by Eunice Andrada
Reviewed by DARLENE SOBERANO
In her debut poetry collection, Flood Damages, Eunice Andrada never explicitly mentions the words, ‘New South Wales.’ Nor does she name ‘Australia’ in any of the 37 poems.
She opts for restraint, often using the word ‘here’ as a substitute for the name of a place. This can be seen in poems such as ‘autopsy’: ‘I complain about the weather here, / how the cold leaves my knuckles parched’; and in ‘Marcos conducts my allergy test’: ‘Maybe he grew up here and my accent isn’t quite / right yet, so he can’t understand me’. I am reminded of André Aciman’s essay, Parallax. Aciman details his ‘dreaming’ of Europe while living in Egypt and he declares, ‘Part of me didn’t come with me. Part of me isn’t with me, is never with me’. He eventually comes to this conclusion: ‘I am elsewhere’. For Andrada’s speaker, the exact place isn’t as important as the fact that it is elsewhere; that it is not the Philippines.
The most explicit name for ‘Australia’ I find in Flood Damages is in ‘alternate texts on my aunt’s lightening cream’: ‘o oceania your body an apartment block / cracked under the spanish the british the / americans the japanese the americans’. Here, even, Australia is referred to within the context of a group. Restraint as technique in poetry can often lead to a tepid vagueness, the poet invulnerable and hiding in the text. In Andrada’s hands, restraint is transformed into a compelling exploration of absence. By omitting Australia, Andrada leaves space for memories and dreams of the Philippines to fill in.
In ‘(because I am a daughter) of diaspora’, Andrada writes in water images to capture the sensory experience of moving through the Philippines—a country made up of over 7,000 islands. Water, for the poem’s speaker, becomes the sensory experiences through which all associations flow, even if she is not there. The ‘daughter of diaspora’ is ‘by default – / an open sea’, whose mother is shamed in their not-Philippine country; ‘They convince my mother / her voice is a selfish tide, / claiming words that are not meant / for her’. The ‘carcass of ocean’ makes ‘ragdolls’ of the speaker and her mother’s ‘foreign limbs’, an image that is immediately followed by this declaration: ‘In the end / our brown skin / married to seabed’. Here, water is a force that drowns as much as it is a force capable of returning the speaker home.
Most Filipinx immigrants flee the Philippines in search of ‘a better life’. Andrada offers two main explanations in Flood Damages: dictatorship (‘Marcos conducts my allergy test’) and displacement due to climate damage.
In ‘(because I am a daughter) of diaspora’, Andrada’s speaker, having fled the Philippines, looks back and discovers the loss of belonging, which is marked by the loss of language:
‘When I return to the storm
of my islands
with a belly full of first world,
I wrangle the language I grew up with
yet still have to rehearse’.
A ‘man in rags’ stops the speaker and asks her ‘in practiced English’ a question: ‘Where are you going?’ This question makes the speaker want to plead to him, ‘We are the same. / Pareho lnag po tayo’. Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks that ‘mastery of language affords remarkable power’. In ‘(because I am a daughter) of diaspora’, the speaker is sensitive to the absence of language and therefore the absence of power. The difference between ‘the man in rags’ and Andrada’s speaker is so heightened that the speaker is made aware of even ‘the dollars in [her] wallet’—paper money, which is supposedly quiet, yet the speaker can hear them ‘sing another anthem’.
In contrast, Andrada examines communication between mother and daughter in the poem, ‘rearrangement’. In ‘rearrangement’, Andrada peers at the gap between two languages, Tagalog and English, and at two figures who each have different masteries of both of these languages. The mother pronounces ‘too hot’ as ‘too hat’, says ‘open the lights’ instead of ‘turn on the lights’. In contrast, the speaker struggles to say ‘hinihingal’, a word that means, ‘to be gasping’. ‘Hinihingal’ is pronounced in such a way that mimics a gasp; it is almost an onomatopeia. When the speaker ‘disfigures the [word] in [her] mouth’, it is struggle upon struggle; the speaker gasps twice. When the speaker and her mother are in conversation with one another, they constantly ‘mistranslate’ their words and phrases. Mistranslation should expand the gaps between mother and daughter. For Andrada, it is instead a site of wonder: ‘what careful, imperfect truths / we have birthed in this prose of error / and say it again, please’. There is no gap. When they speak, they are ‘saturating one language with another’.
Andrada achieves a similar effect in ‘harbour’. She writes: ‘Pasa sounds like the word / for soaked’. Pasa means bruise; the word it ‘sounds like’ is basa, which can also mean to read, depending on the way it is said. In other words, if there were no difference in the way that soaked and read were conjugated in Tagalog, to read could also mean to make wet. My personal grasp of Tagalog is limited. It is not a language of my present; it is the language of my childhood, with its psychic tendrils touching everything. In my particular linguistic landscape, basa is wetter than soaked; pasa is said quickly, so it is less distressing than bruise. The quickness of pasa also imitates the way in which the bruise might have been formed—object colliding with body. In this way, pasa can almost sound like a verb.
Fanon also wrote in Black Skin, White Masks: ‘To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization’. Language is a tool with which we learn the stories of our lives and our histories before we were possible. The possibility of a voice, saying, This is where we lived. This is where home is. It will always be here. This is how we fell in love. This is why we left each other. This is how we appear human to one another, which is why the forced absence of a home, a site of history, is dehumanising.
The question, ‘Where are you from?’ is a question that many immigrants encounter anywhere—everywhere. A train, a bar, a classroom. In her poem titled, ‘where are you from?’, Andrada answers the question uniquely in two lines:
‘a woman’s ribs / cheating grandfathers /
the confession box / floodwater’.
Here, Andrada writes a complete and complex personal narrative with her first three answers. The tension between them are heightened by virgules. Each virgule reveals the building frustration of the speaker. Andrada ends ‘where are you from?’ with the answer, ‘floodwater’, a resounding word among sentences of the personal. This emphasis works as a reminder that the Philippines is a country that endures severe damage from typhoons year after year. Homes have been drowned, lives have been lost, important family artefacts have dissolved in water. Andrada’s poem, ‘photo album’, then, reads as a firm artefact against erasure—and yet, it is a poem full of physical silence. In it, the speaker imagines many different lives. She imagines her mother’s life in other countries. She is away working as an Overseas Filipino Worker. ‘photo album’ is constructed with sprawling white space, as if silence is Andrada’s true form and language is the failure. Language fails because it is not an alternative to the mother’s presence in the speaker’s life. The speaker’s yearning is so wild that, in her imagination, cities and bodies become equally large: ‘Abu Dhabi, 2009’ and ‘Singapore, 2001’ are captions just as, ‘across ribs, 1998’, ‘on subject’s cheeks (seen above), August’, and ‘pupils, March’ are captions. Similarly, in ‘soft departure’, Andrada constructs a space between every line as such:
‘earlier that day
she mashes chicken liver
into sliced bread
picks us up from school
commits no crimes’.
Viktor Shklovsky once wrote that ‘art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony’—that is, to defamiliarise the reader out of habitualisation, which can ‘[devour] work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war’, and which can, as Shklovsky hints, help to normalise daily oppression. To make the stone stony is to undo the damage of habitualisation. Andrada never writes the word ‘deportation’ in ‘soft departure’. She writes around it, defamiliarises it, refuses to make it another overlooked part of daily life. There is ineffable grief within the many absences in this poem. It is necessary for language to fail, here, so that its failure may leave room for the mother’s return.
Absence in Flood Damages is striking because the book is a physical item. It can be found at a chain bookstore, like Dymocks. It can be found at independent bookstores, like Better Read than Dead, or Hill of Content. It has been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier Literary Award for Poetry in 2019, it won the Anne Elder Award in 2018. Flood Damages is a sizeable presence in the world. It is an artefact that floods cannot destroy. And in it, Andrada tells her many histories—personal, family, country—with lush, specific detail. It is an artefact against forgetting that brown immigrants and their brown families are people. In Flood Damages, that which is human in immigrant families cannot be taken away, despite all efforts to do so. For Andrada, cruelty is decidedly not the point, but its opposite: a tenderness that endures across oceans.
Aciman, André. André Aciman: Parallax. FSG Work in Progress, https://fsgworkinprogress.com/2011/10/13/andre-aciman-parallax/.
Andrada, Eunice. Flood Damages. Giramondo Publishing Company, 2018.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Pluto Press, 1986.
Shklovsky, Victor. Art as Technique. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 1917.
DARLENE SILVA SOBERANO is a Filipino poet. Their work has appeared in Mascara Literary Review, Australian Poetry, and Cordite Poetry Review. They tweet from @DLRNSLVSBRN
Sweatshop Women: Volume One
Ed. Winnie Dunn
Reviewed by MAGAN MAGAN
What does it look like to tell your own story about love, faith, home and history? It looks like a collection of prose and poetry titled Sweatshop Women written by women from Indigenous, migrant and refugee backgrounds. Writers who courageously tackle difficult themes that demand of us our attention. Sweatshop Women are a collective of new writers based in Western Sydney that was established in 2018 to support women from Indigenous and culturally diverse backgrounds. The collection showcases stories from writers who show us what it means to reclaim a narrative that was taken from them. The powerfully relevant collection is reminder of the importance for a community to come together to tell their own stories away from the lens of the powerful. It is a reminder to resist the objectification of marginalisation. The stories published in the anthology are unsurprisingly as diverse as the authors themselves. The identity of the writers range from countries that border the Indian Ocean, South East Asia, South Central Asia, East Asia, West Africa, East Africa, South America, South Central Asia, including writers who are native to Polynesia, Indigenous, and African American. The critically diverse writers illustrate their understanding about the human condition represented in the stories through prose and poetry – crafting stories that are quiet often untold or deemed unimportant.
Sweatshop Women is a collection fundamentally exploring time whilst simultaneously using time as a necessary tool to illustrate the impact of otherness. The writers centralise the themes of their stories as redemptive subjects and do not fear from speaking truth to power. They humanise the characters in their worlds. They give them a name and a voice. In do so, they hold true to the voice of home and history as oppositional subjects with their own modes of existing in the world. As with any collection that is atttuned to the pulse of the subject, it witnesses untold worlds. The writers do not shy away from writing about loss as loss is indeed as much a part of life as joy is. The collection delves into the reality of the capacity of love to exist despite what it means to be a minority in Australia. This reality gives birth to a kind of exile.
The collection begins with a compelling story titled ‘Boragee’, written by Phoebe Grainer that holds Indigenous self-determination on the unceded land of Australia at its core. What does it mean for Australia to acknowledge it’s black history, much less a black history filled with the resistance and pain of the foremothers of country?
‘Yalla, here in buna I will have my child. I scream. There is no one here to hear but Boogagee. My booroo laying underneath like a stone, heavy and swollen. Soon I will turn this buna to blood, blood of ngyu and the woman who brought life, yalla, yallanya buna’.
Despite class playing a critical role in the material life of many individuals, it is often a subject ignored. While working class people create the wealth of a society, working class people do not benefit from their contribution. Class is a social, economic and political system that divides groups based on their class status. Given that an individual’s proximity to power determines their agency to exercise self-expression and since class as a category plays a fundamental role in a person’s life, how does a person protect their sense of self-expression from the designed limitation of class subjugation? As with Ghanaian-Australian writer Jessica Wendy Mensah, she writes a poem that pulls out the visceral feeling of what it means to be of the working class.
‘NO WORK! NO BUSY!
Peace cleaned the trash
spewing black rain’.
The story of the poem invokes a level of self-actualisation for working class people as Wendy articulates the plight of the working class. What does it mean to move towards empowerment? It means one must speak the truth about their context and connect with their own authenticity and give voice to areas of the world, experience in the world that are hidden as Jessica Wendy Mensah does in her poem:
Yoruba packaged their empty
Souls into cubed boxes’
I can’t help but think about James Baldwin when he said ‘The Victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat’. The brilliance in Wendy’s poem is in its ability to show the destructive nature of class all the while providing a sociological imagination to permit resistance.
The nuance required to capture complicated relationships that exist within a context inundated with ignorance is a difficult lived reality to capture. Much of that difficulty lies in the relationships between the people who are marginalised as a result of their cultural background that is politicised. How does one capture the relationship between an immigrant child and their parents? How does one capture the tensions that are born out of a context that place them (migrants) under patrol? In ‘This Ain’t Bankstown’ Aisha El-Cheikh write what it’s like being othered based on ones hyper-visible identity, after visiting her sons future high school. ‘My first born will start year 7 next year. A good school means a good life’. The writer speaks to the experience of being on fringe as ‘little Drew Barrymore yells out and when I look back in her direction, I notice that a lot of the adults here tonight are starring at me too. I can feel the end of my hijab unfolding as if their stares have pulled the pins out’.
The potency of the collection is in its ability to create understanding about worlds that are invisible. The way in which the writers give meaning to the experiences of the characters and of how realism is used by making visible the hidden truths and their essences in the world gives room to posibility. The stories make possible the transformative process to be able to name an experience. In ‘A Curse And A Prayer’ Naima Ibrahim story is example of how ones own subjectivity can be understood as she writes about a mothering struggling to with her son:
‘Hamid held my hands and there were a few seconds of silence as I took a deep breath. Hamid rose from his chair and walked to his room, finally taking his adidas shoes off. There was a gentle lock. And soon after, just finally, I could hear the lowered sound of rap music playing. I sighed, buried my face into my hands and began praying again’.
The collection highlights the importance of a community to tell their own stories. The power of telling ones own stories fosters connection to the self as well as a connection to a force bigger than the individual. The struggle for self-determination through story telling is undoubtedly a fight about love as shown through Sweatshop Women, a collection of stories taking concerted steps to put stories about marginalised people on the map, with all its complexities.
‘Here in the inner-west, I can hear the swoosh-hiss
of compression brakes and beep-beep-beeps
of mothers on school run, shiny in their urban four-wheel drives’.
– Gayatri Nair
MAGAN MAGAN is a writer and poet based in Melbourne. He holds a Creative Writing Degree from Victoria University. Magan was a 2018 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow and a co editor of the Black Inc anthology Growing Up African In Australia (Black Inc, 2019) and The 2019 Volume 7 of the Australian Poetry Anthology.
By Catherine Cole
ISBN:978 1 76080 092 5
Reviewed by Julie Keys
‘Will You forgive me?’ Monica asks her daughter, Ruth, in the opening paragraph of Sleep.
‘Forgive?’ I thought. What is there to forgive?’ (1)
As a child Ruth does not understand the angst behind her mother’s question and is dismissive of it. The memory, however, leaves an indelible mark, one of many that resurfaces as she tries to understand her mother’s life and her death.
Ruth is seventeen and a schoolgirl when she meets the elderly French artist, Harry, in a café in London. There is a bond, a recognition of similarity in one another as they converse. Both have experienced trauma and loss. Ruth’s mother has died, and Harry grew up in Paris before and during its occupation in World War II. It is in sharing their stories that a friendship is formed.
Ruth and Harry’s tales intertwine. Author Catherine Cole takes us back to Harry’s childhood in Paris, to the quirks and allure of life beside the Canal St Martin. We hear the voice of his mother calling him from a fourth-floor window. There is his aunt’s cello, his fascinating and vibrant twin cousins. We witness the exact moment Harry stands beside his father observing a painting and decides he will become an artist. This comfortable and contented life sits alongside a shifting political climate. Some ignore the changes but the more vigilant escape Paris and France while they have the chance.
Like Harry, Ruth talks about her family. The resilience of her sister Antoinette and her father, family outings, the sleep therapy that had been the treatment of choice for her mother’s depression as a young woman, and the mother she knew with her increasing propensity for sleep: ‘She’d begun to sleep anywhere: at the kitchen table, on a blanket in the garden, on any one of our beds’ (133).
Trauma, loss and shared memories are not new subjects for Cole. The author of nine books, her work reflects a range of interests and eclectic skills that includes fiction, non-fiction, memoir, literary, crime and short stories. Sleep is an extension of the themes of love, migration, forgiveness and refuge first explored in her short story collection, Seabirds Crying in the Harbour Dark (2017), shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2018. Just as the impact of an elderly artist in the life of an up and coming student was initially examined in the author’s memoir of her friendship with A.D. Hope in The Poet Who Forgot (2008).
Skill and experience are put to the test in Sleep as Cole delves not only into the complexities of these issues but steers away from a traditional plotline – a choice that highlights the novel’s intricate themes and serves the narrative well. This is Ruth’s version of events, her recollections. She narrates the story from a present-day visit with her Great Aunt Elsie and from the safe haven of the Yorkshire Dales. The plot emerges via a kaleidoscope of memories, beautifully rendered passages that draw the reader into each moment as the story finds its shape and unfolds.
Elsie is a natural counterpoint to the memories that consume her niece. She is lucid, sharply outlined, rooted in practicality, a contrast to Ruth’s mother Monica and her torpid life. Elsie has her own memories of Monica, revealing previously unknown layers to Ruth. She moves around her house and Ruth’s life ‘setting things to rights’(32). There are pots of tea, the smell of lavender, stories about the war and the depression. She bids Ruth not to spend her time on Harry’s stories at the expense of her own and warns, as her mother once warned her to ‘be careful what you remember and when’ (33).
Cole brings a familiarity to the settings – London, pre-war Paris, and the Yorkshire Dales – and is tender in her portrayal of Monica, ‘a shadowy figure behind the door, a lump of sadness on the battered couch, a pair of long white feet under a red and purple hippie skirt. Hair across her face, she weaves, moans’ (161). But Sleep does not always follow a comfortable line. As a reader, I felt unsettled over Ruth and Harry’s meeting. Was it really the result of chance? There was also some discomfort in observing Ruth and her growing obsession with unravelling Monica’s past as she tries to forage out those who might bear some responsibility. As in life, nothing is straight forward and moments of ill ease provide fuel for reflection.
Harry reminds us that despite trauma there is the possibility of resolution. For him art is the healing salve, the restorative that has provided some balance to what has happened in his life: ‘Art allows us to make something lovely of self-delusion and pathos and longing and fear.’ (105). Harry is his most persuasive as he encourages Ruth to find the art in her own life. The conversation between the older Harry and the younger Ruth who equate with the past and the present, threads its way through the narrative debating the conundrums. Can we always forgive regardless of the circumstances and is consolation a worthy alternative to justice?
Harry argues that; ‘You must forgive. Revenge hurts only those who desire it’ (63), all the while understanding that it is Ruth’s decision to make.
In her acknowledgments Cole describes Sleep as ‘a generational conversation about art and loss [that] speaks also of the need to ensure that we learn from history by understanding how easily past horrors can resurface while we sleep or turn a blind eye.’ (246). In this sense Sleep is a timely novel that extends beyond the last page as we ponder the shifts in the world around us and contemplate how our own somnolence has contributed to the social, environmental and political catastrophes that to some degree we now live with and have come to accept.
JULIE KEYS has recently completed a PhD in Creative Arts at the University of Wollongong. Her Debut Novel The Artist’s Portrait was shortlisted for the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2017 and published by Hachette in 2019.
Beth Spencer is the winner of the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award for The Age of Fibs (fiction). Other books include the verse memoir Vagabondage (UWAP), and How to Conceive of a Girl (Vintage/Random House) which was runner up for the Steele Rudd Award. She writes across genres and forms, her ABC-radio pieces have been collected on the double CD Body of Words, and she is also a contributor to the podcast Climactic. She lives and writes on Darkinjung land, and has a website at www.bethspencer.com
Playing cards on a red rattler
You always picked on my accent. ‘Are yous two gonna go?’ you’d laugh. When of course the ‘two’ was redundant, that’s what the ‘s’ is for. But you didn’t get that, like you didn’t get a lot of things.
And then the haitch/aitch thing. No, I’m not Catholic, it’s not about being Catholic, that’s just what you were told at your Proddy private school. (But really, if we’re talking about the letter ‘H’ then why leave the ‘H’ off? Makes no sense.)
The first time I met private school boys I was fifteen. We were standing around in a group at some inter-school Christian thing that I was into then and one of them asked me what school I went to. ‘Lilydale Tech,’ I replied. Silence. One of them reached into his pocket. ‘Here,’ he said, and handed me a cent.
It wasn’t until I went to uni and called home from telephone boxes that, with a shock, I began to hear the broadness of my father’s accent. The language goal posts shifting uneasily under my feet.
On the rare occasions my dad talked about the past he would say in them days, and refer to the toffy-nosed people on the other side of Balwyn.
(My grandfather’s blacksmith shop off Burke Street. My father’s clothes smelling of iron and steam and horses.)
Another time, with a similar bunch of private school friends, walking along a suburban street we saw a horse cropping grass in a paddock and stopped to say hello. One of the girls said something that prompted me to comment, ‘Well, my father is a farrier.’
‘Oooh!’ exclaimed an older boy. ‘Does he wear a big greasy apron?’
That fleeting rush of shame, just for a moment. (Well, yes. Yes, he does.)
Mostly I did manage to escape that shame and I think it was because my parents never desired that I be anything other than what they were, and what their parents were. A ‘good job in a shop’—what more could a girl want? (You certainly wouldn’t want to be like those toffy people! Goodness! Just the thought.)
I have a girlfriend who came from a similar working-class outer-suburb—a few stops down the train line—but her parents always dreamed that she would go to university. It was what they worked so hard for, aspired to. One day, sitting on her bed while she got ready to go out, I noticed when she opened her wardrobe that she had dozens of pairs of fine Italian leather shoes (and never enough).
Shoes, of course. I was slow about that. For years I had no idea that at uni, conferences, job interviews, writer’s festivals, I was being judged on my shoes. Like those men in Paris, years later, who followed me with invitations and suggestive comments whenever I went out walking, spotting me in my Doc Martens as an outsider, fair game. Like the professor who was asked once how he selected the right person for the job. ‘Well, it’s like looking in the mirror really.’
Did you notice this about me when we met when I was seventeen—my cheap and shabby shoes? ‘As long as it’s clean, washed and paid for,’ my father, a child of the Depression, would say. Meaning: good enough is good enough and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Cheap shoes. Cheap haircut. I started to notice it eventually when I would watch older and younger women bond over their stylish shoes, notice the swish of neat hair, not a strand out of place. (You don’t belong. You are an outsider.)
Is this what you spotted that singled me out as someone to take to bed, but not home to the parents?
In those early years at uni, while your parents lent you their Citroens and old Volvos and took you out to restaurants, I would catch the train back to the suburbs and my Dad would pick me up from the station in the P76 with the back seat removed for the horseshoes. Wiping down the seat with an old towel, taking me home to a prodigal daughter feast of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
In them days, at uni, I learnt words like déclassé and embourgeoised.
I learnt to spread out the times I would visit my parents so the visits became infrequent, and grudging. Over with as fast as possible.
You drove me out there once in the Citroen, your tourist eyes taking in all that had been invisible to me. I watched you backing down the drive speedily, past my father’s cattle truck, the dogs barking.
What was it about you that was like my brothers and father but with a posh accent? Was it the way you drove? Relaxed, confident. Was it that faint attitude of contempt?
Later at uni, doing my Masters, I learnt words like intersectionality.
And still, in between all the private school-bred girlfriends, you would seek me out. And I would practice saying things to you, fucking and fighting, that I could never say to my brothers or my father. You worked out some need with me, I worked out some need with you.
I learned that in amongst the pride and arrogance there was a shame in you that I could never have imagined, and that no amount of expensive shoes or cars or restaurant meals or high class jobs and travel and the right postcodes and saying ‘aitch’ and ‘you two’ could ever cleanse.
Right side of the wrong tracks. First class, second class, the trains taking us in different directions.
Tell them as long as it’s clean, washed and paid for.
Paid for, there’s the rub. Both of us living on stolen land. You just had a lot more of it.
I never know how to end these stories about you. Even though after all these years our story is well and truly ended. Or so I hope. So I tell myself.
And my father died two decades ago.
But we partake of each other. We live in each other. Just as the boy with the one cent coin lives in me, and the greasy leather apron, my friend with the dozens of shoes, the academics admiring each other’s haircuts.
As we pick up the cards and lay down tracks. This one, that one. Steaming through life, me in a red rattler, you in a blue train. Hanging out the windows. Buying time. Buying up whole suburbs. A country. An ocean between us. Whole worlds.
But you see it’s never about the things you thought it was.
by Ellena Savage
The Atlas Review
Reviewed by ADELE DUMONT
Yellow City charts Ellena Savage’s travels in Lisbon, a city she returned to having experienced an assault there eleven years prior. Framed as a set of journal entries spanning three weeks in 2017, the chapbook records the author’s attempts to locate the archived court files pertaining to this crime. Savage is a kind of detective in her own case: accompanied by Dom, her lover-slash-sidekick, she navigates the cobbled footpaths and the local bureaucracy.
Savage’s younger, gap-year self-will be recognisable to many readers: her sense of ease in feeling she ‘could talk to any person in the world’; her characteristically Australian perspective of Europe as a collection of cities to be ’stepped through’; a sense that the future (or even a single night out) is ripe with serendipitous possibility.
‘I had fast learned how to sleep in any number of positions: between the farts and fucks and snores of adolescent adults in hostels; on a row of couch cushions laid out by earnest Belgian students on their Erasmus year, or with my head resting on the shoulder of a fleshy Brazilian on an overnight bus.’ (p.5)
And Savage’s coming-of-age will be deeply familiar to many female readers, where growing up is understood to involve a contraction of the self; a process of learning not to trust: ‘…the fantasy that things are somehow safe, which you need to have if you are to do anything at all, had been pulled right out from under me.’ (p.22)
The journal format, with its exact dates punctuating the text, suggests that this is an unmediated, authoritative account of the writer’s firsthand experience as it unfolds from one day to the next. And yet, very early on, Savage disrupts her own journal-entry voice:
I was a general, all-purpose, adaptable person. All my unrealised potential suggested that I might become exactly like any one of the people I encountered.
– In becoming specific, narrower, more difficult, you, you don’t have much left to give.
-But it’s true. We dress the same, she and I. And we didn’t get any better. (pp.5-6)
Such interjections persist throughout Yellow City. Reminiscent of a Greek chorus commentary, they seem to represent facets of Savage’s own mind; self doubting and self-excoriating. The way they jut into the story is unsteadying. You and I and she and we here all seem to refer back to the one person. Can I only ever denote someone in their present form, and if so, how many third person past selves do we each possess? What can the reader hold onto here, if even subject pronouns are this slippery? In prompting the reader to ask these sorts of questions, from the outset Savage undoes any illusion that her ‘I’ is delivering a cohesive, chronological narrative.
Throughout Yellow City, Savage alerts us not only to language’s slipperiness, but also its power to mask the truth. Words here cannot be trusted, and especially not the official kind. While ostensibly in search of documentation, she knows that ultimately her efforts are futile since the files have ‘absolutely no meaning’. She puts off calling the police, wanting to ‘preserve the self’ she is used to living with and not wanting to know the ‘words she gave’ them. Tellingly, even her own name has been mis-spelled in the official records. She provides us, verbatim, an email home in which she assures her brother that ‘it’s all over’ and that ‘apart from all that, I’m fine’. But of course it turns out that not even these words (her own, and fresh from the time in question) contain much truth.
Along with language, memory, too, is depicted as fallible and unstable. At the police line-up she describes her own memory as ‘altered… amorphous…composite’. The particulars of the crime; what she drank on the night in question; the location of the apartment where she was attacked; the appearance of her assailants, are hazy. One detail she does recall is the ‘skin-tight’ jeans she was wearing. Though Savage never spells it out, we can imagine that it is these kinds of details (or lack of) which a court would fixate on, and which are routinely used to undermine a victim’s credibility. Lucia Osborne-Crowley, reflecting on her attempts to write about her own abuse, talks about her discomfort with the gaps and inconsistencies in her memories since these ‘could look to readers a lot like lies’. But Osborne-Crowley and Savage each succeed in resisting any urge to inject consistency or clarity where there is none. Osborne-Crowley writes:
After months of gruelling work, I had some details. I had pieced some parts of this memory back together. It was terrifying. It was exhausting. It was necessary. I finally have the contours of my story, and I have written it down. I have tamed it as best I could. What I now know about this memory is enough. It is horrifying enough. It is detailed enough. It is enough.
Reading Yellow City and hence newly attuned to the workings of my own memory, I am dismayed to see just how unreliable it is. I believe I am reading Savage’s words attentively, and yet when it comes to piecing together this review, I need to keep checking that I’m not mixing up fragments of Ellena’s narrative with that of Coetzee’s Disgrace, which I am reading simultaneously, and which also contains sexual violence. Even with their starkly different contexts I find bits of the two stories becoming tangled together. I am reminded too, of an interview I saw Emily Maguire give about her novel, An Isolated Incident. In writing the rape and murder of a young woman, Maguire very consciously omits any gratuitous detail whatsoever. And yet, readers when discussing the story with her are often convinced of one or another detail, which Maguire knows for a fact does not appear anywhere in her book. I can’t recall exactly how Maguire explained this phenomenon – my memory fails me – but it was something to do with us humans being uncomfortable with unknowns; our minds leaping to fill in any gaps.
If language and memory are unstable, Yellow City seems to suggest that the body holds some deeper truth. For all her probing intellect, Savage’s own physicality is hyper present: her itchy legs; the hot slipperiness of her period; the acid in her belly. We can in fact map how profoundly the attack has impacted her through the details she reveals to us of her body. Her younger self has an ease in her own skin; we are told she falls asleep on stranger’s shoulders. In contrast, her present self carries the marks of trauma: there is tension in her gut; tears threatening to burst forth; urges to run. So even though intellectually Savage believed she had ‘recovered’, her body tells us (and her) a different story. It possesses what she calls ‘flesh knowledge’; memory is ‘held’ in her skin. The body is keeping score.
What struck me, too, in Savage’s writing is the absence of a certain kind of lexicon, of the sort that proliferates in media testimonies relating to sexual assault. Not once, for instance, does Savage use the terms ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ or ‘perpetrator’. She describes scenes which a modern reader might quickly label a kind of ‘triggering’ or a ‘panic attack’ or a ‘post-traumatic response’ and yet that language would feel oddly out-of-place here. When she does at one point refer to her ‘trauma’ it is only to point out that she’d never before conceived of her experience in this way.
At the heart of Yellow City is Savage’s struggle to find her own words for this thing that has befallen her, this thing that reverberates through her life. She grapples with what to call the attack itself, introducing it first simply as ‘it’ and then turning over multiple possibilities: an ‘almost-rape’; an ‘attempt’, a ‘scare’. Rita Bullwinkel says Savage ‘translates the memory of violence’ into language.’ The choice of verb ’translates’ is apt here, implying as it does that memory (however imperfect) is the original source, of which language is only an approximation at best. When Savage does try to put the thing into her own terms – ‘an encounter during which my flesh remembered the possibility of a violent death’… [which] threw a girl’s sense of being into chaos’ – it feels to me a kind of reclaiming. Even if she cannot hope to find answers in the court documents, it feels to me that she is finding it in language. Her grappling never feels futile.
What keeps me returning to Savage’s writing again and again is above all her voice: intimate, embodied, sparklingly-smart, and at moments flat-out hilarious. The experience of reading Yellow City is not to feel defeated by language’s fallibility or its imprecision, but to be newly excited about its possibilities, for in Savage’s hands language is alive and ablaze.
Savage E, 2019, Yellow City, TAR Chapbook Series.
Osborne-Crowley L, 2019, ‘Write what you want to forget’, Bookanista.
Maguire E, 2016, Interview at St Albans Writers’ Festival.
Bullwinkel R, 2019, https://www.theatlasreview.com/store/yellow-city-by-ellena-savage
Stephen Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Cabramatta. He is an original member of SWEATSHOP Writers’ Collective. His essays and fiction have appeared in Sydney Review of Books, Overland, Meanjin, and Griffith Review. In 2018 Stephen received the NSW WRiters’ Fellowship from Create NSW to commence work on his debut manuscript ‘Vietnamatta’, to be published by Brow Books.
The Central express train rattles and sighs as it pulls up to Hornsby Station. I take a deep breath and hold it. Slide open the yellow door speckled with grime. Step on, look at the toilets. Neither of the doors are open but I’m not taking a chance. They’re sloshing with piss from Central Coast bogans. Turn, open the spring-loaded door, and step into the passenger’s section, which is carpeted with vinyl seats. It’s packed. I let go of my breath. The dampness of human bodies mixes with Lean Cuisine chicken, cheese, and pasta and burrows into the back of my throat. I gag. I should turn back. Stand between the carriages, where the air is fresh and the ground is shaky. No. It takes 30 seconds to get used to a bad smell. In a minute, it’ll be like I’m lounging in my White godfather’s TV room. Though last I heard, he’s living in a shipping container with his golliwog collection.
Upstairs, the seats are filled with people wearing red-and-white jerseys. Oh, it’s Friday. They’re headed to the footy. There’s a seat in the middle of the carriage. On the aisle side is a bag of Chicken Crimpy Shapes. I take the window seat, stepping over the glittery bits crushed into the carpet. It’s pretty dark outside. I can’t see much save for the streaks of rain outside and the line of steam creeping up on my reflection inside.
Behind me, someone with the nasally honk of Aussie Home Loans guy talks loudly. Instead of saying, ‘At Aussie, we’ll save you,’ he says, ‘The freckled moll’s place, ahh, it looks like housing, but, ahh, it’s not, so, ooh, she acts like she’s, ah, better than everyone.’
I grin at my reflection. I love this. The dumb-ass conversations on this train, which runs from Newcastle to Sydney, can’t be found anywhere else. The bogans, like Aussie Home Loans, are the loudest and crudest. One Wednesday arvo, a blonde lady in Mariah Carey bejewelled sunnies sat in the nigel seat yelling on the phone. She stood up and waved her free hand as she yelled, ‘Jayden, Jayden, Jayden. You fucked me, you fucked me reaaaaal bad. Real bad. Why’d you tell the court I was waving the knife around? Don’t ya remember how I was chopping tomatoes? I was chopping the tomatoes, and you said something. You said something, and I looked up. And I looked up and pointed the knife at you. And I pointed the knife at you and I pointed it away. Remember that? I was not waaaving the knife, I was pointing it.’
It took me everything to not laugh out loud then. I didn’t want her to point a knife at me.
Now Aussie is complaining about how the University of Newcastle pays him five dollars an hour to clean, but at least he makes 100 a week. My bad. He’s genuinely poor. I feel gross for laughing at him now.
His mate who has the deep, controlled drawl of Fitzy says, ‘Oi, but yeah…but nah…you take home…200 a fortnight, ay?’
That’s the same thing. We can’t all be Asians when it comes to maths, though. Shit. I’m doing it again. It’s not probbo if I’m laughing with them, but Fitzy seems dead serious.
He continues, ‘I’m so stoned, brah…Oi but, but…you know what they call my house? Cheech and Chong…come to Wyong.’
Aussie honks laughing. Guess I’m not with them after all. I’ve never seen Cheech and Chong, but I know it’s a stoner comedy. Toby McGuirk, the only other metalhead in high school, once told me he smoked dog shit. Was that like crack, or acid, or what? ‘I mean it’th thit. From a dog,’ he said. I’d seen him play Frisbee with dried cow dung before. I nodded. I guess it was only a matter of time.
‘I’m jutht kidding, man,’ he said. ‘It’th from Cheech and Chong. You thould thmoke with uth thome day. It’th a clathic.’
The train pulls up to Epping, black asphalt, grey metal ceiling jutting off the wall. Platform’s full of chinks and curries: black pantsuits, Herschel backpacks, puffer jackets and wire trolleys. Train’s about to get super crowded. I hope no-one sits next to me. But if they do, they’d better not be one of those dickheads that spread so much our knees are touching and the warmth of their leg makes me want to puke and retract mine but I also don’t want to seem weak so I just keep it there. That’s the worst.
The windows steam up completely as a procession of Asians fills the aisle. A burly Chinese guy with bulging, still eyes like a goldfish, plods forward. His white polo is splotched with pink. Rubber and blood floods my nostrils. Raw meat. An abattoir worker, maybe. If this was 2000 years ago, he’d be the town butcher. That’s what he was made for.
He’s hunched. Looks straight ahead as he gets closer to me. He’ll sit near the bogans. They’ll think he’s just gotten back from slaughtering strays in the neighbourhood. Nope. He grabs the handle on the seat in front of mine, swings his body around, and plops himself on top of the pack of Chicken Crimpy. It crunches. Did he even notice that? I scoot away. Our upper arms are touching. I’m pressed up against the window. Can’t be helped.
We’re moving. Conversations hum but the bogans have fallen quiet. Then Aussie says, ‘There’s, ah, so much Chinese, ay?’
Oh no. I hope this isn’t heading where I think it’s heading. Aussie’s in housing commission. Aussie makes five an hour cleaning up after uni shits like me. Aussie’s got nothing to look forward to but smoking up and watching the footy. They’re just not used to the city.
‘Yeah…but…what’s wrong with being…Chinese?’ says Fitzy.
‘Ah, everything!’ Aussie shouts. They piss themselves laughing.
Dickwad. I was rooting for you. I thought these idiots might be not-racist, but I’m the dumbarse for believing in them.
‘Hey, ah…sweet and sao-wah POK,’ says Aussie, in the voice of the City Wok guy on South Park.
Fitzy laughs, ‘Oi, but listen to this…Sweet and sao-wah POK.’
Cortisone floods my shoulders, stiffens my neck. I turn my head a little, not enough for the Butcher to catch me, and glance around. As far as I can tell, us Asians outnumber the Aussies by three to one. Maybe even more. We’ve got the numbers. But people are just talking to each other or looking right ahead. No-one’s turned around to check the bogans. Maybe it’s because most of us are old, or don’t speak English, or don’t care. Maybe we’re scared to break the silence.
Air conditioner whirs. Rain drums on the train’s tin top. I wipe the steamed window with my right shoulder. Outside is black.
‘Sweet and sao-wah POK,’ Fitzy says.
I breathe in deep, chest swelling. Fuck it. I stand up. Shoulder drags against Butcher’s. Out the corner of my eye, I see him watching me, his mouth ajar. My wrists pound. I turn around, gaze sweeping the suits, students, and oldies before locking onto Aussie. He’s a fat fuck with acne scars on his bright pink Wiffle ball face. St George Illawarra frayed at the bent bill. He stares at me, his grey eyes boring into mine. Fitzy props himself on an elbow, twists around to look at me. He’s got a buzzcut and Golden Arches hairline, face long like a mountain goat. ‘You hillbilly cunts better shut the fuck up,’ I shout.
Aussie’s thin lips draw back. Yellow teeth rest on his bottom lip. Hands rise to the sides of his face. They pull back the skin next to his eyes. His head wobbles from side to side as he says in the South Park accent, ‘Aw! Sutt da fuk ap!’
I’ve got nothing. I flip them off and sit back down. Carriage falls silent. My head’s throbbing. I couldn’t have done any better. You engage with idiots, you’re the idiot. Whatever, man. I can feel the Butcher staring at me. Maybe he’ll move away. He doesn’t. Just keeps staring.
‘Ahh, yaw mudda!’ sings Aussie.
A deep male voice pipes up. ‘Youse better stop it. This train’s full of them, youse know that? And one of them’s just gotten offended. I’ve been listening to youse go on since Gosford, and I’m sick of it. It’s not funny. I’m a cop on holiday, don’t make me do my job. It’s not funny. Don’t make me start up again. Don’t encourage him.’
In a small voice, Aussie says, ‘I, ah, won’t.’
The rest of the train ride is silent, save for Fitzy squeaking every now and then, trying to get Aussie to laugh.
At Strathfield, red brick, green poles, and black asphalt, the train starts to slow. Holiday Pig gets up and heads towards the bogans. He’s got a tiny face and a huge head like William H. Macy. Aussie honks, ‘I’m ah, sorry,’ to Holiday Pig. Pig replies, ‘You’re right, mate.’
I go in the direction I came. Hold my breath by the toilets in the mezzanine.
As the train comes to a stop, someone taps on my shoulder. I turn around. It’s the Butcher. Eyes shine, fat lip hangs, sounds like he’s trying to swallow air as he says, ‘You speak Chinese?’
I shake my head and say, ‘斩你做猪肉碎、喂畀狗.’
Room for a Stranger
by Melanie Cheng
Two strangers from completely different backgrounds with seemingly little in common thrown together, it’s a common enough set up for a novel. But in Room for A Stranger, Melanie Cheng uses that premise exceptionally well to create an undeniably pleasurable read, rich in texture and feeling.
Room For A Stranger is Cheng’s debut novel, following up from her acclaimed short story collection Australia Day, the 2018 winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.
The novel opens with Meg, an elderly woman, feeling vulnerable after an encounter with an intruder in her backyard. She is convinced now that ‘every black pane of glass concealed a lurking predator’ (4). With only her African grey parrot, Atticus, for company, she is drawn to a homeshare program to regain some feeling of control. So Andy, an international student from Hong Kong, moves into her suburban home.
With both ill at ease, it is almost immediately obvious that it won’t be a smooth melding of lives. Cheng deftly paints the story of how they connect and the cross-cultural and cross-generational challenges to that process. Communication, food and hygiene are just some of the points of difference that make it harder for the pair to understand each other.
The juxtaposition of chapters focusing on each protagonist’s perspective allows their different world views to be contrasted and compared. Meg faces the challenges of ageing, both physical and mental, while at the same time exploring what it means to date in later life. Andy is weighed down by the dual pressures of wanting to succeed in his studies and live up to his family’s expectations, while also hoping to gain the attention of female classmate, Kiko.
The most minute details of suburban Melbourne life give the setting extra depth, with Andy’s first observations of his new neighbourhood centring around ‘the smell of damp leaves, burnt toast and decomposing vegetables.’ (11) Through Meg’s eyes, the reader sees too how the suburb has evolved within her lifespan:
‘The suburb had changed so much since she and Jillian were kids, back when they could buy sixpence-worth of their favourite lollies- freckles and snakes- from the milk bar. Now the main street boasted an organic food store, a nail salon and a pilates studio with a terrible name : Keeping Karm. Every week Anne declared how much the suburb had evolved – as if rather than a postcode, it was some kind of living, breathing organism.’ (26)
A great attention to detail and astute observations breathe an extra level of complexity into the novel. Smell in particular plays a big role, from Andy wondering what Kiko might smell like ‘something citrusy, he imagined, something like freshly peeled mandarins’ (35) to the scent of oil, ginger and spring onions coming from the fast food restaurant where Andy meets Kanbei, who will sit Andy’s exam for the sum of $3000. At one stage, Andy, speaking to Meg, even spells it out for the reader, telling her that the part of the brain responsible for smell ‘connects directly to the memory centre.’ (94)
Cheng doesn’t shy away from racism, portraying clearly the kind of insidious everyday discrimination that is instantly recognisable for how true it rings to Australian life. An incident on a tram where a man shouts anti-Asian slurs is one such moment but ‘after three stops people were chatting again as if nothing happened. Only the Chinese students remained shaken- theirs heads hanging, their shoulders collapsed, their chests caving inwards.’ (81) As a counterpoint to the overt racism of this incident is in the overly jocular but ultimately patronising nature of comments by Patrick, Meg’s paramour, who talks to Andy about how he sees Hong Kong as having ‘done well’ and that it was ‘in large part because of the British.’ (114) Assumptions made by Meg’s friends about her new house guest also serve to highlight racial stereotypes as Anne guesses that Andy is ‘studious, I bet… They always are.’ (30)
Food plays a large role in the book, highlighting key differences in characters’ lives and experience and also acting as a touchstone for cultural backgrounds. From the pineapple upside-down cake Meg makes for Andy’s birthday to Patrick’s recount of scones at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong with rose-petal jam to Andy taking Meg for dinner in Chinatown, mentions of food usually convey something about one or more characters’ experiences and world view.
Cheng deals with complex issues with aplomb, including navigating mental health carefully. The reader learns of Andy’s mother’s own postnatal depression before gradually getting a picture of Andy’s own anxieties and the ‘exhaustion of being himself. ‘ (155). Early in the novel, Andy has a moment of being jealous of the blanket over Atticus’ cage, wishing ‘someone would smother the endless chatter of his brain with a big black sheet.’ (23). Even the appearance during a tram trip of ‘a man with leaves in his hair talking loudly to an invisible companion.’ (153), draws attention to nuances in mental state, highlighting the complexities of the very concept of mental wellbeing.
Disability too is explored, through Meg’s recollections of late sister Helen, a paraplegic since an accident as a child. Tied up in these memories is Meg’s grief which for years after Helen’s death came in ‘paroxysms of sorrow that would arrive without warning, like a strike to the head from an unseen stalker.’ (68). Through such memories of grief, a funeral of a friend and even Meg’s own ageing process, the ideas of death and loss permeate the novel. They are tied up with the very concept of what illness means, as Meg tries to ignore warning signs while Andy struggles with his own decline in health.
Room For A Stranger is a novel which deftly paints a picture of the modern Australia known by so many; a miasmas of culture and world views. It’s a page turner of a book, an engrossing, easy read, but one with many layers of flavour and depth. With its accessible style, it’s not hard to imagine it becoming a common book club pick within coming years, and hopefully one that helps readers consider a wider range of perspectives and how two people can come at a situation with very different takes depending on their personal life experiences and backgrounds.
VICTORIA NUGENT is a full-time journalist and part time fiction writer living in regional Queensland.
Nadine Schofield is an emerging writer living in Wollongong. She is a high school English teacher helping young women find the magic of words and the power of their own story. Nadine is completing a Master of Writing at Swinburne University.
‘As I begin to write now a feeling of peacefulness comes over me as if I need not for inexplicable half-hidden reasons refrain from writing any longer… it is often not possible to write about events until they are over or sufficiently of the past, … secrets, if they are revealed completely, become mere facts, something extra to real life.’
—Elizabeth Jolley, The Vera Wright Trilogy
* * *
I was thirty-eight. We had been married for two months. And then we were going to be parents.
What to Expect When You Are Expecting (Murkoff) became our manual, our source of wisdom. In his radio voice, Colin would read aloud from the couch the weekly update of what was happening inside my body. A strange food motif runs through the week-by-week descriptions:
- Poppy seed
- Orange seed
- Large raspberry
- Medium green olive
- A prune
- A large fresh plum
Then the fruit was replaced with a heartbeat; the ‘lub-dub’, a ‘fetal symphony’ (Murkoff 181).
* * *
The Women’s Ultrasound and Imaging Clinic is behind a working construction site; a single level red-brick building with long corridors of brown carpet illuminated by exit signs at regular intervals. The smell of concrete dust is cut through with disinfectant. We find the right door to the right waiting room and, after repeating names and dates and numbers, we are called into the imaging room by a young nurse. The room is a cave, illuminated by two computer monitors and a dimmed light over the bed. The nurse is friendly, and the directions come quickly.
‘Everything off from the waist down. Up on the bed and I’ll put this over you.’ She is holding up a sheet of paper. I am embarrassed to be pulling my pants down in front of my husband and a stranger.
The purpose of the ultrasound is to date and confirm the viability of the pregnancy via a transvaginal examination. The nurse sheathes the transducer with a condom and cold gel and asks me to spread my legs. Colin and I watch the shadowy, swirling mass appearing on the monitor until the nurse ends the guessing game and we hear the baby’s heartbeat: a fast, rhythmic sound like a wobble board.
‘155 beats per minute, but that’s normal,’ she informs us before withdrawing the probe.
* * *
What did we hear? What is a heartbeat? Any medical textbook defines the human heart as an electrical system; the heartbeat is the sound of ‘atria and ventricles at work pumping blood’ (Clinic). In these terms, the human heart becomes a switch, a light that can be turned on and off. The Oxford Dictionary defines the heart as evidence of ‘one’s inmost being; the soul, the spirit’; ‘the seat of love and affection’ (“Heart”, 879).
We made a heartbeat.
We take each other’s hand and with the sun in our eyes we walk back to the car, our large white envelope in hand. We haven’t expected a photo, not so soon, and we sit in the car looking at our shadowy mass with three straight arrows pointing at it, so we know where to look. Is this going on the fridge?
‘We made a heartbeat,’ I whisper as I turn to face Colin. And there he is, a father. He has become a photograph, caught shirtless with our child curled into the wiry, grey hairs of his chest, head lowered, and eyes half closed.
* * *
At the worst moment, What to Expect When You Are Expecting becomes our doctor. There is a chapter on miscarriage. ‘Signs and symptoms can include cramping or pain, heavy vaginal bleeding, similar to a period’ (Murkoff 534). In Emergency I cannot speak. I go to the bathroom several times to check that we need to be in Emergency. Parents come with vomiting children, bruised children and bleeding children. Colin and I sit in silence.
I answer the questions of a trainee nurse about my pain and when it started and how many hours and my periods and how many pads and then Colin is asked to wait outside.
‘How many sexual partners have you had?’; ‘So, is there any chance you have AIDS?’ I don’t understand. It has been three hours. I become desperate and demanding: ‘We want to know if our baby is alive.’ An older female nurse with a bright pink stethoscope arrives with a doppler machine on a trolley.
‘Not always accurate these machines. Come back in the morning. Go to the Pre-natal unit upstairs.’ There is no comfort in the nurse’s voice, and she leaves the room quickly to attend to the next patient.
In the Pre-Natal unit the light is electric white. Everyone and everything is overexposed: the white floor tiles, the white dispensers of hand sanitiser near the white door to the white toilet. Chairs are fixed in rows facing each other. On three of these chairs are the shapes of other women waiting. I don’t look at these women and am momentarily distracted as nurses pass through the brutal light—flashes of uniform blue moving down the corridor. My eyes flick to a notice board of neatly spaced posters on breastfeeding.
Colin is beside me. His face is grey. I grip his wrist and rub at the smooth, hairless skin just to stay present. I can smell my own body: tinny, salty.
‘Should I call the Real Estate? I don’t have to explain, just give them the keys.’ Colin’s voice is soft and gentle. We are selling our apartment and it will be open for inspection at ten.
Colin meets the agent at the front of the hospital. What about the bathroom? We didn’t make the bed.
The doctor in the Pre-natal unit offers us statistics as comfort. One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage (Hintz-Zambrano). We will discover we are not alone when we start talking about it with friends, the doctor tells us. How will we go about broaching this topic? We have three options and we take the first, ‘Expectant Management’, which involves letting the body expel the ‘baby’ naturally (“Treating miscarriage”).
In the third-floor apartment we are about to sell, I sit on the toilet with our ‘recognisable embryo’ on a piece of toilet paper in my hand.
I don’t know what to do.
Our baby goes in the bin.
* * *
There is a frangipani tree in the front garden of our new Miner’s cottage home. Our neighbours have a frangipani tree too, and there is an old, large one at the front gate of the college where I teach. Staff enjoy morning tea before the holidays in its shade; pink flowers bruised and browning on the ground. The first summer in our house the neighbours’ frangipani tree buds and blossoms. Ours doesn’t. We string Christmas lights among the waxy leaves and in the late spring of the following year my aging mother snaps off a branch declaring it ‘dead’. The frangipani tree becomes a portent. When the tree flowers we will have a family. This is pathetic.
On the last day of the school year, all the staff sit around a cross marked out on the floor with tealights. The Dean begins something of a homily about the Journey of the Magi: three Oriental Astrologers who place faith in a baby above science and reason. At the end of the day, I drive home past the Anglican Church: ‘Be filled with Hope this Christmas.’
* * *
Colin and I attend our second appointment with a fertility specialist. The IVF website claims such specialists are ‘dedicated to giving you the best possible chance of having a baby using the most advanced science’ (Australia). We have been undertaking the routine procedures associated with ovulation tracking for three months. In the waiting room, I stare at the Anne Geddes photograph of a baby curled asleep on top of a pumpkin, and another, in black and white, of age-spotted hands cradling a baby’s head. On the coffee table are home decorating magazines and a small wooden nativity scene.
T.S Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ is in my head. The poem has new meaning:
‘A hard time we had of it…
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly…
… were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?…
This Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death’ (Eliot 95).
* * *
The fertility doctor is a cowboy. Reclining in his chair with shoes off, it’s clear that he does not remember us. I am weighed and then there are the anecdotes and jokes about penises.
‘He had an erection, so I knew the spine was broken’; ‘No good being Errol Flynn unless you find a woman who can accommodate.’
I feel hot and irritated but I sit and smile because Colin and I need him. He talks about what he has done and what he is going to do; we need to keep going with another three months of tracking and then, if necessary, we will begin IVF. He asks us questions about tubal flushing and spermatocytes, and we look like children who missed out on sex education. Colin thanks him on our way out.
‘Don’t thank me until I get you pregnant,’ he replies with a grin.
On the first day of my menstrual cycle I call the doctor’s room. The receptionist takes a credit card payment and issues paperwork for an internal scan and blood tests. I am to take pre-natal supplements, an iron supplement and consume one cup of cream per day to gain five kilograms.
Then there are latex gloves. Condoms. Cold gel. Modesty blanket. Follicles counted. The pathologist, a woman close to retirement with frizzy hair, talks and talks about her grandson’s dyslexia. One day there is another pathologist, angular, no fuss. I arrive too late for the courier. Don’t I know what I’m doing?
We host Colin’s goddaughter, Emily. She is on holiday from Scotland during her university break. Emily watches me beneath her thick eyebrows and dark hair, seemingly unexcited by suggestions to eat out or visit the lighthouse. She mentions Ryan Gosling, so we drive into town to see La La Land, which she has promised to see with her mother. The fertility nurse sends a text message during the credits:
My dear you are surging
big time!! Lots of
hormones, LH 43 and
oestrogen 1689 so
ovulating this 24 hours
or so. Intercourse
tonight and tomorrow to
make the most of it!
Blood test next Thursday for
The directive acts like a contraceptive. I worry and hide the nurse’s message from Colin, foolishly hoping that wearing the right lingerie and dimming the lights will be enough to get us in the mood. Sex is no longer love, or even pleasure, but the pressure to time intercourse and conceive. This proves to be too much for us and I accuse Colin of not loving me enough; he is hurt and stops talking for the rest of the night.
Like Eliot’s Magi, the death of our old ways is cracking my heart. Celebrating New Year’s Eve seems too pointless. We stay home and cook steaks on the barbeque, but the limes stay in the fruit bowl. We can’t be bothered making mojitos, our ritual since we were married.
Ariel Levy, in 2013 her travel piece for The New Yorker, ‘Thanksgiving in Mongolia’, evokes the wretchedness of losing a child while based in Ulaanbaatar. She likens motherhood to ‘black magic’ and her loss leaves her with a ‘dark hurt’ that is primal. The final image of the writer is of a ‘wounded witch, wailing in the forest, undone’ (Levy). Levy’s 2017 memoir The Rules Do Not Apply further explores the writer’s disorientation after her miscarriage. Her sense of guilt is palpable as she questions whether she had asked too much of life and been punished for her pride.
I am about to turn forty. There will be a big cake in the teacher’s staff room that won’t get eaten; next to it a sign, ‘Happy Birthday Nadine’. Colin and I have cancelled the IVF appointment. We are putting faith in the life force, since speaking of God has always been abstract and non-committal. It is the heartbeat that haunts me most. What have we lost? What makes the thought of being childless so difficult to accept? It is a schizophrenic headspace. There are websites, blogs and counselling services. There is Colin’s optimism in the face of statistics on IVF success rates for couples our age; a very low 6%. In a Four Corners program, ‘The Baby Business’, a childless woman who has undergone fertility treatment claims that IVF specialists do little more than ‘sell hope’ (Dingle). An article in The Conversation suggests that 80% of women forty-five years and over who bear a child have healthy pregnancies, and success rates with IVF increase with the use of a donor egg (Wilkinson). there are women in the public sphere and part of my micro-world who have given birth after forty.
* * *
Our Sunday lunch is not much. Salad.
‘Here is that article by Annabel that I was telling you about.’ Colin passes the iPad to me.
Annabel Crabb has written a commentary piece for The Sydney Morning Herald: ‘A Womb with a View Today’. The article is ‘a salute to the womb’ both as a source of life and a political space. Crabb refers to a public interview with Gladys Berejiklian, the Premier of NSW, that highlights how the role of female politicians is scrutinised and then trivialised dependent upon whether they have children. But it is Crabb’s ‘salute’ to the female body’s power to create life that defeats me: ‘This thing is the Thermomix of the human body. It can make everything from spleens to eyelashes; imagine that! Mine has made three entire human beings…’ I find her use of analogy simplistic and inaccurate; that it needs tempering with a complex discourse around motherhood.
Crabb is right to celebrate the power of the female body to produce life; it is one capacity that women will always have despite the other inequities we fight as a result of gender, and while celebrated journalists and social commentators like Crabb are quick to defend women who choose not to have a child, it is dangerous to perpetuate a myth around choice that does not include the reality of no choice, the frequency of miscarriage or failed IVF. It is tempting to run with Crabb’s analogy here and point out that a woman’s Thermomix might go on the blink. If your womb is not a magical machine capable of making human beings, if you are barren, then your place within the womanhood becomes tenuous.
Medical sociologists like Arthur Greil point to qualitative and quantitative research to suggest that infertility is a condition shaped by sociocultural context and not simply a medical condition that may or may not have psychological consequences. According to Greil, the perceptions of an infertile couple and those around them are understood to be ‘the product of social definitions’; couples attending appointments with specialists do not define themselves as ‘infertile’ but rather as individuals who wish to fulfil the social role of parenting. This is at odds with the medicalisation of infertility.
If the desired state of parenthood is a social construct, then filling this role ensures belonging to a group or community. The shared experience of parenting with peers allows participation in dialogue around common life experiences and bonding between adults who come together for family activities.
My filing cabinet in the teachers’ staffroom has been decorated with children’s drawings. Jane, a friend and fellow English teacher, has left them there after a visit from her daughter Molly. Jane has long, raven black hair and belly dances on the weekend. We talk about TV dramas and our frustrations as teachers, but not our private lives.
Last week Jane arrived with a paddle pop stick decorated with silver glitter and a pink feather pinned to her blouse: a gift from Molly for the World’s Best Mum. The other women in the staffroom quickly gathered to swap Mother’s Day stories, and Leah, the stylish Art teacher, produced a bag of toddler dresses for Jane.
Leah is hosting a birthday party for her son on the weekend and in a bubbly voice reminds everyone to arrive at ten on Sunday for the clown. I haven’t been invited. If there is no moral shame around being childless, there is still a silence.
* * *
I had called Mum from the waiting room outside the Pre-Natal Unit at the hospital: ‘We were going to have a baby and now we’re not.’
I do not remember the hugs we received as we entered the door of her unit, only that my mother made us toast with too much butter. There was strawberry jam if we wanted it. These were the practical needs of the day.
‘I thought you were. You just looked a bit plumper in the face.’ My mother enjoyed her toast and tea. ‘Oh well. It just wasn’t meant to be.’
The conversation was ended. There was nothing we could do but get on.
I have returned to my mother’s doorstep many times since the miscarriage and our subsequent failed attempts to start a family. She is not the source of comfort I often want and need but rather a woman of her generation: stoic and determined to make the most of what she has. She quickly imparts wise directives on ‘cheering up’ and then diverts my attention with updates on the pot plants in her courtyard.
Helen Garner, in Everywhere I Look, writes about her relationship with her mother, also a person of resilience who survived the hardships of World War II and the extraction of all her teeth at once. Garner’s respect and deep affection for her mother is evident in the chapter ‘Dreams of Her real Self’; at one moment the narration is broken with a single line, ‘Oh, if only she would walk in here now’ (Garner 100). Is the longing to be a mother in part a desire to be the source of comfort, or wisdom, or a role model of resilience, for another?
As I watch my mother feed parrots on the back doorstep and plan her week around cooking a corned beef, I feel a pain behind my eyes and a clamp around my throat. If only I could lay my head on her breast and feel peace. At home, the coffee table is littered with maps of Dublin City and Lonely Planet editions of road trips in Europe. On another table, in another room, is a referral to a new fertility specialist.
Statistics and medicine aside, there is a bigger moral quandary here. Not necessarily religious but a theological concern with the purpose of life. What can be the purpose of our lives? How to accept that we might not take a place in the line of ‘women bearing / women’, as in Gwen Harwood’s poem (“Mother Who Gave Me Life”, 170)—or parents bearing children? Acceptance and comfort do not come from academic research into the treatment of infertility or the social construct of parenthood.
I find myself reading blog posts of motherless women—websites dedicated to ‘Aunt’s Day’—but it is an article written by Lawrence Rifkin for the Scientific American that has stayed with me. Rifkin argues that the purpose of life cannot be reduced to the ‘making of babies’; that to do so is ‘an affront to human dignity’. The purpose of each life is to experience joy, relationships, and accomplishments. If we can add to the meaning of the life of another or improve the planet in some way, then all the better. It is difficult to disagree with Rifkin’s final statement: ‘human meanings are worthwhile regardless of long-term, universal, final consequences, because they are meaningful now.’ Here is comfort, a validation.
Holding onto hope in the life force or seeking out another fertility specialist is no longer necessary if the purpose of our lives is simply to live—even if that does mean getting on with an ache in my heart. This is where philosophy serves its purpose; when the twists and turns of life become inexplicable, the emotions too big, and we don’t understand.
Greil, Arthur et al. “The Social Construction of Infertility.” Sociology Compass, vol. 5, issue 8, 2011, pp. 736-746. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9020.2011.00397.x
Greil, Arthur et al. “The experience of infertility: A review of recent literature.” Sociology of Health & Illness, vol. 32, issue 1, 2010, pp. 140-162. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9566.2009.01213.x
IVF Australia. “Fertility treatments.” IVF Australia, https://www.ivf.com.au/treatments
Cleveland Clinic. “The heart’s electrical system.” Cleveland Clinic, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17064-heart-beat
Crabb, A. “A Womb with a View Today.” The Sydney Morning Herald, Fairfax, 28 January 2017, http://www.smh.com.au/comment/a-womb-with-a-view-today-20170127-gu037h.htm.
Dingle, Sarah. “The Baby Business.” Four Corners, ABC, 30 May 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/2016/05/30/4469652.htm
Eliot, TS. The Penguin Poets – T. S. Eliot: A selection by the author, Harmondsworth: Pengun, 1951.
Garner, Helen. Everywhere I Look, Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2016.
Harwood, Gwen. “Mother Who Gave Me Life.” Gwen Harwood: Selected Poems. London: Penguin Books, 2001, pp. 170-71.“Heart”. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.
Hintz-Zambrano, Katie. “Miscarriage Stories: 10 Women Share Their Loss.” MOTHER, 31 August 2015, http://www.mothermag.com/miscarriage-stories/
“Treating Miscarriage.” The Royal Women’s Hospital, https://www.thewomens.org.au/health-information/pregnancy-and-birth/pregnancy-problems/early-pregnancy-problems/treating-miscarriage/
Levy, Ariel. “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” The New Yorker, 18 November 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/11/18/thanksgiving-in-mongolia
Levy. Ariel. The Rules Do Not Apply. London: Fleet, 2017.
Murkoff, Heidi. What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Sydney: HarperCollins, 2009.
Rifkin, Lawrence. “Is the Meaning of Life to Make Babies?” The Scientific American, 24 March 2013, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/is-the-meaning-of-your-life-to-make-babies/
Wilkinson, Dominic. “Four Myths about IVF in Older Women.” The Conversation, 20 October 2016, https://theconversation.com/four-myths-about-ivf-in-older-women-67394
Ed. Alison Whittaker
Reviewed by HARRY GODDARD
Alison Whittaker begins her foreword to the 2019 UTS Writers’ Anthology with an image of infinite threads converging ‘through some tiny waterways and floodplains and mudflats’ (p.vii). She traces these pathways through the soles of our shoes as they melt onto a road, up through our tongues as ice disintegrates from body heat, and onto a train as we are carried deeper into the country of writing. As readers, we can escape to somewhere less sweltering.
‘Breath defies us to appreciate the scale of it all,’ (p.viii), Whittaker says, trying to encapsulate our relationship with the ecological systems that we have abandoned – the ones that are fast abandoning us. The 33rd UTS Writers’ Anthology was developed in early 2019, during one of the hottest summers in Australian history.
In Infinite Threads, climate anxiety is linked with a desperate, profound hope, the courage to imagine something better, and the strength to argue on behalf of these possibilities. These are the rivulets that make up this collection: 29 works of fiction, essay, poetry and playwriting from current UTS students and the student-led team that collated and edited them.
Helen Meany’s ‘The Stars, Millie’, begins in the dark: ‘Proper dark. Safe Dark. The sort of dark you could hide in forever’ (p.1). A single mother, with her kid asleep in the back seat, cleans animal corpses from the side of the Hume Highway. Distinctly Australian Gothic, the rotting creatures reek of guilt, questioning the isolation she’s built for herself and her child. The story hints at past abuse when the protagonist mentions the woman who worked the job before her: ‘Her ex had tracked her down, somehow, so she just dropped everything and left.’ (p.3). But she focuses on the next day of school, and latches onto moments of security. She cleans snot off her daughter’s nose without waking her.
The theme of abuse recurs in Christine Afoa’s ‘Halfling’, a story about a young woman coming to terms with her life in Sydney while processing a disconnection from her Samoan heritage. We are taken into a moment of violence, this time from the perspective of a daughter: ‘Mum’s bedroom door slams shut and I hear her voice, dulled by his shouting. Like
vinegar on oil’ (p.35).The two stories are linked: motherhood and its apprentice, daughterhood, stand against abuse as generational stages of survival.
Many stories focus on motherhood in its most physically intimate stages, right down to the sensations and transformations of pregnancy. In Verity Borthwick’s ‘Chrysalis’, motherhood becomes a metonym for hope. The story charts a week-by-week account of a mother’s pregnancy as she witnesses the inverse process of a friend fighting cancer – of dying, while life begins. For the tiniest moment three lives are held in a balance: ‘Much later, when we visit her in the hospital and she is in too much pain to hold him, I lay him on the bed beside her.’ (pp.212-213).
Hope is challenged by uncertainty in Cameron Stewart’s ‘Deep Valley, Twinkling Lights’. In a couple’s bedroom, late at night, a void grows between two people who are trying to conceive. There is a deep-seated fear within the relationship, a niggling doubt at the back of their minds, compounded by the constant presence of paralysing backache: ‘Any wrong movement delivers jolting pain, and Lucia has to hold on grimly until something unclamps to release her from the agony.’ (p.176). Perhaps it’s just ‘cold-feet’, but Stewart plants the seeds of doubt and leaves the reader speculating.
Our fears for the future – the manifestation of our interlinked hopes and anxieties – forms the core of Infinite Threads’ sensed reality. Will we ever be good enough? In Benjamin Lee’s ‘Breaking Point’, within the claustrophobic din of a plastics factory, a young woman operates the same machine where her mother worked herself to death. ‘There are still some instructions on it in her handwriting, basic operations, warnings.’ (p.245).These shadows of connection are the only things guiding her – hands moving in the same patterns, bodies giving in to the same pressures while a ruthless production schedule looms overhead.
Motherhood reflects our connection with nature; our bodies are changing, our rivers are drying. Sydney Khoo’s poem ‘Bak Kut Teh’, perhaps recalling the spare rib soup of a childhood past, renders this relationship into intensely personal expression. Khoo’s writing is confidently expressed, animalistic and vulnerable. It contains the same echoes of loneliness as ‘Breaking Point’, with roots reaching backwards into time:
“You are a sapling
As your mother was once
She planted you on the same earth
In a different time
This rain will taste different
In your new veins”
Veins, extending through ourselves and into the lives of others, into the knowledge of the past and burden of the future, are a perfect representation of the stories contained in this anthology. Khoo encapsulates this in their poetry, which was an absolute pleasure to read.
The world our children will inherit has been put into question; our disconnection with ecology makes it difficult to justify bringing ‘new life’ into this world. In Catherine Mah’s ‘The Towers’, childhood innocence is set against an uncaring, irradiated backdrop. Mah’s writing depicts a flicker of imagination lost against a barren, unfeeling setting – a quiet, unseen tragedy.
Zerene Joy Catacutan’s ‘Gayuma’, set in Intramuros, Manila, is a similar examination of loss, in which a humble, personal tragedy – the loss of a daughter – is overshadowed by the looming dread of World War II. As war erupts, a family’s trauma is forgotten. Both ‘Gayuma’ and ‘The Towers’ end with despair – not with exaggerated, drawn out darkness, but blunt, chilling understatement.
Judi Morison’s ‘Coast Line Dreaming’, takes a different path, arguing for resilience over despair. On the South Coast of New South Wales, a sister returns to her hometown – skipping uni classes she can’t afford to miss – after her brother is caught driving under the influence of ice. In Morison’s story, isolation doesn’t come from a fear or misunderstanding of the land, but from a sense of disconnection within it. ‘Not sure who my mob is, bruz. You know how it is’ (p.15). But this loneliness is countered by the warmth of community, a spark of hope, a connection and a possible romance. The characters in Infinite Threads find strength in small things.
A sense of resilience is shared in Lachlan Parry’s ‘Unwritten, Undelivered, Unopened’ – a series of epistolary pieces which discuss our bodies and the control placed upon them by external factors. A mother writes to her long-distant child, refusing to acknowledge their gender identity; a survivor writes to their sexual abuser, refusing to forget; and a teenager writes to his biological father – he’s dating an older man and everyone says it’s because of a missing ‘father figure’. The pieces can be brutal and manipulative in the way that people can be when they are close to you: ‘I miss my baby boy. I miss the little man who would win every soccer game.’ (p.63) But they end in defiance, with a moving declaration of resistance and pride.
Erica Wheadon’s ‘The Gospel of Kai’, is set against a call towards a supposed utopia, where those who fit into the patriarchal designations of society can expect to survive, if only to be subjugated. A telling allegory that echoes current, online trends of renouncing or mocking feminism. The story takes a firm stand, sets itself down in tribute to women who live on the outside of mainstream gender roles.
Chloe Michele’s ‘Ways to Exist in Fields out of Reach’ is an insightful personal essay that investigates the expectations of Sydney’s class culture while taking us through the song titles of a Violent Femmes tape. Michele illustrates how it feels to step beyond what is expected of you, to exist in a third space beyond what you know and where you came from. It is a portrait of the gratitude and guilt attached to our parents, and a scathing critique of Sydney’s insidious, segregated cultures.
An amazing aspect of these stories, and a testament to the skill of their writers, is how they give us room to examine ourselves in the spaces outside of a relentless neoliberal society. We can witness the interactions of locally famous weirdos, their rituals, their overarching reliance on gambling and beer. We see sexism, addiction, and strangely enough, a desire for community. This is exemplified in Susie Newton’s ‘Robertson Inn’, which brings us to a pub where lonely people gather away from family and work. From the point of view of someone working behind the bar, cleaning the ashtrays and turning on the TVs in the TAB, we can observe the underlying insecurities of Australian culture.
By examining these physical locations we can begin to process our losses. Luka Skandle’s ‘Gumbramorra Pond’ alternates between a history of Sydney’s colonial heritage and a contemporary experience of a friend dying from cancer. ‘It changed the course of our lives, the pathways of our friendships, the ways we look back and forward to what must come’ (p.49.) Skandle’s perfectly balanced writing examines the trajectory of human lives, how the spaces around us hold our tragedies and our potential.
Similarly, Jane Sharman’s ‘Darryl of the Sea’, a biographical piece, portrays a man dealing with his loss in a peculiar way: living out of the back of his van after relinquishing various properties to a series of ex-wives. He has found a life by the sea, surfing and doing odd jobs around the Northern Beaches. The piece is a reassuring image of a kind, gentle figure. Someone we can relate to, laugh with. As Darryl says, ‘We create the world we live in,’ (p.220), so perhaps we should lighten up.
It is curious to think that these stories share so many similarities. There was no specific call out to fit a particular theme, and the student editors did not assemble Infinite Threads to fit a rubric. Instead, each piece was chosen based on their individual strengths.
But these shared meanings are more than coincidental. The stories are underpinned by central questions about our world’s insecurities: motherhood, and the self-doubt and fragile hope that it represents; abuse and domestic violence, how families – women across generations – help each other survive.
Whittaker ends her foreword with an image of ‘a stranger on the train with you to somewhere with a cool breeze’ (p.ix). We are connected to this stranger, to each other, through our melting shoes, through the rivulets within the soil, and into the ocean of our collected doubts.
HARRY GODDARD is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in Speculative Australian Gothic (SPAG) short fiction. He has written for Going Down Swinging, Seizure Online, and previous editions of the UTS Writers’ Anthology. .
Crow College: New and Selected Poems
Reviewed by ROSE LUCAS
This year, Giramondo has released a new selection of the poems of Emma Lew. An notable poet in the Australian poetry scene for over twenty years now, this edition includes poems from Lew’s two previous collections, The Wild Reply (1997) and Anything the Landlord Touches (2003). Both these collections made an impact: The Wild Reply won the Mary Gilmore award and The Age Poetry Book of the Year in 1998; Anything the Landlord Touches was the Victorian Premier’s Prize winner as well as the Judith Wright Calanthe Prize for poetry in 2003. To be able to revisit some of the key poems from these collections is both to keep them alive within the fabric of Australian letters and to introduce them to new readers. These previously published poems are supplemented by a treasure trove of new poems – some of which were also published in Vagabond’s Rare Object Series, Luminous Alias (2013) – which demonstrate both continuities and new directions in the work of this influential poet.
As Bella Li notes in the Introduction, Lew’s poetry, in all its moods and stylistic manifestations, takes us to places of strangeness; her poems tend to be inflected with uncertainty, refusal of resolution, the hauntings of people, places, feelings and ideas which are only traces, wisps of possibility. This means that a reading of Lew’s poetry can be a vertiginous experience, a journey of moments of beauty but also profound discomfort. Lew’s work foregrounds poetry’s ability to evoke and to suggest – rather than to pin down – and in so doing, to take the reader on unexpected paths of sensation. In the poem ‘Holes and Stars, for example, we are taken into a space where an interior world, finely attenuated, intersects only tangentially with the chimera of an external world:
I just got my memory back.
Few loons and I would live
in a corner at the airport,
not for the sequence
but the agony we had to be,
running off with the money
and faking our own deaths.
Will technology make me remote?
I don’t know where I am,
I never know what’s going to happen.
Alongside the speaking voice in the poem, the reader is led to inhabit this knife-edge of perception, this dizzying perspective of a self on the brink of dissociation from itself, yet still able to prise open windows of insight.
Lew makes use of mythic tropes – again, not specifying, but evoking. A poem such as ‘The Wild Reply’ provides a different and unsettling use of the image and associations of fire, for example, with its capacity to devour as well as illumine and maybe even provide a segue from the prosaic to the extraordinary, even the explosive:
I must not touch fire
Myth fire, adder’s fire
Sensual and deaf
The deep, swift fire
The smelting and the forging
I have flame and lack nothing
Beast in my footsteps
Light up, burn
This array of poems also shows Lew’s technical range. Her work utilises a range of stanza formations and groupings to pull the reader through different rhythms and patterns of meaning, different clusters of emphasis and image. As well as in the examples above, this extends to the prose poem form, as in a poem such as ‘Bounty,’ where uncertainties of love are expressed in a claustrophobia of line and seasickness:
These precious months have been like the withered rose. I say to myself that I am now suffering. Absence binds us, and in the fallow badinage of a ship’s deck, my former calm and piety are returning. O my darling, the rigging swarms. Help me out of this blind life. The shouts of gulls, the groping reefs…
‘Anything the Landlord Touches’ makes use of the form of the pantoum, where lines are repeated and varied, as one four-line stanza blends into the next – almost a signature style for Lew’s work. The circularity of this form, with its seasickness of echo and variation, the rise and ebb of different and same, both provides a kind of ballast in the wash of feeling and imagery as well as echoing the tenuousness, the almost-ghostliness of what is present, subsides, returns – only to slip away again:
I break things because I am afraid and I spend my time repairing
It’s almost the expression of love
I found these beautiful machines abandoned here
Sometimes there is nothing to inherit
It’s almost the expression of love
To hunt, to seduce, to deal with a stone
Sometimes there is nothing to inherit
Footprints on the path that leads to the house
The ‘New Poems’ continue the style and mood of the earlier collection, while perhaps becoming somewhat bleaker in tone. The ambience created by these poems remains at an edge of external threat and a fear of an internal collapse of meaning. Although the ‘speaker’ of the poems is not usually identified, a form of dramatic monologue often takes us – glancingly – into someone’s life, someone’s particular story. In ‘A Crushing Spring,’ for instance, the poem provides an unsettling movement from attempts at objective perspective to interior confusion and suffering:
People pity me for marrying a blind man,
but I possess a small oval face.
We travel in the carriage with the ordinary passengers.
Switzerland, so the water is very clean.
I behave like an angel when he stumbles in the garden.
The summerhouse is on fire.
Do you see how it is, how I am bound here?
I feel so perfectly sure the final blow has been struck.
Similarly, without explicitly naming, ‘Freight’ suggests the Nazi movement of people like inanimate cargo, ‘Relocated to the east/in autumn, but is that so important?’ (p. 97). The technique allows us to inhabit a kind of protracted present experience with the speaker in the poem, a view from the train – before it has a name, a history, a moral judgement: ‘The forest runs along the border…And/the moon is in the heavens,/fighting to get free when held.’
Once again the pantoum form is used in a number of poems to evoke a cycling which has a number of effects: it stitches a kind of structure into what might otherwise be an emotional maelstrom, while also enacting a process of repetition and return which haunts and disrupts. In ‘Poem’ (p.100) for example, while the opening and final line might suggest some kind of containment or border around the problem– ‘Adultery fucks a family up as much as poverty’ – the recurrent lines signal pain’s ongoing disruptions:’That’s a lot of hatred from a mother,’ ‘It was like an acid eating into me, ‘Can’t stop love from doing its damage,’. Or in ‘Avalanches’ (p. 114), the line ‘I travelled like a curse’ is played across a dreary and icy landscape of violence and threat, again embodying a fearful overlapping in internal and external malaise.
While individual poems can evoke a luminosity of image or feeling, Lew’s is in general not an easy poetic. It is however a courageous one, one willing to explore beyond more straightforward limits of inside and outside, what makes meaning and how meaning might collapse in strings of dissociated feeling and observation, forcing us to consider the ways in which we might ‘travel like a curse’ across the terrain of our lives as well as the ways in which the articulation of our experiences and the building of the poetic line might also construct the possibility of connection.
ROSE LUCAS is a Melbourne poet and academic at Victoria University. Her first collection, Even in the Dark (UWAP 2013) won the Mary Gilmore award; her second collection, Unexpected Clearing was also published by UWAP in 2016. She is currently completing her third collection, This Shuttered Eye.