Winnie Dunn reviews The Kindness of Birds by Merlinda Bobis

The Pigeons Are Taking Over: The Kindness of Birds

by Merlinda Bobis

ISBN 9781925950304

Spinifex Press

Reviewed by WINNIE DUNN

 

Ibis

The beloved bin chicken is always feeding off scraps of bread whenever I walk to Fairfield station. Because it is a sin to throw away the sacredness of bread, those leftovers become a well-meaning gesture shared by members of the south-west Sydney community. I clutched my copy of The Kindness of Birds (Spinifex, 2021), a short story collection by Merlinda Bobis, as I watched the ibises peck peacefully between pigeons for crumbs. 

Short stories are like ibises. Ibises are displaced from their homes due to global warming yet they still choose to stay in large groups and consistently work towards common goals. Likewise, short stories are in themselves self-contained. But when interconnected, their morals, moments and memories take over time and space in a deliberate way for the reader. Short stories aggregate like a flock (Bobis’ collection has 14 individual stories) and yet are shunted to the margins when one thinks of books (short story collections are the least sold or noticed in our industry). 

It is the image of the ibises gathering together which I carried into my reading of Bobis’ latest work. Her collection is a series of small gestures, revelation of cultures and feathered symbolism that make up the book’s overall theme – kindness and its many forms in the face of adversity. 

 

Pigeon

The title of this review takes inspiration from Vietnamese-Australian writer, Shirley Le. It was her narrator’s opening line in our co-written play, Sex, Drugs & Pork Rolls (UTP, 2021). Used as a symbol for British colonialism, the pigeons flock at the narrator’s Yagoona home window, leaving  dirty marks on the glass. Yet, the pigeon is remarked by the narrator’s mother as “much nicer” than the native magpie – the magpie in this sense being used as a symbol for First Nations people’s sovereignty, which was never ceded. As migrant settlers who are writers, it is a constant privilege to know how best to respect this sovereignty, when and where to tell our own stories, and when we are taking up too much space. 

In this way, Bobis acknowledged and paid respect to First Nations people’s sovereignty throughout her collection. The stories ‘Candido’s Revolution’ and ‘My Tender Tender’ especially speak to the complex history of colonialism, migration and sovereignty on this continent. 

It is the singing of a folksong, reimagined by a Filipinx poet named Remy, that stays with me as I read ‘Candido’s Revolution’. An infamous Manilaman pearl diver hums from atop a tree, “Dandansoy bayaan ta icao” (p54), capturing the attention of Mary (1893 Australia would simply refer to her as “a native woman”). Without a shared language between them besides the complimentary phrase, “Can-do good song” (p55) they still look at each other through the trees. The initial allure they shared is eventually cut short by racist laws and the call for a revolution in the Philippines. For The Kindness of Birds, this interaction marks the historical beginning of inter-cultural dialogue between First Nations people and Filipinx migrants – a connection that is often left unrecognised. 

This connection continues in the short story, ‘My Tender Tender’. One of the main characters Uncle Freddy Corpus, swears on the Bible when he tells Nenita of their shared Asian ancestry – she Filipina and he Filipino and Yuwuru. After telling stories to Nenita of miraculous feats of diving to survive the perils of colonialism, Uncle Freddy Corpus eventually “takes out various memorabilia from [a] satchel. He opens one: it’s a copy of a marriage certificate of his Filipino grandfather Servo Corpus Felipe and Yawuru grandmother Maria Emma Ngobing. She’s speechless, honoured […] touched by this gesture affirming their Philippine connection.” (p82) In this way, Uncle Freddy and Nenita’s intercultural dialogue shows how us settlers should act as we walk on stolen lands – nothing but intent listeners, sharing only when asked and only when it will foster healing. 

Colonialism would have us all believe that there are only pigeons at the centre of history, Bobis’ writing shows us how wrong that is. 

 

Common mynah

In Tongan culture, an omen of death arrives in the form of a bird entering our houses. One summer, a common mynah flew into the open doors of the top-storey balcony and flittered in circles on the living room ceiling. Even with the doors wide open, the petite brown blur still struggled to find the exit again. ‘Shoo-shoo-shoo!’ my aunty Lahi pleaded, her doughy belly rolling as she battered a straw broom above her head, hitting the plastic chandelier as she did so. ‘Fuck!’ Lahi swore, sweat dripping from her short strands of brown-black hair and into her freckled and frumpled face. Hearing someone swear, (that someone being technically my mother in Tongan culture), made me stifle a giggle. The mynah gave a series of squeaks before finally finding the open balcony. I watched as its fluffed mass disappeared over the streets of Mt Druitt. 

Within the short story ‘When the Crow Turns White’, a half-dead bird is carried into parliament injured from the hailstorm raging outside. Two cleaners of Filipinx heritage, Orla and Corazon, wrap the crow in white cloth remarking, “Climate change is scary.” (p14) Throughout their debates in the empty chamber rooms about legislations, the constant arguing of old white men and the winds of change with the first Aboriginal woman elected into the house of representatives, Corazon holds a secret. She is a descendant of crows, a unique culture connection that makes her a born healer. From acts of miracles long ago, she still has memorised the chant, “Ilayog, ilayog ang ilo sa bagà. Ilayog, ilayog ang sakit ni padabà. Fly, fly away the poison in the lungs. Fly, fly away the pain of the beloved!” (p20)

So what happened when the mynah visited us? My grandmother died a week later from a heart attack. 

And what happened when the crow flew up in a bundle of white cloth within our parliament? A series of “bipartisan”, “polite” and “caring” (p25) MPs across the political spectrum seemingly overnight. 

Why? Only the birds know.

 

Bat

The mammal (not a bird) that started COVID (racists love to use this as an excuse to call east and south-east Asian people “dirty”). The pandemic is threaded throughout Bobis’ short story collection – a grandmother and grandson are quarantining in an apartment together after returning from a trip to the Philippines (‘Grandma Owl’), a lover’s well-meaning yet blasé attitude towards mask-wearing (‘My Love, My Nerūsē’) and a nurse holding a pained patient’s hand even as it went against protocol (‘Angels’). It is these small gestures, hidden between dialogue, that readers should pay close attention to when reading The Kindness of Birds. Bobis’ work on the subject reveals it was not COVID that reshaped our society but rather all the small acts of kindness individuals chose in order to look after each other. 

 

Pelican

The only school assignment my father ever helped me with was a cardboard presentation about pelicans I did in Year 2. We printed out blurry Google images of the impossibly large white birds and glued them (using a mixture of flour and water) onto purple cardboard we bought at the Plumpton Newsagency for two bucks. 

My favourite story in Bobis’ collection is ‘My Father’s Australia’. Nenita (a recurring character), stares at the tailored suit she had once bought for her father. The suit, a pasalubong (homecoming gift), was given to her father with the intention that he would wear it when he took his first steps in Australia. In its navy hues, Nenita remembers how her father lived “on tilted earth” (p91) at the base of volcano in Legazpi, fixing people’s aircons in order to provide a better future for his children. In the suit, Nenita hears the memory of her father reciting in English, “To Oz, to Oz”(p92) for a trip that would never eventuate. 

The love between Nenita and her dad reminds me of the only time in my childhood when my father was not existing in survival mode (being a Tongan man with eight children would do that). When we spoke of pelicans, he seemingly had all the time in the world for me as we took our first steps in my education together. ‘To uni, to uni,’ my father, who dropped out of Year 12, would remind me after each school year ended. 

In this way, ‘My Father’s Australia’ is the standout of the collection. 

 

Blue-and-gold macaw

It was only when I moved to Fairfield in south-west Sydney that I saw the native parrot of South America. The suburb is home to a small yet strong Latinx Australian community. But it still didn’t make sense to me how the blue-feathered bird the size of a small television was caged away in a dilapidated second-storey balcony. 

What I found the most striking about Bobis’ writing, was how effortlessly she was able to reflect the true diversity of Australia without it ever feeling like it was forced or there simply for the sake of it. A woman Nenita passes by when swimming at the beach yells out “Jidoo!” (p222), Grandma Lou’s Chilean neighbour Matilda is the only person that calls Lou by her real name “Luningning” and reminds readers that as people of colour we’re always being interrogated for our skin, our accent and our names (p174). Nenita with her Latvian partner, who is always leaving her sweet notes like, “Gone walking. ♥” (p138) – a gesture that makes all the difference when choosing to grow old with someone. All realistic depictions of the inter-cultural connections we all share with neighbours, friends and even family. 

Halfway through my reading, I took a break and went outside onto my own second-storey balcony. I stared at the yellow underside of the parrot. Still wondering why on Earth a giant South American bird was flapping its wings with the sound echoing off the brick and concrete of endless rundown apartments. Laughing as I realised I was standing beside my own cultural marker – a potted frangipani tree.  

 

Rainbow lorikeet 

To me, the lorikeet is the kindest bird there is. Eternally squawking in bushes as if laughing. Eating with such fever and frenzy because they’re so cheerful that they hardly notice what is in their beaks. Darting in pairs across busy streets. Flocking in the afternoon sky so fast they become little black spots, dotting the daytime like stars. From Orla and Corazon, Lou and Matilda, Ella and Nenita and finally Remy and Belen – it was the sacred sisterhood of the women characters Bobis’ paired together that carried this collection. Remy put it perfectly in ‘The Air of The Times’ when she penned in poem: 

“So enter, sister,
without gun or armour,
still magnificent.” (p52) 

If the ibis is what I took into my reading of The Kindness of Birds, the Rainbow lorikeet is what I took away from it, long after I had turned the last page.

WINNIE DUNN is the General Manager of Western Sydney based literacy movement, Sweatshop. She is a writer of Tongan descent from Mount Druitt and holds a Bachelor of Arts from Western Sydney University. Winnie’s work has been published in the Sydney Review of Books, Griffith Review, Meanjin, SBS Voices, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Red Room Poetry and Cordite. She is the editor of several critically acclaimed anthologies, and currently working on her debut novel as the recipient of a CAL Ignite grant.

Claire Qu reviews Love & Virtue by Diana Reid

Love & Virtue

By Diana Reid

ISBN 9781761150111

Ultimo Press

Reviewed by CLAIRE QU

The prim and vaguely Austenian title of Diana Reid’s debut novel offers a tongue-in-cheek self-description consistent with the book’s plentiful irony. Many labels could be applied to it: campus novel, bildungsroman, #MeToo novel, story of contemporary female friendship. Perhaps that is why it is so constantly self-aware, so unremitting in its parody of all the stock characters – the insecure freshmen, urbane professors, greasy suitors, and smugly ‘liberated’ women – that people these genres. It isn’t satire alone which saves Reid’s book from vanishing into the slew of Millennial Novels however; crucially, it also has heart. Though no sweeping epic or philosophical heavyweight, Love & Virtue is winning, clever, and self-deprecating.

The novel captures the first year of Michaela’s university life among elite Sydney high school graduates. At its frothy beginning, I’ll admit I shrank from what seemed a somewhat stale montage: house-parties, drunkenness, and superficial friendships. Modern social alienation, that increasingly common theme, crops up abundantly at the start of Love & Virtue, in wry narratorial observations. ‘Alcohol was useful for making friends,’ Michaela notes, attractive, ‘liquid-limbed’ friends who are ‘intelligent enough to realise that nothing is sexier to a young and fragile man than not understanding what he is saying’ (14, 17). The sheer, drug-addled stupidity of O-week hijinks is vividly evoked, along with a brutal projection of where it all too often leads: these bright young things ‘will grow up to work in banks, and then cheat on their wives with their secretaries, and have a panic attack when they realise they don’t have an inner life’ (48). Even throughout the scenes of fun, Reid peppers reminders of class privilege and ubiquitous sexism, a sweet-and-sour formula that could have rendered the novel dryly moralistic were it not for the heady and complex female relationship blooming at its centre.

Eve Shaw is the archetypal ‘frenemy’, and the whole novel is framed by her ambivalent friendship with Michaela. This fact alone merits praise in a world where significant literary relationships between women, while on the increase, are still a rarity. More importantly, the individual characters of Eve and Michaela, as well as their tense chemistry, are realised with rare charisma and authenticity. ‘[I]n spite of everything,’ confesses the latter of the former, ‘I’m still a bit in love with her’ (2) – and so am I. Despite being in many ways a caricature of the hypocritically ‘woke’ undergraduate, with her performances of selfless erudition and willingness to mine painful situations for ‘broader social benefit’ (292), Eve is eminently seductive. Her warmth and physicality permeate the novel, and her flashes of humour, generosity, and infuriating egotism are the rhythm the plot responds to. Michaela’s regard for Eve is, for me, one of the most unexpectedly likeable things about Love & Virtue. For, though we recognise a hollowness to Eve in the importance she attaches to being ‘both a person and an idea of a person’ (10), her own belief in ideals of aesthetics and ethics (also the name of a subject she takes) feels genuine. And if Michaela, cynical with our times, doesn’t appreciate Wildean self-invention, at least readers may.

It is Eve, too, who stands in the shadow of the novel’s twin dramatic centres, plotlines which at first appear to gravitate around two men. In this triangle of desire, triumph, and irritation lies Reid’s greatest achievement. Turning the marriage plot on its head, she presents instead a fiercely competitive homosociality between Eve and Michaela in light of which heterosexual romantic entanglements seem contingent. Through Michaela’s messy sexual encounter with a peer and her developing relationship with an older man, Reid explores issues of consent and power imbalances with unusual attention to the finer shades of guilt, pride, self-consciousness, and shame. Eve’s part in these episodes further refines the book’s nuanced discussion of consent, and it is her secondhand involvement in Michaela’s sex life which makes Love & Virtue’s treatment of the topic so fresh and believable. In the one case, Michaela’s anticipation of her friend’s shock and envy at being ‘if not beaten, then at least passed over’ (169) is deliciously vitriolic; in the other, Eve’s betrayal takes the words out of Michaela’s mouth, leaving her to mourn ‘[her] own version of events’ (294).

Personal crises, political and philosophical musings, and the affected gloss of first-year banter – Reid handles all these in unpretentious prose which warms from flippancy to eloquence as Michaela forges deeper emotional connections. The dialogue, in particular, is a stand-out, treading the line between stiffness and excessive glibness admirably. Reid’s experience with writing for theatre shows in the remarkable inflections of intimacy and attitude that she is able to give with conversation alone. It is also to this deftness with dialogue that we owe the sympathetic, three-dimensional image of Michaela; readers experience her wit, worldliness, generosity, insecurity, and occasional pettiness through her conversations with others, rather than learning of them by way of clumsy self-description. 

Reid has cited Donna Tartt’s classic campus novel, The Secret History, as a major inspiration for Love & Virtue, an influence perceptible in the aura of dark drama surrounding the mutually vengeful relationship between Michaela and Eve. Reid’s novel doesn’t quite achieve the symmetry between academic discussions and the surrounding plot so successful in The Secret History. An exchange between Michaela and her Philosophy professor hints at a theoretical understructure to the book’s critique of campus culture:

‘So Michaela, from where are we deriving moral knowledge in week ten, semester one?’                ‘I want to say “social constructs”, but that depresses me.’ (117)

The discussion stops there, curtailing the book’s generic potential for a blend of the abstract and the concrete. Excepting this minor shortcoming, however, Love & Virtue is to be lauded for its difference from its model. Reid has created her own kind of campus novel, candid and irreverent – a far cry from earnest dark academia stylings. At once typically Australian, with its Bondi panoramas and unsophisticated college party scenes, and crushingly universal in its dissection of institutionalised sexism, class privilege, and new adult identity formation, Love & Virtue is a poised debut offering. Reid’s novel is a timely reflection on the manifold ways in which the #MeToo movement has failed and a lively intervention in the ranks of increasingly apathetic Millennial fiction – and most importantly, it’s a really fun read. 

Cited:

Reid, Diana. Love & Virtue. Ultimo Press, 2021.
Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. Penguin, 1993.

 

CLAIRE QU recently graduated from an honour’s degree in English at the University of Melbourne and is looking forward to continuing her studies overseas. Her interests include the Gothic, ecocriticism, and women’s writing, topics she hopes to explore in her postgraduate thesis. 

 

Dave Clark reviews Born Into This by Adam Thompson

Born Into This

by Adam Thompson

ISBN 9780702263118

UQP

Reviewed by DAVE CLARK

 

As a technique pioneered and refined over the past hundred years, keyhole surgery involves a surgeon making small incisions in the skin, so tiny that at times it is hard to tell afterwards that something significant has taken place beneath the surface of the patient. It is a method used to diagnose health conditions, as well as to begin treating them.

From the first short story in Born Into This by Adam Thompson[i], I felt that I was in seasoned, steady hands. As the stories unfolded, each one was a penned incision, surgical and precise, cutting beneath the surface, diagnosing the ongoing impacts of colonisation/invasion. The writing within these sixteen short stories deftly slides beyond the synapses and impacts the heart.

I was surprised to learn that this was Thompson’s debut book. I was not surprised to see that this collection was shortlisted for multiple awards, including the Queensland Literary Awards 2021, the Age Fiction Book of the Year 2021 and the USQ Steele Rudd Award for a Short Story Collection. If his name isn’t familiar in your writing and reading circles, that will change once you get hold of his work.

Adam Thompson is an Aboriginal (pakana) writer from Launceston. He has worked for almost twenty years in roles caring for Lutruwita (Tasmania) Country and preserving culture and heritage. His passion for these endeavours clearly influences his writing and themes. His writing career has been gathering momentum over the last five years, with some of his short stories being recognised with writers’ festival awards. Born Into This is his first full collection of short fiction.

The sixteen stories in this book traverse across Tasmania, taking place on tiny islands, beaches, the streets of Launceston, in forests, at a funeral, in a school and a pub and suburban houses. Tasmania is a part of Australia not often captured in contemporary fiction. It is a refreshing insight into an often-overlooked region.

The characters within his book are blistering and humorous, compassionately created. Many of the characters are engaging enough to justify an entire book. The stories are fierce and political, leading to a collection that sizzles. It confronts. It takes tropes and myths and shreds them in an accomplished manner. It mixes world-class writing with his unique take on each character’s inner world. This is contemporary Australian fiction at its most impacting, sitting comfortably alongside the works of Tara June Winch, Melissa Lucashenko and the poetry of Evelyn Araluen.

Thematically, Thompson looks intently into the ongoing impacts of colonisation in current day Tasmania. As Noongar author Claire G. Coleman writes about in her recent book, Lies Damned Lies, colonisation/invasion in Australia was not an event. It’s ongoing.[ii] Any current writing about it needs to acknowledge this and challenge the power, privilege, and the very Anglo understandings of history. Thompson doesn’t tiptoe around this. The elephants in the room are pointed at and prodded. He does it with clever turns of narrative that lead the reader to see the world in personal ways that whiter parts of Australia can often turn a blind eye to.

For example, the second story, ‘Honey,’ looks at the commodification of language and how Aboriginal culture matters only to some when it can generate them a buck. The fourth story ‘Invasion Day’ takes places during a protest and has the line,

‘Looming above, like a love sonnet to colonisation, stood the sandstone monstrosity of Parliament House’ (p49).

Stories like ‘Jack’s Island,’ ‘Black Eye’ and ‘Time and Tide’ stride into the devastating, way-of-life-altering impact that climate change is having on the characters’ connection to Country. ‘Descendent’ wrestles with who gets to decide Indigenous identity and the persistent myth that Indigenous people in Tasmania died out with Truganini. The story seems to be saying that we were invaded, but not erased. Still here.

The experience of characters as minorities in their region often see them facing racism. As someone who has lived in Alice Springs (Mparntwe) for twelve years, I see and hear many acts of racism towards Arrernte people most days. Some of the acts are personal. Some are in way they are policed and treated in court or in the local shops, the societal structures that continue to try to kick them down to the bottom rung. It’s horrible to witness people and their families being targeted, based solely on their skin colour and culture. Those of us who are privileged will never fully understand what it is like and just how resilient people are living in the face of such ongoing injustice.

Acts of racism – the ‘in your face’ versions, the far-reaching political decisions, the removal of agency and the subtler, pervasive microaggressions – are shown and felt in many of the characters’ stories of Thompson’s book. The story ‘Sonny,’ about a white man who yells out ‘Run, Darky, run,’ (p101) to his friend on the footy field, sat heavy in my gut for days, sounding all-too familiar to instances around town.

It is deeply confronting – and necessarily so – to see how explicit and implicit forms of racism are still so prevalent. If, as a white reader of this book, we don’t feel sick and embarrassed and angry by Australia’s past and present, then we aren’t hearing the beating heart of this collection.

Tokenistic and paternalistic responses to colonisation/invasion are on display in these stories. ‘The Blackfellas From Here’ bitingly looks at the shallowness of acknowledgement of whose land it is, with Kat challenging James to hand over the deed to his house. It asks the question of what a deep acknowledgement of the past and present would look like. It shows that current political responses are still largely like acknowledging that someone has a flat tyre, but then just walking on by and doing nothing about it. Acknowledgement must be more than a cursory nod towards someone’s experience.

As a whole collection, there are many standout stories, including ‘Kite’ and ‘Born Into This’ to go with the ones already mentioned. On both the first and second readings of the collection, I felt however that the power of the book drops away in two of the final stories. As their own entities, ‘Time and Tide’ and ‘Morpork’ would find happy homes in many publications. In contributing to the overall theme though, it felt that these lingered in comparison to the crackling nature of the rest of it.

One subject that crops up regularly in the book is around survival. An example of this is the character Kara, secretly planting young eucalypt trees in areas that have been hacked away by forestry and mining companies. She contemplates this as she tends to the trees,

‘Natural survivors, like her own family, born into a hostile world and expected to thrive’ (p40).

Plants survive Tasmania’s climate as well as the brutality and the upheaval of exploitative human damage. These delicate pictures of flora and fauna are placed in many of Thompson’s stories, alongside their human equivalents. They are beautiful and telling reminders of people and culture that are deep-rooted, living and breathing in the present. Finding ways to survive, and thrive, even amidst significant change, Thompson weaves in his theme of hope. The reader is not left depressed, but more so, impressed upon: that there is horror in this country. And there is hope.

Several websites and interviews refer to Adam Thompson as an emerging writer. With a book this good, with prose and dialogue this splendid, ’emerging’ seems to be a misguided stamp. With Born Into This, he has well-and-truly added his works to the strongest writers in Australian contemporary fiction. To tackle content as heavy as the themes of racism and survival, and to do so elegantly and originally, is a remarkable achievement.

Notes:

[i] Thompson, Adam 2021, Born Into This, University of Queensland Press, Australia.
[ii] Coleman, Claire G 2021, Lies Damned Lies, Ultimo Press, NSW.

 

DAVE CLARK is a writer-poet with CFS who lives in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). He works as a counsellor and enjoys reading, photography and giving voice to quieter stories. His works have been published in Mascara, Imprint, Pure Slush Books, Adelaide Lit, Quillopia, Slippage Lit, Melbourne Culture Corner and Right Now. Twitter @DaveClarkWriter

 

Tom Munro-Harrison reviews Exo-Dimensions Mixed Feelings & Storm Warning by Stick Mob

Exo-Dimensions, Mixed Feelings, Storm Warning

by Seraphina Newberry & Justin Randall, Declan Miller, Lauren Boyle & Alyssa Mason

Stick Mob Studio

Reviewed by
TOM MUNRO-HARRISON
 
 
 
 
 

Black eyes and a scaly, reptilian maw are met with fist and boomerang upon the unmistakable dusty red, muted tones of the Central Australian landscape. No, this is not a closed door Liberal National discussion on emissions targets, although it may be a message to them. Mparntwe youth offer ways for us to consider what it means to be Australian and living on Indigenous lands. Artist Seraphina Newberry’s Exo Dimensions interrupts the public imagination with its bold declaration of a post-apocalyptic world of survival horror and climate catastrophe. We are greeted with zombies, cyborgs, clones, a scorpion man and a pet crocodile. Make no mistake, the work seems to be saying, ‘History is dead, the Future is already here. We are still here, and in this fierce declaration of survival, we can envisage how the past collapses into a conflicting narrative of national and cultural dystopia.’

This is shape-shifting at its best.

Exo Dimensions is produced by Stick Mob Studios, a collective of graphic artists and writers based in Central Australia. The collective was founded by creative director Declan Miller with the support of his mentor and art teacher Wendy Cowan while he was still in year 8. Stick Mob’s goal is to support and celebrate the creative efforts of their artists, a group of young people with strong Indigenous cultural connections, many of whom, like Declan, began their creative works while still in high school.

As a thirty-something graphic artist, I can attest to the focus and dedication required to put together a graphic novel. For a group of young artists and writers to have accomplished this is truly impressive and something that they should be immensely proud of. There is enormous value in the idea of Indigenous self-representation through ongoing cultural practices and the work that Stick Mob are doing serves as a source of cultural pride and resurgence.

It is clear that a lot of work has gone into building the world (or worlds) of Exo Dimensions, which leaps from one cast of characters to another. Explosive revelations and flashbacks detail previously unknown connections and backgrounds, altering the meaning behind events and requiring a re-evaluation of the actions and motivations of key figures through a more sympathetic lens.

The second chapter begins with a more subdued and grounded tone, following Konan who, at the behest of his white, adoptive parents, reluctantly embarks on a journey to explore his cultural roots in an attempt to resolve his inner tumult and combative behaviour. Upon arriving in the Northern Territory things quickly get intense for Konan who discovers a hidden world filled with mysterious power, challenging his sense of reality and emotional regulation. The apprehension of leaving the security and familiarity of his suburban life initially reaffirmed in an encounter with the monstrous and unknown. Yet these same forces compel him forward, literally and figuratively kicking and screaming.

Exo Dimensions is a bold, kinetic, dystopian sci-fi action frenzy, merging art styles reminiscent of Sweet Tooth’s Jeff Lemire, with a host of characters that look like they could go toe-to-toe with the X-Men, John McClane and Mad Max at the same time. All of this lurks uneasily within a story that, at its heart, is about a family, torn apart by sinister external forces and struggling to reunite against complex obstacles including trauma, tension and rejection. The work explores themes of loss and longing that echo the painful cultural experience of forced removals and intergenerational dislocation. Seraphina has crafted a fantastical allegory detailing the power of cultural connection, its magnetic pull, role in identity-making, and the damaging impact of absence in all its destructive forms.

The maturity and nuance of Declan Miller’s Mixed Feelings is impressive, successfully exploring themes of adolescence, vulnerability and alienation with a mixture of humour and earnest authenticity that surpasses the offerings of many established graphic novelists. The story focusses on a group of flawed but largely relatable characters.  

The work hits many beats that will appeal to lovers of Young Adult fiction as well as those who can recall the best and worst parts of being a teenager with all its struggles of awkwardness and angst. Beneath this veneer, there lies an unsettling and supernatural force, a lingering sense of fear and doubt. This haunting weight skulks in the image and threatens to unravel our hero’s understanding of self.

Protagonist Pam is conflicted by her desire to win the acceptance of her peers and the guilt she experiences in acting counter to the values instilled by her Uncle. Her Uncle is a positive role model in her life, who exhibits his kindness, generosity and vulnerability. 

It is clear that his influence on Pam’s life is powerful. She is a strong woman who does not fit outdated notions of womanhood. Far from being demure, she challenges the people and forces that surround her. She’s not afraid to fight or tell people where to go. Far from being godlike, she is never one to doubt herself. She does not reveal her vulnerabilities and yet, beneath the tough exterior there is a hint of softness. The unique strengths of the comic medium allow us to witness her crisis of conscience and in doing so it is made clear that her humanity is what drives her forward. We are not voyeurs in this story, but positioned uncomfortably as a voice in Pam’s head, one among many in a rising chorus, shouting through the cacophony, urging her to stay true to her values.

Pam’s inner turmoil manifests in the form of a demonic entity hidden behind a white mask and clad in Victorian-era clothing, taunting and pulling her away from her family and friends. I couldn’t help but interpret this as an embodiment of ongoing colonial assimilation pressures undermining Indigenous cultural identities and values, of the resultant trauma and impact on mental health.

The subversion of typical palette conventions in applying colour to backgrounds only is a simple and elegant method of bringing characters into focus by leaving them largely greyscale with occasional highlights à la film noir. The ambiguity of skin colour could also be read as a clever representation of the contested relationship between the Indigenous, cultural and personal identities, within a coming of age story set in Declan’s own hometown, Mparntwe.

Storm Warning, the product of a collaboration between writer Lauren Boyle and illustrator Alyssa Mason, follows Skai, whose teenage life is thrown into sudden chaos by a series of increasingly bizarre natural and supernatural forces. Inspired by manga, here plot, art and life combine in magical ways and merges with an Australian earthiness to question the very nature of the present. Where are we going? What does the future look like? What CAN it look like?

The story takes place in a not too distant future with climate change and severe weather a major focus. Adults and parental figures are largely absent, hinting at present anxieties around the absence of parental duties concerning climate change and inaction. The results of this inaction fall from the sky in enormous chunks of ice, erupt from the ground in balls of fire and slither around the corners of crumbling institutions.

That these ideas are being expressed by young creators like Lauren and Alyssa is telling. Their writing indicates an awareness of the challenges ahead and of the potential to alleviate their severity. The mood is tense. There is a great sense of displacement and doom. Where are the grown-ups? Will they be able to fend for themselves despite the many obstacles they face? Growing up is scary enough without giant mutant rats.

Ultimately Storm Warning is funny and compelling. Characters pull together and remain kind to each other in the face of adversity. Tension smoulders from the page. The initial lightness transforms along with the sky, growing ever darker through the slow but constant roll of thunder, the rumble of an earthquake, the protagonists watch frozen in fear (much as they might within a Liberal National climate change meeting) before the sudden splash of red and KERRUNSCH!!!

Heads will roll, or at least they might if the messages of these young creators are not heeded. 

Each of these stories are unique, the messages, art and writing styles are distinct to their creators, coloured by their own experiences and expertise. What they have in common is the expression of the urgency with which actions must be taken to address the issues they raise. Difficult themes such as climate emergency, assimilation practices and intergenerational trauma are made accessible through relatable characters. That these themes should appear within the works of Indigenous creators is no coincidence. The ability of these young writers to engage readers with these challenging ideas is indicative of their relevance within their communities and their own lived experiences of them.

These emerging artists are taking positions of leadership within communities as they build upon and innovate links to cultural knowledge. Through their work these artists express their perspectives which are shaped by lived experiences of the issues and realities of the cultural communities they live in. The inclusion of these perspectives, even when fictionalised, are self-representative expressions, which reflect and archive the standpoints of creators.

 
TOM MUNRO-HARRISON is a Wiradjuri activist, writer and artist living on Boon Wurrung County. His work and PhD research focusses on self-determined cultural practices and their impact and relationship on cultural connection and identity. He regularly contributes art to Indigenous X, and his work has been featured in publications such as Design with Indigenous Nations and Overland. He is currently developing a graphic novel which explores these experiences and themes.

Lesh Karan reviews Eurydice Speaks by Claire Gaskin

Eurydice Speaks 

by Claire Gaskin

ISBN: 9780648848127 ] 

Hunter Publishers

Reviewed by LESH KARAN


I feather my empty rest with writing
I gave up relationships to right it
Orpheus didn’t have to make that choice

(sonnet 12)

When I read Eurydice Speaks, what struck me the most (among many other things) was voice, and how it plays out – skilfully – on so many levels. From the outset, there’s the word ‘speaks’ in the title of only two words – two words with so much power (which I didn’t realise until deep into the collection). But, first, I want to delve into Claire Gaskin’s writing style – her voice –  and how she dismantles and wields language to evoke emotion.

Not being ‘overtly funny or political’, Gaskin says she ‘had to learn to be striking in imagery’ when reading before Melbourne’s ‘loud’ and ‘male-dominated’ spoken-word scene of the late eighties. This I learn from listening to Gaskin in an interview on 3CR’s Spoken Word from two years ago, and it makes me think of how Gaskin’s reasons for writing sharp imagery also parallel the themes in her poetry: feminism and writing to be heard.

But it’s not just haiku-esque images that make Gaskin’s work distinct – it’s how she blends the images with surrealism and abstractions. At the crux of it, this how she evokes, artfully juxtaposing disparate lines to surprise and allude:

time smothers me with a pillow that smells of belief
a prodigal son and a mother you can’t return to death
I watch a man in a café check the stability of a chair
he has witnessed collapse
I turn my face up to the brain matter sky

(sonnet 16, Eurydice Speaks, 16)

Even though Gaskin’s poetry is precise and sparse, it paradoxically obscures, giving the reader – us – agency to create meaning – even to distil multiple ones – enacting Barthes’s infamous ‘the death of the author’. In doing so, I realise her poetry is, ironically, also an act of self-preservation.

While Gaskin carries her characteristic voice across much of her oeuvre – which includes a chapbook and four major works, including hot-off-the-press Ismene’s Survivable Resistance – in Eurydice Speaks, her third full-length collection, she also uses structural devices to intensify and reinforce voice. 

The overarching structure of Eurydice Speaks is a series of linked sonnets (57 in total) – where the final line of one sonnet is repeated as the first line of the next, and so on – that share the same subject matter and persona. As such, the collection can be read like a verse novel – which is further encouraged by the lack of contents page and poem titles (each sonnet is simply numbered in Shakespearean fashion) – with a clear protagonist.

The protagonist, of course, is Eurydice from Ancient Greek mythology. However, Gaskin refashions her into a contemporary one by giving her a voice. ‘Eurydice in the Orpheus myth, she doesn’t really speak at all, she’s just a part in Orpheus’s life, so to think about her speaking and what her life is like living in the underworld, is like writing myself into life,’ says Gaskin in the same Spoken Word interview. 

In this way, Gaskin places power in the hands of the feminine – to retell and reposition story – instead of her being silenced. Eurydice Speaks’ epigraph also suggests this:

‘Writing, in its noblest function, is the attempt to unerase, to unearth, to find the primitive picture again, ours, the one that frightens us.’ 

– Hélèn Cixous.

As previously mentioned, feministic and writing-as-existence themes colour Gaskin’s work. For example, in Paperweight, her second full-length collection, Gaskin writes, ‘eve as evidence that I am not responsible for rotting apples’ (from ‘fall of man’), and ‘I had to write myself back from the brink’ (from ‘gratuities’). But by melding her voice with Eurydice’s in this collection, Gaskin wears Eurydice as an avatar from which to speak up and rebel – ‘to speak from the underworld is seditious’ (sonnet 57) – and to reveal through the language of the underworld (which Gaskin’s voice befits): ‘my writing is an attempt to uncover the mirror’ (sonnet 8), because there is ‘a cloth over the mirrors / so the reflected moonlight / doesn’t attract predators’ (sonnet 6).

The collection’s cover also depicts the theme of the female voice: We see a woman holding on to a man whose face is turned away from her. She is tugging at his blouse, willing him to look at her, as if she has something urgent to impart, as if she wants to remain in the underworld. Because in the Orpheus myth, the gods tell Orpheus he can take Eurydice with him only if she follows him and he doesn’t look back until they’re both out into the world of living; but if he does look (which he does), Eurydice will be banished to the underworld for good. 

So why does Eurydice want to remain in the underworld? ‘the force of the underworld opens my mouth,’ is the last and first line of sonnet 46 and 47, respectively, suggesting that the underworld is Eurydice’s inner world, where her truth lives – a truth she wants to voice with abandon:

I willed him to look back
watch his back watch him check his watch
locked in that gaze of that banishment that liberates

(sonnet 57)

Eurydice speaks mostly in first person, but occasionally appears in the third – ‘Eurydice’s mother held her gaze’ (sonnet 14). Also, she rarely refers to the other characters in her story – e.g. her mother, father, brother and Orpheus – directly. These characters are mostly indicated through the use of pronouns whose nouns are not stated and/or aren’t given context:

I said she died instead of she got married
to wake to full emptiness love self-dawns
Nothing happens next. My
head is in his hollow between his
biceps and his pecs. My

(sonnet 9)

The use of orphaned pronouns and various points of view across sonnets paints an expressionist landscape of anguish and trauma in familial and intimate relationships – and how these relationships interweave and have a persisting influence on each other:

we found her wedding dress in a pillow slip
give up men was her message
a card from my father’s funeral marks the page

(sonnet 14)

And:

he douses me with name calling and corrections
in my forgiveness fantasy is haunted hope
the pain of promise and pride not relationship ready

(sonnet 38)

This ‘interweaving and persisting influence’ are performed structurally, too. Namely, in the absence of the sonnet’s conventional metre and rhyme, it exists through line repetition: Besides the linking aspect – of carrying over the last line of one sonnet to the first line of the next – Gaskin mirrors (repeats) lines from one sonnet to the next, but messes with them by interchanging the nouns (and occasionally the verbs) with uncanny ones. Like how uncovering the mirror reflects another (point of) view of the truth:

I stumble on steps flowing with water
we are only doing this because we love you
I dreamt my boots filled with water
leaving drags afterwards

through polarities our life in pieces [last line]   

(sonnet 1)

through polarities our life in pieces [first line]
I stumble the stereotypes flow with wattle
we only do this because we lullaby you
I dreamt my bootlaces were film
leaving drags afterthoughts

(sonnet 2)

In the above excerpts, we can also hear the interplay of consonance, particularly, the ‘l’ and ‘w’ sounds. So, repetition takes place at a syllabic and letter level throughout the collection, too, adding nuanced layers to what is evoked. Gaskin’s masterful enjambment and lack of punctuation also means we cannot clearly grasp when a thought/idea begins, ends or continues – the effect of this along with the repetition build a sense of an ongoing echo, of a voice from the underworld.

Speaking of an ongoing echo, the last line of the last sonnet is also (mostly) the same as the first line of the first sonnet. This creates a circular effect, which brings to mind an image of an ouroboros, which in Jungian psychology symbolises immortality – devouring oneself to bring oneself back to life – and embodies the essence of Gaskin’s (and Cixous’s) notions on writing oneself into being.

Ultimately, Gaskin serves to make voice uncontainable by giving emotion and intuition the centre stage, subverting logic and patriarchal thinking. Because to read Eurydice Speaks is to submerse yourself in the (under)world of emotion – where the mind has no place, just the soundwaves of the heart and gut, for they don’t lie. And it takes a delicate and deft hand like Gaskin’s to do just that – one that evokes your inner world, rather than tells you what to think and feel.

 

LESH KARAN was born in Fiji, has Indian genes and lives in Melbourne. She is a former pharmacist who writes. Read her in Australian Multilingual Writing Project, Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Portside Review and Rabbit, amongst others. Lesh is currently undertaking a Master of Creative Writing, Editing and Publishing at the University of Melbourne. leshkaran.com

Jennifer Mackenzie reviews Sudeep Sen’s Anthropocene

Anthropocene

By Sudeep Sen

Salt Desert Media Group Ltd.

9781913738389

Reviewed by JENNNIFER MACKENZIE

 

 

Sudeep Sen, the poet, is in his study — where he can usually be found when in Delhi, sequestered, engaged with the world. His companion is the neem tree, light refracting through the pattern of its leaves. The tree, provider of shade and solace, is now under duress itself. The climate, once providing a reliable indicator of the passing seasons (as in ‘Climate Change 1. Yesterday’ (29)) is now registering an unseasonal pattern. Experiences of extremes of heat and cold, sometimes unexpected torrential rain or no rain at all, flood the senses, and from left field, another crisis emerges, attaching itself to this disequilibrium. Contagion threatens everyone, disrupts the political landscape and the wherewithal of the populace; the body isolates, the body succumbs, the poet rallies.

Sudeep Sen’s Anthropocene is a stellar example of what poetry can be in a time of crisis. The poet achieves this quality through his control of the essential poetic elements of image, argument and sound, underpinned by a sense of structure seemingly rooted in a consciousness of form and its possibilities. Sen’s awareness of form, the measure of the voice, is tied to a sense of design encompassing his facility with traditional poetic forms and their connectivity to other art forms, such as architecture, photography and classical Indian dance. It can also be seen in the design of the book, including its typography, undertaken by the poet himself. The depth of this attention enables Sen to successfully vary the form of the poems, opening up to the white space of the page to create a sense of variety, a kind of musical progression throughout the book, while the poems themselves resonate with the clarity of a bell. A variety of tone in the book is accentuated by its division into nine sections, including one devoted to a series of Sen’s own photographs, taken from his terrace at the same time of day. Throughout Anthropocene, there is a sense of the writing being done, of the scratch of the pen or pencil upon the page. ‘Fountain Pen’ (149), for example, effects the tactile pleasure of a nib slowly caressing the skin of a page, while what is at stake hovers, enacting crisis and on occasion, hope.

In the Introduction to the collection in Section 1, ‘The Role of the Artist is Not to Look Away’, Sen notes that: 

I spend most of my waking hours in the day (and night) in my book-lined study. The panoramic picture window across my desk is the lens through which I view the changing of seasons imprinted on the magnificent wide-topped neem tree. The bough’s intricate armature, the leaves’ serrated floret-pattern, the tree’s broccoli-shaped structure — all provide an exo-skeleton for my canvas — and the constantly-altering skyscape, provide a sideshow cyclorama. (19)

In Section 2, ‘Anthropocene | Climate Change’, Sen acknowledges his debt to Amitav Ghosh, and his work on climate change, particularly in The Great Derangement, in the poem Disembodied. Here, the body registers a vivid exposition of connection and disconnection to the world:

My body carved from the abandoned bricks of a ruined temple
                                           from minaret-shards of an old mosque,
              from slate-remnants of a medieval church apse,
                         from soil tilled by my ancestors.

My bones don’t fit together correctly                 as they should —
the searing ultra-violet light from Aurora Borealis
                         patches and etch-corrects my orientation —
magnetic pulses prove potent.

My flesh sculpted from fruits of the tropics,
                                                                       blood from coconut water,
skin coloured by brown bark of Indian teak.

My lungs fuelled by Delhi’s insidious toxic air
                         Echo asthmatic sounds, a new vinyl dub-remix.
                                                                                                              (28)

while the earth itself buckles under the strain:

Ice-caps are rapidly melting — too fast to arrest the glacial slide.
                  In the near future — there will be no water left
or too much water that is undrinkable,
                                                           excess water that will drown us all.
                                                                                                              (29)

The declamatory tone here is replaced by a number of short, sharp impressionistic poems in dense couplets, such as ‘Pollution’:

Neem’s serrated leaves
    outside my study

wear season’s toxicity
    on their exposed skin —

and:

unclean, unworthy.
    Neem, once acted as

a filter for us,
    now needs one herself.
                                                       (36) 

In a small counter-move, in ‘The Third Pole’ (42) a trip to the mountains near to the home in exile of the Dalai Lama presents a sliver of hope, an awareness of possibility:

Dharamshala is a few hours away

on foot, through pine wood paths.
      Prayer chants waft. In this thin air

floats an immutable magic — a hope,
      perhaps, to arrest the glacial slide.

Section 3, ‘Pandemic’, opens up to a further variety of form, embracing visual poetry, prose poems, the haiku, and even features an imagined play script. It begins with ‘Asthma’ (51), presenting an onomatopoetic exposition of bodily malady: ‘Wheeze whistles — piercing shrill pan-flute notes … My rib-cage tangled in its brutalist architecture’  and progresses to the global, to couched politics, in Anthropocene’s signature poem, riffing off Marquez, ‘Love in the Time of Corona’ (52):

In thousands, migrant workers march home —
     hungry footsteps on empty highways

accentuate an irony – ‘social distancing’,
     a privilege only powerful can afford.

Toward the end of the ‘Pandemic’ section, ‘Corona Haiku’ (62/63) extends this theme:

Rose Petals

     Fighter jets shower
flower-petals on the poor —
     why not food, money?

Hunger

     migrants chew dry leaves
off the streets — no food, water —
     national disgrace.

‘Obituary’ (55) sits between images of the widely published pages from The New York Times, with the epigraph ‘They were not simply names on a list. / They were us’. The sense of the global continues in the fine poem dedicated to Fiona Sampson, ‘Speaking in Silence’ (58), at once a celebration of and lament to the absence of friendship:

We speak in poetic phrases, punctuated by dactyls
and trochees, inundating line-breaks with half-rhymes —

this is the only language left, our private renga —
ancient codes dictating our syntax, not our accent.

This sense of connection through the modus operandi of poetry, and through a shared exploration of the natural world suggests a symbiosis of form 

It was centuries ago, yet I know this place well —
we have walked together in this slurry and squelch.

In the coppice, I picked a driftwood piece —
sculpt-etched by wind-water — a paleolithic

talisman I left on your rustic kitchen window.

Section 4, ‘Contagion | Corona Red’, consists principally of prose poems, plus a photograph of a still life, fine in composition. This section in the collection is intense, heart-breaking, and resplendent in a plethora of original imagery. A distillation of illness, mortality, hones in on what could be termed the structure of what is illuminated. In ‘Implosion’, the poet, desperately ill, writes:

On my bedside table, even the electric
bulb under the lamp’s hood cannot hold
its wattage steady with all the fluctuations
inside me – mirroring only mildly, the
tsunami inside.

I need to call an ambulance, but I hesitate.
More eucalyptus steam inhalation, Ventolin
sprays, mixed concoctions of ginger, black
pepper, turmeric and organic honey,
provide only a temporary respite.
                                                                  (79)

In ‘Fever Pitch’, a hospital story is measured in terms of glass, test tubes, thermometers, of assisted breathing:

This is the third thermometer I have
bought in a day, and yet I cannot trust it.
Twice before, the reading shot out beyond
the graduated scale itself, hinting either i
was heated to the point of insanity or it was
a case of the glass’s own neutral impotence.
                                                                  (82)

‘Icarus’ (92) and ‘The Legacy of Bones’ (94) are two of the most spectacular poems in Anthropocene, and both are deserving of a lengthy close reading. ‘The Legacy of Bones’ delves deep into form, into bone and blood, into writing itself, where ‘the singing of the eternal purity of bone music’ seeks to reside; there is a hard-won sense of release, from death and tragedy, a propulsion to universal song, a nod to Apollinaire: “It’s high time the stars were re-lit.”

In a master-stroke of design, and one of the pleasures of reading this book, is coming upon a series of photographs, taken from Sen’s terrace. Section 5, ‘Atmosphere | Skyscrapes’ opens up to an ethereal set of images, tethered to the accompanying snippets of verse from various poems in the collection. Section 6, ‘Holocene | Geographies’ takes on a global reach, reflecting the poet’s cosmopolitan positioning of his poetics. In ‘Driftwood’ (118), Derek Walcott’s home in St Lucia is celebrated, as is visiting friends in Herefordshire, immersed in a different climate, in ‘Witherstone’ (122):

Traversing a four-acre fenced land in borrowed Wellies,
                            my pugmarks leave a foreign imprint on this soil.
I find among the muddy squelch,
                            a piece of dead bark.
                                                                  (124)

Haiku is an exceptionally difficult poetic form, and Sen’s Irish-based ‘Undercurrents: 20 Lake Haiku’, are a personal favourite, with precision of language suggesting consciousness’ sheen:

lake’s blue-black ink
        runs deep, piercing sinews —
leaving scars, unseen
                                                                  (119)

The sequence suggests what is to come in Section 7. ‘Consolation | Hope’, where images of renewal produce a sense of joy and inner peace. In ‘The Gift of Light’, Sen writes:

The gift of light
     is life’s benediction

in these dark times —
     no matter what or where,

there is always light.
                                                                  (135)

in ‘Aspen’:

Forest fires conflagrate,
     but cannot raze

the incandescent love
     for my beloved
                                                                  (139)

and ‘Corona: Elliptical Light’ celebrates the perfection of form in the neem tree:

     Falling on new buds, the ray’s glare
splits open their perfect coronas —
     pollen shower-burst, an ochre flare,
                                                                  (147)

In Section 8. ‘Lockdown: Reading | Writing’, Anthropocene returns, after all this, to the act of writing. There is a pen in the hand, a sense of the bloom of writing, in ‘Handwriting’ (155), dedicated to Michael Ondaatje. In fact, inter-textuality is a delicate thread running through the book, with references to Brecht, Celan, Eliot, and others. Photographic images of paper, books, merge into statements on poetics and reading, of being at home in the world, Sen compares his sense of himself to the banyan tree with its ‘tertiary trunks and branches resembling fused stalactites and stalagmites’. (150)

Section 9, ‘Epilogue | Prayer’ concludes the collection with three short poems, ‘Meditation’,  ‘Prayer’ and ‘Chant’. Perhaps if Sudeep Sen’s method could be couched in a few words, then these few from ‘Prayer’ (172) could suggest it:

Prayer flags
                 flutter —

I try to catch
                 their flight —

their song, their words,
                 their flap.

*

Jennifer Mackenzie is a poet and reviewer, focusing on writing from and about Asia. Her most recent book is Navigable Ink (Transit Lounge, 2020), a homage to the Indonesian writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

 

George Mouratidis reviews An Embroidery of Old Maps and New by Angela Costi

An Embroidery of Old Maps and New

by Angela Costi

Spinifex, 2020

Reviewed by GEORGE MOURATIDIS
 
 
 
 
 
 
In some topoi of poesy lore, it is believed that the first iteration of Homeric oral verse as a material text was woven by women on a loom – deft fingers spinning, immortalising epic tales. In the Odyssey, an abandoned Penelope sits at her loom, creating, then destroying, her tapestries, waiting for her husband Odysseus’ return to Ithaca from his decade-long voyage. Angela Costi reveals a honed, acute awareness of the traditions, epics, journeys, traumas, travails and triumphs that shaped and brought her to write the existential topography that is her latest collection of poetry, An Embroidery of Old Maps and New (Spinifex, 2021). In these pages, the poet is at once Penelope and Odysseus – speaks as weaver and voyager, sufferer and seeker. But here, when the poet takes up the thread, she does not tear; she tenderly and compassionately unwinds and uncovers those stories, people and worlds in which she recognises who, how and why she is, and in so doing, she reconnects, remakes.

Fittingly, the collection opens out at sea, a voyage (“From Bondi to Kyrenia”, “Arrival”) which is one of countless threads suturing together lives and lands, continuing a ruptured story line begun elsewhere – in Cyprus. Costi artfully employs as the collection’s central trope, Lefkarithika (Λευκαρίτικα) – the traditional linen embroidery and lace making of Cyprus (also known as Lefkara lace). Bearing the name of the Cypriot village renowned for producing it (Λεύκαρα / Lefkara) from where, as the story goes, it was taken to adorn the courts of Europe, the craft of Lefkarithika remains closely tied to place, preserving a culture. In “Making Lace” Costi makes plain the living connections, transmissions, continuities fostered by this masterful handling of the thread:

I see her as I see me, sitting on chairs before the impact of our craft,
both intent on making a story from sequence, a gift out of repetition,
her stitch is my letter, her design is my phrase,
thread weave through out and in.

Costi is at once embroiderer, storyteller and cartographer. Her thread entwines generations, voices, stories, places, homes lost and found:

she is the story on linen,
no longer woman in small village sitting under a tree for days, months,
years of thread weave through out and in, our skin
an embroidery of old maps and new
Lefkara, Larnaca, Kyrenia, Hartchia,
Riverwood, Bankstown, Lalor, Reservoir,
thread weave through out and in,
she lives in each strand

This embroidery weaves a visionary window into a hopeful yet uncertain legacy:

she peeks through gofti [κόφτη], through fairy windows, and sees me
letter by letter, crossing the keyboard
thread weave through out and in,
she sees her children’s children not work in fields harvesting rotting crops,
not work in factories making hard, rough, poisonous things,
not work in shops selling dry, fried food,
she sees a series of baby girls named after her, dressed in white,
she lives in the stroke of a foreign letter by letter, word by word,
thread, weave through out and in.

(“Making Lace”)

The mandalic intricacies of this thread connects a series of thematic suites of stories – episodes of psyche and affect recalled, recounted, recorded. Some are written on the body (“Refugee Aerobics”, “Land Mines”, “Heavy”, “Knock Knock”) at once vulnerable, mortal, and resilient. Others are scrawled on the walls and margins of academe (“Outskirts”, “The Quadrangle of Dreams”, “To Identify the Apostate”, “Goddess Nike”). The latter cluster bomb of poems in particular – indeed the collection more broadly – reverberates with what Maria Tumarkin refers to as the “psychic struggle” of the culturally and linguistically diverse in higher education and the arts, especially women and those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Only halfway through the collection, and Costi already has the reader contemplating their own relationship to these sites and spaces upon and within which identity and its expression are renegotiated and forged, leading to new threads, new maps.

Costi never seeks to dazzle or impress the reader through linguistic, aesthetic, and typographical gymnastics. The artistry of her poetic language here is its ability to gain the readers trust almost at first glance with an unpretentious and authentic language that verges on that perennial punk maxim of say what you mean / mean what you say / put a beat to it. Costi’s unassuming versification allows the language to move with ease and breathe, and it is never difficult to locate the pulse in these lines. You will not find much abstraction, metaphor, symbolism, layers of arcane references: in this cartography these would only serve to obfuscate rather than illuminate the poet’s bare-naked home truths. Costi makes it clear why what she is sharing with you is important and needs to be said. Though her poetic language is clean, clear and simple, it is in no way simplistic. On the contrary, the embroiderer here immerses the reader in a confluence of poetic languages from the idiomatic to the lyrical, not only from poem to poem, but stanza to stanza, even line to line. This draws the reader into the rich nuance and complexity of the speaker’s consciousness, a pathway that is uncluttered and uncomplicated. The other extraordinary aspect of the poems in An Embroidery of Old Maps and New is exactly this strong sense of a unique, even idiosyncratic speaker, of voice – one connected to viscera and heart and mind/memory/vision but never bound by any one of them. Even within surrealistic moments, there is no abstraction of the human experience, of body, of woman, of migrant, of worker. Every poem in this collection has a human face.

For Costi, language and communication become sites of conflict, negotiation, resolution, and as she reminds us, vehicles of autonomy (“Looping the Waves”, “The Good Citizens of Melbourne”). To some extent this plays out through the poet’s occasional use of Greek Cypriot dialect, which reads quite organically. However, the deployment of italics and marginalia, which your humble reviewer can only assume is at the insistence of the publisher, is distracting: it inadvertently generates a sense of foreignness within the text that is uncomfortable and at odds with the intimacy of the poems. On the other hand, these and similar moments of linguistic disconnection and slippage illustrate a kind of inter-generational discord under repair. Where the ambivalent and at times antagonistic relationship between “first” and “second” generations of Cypriot Australian apodemes (and what these represent for the poet culturally and politically) is classic Costi, in this collection she appears to have reached a satori: previously unbridgeable divisions begin to blur, and the two begin to merge, at least in moments. The teller of the story here realises she cannot extricate and separate herself from the world and assumed values of previous generations because she is, in various forms, a continuation of them, but on her own terms and always with humanity and compassion. In “Ocean View”, the collection’s penultimate poem, the change brought about by shifting sands at first appears to reconcile two incarnations of life continents apart:

My age was no longer a division of stories
easily mapped with tales of strife,
since birth, my skin, an erosion
of views by Eleni and Kostaki

However, any such resolution is bittersweet: the onetime “teenager leaving home”, having now long outgrown the struggle, finally allows themselves to see the humanity of living ancestors in all its vulnerability and strength – the “grey hair” of a yiayia “slapping the wind” and her “arms strong and swift”. Hidden in the folds of this this perception, however, is the “taste of regret”. The poet recognises that weaving this tapestry has a price: to take up the thread and continue a story that will in turn be taken up is arduous, harsh and embittering work, but crucial, a question of survival. There is no possibility of return the poems in this collection seem to say, especially when the point of the journey’s departure is no longer there: you can only carry it with you, as you keep weaving into life that which you may well lose. Costi does precisely this, both recreates and reappraises a gone world through anecdote and character and place, named and unnamed, in a language so vivid and visceral, and often very moving, they read as unmistakable extension of her, and she of them.

And so, we return to Costi’s acute sensibility of legacy and inheritance. The teller of these stories is finally able to valorise and draw strength and purpose from a lineage of the migrant working class woman. Nowhere is this clearer than in “Kinaesthetic Grace”, one of the collection’s brightest and penetratingly candid and affective moments. The poet begins with an admission, as much to herself as the reader:

This woman talks to me with her hands
she always has, since birth
I have failed to grasp them.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
left this woman to create her own story
her fingers are an alphabet
I had no patience for.”

And yet she knows this woman so well, “the woman who knows how to hold / with her lined and stained hands / the story of all other women”: the women “on the General Motors assembly line”, those who “spray / jeans and their lungs into shreds”, those whose “fingers twitch when they tell / of the Thomastown factory’s sewing machine, / stitch by never-ending stitch, / bleeding before a stop for break, / the dip and throb of migraine fighting quota”, the woman “silenced by statistics”. The poet concludes by inviting the reader to join her in seeking and humbling themselves before this woman, and allow themselves to hear and be shaped by her, declaring:

We must search for her
not in photo albums or newspapers,
we must go out in the wild woods
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

and when we see her
hold out our hands
as children willing to learn.

(“Kinaesthetic Grace”)

This inheritance for the poet can be both corporealised and verbalised, expressed as much by the body as the breath, the voice. For the poet, this ultimately points to an awareness that whatever she has created, whatever it may be worth, has been built upon the shoulders – the backs – of those who’ve come before her, who’ve toiled the fields in which she now toils, who pass on the thread of the tale to be woven and spoken, and not forgotten:

Some stories remain like bruises,
others are bullets, those told
with fear pounding the phone.
There is the breath you listen for as well as the word,
each one counts, the breath, the word, the breath.

(“Frontline” p. 53)

The poet leaves us with a reminder that what has passed, been lost and gone – spaces, states, experiences – are re-remembered by the embroiderers deft hand, reconstituted and made anew, and saved:

Those spaces named house, office, tower
we can visit
after the war, the plague, the fire,
bullets rested with stained blankets, with charred stoves
with quiet reprieve,
they will proudly show us what they’ve made
out of the damp, from the debris, by the dusk,
these things we left to perish
entwine like a thick braid.

(“Abundance”)

This, however, is no resolution but a juncture in the story that Costi leaves ambiguous: the reader is haunted by irony that leads them to question whether the journey across sutured topographies from old homes to new was worth the nature of the “abundance” it has brought.

These poems in An Embroidery of Old Maps and New are at once incisively candid and transcendent in the humility of their offering. They speak directly to a powerful sense of dignity – particularly that of the working class migrant, refugee, or poor woman – always hard won through constant struggle, resilience, fearlessness, indeed, in spite of ongoing conditions and efforts to the contrary. With this collection Costi offers her unique contribution to something she is ever aware is so much bigger than herself. It is precisely this sensibility of transcendence and liberating (self)recognition that makes An Embroidery of Old Maps and New a moment of thrilling apogee and culmination the poet’s oeuvre. From the nexus and intertwining of the lines of Costi’s existential enquiry in preceding collections, from Dinted Halos (2003) to Lost in Mid-Verse (2014): all threads lead here, where Costi is already moving towards another horizon.

 
George Mouratidis is a Research Associate in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of the poetry collection Angel Frankenstein (Soul Bay Press, 2018) and translator of Noted Transparencies by poet Nikos Nomikos (Owl Press, 2016). He is also the co-founder of literary magazine Kalliope X.

Fernanda Dahlstrom reviews Gentle and Fierce by Vanessa Berry

Gentle and Fierce

by Vanessa Berry

Giramondo

ISBN 9781925818710

Reviewed by FERNANDA DAHLSTROM

 

Gentle and Fierce is a book of essays that provides glimpses of Sydney author Vanessa Berry’s life by dissecting her encounters with non-human animals in various contexts – in the household, in captivity, in art and in the form of ornamental objects. Through Berry’s encounters with animals, we piece together her life as a city-dweller and an intellectual, a solitary who is as much an observer of other humans as of the animal world. Her essays allude to the destruction of the natural world and the marginalisation of other life forms by humans as Berry strives to connect with nature despite a paucity of opportunities to do so. 

The author begins by sharing that her first name means ‘butterfly’ and that knowing this as a child ‘attunes you to their presence’ (p.7). She recalls expecting adulthood to be ‘a time of emergence, as if from a cocoon, into a life where I was colourful and unconstrained’ only to be disappointed at finding herself, in her twenties, ‘still as ponderous as ever, given to reticence in social situations and to slinking away alone’ (p11). The author’s introversion is a recurring theme. As a child she realises that the ideal is to be extroverted; instead, as a young woman she thinks of herself as a spider, eavesdropping on the conversations around her and writing down lines in her notebook, ‘Every detail stuck in my web.’ (p.125)

Berry repeatedly evokes the folly of humans. The notoriously aggressive myna bird was introduced in the nineteenth century to control the insects in crop fields, only to prove more interested in eating the produce itself. She reads of how palm oil, paper and rubber industries are affecting Sumatran forests, the habitat of tigers, prompting her to reflect:

As I look over the list these substances seethe around me, the pantry dribbling palm oil, the papers dusty and yellowing on the shelves. The rubber soles of shoes sit heavy in the depths of the wardrobe. Outside, car tyres crackle over the road. (p.20)

In ‘Rabbit Island’ she recalls visiting a Japanese island that serves as a sanctuary for rabbits in the months following the Fukushima disaster. The essay alludes to the issue of vivisection but does not delve into it, instead tracing the theme of rabbits in her own life, recalling a pet rabbit, which people joked was edible. She writes:

That was difficult for me to understand. Having been a vegetarian for decades I made little distinction between food animals and companion animals in terms of what kind of soul they might or might not have. (p.53) 

In this way, Berry’s observations about the reprehensible attitudes and behaviours of humans towards the animal world are made in a way that is restrained and non-didactic. She implicates herself in her criticisms of the mores of human social life, where animals are relegated largely to museums and fairy tales as she lives a life where animals play a largely symbolic and abstract role. Her childhood memories of animals are not of wild or even domestic creatures, but of the badger and the toad in a story and a stuffed bear in a museum exhibit. She describes various kitsch representations of animals: porcelain figurines of horses, dogs and cats, a glass fish, a polystyrene bear and a ceramic crocodile, and acknowledges, ‘it is difficult to reconcile their abundance as mascots, toys or decorations, with knowledge of how their real counterparts have been affected by human encroachment on their lives and habitats.’ (p.104)

‘The Fly’ strings together a series of anecdotes from her life using the presence of flies as the organising principle. A reference to a fly’s buzz in an Emily Dickinson poem read in the late 1990s. A fly alighting on her hand, while listening to a talk by Elizabeth Jolley, preventing her from raising the hand in response to a question. A fly buzzing around an acupuncture clinic and another one crawling across a pub table. The ubiquity of flies during a bush fire season. 

Some of the essays tell stories whose connection with the animal under consideration is tenuous. In ‘The Word of a Snail’, Berry reflects on her lifelong love of the work of Sylvia Plath and relates the experience of visiting the poet’s grave, where messages written to her by fans were being crawled over by snails. Just when anecdotes like these are starting to feel glib, Berry plunges us into the horrors of the 2020 bush fires which killed over a billion animals with ‘Animal Chronicle II’, which was for me the highlight of the book. In that essay, Berry imagines, amidst the inferno, ‘a dystopian world of only cities and burning forests, where animals were extinct or rarely seen, only to be remembered through objects’ (p.155). But just how much imagining is required for this scenario? This dystopia seems to be exactly the world that we have been reading about, where humans fetishise cute representations of animals while remaining either oblivious to or uncaring of what is truly befalling the animal world. 

Curiously absent from Berry’s selections is any mention of the practice of factory farming, in which billions of animals are mutilated and slaughtered for profit every year in what has been called ‘the animal holocaust’. Nor does she mention the fact that the majority of mammals on earth are now livestock and the vast majority of birds, farmed poultry, an omission so glaring that it must be deliberate. Perhaps the absence of any discussion of these facts is a reflection of the lack of awareness of or attention to these issues in most echelons of human society. Unlike the ornamental, domestic, taxidermised and wild animals to which Berry dedicates space, the victims of factory farming are out of sight and out of mind.

However, Berry does explain, in ‘Animal Chronicle II’, what is termed ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, the phenomenon of each generation taking its own youth as its point of reference for ecological diversity. In this way, she joins the dots with her earlier essays, many of which dwelled on the presence of insects and other critters during various scenes of her youth. How many of these mundane experiences will future generations share? 

Gentle and Fierce is a quiet but absorbing and thought-provoking work that approaches relations between humans and animals from many angles. Berry’s writing is languid, evocative and highly literate and the generous sprinkling of literary references is one of its most appealing features. Each essay is illustrated with a drawing of an animal done by the author, who is also an artist and zine maker.   

 

FERNANDA DAHLSTROM is a writer, editor and lawyer who lives in Brisbane. She completed a Master of Arts at Deakin University in 2017. Her work has appeared in The GuardianOverlandKill Your Darlings and Art Guide.

Izzy Roberts-Orr reviews My Friend Fox by Heidi Everett

My Friend Fox

by Heidi Everett

ISBN 9781761150159

Ultimo Press

Reviewed by IZZY ROBERTS-ORR
 
 

At night, I can hear the foxes screaming. Nothing is wrong, this is just what they do, particularly during mating season. The first time I heard it, I thought something was seriously wrong – that a small child was being chased through the bush, or that I was at the epicentre of a B-grade horror movie. That I might be next. There’s always something a little disconcerting about seeing a fox on this continent. They have been here longer than my ancestors, but they don’t belong here either. Introduced in 1855 for ‘sporting purposes’ (i.e. ‘to be hunted’), foxes had become rife across the mainland within just 20 years.

My Friend Fox begins and ends with a fox. The book opens with a Tswana proverb, “Phokoje go tsela o dithetsenya!”, and while the author’s connection to Botswana is not clear, the translation and sentiment carry throughout the book. “Only the muddy fox lives!” – or in other words, you must rough up your coat and get a little dirty to truly experience life. Heidi Everett grew up in fox country, in a village in the Welsh countryside, and is keenly aware of how misplaced the fox is in our environment – that, “here in Australia, they arrived without ancient ancestors inviting them onto the shore and they will never be welcome.” (116) They are beautiful, and they are highly destructive to their environment. This duality makes a fox the perfect metaphor to carry Everett’s story of surviving trauma and mental illness as, “just like my psychic distress, he is a symbol of both disease and determination, of a curse and of hope.” (p. 176)

Part memoir and part parable, My Friend Fox is Heidi Everett’s account of her experiences within the mental health system and her path toward learning to live authentically. The first scene in My Friend Fox brings us into the world of the psych ward, which is populated with staff and psych patients, and pigeons who watch the, “strange birds in the psych ward cage.” (p 14) There is a particular texture to the stretch time can take on when you’re unwell. Time can feel like it’s sped up, hyper galactic light speed paces, or like soup but stretchy. Everett writes, “The meds make me sleep too much and, for some reason, night-time becomes daytime. Someone once told me that it’s known as schizophrenia-time.” (p 53) My Friend Fox echoes this unmooring, and follows a narrative arc that is episodic rather than linear. The early chapters of the book look at the dehumanising experience of the psych ward – Everett is no longer seen as herself, she is, “psych patient number 25,879* (or part thereof). Age 24. Primary diagnosis: schizoaffective. Comorbidity: major depression, juvenile autism. Seems to enjoy music, art. No dependents. No further use for a name.”  (p21)

Interspersed between accounts of Everett’s experiences in the psych ward, the book traces her experiences growing up in the Welsh countryside, in a, “300-year-old stone cottage sat at the last stitch on the hem of a tiny village on a sliver of road between two country towns.” (p43) then transplanted to Doveton. Everett is relentlessly bullied throughout her schooling, and finds more comfort and a sense of self in the company of animals than with people. Her experiences of social isolation are compounded by a family who were, “an island on an island surrounded by moats of jagged rocks and raised drawbridges.” (p40) Everett takes a compassionate view of these circumstances however, seeing the stretch of her inheritance as, “no fault or gift of my parents, but just like any diverse ideology, our tribe tasted the earth a little differently from that of the meat-and-three-vegetables kind. We were a bowl of bananas.” (p45)

Living with mental illness can mean being cast as an unreliable narrator of your own experiences, or feeling as though you exist in the spaces between gaps in your own memory. Whether because of existing in altered states, or through the memory loss that can be a common side effect of many medications used to treat various forms of mental illness, having access to your selves over a span of time can be a real challenge. What may exist of these periods are the testimony of others – of case files, doctor’s notes, and what the people around you are able to tell you. Something Everett balances incredibly well within the text is a commitment to the truth of her own reality, whilst also understanding the points at which her experiences diverge so far from the reality of those around her as to be detrimental to herself and others. Everett’s experiences are drawn with a fine eye for detail, and though her depictions of the psych ward are as starkly fluorescent-lit and brutal as the space itself; heart, poetry and humour are hallmarks of this book, despite its dark subject matter. Even in bleak moments her probing mind pulls observation and insight to the fore. The psych ward is a terrifying and unfriendly place, where, “within this chemical straightjacket I am the final tiny babushka.” (p6) yet equally, I laughed out loud at the, “blue plastic mattress that farts if you sit down too quickly,” (p8) and her cataloguing of all the details in the room. “Familiar Air Vent, oh how happy I am to see you there!” (p15)

Esme Weijun Wang writes in The Collected Schizophrenias, “Schizophrenia terrifies. It is the archetypal disorder of lunacy. Craziness scares us because we are creatures who long for structure and sense.” My Friend Fox is unwieldy, and difficult to categorise – which fits the subject matter perfectly. Everett’s prose gallops from the page, full of allusive language and metaphor – and this brimming is intentional, is part of the experience of living through and with mental illness. The non-linear structure and movement between non-fiction and fiction, with animal voices and illustrations interspersed throughout the book create a text that is bursting forth with life, rich in metaphor and unafraid to sit with complexity.

Ruby Hillsmith writes in, ‘The problem of living: Dispatches from deep psychiatry’ (Griffith Review 72: States of Mind), “The psychiatric ward is gravely ill. The psychiatric ward doesn’t want you to know this. The psychiatric ward is in deep denial. Heads down, thumbs up.” My Friend Fox is in a way writing against the psych ward, kicking back at a system that all too often strips those who use it of their individuality. Hillsmith comments, “It’s up to the patient to cling to their identity in a context engineered to break it.” Memoir as a form provides Everett an opportunity to witness herself – or selves, evolving over time, as the case may be – to cement her own narrative in her own words. It blew my mind when I was first introduced to the idea of history as plural – that capital ‘H’ History wasn’t only something to be mapped and pinned down, attached to a series of dates or verifiable facts according to whatever documentation was available. That it was a living, breathing thing – a collection of narratives that intersect and contradict, and that of course there are power dynamics, inequalities, biases and inaccuracies at play within the records and accounts we have to make sense of what has happened. Our own histories are plural too – growing and morphing as we age, adapt, re- or mis- remember, and My Friend Fox acknowledges this through its experimentation with form.

My Friend Fox is punctuated by Everett’s illustrations, which depict scenes from the text and offer a visual entry point into her perspective, in a very literal sense. The style and level of detail in these images varies throughout, correlated to where Everett’s state of mind is at within the narrative. Some illustrations are breathtakingly photorealistic, some figurative, with close attention paid to shadow and where it falls, and some are rough sketches. The drawings of animals in particular carry the most detail, in contrast to the loosely depicted faces of people. Art and animals are ultimately the keys for Everett to find more balance. From the old man who plays the guitar on the psych ward and inspires Everett’s own love affair with the instrument, to the songwriting group run by the Bipolar Bears and a local TAFE course in illustration, the healing influence of the arts cuts through like no other treatment within the book, and sits in start contrast to the terrors of the psych ward.

Animal voices are central to the text – from the field of cow, and seashore of her eponymous friend fox, and a final letter from her dear friend Tigger; the gorgeous mutt who was Heidi’s best friend for almost sixteen years. Tigger, “the calm, regal, little red dog,” who is “immediately exposed as a young tearaway canine backpacker scamming the system to escape,” (117) the moment Everett leaves the pound with him, is a central figure within the book. Everett describes their relationship as “a symbiotic friendship,” herself, “a human scraped out, empty of any affection. Yet I became lovable through his animal eyes – so much so that I could really feel that love. Tigger became my muse for everything.” (p. 118) This deep affinity for animals is a healing influence, and one I – and I’m sure many other readers – can relate to. When I was catatonically fatigued in my late teens and could rarely move from my bed, the terrier I’d grown up with was my constant companion. David Stavanger’s poem ‘Suicide Dogs’, from his 2020 collection Case Notes, comes to mind – “They will never abandon you. They will forever hold / the slender bone of hope, tender in their jaws.”

Nuanced representations of mental illness that make space for the positive elements that can come with altered reality as well as the destructive, dysfunctional or painful aspects can be difficult to find. In My Friend Fox, much of Everett’s path to healing comes through creativity, in contrast to the traumatising experiences of the mental health system. This little book carries with it a lot of wisdom, and Everett manages to carry a lot of compassion for herself as well as others.

 

IZZY ROBERTS-ORR is a poet, writer, broadcaster and arts worker based on Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung land in regional Victoria. Currently completing a book of elegiac poetry, Raw Salt, Izzy is a 2020-2021 recipient of the Australia Council Marten Bequest Scholarship for Poetry.

 

Christine Shamista reviews How Decent Folk Behave by Maxine Beneba Clarke

How Decent Folk Behave

By Maxine Beneba Clarke

Hachette

ISBN 9780733647666

Reviewed by CHRISTINE SHAMISTA

Building glass walls to show ‘how decent folk behave’

From the beginning to the end, front and back covers inclusive, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s newly released book, How Decent Folk Behave, is rich with carefully curated images and words that connect with and confront the reader. Poetry is both mystical and tangible. For many of us, particularly us writers of colour, it’s the natural way in which we tell our stories. According to Nina Simone, the artist’s duty is ‘to reflect the times’. This quote precedes the table of contents and gives context to the following pages – Beneba Clarke’s account of our recent collective events. 

Beneba Clarke’s refusal to use traditional punctuation, her playful and clever use of line breaks and formatting, her exploration of place, historical references and lived experiences make for a rich and unique collection. How Decent Folk Behave, ethically provocative in its title, takes us on a cleverly sequenced journey, commencing with a prologue that warns us to ‘be prepared’, for there is poetry beyond! It starts with the day before the year 2000 in the first poem ‘when the decade broke’. Many of us will remember this day very clearly. We were warned that at the stroke of midnight, catastrophe would occur due to the constraints of and our over reliance on computer technology. Beneba Clarke carries a sense of dread throughout this first poem, and so begins the rollercoaster ride as we read the poems that follow. Her poetry weaves through recent events and connects personal micro moments to the systemic macro moments that mark our time. Like lockdown life enforced on us, she carefully gets us to slow down and observe,  as we ‘… also … learn/ how to grow the world; from seed’ (‘generation zoom’).

Beneba Clarke’s critique of our recent times doesn’t attempt to claim there is a perfect way. In the searing poem, ‘my feminism’: she writes that ‘all feminism is flawed, but/ my feminism/ will try… my feminism/ will amplify/ the songs/ of the silenced … my feminism/ does not go/ smashing glass ceilings/ at the same time it builds glass walls’. Yes, we women march for feminist causes, yet we often do so at the cost of other women’s sacrifices. Past and present sacrifices have given us the opportunity to have an amplified and powerful voice. She shows us the shadow side too – that domestic violence for example, is perpetrated by the hands of those we thought we brought up right. The facets she reveals expose the disturbing intersectional layers of abuse, racism, ableism and sexism.

In her 2009 TED talk, ‘The Danger of the Single Story’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns: ‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’ Beneba Clarke exposes the myth of a single story through her writing, which is how she describes her feminism – strong, fierce, burning, alive, smart, intersectional and kind. 

As a woman of colour and a mother, ‘grace’ was another poem that resonated strongly with me. She explores the truths that our children teach us in the relentless and exhausting lessons of motherhood: how it opens our hearts; how it decentralises from just us; that we are shown life through our stubborn, strong willed, ‘solid’ child, in the mess, in the constant waking through the night. Beneba Clarke explores the high price of the motherhood journey while acknowledging it also adds a ‘hum’ to the home we build and maintain. We then need to let go of the beings who are ours, and also not ours.

‘the monsters are out’ weaves this description of motherhood to the uncomfortable truth that ‘… monsters/ have the same face/ as our sleeping four-year-olds’, our wondrous children. She takes us through the tragic accounts of Jill Meagher’s final hours, and then doesn’t let us ignore the accounts of those less recognised, like Natalina Angok. This particular part of the journey takes us to the ‘capital’ poem, our nation’s capital, and specifically, our Parliament House, where men flourish and women languish.

The experiences of not being believed, being misunderstood and left suffering is powerfully explored in ‘trouble walking’. This gave me disturbing déjà vu to health issues that go misdiagnosed among people of colour, showing the reader that for some, it’s easier to cope with pain than have to engage in discriminatory health systems that are quick to judge. In ‘muscle memory’, she rightfully takes us through the ‘us’ and ‘them’ that occurs to ‘communities of colour’. The ‘they’ constantly remind us we are more susceptible to infections and diseases, yet less likely to engage in health care support. Both are reductionist generalisations that fail to recognise the various ways in which societies and systems perpetuate racism. Paradoxically, it is often these ‘communities of colour’ that sustain health practitioners in the workforce – looking after their children, cleaning their houses and workplaces, making food, and driving them in Ubers.

When we’re halfway through the collection, prepare to feel deservedly uncomfortable at ‘home to biloela’. We read Beneba Clarke’s account of one of our greatest current failings: the attempted deportation, detention and continued uncertainty we’ve given Priya, Nades, Tharnicaa and Kopika – often referred to as the Biloela family. She continues her portrayal of control in ‘surveillance’ which explores how surveillance legislation continues colonisation of brown bodies by the law enforcement institutions. Her focus narrows on the perpetrator in ‘wolf pack’. Beneba Clarke challenges the term ‘lone wolf’ which, in the events of the Christchurch massacre, descriptions of the ‘blond boy’ with his ‘mock-shy smile’ (and other lone wolves across the globe, in the USA, Norway, England) rightfully question our broader role and responsibility in the formation of ‘lone wolves’.

‘fourteen and nine months’ took me back to that golden age when we get to have our first job. And grateful we are, right? For our first pay cheque? Finally, for the first time, we get money straight into our hands. Many of us didn’t really know or care that we were receiving the minimum wage or lower. And our bosses knew that, and also knew there were plenty of others who would be happy with getting these low wages too. Beneba Clarke then connects this experience with the making of Australia’s ‘self-made’ male millionaires, before juxtaposing the crime of underpayment with the brutal notification of Centrelink overpayment, via robocall.

Her final poem, ‘fire moves faster’, is like a benediction to this collection. It’s a reflection of 2020, taking us from Wuhan to Italy, reminding us of the great toilet paper and canned goods drought, of empty cities and online learning. It was the year when nations watched and then retold the message that ‘black lives matter’; a phrase that needed to be told over and over again because racism occurs on such a scale that it results in a US man like George Floyd being murdered by those who are meant to protect and keep him (and all of us) safe. There are far too many accounts of similar instances here in our soil, experienced by our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. And so, as she writes, the world was proclaiming ‘black lives matter/black lives matter’, and ‘… just for a moment/ you [we] could taste a dream of hope.’ Yes, despite it all, there was hope.

Beneba Clarke’s final page reminds us that 2020 went full speed, and yet was so slow. She recalls how we returned to a gentler rhythm, observed the wonder of nature, of children playing old-school style, how we had the time to actually find out our ‘neighbour’s name’. She reminds us of the hope that exists, because of us ‘ordinary people’, and our ability to fight and survive. And tell our stories.

I marvel at her concise approach to every day racism that is delivered with such intimate detail. It is a superb curation of uncomfortable truths for those of us who experience such oppressions and those who are willing to listen, and hopefully be part of the change. I’ve read nothing like this collection. But don’t take my word for it. Read it for your self.

CHRISTINE RATNASINGHAM is a writer and poet who lives on the land of the Wangal people of the Eora nation in Sydney. Her writing has been published in Sweatshop Women Volumes 1 & 2 anthologies (2019 & 2020), Sweatshop’s Racism AnthologyContemporary Asian Australian Poets (2013) and a number of journals including Mascara Literary JournalFourWHypallagePeril, and extempore.