackers, with the bluish smoke of blasting in the background. This book, by its very absence and anonymity, has managed to achieve the purpose of creating a mine of hidden treasures, written in poems, prose-poems, letter poems or story-poems, for the bewildered readers to dig for themselves. One I like in particular tells the story of a dream,
In another dream
you’re in an inn where
you’ve come to meet a stranger
You ask the innkeeper whether someone
is waiting for you, the innkeeper
is blunt, he doesn’t know of any
one waiting for you.
No, a lot of others are waiting for
food and wine
Why is someone waiting for you? (p. 21)
And that left me smiling wryly, at this dream that doesn’t seem a dream but that remains a dream because it’s titled a ‘dream’. Quite a number of poems feel like that and it’s an interesting, endearing quality.
There are other poems that I like, too, such as ‘She says it stinks’, ‘Pretty Girl’ and ‘Dear Brother’ (p. 65).
One was left with an uncomfortable feeling, though, when one finished reading the book. Questions keep coming up: Why is the poet so unassuming, keeping such a low profile that it almost feels like the book was written by an anonymous person? Is there a deliberate statement being made through this anonymity and suppression of one’s own identity? Why did this reader feel an affinity with the poet and his book?
I did my homework and found out about the poet. He was originally known as Zijie Ken Pan, born in 1956. Having published his first book of poetry, Vostok & This Could Have Happened to You in 2002, he did his PhD in creative writing in 2006 at Macquarie University, with his thesis titled, ‘Representations of Chinese men in Australian fiction 1973-2000: an analytical interpretation and a novella.’ A second book of poetry appeared in 2015, In Another Time. A number of poems were published in such diverse magazines and newspapers as Southerly and The Australian, though the poet’s name had changed from its anglicized version to the current Chinese pinyin version of Pan Zijie, the same way Leslie Zhao, Australian-Chinese short-story writer, on returning to China to become a playwright based in Shanghai more than a decade ago, reverted back to his original Chinese pinyin version of Zhao Chuan.
It seems to me that the poet is engaging in a process of de-Australianization, or, to put it mildly, a process of resistance, of not wanting to be known as part of all that, of wanting to go it all alone no matter what, and of connecting to one’s past with one’s own stories or poem-stories that are being suppressed or suffer the risk of suppression in a country one is a migrant in. Can I also suggest that the press, Maninriver Press (Man in River Press?), is also part of that process, being apparently, and proudly, run by Asian-Australians, or even migrants, something that I always admire and hope for as many of my books were published by migrant-run presses, such as Papyrus Publishing, Wild Peony and Brandl & Schlesinger, to name but a few?
That the word ‘Australia’ is never mentioned once in the book adds to the impression that this is deliberate and, if that is so, the strategy works well. Again I think of Zhao Chuan who, in a number of meetings we had, hardly ever mentions Australia while his work is being shown around in other European countries such as Switzerland and England.
While I looked in vain for the word ‘Australia’ in the book, I managed to find tropes evocative of the country, in lines like this, ‘to stay small harmless nations’ (p. 65), or this, ‘The winds come from the north. Always dry, in strong gusts pushing and bending trees’ (p. 60), and this, ‘Refugee may be a long way, some things will become burdens, a country, a home…’ (p. 56), ‘refugee’ being a subject Pan once wrote about in a poem, found here (http://www.sundresspublications.com/stirring/archives/v2/e2/panzk.htm ), although not a major concern in this collection.
The major concern, to this writer, seems to be a preoccupation with the creation of the poet’s own mini-autobiographies; about ‘us little folk’ (p. 35), be they stories about ‘Beijing Metro’, in an eerie dreamlike situation where ‘He shows a photograph of five heroes. Himself as Zhu De…’ (p. 7); about ‘toads’ whose ‘venom’ is squeezed for ‘medicine’ (p. 11); about this ‘I’ who’d ‘get a job teaching English at the Beijing Language and Culture University’ (p. 14); about stories based on the martial arts (Wu Xia) films in which nothing is said but everything seems to have been said, another impression of mine; and about letters sent by Sister to ‘Dear Brother’ in a sequence of what is known in Chinese as tongti shi (poems written under the same title).
And, last but not least is the interesting fact that Chinese words in pinyin share the same importance of English words by not being put in italics, thus not being made to look strange, such as ‘xiangchun’, ‘guqin’, ‘pipa’ and ‘siheyuan’ (p. 17), all immediately known to me, eliciting an instant smile on my face, though that may baffle the monolingual English-language speakers in this country and elsewhere. But who cares? A migrant is not a required explanation. He or she is, to borrow one word image from the book, an ‘invisible cloud’ (p. 57), that ‘drive(s) away the devils’ (p. 70).
Before I wrap up, I must quote Pan as saying, in a remark that may shed some light on his poetic presence through political absence—e.g. identity politics and etc, ‘I found myself as a person of colour who theoretically shouldn’t have been here.’ (https://twitter.com/mascarareview/status/667161990645743616?lang=en )
OUYANG YU has published over 55 books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, literary translation and criticism in English and Chinese languages, including his award-winning novel,The Eastern Slope Chronicle (2002), his collection of poetry in English,The Kingsbury Tales (2008), his collection of Chinese poetry, Slow Motion(2009), his book of creative non-fiction, On the Smell of an Oily Rag: Speaking English, Thinking Chinese and Living Australian (2008), his second novel, The English Class (2010), his book of literary criticism,Chinese in Australian Fiction: 1888 1988 (2008), and his translation in Chinese, The Fatal Shore (forthcoming in 2011).
Painting Red Orchids
by Eileen Chong
Pitt St Poetry
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
Painting Red Orchids is Eileen Chong’s third collection in six years. Born in Singapore, she has lived in Sydney since 2007. Although her Chinese roots run deep she is also very much a citizen of her adopted city and country.
The influence of classical Chinese poetry, from various periods is strong, both in Chong’s tone and, to a lesser extent, in her content — or so it would appear to this reviewer, judging from translations he has read over the years. Chong works with an awareness of this tradition but her particular achievement is the way she is able to be faithful to the specifics of the eras involved and yet still sound contemporary and universally relevant. There is nothing archaic here.
A fine example of all this skill occurs in Chong’s four-part poem, “Magnolia”, a monologue from the viewpoint of Hua Mu Lan who dressed as a man to take her father’s place in the emperor’s army and rose to the rank of general during the Northern Wei dynasty (386 – 536 AD). A stanza in the first part, dealing with the need to hide her menstruation, is particularly graphic: “I carry a skin of water and squat in the grasses. / Now it it safe to loosen my robes. Carefully, I clean myself. / Even in the dark, my hands are sticky with blood.” The link between this blood and the blood soon to be shed in battle is more than a little poignant.
In the second part of the sequence, Mu Lan describes her first kill, a chicken back in her childhood: “I carried her to the back of the hut, her heartbeat / pulsing in my palm. Her feathers so alive against my skin.” In the third section, Mu Lan defines her role explicitly: “Not for me the embroidered magnolias of marriage; / I give birth to nothing but blades, arrows and death.”
It is believed that, after twelve years of warfare, Mu Lan returned to her village. The poem’s last stanza reveals an interesting ambivalence: “If I were a hawk I would take off, wing towards / the west and the setting sun. I would hunt only / to survive, I would feather a nest, I would fly.” There’s a nice balance here, and throughout the poem, a rejoicing in the exploits of a notable proto-feminist and a clear sense of what she had to give up in order to achieve them.
A different, but no less convincing, Chinese element in Chong’s poetry appears in her poems about Chinese cuisine — its preparation, cooking and consumption. In poems such as “Cooking for One”, “Xiao Long Bao (Little Dragon Dumplings)” and “Sun Ming Restaurant, Parramatta”, among others, there is clearly a relish for tastily-cooked flesh that might well make a vegan curl back in disgust. Parts of these poems, as in “Xiao Long Bao (Little Dragon Dumplings)”, for instance, can also read like a (well-written) recipe: “Finely shredded young ginger topped / with black rice vinegar and a dash of soy / form the dipping source.” At the end of her dumpling poem the poet talks about the acute gastronomical response of her non-Chinese lover to what he has just eaten: “I still remember the look on your face when you ate / your first little dragon dumpling. Sudden understanding.”
“Sudden understanding” is not, however, a resolution that conveniently arrives through another important strand in Painting Red Orchids, i.e. Chong’s poems about a break-up with one long-time lover and the beginnings of a new relationship. These poems are arranged in a cluster but also recur through the book. At the end of “Adrift”, for instance, the poet talks of how “The mussel man / clutched the paper-wrapped package / to his chest and said, Bless you, lady. / I need all the blessings I can get — / I am adrift, far from rock and shore.” In “Taboo”, shortly afterwards, she reflects: “How much did I want? / All the years, and none. // Your foot on my calf, / heavy in the dark. // Your breathing laboured, / my heart withdrawn.”
Some sort of explanation is offered in “Split Moon”: “I said the word and broke us — / but chiselling away at our foundation / were years of the unsaid; of silences / drawn out and covered over. // Did I do it right? I do not know. / The moon does not speak. / We have divided the whole, / we are left with less than our halves.”
Poems of this kind, with slightly laborious images like “chiselling away at our foundations”, speak to an almost universal experience but are often difficult to bring off aesthetically. Almost all poets write them at one stage or another (and they can often be effective therapeutically). It doesn’t seem fair that they are not always among the poet’s best work. The injunction that the subject of Chong’s “break-up” poems calls for in “Last Leaf”is instructive. Her female narrator starts by saying: “I’d said yes / You then said no poems / A poem falls: / the last leaf of the season.” It’s possible hurt pride or her ex-partner’s need for privacy were not his only reasons for saying “no poems”.
Some of the most memorable poems in Painting Red Orchids occur when Chong’s Chinese materials or vantage points are seamlessly integrated with something more western, sometimes with a deal of surrealism thrown in. The last six lines of “Dream Fish” are a good example of what is most characteristic about this eloquent, engaging and continually-developing poet: “We only kissed at the end, the moon watching / the old scene play out. Mosquitoes and two people / discovering how to taste each other. In the bedroom / bright with lamps, roses shed their petals in half-arcs // around the vase. Pollen dust and the taste of musk. / You released the fish — its escape: a rapid beating of drums.”
GEOFF PAGE is a Canberra based poet and critic. He edited Best Australian Poems 2015 and his latest collection is Plevna, a verse biography, (UWA).
by joanne burns
Reviewed by NAME
‘It must give pleasure’
It should be no surprise that I am a big fan of joanne burns’ poetry. Although brush is not a New and Selected per se, it is a excellent introduction to her work and a substantial confirmation of the poet’s talent and importance in Australian Literature. This is burns’ sixteenth volume of poetry; her first title Snatch was published in London in 1972.
burns herself describes the volume as an ‘anthology of poems… written over the last five or six years’. It is a kind of sampler of her styles/forms and themes and in its compactness, brush is close to that wonderful rare thing—a perfect book. Divided into six sections, the ‘multifaceted’ collection encompasses the poet’s familiar preoccupations: language, society’s foibles, contemporary urban life, along with some more unusual personal recollections. These range in tone from the fiercely satiric to nostalgia ‘brushed’ with her trademark humour. Sometimes described as ‘acerbic’, burns’ work is always marked by a gentleness and compassion that understands the frailties of human beings and includes herself as one of them. There is an enormous amount of play in every poem that results in a singular lack of closure mimicking an illusive and unstable modern reality devoid of comforting truths.
Each section is made up of poems similar in theme and often similar in style. ‘brush’, the title section is subtitled ‘a series of day poems’ and each can be characterised as journal-like, although varying in line length and structure. These focus on the daily, often mundane activities that trigger various ‘epipthanic?’ observations, ‘such little things obscured in domestic/mess’ (‘verb 39). The first, ‘zip’, contains the telling line: ‘…that sweeps you into/neon’s rhetoric so what is it that you need to see in/such illumination’.‘tier’, a reflection on Anzac Day suggests ‘all you have/is what you have’ while ‘dues’, about a visit to the ‘office of births deaths & marriages’, ends with ‘lotsa death certs but how/sweet the sleep after/though not the snore’.
There are numerous allusions to poets and writers—resonances which set up a dialogue between the past with the present: long/black with nietzsche…9 grain goethbread’; the terror of a hopkin’s sonnet’ and significantly a reference to Neruda’s Elemental Odes:
i pull my 33 year old copy of neruda
off the dusty shelf estante polvo and turn to “oda al tomate”
where assassinated tomatoes become stars
of the earth in less than 2 pages el tomate astro de terra
Very few poets can do this.
burns can, for example, even make vacuum cleaning interesting and entertaining: ‘swirls of lost hair crumbs and/ missing peas/ no divining in the beige down there’ (‘frame’ 38) but she does it with aplomb—a crazy randomness of selection, odd details and her inimitable sense of whimsy.
As society seems unable to learn the lessons of the past (let alone from any of its great poets), the first section of the book, ‘bluff’, ghosts a future in which everyone, especially ma and pop investors, are doomed: ‘you ought to be/congratulated mums and dads for feathering your nests intoned the presidential spectacles/s/ from a harbour newsroom’. At once hilarious and grim, ‘does your portfolio ache’, this section comments on the financial world where specialist terms abound familiar and mysterious as ‘hedge fund’ and ‘bull market’. burns plays with and puns on the jargon (indeed one of the longer sequences ‘corrida’ explores notions of the bull fight) inferring an impending capitalist Armageddon while the theme from Casino Royale plays in the background:
some still believed it was best
to trim the hedges some were tight lipped
about the rosy picture — and this could
wipe out any benefit from the plan to divide
the good from the bad everyone was happy
though about the 19 billion sound rescue package
the final comment ‘we misjudged how quickly
syllables could turn around’
The central section ‘road’ is a wonderful bricolage of urban images/scenes which illustrate burns use of sound—assonance, alliteration, rhyme and half-rhyme to construct her poems.
past the front door packs
of paris hilton wannabes looking likely in sunfrocks
skim along the streets toward skinny lattes (‘sibilance’, 49)
One of the most interesting sections ‘delivery’ is unusal for burns because of its focus on the autobiographical. The poet has always and often sprinkled personal details in her poems using a first-person ‘i’ that could be herself or everywoman. ‘a later page’ [not quite after Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘In the Waiting Room’], is a wonderful take on that famous poem
there was the saturday evening post and maybe
the new yorker in the modest waiting room, nothing
to alarm me – or perhaps the wait was pretty short
at uncle bob’s
but those sharp eyes and mouths of racy laughter
bouncing off the walls dismissive and derisive
drill through collapsing years
‘comb’, a sequence of five poems, recalls past innocent times of boyfriends and beaches where
even the sewer outlet water, its stream
etched into the beach right down to the surf,
could not stain bondi’s ascendency
which was always as big as
tomorrow, or something wider
more thrilling than time –
The poems in the final section ‘wooing the owl (or the great sleep forward)’ are as one might expect, about sleep and dreams. (I wonder if there are any statistics on how many poets suffer from some form of insomnia?) The title poem asks the existential question:
to think like a pond
or a puddle
ponder this how many
sleeps til death
Frequently reviewers revert to using definitions when they have little to say or have trouble getting started and I confess I have used this ploy in the past. But nothing could be further from the facts regarding brush. For such a slim, compact collection there is so much to say that any review space is not sufficient to do it complete justice.
However, a look at the actual word ‘brush’ is enlightening and reveals quite a bit about burn’s methods. I came up with approximately eight definitions—brush obviously can be used as a noun or a verb—but checking in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, I found three more uses that were not known to me: colloquially it can mean ‘a girl or young woman’, a fox tail, and most interestingly ‘a piece of carbon or metal serving as an electrical contact especially with a discharge of sparks’. Now of course none of this would be a surprise to an avid reader of dictionaries like burns whose work often simultaneously holds all the meanings of a word in a poem or freely associates them to construct a kind of surreal/absurd narrative. Take ‘road’ for example from the section of the same title:
i am surprised by
my new interest in apples especially pink
ladies peak hour is not like the other peaks
burns’ work is a brilliant alchemy of objective reality and creative imagination, at times critical, philosophical or gnomic but always following Stevens’ dictum about what poetry should be:
It must give pleasure.
 Wallace Stevens, ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’, Collected Poems, London: Faber&Faber, 1966, p398.
 According to the media release ‘[t]he publication and promotion of brush has been assisted by an Australia Council Midlist Authors Grant, designed to showcase the writing of established Australian authors like Joanne Burns, who have made an important contribution to Australian literature, and to make readers more aware of the quality and character of their work as it has developed over many years.’
NICOLETTE STASKO has published seven collections of poetry the most recent under rats with Vagabond Press. She has also published books of fiction and non-fiction. Currently she is an Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney and is finalising her next collection.
by David Stavanger
University of Queensland Press
Reviewed by MICHELE SEMINARA
This book is dedicated to the dead
who are bravely living
(and to those who wake wild-eyed in the dark)
So begins David Stavanger’s first full length collection, The Special, published by UQP as wining manuscript of the 2013 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. As the dedication suggests, this book is an unsettling read; one feels, intentionally so. The poems deal with what is dark and broken in the human psyche, informed, presumably, by the poet’s own personal and professional experiences with mental illness. This is Stavanger’s first serious foray into the world of ‘page’ as opposed to ‘performance’ poetry (a distinction he eschews), the leap between these two hotly fought over territories no doubt entailing a certain risk of the poems falling flat on the page. Yet while the book may, on first reading, appear somewhat stylistically and tonally ‘flat’, upon deeper reading it becomes clear that this has less to do with Stavanger’s poetry not transitioning well onto the page, and more to do with the nature of what the poet is trying to achieve. When exploring states of mind such as depression or psychosis, an emotionally disconnected, disjointed, or even dissociated style of poetry may indeed be the perfect mode of expression.
The Special encompasses a variety of forms such as free verse, prose poetry, found poetry, centos and some pieces which read more like flash fiction. The poems are often inspired by and allude to popular culture, drawing on newspaper articles, rock music, film and even a questionnaire from the dating site RSVP. While this lends the book an accessibility which will appeal to many who might not traditionally read poetry, it does not necessarily mean that it is an easy read. Stavanger pulls no punches, tackling challenging issues—such as mental health, terminal illness, dysfunctional relationships, the inevitability of death, the meaning of life and the meaning of even getting out of bed in the morning—head on; although he does sweeten their delivery with liberal doses of irony and dark humour. Take, for example, the title poem of the book:
I have seen enough stomachs charcoaled
to put me off life-drawing for life
one week a patient launched himself from the 5th floor
didn’t even put his hands out
hit the concrete with his face
Sometimes the future looks brighter
if you don’t look at all
(‘the Special’, p7)
The narrator’s tone is for the most part unnervingly flat, as if he were walking through life on automatic pilot, everyday experiences appearing odd or even grotesque and requiring herculean amounts of effort to accomplish. Discordant images are juxtaposed, leaving a lattice of gaps which the reader may—or may not—choose to fill with meaning. The phrases are short, snappy, satiric and self-aware. Take, for example, ‘out of danger’, one of the many ‘list’ poems of the book:
thinking. using a microwave. drinking. not drinking. voices
from the pillow. not talking to yourself. talking to yourself.
talking to taxi drivers. parenting. going to a lecture. enjoying
it. declaring yourself a legend. believing it.
(‘out of danger’, p4)
This could be read as glib, superficial, lacking in attention to the craft of rhythm, rhyme, metaphor and line break; the sort of poetry which might sound impressive in a well delivered performance but can read like a string of clever sound bites on the page. Alternately, it could be read as an artful expression of a depressed and disembodied state of mind. The list-like nature of the syntax suggests a sentience disengaged from the world, one of the zombie-like ‘dead’ from the book’s dedication propelling themselves through life without fully entering into it. Everyday objects and events appear at once discrete and absurdly connected, the juxtaposition of images suggesting meanings which are both humorous and sinister. Strings of short sentences paired with a dead-pan delivery create a cinematic effect, as in the piece ‘home visits’, which adopts a hard-bitten, film noir style of narration:
Doorbell rings. I have driven thirty minutes south across
town. They say there is a heatwave on its way but it is already
here. Thirty-eight degrees. I ring the doorbell again. This part
of the city seems full of animals but there are no insects to
be heard and the concrete cracks when you walk on it. The
pool next door is empty. Something has gone down here and
people won’t talk about it.
(‘home visits’, p22)
As if watching a film the narrator observes his own actions and reactions, removed by dark humour and irony at a safe distance from his own experiences. The lifeless tone of Stavanger’s poems gives the effect of dissociation, but also conjures up the spectre of the odd and sinister lurking beneath the everyday. We see this in the poem ‘sleep, hit me’, inspired by the David Lynch film Blue Velvet.
c. stay in the car. hard to the wheel.
wait for my call. don’t answer the phone.
hit the horn. never break. matches lit burn.
(‘sleep, hit me’, p24)
This sense of disembodiment is reinforced by the recurring absence of the personal pronoun; many of the poems lack reference to a unifying ‘I’, merely listing the thoughts and perceptions which the absent ‘I’ may be experiencing:
Invite my father to the funeral
ask him to take the hand of a stranger
make sure that stranger is me
(‘the will’, p66)
When the narrator does refer to himself, it is often in the form of the self-consciously observed ‘you’ or ‘he’:
at the school gate
there is always another one waiting
the bag heavier when you put it down to talk
about holidays and time shares
and you could have shaved
taken off your glasses, opened with their name
(though faces evade you)
(‘someone else’s shoes’, p50)
Here the speaker is literally talking himself through life in a way that most of, at times we’ve similarly struggled to function, would be familiar with. The connection between mental health and the quality of our internal self talk is something Stavanger explores convincingly in The Special, probing the relationship between the language of inner dialogue and external experience, and also the relationship of the official languages of diagnosis and classification to our internal perceptions. For example, in the poem ‘survey’, the absurdity of multiple choice questions and answers highlights the limitations of language to contain and express our deepest and most traumatic experiences. It also suggests how a disjunction between experience and the language used to define it can cause further emotional trauma and alienation.
8. Every Monday I look forward to
a) others going to work
b) going to work with others
c) watching spiders eat birds
9. I use social media to
a) tell you how you are doing
b) show you I am doing fine
c) communicate with the dead
10. Bleeding from the nipple
11. To be human is to
a) wear the right name tag
b) shower daily
c) give what you can’t give
d) fold back into the white
When you consider that this poem is one of three in the book created in response to interviews undertaken with Mummy’s Wish, a support group for mothers diagnosed with cancer, it becomes even more poignant. How can a mental health survey ever adequately assess or express the feelings of women dealing with such challenges? The act of circling answers which in no way relate to the depth of your experience must indeed feel absurd, and Stavanger’s use of form and tone in the poem artfully evokes this.
The intense subject matter of The Special might make for heavy reading, but Stavanger’s dark humour, while it doesn’t always hit the mark and can occasionally appear pat, works well to leaven the darkness of the poems. ‘I have nothing in front of me’ the pilot flying the plane in the first poem of the book, ‘optimism’, warns us—and in many ways The Special can be read as an exploration of our human reaction to the existential spectre of nothingness. When contemplating the end, either imminent or protracted, what do we human beings do? As Stavanger does in his poetry, we often use humour as a kind of reflexive defence mechanism. This literary trope is something Stavanger’s work has in common with absurdist and existential Cold War literature such as ‘Waiting For Godot’, a literature which, like Stavanger’s, arose in response to fear of annihilation and a vacuum of inherent meaning.
Yet it is not all doom and dark humour; there are thematic and stylistic progressions in The Special. While the poems do descend into the void, they also, in a distinctly Stavanger-esque fashion, rise up again, the narrator choosing to author his own type of meaning, especially towards the end of the book. Here, the tone shifts, growing less cynical and more engaged, the dark humour lifting as the speaker steps back into his body and his life. Referring to himself more frequently now as ‘I’, he no longer attempts to merely assemble himself into the simulacrum of a human being, but seems to actually feel like one. He also begins to reinhabit the roles of father, son and partner, referring to family members as ‘my’ and ‘we’ instead of the formerly used objectifying ‘you’.
my son tells me this stick is a bird
smiles and sets the bird free
it takes flight
we watch it soar to the ground
sweep into the afternoon
it is spring and the mothers are in full bloom
a flock of sticks lies in wait beneath the swings
my head is clear and we are singing
By the last poem of the book, ‘sky whale’, a calm — but not numb —acceptance has been reached: ‘They lied / there is no whale in the sky / the ocean is not blue right through’ Stavanger tells us. Alright, he seems to be saying, so things are not what we would want them to be, but does that mean they are nothing at all? The narrator at the beginning of the book would have answered in the affirmative and warned us that ‘there are never enough parachutes’ to go around in a crisis (‘optimism’, p3), but now we hear from a more mature voice:
I don’t care who gets angry
there have been such times of hate
this place is the last place to hide
no longing left to hang from the nearest branch
we drift dive, sleeping side by side
in the black house across the river
I wake up living
(‘sky whale’, p 77)
A book dedicated to the ‘dead / who are bravely living’ now ends with the words ‘I wake up living’. Although a tone of resignation remains, it is no longer nihilistic. While there is perhaps no inherent meaning in life, while we may ultimately live and die alone, we are at least living ‘side by side’, and there is some comfort in this. Relationships are flawed and ephemeral places to shelter, but at least they offer some kind of sanctuary, and maybe this is all we can hope for. In a book peopled with the living dead and the disconnected, the narrator has resurrected himself, consciously choosing to create meaning through connection to self and others. As Stavanger writes in one of the last, untitled pieces in the book:
In accidents the passenger always dies
I hand you the keys
MICHELE SEMINARA is a poet, editor and yoga teacher from Sydney. Her writing has appeared in many online and print journals and anthologies, and her first poetry collection, Engraft, was recently published by Island Press (2016). Michele is also the managing editor of creative arts journal Verity La. She blogs at TheEverydayStrange and is on Twitter @SeminaraMichele.
by Meredith Wattison
Puncher & Wattman
Reviewed by WILLO DRUMMOND
The blurb to Meredith Wattison’s terra bravura states that the collection differs from her previous work in that it is “fully autobiographical”. This position is announced boldly from the very first line, and resonates throughout the volume, with a complex weave of visual and narrative threads stitching this collection – and its subject – across time, memory, and history. From European beginnings to the vast dry centre of Australia, to domestic details past and present, terra bravura explores the complicated web of identity back through the poet’s father, now living with dementia, to her paternal great-grandmother.
In length on par with Wattison’s previous collection Basket of Sunlight, the volume consists of 52 poems and two essays, many of which have been previously published and/or anthologised. It was interesting to note the quartet of poems in the volume that had appeared in Best Australian Poems from 2009 to 2012. Production here is even more minimalist than Puncher and Wattmann’s usual clean and restrained style, with every poem in terra bravura presented title-less, each identified in the contents pages by first line only.
The opening poem, “I have come for the helium esoterica of the desert”, sets the tone for the volume with admirable force. There is a vastness to this whole collection, an echoing spaciousness, with language often raw, brittle as the “furred corsets of white bone” (11) the subject encounters by the side of the road on a pilgrimage to her ancestor’s grave. This poem, and several like it in the first half of the collection, pricks and spits the complex memory of a brutal family matriarch:
She is the split stone to step from
here is the bitterness and violence
of work and poverty,
here is the puller of our unborn feet.
The desert light lays her
each dilated grain of smooth stone
rubs and clings against another.
I try to fathom her
in her burst-knuckled,
Her brutalised son,
his brutalised son. (12)
Wattison’s work has been called “sharp-angled” in the past (Harrison 67), and this continues in terra bravura. Woven throughout the volume however, there is also a sense of play, a lightness of touch. Poems such as “Contrapuntist Johanna’s” (18-20) contain surprising moments such as the teasing half rhyme: “It blazes like the blazes. // What can we make with this?” (18) An irreverent indulgence in historical Australian idiom follows: “She went to blazes/ went to guff/ went to billy-o” (19), before we are deftly returned to the overarching tone of the task at hand:
I am a still–hunted fringe dweller;
my time disproportionate,
my cold-toe words pulled underground,
my violet-fingered, contranatent industry. (20)
In an article for Poetry magazine, Billy Collins discusses Matthew Williams’ notion of “aesthetic intimacy” (287) in autobiographical poetry: the seductive suggestion of reader-speaker transparency often at play in such work. In terra bravura, a layer of intimacy is certainly there, but Wattison, with her density of imagery, cultural allusion and sheer virtuosity of language, makes the reader work for the experience of it. The vast landscape of her lexicon often others the tongue in attempting it. The reader can find themselves wrestling with this fierce, shifting ‘swan-skinned’ subject. This is of course as it should be, in a work concerned with the mercurial nature of memory, autobiography and family lore.
Although initially quite enamoured of the ‘title-less’ presentation of the volume, my main concern in the end stemmed from this same publication decision. With no typographical markers as to when poems begin, the reader can often find themselves lost throughout the collection, half way through a new poem without realising it. Again, all of this is perhaps for intentional effect, echoing the way memory and myth interweave, spill over, never retaining anything resembling boundaries. In trying too desperately to contain the past we can find ourselves in a hallucinatory place, where “goats/ “cr[y] like exhausted women/falling.” (13)
As you progress through terra bravura, a layering of imagery, repeated motifs – swans, peeled fruit – becomes apparent. The effect is sedimentary, like the silting of memory and identity. Autobiographical threads untangle slowly across the collection, across the expanse of generations. Reviews of Wattison’s earlier work have noted the way her collections “impresses accretively” (Harrison 67), and this continues here. Similarly, the domestic, a regular theme for Wattison, remains present, peppering and anchoring the otherwise expansive tone. The essence of the mother-son relationship is rendered in exquisitely domestic terms in “As a boy my father”:
for what she’d done,
like gravy. (108)
In the ‘open letter’ included at the end of the volume (130-136), Wattison claims the “images… in [Allen Fisher’s mixed media work] ‘Sputtor’… were a catalyst for [her] fearful and joyful six year old self; her sharp experience and memory resurfaced” (131). Finally able to move through the creative impasse in which she found herself leading up to publication, Wattison wove a childhood perspective throughout the collection. For this reader, it is these ‘childhood’ poems which provide the energetic shifts that drive the reading experience of terra bravura. Poems such as the poignant “I comment on the ginger flowering freesias” (109), offer a vulnerability that yolks the whole collection together. While the more abstract poems in terra bravura are certainly impressive, in imagery, cadence and precision of language, it is these glimpses of domesticity and autobiographical intimacy which provide the more satisfying access points, and give the collection its forward momentum.
Overall, accessing these poems can be thorny work. No less, however, than the journey undertaken by their author. Reading terra bravura, we wear some of the subject’s wounds “under the cutting cutter moon” (28) and thus become participants in the ritual of Kaddish performed by the collection. These (nameless) poems bristle with the oppressive emotions of family lore, and so they find their way into you, across flesh, resistance. Sometimes it may sting a little; all the better to remember them.
Collins, Billy. “My Grandfather’s Tackle Box: The Limits of Memory-Driven Poetry”. Poetry, Vol. 178, No. 5 (Aug., 2001): 278-287
Fischer, Allen. “6 pages from SPUTTOR”. Yellowfield #7: 41-46
Harrison, Jennifer. “Poetry Survey”. Island #118, 2009: 62-73
Wattison, Meredith. Basket of Sunlight. Puncher & Wattmann, Sydney, 2007.
WILLOW DRUMMOND is a PhD candidate in creative writing at Macquarie University. Recently migrated from the wilds of the NSW Blue Mountains to the shores of Sydney’s Parramatta River, she has weathered previous lives as an actor, singer-songwriter and arts administrator. In 2014 Willo completed a Master of Research thesis examining the ethics of the lyric mode in Australian ecopoetics; “Cooing to Robert Adamson” formed part of this work. Willo’s writing is published, or forthcoming, in Cordite, Meniscus, The Quarry, Australian Poetry Anthology and Bukker Tillibul. Further details at www.willodrummond.com.
by Ivy Alvarez
dancing girl press
Reviewed by ROSE HUNTER
Each poem in Ivy Alvarez’ chapbook Hollywood Starlet features a female star from years past, for example such screen icons as Rita Hayworth, Jean Harlow, Jayne Mansfield, and Greta Garbo. Recognising these famous names is one of the obvious pleasures of the book, and it led me to wonder firstly about the title, since all these women graduated well beyond the role of “starlet;” all became fully-fledged stars. Merriam Webster defines a starlet as: “a young movie actress being coached and publicised for starring roles.” Other definitions include the idea of aspiration or ambition, for example (Macmillan): “a young woman actor who wants to become a star.” All these poems are involved in the act of becoming, as well as desire (the word “want” is one that comes up often). They are a mixture of biographical details of the star(let), along with what might be the autobiography of the poet, or made-up material.
The first poem, “What Vivien Leigh Dropped,” features Leigh and “Larry” (Laurence Olivier) on a boating picnic. Thinking about the first line, “Larry’s Hamlet; I mouth Ophelia” – I thought I remembered that Leigh and Olivier starred in a film version of Hamlet, but when I googled to double check I found out they didn’t: the 1948 film featured Olivier as Hamlet and Jean Simmons as Ophelia. A further google search turned up this snippet (I’ll include the whole quote since the tone is sort of offhand amusing-devastating, a tone that is also found in Alvarez’ book): “Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh, had assumed she would play Ophelia, but Olivier told her she was too old at thirty-three. She pointed out that he was virtually forty himself, but he hired the eighteen-year-old Jean Simmons for the part. She required intensive coaching from Olivier himself. Vivien Leigh took it for granted they must be having an affair.”
Knowing this, the opening line has more meaning; it makes me think of Leigh mouthing the lines, but not actually getting to play the role, although apparently she did play Ophelia to Olivier’s Hamlet in a famous stage production. The meanings of the lines will be multiplied in this way, for readers with more knowledge of Hollywood film history.
The poem continues, locating us in a seemingly idyllic scene. There’s a hamper, fruit, and wine. Everything is drifting along in a slumbering rhythm in the first stanza, wonderfully assisted by the sounds of the poem, complete with a lazy ditty, “Fiddle-dee-dee” – until everything changes in the second stanza, particularly with these lines:
I take an apple and consider it. —Ow! My tooth!
Something small falls in. Not to be outdone,
Larry yells about a splinter in his palm.
The pain’s woken us both.
What a pair we are. Look how far
the shore. And now we must row.
The sounds are lovely here. All those “o’s,” strung together in a pattern of consonance, rhyme and slant rhyme. A big “oh/ow” hangs over this poem; a sort of pastoral scene in a boat that takes a sudden turn toward something darker. Again at this point we could bring in any knowledge we might have about the life of Vivien Leigh, for example the fact that the star suffered from bipolar disorder as well as tuberculosis, the latter illness claiming her life at the age of 53.
The verbs attached to the titles and the “What?” forms all the titles take also provide readers with narrative interest, prodding us to ask the question, in the case of this poem: What did Vivien Leigh drop? – a question that the poem suggests answers to on various levels. On the first level, maybe she drops the apple because of the sudden pain in her tooth, or maybe her tooth, or a part of it drops out (less likely but possible I think), and/or, of course, something larger than this has occurred, something that has taken them far away from the (literal and non-literal) shore. Throughout the book the endings of the poems open up like this, creating rich and suggestive ripples.
The poems are immediate and vivid, told in the present tense, and begin in medias res. The tone is frank and conversational, inclusive, and at times conspiratorial:
On bended knees, we search
for the too-large ring I dropped.
Well — I search. Spencer’s stalked off,
nursing his grudge, perhaps to salve it with alcohol
(“What Katharine Hepburn Lost.”)
These are entertaining as well as finely-crafted poems with lovely sounds and a frequently wry or dark sense of humour. As in the Vivien Leigh poem, there’s a lot of internal rhyme, slant rhyme, and a fair smattering of end rhyme. A couple of times I thought the end rhyme risked being too much [for example, “I spot a chapel in the shade / covered in lichen’s dull brocade” (“What Ingrid Bergman Wanted”)], but this sort of large effect is dropped in sparingly, and there is a sensitive rhythm created with respect to the distribution of different types of rhyme. I’m just going to list some of my favourite lines here that illustrate some of these things, for the pleasure of it: “Forget the girls who wait. Before I turn to stone, / I drop it in the foam. Borne along — it’s gone.” (“What Rita Hayworth Threw Away”); “Crack it open. Inside, the embryo / duckling feathered in soupy broth, / unseeing eye a full stop. / Have you ever had a broken heart?” (“What Frances Farmer Ate”); “I bare my legs to mosquitoes. It’s not their fault / they need to eat. Let them feed. / I am full-blooded. And there is more of me to give.” (“What Betty Grable Gave,” with a wonderfully irreverent reference to those famous legs.) I can hear Sylvia Plath in the sounds of these lines; it’s not a surprise to read that Alvarez lists her as an influence.
The scenes come across as so many “exposures,” in the dual sense of a take, a scene, or a vignette plucked out of a larger whole, as well as in the sense of revealing something – about the star(let), and the poet. The chapbook ends with the only person/persona who stayed a starlet in name rather than a star: Norma Jean, the early identity who became one of the most iconic stars of all time, Marilyn Monroe. In a way all these women are split like this, several times over: what they became (stars, myths), what they were before they became this (starlets), as well as what they might have been between and around that, and how all these identities might intersect or combine with the identity of the poet Ivy Alvarez/“Ivy Alvarez.”
And, of course, everyone could have been and is something else altogether. Here is the alternate trajectory the last poem offers, for the woman who became “Marilyn Monroe:”
A neighbourhood dog pants after me, all teeth,
eyes me adoringly — even as I wrinkle, stooped,
grow frail, loose — halt and stutter.
Becoming more anonymous with every step.
 Alvarez affirms that the material is autobiographical: “The personal-seeming narratives … constitute elements borrowed from my own life, though these are imbricated with what I have gathered, whether fact or rumour, about these women.” http://peril.com.au/back-editions/what-olivia-de-havilland-wished-for/
ROSE HUNTER is the author of the poetry books You As Poetry (Texture Press, Oklahoma), [four paths] (Texture), to the river (Artistically Declined Press, Oregon), and the chapbook descansos (dancing girl press). She is from Brisbane, spent many years in Canada, and is now in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. More information about her is available at Whoever Brought Me Here Will Have To Take Me Home.
by Linda Weste
Australian Scholarly Publishing
Reviewed by ASHLEY HAYWOOD
Nothing Sacred, a novel in free verse, spans an historical denouement: the decades precipitating the climatic assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, and the eventual fall of the late Roman Republic. After Caesar’s death, a second triumvirate was formed which would be the last oligarchy before the Roman Empire was established under Octavian Augustus. After history lessons and Shakespeare and HBO, it can be difficult to image that the major dramatis personae of this time were actually living and breathing this end of an era. What would it have been like? Is it possible to imagine Caesar, Mark Antony, Cicero and Catullus, to name a few familiar names—and all of whom are ‘players’ in Nothing Sacred—free of set design and stage effects, character direction and costume, as like you or me dealing or not dealing with the signs of political and social unrest?
Linda Weste introduces lesser-known historical figures alongside major figures of the late Republic in Nothing Sacred, her first novel. This narrative manoeuvre helps to disrupt theatrical expectations of this historical period. Weste’s climax is not the assassination of Caesar. She sidesteps stage doors and curtain calls, and takes the reader into the ‘dung-smeared’ streets of Rome. We know the streets before we’re seated in scenes with the Senate, listening to Cicero’s orations; before we’re among spectators at the Circus Maximus, where we witness the slaughter of exotic animals for entertainment, including a family of elephants, ‘tucking the calves / between their legs’, a ‘Collective armour: / This behaviour, from beasts?’ (‘Gargantuan’). When the blood-lust crowd doesn’t cheer this time, but hurls abuse at Pompey their General, we have some understanding of their empathy. After all, we’ve seen Crassus at work, for example, refusing to douse yet another fire ‘raging through the insulae, / the rootless apartment blocks’ unless he stands to make a profit. (Caesar, Pompey and Crassus formed the First Triumvirate alliance.)
Weste shows us the streets of her Rome through siblings Clodia Metelli (assumed here to be the Lesbia of Catullus’ poems) and Clodius Pulcher of the politically elite family Claudii Pulchri. On the way to their mother’s funeral, we meet them: ‘Father’s hired mourners to wail: won’t allow / his children to beat themselves with grief // But when the stranger drops to her knees, / and ululates in hoots and howls …’ (‘Awakening’), it is as if the siblings memories were distributed along with the coins; ‘When she tugs her hair / and complicated webs tangle her hands; / When she pounds her forehead on the stones …’ (‘Awakening’), a sense of diffusion and entanglement is felt, which extends throughout the narrative, interconnecting multiple narrators, the city and its inhabitants. Clodia narrates the suite of Prelude poems, establishing this sense of connectedness with city motifs: ‘labyrinthine streets’, ‘sprawling crossroad[s]’, ‘huddles of shapes’, and of dead things, ‘Sooner or later, hooves or wheels compel it all / into the drains’, and even her mother’s tomb is ‘Where everything and nothing / is.’
Clodia and Clodius are nodal to Weste’s telling, but they are two among several homodiegetic narrators, and two among, at least, nineteen named characters (the reader will be grateful for Weste’s Dramatis Personae). As the reader becomes familiar with Weste’s language patterns—similar but different for each narrator like Rome’s streets—they begin to read like the intercommunicating parts of a singular organism. With this in mind, Nothing Sacred is receptive to the collective distress of a city, or receptive to fissures, anticipating the ‘psychological gulf that opens at the end of an era’. Ted Hughes wrote this thinking of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (published in 8 AD during the time of Augustus, and around the same time Christ was born) in an introduction to his Tales from Ovid (1997). These fissures are corpulent in Nothing Sacred. They form and fan out from the body-politic head of Rome, Palatine hill where Rome’s elite reside. At times, these fissures as subtle as hangnail, as in ‘Hard to Swallow’:
On the near side of his thumb, what’s that? A flap of skin
flags his unhinging; the epitome of everything
he must gnaw at in frustration.
Other times, these fissures infiltrate the munera, spectacles at the Circus Maximus. As mentioned above, the death of twenty-some elephants shock the crowd into empathy (‘Gargantuan’). And the hippopotamus, through Clodia, mimics the crowd:
The beast’s deep-throated reverb-
eration, a slow, course chuckle,
heh heh heh he-gh
like traders sharing dirty jokes in the marketplace
heh heh heh he-gh
If being at the Circus Maxima is ‘all about nisi videre et videri / seeing, and being seen’, what are we are really seeing when: A thin grey eel curls upward out of its mouth / and suddenly I can’t hear for squeals! (‘The Beast Within’).
Weste moves in the spaciousness of the page-as-canvas, often freeing her verse (and her characters) from the tyranny of the left margin in waves of stepped lineation and spacing toward the right margin, and back again to the left or centre fold. These movements across the page give a kind of topography to characters’ ruminations and gestures. Take ‘The Circus Maximus’, for example:
Cicero stiffer than a plank:
… are not
it’s near-ness or avoid-ance.
We are fascin-a-ted
There’s a grisly
as Cicero cricks his neck
That’ll be … my turn … over.
‘Auronius told me the other day
Twenty-nine gladiators from German-ia
to avoid the ring …’
(‘The Circus Maximus’)
The rhythm of Weste’s verse relies on styles of poetic repetition, especially: alliteration, anaphora (word repetition), assonance (vowel repetition), and homoioteleuton (repetition of the endings of words)—styles associated with Catullus’ poetry, as well as the contemporary poetry of late Republic. Styles of poetic repetition, or figures of speech, serve to heighten emotional intensity before serving rhyme. With free verse, if rhyme predominates, poetic urgency can risk loosing its grip. Sometimes this is felt in Weste’s verse. But it can also be a tool, for example, when Clodius’ ‘grip’ is challenged: ‘The heated floor, the wisps of steam / That musky mildew smell; / But no conspirators as far as I can tell’ (‘Right Hand Man’).
Often Weste allows her poems to slip in their meanings when end lines are left without full-stops, or with ellipses, or with a verb in its present participle form; such as, when ‘The beast surges through // Sideswiping red mud’, the crocodile gets to keep the human leg she’s won (‘Crocodilius’). Or when we hear Clodius’ last wishes for his enemy Milo: ‘To bob along like bloated meat // a nobody nudging the bank (‘Malediction’). The next poem ‘Obsession’ opens: ‘By the time we reach the shrine’.
Nothing Sacred is a network of character narratives, which can challenge readers’ orientation, though Weste deploys a number of literary techniques to help the reader distinguish who is speaking, who is listening; most often, characters are named in dialogue. We also come to recognise characters’ speech patters, such as Cicero’s drawl, and Catullus’ Capote-like nips and desires, especially in the ‘Working the Room’ poems (I’m not the first reviewer to see Truman Capote in Weste’s Catullus). If I felt disorientated, it also felt like a necessary confusion, and this was what led to my thinking about characters’ narratives as parts of an intercommunicating body, a writhing city and its inhabitants, sensing its fissures.
The tone of Nothing Sacred is like an extended denouement, a prolonged pre-climax, made more playful with, but not necessarily sustained by, Weste’s interest in sexual metaphor, or Latin ‘vulgarisms’, most of which are listed in an interesting and useful Notes section. Character tones range from playful to conspiratorial, deliberation to preparation, vigilant to radical. But the overall tone, or sensation, of coming-to seems to be sustained by Clodia, who is all of these actions, feeding the narrative’s (or body’s) momentum more than any other character; in a way, the narrative is Clodia’s body, whose voice opens and closes Nothing Sacred.
Weste’s verse novel adds to the still increasing number of published verse novels by Australian poets. Recent others include, The Petrov Poems (2013) by Lesley Lebkowicz and Jake (2008) by Judy Johnson on the Torres Strait pearl shell industry in the 1930s. The verse novel resurgence in Australia was largely led by the success (far-reaching readership) of Dorothy Porter’s verse novel The Monkey’s Mask (1994). The contemporary verse novel is an attractive entry into poetry for new readers—for its readability—which Nothing Sacred delivers, and more for the reader of poetry. Overseas, verse novels make best-seller lists; for example, Omeros (1990) by Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, and, more recently, the experimental verse novels The Autobiography of Red (1998) and Red Doc> (2013) by Canadian poet Anne Carson. Nothing Sacred is for an international audience (as much as an Australian one) for its historical material and contemporary verse. Somewhat comparable to Weste’s historical material is Peter Rose’s The Catullan Rag (1993), so far as both poets similarly understand Catullus from his poems (and extensive literary research on the poet). The potential of the verse novel reaches as far back as its ancient origins (Gilgamesh, Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, epics during Augustus’ Rome by Virgil and Ovid) and as far forward as contemporary verse. Weste makes use of both arms’ length, manipulating historical material in its time and place to be re-seen, effectively giving us a new experience of the late Roman Republic.
Pip’s first book was Knockabout Girl: A Memoir (HCA) and her creative nonfiction writing has been published in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings and the Fish Anthology. She is currently writing about local swimming pools, and has a Doctor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) from Wollongong University in which she wrote about place, race and community and wrote a memoir of her hometown, Taree in NSW.
Australia Twice Traversed
It’s big. No photo will do it justice, I realise. The way it sits on the horizon as we drive towards it, the way it hurts to crane my neck back to the point when I can see both sky and rock as I stand right next to it. All those postcards you’ve seen of it, they need a scale on them to indicate just how small we are in relation to the rock and its history.
History can’t be ignored out at Uluru. Neither can time. The Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre sits on the southern side of the rock and tells the story of Uluru and Kata Tjuta and of the people at Mutitjulu who are the primary custodians of these places. The centre itself is two mud brick snake-like buildings built to represent two Anangu ancestral beings, the Kuniya, the woma python, a woman, and the Liru, the poisonous snake man, who fought at the rock. The centre tells stories of the animals and plants, the environment and the languages of the area. There is no mention of ‘Ayers Rock’, ‘The Olgas’ or those white men who first climbed the women’s place. The piranpa history is just a blink of the eye when set against the continuity of Anangu culture.
‘Culture,’ says Jimmy our tour guide, ‘is everything to the Anangu. Tjukurpa,’ he explains, ‘is the word they use for law and language, and Country.’ I realise that Tjukurpa is also past, present, future and now. It is the story and the rules, the relationship to and ceremony conducted in the place.
Place seems so significant and obvious to me here; it isn’t hidden by buildings or houses or roads. The tussocky grass and the red sand seem resilient even by the standards of Uluru itself, a rusting monumental dome of sandstone that burns red due to the oxidation of the iron and content in the rock. But there is terrible fragility here. Areas are cordoned off. Tracks are laid and signs posted: ‘Please keep to the path as the area is fragile’. A footprint can last a year in the dry cracked earth.
Earth has many massive rock structures similar to Uluru and there is dispute about the definition and measurement standards of ‘monoliths’ but the rock tops most of the tourist lists of ‘Monoliths to see in the world’. It sits in an ancient landscape, a plain that used to be a sea bed and reaches 348 metres up from the ground. The rock is larger underneath the ground than it is above, with almost 2.5 kilometres of its mass buried below. It is taller than the Eiffel Tower and was formed some 600 million years ago. Anangu believe that their ancestors created it as they travelled across the earth, leaving marks in the landscape and providing them with law and knowledge to live by. It is sacred to the Anangu and deserves to be seen in this way by piranpa.
Piranpa, and I am pleased to have a name for myself other than ‘tourist’, have been misunderstanding and not-seeing the rock since 1873 when the European explorer William Grosse first sighted Uluru. He called it ‘Ayers Rock’ after Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia at the time. The Anangu, who have lived in the area for 10,000 years, call it Uluru and now the rock’s official name is ‘Uluru/Ayers Rock’.
‘Ayers Rock’ is a name I thought we had moved away from but I find it consistently. I ask the head of marketing at Voyages Ayers Rock Resort why all of their marketing material still refers to ‘Ayers Rock’ and not ‘Uluru’. She tells me that I have misunderstood, that everything they do calls the rock ‘Uluru’, the park ‘Uluru-Kata Tjuta’ and the resort itself ‘Yulara’. “But even your company name contains the words ‘Ayers Rock’, the website that everyone has to book through is ayersrockresort.com.au, the airport, the tour company – everything refers to ‘Ayers Rock’. Why – after 30 years?’ There is silence on the end of the phone so I push further and ask, ‘Is there a plan to change it to Uluru? Or perhaps even ‘Yulara’?’ She refers me to her boss and to the public relations person of the Indigenous Land Corporation, the company that, in conjunction with the Anangu community group, Wana Ungkinytja, bought Yulara and the resort and the marketing and tour operating arm in 2010 for $300 million. The ILC acquired the entire Resort, including all hotels and accommodation, associated infrastructure, the airport and workers village, in an arrangement with Wana Ungkunytja. There is now interest in an enquiry into the deal, as it is thought they paid too much. When I ask Jimmy whether the Anangu are angered by the persistent use of the words ‘Ayers Rock’ he says, ‘Not much annoys Anangu but they don’t really understand why we can’t call it Uluru. They wait for us, though. They are good at waiting.’ I wonder why people think that tourists wouldn’t come to a place called ‘Uluru’ and how many dollars those two words ‘Ayers Rock’ are believed to attract.
Attractions and distractions abound at Uluru. Tourism here began to increase dramatically in the 1950s. By the 1970s Anangu and others were worried about the environmental damage and so began the process of forming what we now know as the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Almost half a million tourists pass through the park per year. There are camel tours, motorbike tours, hot air balloon tours, helicopter tours, walking tours, camping tours, photography tours, food tours, kids tours and rock art tours. Traffic jams at sunrise are common as the resort evacuates for the rock, cars, station wagons, 4WD, buses, and campervans snake their way across the desert in the soft gossamer-like pre-dawn light to capture that one perfect photo of the rock as sunlight strikes the sandstone.
Sandstone, oxidising sandstone in particular, contains beautiful swirls of rich colour. In amongst these there are old ochre paintings. ‘See here?’ says Jimmy, ‘We can see the outlines of hands and of Anangu, shapes of people, blown onto the rock.’ We are lined up at the chain link fence looking at the rock art and one of our group leans in closer to examine something.
‘Is that recent?’ asks a man in a rabbit skin hat. I turn to where he is pointing and think that the white sprays of chalk on the rock, not far from the wooden deck we’re standing on, might be graffiti. Jimmy, our guide, is flummoxed and dismayed as he steps through the small crowd. He leans over the barrier to see better.
‘It’s ashes,’ he says. ‘Someone has thrown their loved one’s ashes here.’ We all take a breath in and edge away from the luminous dust. ‘This is such a problem,’ Jimmy says.
‘What’ll happen?’ asks a dumpy woman in a faded sloppy joe.
‘We will sweep it up,’ Jimmy says, ‘and the Anangu will decide what to do with it. The ashes can’t stay. Uluru has never been a burial place. It is fertility. Anangu aren’t even buried here.’ He pauses and looks at the ashes strewn on the ground. ‘The Anangu feel that they owe these ashes respect – despite the lack of respect and understanding offered by the spreading of them. It’s a complex discussion,’ he adds. The chain of dismay and consternation that this act initiates makes me appreciate the interrelationship of Anangu to this place in a more expansive and richer way.
Ways of seeing are altered by story, I realise too. Kata Tjuta is a collection of majestic rounded rocks that sits to the west of Uluru and is known as the men’s university, the place of ‘many heads’, the place boys go to become men. The piranpa refer to the highest peak of the rocks as ‘Mt Olga’, first sighted and mis-named in 1872 by Ernest Giles. Giles called the peak after the German Queen, Olga of Württemberg. Somewhere, I had picked up the notion that Uluru was a male place and that Kata Tjuta was a female place. But Uluru is a female place. The heart of Australia is female – perhaps that is why people still feel they are entitled to climb on her, in this nation where women have always been second-class citizens. This hangover of gender assignment, the wrong-seeing of piranpa, has marked our language and our thinking for generations.
Generations of piranpa have continued to come to Uluru. The Outback Pioneer Bar is friendlier than walking into the 5-star Sails in the Desert Resort or the 4.5-star Desert Gardens Hotel for a drink. I head to the toilet while my boyfriend buys the beers. When I get back to our table he is talking to an elderly piranpa man. He has been to the rock – ‘Ayers Rock, it’s always Ayers Rock to me -– I can never remember the other word for it’ -– many times and first came here in 1960s. It seems appropriate, and also not, that he tell us his outlandish stories (of flying a small plane through the domes of Kata Tjuta –‘I’m not going to call it that’ – of how people would camp anywhere, of the drinking and the drinking and the drinking, and that the hotels were put up at the base of the rock without licenses or money changing hands for the land they were built on), in this bar that celebrates a very male version of the ‘outback’ myth.
‘Myth’ is often used to explain Anangu relationship to their Country but I don’t think it is the same at all. The events and cultures that the classical myths are drawn from happened a long time ago, thousands of years ago. Anangu stories are drawn from creation stories, ways of explaining the world as they find it to themselves and others, but there is something very present, very immediate to their inma.
Inma is still performed at Uluru and Kata Tjuta and other places around the area. Jimmy tells us that at different times sections of the rock are closed off for tourists so ceremony can happen. I think of these ceremonies, rituals of story, song and dance, as expressions of religious belief, of celebration and recognition of ongoing connection to the land and of the Anangu’s acknowledgement of their ancestral spirits. Inma is looking after the land and the people, practically and spiritually.
‘Spiritually’: I wonder about that word. It isn’t that I am unmoved by our holiday to Uluru and the way the expanse of plain, the blue of the sky, the horizon stretching out and on into the distance, all lift my spirits. But I am cautious to say I understand what this word means for anyone other than me and especially not for Anangu people. I eschew formal religion of any sort, trust in science and have faith, absurdly I know, in humanity. This framework though does mean my white middle classness is never really challenged for I live in a bubble of like-minded people, a bubble I have chosen. This is the bind I always find myself in. As a piranpa, a non-Aboriginal, white middle class woman, I can always choose not to think about anyone or anything outside of my circle. I can choose to leave, choose to think only about what is next. There is no pressure on me to reflect or to still the voice inside my head or to cede power by listening.
Listening is a powerful aspect of most Aboriginal cultures, I discover. Story is taught through repetition and mimicry, the students need to listen closely to nuanced lifts and pauses in the teacher’s telling of each story. Language is life for the Anangu, Jimmy tells us. Language contains everything. Language is land. Language is Tjukurpa. Here the languages Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Nangantjatjara are spoken. Also Chinese and Japanese and French, and accented English emanating from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. And Australian English: ‘Get down here now, Damian, you little shit! We’re doing that later,’ was one fatherly display of Australian English as he yelled at his son who was already metres above the ground on the Uluru climbing track.
Tracks run around the base of the rock and spread out radiating between the few trees and hillocks in the plain. Feathery paw prints, tiny pad prints, and stencil art in the sand made by the skink that lives out here fan out across the ground. Many of the tracks emanate from Kapi Mutitjulu a waterhole on the south of the rock and the source of water for the Mutitjulu community based at the rock. The waterhole is reliant on runoff from Uluru and there is no water at Mutitjulu itself other than groundwater that also depends on the water from Uluru. ‘Kapi’ is the Pitjanjatjara word for water and is crucial at Uluru. When it rains, water cascades down its sides from the flat top. There are almost nine kilometres of grooved worn rock that act as a catchment area. Kapi Mutitjulu is believed to have an eternal water supply. Anangu women hadn’t known a season without water until the summer just one before last. In that season the flow into Kapi Mutitjulu stopped, the narrow watercourse that bursts through two folding curves of the rock faded from a glinting wet line to a black, rough, dry scar. Jimmy tells us that the water around the rock is tainted now. With tourists still climbing to the top of Uluru, and no toilets or rubbish bins up there, all manner of waste is left on the rock. I don’t tell Jimmy that I have seen photos on the Internet of the deep pools, taken by people who have climbed the rock and then gone swimming in them. The cool, clear water looks inviting but they are swimming in the Anangu’s drinking water. Even if they don’t swim much of the rubbish climbers leave up there makes its way into the pools of water that have been carved into the surface over millions of years. ‘Camera batteries, nappies, human waste, toilet paper, food scraps, plastic wrap. All of it gets left,’ he says. ‘And what that means is that this water is undrinkable, but also, I have to climb up the rock, against Anangu wishes, and clean up after them.’ Consternation and complexity abound here.
Here I wake up in the middle of the night hearing dingoes call as they pace around the edges of the campground. I read the signs warning of their cleverness and their watchfulness and their opportunistic attitude toward food. I don’t expect to see one but as we slow, she turns her head towards our car and sniffs. She trots leisurely across the bitumen a few metres in front of the car. She is thin and pale, her fur a sand-blasted bleached colour, and she is smaller than I thought a wild dingo would be. Canus lupus. Indigenous to this country. It is mid-afternoon and we are driving back from Kata Tjuta. It seems incongruous, a dingo in full sunlight. She looks tired, thirsty and focused. When I ran into Jimmy the ranger at the Kata Tjuta toilet block earlier, I asked him about Azaria Chamberlain. It was the thirtieth anniversary of her death and the news had reported that her father was coming to pay his respects at the place she was taken. Jimmy suggested that in 1984 Azaria’s death was the final straw for the Anangu in their fight to remove tourists from the national park at night. The Anangu wanted to be left alone to look after their Country, at least at night, and they thought the dingoes did too. Our dingo disappears into the scrubby grassland, melting into her landscape.
‘Landscape’ always puts me inside the place I am thinking about. The word ‘view’ places me on a high platform above it. I can imagine the thrill of climbing so high above the ground but I can’t understand why people still do it when it is spelt out so clearly why Anangu don’t want us to climb the rock. They don’t climb the rock except for ceremony and even then, only particular Anangu elders are allowed.
‘Wanyu Ulurunya tatintja wiyangku wantima – please don’t climb Uluru. That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing… You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But anyway that’s what we have to say. We are obliged by Tjukurpa to say. And all the tourists will brighten up and say, ‘Oh I see. This is the right way. This is the thing that’s right. This is the proper way: no climbing.’’
Kunmanara, traditional owner
Anangu want us to discover a deeper understanding of this place, to try to see it the way they do. It’s all about respect.
Respect versus disrespect. It seems quite simple, I think. Manners. It is simply good manners to acknowledge the Anangu wishes for their land. Except, of course, many of the people who come believe that they own Uluru and have rights as significant as Anangu rights. This is the fundamental disconnect of Australia that is made obvious here. Disrespect at Uluru, though, is not a new occurrence. As that pirinipa in the pub told us, ‘Back in the 60s, I piloted for an American man who wanted to make a film about Ayers Rock. We were flying 50 metres above the top of the rock. Terrific footage. And we filmed down around the base too. He sprayed a can of beer on the rock art to bring the colours out before we filmed.’ Jimmy mentioned a fertility cave on our tour of the base but we didn’t see it. It’s off limits to any pirinpa and to Anangu men. It is a fertility cave still used for inma and, as the old white Australian man talks, I realise that the cave with the rock art he is describing, the one where the American sprayed beer on the rock art, is this same fertility cave. He describes the rock art in great detail, images that excited him, confronted him, and that he has remembered all these years later. Drawings he, a man, should never have seen.
Seen on the road leading to the rock are buses, many buses full of Chinese and Japanese and retired piranpa who no longer drive themselves. There are also the smaller buses, the ones with the camping tours favoured by young people, from Alice Springs over three hundred kilometres away. The tourists stream out of their vehicles towards the rock in an ecstatic state, as though seeing the rock, touching it, is a religious experience. And then they climb, ticking off the experience as they would a fairground ride, being tourists.
Tourists often take a rock or some sand with them when they leave the park. This is also against Anangu wishes and Tjukurpa. Later, many of these tourists worry about their stolen rocks and send them back with notes apologising, hoping Anangu can forgive them. The Anangu refer to these rocks as ‘Sorry Rocks’. But because the rocks have been taken out of the area, the rocks can’t be put back into the national park, another dilemma for Anangu and Parks Australia.
‘Australia’ is a name derived from the Latin word for south, ‘Australis’. Matthew Flinders coined the expression ‘Terra Australis’ on his maps of his circumnavigation of the continent and Governor Macquarie shortened the phrase to ‘Australia’ in all his official paperwork. By the late 1820s the ‘name’ was commonplace for the continent. ‘Australian’ was originally a term that referred to the Indigenous people of this place, not the settlers. The switch in nomenclature occurred by the end of the eighteenth century and came about because a word had to be found for those Europeans who could not return ‘home’. Now the word denotes anyone who is a citizen of Australia.
Australians like shortening and inventing nicknames, don’t we. We are quite adept at this, I think. It makes me wonder why we are so resistant to adopting new (to us) names for places. The practice of including both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal names for places in Australia has been gathering pace since the late 1990s. This dual naming symbolically and locally acknowledges the history of colonisation and dissolution of Aboriginal culture that has occurred in this place. The Anangu name ‘Uluru’ was re-introduced in December 1993 and was initially written as ‘Ayers Rock/Uluru’. The word order was reversed to ‘Uluru/Ayers Rock’ in November 2002. On government road signs throughout the Northern Territory, the Aboriginal word appears first. In Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park only Anangu words appear on road signs. Everywhere outside of the national park, the airport, ‘Ayers Rock Airport’, the website, the guide books, the tea towels, the post cards – the priority is still ‘Ayers Rock’.
‘Ayers Rock’ was handed back to the Anangu on 26th October 1985, just over thirty years ago. Within minutes of receiving their land back, the Anangu signed a 99-year lease for Parks Australia to co-manage the park. Co-management has meant employment and opportunity for Anangu and respect for their cultural knowledge. It has also allowed whitefella law to enforce many of their wishes. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke is still seen as a betrayer of the Anangu as he promised that the climb of the rock would be closed upon the handback. It wasn’t. It seems ludicrous to me, especially from thirty years on, that the Northern Territory Government opposed the handback because they believed that piranpa wouldn’t come to the rock if it was managed by Aboriginal people:
‘Now we are living together, white people and black people. We are working together, white and black, equal. Everything at Uluru still runs according to our Law. All the rangers wear badges carrying the image of Uluru. That is as it should be.’
Being at Uluru makes me think about my relationship to Aboriginal Australia more broadly too. Even that expression, ‘Aboriginal Australia’ is underpinned with power and implies an otherness. Aboriginal cultures name every little thing in relationship to something else. I am in relationship to you. The rock is in relationship to the water, the birds, the sand hills, to people. The fly is in relationship to the dingo, to the horizon, to the young bloodwood trees. But this naming isn’t like English. An Aboriginal word means different things in different contexts. The singularity with which I approach names, ‘this is this thing and it is always this thing’ is rendered meaningless and naïve.
Naïvely, as many white middle class people do, I have always thought there would be no consequence for my tourism, my travels. I just always thought they were mine. I have been to New York, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Kabul, Dubai too many times, London not enough times, Brighton, Paris, Creteil, Bordeaux, Amsterdam, Berlin, Bonn, Florence, Genoa and Genova, Bali and Brisbane, Melbourne and Milton. An Aboriginal Elder once told me that I had an obligation, a responsibility to and for every place I had travelled. This took me aback. Responsibility? What kind? How? Will it take up too much of my time, I wondered. At Uluru, Jimmy tells us some stories to show us how the Anangu think about their lives, stories of spirits and dogs and birds. He also asks us not to take photos at a specific place because the site is sacred and only for female Anangu. If a man saw the place, even in a photo, they would get sick and perhaps die. Later, I see an older woman taking a photo of the site. She is standing beside the sign that states, ‘This is a sensitive Site: No Photos’. I point this out to her and she blushes and moves along the track. My boyfriend can’t believe I bothered. ‘But I have to say something now I know,’ I say to him.
‘But if she takes a photo and shows it to a man she knows and he dies, what does it matter? It might be what is deserved, needed,’ he says. It bothers me that I almost agree with him. When I run into Jimmy at Kata Tjuta I ask him about this. ‘Do I now have a responsibility or is that just my goody-two shoes whitefella ego talking – pointing out that “I’m not as racist as you, old lady”?’ He laughs and says, ‘Well, either outcome might be a fair call but I think that once we know some story we have obligation to people and Country. Why come here if you aren’t going to feel obligated to respect Anangu and Tjukurpa?’
Tjukurpa sneaks up on me, this word that has to be said with energy so as to capture the ‘ch’ of the ‘Tj’ at its beginning. It is said with frequency by the park staff, it is on much of the written material handed out at the cultural centre. It is an offering, this word, from the Anangu to assist us in understanding the deep connection they have to their Country and the place. It is offered in good faith and requires reciprocity, I realise. Reciprocity is the basis of all Aboriginal cultures. It is the manifestation of interconnectedness, of mutual benefit, of respect, and can be seen in social practices, in story and in the interrelationship between the past, present and future. I wonder though, how I can reciprocate. What can I offer? What could I possibly give that would be useful, might show my respect and thanks for being allowed onto their Country.
Country, for Anangu is alive and it is story, and language and dance and the air that we breathe here. Is their relationship to the world so different that we will never be able to appreciate theirs and always be limited by ours?
Our tour comes to an end and I ask Jimmy if he knows any of the men’s stories. He turns to look at Kata Tjuta sitting across the plain in the early morning sun and says, ‘Not really. It is old business over there and not so many of the Elders are keen to pass it to someone like me who isn’t Anangu. But I’ve been invited to go with them next time they have ceremony to do.’ I wonder, again, why we know so much about the female business at Uluru, why the men have been able to keep their stories and the women have had to give up some of theirs. I wonder about the dynamics of gender in our world and about relationship, the interdependency of all things, one on the other.
Other stories will be told as they have been for millennia but this, I come to understand, is the one I can be responsible for. This is my offering.