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Mark William Jackson reviews Your Looking Eyes by Emilie Collyer

19 Apr

I’m not sure how I feel about the Australian Poetry Café Poet Program. On the one hand any publicity that poets and poetry receives is a good thing; on the other, the idea of sitting in a café like an exhibit while people come to marvel at the atrocity chills me to the bone.

However, if the Café Poet Program can produce works like Your Looking Eyes then I am definitely all for it.

Your Looking Eyes was written during Emilie Collyer’s residence at c3 contemporary art space. In keeping with the visual feel of the collection, the design, layout and artwork of the collection is provided by visual artist Eirian Chapman.

The first poem of the collection, ‘The Reader’, presents the issue of how a writer must create images in a reader’s mind. The poem is from the reader’s perspective. In this piece the writer is stuck for words:

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She wants you to remember the thing that makes you squint

Sucking a lemon wedge

Fingernails on a blackboard

.

Draw a picture of your eyes

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I hate the cliché Show. Don’t tell. It is too easily offered as advice but all it does is present the problem, what can be done with words? Collyer opens an illustrated collection written while surrounded by visual art by asking a question, what can a writer do to present an image to the reader, to get inside the reader’s head and make the reader smell the image, to hear the image. The poem closes with the reader’s fear:

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Art that asks me to do something. Am I doing it right?

Is someone watching? Will they laugh at me?

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‘Frames of childhood’ laments the lack of film of a childhood and expresses the limit of still images and memories.

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There are no films of us as children

just photos and stories

how fast did my brother

sprint into that stone wall?

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But the memories are stimulated by the photos and the associated questions; how fast? what expression? Remember lemonade icy poles, smelling skin, running hot tracks in the sun. The poem races like a barefooted girl through childhood:

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children don’t grieve change

we crave it

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Notice the voice/tense change, the opening stanza presents an adult looking back on childhood photos, lamenting the lack of film. The second and third stanzas are present tense, first person child narration. The fourth stanza drags us unwillingly back to adult present:

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when does rear vision begin?

the trawl through albums and drawers and boxes

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The poem closes ‘this thing we call childhood / belongs to adults’, this is a wonderfully sad ending, the technique Collyer employs in the piece regarding voice and tense takes us on a free-for-all joy ride as children. At the end we don’t miss our childhood years because we never knew we had them. Only now, as adults, can we recognise the years and paint them in a fond light.

And now, pure opinion… the best poem in the collection, spanning pages 22 & 23 – printed sideways so that you have to turn the collection as if you’re leering at a Playboy centrefold.

‘What does it mean?’ is visual, experimental, almost L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E, presenting a quizzical jumpiness into a central epiphany which makes the ride out of the centre like post meditation breathing exercises.

Now, here is what could possibly be the world’s first meta-referential review. I stepped out of the writing of this review to contact Alec Patric, asking him to seek permission from Emilie Collyer to reprint ‘What does it mean?’ in Verity La the day before this review appears.

Permission sought and granted. ‘What does it mean?’ is printed sideways and appears like a concrete poem. I don’t know what is says of my state of mind but it looks to me like a Rorschach test and given the title I wonder what it means. When you read the poem, turn your head sideways and you’ll see what I mean.

In technique, the poem drips letters upon letters, forming words, words forming indecipherable sentences, until the central epiphany:

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One of the artists I spoke with considers it a positive thing when people don’t recognise his work as art. He says it means he is creating something new that has not been seen before. He likes this phenomenon. Can the same be said for words?

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And then back out, the words fall away, fading like the Star Wars opening crawl.

Your Looking Eyes is a great introduction to Emilie Collyer’s work; 14 poems with strong visual aspects, the art space literally infused in the words.

The first print run of 100 copies sold out. The second run is selling fast. Available for $12 (including postage) from select bookstores in Melbourne or via Emilie’s website Between the Cracks.

Untruths Sculpted into Truths (Tristan Foster)

29 Mar

In a recent interview with Amitava Kumar, Michael Ondaatje spoke about the need for multiple voices and various narratives in stories of political or social consequence. “You want the politics of any complicated situation to be complicated in a book of fiction or nonfiction,” Ondaatje said. In an oeuvre that has become increasingly complex, it is a belief that Merlinda Bobis has come to share; her latest novel Fish-Hair Woman is a narrative of knots. Set in Manilla and the village of Iraya, on the surface it is a fictionalised account of events during the civil uprisings of the seventies and eighties that led to dozens of Filipinos who opposed the ruling regime ending up at the bottom of the river. And it is this, but Fish-Hair Woman is many things.

Attracted by revolution, Australian journalist Tony McIntyre visited the Philippines in the 1980s. He fell in love with the country and its people, but, like so many others, disappeared. Now, over a decade later, he makes contact with Luke McIntyre, the son he abandoned. Luke reluctantly flies to Manilla where he is whisked away by his father’s wealthy patron, the missing man himself nowhere to be seen.

It’s this narrative that serves as Fish-Hair Woman’s spine. But at its heart – and in this novel as in all of Bobis’s work, it’s the heart that matters – it is a story about story: the untruths that are sculpted into truths, the myths that lives are built upon and the truths that corrode into myth. Myth and superstition run through the story like rust. But the meta-lesson of omens and old wives tales is that the world is a complex place; mythologising is an attempt at ordering a universe that stubbornly refuses to offer up a reason.

It is out of this same tradition that the novel, the grandmother of storytelling, rises. A novel is an attempt to order and explore, its existence relying on the fact that there is no single, straightforward story. The world is still a complex place. It’s why we need the novel – to remind us that nothing is simple, and to help us find comfort in this notion.

As if to underscore this idea, punctuating Bobis’s novel are clippings about the Iraya case from the Philippine Daily News. They offer some clarity, and give the story some real-world context. But the clippings are small, some cut from the margins, the kind of news-in-brief article that can be scanned in the short moments between bites of toast or jolts of the bus on the morning commute.

Presenting these concise paragraphs alongside Fish-Hair Woman’s elaborate narrative has the effect of making mainstream media’s attempts to grapple with any complex story appear futile. Perhaps pushing the case of multiple murders and government corruption to a page’s edge is an admission of this: a newspaper’s obligation is to skim a story’s top, as it only can. ‘Our sadness very big,’ Pay Inyo, Iraya’s medicine man, says to Luke. Leave it to the novel, a form without pretensions of truth, to attempt to unravel “big sadness”, to reach to a story’s heart, because, of all the storytelling mediums, the novel does it best.

“Why is the past more present than the present, the old stories more acute, more in the flesh?” Throughout the novel, the past persistently nudges through. “This is the hum of memory,” writes Estrella, the “fish-hair woman”, to the missing Tony. The merging of memory with the present gives the prose the quality of a dream that’s risen in the blue hours of dawn. The reader is asked to hop from the lyrical, Tagalog-peppered storytelling of Estrella to the stiffer prose tracing the stories of the Australians; occasionally the shift is in the space of a few short chapters. The styles are not so disparate from section to section as to appear written by different authors but this tangle of past, present, voice and place makes for challenging literature.

A text of this nature is going to pose challenges for the author, too, and Fish-Hair Woman is not a novel without flaw. At times, sub-stories are dropped and picked up and eventually concluded with little consequence. There are also occasions that the novel trades being poetic for being nebulous, thus losing the momentum it works hard to sustain. It’s at these times that the meandering narrative could have used some knocking into line.

But then there are tales like that of how Bolody, Estrella’s brother, became Belody da Teribol that Bobis gets it just right. Semi-present for most of the story, Bolody appears in full to have his heartbreaking story told. It is in these examinations of life in tiny Iraya that Bobis is at her best, the glow of fireflies all but visible just off the page.

As I was reading my thoughts kept turning to Wide Sargasso Sea. It shares with Jean Rhys’s masterpiece more than just a threat to topple into tragedy, but Fish-Hair Woman takes a wider view. It is a love story, a murder mystery, a story about family and a story about the impact of the kind of self-perpetuating government corruption that so often befalls a country in political turmoil. It’s ambitious and sprawling, and things could quickly go wrong. Fortunately, they don’t. Bobis is a talented, passionate writer who is unafraid of exploring the storytelling potential of the novel.

Fish-Hair Woman by Merlinda Bobis
Spinifex Press, 2012
306 pages

Robert Goodman reviews A Tiger in Eden

18 Mar

The start of A Tiger in Eden feels like a cross between Trainspotting and The Beach. Nevertheless, it is a promising beginning – Billy, a Northern Irish hardman on the run from his shady past, lives on an island in Southern Thailand just hanging out with the backpackers and trying to better himself through reading.

The first fifty pages is scene setting – a recount of Billy’s drinking, fighting and sexual exploits. Even at that point, with the novel still in search of a plot, there was potential. Unfortunately, what follows is another 150 pages of Billy’s drinking, fighting and sexual exploits, a moment of contemplation (Billy trying not to think about drinking, fighting and sex) and a drug-induced catharsis followed by more sex.

In the place of plot is a 1990s backpacker’s tour of Thailand. The tale moves from the island of Ko Phi Phi to Phuket, then north through the Thai countryside, to Bangkok, then to a monastery in the jungle and finally to a drug-fuelled full moon party on a beach somewhere. While there is plenty movement (and drinking and sex and talking about drinking and sex) there is little action, merely a series of events and characters that have minimal impact on Billy and no impact on the plot. What is left, after the drinking and the sex, is a catalogue of aspects of Thailand that amaze Billy the Irish bumpkin, observations such as some Thais are Muslim and some are Buddhist; or some people go to Thailand because of the sex trade; or street food can be amazing but sometimes it can make you sick; or the expensive busses are overly air conditioned.

The book is written in Billy’s Irish brogue and develops an easy rhythm. He’s not smart, our Billy, but he reads a lot (mainly in an attempt to attract more intelligent women) so he’s not afraid to use big words. As a result the narrative is a mix of expletives and erudite reflection, but once you get the hang of the accent, it works. The problem is that Billy doesn’t really have anything interesting to say. Aside from the descriptions of Thailand, a large part of the narrative is Billy thinking and talking about and describing his sexual exploits.

There is an element of wish fulfilment in all of this. Billy seems to have a never ending supply of money which is never explained. And at every stop on his journey he manages to find women who fall for his dubious charms, including Claire the English woman who doesn’t mind that he beats some of her compatriots to a pulp, the Thai woman who inexplicably takes him to dinner in the markets even though she knows that it will result in the rest of the town branding her as a prostitute, to the pair of blonde Dutch air hostesses glad to find a “real man” to take them skinny dipping. Each of these become stepping stones to the perfect woman for Billy who will stay with him despite learning his deep dark secrets.

If you backpacked through Thailand in the mid-1990s (even if you weren’t an Irish hardman) and feel like reminiscing, or maybe you didn’t get the opportunity and feel that you missed something (mainly the sex and the drugs), then this may be the book for you. Otherwise, stick to Trainspotting, The Beach and The Lonely Planet.

The playful provocation of a complex tapestry (Robyn Cadwallader)

7 Mar

The cover of Susan Hawthorne’s Cow, both back and front, is an Indian-style patchwork featuring cows in paintings, photos, carvings, bas relief, even street signs (‘Beware of Cattle on Road’), each image framed with embroidery and sequins. With author and title printed only on the spine, the patchwork takes over, runs beyond the borders of the covers; we know there is more to see, that the totality is more than the particular. This is more than beautiful artwork; it is an embodiment of what is inside.

At first sight the arrangement of the book can be daunting: background information in the acknowledgements, etymologies in the front pages, running gloss notes in the margins of the text, endnotes and sources in the final pages. All are testament to Hawthorne’s thorough research and familiarity with language and mythology. It is also, of course, an opportunity to learn. With such a frame of academic apparatus there is a risk, as I found, of taking on the seriousness of all this research, of working too hard at understanding what it all means, a straining after knowledge before appreciating the depths of what is simply given. The poems are wry, humorous, poignant, elegiac, wise and longing, written with a deceptive simplicity of expression. Nonetheless, my experience is that it takes some time to begin to feel at ease with the shape and movement of the collection.

Cow celebrates all that poetry makes possible, crossing boundaries of the rational, drawing together ideas that bounce off one another and echo into new thoughts, allowing the cerebral and the fantastical to sing together. In an interview at the Queensland Writers Festival, Hawthorne described her fascination with etymology, noting that variants of the Sanskrit word for cow are present in Indo-European languages through Old Norse and Old English words for queen, and in Greek gyne (woman), details of which are given in the book. In this collection she delights in playing with endless echoes and ripples of such etymologies.

While at first sight the connections might not be obvious, cow, queen and woman are woven into a complex tapestry. The powerful physical presence of cows opens out into explorations of women’s experiences of voice, relationship, love, language, mythology and idea:

what we cannot speak about we cannot imagine
facts and imagination tangle
a weave of uncertain strings
strings pulled and plucked
edgeless origami in an unfolding universe.
(‘what the poet says’, 5)

The poems are divided into four strings, telling of tales that ‘tangle like a chinese noodle’, snarled and stretched by time: ‘these are stories about cows / who have lost their histories’. Within each string we hear from Queenie, the central figure in the collection. Having wandered the markets and settled in Fatima’s garden, Queenie gives birth to her calf; she is both milk cow and creator, there is no distinction:

I’m grazing near a human encampment
time has rolled in
on a day the length of all time
I give birth to the folding universe
my milk flows away through the night sky
galaxies spin and twirl form and unform
as the dance of creation and decreation proceeds.
(‘what Queenie says’)

In string one, ‘the philosophy cow’, subtitled ‘Queenie’s dilly bag’, the cow pulls open the strings of her bag to reveal her collection: voices from Greek, Sanskrit, Sumerian and Welsh mythology, the voice of Kuvalaya (lotus-flower), of Cow, Tiger, and even a 105-year old virgin speaking in the Daily Telegraph. Their stories flow, one after another, telling of love, power and relationships in a world that is simultaneously cosmic and mundane, but never ordinary. One of the delights in this section is the wry humour and wordplay, particularly in the voice of various cows. The cows gather on the poet’s desk and ask

what is it you want of us?
is it our delightful demeanour
or our marvellous colourful hides?
(‘what she says to her listeners’)

String two, ‘what the philosophers say’, changes tone and content. Looking beyond the voices in string one, it explores the silence around cow woman — her stories, her voice, her participation in language. While the images evoke gaps, spaces, silence, exile and loss, the overwhelming import is of presence becoming absence. Ur-woman (original woman)

is a mirage
a reflection of who we are
as she teeters on the edge
of the visible like a reflection
in a lake disappearing
(‘what her mother says about ur-woman’)

In a beautifully imagined poem that gathers eastern and western mythology, a cow ‘looks down the throat of her child’ to see inside a fertile universe, ‘cows feeding calves the milk / spilling around the calves’ mouths’. Within this eden a snake on a tree morphs into a cow, just as woman has been construed as tempter, ‘the dividing line between them blurred’. There is, nonetheless, an insistence that survives:

the mothers are trying hard to contain their children
but what can you do when the world is held
in an open mouth?
(‘what her mother says about ur-woman’)

String three, ‘what the lovers say’, conjures love in all its breadth and intensity, in poetry, body and mind, the last of these so often denied to women. In a poem that is almost an anthem to sisterhood, the one cow becomes ‘eine Frau’ (one woman): ‘go out into the world of cow / sing sing into night for we are eine Frau’ (‘what we sing in one voice’). The poetry in this section is often lyrical and intense.

In the final, short string, ‘what Queenie says about the philosophy cow’, Queenie celebrates the cow and poet:

you have become one of those fist-raisers
a troublemaker in the bleachers  you write poems
thrilling to a music that lifts you daily celebrating
unbelievable truths halleluiah alleluia they cry
(‘what Queenie sings to us’)

Hawthorne carries her erudition lightly into poems that are playful, wise and provocative. Her evocation of the milk cow next door as the cosmic creator, woman, queen, philosopher, lover and thinker communicates with immediacy and vigour. By book’s end, we have traversed a world of mythology, place and story, all emanating from the single figure, cow.

Cow by Susan Hawthorne
Spinifex Press, 2011
166 pages

The remembered, the haunted, and the differing (Robyn Cadwallader)

4 Feb

The Abbotsford Mysteries is Patricia Sykes’ third poetry collection. A surprising title, perhaps, for a book about the girls who were cared for at the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne, home for orphans, migrants, and the ‘wayward’, between 1927 and the early 1970s. But it is, indeed, a book of mysteries.

Organised around the divine mysteries of the Catholic rosary, the eleven poems in each of five sections echo the eleven beads of the rosary and its prayers, symbol and reality for the structure of the convent day. With each bead and poem we hear more than prayers — we hear the fleeting voices of women, once girls there, who speak in brief moments of memory and revelation. The collection is at once thematic and varied, historical and immediate, structured and resistant.

Sykes, once a resident of the orphanage herself, arranged reunions at the convent where she spoke to over seventy women who once lived there. Place has a power over memory, but the memories seem elusive: in ‘Architecture’ the women ‘wander like the bewildered’ to find the years they ‘buried’ behind the walls,

still present in the faces
which are not our faces
who trail us like the ghosts
of unfinished things.

They tell their stories against a sense of distance; truth is ‘as difficult to prove as differing histories’. Time and space, voice and recollection, weave together to give us glimpses, evocations, touches of people and their life behind the doors.

On first reading, I felt that the poems were so allusive and elusive that there was not enough concrete detail for me to engage with the place and the girls, now women, who speak in the poems. But the concrete is definitely there — the laundry where the ‘wayward’ girls worked, the river that runs nearby, the blood of menstruation, the baths taken wearing cotton robes, the cloak room, even the neon light of the Skipping Girl vinegar factory nearby — but each one shimmers and blurs with attachments, accretions, mystery.

In many poems, the physical is complicated by the religious and spiritual that pervaded every aspect of the girls’ daily routine. ‘Bloodline’ juxtaposes Christian imagery with the physical experiences of the pubescent girls in three simple questions. Are the ‘Holy Mothers’ all virgins? That is ‘a red line / that must not be crossed’. In the blood of their own menstruation, can the girls identify with the blood of Christ?

How can it be wicked
to hold that women and girls
are true sufferers of blood?

It is not physicality alone, but the female body and it insistent presence that is spurned and isolated to spirituality:

some of us know, have felt,
the agony of bringing forth
from the warm taboo that bore
the holy infant     what are we to
name it if not womb?

These lines are masterful, not simply drawing together images of Christ and Mary with lived female experience but arguing back, demanding recognition.

Sykes’ poems offer this over and again: glimpses, hints of a girl or a ritual, questions and confusions, set against the blindingly moving line that does not summarise or answer, but offers, as it were, a window for understanding, where contradictions sit uneasily together to reveal more to us. In ‘Glass story’, the girls, separated from families, are gathered into an impossible story ‘As if we fit together like old shards … in a neat history of broken glass’; the nuns choose the paradox of the ‘erotic distance of God’ (‘Conceived’); the convent, essential and life-saving shelter for many, is also ‘the sanctioned care / that feeds the door with young’ (‘Aspect’); and ‘in the humid confessional / everything is epic’ where the priest’s questions about sin raise unimagined horrors such as sex with an animal (‘Mortal, venial’). The images are visceral, layered, illuminating.

In some moments, the girls are not so much remembered, but become clearly heard and seen; they are vividly present to us. In ‘Visitation of sweetness’ the girls develop crushes on the retreat priests and

rush into the cloakroom
and jabber among the coats
then go out and be saintly again.

In an achingly poignant Gloria, one of the five final poems in the rosary divisions of the collection, the sensual breaks through, weaves in and out of the words of liturgy. The voices (and girls) ‘shiver’ in church, long to dance, for then

our blood would warm
us     Lord O Lord
we’re hivey-jive girls
rock’n’roll girls (we
keep your picture next
to Elvis) Kyrie eleison

Those last two words (meaning ‘O Lord, have mercy’) suggest a confession of sorts, submitting to the spiritual framework, but also a call to God for understanding, for finally, it is Elvis who takes the primary place and Christ who is next to him. In ‘Iambic pentameter’, the metre of poetry (‘I hide my poems like hoarded love’) is insistent: ‘We are children of rhythm as well as of God’. Such poems, for me, are vital, showing the resistant energy and life of female desire.

More generally, the voices remember the past. They emerge from the shadows, speak a line or two, the seed of a story, then disappear again; they are, by turns, angry, sad, broken, grateful, humorous, playful and wise. In each is the potential for recovering the ghosts of so many faces and in places, it seems that the voice, usually formatted in italics, almost demands it:

that thing who married my father
put me in the orphanage
for a virginity test
we can tell she is innocent
by the way shame strips her
naked     by the guilt
she calls love-wishing
all I ever wanted
was someone to love me
the walls such bad lovers    holding
her for years in their cold stone crush  (‘Deadly endings’)

The unfinished, the remembered, the haunted, the differing — these are the qualities of the collection, though there were times when I wanted the mist of allusion to clear more often.  The poems ask for time and careful reading, for ‘sitting with’ and listening. The life of the girls and the women they became deserve such accomplished recognition.

The Abbottsford Mysteries
Patricia Sykes
October 2011, Spinifex Press
RRP $24.95
ISBN: 9781876756956
95 pages

HARD NOTES OF WAR: a review of Valence by Susan Hawthorne (Lesley Lebkowicz)

5 Jan

War has always been a subject for poetry – for all forms of literature – in every culture, in every time. It’s been examined, glorified, abhorred. Rarely does a writer confess an addicted love of it despite its horrors, as Tony Loyd, a British war correspondent, does. It’s possible to think of his work, in its shocking authenticity, as defining one end of a continuum and Susan Hawthorne’s fierce and rich polemic as defining the other.

The subtitle of Hawthorne’s Valence is Considering War through Poetry and Theory. Her twofold method of verse and discursive prose makes for a visually pleasing experience. Each poem/argument/exploration is given its own page. The poem comes first – generally two but up to four six-line stanzas – sit over a paragraph of two of commentary. The difference between the poetry and the prose is emphasised by a difference in type-face and spacing. Given that poetry is a form we linger over, and that Hawthorne’s work here demands reflection, attention to presentation pays off.

Structurally, the verse element of Valence alludes to the complex form of the sestina in its six-line stanza and in its three-line concluding envoi – but that is all. The other characteristics of the form are not used. This makes for a pleasant acknowledgement of poetic tradition without any rigid adherence to it. Many poets these days are happy to play with elements of form as they work within the currents of free verse and this work sits nicely in that context.

Within the book-ends of two three-lined verses Hawthorne offers a dense mesh of imagery in the verse ranging across several instances of military violence. Words are ‘slaughtered in the throat’, ‘widowed ground has been filled with half-grown trees’, what ‘will it take to unpurse the future’? Images freed from the control of punctuation jam one against the other invoking the terrible chaos of war.

This is the main substance of this work – but not the complete matter: the series considers questions of hope, betrayal, the difficult possibility of putting right the wrongs of war. And more. War is so big a subject, its ramifications enormous; issues arise and spill across the pages. As a feminist scholar, Hawthorne is predictably opposed to war. Some of the prose commentary alludes to her own (as well as others’) scholarly work on the subject. She also refers to her own experience in these commentaries and this invites the reader into her material. The sequence is, for instance, initiated by reflections on her grandmother’s, mother’s and uncle’s war experience.

At its best, Hawthorne’s voice is clear, striking, impassioned. The sequence begins: ‘all day long the gods have been screaming’. Her opening lines are frequently declarations strong in the vernacular: ‘revolutions have a tendency to unwind’ or are charged with rhythm (here with a Shakespearean resonance): ‘undoing hatred is a pilgrimage of hurt’.

As it works its way through its variations on war the sequence moves inevitably towards despair. In the last lines: ‘you dream of light . . . /you sob . . . / because nothing will ‘stop the clot of war’. It’s a hard note to end on. Honest – and hard.

Valence: Considering War through Poetry and Theory
Susan Hawthorne. Spinifex Press, 2011, pp16

Neal Stephenson’s Reamde reviewed by Robert Goodman

24 Dec

Neal Stephenson, one of the Godfathers of cyberpunk and deliverer of massive, engaging tomes full of historical and philosophical fun returns to the present day, real world (of sorts) with Reamde.

The first thing to say about this book is: don’t be put off by its size or its unpronounceable name. At over 1000 pages it is a daunting prospect and will make you think seriously about buying an e-reader (if you don’t already have one). And, given the novel’s focus on all things technological and interconnected, this may indeed be the most appropriate way to read it. But an e-reader doesn’t build up the muscles quite as much, and the novel makes just as good an argument for throwing technology away and experiencing reality. So you can still lug the real thing around and feel righteous.

Reamde, stripped right back, could best be characterised as a post-9/11 thriller. It has Russian mafia, internet millionaires, famous jihadists and their hangers-on, hackers, MI6, FBI and enough lovingly described exotic locations to fill a couple of James Bond movies.

The Reamde of the title is a computer virus which is used to extort money from the players of a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game called T’Rain, a game that has been designed specifically to help part players from their money in the first place. But while this aspect of the plot allows some skewering of the on-line fantasy gaming fraternity, it is just the conceit from which the rest of the story spirals completely out of control. But the plot, is not Stephenson’s central concern.

Under the hood, Reamde continues Stephenson’s look at the how technology changes the way we live and interact. On the surface, coincidence brings a group of disparate characters together. But it never feels like coincidence, as the connections are all the result of the information age – an age in which everyone finds out about you through Facebook or your Wikipedia entry; an age in which a Chinese teenager, an America special services soldier and a Swiss banker can interact in a virtual gaming world; an age in which GPS always lets you (and other people) know exactly where you are.

At the same time, the novel also examines how its internet-savvy characters fare when their technological safety net is taken away. At one point, one of the main characters finds a kind of bizarre freedom in being kidnapped and forced to operate without a phone or internet connection for the first time in years. Another trio find deep wells of ingenuity while trying a “sail” a powerless fishing trawler.

Stephenson can be heavy on exposition, and there is plenty of it in Reamde’s 1000 pages – about things as diverse as how gold farming Chinese teenagers make money out of virtual games, about how the Russian mafia actually works, or how aircraft flight plans are developed and approved. But its delivery is mostly well integrated with the plot, pitch perfect and peppered with a beautifully sly, tongue-in-cheek observational style that often makes you smile while you absorb the information.

Just a couple of examples:

On the Russian Mafia: “Almost all of what they do is very boring… How they get most of their revenue in Russia was not crazy shit like drug deals or arms trafficking. It was overcharging on cotton from Uzbekistan…”

Or this: “Insurgents did not care for spectacular snow-covered mountains. Snow impeded movement and implied harsh cold, “Spectacular” meant “easy to see from a distance”, and insurgents did not like being seen… Many of the features that tourists liked, insurgents found positively undesirable – most of all, the presence of tourists.”

Stephenson highlights how the interconnectedness of the modern world helps us communicate but in a way in which meaning is often left behind. A Chinese hacker and a Hungarian systems administrator communicate well enough using terminology and concepts that they both learnt playing American video games:

“’Maybe we should go back and get their guns,’ Marlon suggested.

“‘That’s how it would work in a video game,’ Csongor said, which was his way of agreeing.”

But they still don’t really understand each other:

“Csongor remarked on the fact, which to him seemed odd, that in China places were unbelievably crowded and others were totally uninhabited but there was no in between. Marlon thought it curious that anyone should find this remarkable. If a place was going to be inhabited, then it should be used an intensively as possible, and if it was a wild place, all sane persons would avoid it.”

Readme is engaging fun, an often thought provoking read which at its heart, is an old-fashioned pageturner grounded by interesting and endearing characters. It has good guys, it has bad guys, it has cliffhangers, chivalry and heroism. And lots and lots of guns.

Patrick West’s The World Swimmers – Reviewed by Robert Goodman

13 Dec

Short stories are their own particular art form. Like poetry, they are often the expression of an idea or a mood or a character. A distillation of a thought into prose. As a result, a collection of short stories can often feel a bit like a rollercoaster. Every few pages everything changes – the tone, the voice, the mood, the narrative style – and can often leave the reader disconcerted, longing for a lengthier narrative and characters with which they can connect more fully.

The World Swimmers, a collection of nine short stories by Patrick West, has this disconcerting nature. The stories are on the whole very short – quick dips in and out of a varied set of lives and situations. Many are thought provoking and disconcerting all on their own, never mind when they start bumping up against each other. And yet, unlike many bodies of collected work, there is a cohesion here, a pattern that emerges as you step back from the individual pieces and consider the whole.

The World Swimmers displays a wide range of styles of narration and voice, many of which border on the poetic and abstract. Most are first person narratives from wildly different narrators (a modern day Australian man, a 19th century Hungarian trainee midwife, a female Japanese research student). Others play with second person but in different styles.

That said, this group of stories is very strongly linked thematically. In almost all of the stories the main character/narrator is an outsider, a person out of their comfort zone or fighting against conformity. In “Greenwood” it is the boy from a “special school for boys” unable to fit in a mainstream class. In “Dear Semmelnazi” the narrator is a would-be midwife in 19th century Hungary shunned after she has to take care of a little boy who himself grows up to buck futilely against the establishment. And in “As of Shadows” the main character starts by telling us that she is “one of those few people born in the country in which I should have been born”. These characters are not alone but they are outsiders, some deliberately so.

West is also interested in boundaries and borders – the area where one thing or place becomes another – and their effect on people. Many of the stories are set on the coast, where the land meets the sea (including a couple of inland seas), or have the coast as a destination. The beautiful “Nhill” charts a walk into Victoria’s little desert “different from the surrounding countryside”. After their walk to the salt lake at the heart of the desert the narrator and his wife are physically “ejected” by the place, reinforcing its otherness. In “Shame” a Japanese researcher is told a story of a rare tree that now only grows within a fence surrounding an American army base. She replies that “this type of tree was now as good as extinct for the Japanese as it is no longer a reality for the Okinawan people; they could neither see it nor touch it.” The main character in “As of Shadows” becomes a border guard but the real border that she wishes to patrol is the border between what people are and what they should be.

There are some breathtaking stories in The World Swimmers and some bewildering ones. “U”, for example, is a palindromic story, set by the shore, its ascending and descending repetition work like a tidal pull. Not all of the stories worked and some defied me, but there is a poetry here and some enduring imagery that make even these worth the journey. The stories that do work in this collection are transformative, changing the way you look at or feel about the world, though not always in a way that is immediately obvious.

Thoroughly modern poets in triptych: review by Mark William Jackson

12 Nov

On my bookshelves, after my chronologically ordered issues of Overland, Meanjin, Going Down Swinging etc., after my poetry collections, alphabetised by poet’s surname, sit the anthologies in no particular order other than size. An anthology could easily get lost in the melee, unless it is read frequently. I can always put my hand on my copy of Penguin Modern Poets issue 5 featuring Gregory Corso, Lawrence Felinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. The Penguin Modern Poets series of books were published between 1962 and 1979 to introduce contemporary poetry to new readers. This was a first as, before Penguin, poetry was published in obscure chapbooks or expensive hardcovers.

The Triptych Poets series, published by Blemish Books, returns to this tradition. An annual release started in 2010, issue 2 was released on 6 October 2011 and features the work of Stuart Cooke, Bronwen Manger and Ouyang Yu. From the Blemish Books website, ‘We’re hoping to highlight the contrasting and often complementary nature of contemporary poetry.’ This goal is certainly achieved in issue 2.  Three very different poets that work well together; the anthology flows beautifully.

Paying homage to Neruda and Chilean poetics, Cooke’s poems are steeped in surrealism but he also retains a grip on an Australian tone. These combine to create a unique voice.

In ‘Sonnet to Rain (son del silencio)’ Cooke draws the image of a dry land:

Hushed metal crescendo hear the cowbells clang

ing occasionally for the hell of it as if f
alling spirits weren’t caught by anyone but picked

 up from earth by hard white hands it’s

hard, yes, to talk about the dust, about what

Cooke’s enjambment is jarring and breathless, the lines are roughly iambic, the standalone ‘f’ at the end of the second line doesn’t count as a foot but adds to the stammering, thirsty drawl of the poem.

The combination of the two tones is evident again in ‘The Love Song of Judith and Pablo’ where text is taken from Judith Wright’s ‘The Man Beneath the Tree’ and Pablo Neruda’s ‘Oda a la Bella Desnuda’ (the author’s translation). Cooke takes from the two poems and marries them wonderfully.  However, what I found most amazing, aside from the perfect flow that is achieved, is what the lines chosen reveal about the poet. Like a child of divorced parents it is difficult to live, and indeed, love, two countries. Cooke merges lines from Wright’s first stanza:

Nothing is so far as truth;
nothing is so plain to see.
Look where light has married earth
through the green leaves on the tree.

And the first line of her last stanza:

Oh, love and truth and I should meet,

with Neruda’s first lines:

With chaste heart, with eyes pure

and the closing lines of his second stanza:

Your eyelids of wheat
who discover
or close
two countries deep in your eyes

to create a longing for the two countries that hold his love:

Oh, love and truth and I should meet
with a chaste heart, with pure eyes
holding the sea-music. Nothing is so far
as truth: your eyelids of wheat revealing
or hiding two deep countries
in your eyes – love for which the wisest weep.

Bronwen Manger’s section of the anthology takes is into the reality of Australia. In ‘Kinglake 2011’, for example, the memories of the Black Saturday bushfires remain two years later, but the signs of rebirth are beautifully illustrated, especially in the opening stanza:

The charred stakes of former trees are now haloed
in soft green leaves, each cell a vial of sunlight
glowing out defiant optimism. The secret heartbeat
of this old land is too young & too foolish
to stay sombre.

In a nice twist, Manger provides an ode to St. Kilda (‘St.Kilda’), a love/hate relationship sounds too balanced as Manger shouts from the start:

This place,
gaudy as an open wound,
wears its weather beaten halo
askew.

and continues with such barbs as ‘regurgitated out/onto the footpath’, ‘shadeless, limbless trees/strain into a stricken sky. Fevered/ cafes sweat people with brass skin /and concrete eyes.’  But the close provides a knowing smile to the face of the reader:

But I found one night
once, years ago we
laughed immortal and absurd,
disbelieving and joyful in some vineless
Vineyard.

We laughed;
and St Kilda,
I forgive everything.

While reading Ouyang Yu’s section he immediately jumped into my favourite poets category. Yu writes in the deceptively simple, yet multiple interpretive Chinese style. Short poems are titled only with numbers, they read like a softly moving creek, and flow like a comfortable conversation. Yu shares his thoughts, such as:

8.

unless you want
to be
the greatest of obscure authors
waiting to be discovered
for the rest of your death

I adore the humour in the work:

33.

it’s now time for commercial break, we’ll be right back:
buy poetry bye poetry buy poetry bye poetry buy poetry bye

and:

34.

to think of some of my favourite writers
to think of how forgotten they are
unlike shakespeare who is being exploited without getting paid

Yu uses Chinese characters, which cannot be copied here, but are mentioned purely because they are interesting in that they don’t need translation; they offer a mystique to the poetry, a licence to interpret as you see fit.

The depth in the deceptive simplicity is highlighted here:

45.

all i need to do

to prove eternity doesn’t

exist

is to strike this

life-thin

match

Last quote from Ouyang Yu:

52.

how many people does one make love to all his life
how many friends does he make
how many enemies
how many strangers does he
encounter how many pigs
or cows does he eat
i had a head-on collision with this question
when my car reached the end of the freeway

I wish I could go into more detail here – these three poets deserve reviews in their own rights as each section of this anthology is a worthy collection in itself. Suffice to say, the Triptych Poets Issue Two holds its own in the tradition of the Penguin Modern Poets series, allowing the reader to compare three very distinct voices that combine to flow in one wonderful collection.

Triptych Poets: Issue 2
Blemish Books,100pp
, $15

A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok reviewed by Robert Goodman

17 Oct

AS Byatt, the grand lady of English letters, is best known for her lengthy tomes exploring the minutiae of English life. As she admits in an illuminating afterword to Raganrok, Byatt’s books often contain a thread of myth. Byatt draws a distinction between fairy tales and myths. In fairy tales we learn something, despite their violence and magic, good triumphs and evil is vanquished. Myths are not so clear cut. Myths are about archtypes, they often follow well worn story lines but not necessarily to any neat conclusion or happy ending. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the tales of the Norse gods and their ultimate destruction in the final battle of Ragnarok.

As with many of her novels, Byatt tells the story through the eyes of a fictional version of herself – the thin child “sickly, bony, like an eft, with fine hair like sunlit smoke”, evacuated from Sheffield to the countryside during the Blitz. This is not only a device for engaging the reader but a deliberate means of recounting the myths as Byatt herself encountered them, untrammelled by interpretation and deconstruction, but infused with a precocious child’s perspective of a world at war.

That is not to say that Byatt wants this book to be free from other interpretation or deeper meaning. Byatt wants to say something about the world as it is today and the environmental degradation being wrought by the proliferation of humanity. To do this she deliberately, repeatedly, and quite beautifully catalogues living creatures, as if creating a literary ark, in order to recreate a world that has gone or that is under threat. A world that may end up going the way of the Norse gods – finally and irrevocably. Just as an example:

“In spring the field was thick with cowslips, and in the hedgerows, in the tangled bank, under the hawthorn hedge and the ash tree, there were pale primroses and violets of many colours from rich purple to a white touched with mauve… There were vetches and lady’s bedstraw, forgetmenots, and speedwells, foxgloves, viper’s bugloss, cow parsley, deadly nightshade (wreathed in the hedges), willowherb and cranesbill, hairy bittercress, docks (good for wounds and stings), celandines, campions and ragged robin.”

While all that makes this book sound a little overladen with symbolism and gloom it is anything but. Ragnarok, from its opening page is poetic and engaging. It is predominantly a retelling of Norse mythology from creation stories through to the final battle of Raganrok which saw the destruction of the gods and their world. The interplay between the thin girl as reader and discoverer of these myths and the retelling of the myths themselves is deftly handled. And the environmental message is only lightly referenced until elucidated more fully in Byatt’s afterward.

This is a rich and rewarding experience, as a way into Norse mythology for those who have never encountered it, as a fresh retelling and interpretation of those stories for those who might have more than a passing acquaintance and more generally for lovers of poetic literature that sings off the page.