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