By Harriet McKnight
Reviewed by MATTHEW da SILVA
Harriet McKnight’s brilliant, moving novel reminded me of a book I had read a long time before, in 2006. That was Kate Legge’s The Unexpected Elements of Love, a novel that explores some of the same themes that McKnight incorporates into her 2017 novel: namely, dementia and climate change. Another that McKnight works into her book is the theme of domestic violence, and she also touches on racism especially (but not exclusively) as it relates to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations.
The narrative in this novel is exclusively and alternatively focalised through two characters. One is Pina Marinelli, a woman in late middle age whose husband Alan aged 60, has developed dementia. Alan is not from an Italian background and so has a different surname, although it is not disclosed. The other woman used to focalise the narrative is Arianna Brandt, a biologist with a Canberra university who is in charge of a program to release mating pairs of glossy black cockatoos into the countryside in East Gippsland where the action takes place. Boney Point is a small community that becomes acrimoniously divided when Sol Petroleum, the petroleum company that is funding Arianna’s work, starts exploration and well development nearby.
The narrative relies for some of the time on a stream-of-consciousness produced by either one or other of these women, although there is plenty of dialogue, for example passages that show the interactions that take place between Arianna and her colleague Tim, or between Pina and Alan. All of this enables the writer to develop the plot, which is deceptively slow to emerge at first. Forward movement has moderate strength but it is persistent. There is consequently plenty of scope for lateral movement, which gives the author opportunities to obey her instincts and examine byways and small branches stemming off the novel’s mainstream as she develops the major themes she has chosen.
The thoroughness of the preparation makes the denouement, when it arrives, especially powerful. The stories of both Arianna and of Pina are tied up cleverly within a few pages of an event that lends considerable drama to the book’s final section. So even though you are asked to be patient at first, the quality of the conclusion is far better than it might otherwise have been, simply due to the preparation the author has made sure to undertake.
The main vehicle for the theme of domestic violence is Arianna, whose personality is a little rebarbative, making it hard for her to socialise with other people and making it even difficult for her to maintain normal working relationships. The reader can understand what is going on, but people around her can feel excluded. Arianna is also slightly too dogged in the pursuit of her goals. It is as if, having been denied a normal childhood, she is unable to regulate her own desires or even, at times, think rationally. Like someone who is deeply committed to a narrow ideology, she can sometimes seem to be unyielding in the face of reverses, the kinds of barriers that people normally come across in the course of their regular lives and that can force them to reassess their goals. In one situation described in the novel, Arianna just ploughs on regardless, and struggles with circumstances that, for someone who had not suffered as she had as a child, would otherwise be unremarkable.
Arianna and Tim have released their birds in the forest and have prepared nesting boxes for them to use, but the creatures unaccountably abscond and the two scientists go looking for them using a radiofrequency tracking rig that picks up signals from devices that had earlier been strapped to some of the birds’ bodies.
Pina is meanwhile confronting the problem of single-handedly looking after her husband in their little cottage out in the bush at the very end of a lonely road. Every day, it seems, there are new challenges confronting Pina as she goes about the job of looking after Alan. She has to get him out of bed in the morning, put him on the toilet, bathe him and dress him, give him food and make sure he eats it, then make sure he doesn’t escape from the garden. She also has to do the shopping and most of the housework although she does have help sometimes from Tracey, a local woman who is also a volunteer with the Country Fire Authority. Pina keeps down a job at a local nursery run by an Aboriginal woman named Lil who is looking after a young man named Harley. Harley comes to mow Pina’s lawn from time to time and he also gets involved in a demonstration that is set up to protest the drilling out in the bush away from town.
McKnight often uses seemingly random sentences, that are set in italics, to help move the drama along. These instances serve to orient the narrative around recurring themes, such as Arianna’s childhood and her experience of a father who hit his wife. They can also serve to redirect the path the story is taking, and to bring to the forefront the interior life of the character in question, like a chorus can do in a song, by giving you access to elements of the character that are not currently being exposed by the immediate circumstances of the narrative. These short sentences become leitmotivs that help to develop character and thus to progress the plot.
One instance can serve to illustrate how this works in practice. When Arianna first encounters Alan, who is labile (he experiences steep mood swings) and who tends to vocalise negative emotions in a way that can be surprising for onlookers who don’t understand their biological causes, she experiences a flashback to her childhood that triggers physical symptoms. The narrative is suddenly broken by one of these italicised sentences that functions as an echo of something heard earlier in her life. The way that this kind of interaction is handled demonstrates the strength of the artistry involved in this work.
What strikes the reader about Arianna is how she tends to see the world through a distorting lens that has been moulded according to the dictates of her early life experiences, and the experiences she has had in the subsequent years, years she has been busy forging a career while at the same time dealing with the aftereffects of trauma. As the author shows, however, nature is a powerful force and so however much you might wish for a certain outcome you have to work with the limitations placed on you by the people, animals, and places that surround you.
Arianna is an interesting character that performs several key functions in the narrative. Beyond this kind of imaginative creativity, there is also a gentle wisdom is threaded through this wonderful book. Just as you might wish to chide Arianna, you are tempted at certain moments to want to scold Pina for clumsy attempts to control her husband’s personality. Nature is a hard taskmaster and people are well-advised to obey its dictates as far as they can be rationally accommodated, because the alternatives can be terrifying.
I was brought to tears at the end, where the narrative arc terminates proceedings with decisive force. It is not too strong an endorsement to say that the book embodies a deep humanity. The author’s recent passing at a tragically young age is to be double regretted inasmuch as it deprives the broader community of potentially great books. It is also notable that this book, like so many good recent works of fiction by talented female Australian authors, is set in a small country town. Who said we ignore that part of the world?
MATTHEW da SILVA is a journalist and writer who lives in Sydney.
Karina Ko is from Sydney and graduated from a arts-law degrees. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.
Things I Used to Believe
That I shouldn’t go near the dragonflies that hover over our pool because they could release a fine white powder and make my hair fall out.
That I was already bald enough at seven, the hair so fine at the corners of my forehead.
That my forehead bulged out too much, and was too high, whatever that meant.
That I was the reincarnate of my great grandmother on my father’s side because we were born on the same lunar calendar day at three in the morning. Also when I was born, I had the same big eyes and flat nose as in her funeral photo, the one on my grandparent’s ancestral shrine.
That when my grandmother saw my baby face, her big hands went up to rub her collarbones. Oh heavens, her mother-in-law has come back to keep an eye on her.
That it was why my grandmother always talked more to my brother when he and I flew over to see her. It was why her chopsticks struck the back of my hands when my fingers picked up the soy sauce chicken wing in my bowl.
That it also had something to do with my dark skin (like a Filipino’s they said). And the only time she really loved me was when she pulled up my shirt to rub a bitter minty oil and she beamed at the paleness of my aching belly.
That my cousin was more beautiful than me because she had pale skin, long thick black hair and no double chin. That if I put a clothes peg on my nose, as my mum instructed, it would grow to be more pointy.
That my mum was the most beautiful woman in the world but her nails were too sharp and scratched my scalp when she washed my thin hair with Johnson’s shampoo.
That a few nights into Chinese new year, I should walk through the streets outside our small federation house in Bexley North, past the Banksia and gum trees and announce that I am selling my laziness.
“Beautiful and delicious laziness for sale. Come and look. Come and choose. Discounted for big clearance. Look, you can even have it for free.” I mimicked the stall vendors’ calls at the markets in Hong Kong, the ones with pigs heads hanging on hooks and severed eels swimming in their own blood. My hands flew out at my sides flinging my laziness like rice grains at the dark front lawns of two storey brick houses where rich families lived.
That the spirits were too clever to believe my wares were worth taking. But that I was cute enough to make my mum laugh, happy to see her daughter making an effort.
That I could make her happy by telling her I would become a lawyer and buy her a Porsche.
That my dad was handsome when my mum met him, and that his perm, a small afro of Chinese hair, was fashionable at the time.
That Jesus walked on water and made it rain fish.
That as my mum warned, nine out of ten men were cheats and liars, the lot of them, especially the handsome ones. Except Jesus.
That ghosts liked to wander along the hall in our house. That they leaned against the tiled bathroom walls in the middle of the night when I needed to pee.
That you could hold them off by making a sign of the cross. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
That when Kirsten told me to blow the dandelion fluff and make a wish, it was because the fluff could capture the moment of my wish like a video. It would fly up to God where he had a special fluff VHS player and he would watch me wishing for my parents to be happy.
That as long as I kept the necklace Kirsten gave me with half a heart on it and she kept hers with the other half, we would stay best friends forever.
That everyone needed to have favourites to have personality. A favourite colour. A favourite scented crayon. A favourite dinosaur.
That in scripture class when Miriam with glasses so thick that it made her look cross-eyed, sputtered about a visit from an angel, the people who laughed were faithless hypocrites, even though I didn’t know this word then.
That there were things I couldn’t tell anyone.
That the way to be popular was to laugh at people’s jokes even if you didn’t find them funny. That most of the things people said at school were jokes, even if they didn’t start with knock knock or why did the chicken.
That when my mum was pushed against the dresser and the wedding photo fell to the floor, the shattered glass said something I couldn’t.
That the only tea one should order at yum cha is Tiet Kwun Yum oolong because it was what my mum always ordered.
That if I unveiled the pink table cloth hanging over the mirror at my mother’s dressing table, a banshee with long flowing hair would climb out. She would grab me with her bony coral fingers and pull my soul out like a flimsy silk scarf. “Children’s souls are the easiest to extract,” she would tell me in a scratchy voice, “because they are still getting used to their human form.” Then she would possess my body and trap my soul behind the mirror.
That I should never wear indigo in my hair because that is what girls wear to their mother’s funeral.
That as the palmistry book at the library said, the four vertical lines at the base of my mother’s right pinky, meant she was fated to have four children.
The fourth line was meant to be a younger sister. She would not have been good at maths but she would have been warm like the first day of spring. She would have belonged the way I tried to but never could.
Belonging was like one of those cards with an optical illusion made up of tiny coloured dots. You had to stare at it a certain way to reveal a picture. According to Thomas, a friend of our big brother, it was a picture of a snake. Sensing their growing boredom, I had said, “Yes, I see it now,” when all I saw was a mess of dots scattering over each other again and again. My sister would have been the first to see the snake.
That I was a traitor of a daughter for just standing there at the end of the bed, my mum crawling on the floor with my sister bleeding inside her.
That I would have gotten in trouble if my dad found me talking on the phone, reciting our address the way school had taught us.
That I should have called even if he hit me.
That when I grew up I would never fall in love with a man. That there was no good man who would love me and my bulging forehead.
That my unborn sister was behind the mirror and watched me through the pink cloth.
That I had to kneel near the mirror each night to go through my plastic rosary beads.
That the fifty Hail Marys would help calm my sister’s sadness, which swelled at eight twenty, her approximate time of death.
That even if Jesus had forgiven us, I never would.
David Adès is the author of Mapping the World (Wakefield Press / Friendly Street Poets, 2008), the chapbook Only the Questions Are Eternal (Garron Publishing, 2015) and Afloat in Light (UWA Publishing, 2017).
Photograph: Anne Henshaw
Life is Elsewhere
~ Milan Kundera
else the universe removes its cloak of dark matter and reveals
the strings of stars lying behind it
else the universe is not the universe at all but another and another
else the road taken is not one but many
and the road not taken is multiples of many
else life is smoke and mirrors behind which other lives
else wind is a giant hand brushing away
clouds of anger
else love is a prized toy, too easily discarded
else our eyes see and see nothing,
we walk, oblivious, in quicksand
else story is whisper, horizon, clouds piling up and up
else nothing is truth except lies,
told and untold,
where the volcano shifts and rumbles
where the girl hides inside herself,
where the words are spoken into the air
where everything is forsaken for love
where expediency trumps morality,
where politics outweighs compassion
where the wave of indifference is a tsunami
where the damaged and wounded
walk invisibly among us
where everyone speaks and no one is heard
where denial subverts and distorts truth,
where rationalisations deny accountability
where we cannot support the weight of our hypocrisy
where we fail to overcome the litany
of our failures.
Journey to Horseshoe Bend
by T.G.H. Strehlow
ISBN : 978-1-922146-77-9
Reviewed by JAMES PAULL
If not for the Christian gravesite, the book-cover image of Central Australia might appear an all too familiar trope. Industries as much cultural as primary have engaged in modes of wealth extraction from this landscape. In mid-century modernist mythography, for example, the desert spoke of a nation’s spiritual void. By contrast, the grave’s fragile occupancy in this hostile sun-blasted world alludes to a specific historical biography. The telling of its story is no less indicative of land’s meaning, however, no less imbued with mythography.
The biography in question is Carl Strehlow. The Lutheran pastor of Hermannsburg Mission from 1894, Strehlow succumbed to severe illness in 1922. In October that year a party set out to save his life, journeying along the dry bed of the Finke River with the immobilised Strehlow mounted on a chair on the back of a horse-drawn cart. The story of Carl’s agonised last days and death at Horseshoe Bend and a young man’s coming-of-age became in the hands of his son, linguist and anthropologist TGH (Ted) Strehlow, a literary masterwork.
Journey to Horseshoe Bend was first published in 1969. Apart from a 1978 paperback edition, it has been out of print. This Giramondo edition features a new cover photograph, as well as a specially commissioned essay by Dr Philip Jones, curator of Australian Aboriginal Culture at South Australian Museum. It reproduces the original text including the carefully prepared regional map that formed the endpapers of the first edition.
To revisit the book’s epic scope is to be reminded of its blending of closely observed factual detail with the artful. A simple diary-like entry – ‘It was Tuesday, the tenth day of October, 1922’ – sets the stage for the rising eastern sky to reveal calls of birdlife and Aranda (Arrernte) place-names. Meanwhile, the Mission’s Aboriginal congregation awaits with trepidation their ‘ingkata’ (‘chief’). We learn of Carl Strehlow’s long struggle to build a ‘Christian home’ for the Arrernte at Hermannsburg, as well as his now severely weakened condition due to the combination of pleurisy and dropsy. Carl’s questioning of his faith is introduced, as is the gnawing conviction the Church has abandoned him. His bloated pain-wracked body is revealed to all as he emerges with his wife and fourteen-year old son Theo, before being strapped atop a horse-drawn cart to journey south accompanied by his family and Arrernte horseback drivers. So begins his personal Calvary – the poignancy heightened when the Aboriginal congregation offers an impromptu rendition of a Lutheran chorale translated into Arrernte.
TGH Strehlow began writing the book during an illness resulting in hospitalisation. It was also a period of midlife crisis, when he would abandon his wife and children for a much younger woman. Both episodes undoubtedly shadow the book’s central theme, which concerns the reciprocal nature of death and regeneration.
Successive revisions of the first draft saw the manuscript evolve from autobiography to a form in which Indigenous and settler narratives are interwoven. Strehlow was alert to a mid-century poetics that turned to the outback to frame questions of Australian national identity. Voss remains the most celebrated, but others, including the Jindyworobaks with their focus on Aboriginal culture and natural environment, are equally important. The generation of Arrernte artists commonly associated with Albert Namatjira identifies a third stream.
A passing reference to Namatjira in the book’s opening section invokes something of this awareness; more significantly, it demonstrates the memoir’s doubled philosophical design. Journey is testimony to the convergence of differing stories, peoples and cultures and how they are bounded by conditions of circumstance and region. The lives of the Arrernte peoples and the Strehlows converge at Hermannsburg (Ntarea). The most important form of doubling is that of Carl’s death journey with his son’s coming-of-age. This is because Journey, while a work of synthesis, is, first and foremost, a literary Bildung. Crucially, Theo’s development cannot be separated from his father’s decline.
There is another photo of Carl Strehlow’s grave, this one taken in 1936 and featuring the son, now a young man commencing fieldwork in Central Australia. The recently married TGH revisits the site of his father’s death at Horseshoe Bend. The portrait seems to foreshadow the memoir’s design and thematic preoccupations. TGH’s respectful yet solitary stance embodies something of the burden the author carries in this book. His story remembers in detail the harrowing circumstances of Carl’s death. Journey is a work of mourning, but it is also a nuanced psychic account of the son’s displacement of his father.
Strehlow perhaps is not unlike Hamlet, haunted by the Father’s imposing legacy as missionary and pioneering Arrernte scholar. Although not always acknowledged, Carl’s lifework provided his son the main prototype for much of his ethnography. Aranda Traditions (1947), Strehlow’s groundbreaking study of Arrernte male initiation rites, includes remarkably detailed accounts of Dionysian rituals that see ‘excited young men’ frenziedly dance to exhaustion, thereby shattering the symbolic power of their elders. Journey is comparatively muted, yet no less pointed: its narrative simply avoids recording any direct exchange between Theo and his father. Like the tombstone driven into scorched earth, the inscription of the Oedipal complex runs deep in the author’s personality.
The landscape of Central Australia is inseparable from regional mythology. In Journey landscape is a patterned composite of stories whose design can be considered omnipresent and omnidirectional. It is also non-entropic. Carl’s death-journey is recorded across the party’s 12-day trek to Horseshoe Bend. On the 13th day, Theo stands alone at his father’s grave on the bank of the Finke River, conscious of death yet alert to the beginning of his new life. The reciprocal relationship of opposites, father and son, entropy and renewal, disappearance and emergence, structure the journey, but it is storytelling and translation that interweave human as well as nonhuman experience.
The year before his death, Carl completed the monumental eight-volume study of the Arrernte and Luritja peoples he had commenced in 1907 (Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien). Born at Hermannsburg Mission, Theo’s first languages were German and Arrernte. Conceived at Ntarea, his clan totem marked the place of Twins Dreaming. By the period of his memoir, TGH had long established himself as the foremost living expert of Arrernte linguistics, song-verse and traditions, most notably in Aranda Traditions and Songs of Central Australia (1971). Strehlow’s ability to juxtapose Indigenous myth with the biography of father and son’s biblical exile encodes his intergenerational drama with a richly arcane cross-cultural knowledge.
Carl’s fate unfolds across a hostile environment marked by heat, drought and fire. For example, three Finke River stations in Central Australia (Henbury, Idracowra and Horseshoe Bend) mark where the travellers rest. For the white bushfolk, Henbury offers a rare permanent waterhole, but for the Arrernte the waterhole of Tunga is the last resting place of Tjonba: ‘giant goanna ancestor’, who in seeking to escape an ancestral hunter burrowed deep into the ground. Idracowra is a corruption of Itirkawara, Arrernte name for Chambers Pillar. The sandstone pillar-like formation locates the final resting place of the mythical gecko ancestor, whose territorial conflicts and ‘abhorred incestuous’ acts were punished by edict from his own ‘gecko kinsfolk’. Synonymous with brutal heatwaves, Horseshoe Bend is Par’ Itirka – its surrounds disclose a series of ‘heat-creating totemic’ centres, the most potent of which is Mbalka, ‘home of a malicious crow ancestor’ responsible for lighting bushfires ‘whenever he flew down from the sky’.
The story of Irbmangkara waterhole, with its network of totemic centres linking bloodthirsty myths of warring clans, overlap with living testimony as to the deeds of police trooper W.H. Willshire, whose murders of the Arrernte led to his arrest in 1891. Willshire’s frontier atrocities loom large in Strehlow’s account representing what might be taken as a literal dialect of colonisation. In describing one of his attacks, Journey records how Willshire spoke of his ‘Martini-Henry carbines… talking English’. Heir to the Lutheran tradition in which language contains the spirit of a people, this comment shrewdly exposes the inherently suspect nature underpinning the settler community’s legal and more broadly cultural claims to country.
Landscape is a palimpsest: multilayered stories from the past seep into the stratigraphy of present-day routes. Frontier atrocities map one surface. Another is the rural community of ‘bushfolk’ described with affection by Strehlow. This in part stems from their respect for Carl, as shown both in their willingness to help him make his way down the Finke and the burial service, where the pastor’s bloated dead body is awkwardly stuffed into a makeshift coffin made of discarded whisky cases (its unopened bottles have been distributed among the bushfolk as a farewell gift from Carl). Grimly touching, the episode offers an ingenious ethno-poetic record of frontier exchange systems.
The archetype of the rural folk sharply contrasts with the remoteness of the Lutheran establishment, which Strehlow believed had abandoned his father. Strehlow’s treatment of his father’s anguish draws directly on Christ’s experience of abandonment in the garden of Gethsemane. If the depiction of the bushfolk has dated, Carl’s torments remain harrowing and help explain the lonely, dogged personality of the author, witness to tragic events over which he has no control.
TGH emerges in his own pages as the most complex of outsiders. Whether privy to settler tributes made to his deceased father, or recipient of Arrernte statements that his ancestral home now belongs at Ntarea, Strehlow finds himself alone, saddled with twin heritages. In life, he lived and worked between two worlds: a German migrant in Anglo-Celtic Australia, Arrernte-born but Lutheran-educated, a foremost authority of Central Australian ritual, sacred belief and song, whose work was deeply interwoven with his father’s less accessible, yet equally imposing, legacy. Cast in the third person, ‘Theo’ is just as doubled: a young man transitioning to adulthood but perceived through the eyes of ‘Ted’, his much older self.
The author of Journey was also a man increasingly burdened by responsibilities brought with years of fieldwork. The collecting of custodial objects, stories and song, while not directly evident in his memoir, can be felt. When Journey was published, Songs of Central Australia still awaited publication, despite being completed over a decade earlier. The reasons for delay of his magnum opus are complex – in part related to the costly venture of the book’s design, in part related to sensitivities making sacred knowledge public. In Songs Strehlow describes himself as the ‘last of the Aranda’, expressing what he believed was his custodial kinship with the Arrernte, as well as his lonely standing as the sole surviving custodian of sacred clan knowledge. The sentiment also pervades the memoir of his journey from childhood to manhood, an era he described as ‘passed on as though it had never been’.
If nostalgia is important to the book’s design, it also helps identify the ideological constraints that mark its account of the Arrernte. Described as ‘dark folk’, their presence is finally a cultural backdrop to the main drama. While sparingly used, the phrase reveals a consistent assimilationist purpose, whereby the ‘primitive’ is incorporated into the narrative of Western progressivism.
Strehlow’s assimilationist beliefs would become more pronounced in the years that followed the publication of Journey. In an emergent era of Indigenous land rights and repatriation of sacred objects, he upheld in increasingly strident terms the view of a dying culture to claim sole ownership over the ritual objects entrusted to him by Indigenous elders during his long years of fieldwork. He died in 1978, mired in controversies his convictions had helped generate.
TGH Strehlow remains the most ambivalent of Australian literary figures, a pioneering writer-translator of Arrernte verse and performance committed to practices of white ownership and accumulation. Perhaps he is best approached as an outsider of the Arrernte, but a uniquely privileged one. He was conceived at Ntarea, the place of Twins Dreaming, and so was instinctively alert to the coexistence of opposites. His account of the journey reflects this knowledge, unfolding through the eternal interplay of doubles – reverie in the coolness of night, unending torment in the searing heat of day. This imaginative process contributes to the transitional yet transformative poetics of Journey. To speak of death as finality makes no sense in such a world. Just as Carl’s final resting place gives way to Theo’s grasp of the ‘certainty of life’, stasis signifies a circulatory force whose constitutive nature binds all things.
Such a poetics remains significant in today’s politics, but its authority is far more contradictory, flawed and diminished than its author likely intended. Strehlow’s quasi-Wagnerian conviction that myth is a contemporary mode of thinking deepened white understanding of traditional Indigenous culture, while simultaneously repressing its living modern reality. In place of contemporary Arrernte elders, he dramatised his own becoming and positioned this drama within what he believed a greater national culture. In doing so his epic narrative reveals something more than generational bias; it shows settler writing as inseparable from Western colonialism’s historical violence and claims to cultural superiority.
Dr JAMES PAULL is a curator, teacher, librarian, freelance writer and researcher.
The Measure of Skin
by Ramon Loyola
Reviewed by FELICITY PLUNKETT
Poets have recurrent signatures – words, images, modes and motifs – imprints unique as a fingerprint’s whorl. For Philippines-born poet, editor, lawyer and writer of short fiction, Ramon Loyola, one of these is just this: images of skin, literal and figurative, and an exploration of the ways skin communicates and mediates unique histories.
Throughout his work – three poetry collections, an experimental prose-poetry memoir The Heaving Pavement and a series of comic zines Barney Barnes and Friends – embodiment, skin and porousness recur as images conveying ideas of vulnerability, injury and tenderness.
The Measure of Skin is one of ten titles in Vagabond Press’ vivid deciBels 3 suite, meticulously edited by Michelle Cahill, co-edited with Dimitra Harvey. It sits alongside work by, among others, Pakistan-born Misbah, a visionary weaver of lyric prose-poetry slivers, versions of which were previously short-listed for the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize; Anna Jacobson, winner of that same prize in 2018, whose debut collection Amnesia Findings (forthcoming, UQP) charts the loss and repair of memory through exquisite poems exploring trauma and resilience, Jewish diaspora, injury and healing; and Jessie Tu, one of whose poems was short-listed in Australian Book Review’s 2017 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. deciBels series 3 is gloriously expansive, highlighting a divergent array of poetics.
The poems in Loyola’s The Measure of Skin return to the skin of the speaker’s own body, and that of his lovers, who, bound in the skin of their own stories, have ‘revelled in my skin’. There is skin ‘bound to be touched’, scented with ‘jasmine hint’; the crease of articulate scars, patterned with hair and bruises or more figuratively – ‘parched skin quenched/ Of the thirst for clear answers’ by the wash of seawater. Loyola’s poetry includes all the senses. There are almost palpable textures of ‘glistened skin’, ‘rough… stamens in the rain’ and skin lit and warmed by rays of sunshine. And there is the hue of skin, a question crucial to this collection’s consideration of identity, loss, displacement and connection.
Skin – the soft tissue that covers us – is a layered, hard-working organ that holds us together and provides insulation and protection from pathogens. Its pores do the work of letting in and letting out. It may be a site of injury or healing, associated with bonding, lovemaking and bliss as well as with violence and wounding.
Language is a skin, writes Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse. Words are the surface of layered lexical histories. To peel back layers of the word skin we find the Old Norse skinn – animal hide – itself traceable back to the Proto-Germanic skinth from which come words in various languages meaning to peel back, flay, cut; the scales of a fish or a tree’s bark. There are Latin seeds and Sanskrit ones.
The original syllable, then, moves through languages, layered and displaced. It has left its home to become important in another place. It leaves its flakes in languages across the world.
Just as a word does, so do human beings. In ‘For the Sleepwalkers’, Edward Hirsch imagines sleepwalkers – a metaphor for any of us wandering through this world – as exemplars of what it is to trust and risk, moving through ‘the skin of another life’ in their sleep:
We have to learn to trust our hearts like that.
We have to learn the desperate faith of sleep-
walkers who rise out of their calm beds
and walk through the skin of another life.
We have to drink the stupefying cup of darkness
and wake up to ourselves, nourished and surprised.
When Barthes writes that language is a skin, his context is the citational poetics of A Lover’s Discourse, a book he prefaces with a description of offering the reader: ‘a discursive site: the site of someone speaking within himself, amorously, confronting the other (the loved object), who does not speak.’
The terrain of Loyola’s poems of skin and skinlessness is similar. In an interview with Tony Messenger, he writes about an instigating self-scrutiny as the basis for exploring layers of self and other – ‘to know myself down to the bone in order to confront the many possibilities – delicious and sordid – inherent in the realms outside my own skin.’
Often, these poems contain a ‘you’ towards whom their open, often amorous words are directed. There are quiet poems of pillow-talk, intimate words the reader is positioned to overhear. The book’s first line ‘your hands feel familiar’ reaches towards a sense of the familiar; the affinity that causes the speaker to wonder – and wander – through a dance of possibilities, expressed as neat rhyming paths in the final stanza: ‘go away’, ‘want to say’ and going ‘astray’ are poised as the lover’s options.
Rhyme measures the options, as Loyola’s poems place skin and metrics side-by-side. This weighing-up that shapes the first poem, ‘Familiar’, sets the tone. Putting skin together with measure is a poetic experiment – a kind of scientific and emotional assay – as the poems assess losses and gain, connection and loss, and the ways the body holds memories of trauma and joy. So when a lover’s hands here feel ‘familiar’, the speaker’s plan – (‘i only meant to say hello/ to wish you well on your way but) – tips into indecision, the ‘What is to be done?’ that prefaces Barthes’ book – ‘I bind myself in calculations’.
Among these calculations, Loyola’s poems measure alternatives. In ‘Monkey Suit’, he imagines his lover’s body in the frank unabashed images these poems revel in: ‘His sex is big. His sex is the bomb.’ Part of this is its whiteness: ‘There is never anything whiter… than the shape of his shiny white buttocks’. On the other hand, the speaker’s -assessment is at best self-ironising, at other times directly abject and self-flagellating. This is often a refreshing riposte to a culture commodifying beauty, and at times an unabashed lament. It also suggests a weighing-up of negative and even racist assessments of his own body. He imagines his own sex as ‘coarse’, ‘crooked’ and ‘foul’, yet this is weighed against the pleasure and consolation of connection. The poem’s last stanza ends with a kind of volta, a ‘but’, and a reparative image of afterglow: ‘the same sweetness of souls’, which suggests a rejection of superficial, cruel assessments.
Loyola mediates the measuring of beauty and bodies, balancing perfection and imperfections through discourses of skin binding mind and body. As metaphor does its traversing of bridges, so do Loyola’s speakers and lovers, over empathy’s crossings. This is suggested in the poems’ mode of invocation, invitation: ardent reachings-out, or dialogic inner reflections. Love might be, as Loyola writes in ‘In All the Broken Places’ ‘[u]nbridled, perilous or kind’, but whatever its composition, it ‘steeps the heart and mind’. ‘Touch me’, he writes in ‘Touch Me Where It Hurts’, where ‘my heart sits quietly’; in the place of a wound that ‘does not hurt’.
Loyola’s poems meld a lawyer’s weighing-up with a poetics of skin and vulnerability, where the poems’ speakers wander as outsiders, looking in, or looking into themselves. The poem are shaped along these axes, with balance and symmetry at the levels of structure and the patterning of images, and an imagistic wildness and tonal intimacy in their expression of homoeroticism.
I last saw Loyola at a poetry reading in May. The alignment of our interests had nurtured a gentle online friendship, and we clasped hands with a sense of the weight of that bridge. This was the way of Loyola’s presence in the poetry community. He was a passionate reader of others’ work, a modest promoter of his own, and his interactions had a steady radiance and kindness to them.
In September, Ramon Loyola died suddenly following after suffering a brain aneurysm. The shock and pain of this for his family and loved ones is inestimable, and the loss to the community of poets he nurtured and contributed to with such exemplary generosity is deep.
Writing about Loyola’s poetry of intimate address and mapping this onto the similarly ruminative slivers that make up Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, I think of the loneliness each writer evokes, as part of our experience of love. In ‘No Answer’ Barthes writes:
Like a bad concert hall, affective space contains dead spots where the sound fails to circulate. – The perfect interlocutor, the friend, is he not the one who constructs around you the greatest possible resonance? Cannot friendship be defined as a space with total sonority?
In reading The Measure of Skin — first when it was published, now in Loyola’s absence, his poems have a consolatory continuance. Reading his work continues to make us interlocutors in the vibrant spaces his poetry creates.
- Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (London: Penguin, 1977), p. 3.
- Barthes, p. 63.
- Interview, Tony Messenger interviews Ramon Loyola, Messenger’s Booker (and more): https://messybooker.wordpress.com/2018/06/18/the-measure-of-kin-ramon-loyola-plus-bonus-poet-interview/, np.
FELICITY PLUNKETT’S Vanishing Point (UQP, 2009) won the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Prize and was short-listed for several other awards. Seastrands (2011) was published in Vagabond Press’ Rare Objects series. She edited Thirty Australian Poets (UQP, 2011). A Kinder Sea is forthcoming early in 2020.
Winner: Blakwork by Alison Whittaker (Magabala Press)
Blakwork is radical in its forms and addresses; seeking, unapologetically to unsettle white heteronormative spaces. The poet is also tasked to decolonise discourses in language, law, and popular culture. Whittaker explodes the stock images and racist, reductive tropes that are the foundations of settler nation. With syntactic and rhetorical shifts and with neologisms, her sound poems invigorate the lyric with freshness, vitality and impressive virtuosity.
Subtraction by Fiona Hile (Vagabond)
A Trillion Tiny Awakenings, by Candy Royalle (UWAP)
The Alarming Conservatory by Corey Wakeling, (Giramondo)
Winner: The Bed-Making Competition by Anna Jackson (Seizure)
The Bed-Making Competition is startling, humorous and compassionate in voice and tone. Reminiscent of J.D Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, it offers the wisdom of near-lived experience through the alternating fictional voices of two sisters over twenty years, and their often self-detached, self-performative subjectivities. Temporal partitions bring the past and present into synchrony. The structure of this novella is exemplary; it may be read as short stories, symmetrically arranged, each with a ‘bed-making’ metaphoric trope or juxtaposed psychologically so that destiny is mirrored and reversed. Deep emotional insights are presented through irony and tact gliding over the surface of volatility, confusion and disorder in the lives of Hillary and Bridgid.
Melodrome by Marcelo Cohen translated by Chris Andrews (Giramondo)
horse by Ania Walwicz (UWAP)
All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimopolus translated by Alice Whitmore (Giramondo)
Winner: No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani, translated by Omid Tofighian
As a writer and political thinker Behrouz Boochani is one of the most important figures of our time. In No Friend But the Mountain he achieves the impossible, a treatise of dignity, equality and freedom in the face of a brutal and inhumane imprisonment. Part lyric-memoir, part existential philosophy, meticulously written on a mobile phone and translated from Farsi, this book is an act of interceptionality, re-claiming subjectivity for the subaltern voice of detainees, mediating the political narratives used by mainstream media in profiling asylum seekers. Translated by Omid Tofighian, Boochani follows in a tradition of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notes and Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. We are proud that Mascara Literary Review was one of the first journals to publish Boochani’s prose from Manus Island Detention Centre in 2015 (edited by Janet Galbraith).
The Tastes and Politics of Inter-cultural Food in Australia by Sukhmani Khorana (Roman and Littlefield)
Visualising Human Rights by Jane Lydon (UWAP)
The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright (Giramondo)
Of Indian Origin Ed Paul Sharrad and Meeta Chaterjee (Orient Black Swan)
A ground-breaking collection of writing by Australian Indians, edited by Paul Sharrad and Meeta Chatterjee Padmanabhan. It gives readers access to lesser-known material from published writers like Meena Abdullah, Suneeta Peres da Costa, Sudesh Mishra, Michelle Cahill, Christopher Raja, Sunil Badami, and Christopher Cyrill. It also introduces writers such as Manisha Anjali, Aashish Kaul, Rashmi Patel and Sumedha Iyer. Resisting homogenised or hierarchical representations of the Indian-Australian community, contributors spread not only from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, but also include Anglo-Indian voices and work from the Fijian and African Indian diaspora now living in Australia. The introduction outlines the discriminatory legal and political cultural framework which Australian Indians have had to navigate historically. Indians are the second largest group of immigrants in Australia; even still the editors, both postcolonial scholars, could not interest an Australian publisher. While there have been Asian Australian anthologies such as Wind Chimes and Contemporary Asian Australian Poetry, and sparks of interest through conferences and academic writing; the focus is often on China or Southeast Asian Australian writing. This collection locates the Indian Australian experience of South Asia with all its richness and flourishes firmly in the canon.
The Big Black Thing: Chapter. 2 Sweatshop, ed Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Winnie Dunn, Ellen van Neerven
Going Postal: More than ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, Ed Quinn Eades & Son Vivienne (Brow Books)
Light Borrowers, UTS Anthology Intro by Isabelle Li (Seizure)
Emily Sun is from Western Australia and has been published in various journals and anthologies including Westerly, Island, Hecate, Australian Poetry Journal, and Growing up Asian in Australia. She is currently working on her first novel Maybe it’s Wanchai? and can be found at http://iamemilysun.com
Maybe It’s Wanchai [灣仔]?
Tape deck, SONY
made in Japan
too many places and too many dark spaces
soft wave radio
white noise comforts in mah-jeh’s refuge
masking the sounds of a forgotten city
Non-recyclable plastic and metal, magnetic tape
Tony Leung pre-lust but with caution
together we unspool the tangles and with an
octagonal pencil, made in the people’s republic,
until the music plays
the Banana Boat song
tonic to sub-dominant fragment
then I started a joke
Too many men in skinny flared jeans
No one was laughing.
All animals know they are born to die, but none really believe it.
A mouse caught by a well-fed cat does not know its death is imminent even when that cat presents it to her musophobic owner who will scream, grab the injured mouse up by its tail and feed it to Susa, an Appleyard rescued duck. Susa will pick up the mouse and shake it so violently that its little neck breaks. This mouse will never know that after it disintegrates in the darkness of Susa’s stomach, it will become part of the manure that nourishes the garden it once called home.
Susa was meant to die before the mouse. The council ordered the slaughter of all abandoned domestic ducks found wandering in public parks because introduced species destroy the delicate eco-system. Susa is only alive because when her would be executioner, a middle-aged council worker who was usually on the pot-hole team, looked into Susa’s woeful and purulent eyes, he knew he had no option but to take her to the vet.
This is how it is and how it should be.
Only purebreds and country women’s baked goods are assigned prestigious categories at the show. The decorative —animate and inanimate, edible and inedible— are placed in metallic cages or glass cabinets. A purebred Hereford steer or heifer can fetch thousands at a charity auction, but lesser breeds are sold in bulk and that exchange is used to teach business students the concept of futures. There is no gender pay gap amongst these purebreds because both the steer and heifer’s carcasses are as tender as the other after twenty-eight days on a hook. Even the most discerning diner will not be able to tell whether their rib-eye steak was once male or female, only that it was expensive and more so when drizzled in truffle oil.
Piglets are, arguably, not decorative, yet everyone laughs and applauds when they are forced by the farmer/clown to dive into shallow pools of water from two or three metres. Some piglets fear the height and others fear the water. The farmer/clown will not kill them until they break a leg, drown, or grow too large for the plastic pool. They are not sucklings so are safe from Chinese fathers who want to present them, roasted, as a symbol of their daughter’s virginity at her wedding banquet. These diving pigs are kept away from piggeries that house pork because most mammals can sense and taste like fear. A pig on a spit at Oktoberfest is always sweeter when its day begins like any other, rutting and running around, and only dies when, from a distance, Uncle Giovanni shoots it in the head with his a single 150-grain projectile, the unregistered rifle. Uncle Giovanni’s pigs always requires less salting.
Simplicity Chan was like any other hopeful animal when she woke up on a wintry morning in the early 21st Century. She went for a swim in the heated indoor pool, ate lunch at Subway, and sat down to watch the Masterchef semi-finals in the evening. By midnight, she was hooked up to an oxygen tank and told by the ED doctor that if she were his sister, he would say “Yes. You have cancer.”
It turned out that Simplicity did not have a procrastinating cancer, one of the types that give you enough months or even years, to tidy up your affairs and perhaps even allow for the medical researchers to develop a new cure. Simplicity had an aggressive but good cancer, and the type that Laura, her assigned cancer support buddy, said she would pick if she had to choose from the hundreds in the cancer catalogue. Laura explained that although the sub-type was rare, it was known to have at least an eighty plus, or so, percent survival rate. The cancer cells were dumb and easily killed by chemo. Only a very small percentage, oh two or was it twenty percent, did not respond to treatment. Laura assured Simplicity that by next Christmas the entire experience would be simply a ‘blip on the radar’.
Simplicity survived so she forgot about dying and started a music studio in her living room. She taught small children how to play whatever instrument their parents wanted them to play, usually the keyboard. It was a shock when, on Valentine’s Day two years later, Simplicity woke up, made dinner reservations at a Gold Plate award winning restaurant but passed out on the hot pavement outside the restaurant while waiting for her date. By midnight she was hooked up to an oxygen tank in a different ED —not the one where she had once spent the night in a dark room hooked up to an IV pole attached to an immobile trolley bed and her head next to a full commode.
This second time around, Simplicity didn’t want a support buddy but she overheard a patient on the ward ask for a priest so she requested a Buddhist monk or nun. She wasn’t really religious but one of her grandmothers had been a devout Buddhist. The young ward receptionist who was in charge of Simplicity’s request said that he could call someone from their list of spiritual counsellors or if she wanted him to, ask a nun who was a regular at the markets where he busked on weekends. He was pretty sure she was a nun for she had a shaved head and walked around in robes that looked a lot like the Dalai Lama’s. She wasn’t on the official hospital list nor was she Asian but she was “really awesome” and always dropped ten dollars into his guitar case whenever he played Blur so she would have been youngish in the 1990s. Simplicity said she didn’t care who it was as long as the person believed in an afterlife because this time no one was saying hers was a good cancer.
The Blur loving nun was dressed in orange and yellow robes when she visited Simplicity on the ward. She said she wore different coloured robes each week because couldn’t fully commit to the temple she’d trained because not all the monks and nuns there were vegetarians. When Simplicity asked the nun why some people were struck down by cancers, the nun also said that all cancer patients were flawed humans in their previous lives and Simplicity’s relapse was evidence of this. But as the doctors still called it a ‘curable cancer’, Simplicity’s sins were relatively minor. Only terminal cancer patients who experienced agonising pain before they were taken to the hot or cold Narakas were the ones who had been murderers and child rapists last time around. Sure, it wasn’t fair for the people they were now but this is just how it was and how it should be. Besides, everyone had more chances since their damnation was time limited in the Buddhist realm and most people would be reborn human.
Simplicity survived again but afterwards stopped visiting the temple where her grandma’s ashes were kept for fear of bumping into the nun. When Simplicity returned home, she was more like the pig whose carcass will still tasted like fear even after drowning in a cauldron of soy sauce and five-spices. Simplicity was unable to make any plans beyond the moment, but soon these moments turned into seconds, the seconds turned into minutes, the minutes turned into hours and the hours into days, so she decided to read War and Peace in the order Tolstoy had intended. But before Prince Andrei left for war for the first time, it happened again. Simplicity woke up one day and by evening she was back on the cancer ward.
The doctor on duty walked in, her eyes blood shot, and told Simplicity that her only cure now was a bone marrow transplant, or they called a stem-cell transplant. The less arduous process, and softer sounding term, meant that more people were more willing to register as donors, this included religious people, except those from specific sects, once they understood that the process did not involve unwanted IVF embryos. The chances of finding a donor were not high, the doctor said, but not entirely impossible. What she neglected to say then was that Simplicity’s odds of finding a match were lower because she wasn’t European, or more specifically Northern European.
In year five, Simplicity’s sometimes-friend Nita had asked her, ‘Don’t you wish you had been born something else?’ This was after Shelby started making fun of Simplicity for having ‘slitty eyes’. That was the year when everyone was cruel to each other. Some kid called the teacher a fat cunt so the teacher dragged another kid across the desk and slammed him against the wall. When Nita, more an ally than a friend, and Belinda, the girl with no allies, were absent, Simplicity was teased for looking Chinese or Japanese, and speaking English too ‘posh’. Simplicity later discovered that her accent was one that some English celebrities often adopted to mask their aristocratic upbringing. By that time though, Simplicity had lost the accent and sounded more like Bob Hawke and no longer said daahhnce or Fraahhnce when she referred to the school social or the country across the English Channel. Other than dickhead Don, who pinched Simplicity whenever he had a chance, no one really physically hurt her. Nita though was constantly subject to electric shocks administered by Shelby, who excelled at nothing else. Shelby couldn’t have bullied Nita for looking or sounding different because although Nita was part-Maori, she had blonde hair and blue eyes, and no one made her say ‘fish and chips’ or ‘six’ repeatedly as they did with that other kid from New Zealand. Initially, Shelby used her index finger to shock Nita but then she learnt how to charge up a drawing pin to stick into Nita. If their teacher had seen Shelby’s experiments as a teaching moment perhaps Shelby would’ve ended up at the CSIRO and not an inmate at Bandyup.
At least Simplicity and Nita had each other. Belinda had no one.
At best people ignored Belinda. Most of the others made fun of her for having nits even though she didn’t have any and laughed at her for wetting her pants after someone tipped their left-over lemon cordial onto her chair. They called her all sorts of names and when she got pregnant, in the summer between primary and high school, everyone said that the only way that could have happened was if the guy had put a plastic bag over her head when they were doing it.
Simplicity was glad she wasn’t Belinda or anyone else from her primary school. Of course, she sometimes wanted to be other people, but not any specific person or someone she knew in real life. She wanted to be one of the Bradies on The Brady Bunch but never part of the Keatons from Family Ties. In high school she wanted to be womanlier, like the popular girls. Although her nipples budded around the same time as the other girls she didn’t need to wear a training-bra so she never drew the attention of the boys who went around snapping bra straps. If there were times she’d wished she’d been born something else, she’d long forgotten these moments and it was only now that as the doctor explained to her the limited options that Simplicity’s answer to Nita’s question from decades ago was now yes.
Yes. Simplicity wished she had been born European and more specifically Dutch. Even before this relapse, she’d read about how the Dutch and Germans, the Teutons, had an easier time finding donor matches because of less genetic diversity and higher donor rates. The 19th Century pseudo-science of eugenics benefitted those descended from European colonisers because although their ancestors colonised other people’s lands, intermarriages were rare until long after they lost their colonies. Who would have thought parochialism, apartheid and inbreeding had its merits?
The doctor kept talking but Simplicity wasn’t listening because she was too busy scouring the archives in her mind for examples of people who had low odds but did not die. There was an Ivy-league educated Indian-American guy who recruited everyone from his fraternity and then almost everyone from his ancestral village onto the American stem cell registry. Then there was a Lebanese-Australian who went to Lebanon and founded a cord blood match. She even met the Lebanese president. Simplicity’s placenta and her baby’s umbilical cord were left in the freezer of the hospital where she’d given birth. In this moment she felt rather stupid that she didn’t donate or bank it but instead had the idea to plant it in her backyard upon a doula friend’s suggestion.
Simplicity’s grandmother once said that people in her village used to eat the afterbirth, but Simplicity couldn’t recall which village it was or even in which country, nor how long ago that had been. Even if she found that village, there were still those villages of her other grandparents to find. Hers was a fractured tribe. She often joked about how relatives are meant to dislike each other because it reduced the chance of inbreeding. Secretly though, she envied friends who enjoyed weekly Joy Luck Club style extended family gatherings where there were enough people to warrant the purchase of an extendable dining table. A friend who came from such a family said that these gatherings were overrated and a drag but conceded that’s why her family didn’t die in the Vietnam war.
Simplicity was dying … again.
Like the other two times, death was swelling up inside her, compressing her nerves and crowding out her vital organs. This time, however, she could not laugh at her reflection in the mirror or make YouTube videos wearing a funny wig as she had the previous times. This time she needed out where she was really from, and hope that when she found her tribe, they would care about whether she lived or died.
‘It’s a lot to take in,’ the doctor said gently. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow. You should try to get some rest and eat a little something before bed.’
The doctor disinfected her hands and left the room.
Fear smelt like pink liquid hand sanitiser.
Jonno Revanche is an interdisciplinary writer currently based in Sydney on Gadigal land.
Living vicariously through you
Everything taken from
Us while stillbirthed as
Illegible girls, we’ve
Got to make up for now as lost
time, really grown, life-size people –
Full and tenderoni, looking over
Our shoulders, at prism flashes
Left behind. Aggrieved parents
Not unlike ghosts fogging around
Us, trying to ring out older names
At some point, conveniently forgetting
– Blank wages are ours to own now.
I’m over this scrimmage, this
Ghostly tenure – all I long to
See is Arcadia, in the arms of a sister.
Our heaviness either goes
recognised as unsalvageable –
Bodies all too burdened for
this Modern place
No, we won’t be blacked out;
Untenable to some, but
Grab your sheetmusic: I hear the sound of
Lush Square Enix RPG type fields and songs, a
Distant beyond vision –
Richard James Allen is an Australian born poet whose writing has appeared widely in journals, anthologies, and online over many years. His latest volume of poetry, The short story of you and I, is published by UWA Publishing (uwap.com.au). Previous critically acclaimed books of poetry, fiction and performance texts include Fixing the Broken Nightingale (Flying Island Books), The Kamikaze Mind (Brandl & Schlesinger) and Thursday’s Fictions (Five Islands Press), shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry. Former Artistic Director of the Poets Union Inc., and director of the inaugural Australian Poetry Festival, Richard also co-edited the landmark anthology, Performing the Unnameable: An Anthology of Australian Performance Texts (Currency Press/RealTime). Richard is well known for his innovative adaptations and interactions of poetry and other media, including collaborations with artists in dance, film, theatre, music and a range of new media platforms.
In the 24-hour glow
It is less than 24 hours
since we first made love.
Every moment fading in slow motion,
like a sunset, watched from
a public housing park bench,
24 years from now.
People are flawed stories
that unfurl as perfect wisdoms.
We think our profundity ends with sex,
but it only begins there.
Maybe between longing and belonging
we can be happy with something else.
Where coincidence becomes grace.
The Discomfort of Self-Recognition
For many years, books have documented the
literary rivalries of writers—Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald, Gabriel
García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, A. S. Byatt and her sister Margaret
Drabble—but Gabrielle Carey’s novella length book Falling Out of Love with
Ivan Southall (2018) is the first I’ve read to examine what happens to
somebody when they lose faith in the writer who convinced them to become one in
the first place. Many of its most interesting elements exist in its story
architecture, a part-memoir of Carey’s writing life, part-biography of Ivan
Southall that critiques his novels and career. To call his career a legacy,
however, may perplex contemporary generations of readers and writers, for whom
the name rings no bells. For modern readers, his reputation and writing has
truly faded into obscurity. By his death in November 2008, Southall was essentially
forgotten: “although mostly unread and unknown to young people of the present
generation, in the 1960s and 1970s Ivan Southall was a literary superstar.”(Carey;
p6) During his prime he produced over thirty books for children and was the
only Australian to be awarded the Carnegie Medal. How, then, does Australia
continue to suffer from this cultural amnesia?
Ever since Puberty Blues (1979),
Gabrielle Carey’s work has been confessional, exploring with her candour the
realities of personal and familial loss, often seeking sanctuary and counsel in
reading and writing. This
eagerness to discern real life meaning and purpose from text is central to her book Moving Among Strangers (2013),
in which she traces her family and her mother’s connection to the enigmatic
West Australian, Randolph Stow. At a time when Joan was dying from a brain tumour, and
Stow is living in exile, Carey
sends him a personal letter. Letter writing was integral to the literary life
of Ivan Southall, too, a similarity that made her immediately align with, and
become wary of, her ex-idol. In many ways, Carey’s latest
is a dismayed retrospective on what it means to devote oneself to a life of
writing. “Maybe the reason I no longer love Ivan the writer is because I no
longer love the writer in myself,” (p64) Carey writes. These tensions, between
childhood literary obsession and disenchantment later in her career, confront
what Carey dubs “self-delusion” and consequently produce a book that evades
definition. A sense of dread occupies each page, and as this negativity teeters
on self-loathing we realise that Carey’s “late-life crisis” is being fuelled by
a common anxiety: the belief that literature is an echo-chamber, pointless,
masturbatory, meaningful only in of itself: “My growing sense of the writing
vocation as useless and unproductive in comparison to nursing or even landscape
gardening is integral to my late-life crisis. It is hard to maintain one’s
sense of self-value if your product, so to speak, is not in any way necessary
for society to function.” (p39) To call this book literary criticism, however,
seems a misnomer, and likewise the memoir and biographical aspects precipitate
in the understanding of the texts themselves. Thus, Carey has found herself in
a bind: to explain why literature may no longer be able to provide meaning and
purpose in her life, she uses that very thing.
Throughout the mid to late 20th century, Ivan
Southall was for many young Australian readers a kind of literary hero, best
known for his survivalist novels Hills End (1962), Ash Road (1965),
To the Wild Sky (1967), and Josh (1971), his Carnegie Medal
winning novel. Nine-year-old Carey was so enamoured with To the Wild Sky that
she decided to pursue the “deliberately difficult” writer life. While
researching this book, she confirmed her suspicion that she wasn’t the only
young reader to be touched by the Southall phenomenon. Her research took her to
Canberra’s national archives, where she uncovered the immense letter
correspondence Southall received from young fans, discovering that “at the top
of each letter in Southall’s handwriting is the word ‘reply’ and a date. No
correspondence, as far as I can see, fails to receive a response.”(p11) Carey’s
re-reading of To the Wild Sky, the book that spurred her to pursue
writing, proved disillusioning. Rather than rekindling her predilections, it
awoke a “palpable dislike” (p35) for Southall, who she not only considers a
mediocre craftsmen but also a cruelly dismissive workaholic who neglected his
own children. “While busily writing to and for his thousands of child fans,’
Carey writes, “Southall’s own children were locked out of his study and,
largely, out of his life.” (p42) This disenchantment culminates in her own
existential unease, “I have also found myself, at times, more devoted to my
writing than to my children.” (p56) In other words, perhaps Carey wrote this
book because she was afraid of becoming like Southall, a writer who tried to
turn the real world into a big fat metaphor in order to escape from it. “Is
this why Southall makes me feel uncomfortable?” Carey ponders. “Because, as a
confessional writer, there is something that Ivan Southall and I have in common?
Perhaps my discomfort is really the discomfort of self-recognition.” (p64)
Nevertheless, at times Carey
can’t withhold a degree of professional admiration for Southall’s devotion to
the craft—the very same austere discipline that produced his selfish workaholic
nature. “Southall was that very rare of writers, a genuine professional,
scraping by from one royalty cheque to the next.” (p23) This admiration
manifests especially in his letter-writing to fans (Carey herself being
terribly fond of the art). Like Carey, many young readers were inspired to
become writers after reading Southall’s books. One young boy by the name of
Peter pens the following letter, reproduced in Carey’s book:
Dear Mr Southall,
I’m writing a story called “The Visitors from Outer Space.” It will be a good story if I can find it and finish it. It’s lost around the house somewhere. How do you keep your mind on your work? Once I start working on something I hardly ever finish it. (p11)
While the digital age has made our idols seem
infinitely nearer, seldom do emails seem to reach beyond a secretary, automated
reply, or the dreaded oblivion of silence. Southall’s reply to Peter’s letter
is also copied in the book:
What you must do is use a notebook or exercise book for your stories and put a bright red cover on it. The only way to finish anything, Peter, is to keep on going until you get to the end. There is simply no other way. (p11)
Southall’s directness resonates with Carey’s
sensibilities. As a teacher of creative writing for over twenty years, she
would never dare offer “this most obvious advice . . . [Students] have paid
good money for this secret, which is why so many feel disappointed when they
realise there there is no secret except keep going.”(p12) I’m still learning,
Michelangelo was fond of saying; no doubt Carey and Southall believe the same
to be true of writing. “I can’t believe I have spent so much of my life hunched
over a desk and yet still do not know how to write,” (p97) Carey writes.
At this book’s core is an
examination of the reach and extent of idealisation. Once Carey finally re-read
To the Wild Sky, she was loath to discover it was not particularly
well-written, “the dialogue is clunky, the gender roles stereotyped, the
grown-ups mostly mean-spirited and unlikeable and there is an uncomfortable
obsession with class.” (p34) What can be taken away, then, from a book that
explores a peculiar experience of the literary doppelgänger is that seeing
yourself in somebody else not only causes the fear of unoriginality but, more
tragically, the suggestion that you have lost part of yourself along the way.
Maybe the value of falling out of love with a literary idol is the recognition
that is was never really about them in the first place, and that, in Carey’s
words, “the real nature of the reader-writing relationship [is] one of a
long-distance, non-physical love affair. And if so, maybe it represents the
ultimate, ethereal, transcendent love, independent of the material world. A
love that is purely spiritual, that both children and adults can experience.
The only love, perhaps, that is truly perfect.” (p90)
JACK CAMERON STANTON is a writer and critic living in Newtown, Sydney. His work has appeared in The Australian, Southerly, The Sydney Review of Books, Neighbourhood Paper, Seizure, and Voiceworks, among other places. His fiction has been twice shortlisted for the UTS Writers’ Anthology prize. He is a doctoral candidate at UTS.