by Natalie Harkin
Reviewed by PIP NEWLING
‘Consider this words
Natalie Harkin’s first collection of poetry, Dirty Words, illustrates the effects of words down the generations of white Australia’s history. Harkin is a Narungga writer from South Australia and this suite of poems, what Harkin calls ‘an A to Z index of poetry’, begins with ‘Apology’ and continues through ‘Genocide’, ‘Political Correctness’, ‘Xenophobia’ finally completing the cycle with ‘Zero Tolerance’. Describing the work as a short survey through Australia’s recent political and racial history though, while doing justice to the overarching structure of the collection, undermines the real power of Harkin’s work.
Writing into the space between popular assumptions and lived experience Harkin is interested in examining the real and the remembered against the commonly held conclusion. Overlaid with statements by politicians, comments on contemporary Australian society, and texts from the white documentation of this country, Harkin makes obvious the effect of words on lives and histories, both past and future.
Harkin describes how an Aunty would undertake the ‘much work to be done’ as her ‘sing-chant-rage’ and Peter Minter, in his introduction, picks up on this phrase, expanding the triptych to encompass the whole work. Dirty Words is a ‘sing-chant-rage’ but it is also a lament and a call to action.
In particular, the poems form a snapshot of the years from 1996 through to 2014, with former Prime Minister’s John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, the Intervention, land rights and sovereignty, and the Stolen Generations, all appearing within the text. Many of the poems draw on archival texts as far ranging as government legislation, politicians speeches, royal commission recommendations, academic writing, news reports, magazines and personal letters to contextualise and expose racist attitudes towards Aboriginal people in this country, attitudes that are still present in government policy for, and community expectations of, Aboriginal people generally.
For instance, ‘D’ in Harkin’s dictionary is for ‘Domestic’ and begins with a quote from academic and writer Professor Jackie Huggins,
‘The stories of Aboriginal women domestic servants cannot be told enough. They illuminate a deeply-rooted racist facet of Australia’s history. They tell of the trials tribulations and triumphs amidst the backdrop of oppression.’ (p10)
What these histories do within the text is to reveal how interconnected we all are to colonialism in its history and its present within this country. The point of view that Harkin brings to these issues is personal but also national, revealing the links of complicity, trauma and loss. To highlight the complicity of white women (for whose domesticity were these women serving?) in the processes of colonisation, discrimination and oppression Harkin quotes directly from a 1926 publication, The Australian Woman’s Mirror, and shifts the phrasing and enjambments to force the reader to slow, to grasp the extent of the horror these young women endured:
I got her direct from a camp some miles from here and until she
became used to things I had to tolerate the company of her mother and
younger sister for a fortnight [she] was then about 12 years …’ (p7)
That line ‘I got her from a camp’, and the (white) space around it, catches me every time I read this work, reminding me of the everyday power that has been exerted by individuals throughout white Australia’s history. It is also a phrase that, for me as a white woman of this land, holds the mirror clear and still. Harkin’s work is without irony and can be brutal in her demand that the reader recognise herself on the page.
This focus on Aboriginal women’s experience of colonisation is one of the themes of the work, particularly under the inclusion for ‘R’, Resistance. Here Harkin invokes her Aunties lives as rhyme and rage and sophistication and vision, listing their character, work, accomplishments and her ongoing relationship to them:
These days I think of Aunty Irene … and her look grounds me’, (p25)
These days I think of Aunty Elaine … all tough-love-grit …
all elder-knowledge-strength’ (p26)
These days I think of Aunty Charlotte …
one of the wise-ones she survived
this country’s shame and lived on to tell it Like. It. Is’ (p27)
These days I think of Aunty Veronica… big-
she fought hard proud strong …
today’s picket-lines and rallies
are too gentle without her today’s healing-circles are broken
without her’ (p28)
These days I think of Aunty Doreen … her brilliant photographic-
memory begins … almost impossible to take in … she
puts me in my place family history
stories float gently…’ (p29)
These days I think of Aunty Vi …
we always end up talking about what connects us …
quietly writing documenting speaking for justice education
peace … this yearning for
more conversation is an un-settled mourning …’ (p30)
This section closes with Harkin’s action of remembering how useful it is to remember who and what has gone before:
I think of the women
who fought and loved so hard
I raise my hand catch their last breath
I thank them
The image Harkin creates here also draws the reader to that powerful image of the African American athletes on the winners podium at the 1968 Olympic Games, fists raised with pride and so they could not be ignored. Similarly, Harkin’s embedding of these women in her text, and these passages are the foundation of the work, means that their lives, their energy, their purpose can not be ignored or dissembled or dismissed.
There is much movement throughout all the poems: oceans storm, tall ships float, words are carried, we are instructed to walk, we are told of hugs, of protests, of talk, of going bush and of love in many guises. Harkin understands the way words can lift and sweep the reader along, and how to create shock and surprise on the page. As I read, from front to back, then dipping in and out, then back to front, perspectives changed, vistas loomed and retreated, some phrases glimmered as though they were mirages in the desert:
elicit great excitement
into tomorrow (p34)
The other foundation of the work is the land itself and Dirty Words is a significant pleading for environmental restraint and recuperation. ‘Apology’ might be expected to draw on the Stolen Generations and Kevin Rudd’s 2007 apology to those Aboriginal people taken from their families because of government policy. But Harkin neatly and profoundly uses this moment to place the issue of uranium mining up front, linking the mining of uranium in Australia, Aboriginal land rights, and cultural dispossession to the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters:
Traditional Owners state
Welcome Mr Naoto Kan
[ex-Prime Minister of Japan]
we are very sad
we are very sad
the ongoing disaster
come witness the impact
of where it began
at the start
of this nuclear
This work can be opened at any page and the reader will be met with a layered, complex, re-telling of contemporary Australia. Harkin’s words carry weight and demand the reader recognise their relationship to the map of Australia that Harkin writes. Dirty Words is shimmering rage, weary heartbrokenness and careful optimism and it stands tall and unwavering, a landmark in Australian publishing.
PIP NEWLING’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.
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.