by Emily Stewart
Reviewed by ROBERT WOOD
There has been an important groundswell of recent feminist poetries and poetics in Australia. As Siobhan Hodge wrote in her review of Bonny Cassidy and Jessica Wilkinson’s anthology Contemporary Feminist Poetry, there is:
…a subtle, cresting sense of activism.
It is there too in Emily Stewart’s Knocks, through its critical, engaged and optimistic hopes that are expressed in specific poems, which together convey a notion of intersectionality conscious of gender. As Hodge herself said of the anthology:
‘There is a reassuring note of solidarity throughout the collection, but a simultaneous celebration of diversity in style, tone, theme and foci.’
One can suggest something similar in Stewart’s collection and which has been noted in different ways by Pam Brown’s launch speech in linked deletions, Amelia Dale’s commentary in Jacket2, and Melody Paloma’s review in Cordite. This dialectical relationship between acute critique and joyful celebration suggests not only that the whole of life is attended to, but also that one can oscillate, converse, play with the variety and possibility of ‘Poetry’ writ large. So what is Stewart railing against and what is she heralding? And, perhaps importantly, where is this leading us and what does it suggest?
To answer those questions is difficult, and it may be more apt to give a summary of what the collection is about in order to gesture at but never arrive at a full understanding of Stewart’s collection. Her voice is multiple, layered, various – there are erasure poems (section two); poems of multiple voices; poems in ordinary plain speech; remixed poems of heightened experiment (section three); poems of repetition (‘Today’). The references are Aussie kitsch, global pop cultural, resolutely local, Anglophonic culture industrial, fun too. This eclecticism of tone, style and reference keeps the volume entertaining, engaging, active. What that means for a reader is that one is being tested and flexed and exercised from page to page in a worthy movement from A to D to Z to B to U and back again all over and through.
There are, of course, personal favourites; poems that resonate, which each reader will find on their own. Needless to say, there are jewels in there that I like too. For example, I responded to ‘Australia’s Largest DIY’, which is a wry listing of commodities, objects, items that could be catalogued from Bunnings or Home Hardware or Mitre Ten. The poem begins:
fencestone, pavers, coloured spit rock
face blocks, colonial cornices, artificial
stone, aluminium step treads, hardwood (18)
Far from being a simple list poem, in Stewart’s hands, it becomes a rapturous sonic apprehension, not a dull rote thing but an event with music in it – ‘fencestone’ goes well with ‘face blocks’, and later on there is ‘urbanite’ with ‘expansion joints’, ‘marble veneer island bench’ with ‘brass compress’. The ordering is such that it makes it plain speech rhapsodic. And of course, one can read into it a post-conceptual politics that would take a found object, retype it and yet slantly embody it with ideological awareness – the phrasing to dwell on in the excerpt above is, of course, ‘coloured spit rock’ with ‘colonial cornices’ and so here and now, we glimpse the shadows of anachronistic Indigenous terms and the images of James Cook, which both come back to haunt the settling mode of the everyday do it yourself brigade. The last line of this poem is ‘how to fix a picket fence’ which not only circles back to the opening word (fencestone) but also allows the reader into a commentary of suburban dreams.
When read with a regard for Knocks as a whole, one notices that Stewart is an adept and able observer of contemporary life in Australia from the criticality of the mundane through to the implications of being here truly. This last sense comes through in the poem, ‘Animal Hands’, that directly follows ‘Australia’s Largest DIY’ though it is there in other, tender if welcomingly ambivalent pieces. Nevertheless it provides a direct counterpoint here, a kind of contrapuntal puncturing of the suburban critique in ‘DIY’. In ‘Animal Hands’, Stewarts writes:
I’ve been unwinding wire
along the serrated edge
of these paddocks for a
long time, pulling it tight (19)
It gives us a sense of engagement with boundaries, with borders, with aging, with process, with education, with tension, and this apparent everyday thinks through feminism, anxiety, and ecology of being with nods to history, emotion and birds. The poem ends with a libidinal and touching, though never sentimental, line:
all I want is your mouth on my neck, wordless and dumb under chilly stars
That is, the knowing poet assures us, all that ‘I’ want – the mouth, object of speech, home of tongue, at the neck, vampiric, teenage, hickies and loving, while the stars, this time chilled not burning balls of gas millions of miles away witness such complicated tenderness. It suggests what might be possible by looking at our immediate surrounds.
I responded to how her gaze falls on the ordinary, the suburban, the quotidian in these poems. This is not the domestic or the everyday or the taken-for-granted, but rather the momentary interruptions of frame against a poetic that is grand, posturing, arrogant. Those moments of defamiliarisation mean we are asked to see the normal anew and that is an important task in bringing to consciousness that which is poetic in the first place. This would seem to be a possibility that Stewart herself is constantly exploring from her writing to her social media, especially her Instagram [link to it – https://www.instagram.com/emstew__/], and which offers one line of productive inquiry that I am very much looking forward to. For this keen reader, the next collection cannot come soon enough.
- Siobhan Hodge review of Contemporary Feminist Poetry Ed Jessica Wilkinson and Bonny Cassidy Cordite
ROBERT WOOD has degrees from University of Western Australia, Australian National University and University of Pennsylvania. In 2017–2018, He will be an Endeavour Research Fellow and Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, and a Copyright Agency Emerging Critic with the Sydney Review of Books.
Claire Potter ’s most recent poetry publications have appeared in The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry (edited by John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan), Best Australian Poems 2016 (ed. Sarah Holland-Batt), Poetry Chicago (ed. Robert Adamson), and Poetry Review Ireland. She was shortlisted for a 2017 Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize UK and she has published three poetry collections, In Front of a Comma (Poets Union 2006), N’ombre (Vagabond 2007) and Swallow (Five Islands 2010). She lives in London.
The Copper Beech
I lie you down, spread your branches wide as wings across the grass
Your leaves flatten like cracked shells, letting the sea out of my ears
Breath has gone out of you
You are at the edge of becoming an object
belonging to the wind
From a distance there is no way of telling your dark fallen leaves
from copper-black feathers––or your red-tongued branches
from a split open nest
I walk amongst purple shadows, I sit within the mess
But in writing this I am not unique, nor
are these feelings. This experience cannot be said
to belong to any obstinate sense of me
There are many more who weep when birds and trees are falling, when
the mauve of dusk slowly tapers and pre-emptively disappears
When the bone-heavy moon
carves an ending and turns its back on the sea
and leaves rattle like pewter shells
returning to the beach.
Three Steps Outside the TAB
Pale steps, concrete and absolute
solid and lengthwise between two pillars and a portico
I am waiting on the blue-grey steps
divided into three parts
The first step is physical such that in this heat
my skirt bandages against my thighs
I’ve sat here all afternoon
in this passage of tobacco, jasmine and beer
and I’ve sung, resting my head on my knees
looping prayer with radio
waiting for Grandpa to swing open the doors
scoop my hand into his
and ruminate about the horses
he’s decided not to back
Shiny cars shuffle
across a weft of bitumen and white lines
the rubber tyres wheeze with kids
springing from car doors wanting ice-cream, sherbet
lemonade through a straw
I watch the beetle-tops glistening in the sun––
inside they’re cooking and the steering wheels warp like liquorice
as though I’m Gretel and everything before me
on the steps of this oven, is secretly made for eating
I’m vigilant, too, about Grandpa’s Valiant parked illegally up the kerb
Cabbage-white body, chrome bumper, single front seat, no seatbelts
in the back, two round side mirrors, black
dashboard, chipped, plastic, and a whickering gearbox
Grandpa wears a white shirt––sleeves rolled to the elbows
elbows dry and flaking. Trousers wide
and tall, hoisted with a thin belt
He agrees with everything I say
and these afternoons at the TAB we foist off as dog-walks
Pete in sagging herringbone and rosaceous cheeks
taps my head and comes and goes
through the double glass-doors carrying
a blue plastic shopping bag full of errands and chores
as if it were against his better judgement to be there
I recognise his slippers, Grandpa
wears the same ones, seaweed-brown tartan, thin brown sole
noiseless as he pads across the shopping centre
as if it were his kitchen
and the TAB his blue lagoon
Sunlight passes through an eye of mirror and I squint at it
and begin crying without reason until Grandpa comes out
wipes my eyes with a handkerchief and says he’ll be done soon
The second and third steps are as cold as a whale might be
and beneath my sandals, they’re dimpled with mica and pore
Had I a pocket knife I could chip into them
engrave a heart cordoned with forget-me-nots
or tally-marked with time etched into tiny bales of grey
But I’ll close my eyes against the stone
imagine the rib of steps belongs inside Jonah’s whale
and I’m a barnacle growing there, perchance
or a mermaid in disguise, battering
the hull of this gambling seadog’s skip
with the weight of a huge emerald tail––
but look, he’s smoking at the door with Pete
his spare hand’s outstretched, he wants to go
he’s ready––he heels out his cigarette into a twist of ash
and off the steps, through waves of smoke-blue air
I skip over my tail
Preparations for Departure
by Nathanael O’Reilly
Reviewed by ZACHARY WARD
Preparations for Departure, Nathanael O’Reilly’s second full length collection, is an ongoing journey in which the poet enters the gaps between home and abroad, contentment and discontent, presence and absence, youth and age, the past and the present. These disparities emerge in a suite of fifty-nine free-verse poems spanning across his formative years growing up in small town Australia, to his most recent years living in America. Reflecting a life spent in diaspora, the poems transport the reader back and forth across oceans to land in cities of ruinous decay, preserved in the poet’s mind; to scenes of quiet urbanity and the endlessly silent screams which pervade; to beaches untrodden, and in which we may now see our footprints forever imprinted; the clatter and squalor of marketplaces and the drudgery of the quotidian. A constantly shifting collage of antonymous sights and sounds, these duopolies are best observed in the author’s mind.
The suite’s first poem, ‘Border Crossings’, observes the conflict of duopoly that is constantly being waged across the author’s thoughts. A round trip through Eastern Europe, O’Reilly paints scenes of post-Soviet squalor and abandonment, though always from the security of a moving train carriage. The reader is afforded a sense of detachment, as the poet is easily able to retreat to the comforts of his compartment and those offered by Western influence. When not ‘sipping a glass of whiskey’, the speaker can ‘listen to Nirvana, U2, Springsteen’, willingly flitting between the scenery outside his window, and the familiar manner of those around him. Outside is the other, the old world, different and dark, crumbling and vacant; the carriage is home to Harry Potter, iPad’s and selfies. O’Reilly is never part of the scenery, and is aware of his intrusion into this world. He is more at home among the comforts of the west, and uses the ever-moving shuttle to shield him from the realities of the world he is passing through. A further exploration of this social disparity is explored in, ‘In the Market Place’. Though not protected by the bulk and pace of a train carriage, a description of the grime and poverty of a Ukrainian concourse is delivered briefly and starkly, conveying a desire to,
… simply observe and pass by,
my needs and survival unthreatened.
To them I am a rich Amerikanski,
an alien from a golden dreamland.
The train carriage is no longer required to define and separate, for his ‘clothes and accent proclaim [he does] not belong and never will.’ Unable to escape his heritage and the legacy of his own home and his ancestral homeland, the poet concedes that ‘in three weeks I’ll be gone, back in the West … living in luxury.’
Back in the West, the author’s reminiscences of his upbringing in Australia unearth a struggle to accept age and in so doing, detach from the past. Though far flung from the shores of home, the patchwork of Australia’s sleepy suburban streets, dry crackling long grass and booming coastal shelves are never far from the author’s thoughts. As from a moving train carriage, O’Reilly can observe his youth; a series of flashing images, just beyond his reach or inclusion. Formative years spent among the quiet nature of urban Australia reveals within the fledgling poet an awareness of the world and a greater understanding of a higher culture that might only be attained by sitting on rooftops and listening to Pink Floyd, hoping to glimpse a better view, in ‘The Way We Saw Ourselves’. Being merely a memory, as intangible as the crumbling iron yards of Eastern Europe, the luxury and comforts of the coach are not present; O’Reilly clearly desires to alight here and reassume the uncertainties and expectations of his younger self,
Years ago now, those days
when the world seemed ours
for the taking, when we dreamt
wildly, full of hope
and our own importance.
O’Reilly’s sense of diaspora is not only temporal, but also painfully internal. A victim of nostalgia and an unwitting tourist in his own youth, displacement perpetually plagues the evading poet. Though still capable of marking the parameters of home in his memory, his identity as an Australian of Anglo-Celtic origin turns his sights away from the antipodean land of his rearing, and temporarily toward the British Isles. One senses the poet’s hope of finding some outcrop of ancient rock to which he may find some purchase, and carve into the old-world soil of his ancestral home his own marking among the scratchings of his literary forbears.
Migration affords O’Reilly a semblance of inclusion, extending the exploration of duality beyond the internal and the temporal; it places the speaker at a spatial variance from his thoughts. Dissatisfaction and aimlessness accompany the author’s musings as he attempts to assimilate a foreign landscape. No longer wishing to play the part of the tourist, the reader becomes acutely aware of the sudden reduction of O’Reilly’s protective barriers; the train carriage has passed and the space between the rooftop and his present self has been traversed. In ‘My Inheritance’, the recurrent invasion of the poet’s carefree childhood is once more invoked. Reminiscently wistful, the reader is escorted further down the halls of the speaker’s memory, stopping ‘by barbed wire fences, scattered with droppings and dung’ to ‘suck in the smell of the sheep and the cows, musty hay, molasses.’ These rustic images, dabbed with care upon a palette of recollections to be disturbed by the slash of the artist’s brush and splashed vigorously across his canvas, hang lovingly upon the walls of these thoroughly ventured corridors. Distanced by years and self-doubt, the reader is reminded of O’Reilly’s self-imposed exile, and the ethereality of such careless days by the abrupt return of time and space in the poem’s final stanza,
In my mind the hot north wind
still flattens the brown grass
and carries the smell of sheep
and earth across the Pacific.
The Pacific ocean evokes profundity, and the depths to which the poet plunges to salvage these images, while its vastness suggests they are forever beyond the poet’s grasp in a muddling of past and present.
The remarkably emotive poems in Preparations for Departure read lightly, yet leave deep and perennial tracings. O’Reilly, in a voice sculpted by the world he has ventured, captures the evasive and eternal nature of the wandering spirit; the constantly restless speaker leaves traces of himself across the pages, carefully crafting an impression of having just come and just gone, leaving the reader one page behind. To keep turning is to accept O’Reilly’s invitation and accompany him on his centrifugal journey forward over oceans and back across pools of thought that trickle into the past. As the speaker takes in the sights, the reader may ponder class, wealth, race and age from the not always welcome security of a temporal and or spatial distance. Though the gaps are ever widening, these poems are able to suspend and preserve observances, which continue to question inherited notions of contentment, belonging and identity.
ZACHARY WARD graduated in a Bachelor of Communications, major in Creative Writing at UTS. His fiction appeared in the UTS Vertigo magazine.
Robbie Coburn was born in Melbourne and grew up on his family’s farm in Woodstock, Victoria. His poems have been published in various journals and magazines including Poetry, Cordite, The Canberra Times, Overland and Going Down Swinging, and his poems have been anthologized. His first collection, ‘Rain Season’, was published in 2013 and a second collection titled The Other Flesh is forthcoming. He lives in Melbourne.www.robbiecoburn.com.au
I often ask for the ending.
blood-soaked white sheets you wake to each night
beneath their betrayed minds abandoned to your care.
I am sorry the body does not decide when.
and that you see me in the hollowed faces and knife-dreams.
not in your duty, all empathy soon becoming misery —
late one night you called through our silence,
a strange voice that spoke as if crying.
your mother was in another town asleep,
your father away at war, further from you than hours could say.
all distance finds loneliness in time.
I often ask for the ending.
no way to reassemble this.
no handbook or tested process written into your tongue.
only this strange voice I still hear
the night shift dragging to dawn
the mercy you breathe.
The Colt’s Grave
I stand at the paddock’s edge
the colt’s grave still visible
where dad has heaped wet dirt.
the ill and lanky body had fallen
several paddocks away, clean wind across the property
drying blood caked to his flanks.
a heartbeat ticking
through the electric fence
that formed a barricade around his small corpse
my father looking on
beyond my interminable confusion
inside my body, something changing
some future trying to enter the landscape.
I walk across the dilapidated horse track
waiting for the rain again.
from the weatherboard house
my breath is carried,
the unmistakable sound of crying.
by Amelia Dale
Inken Publisch, 2017
Reviewed by TONY MESSENGER
Ben Lerner in his 2016 essay “The Hatred of Poetry” reminds us of poetry’s activist, historical participation in politics; “Plato, in the most influential attack on poetry in recorded history, concluded that there was no place for poetry in the Republic because poets are rhetoricians who pass off imaginative projections as the truth and risk corrupting citizens of the just city, especially the impressionable youth.” Sydney poet, Amelia Dale, has taken Australian poetic political agitation to a new level, with her new book, Constitution.
If the etymology of ‘constitution’ is from the Latin ‘constitutio’; regulations and orders, then Amelia Dale has launched an attack on Australia’s political cornerstone; she has trashed the order, challenged the regulations, declinism is rife. As she says, “Being an ‘Australian poet’ with all that entails, it seems to me that the starting point has to be to try, as much as you can, to undo and damage ‘Australia,’ the nation state. This is not to say that I have any delusions that my book will enact in real terms political change. But I turned to the Constitution because to vandalise the Constitution seems like the sensible, the only thing to do.”
Constitution is constructed to mirror the format of the Australian Constitution, with all sections, chapters and parts replicating the format of the foundational document. Consisting of 128 parts catalogued into eight chapters, and with reference to the document establishing “Australia,” it provides an activity recommended for all readers. The “Covering Clauses” in the Constitution, become “So It Is” in Dale’s table of contents or “Overwhelmingly, I Focus on the Big Issues”. In the text itself, the alignment of the political rhetoric to established clauses uses a profundity of knowledge of the defining first national document. (p xi)
Constitution is presented as official Government paper, with the royal blue and coat of arms mimicking an Australian passport, the font copying official Government documents and the paper even similar to legal tomes found in Hansard or departmental publications.
Dale takes verbatim interviews with the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, on the current affairs program “The 7.30 Report”. Having edited thousands of words of transcripts she presents these back in poetic construct. The resulting book subverts the standard media text and political rhetoric;
Well everybody knows that their prosperity depends on the prosperity of their employer. And if they’re working for business, as most people are, they want to know. You see everything we’re doing is going. And I know you don’t want me to refer to the Labor party, but I do have to note that their policies will reduce investment. Well I assume that they – I assume – well leaving aside the – the bellicose metaphors…
As Dale explains “the text is edited transcriptions of interviews with Malcolm Turnbull from the 7:30 report. There are no other speakers. It is all Turnbull. I’ve deleted some words but all the text, the weird phrases, the odd metaphors are all his.” This editing, bubbling a lyrical poetic interpretation of rhetorical political language to the surface, removes the essayistic element, confounding the reader as any good politician would do.
Australia’s current political debate about “recognition”, and Aboriginal Australia’s rejection of “constitutional recognition” in favour of a voice in parliament and a treaty, makes this a timely release. With only 8 of the proposed 44 amendments being historically made to the Constitution, the majority being administrative alterations such as Senate amendments, State debt and retirement of judges, the “bellicose metaphor”, notations, footnotes, and references provide no clearer picture on the original document; the poetic construction mirrors reality.
In the poet’s hands the 1967 amendment to section 51 (xxvi) from “the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”, to “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws” becomes rationalised by “but most importantly by what other countries were doing.” (p 22) The superficiality of these amendments and the construction of a verbose document has been well researched and defiantly debunks “a lot of naval-gazing introspection.” (p vii)
Amelia Dale says “it’s the language of cold neoliberal power” and her masterful construction highlights the confusing, circular, meaningless political speak. Using the interviewer, Leigh Sales, as interlocutor, the condescending, demeaning speak becomes increasingly obvious as Amelia Dale, uses headlines such as, “Leigh, I think you’ll find”, “Well Leigh”, and “I’ll tell you something, Leigh”. The poet explaining “We can all speculate on his own reasons for needing the buffer, for needing an interlude. I just wanted to make the convolutions of his speech visible.”
Politically humourous, Dale’s book also uses visual and textual ploys to entice her readers. The title page lampoons publication details by changing standard text, such as copyright information, and rights reserved text to political quotes;
This is a Liberal National Government. So they’ve got to – so freedom is – the key point. I mean, it’s perhaps a bit simplistic but one way you could say it – you can describe it is that the, and I could make the same point about, we believe that, so – so that’s a fundamental thing. But there are some very key priorities, Leigh, tight now. One of them, principally, is we have to ensure that, how to we maintain that? Well there’s a – with, you know, many more, and that’s very exciting. But we need to be, be need to above all be more innovative.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull advises us, in the text, “The truth is that all of us are a bit liberal and a bit conservative in differing degrees.” Our writer disagrees: “Claims for a sensible or objective “centre,” the idea that the grown-up place to start is compromise makes me nauseous. Turnbull of course markets himself as a kind of socially “progressive” left-of-right figure. We’re supposed to be happy that he doesn’t commit Abbott-level macroaggressions and not be angry that his policies kill people.”
What is next for Amelia Dale ? “I’ve determined that all my poetry for the rest of my life will be inspired by, about and against white male politicians. I’m about to move to Shanghai, so Kevin Rudd might be an appropriate muse.”
As Amelia Dale has shown us, in the current political climate, there is room for poets, passing “off imaginative projections as the truth”, let’s hope the art can continue “corrupting citizens of the just city, especially the impressionable youth”.
CITATIONS AND NOTES
1. Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) p 25
2. private correspondence with the author is quoted in this review with the poet’s permission.
TONY MESSENGER is a Melbourne based blogger who focuses on translated literature and Australian poetry and poet interviews. He can be found at https://messybooker.wordpress.com/ and actively tweets using the handle @messy_tony
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
By Roxane Gay
Review by HAYLEY SCRIVENOR
Roxane’s Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is an obsessive book in many ways. It’s an obsessiveness that characterises the relationship that I, and many women I know, have with our bodies. It’s also an obsessiveness familiar to anyone who has been stuck on a past trauma or who can’t stop thinking about someone who has hurt them. The memoir centres on Gay’s body. She notes that her BMI places her in the ‘super morbidly obese’ range (9). Gay tells us early on that this will not be a book about weight loss. Hers, she warns, ‘is not a story of triumph… this is not a book that will offer motivation’ (2). It’s worth noting that a visceral account of a violent assault is something the reader will encounter if they decide to proceed past this warning.
The furore around Mia Freedman’s disappointing and insulting written introduction to a podcast where she was to discuss this non-fiction book with Gay, and the subsequent flaccid apology, is well documented outside this review. A book like this, the reaction it gets, does not exist inside a vacuum, and nor do responses to it, including my own. Freedman’s tone-deaf response reminds us how often privilege is not thinking that you have privilege. In Freedman’s case, privilege was reading and professedly loving Gay’s book, a place where Gay shares her experience as a fat, queer, woman of colour, and still carelessly humiliating Gay in a professional setting.
Gay’s memoir centres on a particular instance of horrific abuse that has left an indelible mark on her entire life. She tells us:
One of my biggest fears is that I will never cut away all that scar tissue. One of my biggest hopes is that one day I will have cut away most of that scar tissue (275).
I ran my first creative writing subject at a university in the first half of this year. I wrote and presented the weekly lecture for third year creative writing students and ran the tutorials. It was daunting. Standing at the front of the classroom each week made me empathise with Gay who throws up before presenting her first composition class (97). Gay’s fear is tied to what her students will think of her appearance, and she is relieved to survive ‘fifty minutes of being fat in front of twenty-two eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds’ (98).
Through the weeks of the course I urged my students to strip and to cut until they were left with something that said what they are trying to say in as few words as possible. The only reason any of them so much as pretended to listen to me was my position at the front of the classroom—a question of context. I told my students that they don’t get the benefit of context when they submit their stories. Their readers will not lean in until they feel there are capable hands ready to catch them. Their opening sentences need to be able to cut through the thick tread of an off-road tyre, and every word should be carefully chosen. There were pages in Hunger that I initially itched to take to with a red pen—certain words and phrases are repeated in a way that I initially found grating. Gay tells us ‘During my first two years of high school, I ate and ate and ate and I became less than nothing’ (57). Less than two pages later, ‘I ate and ate and ate at school’ (59). She also tells us ‘I did not go hungry even as I hungered for so much’ (90) and then, on the very next page ‘…and though there were many days I was fuelled by ramen, still I did not go hungry while I hungered’ (91). The words ‘good Catholic girl’ or simply ‘good girl’ pop up at least a dozen times in the text at my count (37, 38, 40, 41, 42, 45, 46, 49, 53, 74, 78, 86).
And yet this is largely a story about the way that the mind turns on and returns to moments of trauma. It’s a question of context. With Gay we know we are in safe hands. Those hands lift us in and out of moments of incredible vulnerability on the author’s part. The repetition of certain words and ideas that I originally found discomforting are reflective of the very thought-processes I recognise in myself. Negative self-talk is inescapable, it whispers the same words over and again. Sentences like ‘I was a good Catholic girl’ have such a huge psychic importance, Gay cannot say them once and move on. When Gay tells us at a certain point of weight loss she feels an unstoppable urge to once again make her body ‘like a fortress, impermeable’ (14) we are told this more than once, because it is something Gay herself must live again and again. It’s a cycle of hope and failure that feels inescapable. When Gay says ‘I often refer to my twenties as the worst years of my life because that’s exactly what they were’ (105) we might think that ‘The twenties were the worst years of my life’ should suffice. But there are shades of difference between the two sentences. Instead of just asserting the fact, Gay refers explicitly to the things she has told people, a subtle nod to the fact that not everything we tell others is true. This is particularly significant when we consider that Gay has not been able to tell her family about something that marked her so indelibly.
Self-proclaimed ‘bad feminist’ Roxane Gay writes not only from her position as a woman of size (her term, 272) but as a woman of colour. The strength of this book is the access it provides to the internal monologue that we otherwise don’t get to hear. It is lived experience, writ large in all its glorious and obsessive, detail. Gay leaves space for the contradictory nature of our desires in her sentences that are subtle riffs on one another, and in her equivocations. She tells us that ‘What I know and what I feel are two very different things’ (15). Gay’s use of brackets is also notable as it allows us to hold two opposing thoughts in our heads, a kind of doublethink we all experience:
I (want to) believe my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance (15).
I had (and have?) this void, this cavern of loneliness inside me that I have spent my whole life trying to fill (44).
I saw Roxane Gay at her appearance at the University of New South Wales in the lead up to the Sydney Writers Festival. She is a funny and compelling interview subject. There are flashes of the same dry wit I saw on stage on display in her book.
Every time I watch a yoghurt commercial I think, My god, I want to be that happy. I really do (italics in original, 123).
This is a popular notion, the idea that the fat among us are carrying a thin woman inside. Each time I see this particular commercial , I think, I ate that thin woman and she was delicious but unsatisfying’ (italics in original, 126).
Aside from these flashes though, the book can be tough going. The reader gets a sense of Gay’s hopelessness, of the difficulty of her position as someone who strongly believes that women are valuable beyond their bodies, while struggling to genuinely ‘feel’ feelings of positivity about her size in a society openly antagonistic to fat people. People feel entitled to comment on Gay’s body and even take food from her trolley (143), and there is the physical discomfort that is her constant companion in public space.
In the opening pages of the book, Gay tells us:
‘This is a book about my body, about my hunger and ultimately, this is a book about disappearing and being lost and wanting so very much, wanting to be seen and understood. This is a book about learning, however slowly, to allow myself to be seen and understood.’ (3)
This wording reminds me of the flow of Sara Ahmed’s sentences throughout her book Living a Feminist Life (2017):
Feminism is wherever feminism needs to be. Feminism needs to be everywhere (4).
In her book, Sara Ahmed highlights the connection between remembering and sharing experiences, and the work of feminism:
Feminist work is often memory work. We work to remember what sometimes we wish would or could just recede. While thinking about what it means to live a feminist life, I have been remembering; trying to put the pieces together. I have been putting a sponge to the past. When I think of my method, I think of a sponge: a material that can absorb things. We hold it out and wait to see what gets mopped up. It is not that memory work is necessarily about recalling what has been forgotten: rather, you allow a memory to become distinct, to acquire a certain crispness or even clarity; you can gather memories like things, so they become more than half glimpsed, so that we can see a fuller picture; so you can make sense of how different experiences connect (22).
The strength of Hunger is the way in which it allows the reader to connect their own experiences with those of Gay. It speaks to the way we all feel that we are being watched with derision by those around us (which is not to detract from the very real discrimination that Gay experiences). The surprise Gay feels to discover that she really is loved, that people see her positive qualities and her growing awareness of same remind the reader to be kinder, to others but mainly to themselves. We can always empathise with the essential disconnect between the idea that we are worthwhile and are loved, and the subsequent feelings that we deserve to be punished for the incredible hubris we display in simply living our lives in ways that strive to be free from abuse. With this book, Gay carves out space for the insurmountable thoughts and emotions she discusses, allowing us to see what she deals with on a daily basis. We get to see a fragility that throws Roxane’s strength into an even sharper relief. As Gay asserts ‘I am stronger than I am broken’ (35). It sounds like a reminder, both for Gay and for the reader. It’s a reminder that we are not our bodies, but we live in them, and we could all be much kinder to ourselves and others.
Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life, Durham, Duke University Press 2017.
HAYLEY SCRIVENOR is a writer and PhD candidate. She is the director of Wollongong Writers Festival, which runs in the final weekend of November every year.
A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work
by Bernadette Brennan
Reviewed by JOSHUA POMARE
‘Garner has always been a boundary-crosser. Refusing the constraints of literary genre she has sought to write across and craft her own versions of them’ – Bernadette Brennan.
It is at these boundaries, the rough torn edges of art and artist that we understand our subjects best. A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work by Bernadette Brennan is a remarkably shrewd study of Garner’s work knitted with a tender representation of her personal life. Brennan dives into the murky grey depths that separate ‘literary critique’ and ‘biography,’ choosing instead the more ambiguous denomination of ‘literary portrait.’ This bifurcation of sub-genres might seem like literary posturing; such distinctions are often made by marketing teams as opposed to the author themself. However the language we use to segment books into genre is significant for readers and thus important to authors in terms of distribution and readership.
Finding an audience for books that exist outside of genres can prove a challenge. For Garner, this is familiar territory, early in her career she leapt from genre to genre, often landing in the areas between, and muddied the waters further by splicing non-fiction and fiction. For many readers taste determines reading preference and consequently genre. Savvy publishers seek to typecast authors early in their career to maintain a base of readers which to many is contrary to genuine artistic pursuit. The true artist has no consideration of audience, let alone the intricacies between sub genres, between fact or fiction, between form and style. Brennan’s previous book, The Works of Brian Castro, is a monograph, shelved in the recesses of academic libraries. However in A Writing Life Brennan shows she is equally as prepared to defy genre as her subject.
With over thirty pages of notes and references, it is clear Brennan is a fastidious reader and researcher however in spite of her academic background, she chooses to employ simple accessible language. At once she delves into the workings of Garner’s relationships, and reflects on the ways in which life events contextualise Garner’s work. Indeed many of the models for Garner’s fictional characters inhabited her personal life. Brennan probes the real events that inspired much of her work including the poignant and challenging relationship with her dying friend Jenya Osborne, which Garner explores in The Spare Room, and the resistance and confusion Garner faced from third wave feminism as a consequence of the The First Stone.
Garner possesses an immense self-awareness and an almost refreshing uncertainty that is absent in most non-fiction. James Wood in his profile for The New Yorker describes her is ‘a savage self-scrutineer.’ This introspection and ceaseless self-assessment allows the ‘I’ to creep into the narrative of her stories. Garner is forever querying herself and her motives, and documenting her findings. Here we find the origin of the genre fluidity she affords herself. Garner herself, as a prominent thread in the literary culture of Australia, tends to defy any delineation outside of the broadest labels: writer, artist.
Without Garner’s introspection and sincerity on the page Brennan may not have the access to paint a complete portrait. When in The Spare Room ‘Helen’ the character notes, “I had always thought that sorrow was the most exhausting of the emotions. Now I knew that it was anger,” a reader gets great insight into Garner’s own thoughts and feelings. Few artists are lucky enough to encounter subjects with such self-awareness and clarity of thought, fewer still will find one honest enough to share such insights.
One does get the sense that Brennan, although meticulous in her research and earnest in her approach, refuses to employ Garner’s imbuing of the text with the ‘I.’ Brennan at times seems to approach a counterpoint to Garner’s arguments without letting the thought reach the page as it forms in her own mind. Her voice is clear, objective and sensitive at times. The subtext, two years of conversations between Garner and Brennan, rises through the text softening the edges of the moral and ethical conundrums readers familiar with Garner’s non fiction may find themselves asking as they’re whisked along the summary of Garner’s work – each part of the novel represents in chronological order both a Garner novel and the period of Garner’s life in which the novel was written. One can’t help but consider Garner’s reflection and the fallibility of memory, and how this may indirectly shape the retelling of those long past episodes. This is another blurred line. It’s impossible for Brennan to maintain objectivity when such conversations are taking place, particularly considering the private letters Garner had shared with her.
Perhaps literary portraits require this input in the same way a painter might sit a subject down and constantly refer to her. If the subject moves, or changes expression the end product becomes a sort of amalgamation. We have twelve Helen Garners in A Writing Life; in the closing pages we get a final look at this ultimate Helen Garner in an email exchange with Brennan. It is here, in the final pages, that Brennan finds herself traipsing into the narrative. Brennan asks of Garner “Do you have another tale to tell me?” Garner recalls her recent experiences with her reading group, how the group grappled with a complex text, and in the penultimate line she asks Brennan, “Is that a story?”
A Writers Life, is published by Text Publishing in Melbourne. Text happens to be the publisher of all of Garner’s recent novels. It’s clear that Brennan has gone to considerable lengths to respect the wishes of Garner and has likely worked with Text for this reason. Garner has always been quite clear that she does not want a biography, however for this reader the biographical elements are the most important. Understanding who Helen Garner was at different stages in her life, how her opinions and worldview developed and of course how her life influenced her writing deepens one’s understanding of her work. Being such a devoted Garner scholar, Brennan possesses a knack for concision, clarity and an eye for detail but unlike Garner’s work we see it all from an arm’s length. Brennan is prepared to delve into Garner’s thoughts and motivations but not her own, certainly not with Garner’s characteristic candour. In this case, the artist and the art remain for the most part distinct. However, through dogged scholarly research, analysis, unparalleled access to Garners archive in the National Library of Australia and interviews with the subject herself, Brennan has weaved a complete and comprehensible portrait of Garner and her work. This is a book not only for Garner enthusiasts but Australian literature lovers in general.
JOSHUA POMARE is a writer living and working in Melbourne. His work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin and Takahe among others. He is also produces the podcast On Writing