Sergius Seeks Bacchus
by Norman Erikson Pasaribu
translated by Tiffany Tsao
Reviewed by DMETRI KAKMI
Born to a Muslim father and a Protestant mother, Norman Erikson Pasaribu was raised in Jakarta, Indonesia, but his roots lie in the ethnic Christian Batak community of Sumatra. Though he writes in Indonesian, Pasaribu’s poetry collection Sergius Seeks Bacchus (translated by Tiffany Tsao) is a vehicle for queer voices outside western Anglophone experience, offering a glimpse into a world that is all too real for non-conforming individuals in much of the contemporary world.
As of this writing, in more than seventy countries it is a crime to be gay. In ten it incurs the death penalty, and in no country in the world are LGBTQI people treated equally under the law. Exposure, humiliation, forced medical intervention to affect a ‘cure’, and curtailment of basic freedoms are everyday realities. ISIS tossed gays from minarets, and in Chechnya men and women suspected of homosexual practices are incarcerated in concentration camps. In parts of Indonesia, homosexuality is illegal under Sharia Law and punishable by flogging.
This in effect is the shadow under which Pasaribu writes—the kind of world western urban gays might believe was left behind in the 1970s, with the rise of gay liberation. And although the poet writes about Indonesia, his references are recognisable and relatable because they are drawn largely from a western pop culture ethos that pulls in television, magazines, social media, as well as the Judea-Christian tradition. Even Dante Alighieri gets a look-in with poems such as “Inferno”. “Purgatorio”, “Paradiso”, and “La Vita Nuova”, representing the symbolic journey of ascent and renewal that is at the heart of the book.
From the outset, however, Pasaribu evokes the spirits of Sergius and Bacchus, two early Christian martyrs who, like Saint Sebastian, have been absorbed into the global male queer sensibility. Mixing defiance and submission, all three are part victim, part rebel, true believers who suffer for their convictions; and, therefore, transcend oppression and persecution. As seen in the eponymous poem, death is not final but a doorway to redemption.
Snake-like, you shed your short-lived skin
and commence/continue your quest. Now the light from on high
passes through you. You’re luminous. Meanwhile, out west
in decrepit Rome sits Galerius, oblivious his end is nigh.
You seek your beloved — he appeared to you in your cell,
his body glowing silver as he whispered, Endure,
for I will always watch over you. With him you will rise
up to heaven and wonder at how familiar
it all feels. Hand in hand, you two will stroll the streets,
introducing one another to everyone you meet.
Far from saying homosexuals are better of dead, Pasaribu disavows doctrinaire notions of martyrdom in favour of an earthly paradise in which same-sex couples walk hand-in-hand without fear. His lines are metaphor for a lapsed Christian who follows in the footsteps of gay club anthems like ‘Go West’ by the Village People (later covered by The Pet Shop Boys) and ‘In the Evening’ by Sheryl Lee Ralph.
An admission. As an atheist who has lived most of his life in Australia, I had trouble getting my head around the notion that gay people continue to hide in the 21st century, especially to appease religious dictates. It seemed retrograde, like reading a book about homosexuality from the 1950s. But such is Pasaribu’s sleight of hand that he quickly popped my insular bubble to remind me what life would be like if I still lived in Turkey, where I was born. Indeed, most of my Turkish gay friends seek shelter in the closet or sham marriage.
The most revealing poem in this regard is ‘On a Pair of Young Men in the Underground Car Park at fX Sudirman Mall’. Here two young men sit in a Toyota Rush ‘parked in the corner of level P3,/stealing a little time and space for themselves,’ and poignantly ‘exchanging kisses wide-eyed — keeping watch as one/for security guards or janitors’ that might interrupt their stolen moments.
Two things stand out in this cornerstone poem. First, the poem recalls the tone set by C. P Cavafy, the Greek godfather of all queer clandestine confessionals. Second, the secretive location, (simultaneously public and private), brings to mind early Christians worshipping in catacombs beneath Rome streets, awaiting their turn to rise and take over.
Literally and metaphorically driven underground by unorthodox desires, Pasaribu’s primary stance is seeking; his is a restless questing as his cast of characters search for a shared history that is textually present but remains elusively out of reach. And because the queer body politic walks a fine line between visibility and invisibility, acceptance and rejection, it could be said that this collections is about absence in presence, and presence in absence.
Despite advances in some parts of the world, the homosexual is still contested territory. Both present and absent in society, the homosexual is made painfully visible and inextricably invisible through obsessive, circular, discourse that seeks to simultaneously comprehend and to exclude. This contradiction is central to Pasaribu’s poems. Caught in the crossfire are men and women who continue to assert the validity of their lives against a tyrannical ideology.
The other emblem Pasaribu draws on is the tree—not surprising, given the book’s original title was Like Trees. But Pasaribu had a last minute change of heart, perhaps to align the book with evolving queer narratives; and, more important, to signal that in each of the fifty-nine poems the emphasis is on pairing, bringing people together, whether in love, quest, or Socratic dialogue.
As an animist, I lean more towards trees than to Christian iconography. That is just as well since the tree is a universal archetype that can be found in different traditions around the world. They are symbols of physical and spiritual nourishment, transformation, liberation, and union. Moreover, Jungian psychology sees the tree as a symbol of individuation, bringing together the feminine and masculine principles.
In light of this, it is interesting to follow Pasaribu as he weaves a path between doctrinaire religion and tree-worshipping paganism. This is best seen in “He and the Tree” where an individual stands at the border of civilisation and the natural world, seeking forgiveness from the tree that shelters his car from the sun in the company parking lot. As the tree listens, it remembers his friend who was ‘ripped from the earth for being too close to the foundation’, thus losing a chance to tell his friend ‘how much he loved him’.
If he were here, he would take him to a church. At the altar
they would be joined together before god, who had three branches
— like a tree — and their children would fill the lot, every
single square inch, so that someday everyone who passed
would think a forest had sprung up in the city’s heart.
The man hugged the tree and tree hugged the man.
This poignant, wryly observed poem would have been an ideal way to end the collection. It brings together the book’s main symbolic and ideological positions in an act of compassion and empathy that yields fruit; and that in a way is what Pasaribu hopes to achieve in this slender but weighty tome that both affirms and transcends the classification of queer poetry.
DMETRI KAKMI is a writer and editor based in Melbourne. For 15 years he worked as a senior editor at Penguin Books. His fictionalised memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. He is the editor of the acclaimed children’s anthology When We Were Young. His new book The Door and other Uncanny Tales will be published in 2020.
Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva was born in 1892. She left Russia in 1922, returned in 1939, and was to die two years later. She is celebrated as one of the greatest Russian poets of the Twentieth Century. Her first book was entitled Evening Album.
За этот ад,
За этот бред,
Пошли мне сад
На старость лет.
На старость лет,
На старость бед:
Рабочих — лет,
Горбатых — лет...
На старость лет
Собачьих — клад:
Горячих лет —
Мне сад пошли:
Сад: ни шажка!
Сад: ни глазка!
Сад: ни смешка!
Сад: ни свистка!
Мне сад пошли:
Скажи: довольно мýки — нá
Сад — одинокий, как сама.
(Но около и Сам не стань!)
— Сад, одинокий, как ты Сам.
Такой мне сад на старость лет...
— Тот сад? А может быть — тот свет? —
На старость лет моих пошли —
На отпущение души.
To cope with this underworld
you’ve sent me, and madness,
make it a garden
for the years that age.
For the years that age,
for the griefs I’ve to live through,
the years of work coming
and the groanings in my back.
For the years that age.
Bone for that dog.
For the hell-burnt years.
A garden in the breeze
for their refugee.
Bless me with a garden
and nobody there,
a soulless place.
Garden no one steps in.
Garden no one looks in.
A laughterless garden,
a no whistling there
bless me with a garden.
Nothing has a scent there,
not a soul.
Speak: you’ve tortured enough.
A garden on its own.
But don’t come near me here or there.
Yes, he says, it’s as alone as me.
That’s your garden for me and the years
I age. That. Or your paradise?
Bless me in the years that age.
Deliver me from here.
Paul Magee is author of Stone Postcard (2014), Cube Root of Book (2006) and the prose ethnography From Here to Tierra del Fuego (2000). Paul majored in Russian and Classical languages, and has published translations of Vergil, Catullus, Horace and Ovid. He is currently working on a third book of poems, ‘The Collection of Space’. Paul is Associate Professor of Poetry at the University of Canberra.
Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language
by Amanda Montell
Review by TAMARA LAZAROFF
Wordslut, as the ironic title suggests, is a book about language, gender and power by debut author, Amanda Montell, an LA-based self-professed linguistics nerd, feminist and also magazine features editor. It’s no surprise, then, that the writing is entertaining and that Montell is able to elucidate in a concise, relatable manner the precise ways in which ‘… people use language to express gender, how gender impacts how a person talks, and how their speech is perceived’ (4). In short, she demonstrates how words are inherently social and political tools. And if anyone has any doubt about this, Montell cites a 2002 legal case in Kansas Supreme Court where the dictionary definition of woman prevented a transgender spouse from inheriting her deceased husband’s estate.
Montell continues to illustrate her arguments by mining history and making use of other case studies in the book’s eleven chapters, which cover topics such as cursing while female, girl talk, how to confuse a catcaller, and the struggle of being a women who speaks in public. She also conducts interviews with leading North American sociolinguists, such as Lal Zimman, Deborah Cameron and Sonja O. Vasvári, Montell’s former NYU professor. The book is certainly well-grounded and well-researched.
In the first chapter, for instance, Montell, reveals the etymology of various English slur words usually reserved for women, which refer most commonly to either desirability, ‘evilness’ or promiscuity. One of these words is ‘slu’t. Apparently, in the Middle Ages ‘slut’ referred, fairly innocuously, to an untidy woman or man (29). But, Montell asks, even if contemporarily meant to offend, why is this slur and so many other slur words so enjoyable to say out loud? Well, studies show that, phonetically, short and plosive sounds and stop consonants, such as b, p, d and t, are human favourites from birth. Thus, reclamation and reappropriation, Montell believes, is key, and is, in fact, what is already happening. Terms like bad bitch – ‘a confident, desirable woman (40-1)’ – and the chicer, Frencher-looking ‘heaux’ instead of ‘ho’ are currently being used as terms of endearment and humorous affection between women, thanks mostly to speakers and creators of African-American Vernacular English.
So, words can and do change in meaning, Montell wants to stress. Sometimes slowly, but also sometimes quickly. To take an example, she asks us to recall the word ‘suffragette’, which, when it was first coined by political opponents, was intended as a smear and referred to the ‘husbandless hag[s] who dared to want to vote’ (42). However, activists immediately ‘stole’ the term for their campaign, and now the label connotes qualities such as courage, honour and strength. If anything, this is Montell’s aim in Wordslut: that women, and indeed any other groups oppressed by language, continue to consciously take language into their own hands in order to verbally, as they say, ‘smash the patriarchy’.
Another area that Montell suggests women can take linguistic action is in describing the act of sex. Disturbingly, as a beginning reference, she cites, British slang lexicographer, Jonathan Green’s collation and study of terms used for male and female genitalia spanning from the 1500s to 2013. (Interestingly, he collected 2,600 word items, more words than were in the first English dictionary.) But more to the point, Green was looking for patterns, and what he found was that the penis has been, over five centuries, most commonly described as some kind of weapon, and the vagina, a passageway, a passive void. Furthermore, terms for intercourse were more often than not a way of saying ‘man hits woman’ (256). Montell sums up: ‘…our languages most potent phrases… paint a picture of women, men and sex from a cisgender dude’s perspective’ and ‘… portray… sex as… violent’ (205) What about instead, offers Montell: ‘We enveloped all night… I sheathed the living daylights out of him… it would be a real head-scratcher’ (257). Alternately, she goes on, could some inspiration be taken from trans folk who self-identify their own genitalia – venis, diclit, click (268) – and their own sexual experience? Overall, this is what Montell thinks is needed:
A discourse of sex as pleasure… acknowledging women as active desiring and sexually assertive subjects, not necessarily centred around the erect penis, will challenge and confront established power structures … a new mythology, one which speaks about mutual exploration, communication, discovery, and pleasuring one another, where penetration is not an end unto itself, but one of the many possibilities for erotic enjoyment.’ (Crawford, Kippax and Waldby in Montell, 268).
In subsequent chapters, Montell takes further inspiration from the linguistic creativity and inventiveness of queer communities. She gives the example of gay men in the Phillipines who have developed a particular, ever-changing lexicon called swardspeak, which ‘combines imaginative wordplay, pop culture references, malapropisms and onomatopoeia’ (242). Then, in the early to mid-twentieth century, there were the British gay men who used a particular vocabulary called Polari, which contained several hundred words and was a ‘mix of London slang, words pronounced backwards, and broken Romani, Yiddish and Italian’ (248). It, like swardspeak, was mainly used to identify speakers as homosexual and also as a protective device, but Polaris was ultimately discarded when homosexuality was legalised in 1967.
Lesbian slang and/or secret codes, on the other hand, writes Montell, are largely unrecorded or absent prior to the 1970s, mostly due to the fact that lesbians were once socially, historically and even linguistically invisible. Unbelievably, the word ‘lesbian’ was not added to the Oxford English Dictionary until 1976, and even then its usage was illustrated with this chilling example sentence:
‘I shall never write real poetry. Women never do, unless they are invalid, or lesbians, or something’ (281).
Nevertheless, second-wave feminists – lesbian or not – were incredibly productive and wrote umpteen feminist new dictionaries, transforming patriarchal speech ‘into a language for and about women’ (275). The most famous, Montell notes, was Mary Daly and Jane Caputi’s Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (1987). It includes revamped definitions such as this:
HAG: A Witch, Fury, Harpy who haunts the Hedges/Boundaries of patriarchy, frightening fools and summoning Weird Wandering Women to the Wild (in Montell, 276).
And then there were those who invented whole new feminist languages, such as the linguist, Suzette Haden Elgin, who coined words to sum up what she thought to be ‘common physical, social, and emotional experiences shared by women, which were otherwise unspoken or would take multiple … sentences… to describe’ (279). One of Elgin’s head-nodding terms is this: radiidin, ‘…which translates to “a non-holiday”, or an occasion generally thought to be a holiday but is actually a burden due to women having to cook, decorate, prepare for so many guests single-handedly’ (279). The entire final chapter of Montell’s book is devoted to these second-wave feminists’ ambitious and expansive linguistic undertakings.
In many senses, Wordslut is a carrying of the torch, a continuation of these earlier feminists’ work. Like her forebears, Montell shows and gives women ‘the knowledge to reclaim the language that for so long has been used against us’ (20). She sees language as the next frontier of gender equality and her book has plenty of suggestions for how to take charge. One, as recent research has indicated, is this: for women in the public eye or in positions of authority, the best approach is, rather than listening to spin doctors and life or voice coaches, simply to be oneself (225). This is advice that Montell certainly takes on herself. Readers will enjoy her shameless humour, the intellectual stimulation, historical detours, current-day relevancy and the way her book deconstructs social norms in many unexpected ways. Ultimately, Wordslut is hopeful. And for those who want more, there is a TV adaptation coming soon.
TAMARA LAZAROFF is a Brisbane-based writer of short fiction and creative nonfiction. She has a particular interest in hidden histories, the migrant experience, feminist and queer themes, oral storytelling traditions and celebratory stories of social interconnectedness.
Paul de Brancion is the author of about fifteen novels and poems. He is regularly involved in transversal artistic projects, with contemporary art centres or music composers (T. Pécou, J-L. Petit, G. Cagnard, N. Prost, …). He lives and works between Paris, Corsica and Nantes. Where he organises and presents “Les Rendez-vous du Bois Chevalier”, annual events dedicated to literature, science and poetry.
He is editor-in-chief of the magazine Sarrazine, president of the Union des Poètes & Cie and representative in France of the WPM (World Poetry Movement).
Ça fait tout drôle, ce manque de légèreté. Des maisons, des meubles, des tapis, des mauvais livres, une sorte d’indélicatesse du goût. Comment peut-on survivre à cet environnement d’un si mauvais genre ?
Profusion, c’est le mot en français. Excès. Mor avait quelque chose d’excessif que je craignais infiniment. Il était dangereux pour moi d’être en relation avec elle. Même mon amour pour elle était inconvenant. Elle parlait très vite et beaucoup. Un déluge de mots était prononcé et je m’éloignais en marchant le plus loin possible du courant continu de ses phrases. Elle était le maître de la vérité. Elle priait et sa prière était un écroulement. Elle ruisselait devant le Seigneur Dieu. Comment peut-on dire cela sans être fauteur de scandal ?
Je n’arrive pas à rassembler une idée globale ou une image fixe. Toujours mouvante, elle était toujours mouvante, émouvante, éprouvante, épouvante, Mor.
Cette nuit cauchemar, cauchemère, j’en ai honte. Je crois qu’elle est tombée par terre dans l’entrée de damier noir et blanc froide et humide de l’enfance. Elle portait une longue robe bleu-gris sombre qui collait à son corps. Elle était allongée, elle se sentait faible. Je suis venu pour l’aider. Elle n’a pas appelé. Elle était allongée sur le sol, ses yeux étaient fermés et le teint blafard. Je sentais son cœur qui battait la chamade. C’est la fin pensai-je avec émotion.
De fait, elle est morte du cœur, d’une faiblesse du cœur et non du cancer qui rongeait ses entrailles. Voilà, cela arrive enfin. Presque soulagé parce que j’ai attendu ce moment précis toute ma vie. Je les considérais, elle et le vieux panard mon père comme immortels, éternels, alors c’était cela, ils pouvaient bien mourir, eux aussi. On y était arrivé. Le grand passage de Mor.
Elle est morte d’une attaque cardiaque. Elle avait pris beaucoup de médicaments. Son corps était en train de pourrir. Il a été décidé de ne pas lui inoculer des produits stabilisateurs qui empêchent qu’elle ne pourrisse de l’intérieur.
Translator’s note: In Danish, 'Mor'means Mother. The original version of this poem was written in French, Danish and English. French and English were common to mother and son but Danish was his alone.
It feels weird, this lack of lightness. Houses, furniture, carpets, bad books, a sort of indelicacy of taste. How can one survive in such a hopeless kind of environment?
Profusion, that’s the word in French. Excess. There was something excessive about Mor that I feared greatly. It was dangerous for me to have a relationship with her. Even my love for her was unseemly. She spoke very quickly and a lot. A deluge of words was delivered and I walked as far away as possible from Mor’s continual stream of sentences. She was the master of Truth. She prayed and her prayers tumbled down. She gushed in front of the Lord God. How can one say that without stirring up a scandal?
I can’t put together an overall idea or a fixed image. Always moving, she was always moving, emotional, difficult, frightening Mor.
That nightmare of a night, nightmother, I’m ashamed of it. I think she fell over on the cold and damp black and white checked porch of our childhood. She was wearing a sombre long blue-grey dress that clung to her body. She was stretched out, she felt weak. I came to help her. She didn’t call out. She was lying on the floor, her eyes closed and her complexion pale. I felt her heart beating wildly. This is the end, I thought emotionally.
In fact, she died of a heart disease, a weakness of the heart, and not of the cancer that gnawed at her entrails. There it was, happening at last. I am almost relieved because I’ve waited all my life for this precise moment. I always considered them, her and that old dog my father, everlasting, then this was it, they too could die. It had happened. Mor’s great passing.
She died of a heart attack. She took a lot of medicines. Her body was rotting away. It had been decided not to inject her with any stabilising drugs to stop the deterioration of her insides.
Formerly a music educator and writer, Elaine Lewis created the Australian Bookshop in Paris in 1996. She met poet Jacques Rancourt and began translating for the Franco-anglais Poetry Festival. Her book Left Bank Waltz was published by Random House Australia in 2006. She is currently co-editor and book review editor of The French Australian Review, the journal of the Institute for the Study of French Australian Relations and is a committee member of AALITRA (Australian Association for Literary Translation). She has translated poetry from Guadeloupe, Haiti, Switzerland, Canada, La Réunion, Belgium and France, published in La Traductière and Etchings (Ilura Press).
by John Kinsella
Reviewed by GABRIELA BOURKE
Can art make things happen? John Kinsella says ‘yes’. ‘Poetry functions more directly in cultures at different times, but it is part of most things we do. Consciousness of poetic language informs reading the newspaper as much as it does listening to songs on the radio.’ (Watts 2013) Kinsella’s most recent novel, Lucida Intervalla, is set in a frantic and failing world almost indistinguishable from our own, except that the things we fear happening – coastlines that are no longer coastlines, fire hail raining from the sky – are already happening. Lucida Intervalla might be read as a deliberative novel, one intended to provoke discussion and inform change, or it might be read as a novel resigned; to climate change and climate denial, to fallen cities and interminably displaced refugees, to an end ‘…without style. So bland. So fated.’ (233)
The world may be plummeting ever closer to self-destruction, but Lucida grants it little attention. As a child, she creates self-portraits in vomit and menstrual blood, the latter for which she is expelled. References to rising temperatures are rife and the planet seems on the precipice of collapse, if not already there. If this novel is a bildungsroman describing Lucida’s trajectory from troublesome child to super-celebrity; it is also one reflecting the gradual and uncomfortable movement of humanity toward accepting what is has done: to the earth, to the animals, and to ourselves, ‘…drowning and choking on its own goo and efflatus’ (219). This is unsurprising from Kinsella, a self-proclaimed anarchist pacifist vegan (link to Kinsella’s blog provided below) who coined the terms ‘pleasurism’ and ‘leisurism’ to describe acts of environmental degradation for, you guessed it, the purposes of pleasure and leisure. Uneasy and destructive relationships between humans, other species and the natural environment appear often in this novel. Wildlife is synonymous with road kill and forests only exist in conjunction to bulldozers. Young Lucida keeps mice as pets, one of which aggressively procreates and then eats its own offspring (32). Although mice are identified as herbivores and it is true that they can exist as such, they are opportunistic eaters who feed on what is available, much like humans. The incorrigible Pinkie, then, with the blood of his own and others’ infants on his snout, is the harbinger of society in this novel as in life.
This is the battle that rages between the old and new world in Lucida Intervalla, foregrounded by measured references to Aristophanes’ The Clouds. Lucida’s big break comes in the form of a trip to interview an aging and reclusive artist who has rejected the brave new world and retired to Centralia – a state which thus far does not exist, but is borne from the tentative idea raised by former Territory and federal MPs to merge parts of South Australia and the Northern Territory into one state. This move is touted as being a significant opportunity to reinvigorate this part of the country by taking advantage of its relative proximity to Asia, but Centralia as represented by Kinsella is as weary and shrivelled as the artist who has taken up residence there.
‘He is an artist and he should be in his prime…but his brushes dried with the wet and he’s not even done a sketch. It’s gone, whatever he had and whatever he hoped for. In the open, he is confined. In the open, and the blue sky, he is isolated. The birds are thoughts flitting by, or pecking at their stems. The heat haze shimmering within a few metres is the mirage he’ll never reach, never have.’ (50)
Centralia is hot, dusty, uninhabitable but for the regular delivery of water and other resources. The earth will not provide, not for aged celebrities nor ‘stray cows with calves, nibbling at the thin sheen of dead grass soon to be skin and bones…’ (54) yet it is from this dead earth that Lucida mines her fortune, capitalising on the fame that comes with proximity to celebrity. ‘Industrialism, consumerism, greed and general rapacity seem universal wrongs to me,’ says Kinsella (Watts 2013).
Lucida is an anti-heroine in that she actively profits from these things. At one point, envious of an author’s success, Lucida along with her team of managers and creators put together a book branded with her name which is published ‘…in a first print run of three million copies which took out a large chunk of forest’ (173) while the e-version ‘ate the energy from a dozen power stations around the world’ (173). Trapped and unable to cope with a conversation concerning indigenous land rights, she interrogates the speaker about the ways in which rodents are poisoned on his farm (183). This refusal to participate in imperative discussion concerning the future or lack thereof of postcolonial society repeats often throughout the novel, as each reference to climate change is followed by the increasingly desperate responses of deniers, each person willing to make positive changes stymied by the raising of a separate topic that successfully halts progress of any kind. This distraction away from imperative discussion of indigenous land rights toward an altogether unrelated – and comparatively unimportant – topic is an apt example. These kinds of unproductive conversations where significant issues are countered by irrelevant rejoinders abound in the media. Perhaps Kinsella, a vegan of many years, has participated in fruitless discussions with those claiming that the growing movement toward rejecting animal agriculture is pointless when rats continue to be poisoned in the process of wheat production.
Passivity is a violent act in Lucida Intervalla. Pro-Green artwork is funded with mining magnate dollars, activism is inefficient and often tainted with that which it seeks to reject and overall, things seem fairly hopeless. The characters are frogs sweating in water fast coming to the boil, unable or unwilling to leap out. And yet, perhaps Kinsella’s forlorn imaginings are deliberative. Perhaps the call-to-action is to jump from of the pot as quickly as possible, in any way possible. Lucida is an antonym to John Kinsella. He notes ‘[Lucida] …doesn’t like me much, and would disagree with most of what I have to say. She determines her own paths, many of which I find frightening.’ (Acknowledgements) Lucida is not a likeable character, but she is painfully familiar to anyone who has chosen to circumvent the difficult conversation and engage in behaviours we probably shouldn’t. She’s familiar to us all.
Humans should leave well enough alone, according to Kinsella. ‘People don’t have to occupy every square metre of the planet. Some places should just be left to do their ‘own’ thing.’ (Watts 2013) Reading is to be enjoyed, and books don’t need a takeaway to be satisfying, but if Lucida Intervalla is to continue to be speculative fiction rather than contemporary fiction, we need to do better.
Ryan, Tracy, and John Kinsella. 2019. “Mutually Said: Poets Vegan Anarchist Pacifist”. Poetsvegananarchistpacifist.Blogspot.Com. http://poetsvegananarchistpacifist.blogspot.com/.
Watts, Madeleine. 2013. “Interview With John Kinsella”. Griffith Review. https://griffithreview.com/articles/interview-with-john-kinsella/.
GABRIELA BOURKE is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at USYD
by Lindsay Tuggle
Reviewed by HELEN GILDFIND
The striking title of Lindsay Tuggle’s poetry collection is immediately defined in her preface:
A fever incident to sailors within the tropics, characterised by delirium in which the patient fancies the sea to be green fields, and desires to leap into it. (ix)
This title, Tuggle’s preface, the book’s dedication to her dead sister, Kate Middleton’s introduction, and the notes that complete the text, provide an intriguing and welcome frame through which readers can ‘leap into’ Tuggle’s darkly beautiful worded-world.
Tuggle’s preface notes that: ‘Every elegy needs an author. And then, an autopsy’ (ix). The themes and impulses shaping her book are thus clear, and she describes her collection as an:
ossuary to a constellation of deaths, some sudden, all strange. It is also a catalogue of medical and mercurial oddities, curiosities that call forth the exquisite corpse hard at work beneath our living flesh. The echolalic duet between what is lost and what is left behind. The phantom limb. The wandering womb. The book bound in skin. The face that ghosts itself. The fever dream that ends in drowning. (ix)
Tuggle clearly loves language that is ‘diagnostic, archaic, hysteric, mesmeric’ (ix). She writes knowing that the ‘management of thresholds / is perilous business’ (49), and her collection thus maps the obscure imaginative landscape that joins the living to the dead, the personal to the universal, and the abstract to the concrete.
Tuggle’s collection is divided into two suites. The first shares the title of the book, and is introduced by three eerie quotes, including ‘We need a dead woman to begin’ (Hélène Cixous), and ‘One need not be a chamber to be haunted’ (Emily Dickenson). In this suite, we meet a woman who cannot live ‘within her limbs’: she feels ‘on fire’ and ‘cut to pieces’ (34). We meet another woman (the same woman?) who ‘wakes to remember / her garnet cluster of early deaths’ (9). We glimpse ‘wrists / graced in the master’s hand’ (8), ‘mouthfuls of gravel’ (41), ‘bruised’ and ‘bandaged’ tongues (3, 5), and ‘feral anorexics’ (5)—including ‘the concave half of a sister’ (5).
This reference to ‘a’ sister shows how it is never quite clear who the subject and object of these poems are. This ambiguity is elaborated by the poems themselves: ‘Some days her face obliterates my own’ (15), and ‘we wear / each other’s faces’ (4), and ‘I trespass her name as my own’ (25). Of course the reader assumes, as they’ve been directed to, that such phrases refer to an actual ‘sister,’ and Tuggle’s ambivalence towards this relational identity is expressed when she refers to the ‘ambiguous wound’ (19) of her loss, to the ‘old grievances’ (‘shame’ and ‘blame’) that riddle such relationships (20, 21), and to the archetypal sibling emotion of jealousy—expressed when she looks upon a female corpse and wonders: ‘do I covet her still / diluted by sleep.’ (5) The narrator chillingly concludes: ‘I love the dead more than you / always will’ (6). Tuggle’s ambivalence towards the ‘biological gift’ (21) of a sister can also be read from the poems’ most common structural constraint of couplets—two lines, coerced into a relationship, across time and space.
More ambiguity is built into this first suite by reference to other deaths, including that of a man who lay ‘lay unfound’ for days (27), and the ‘integral burial’ of a flooded town where the ‘measure of loss’ lies in the ‘submergence of trees’ (31):
in the vanishing tendency
of the object
is watery and burns.
The wet are pretty. (33)
This deadly flooding is mirrored in a later poem, when a woman ‘walks in blindfolds’ into ‘bitumen tributaries,’ where ‘drowning ends in a glassy sprawl’ and roadside altars whisper ‘fire soars’ (41). As above, such vivid and violent references to suicide, death, drowning, burning, basalt and glass are often juxtaposed against the ostensibly trivial notion of ‘prettiness.’ Is drowning ‘a pretty way to die’ (19)? The ‘pretty suicide guide,’ would say so: ‘beauties never harm their faces’ (27). Of course, there’s nothing benign about the value of feminine beauty. This is made clear when the narrator looks upon a female corpse and thinks: ‘she’s prettier now / in coffined silhouette’ (5). Isn’t this the ideal woman? Pretty—and inert, silent, and surrendered to others’ devouring gaze? The narrator defies this value system: the female which dazzles (3) her gaze is a ‘raving’ (39), ‘ungroomed and carnivorous’ (3) ‘slattern’ (41).
The second suite of poems responds to the work of anatomist and naturalist Joseph Leidy (1832-1891), and the poet and naturalist Arsène Houssaye. Both men shared a bibliophilic ‘fetish’ for ‘anthropodermic’ books—that is, books bound in human skin. These books were normally created by surgeons, with Houssaye’s own book of essays bound in skin sourced from the ‘unclaimed’ body of a French, female mental patient (63,64).
The woman (women?) alluded to in this second suite call out to the women-sisters of the first—relating the latter’s more personal specificity to the more universal history of ‘the diasporic womb’ (56). In the first suite, the very ambiguity of the poems’ subject-object allows them to enlarge on their own anyway, especially in the poems referring to medicine and asylums, like in ‘Asylum, Pageantry’ (‘it is best not to dream for long / here medicine disallows her florid stutter,’ 3), and ‘The Heretics’ Asylum’:
The physician knows nothing
of angels with proper names.
Reverence is permitted only
toward unseen patients,
an innate distrust of that
which can be embodied
in a creed. (24)
In the second suite, we enter a world where a woman is literally disembodied—torn from her skin:
A splayed book attracts all the gazes.
You are the title closeted gazelle.
Just another posthumous seduction
To best display her character
no other decoration is placed. This
book deserves its own human cover. (53)
Sickened, furious—and utterly entranced—the reader asks: what does the woman deserve? This ‘brutal homage’ (54)? Here, the woman becomes another version of the inert ‘pretty’ female corpse in the first suite—one which others can literally ‘open’ and inscribe their own ‘creed’ into. This ‘echolalic duet’ between the first and second suites thus evokes the notion of an everywoman—an anywoman—who literally fights-to-the-death against patriarchy’s reduction of her to ‘flesh / toying architecturally with bone’ (56).
What Flannery O’Connor says of prose, surely applies to poetry also:
‘The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning… A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.’
In Calenture, two sisters are absolutely more than the sum of their parts, and the sophistication of Tuggle’s tightly crafted, cryptic and compelling ossuary—her home for the bones of the dead—becomes evident with each reading. Like the best poetry, this book is first and foremost an experience—one which no analysis can do justice to.
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1970 (c. 1957), pp.96-102
H.C. GILDFIND (hcgildfind.com) is the author of The Worry Front, published by Margaret River Press.
Stone Mother Tongue
by Annamaria Weldon
Reviewed by LINDSAY TUGGLE
Resurrecting the Oracle: Stone Mother Tongue
Annamaria Weldon’s luminous fourth collection returns the poet to the archipelago of her birth. Stone Mother Tongue begins in prehistoric Malta, where Weldon mourns the “goddesses we trample[ed]” across the centuries. The poet guides us through shifting incarnations of her homeland, where “Recollection is mapped country folded backwards / along familiar creases” (50). Weldon’s poetry enacts a uniquely feminine divination; she calls forth a goddess oracle unbound from history, a statuary tongue unloosed from time. Ancient relics —museumed, looted, or abandoned—are portals to haunted islands where “pre-history seems just offshore . . . time’s lost coast in stone, not words.” Weldon elegantly negotiates the fraught territory between conflicted and conflicting histories: collective and personal, traumatic and resilient, human and divine.
At first glance, Stone Mother Tongue is arranged geographically and chronologically: Part 1) Prehistoric Malta, Part 2) Phoenician Malta, Part 3) Anthropocene, Antipodes. Yet Weldon’s mesmeric slight of hand is already at play. Within each section, her poetry unsettles both geographical borders and linear time, paradoxically disturbing the author’s own system of organization. Weldon’s readers cross and recross liminal thresholds, inhabiting poetic interstices where boundaries and clocks have no sway.
In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) signifies the ambiguity of middle rites, when the seeker has shed her pre-ritual status but has not yet completed her rite of passage. Arnold Van Gennep integrated the concept of liminality into anthropology in his 1909 study Les Rites de Passage, which outlines three distinct phases of ritual progression: separation, liminality, and incorporation. Van Gennep’s ritual trinity is relevant not only to Weldon’s poetically resurrected antiquity; the anthropological concept of liminality also captures the elegiac melancholy of her work. At once preciously specific and sweeping in their historical resonance, her poems mourn the erasure of deities, landscapes, selves and beloved others.
In a land where “asteroids once smashed to earth,” language remains as eroded as geological history: “Each remnant’s recorded by era, / but Beta counting only calculates rates of decay, / a relic’s meaning remains cryptic (50, 23). This curated vacancy creates space for illumination and divination. Weldon calls on “incantatory” stones to resurrect an ancient, maternal language, born of a time “When everything was the Goddess /and stone was our mother tongue.” Her elegiac “undersong” mines the blank spaces beyond and between words, the inability of language to capture the most enigmatic aspects of human history: our ancestors and their deities. Yet, she insists that the oracle’s translation can only ever be partial. The Goddess speaks “a language [as] untranslatable as stars in daylight.” Despite the poet’s efforts at resurrection, “a relic’s meaning remains cryptic” (23).
The first section in Part One, “Divining the Neolithic,” shows us that even when ancient matriarchal rituals and relics have been ravaged by time and violence, traces of divinity linger. “Geomancy” reconfigures the “broken altars” of abandoned temples.
Time and weather, the ploughman’s husbandry
and urban sprawl effaced them, leaving us to guess
the geomancy, gutted now from enigmatic temples. (32)
Agriculture, exposure, and expansion have “effaced” this holy site, but the final desecration is rendered as an anatomical wound: the temple has been “gutted.” Part of Weldon’s poetic magnetism lies in her capacity to evoke visceral responses through language that is often violently acute: “History’s survivors have heard it all before / the sound of invasion that some call arrival.” Yet, Weldon asks far more of her audience than simply outliving the open wounds of history. Survival, she tells us, “is not endurance alone” (20-21). As an (inevitably partial) antidote to the unceasing escalation of gender violence across the centuries, she conjures divine maternal voices from the deep past, a chorus that both harrows and heals.
Goddess, when your body was worshipped
as holy matrix of the world incarnate
no clerics or sceptics mocked our devotion
and love conjured more power than hate. (18)
Throughout Weldon’s work, divination is disturbed by the arrival of new wounds, both personal and cultural. The deconsecrated temple has become a tourist destination, its deities reduced to ancient curiosities.
Inside the sanctuary walls, torba floors endure
as bone-white ground, broken as the silence now
deities are curios, gift shop souvenirs. (31)
While it may not be possible to resurrect the goddesses that once inhabited this hallowed ground, Weldon compels us to try. She invites us to listen beyond the gaudy white noise of our century, for the low hum of an oracle who keeps the secrets of her own survival well guarded, despite the hoards of curiosity seekers who trample her grave. Yet, Weldon’s poetry is far more nuanced than directive. While she argues that survival entails more than mere endurance, she does not reveal the resilient alchemy for surviving history’s ravages. That mystery belongs to the deity, alone.
Catalogued as myth, in time She was denied
all ceremonies, those rituals that temper
time’s lapse to entropy. (45)
This inquiry underpins the poems of Stone Mother Tongue: How do we, as a species, survive “time’s lapse to entropy”? Could the resurrection of ancient, maternally-embodied rituals help us to “temper” the technologically-saturated ennui of late capitalism? These questions are integral to Weldon’s work, even as they are revealed as unanswerable. The goddess’s stone tongue remains immobile, her “silence mystical and terrible” (33).
“In Geotherapy” Weldon’s archival poetics turns inward, enigmatically curating personal wounds alongside antiquity’s ravaged aftermath:
Enlist a devoted archivist to polish history.
When topography frames experience, you will accept
the residual changes heartache left in its wake. (50)
The poet becomes her own “devoted archivist,” preserving histories that are at once personal and collective, ever-present and archaic. In “Devotion’s Aftermath,” the Goddess shines as an elusive specimen of antiquity, “hidden in plain sight” (45).
In “Borderlands,” Weldon guides us into the liminal “Interstice” between the living and the dead. “Disarticulated by its darkness, we / have traversed all the stations of being / from birth to the excarnation of bones.” The portal of “sympathetic magic” is guarded by the “gaze of ancestral protection” — a hollow skull “watching all our futures.” (56). Under the protective eyes of this this spectral guard,, women gather, “as if willingly entombed,” crooning not in mourning but in celebration: “mantras of maternal consolation that rise / and fall with the birthing cries of the woman crouched on the cusp of deliverance.” Now, after the desecration and (partial) resurrection of ancestral deities and their followers, a birth arrives, and “the boundary between worlds is breached” (57). A new divinity — human, this time– emerges from “the cocoon of smooth deliverance. . . / a priestess / is not made, nor merely / born, but recognized” (59).
The poems of Part 2, “Phoenician Malta,” document the atrocities inflicted on the Maltese people by “colonizers, slavery, trade, cruelty” (70). Weldon interrogates what the Phoenicians brought with them as well as what they stole or destroyed, treating the islands merely as a “stepping stone settlement” (73). “Entire seashores, bays and beaches made middens” by an insatiable hunger for beauty that demanded destruction:
A quarter million snails sacrificed
for one ounce of dye.” (69)
In “This Precious Stain,” Weldon questions “What stories lay– still lie–beyond beauty!” and whether, “if we knew / their true cost, would their magic be dispelled / or the enchantment deepen?” Other poems elegize the human cost of quarrying the islands’ precious stones (formerly the source material for the statues of maternal deities who dominated Part One, “Prehistoric Malta”). These stones are now subjected to a “violent separation.” “Enormous slabs” are quarried and “prised open with fire, sanded smooth to elide the trauma / of calving rock.” The colonizing labour of unsettling these relics of geological time is equally violent: “Boys died here from a moment’s slippage, manoeuvring the masonry.” “Crushing has many sounds,” including “an exhalation / vaguely human, hanging in the air / hauntingly as final breath.” (71)
Alongside the desecration of the islands’ people and resources, the Phoenicians left something behind: an alphabet. “Newly designed Phoenician letters” gave those who survived the invasion and its aftermath the words to record their trauma: “incised on clay / or inked on papyrus. Before their invention / thoughts that could only be wept / sank unmarked into the dark water.” (67) In “A Shoreline Scripted for Heartbreak” we follow the “arrivals and departures” of the “Literate, captive women . . . assigned as scribes to passing merchants.” Starkly rendered in sparse language, the poem elegizes the “Ill-fated, unrecorded, charged encounters” these women endured in the “ceaseless maritime traffic” of “colonisers, pirates, naval flotillas, hospital ships, refugee boats, cruise liners, smugglers.” Weldon once again holds our hand to the flame, forcing us to see the harrowing similarities between the human trafficking of their century and our own.
Part Three, “Anthropocene, Antipodes,” merges Australia’s cultural amnesia with the aphasia of personal grief. “What I Saw at the War Memorial” articulates the national tendency towards historical erasure with the compulsion to create monuments that privilege nationally sanctioned deaths, while participating violently in the erasure of other, marginal massacres.
Grief is the gap where words
won’t meet. Time is a stone-cutter
quarrying rocks for monuments.
Memorials are what we build
to limn the invisible, mark thresholds
we can’t cross [.] (101)
In the 21st century’s amnesiac liminality, such thresholds of grief remain invisible and impossible to cross, rendered in fissures of language and memory. The poems of this final section embody an enigmatic loss of unity, sketching a deliberately fragmented picture of “grief’s blurred peripheries” against the hazy backdrop of “memories that rise like mist” (99). Weldon’s final poems elegize a multiplicity of losses, including a harrowingly beautiful tribute to her father’s remaining memories as he struggles with dementia:
when all that’s left
of your former life are those memories of the journey,
sightings and oracles remind me who you are — had been
before your mind soared to where there are no maps. (103)
In the end, Weldon brings us full circle, the poet herself becomes an oracle in “Leaning Back Towards the Neolithic.” Returning to her ancestral homeland, divination is not invoked or invited, but embodied:
From village to hamlet, the valley path from Gharb
to Birbuba has become my pilgrim’s way, each step
rephrasing me as I walk it. Words come unasked,
immersive as the weather of prayer, heartache
like a fig tree’s barren longing to bear fruit.
In her “Epilogue,” Weldon shows us that even when the statues of ancient dieties have all been effaced, the oracles silenced for centuries, poetry can offer a portal into the liminal threshold of harrowed divinity — if we only are willing to seek out the ruins, and to listen to the halting echoes of our Mother’s stone tongues.
LINDSAY TUGGLE is the author of The Afterlives of Specimens (The University of Iowa Press, 2017) and Calenture (Cordite Books, 2018) which was commended in the Anne Elder Award and shortlisted in the Mary Gilmore Prize. She has been a fellow at the Library of Congress, the Mütter Museum / College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
Jill Jones has published eleven books of poetry, and a number of chapbooks. The most recent are Viva La Real with UQP, Brink, The Leaves Are My Sisters, The Beautiful Anxiety, which won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry in 2015, and Breaking the Days, which was shortlisted for the 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her work is represented in major anthologies including the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, Ed. Nicholas Jose and The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry. In 2014 she was poet-in-residence at Stockholm University. She is a member of the J.M.Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, University of Adelaide.
Patience Without Virtue
Everyone loves the female voice.
Am I forgiven for having one?
I wait patiently, hoping it’s only
to do with simple flowers. It never is.
I dissent again, the moon goes as it came.
There’s nothing transcendental within reach.
What must I do amongst sweat
grey flannel, car parks, and theories?
I can only be a certain kind of lunatic
and women are vaster than history.
It’s the way I don’t step forward politely.
No point sitting on the fence.
It’s the way I have to fix things
by painting a sign. ‘I can’t believe
I still have to protest this fucking shit.’
I can’t put the leaves back.
My affinity is always a question.
I can’t recall when these things didn’t happen
in my cells or beaten-up memories.
I’ll never be as dead as a man.
Jungle Without Water and Other Stories
by Sreedhevi Iyer
Reviewed by MATTHEW da SILVA
The good things in this collection of short stories, Jungle Without Water, are very good indeed. But before talking about some of them in detail I want to briefly touch on the major theme of this book, which is the migrant experience in many of its different phases. In each of the stories mentioned in this review the main subject of the work is the way that people fit into society when they, or their antecedents, come from somewhere else. In some of the stories the main characters are people from India living in Malaysia but the title story, for example, takes as its subject an Indian student living in Brisbane, in Australia.
While it’s easy to thus find a unifying theme for the book, the narratives Iyer creates are not totally dominated by it. The clash of identity and custom that in one of her stories troubles an Indian-Malay living in Kuala Lumpur might be equally relevant for an Anglo businessman living in a house in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. In fact, where Iyer stumbles it is where the standard postcolonial narrative gains unnecessary prominence and politics overshadows art. The best stories here focus on the seeming-random details of lived experience.
The second story in the collection, which is titled ‘The Lovely Village’, is written as a fairytale and it takes as its subject the treatment of migrants who want to come into a village where there is equality for all. This story stood out for me in that it seemed not to be as deeply rooted in lived experience as the other stories in the book, and I found it to be rather weak in conception and lacking in the kind of impact that characterises many of the other stories.
After finishing several of the stories I felt a physical thrill on the skin of my neck, which is always a sign to me that the work I have just completed was particularly successful. I more often get this kind of sensation when reading a good short story or a good poem, as such methods of storytelling tend to conclude on a strong tonic note that reverberates once the final word has been consumed. Novels do not usually finish in this way and their impact tends to be spread out over longer stretches of text, with less sudden impact.
The first story in the collection, which I have already mentioned, is its title story. It deals with a young man named Jogi who is living in the Queensland capital with the aim of studying at university. His links with his family back in India remain strong, and one day after he has arrived in Australia his mother, who has stayed behind in his homeland, asks him to say a prayer for her husband who has to undertake a transfer for work. She is worried about how the transfer will affect Jogi’s father and family tradition maintains that prayers Jogi says are particularly effective.
Jogi relies on his friend Sandeep, who has lived in Brisbane for three weeks longer than Jogi, to help him carry out his assigned task. They visit a holy man in a place of worship in multicultural Brisbane but when Jogi sits down to pray nothing comes out of his mouth. They visit another holy place, this time one run by Westerners who follow Krishna, and they tell him that the particular prayer he wants to say is not permitted. Once again Jogi leaves a place where he should have been able to perform his familial duty, without being able to do so. He eventually fulfils his obligation but it happens, almost by accident, with the aid of a teenage girl who does nothing more than talk to Jogi one day on the street.
I won’t say anything more, as I feel as though I have already given away more than I should, but I felt that this story served to say important things about multiculturalism and about the migrant experience, things that other types of document would struggle to say. The words of the title, “a jungle without water”, pop up at two places in the story and they function to bring together disparate parts of the narrative, making the interstices between things so narrow that what happens seems like fate. This is an elegant story that functions to convey truths about immigration in a way that everybody can understand.
The context of that story is local for an Australian and so the way into the narrative was easier for me than it was in some of the other stories in the collection, for example ‘The Man With Two Wives’. This story is focalised entirely through the consciousness of a Indian-Malay who runs shops in Malaysia retailing food and it is written using the kind of language that the man, who is not badly educated but who uses Malay, Indian, and English words in his daily conversations, would normally employ. It is a small tour-de-force that says much about the culture that underpins the story. You feel as though you know this man well and when you hear his story of starting a course of study in accountancy, and there meeting a young woman named Lata, you get to experience his feelings in a way that vividly brings his world to life.
The protagonist is never named and neither is his wife. His daughter is Malathi and she ends up gaining prominence at the end of the story. His relationship with Lata, which causes so many tongues in his town to wag, is one of great importance to the protagonist and it is clear that while he married for the sole purpose of satisfying his mother’s wishes, with Lata things are different. His wife is only interested in buying gold jewellery and sarees, but Lata listens to what he has to say and her attention serves to justify an interior existence that the man’s daily business and family life does little to fulfil.
One day, the protagonist attends a job interview that Lata has encouraged him to go to. He enters a tall building by the sea and sits down in a room in front of a group of men, one of whom is a Westerner. The way his wife and the way Lata behave once the interview is over, however, tell him things about his world that he didn’t understand before. This is an effective, thoughtful, and powerful work of fiction that efficiently performs the tasks the author has set for it.
I will take a quick look at one other story in the collection, and it is also one that appears in the first half of the book. This is ‘Green Grass’, and it deals with a man named Mohan and his wife, who is a Westerner named Rachel, who come back to India to visit family. The event is an important one for the whole village where Mohan grew up. The way people living in the village treat Rachel, because of where she comes from and because of her relationship with her husband, contains the dramatic material the story relies on to communicate its messages about globalisation. It is focalised entirely through the consciousness of one of the villagers.
Each of these stories is different from the others in so many ways: in the way the narrative evolves, in the kinds of characters portrayed, and in the plot devices that each relies on to fulfil its purpose. There is a wry and knowing candour in many of Iyer’s stories. It not only helps to give the reader confidence in the author’s sincerity and intelligence but it also, paradoxically, allows Iyer to set herself apart from the drama and to view the events that unfold with a dispassionate eye. Even as you sense she cares very much about her creations, she also situates herself at a certain distance from them as they go about their business in her narratives. And despite their differences, each story mentioned here is excellent because it communicates a large amount of information in a small space.
I found other stories in Jungle Without Water to be less powerful than these and there are others too that I have not mentioned that I also thought good. There is plenty in this collection, which was first published two years ago, for any reader, and especially for an Australian one. After all, we are living in an Asian nation.
I want to finish with a note about the cover illustration used for the book. The watercolour employed is by Julian Meagher and his gallerist is Edwina Corlette, who has her shop, appropriately for the collection, in Brisbane.
With my mother I lived up north for five-and-a-half years. On one occasion I drove her when she was elderly down to the capital to see Corlette’s shop. Corlette’s parents had lived in the same suburb in Sydney where I grew up and she remembered mum because of our family’s gift shop. In fact everybody living there knew about Miss Phyllis Caldecott’s Home Accessories – the name used for the shop was my paternal grandmother’s – and we did a roaring trade at Christmastime, when people give presents to family members and to friends. Among the items mum and granny sold in large numbers were Indian cotton print dresses; this was the 60s and these kinds of garments were all the rage.
The use of Meagher’s painting for this collection seemed to me to be something, therefore, like fate, like what happens in its title story. A small sign of a kind you sometimes come across telling you that there are things in the world that cannot be understood entirely through reason.
MATTHEW da SILVA is a journalist and writer who lives in Sydney.
The short story of you and I
by Richard James Allen
Reviewed by Kyra Bandte
At first, The short story of you and I by Richard James Allen seems to exist in the liminal space between awake and asleep; the space where your psyche turns the familiar sound and scene around you into something altogether unfamiliar; the space where love and death coexist in the same ghostly breath.
The epigraph to The short story of you and I includes a black and white photograph of the poet, Richard James Allen, along with the imploring words: “My poems are sleeping in these pages, waiting for you to rouse them.” This connection between writer and reader continues throughout the book with Allen’s use of second person “you”. Whoever the poet truly speaks to, the persistent use of second person draws the reader close in a faceless kind of intimacy.
The book’s dedication whispers “for you”, and the first poem of the collection, ‘Delicate Awakening’, shows the poet’s persona vulnerable in sleep like a lover in a bed, needing to be woken “delicately / like raising an ancient shipwreck” (10).
The short story of you and I is, ultimately, a story of love and life (and death) from the moment the book is opened; from the moment the reader rouses the poems, gently awakening the sleeping poet in the opening stanza.
We slip through time and dreams in ‘Schlafwagen und Wunderkammer’, in “the long tail of a tall tale” (12) where “you were fairly certain it would be a normal sleep… but on the contrary” (13). We awaken into poems rich with seemingly everyday moments that Richard James Allen expertly transforms to spin a yarn so familiar it aches. One poem, ‘Espresso’, is a single exquisite line that holds a well of subtext within it: “There is no such thing as an innocent cup of coffee” (38).
But these everyday occurrences converge with the unreality of dreaming in ‘A Party in Small Moments’, which seamlessly slips between the macro and micro of our lives, asking “How can we have survived so many generations… and yet still come back to the tinkle of a spoon in a china bowl?” (17). Allen repeats the words “every moment” and the motif of tea cups and tinkling spoons, bringing the reader home with these everyday domesticities before asking “did you follow your dreams / or did you just fall asleep?” (20).
Using prosaic sentence structure and constantly addressing the “you” in the reader, Allen turns his poems into the little fictions of our lives. “I think maybe you thought your life was going to be a wall-size narrative painting… but somehow it turned out to be a quietly reflective line drawing” (23), Allen writes in ‘how life turned out, or Details of the Now’, making the reader feel quite insignificant for “this miniature of your life” (24).
A beautiful example of the way Allen uses colloquial prose in his poetry is in ‘Central Dreaming’, where the poet’s persona tells the story of how Sydney’s Central Station used to be a cemetary, now filled with ghosts “peering out from their unresolved darknesses / at the relentlessly colourful parade / of generation after generation” (33-34). This poem feels like a conversation, a casual story told from one commuter to another on one of Central’s suffocatingly humid underground platforms.
The poem not only demonstrates Allen’s articulate use of everyday scenes but brings two of the book’s main themes to light: life and death dance together in ‘Central Dreaming’, where the ghosts of the past drift alongside the “newer and newer Australians / right up to the drag queen in the hijab / standing nervously next to you” (34). The reader even becomes a ghost themself in ‘How we met’, where “The taxi stopped to let out its ghosts. / You were among them” (71).
The haunting middle between life and death is most obvious in one of the book’s final poems, ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’; a phrase referring to the sicknesses of consumption and pneumonia. The poem encapsulates the collection’s key themes of life and death while showcasing Allen’s technical poetic skill using language, structure and white space.
Filled with metaphysical, rhetorical questions (“What stands between you / and your dreams? [p93], “What can one patch of blue teach an overcast sky?” , “Who knows anything about souls anyway?” ), the poem is one of the most introspective in the collection. The shroud of everyday moments and conversational prose falls away in this long poem of constant questions, repetition and the grim motifs of body parts, sickness, trees and dreams.
Allen implores “you” to find un/consciousness: “You must understand now. You must understand now. / You must imagine now. You must sleep now. You must remember now, old friend.” (101) Then revives the reader with the state of familiarity that the rest of The short story of you and I presents, telling us to brush our teeth, shower, dress, step outside and “become just another metaphor for incompleteness” (102-103).
The collection shows the variety in Allen’s writing style, with the contast between seemingly simple poems (like ‘Espresso’ or ‘How we met’) and the more complex or sprawling poems like ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’. But more than that, The short story of you and I by Richard James Allen is an exploration of binaries and the ghosts between them; life and death, love and hate, you and I. It all starts with awakening the poet, and slipping into his dream.
KYRA THOMSEN lives and works on Dharawal Country. Her fiction and poetry have been published most recently in Cordite, AntipodeanSF, and Seizure, and she has reviewed books for Mascara, RABBIT Poetry Journal, the NSW Writer’s Centre and Writer’s Edit. Kyra was selected for the ‘Slinkies Under 30s’ program by Spineless Wonders in 2016, and co-won the Questions Writing Prize in 2012.