Bec Kavanagh reviews Ordinary Matter by Laura Elvery

Ordinary Matter

by Laura Elvery

UQP

ISBN 9780702262760

Reviewed by BEC KAVANAGH


Laura Elvery’s second collection of short stories,
Ordinary Matter, takes its inspiration from the mere twenty times women have won the Nobel Prize for science. And yet it isn’t science that connects the pieces in this collection, but the ‘softer’ stuff: the women in these stories are united by themes of motherhood, love, art – experiences which are often problematised, or portrayed as obstacles to a more ‘successful’ career-driven life. The choice between intellectual and domestic fulfilments, women are typically told, is an either/or deal. In Ordinary Matter, Elvery upsets these stereotypes, levelling the playing field between domestic, creative, and intellectual ambitions.

It comes as no surprise that Elvery is an academic writer as well as a creative one – Ordinary Matter is a collection that celebrates research and academia in both theme and structure. The framework of the book is proudly conceptual and crisply punctuates the stories: each piece prefaced by a paratextual nod to the prize-winner who inspired it, such as ‘1988. Gertrude B. Elion. Physiology or Medicine. Prize motivation: ‘for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment’. The individual stories are then gathered into this framework, some building directly on the scientist or her discovery, some connecting more ambiguously – a baby washed ashore and transforming the parents who adopt her, or a grieving man looking to understand and avenge his brother’s death. 

For some this framework, changing as it does with each story, will be a puzzle, a tantalising investigation into the threads of research woven carefully through the narrative, deepening with each reading. Perhaps others might ignore it altogether. On the other hand, it can be a distraction, the overt nature of the project somewhat at odds with the ambiguity of some of the stories. And although Elvery does provide a short glossary at the back, a paragraph summarising the notable accomplishments of each of the scientists, wondering where the narrative of each piece aligns with the object of its inspiration can be too much of a diversion, particularly when the connection isn’t so obvious. Having said this, there’s a beautiful leap of faith that Elvery places in her reader, a belief that they are up to the intellectual challenge of the work without clear or consistent signposting.

Elvery’s strength lies in the surreal elements of her writing – the sense of displacement that comes from the alignment of stories set in past, present and future with characters who are outliers, women who trouble the edges of their gendered roles. The subtle ways Elvery teases the reality of her subjects is captivating, leaving the reader with a sense of wonderment, of wondering. In ‘Something Close to Gold’ (Irene Joliot-Curie, Chemistry, 1935), my favourite piece in the collection, a couple grieving multiple failed attempts at IVF find a baby on the beach and, through an absurd but not altogether unrealistic bureaucratic process, manage to adopt her. The story works on a knife’s edge, keeping a fine balance between the push-pull of grief and loss, of hope and release. It is a piece that might be read in many ways, depending on the way the reader interprets the imagery, it might become a straightforward piece about the fragile, disturbed metamorphosis of motherhood. Taken another way it might be an allegory for colonisation, or Australia’s heartless policies on asylum seekers. Elvery provides enough details to make these pieces rich with meaning, allowing them to be held and turned over and over, revealing new parts of themselves each time.

Jerome de Groot (The Historical Novel) proposes that ‘historical novels clearly invite the reader to reflect on the ways in which ‘history’ is told to them. They have a double effect, a kind of unsettling uncanniness, which seeks to enable an awareness of the wroughtness of both ‘history’ and ‘fiction’.’ That term — ‘unsettling uncanniness’— suits these stories, which do bring together the duality (among others) of fiction and fact, inviting us to reflect on the limits imposed on women in science – where they come from, who upholds them, and the ways in which they are still ongoing. In ‘Better Nature’ (Ada E. Yonath, Chemistry, 2009), a pregnant researcher is abruptly cast out from her research circle. The story takes place in the in-between, in the moment where she is neither academic nor mother – ‘I had been in that city, and in that world with my famous, fearsome supervisor and her loyal group of laser-focused students. And now I wasn’t.’ There are moments like this in most of the stories, where Elvery holds her characters in the space of what will be/what might have been. Sometimes, as in ‘Grand Canyon’ (Marie Curie, Chemistry, 1911), these edges manifest literally, with Curie ‘staring into the void’. Cleverly (at times frustratingly), Elvery often leaves us at the edge of these moments, refusing solid resolutions.

All of the stories are experiments in one way or another, and this sense of playfulness goes some way to balancing the overt intellect of the academic construct. Elvery experiments with theme, voice and structure – ‘Hyperobject’ (Maria Goeppert Mayer, Physics, 1963) is written in secretarial shorthand, the lightness of the text in powerful juxtaposition with the severity of the theme, while ‘Little Fly’ (Tu Youyou, Physiology or Medicine, 2015) uses a baby’s point of view to amplify her inability to control her surroundings. Whether these experiments succeed is incidental really – the appeal lies not in their success as much as Elvery’s willingness to be versatile in her prose, refusing (much like the subjects of her stories) to be restrained by a singular set of expectations.

The magic of Ordinary Matter is in Elvery’s ability to find the ordinary from the extraordinary rather than the other way around. In a world that tells women they must be exceptional in order to succeed these stories bring forth all the ordinary moments upon which greatness pivots. Despite its occasionally dense intellectual frame, Ordinary Matter is an impressive collection which invokes a sense of curiosity and play.  

 

BEC KAVANAGH is a Melbourne-based writer and academic whose work examines the representation of women’s bodies in literature. She has appeared at writers’ festivals nationally, and judged a number of literary prizes, including the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. Her literary criticism can be found in The Guardian, The Monthly, The Saturday Paper and The Big Issue, and she has written fiction and non-fiction for a number of publications including Westerly, Overland, Meanjin, and the Review of Australian Fiction. Bec is the Youth Programme Manager at the Wheeler Centre, and a sessional tutor and PhD candidate at LaTrobe University.

Ben Hession reviews Whisper Songs by Tony Birch

Whisper Songs

by Tony Birch

UQP

ISBN 9780702263279

Reviewed by BEN HESSION

Tony Birch is a Naarm (Melbourne) based writer, who is probably better known for his prose, including his short story collections and novels, of which, The White Girl, won the Indigenous Writers’ Prize of the 2020 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. He was also the winner of the Patrick White Award back in 2017. Whisper Songs is Birch’s second volume of poetry and comes five years after Broken Teeth. Much of Whisper Songs was written during last year’s COVID -19 related lockdowns and may be seen as a meditation on his Aboriginal identity. However, in Whisper Songs, the reader is more than a mere spectator of the poet’s autobiography and revelation. Rather, Birch invites us to share something of a largely personal journey, exploring a sense of heritage and connection to Country.

Throughout Whisper Songs, Birch creates narratives that are underwritten, yet offer a vivid sense of a time and place which are traced towards their meaning and impact. As we see in ‘Dragster’, and the masculine trials of youth: 

red bicycles ring in tandem

slalom empty streets

chrome                             on morning sunlight

tyres                                 on crumbling bitumen

floating                             on air

we rode the world together

fearless 501s barefoot 

no shirts no hands

cigarettes

reckless                            bodies battling

we were                            born to pain
(5)

Similarly, in ‘How Water Works’ the movement of water between the macrocosm and microcosm appears as an essential life-force:

bowl of arctic water
moving slowly south
sleeping ebbing rising
upwelling loops of life
seconds     centimetres
patience slowly spirit
beauty and humility

shape shift onward
through air bodies
entwined with other waters
in plants in soil in Country
(61)

The collection is divided into three sections – Blood, Skin and Water – which are stages of a lateral exploration of something of what Lyn McCredden describes as a ‘locatedness in poetry’ (McCredden 3). In Blood, Birch deals with family connections with much of these educed through a “meat on the bones” (Birch, 267) social history, which, as Carolyn Masel and Matthew Ryan note, with respect to Birch’s short story, ‘Shadowboxing’, provides ‘the map-like evocation of place and the idea of an alternative ‘obscured’ history running through that place’ (Masel, Ryan 5). But rather than use the fictive elaboration of a short story to access the “individual experiences of marginalisation” (Masel, Ryan 5), Birch uses recollection and emotional attachment. This, at times, is elegiac, as we see in ‘Leaving’, with its fusion of day, the suburban place and personal relations: 

a moment of light,
a painted face of beauty
glimpsed in Saturday shop window
forever waiting our return

blood ties on every street corner
aunties uncles cousins
grandparents haunted shades
of black on white all gone   (25-26)

Similarly, we see in the poem, ‘Little Man’, place, time and connection:

searched for you at night
beyond the creaking gate
old haunts street corners
back lanes dressed in rain
big sky darkness

spoke soft words
calling your name
echoes to glimpsed light
fell with a dying moon
our whispered songs for you  

(5)

In this poem, as well as in ‘Dragster’ and others in the collection narratives are not filled out, but are kept allusive with the bonds with family members being as deep as their stories are implicit. This may prove a little difficult to follow, at least initially; though, identity is often about piecing together the past, and the past with the present while our bonds with others are carried within us, unseen. In ‘Blood’, Birch opens us to a small-letter sense of familiarity. In ‘Fading Light’, this allows us feel the sense of loss for the poet’s grandfather: 

my mother a girl of twelve
found his soulless body
slumped across the bathtub
he left her no story
and the coroner gave little away:

              well-built man
             aged forty-seven
             came home from work
             took carving knife
             cut his throat
(7-8)

Blood is symbolic as an elemental part of Birch’s Aboriginal lineage. Its loss, as seen in this poem, or potential for loss, as seen elsewhere, therefore, is emblematic of a disruption that is shown to be violent and self destructive. Importantly, what remains is not silence, but the cold language of the State, and, particularly in Trouble, Trouble, Trouble: Probation File 29/1957′, the colonizing apparatus. Here is the choice is made between the blood associated with internalized violence or the affirmation of identity and the resistance to colonization: 

the boy himself becomes that which he fears
violence courses his veins and therefore –
therefore he must become the protected one
by us for us and himself and for the country
this the only Nation girt by sea
(19)

Blood is thus political as it is personal. It provides that locatedness, which, as McCredden says, ‘is able to speak with earthy, experiential and historical authority, and to offer alternatives to the often too readily universalising, national and global discourses.’ (McCredden 3) And, as demonstrated in the poem Isobel, written for the poet’s granddaughter, the bloodline carries hope and strength for the future:

beautifully stubborn
four years and rising
deep frown eyes fierce
limbs of courage
a girl holding ground
bone and memory
of women reaching back
meeting deep time then
cartwheeling forward
armour for her courage

            she is the circle we gather
(11)

 With blood, Birch establishes a personal sense of locatedness and identity.  Skin, we see, then explores the external definitions of these parameters. The section opens with ‘The Eight Truths of Khan’, wherein Birch’s Punjabi ancestor, must affirm his humanity against the racist formalities of the White Australia Policy, which restrict the movements of people of colour.

‘I agreed that yes, I was fortunate to be allowed to reside
in such a fair prosperous Nation. That evening I again
sat with my wife & child, I again bathed & my wife &
I shared the same bed.’ (33)

In this poem, Birch uses parody as a means of emphasising the absurdity of the restrictions imposed upon his ancestor, as well as the casual and banal nature of the racism: 

applicant Khan should be seen, physically,
& compared to image held of him
by Customs, in grey metal filing cabinet
(alongside the oven) in staff kitchen (36)

Here, and elsewhere in Skin, Birch interrogates history by mimicking the language of institutional racism, recontextualising it, thus denying any erstwhile pretences towards “civilized” or legal neutrality. We see in ‘Forbearer’, the subject’s humanity is set against the dry inventory of attributes that routinely deny it. Again, Birch puts flesh back onto history. In the subsequent poem, ‘A Matter of Lives’, (where the title, itself, alludes to Black Lives Matter), this idea is given a more contemporary setting, with powerful effect, with a reference to the situation concerning Tanya Day and her death in police custody. Here, her humanity is also set against the cynical machinations of mainstream media:

a black woman asleep on a train
is no news is good news
until the day arrives
and she becomes
a fact of death
a number
(44)

Throughout Skin, Birch demonstrates the specialised use of language as an instrument of power for white people over black or brown, who have thus been forced to populate the feared and denigrated ‘Other’. The poem, ‘Razor-wire Nation’, shows this intentioned positioning through a language reserved for an enemy belligerent:

while love is an empty box
we busily tend the cages

gun-turret warriors
for a razor-wire nation  (50)

Conversely, skin and colour as a self-signifier of collective identity allows its assertion as a form of strength and power, against a world “slumbering at home”, as seen in ‘Waiting for a Train with Thelma Plum’:

we slouch beaten
except for a Girl in Blak
kiss of life in black boots
black jeans and hoodie
black/red/yellow flag on her back
headphones soon to pounce

she moves raises an arm
fist clenched ‘Hey!… Hey!’ –
Fuck that                                 (45)

The poem, ‘Tunnerminnerwait’, closes the Skin section. Here, identity is signified through the white skin of the coloniser’s language.  The inherent sense of identity, as elsewhere seen in Skin, is confronted by colonial laws, naming and presumptions. Through capital punishment, these attempt an absolute control with the overbearing threat to one’s own body, one’s own life. Against these, an ineffable, physical connection to Country provides resistance.

his name was Waterbird
and on the morning of
execution he announced

I have three heads

one for your noose
one for my grave
one for my country   (55)

The condemned bears insight, dignity and intransigence. These qualities permeate the underlying premise of ‘Whisper Songs’. In this collection, as blood courses throughout the body, so water does the land, each metaphorically reflecting the other. As Birch writes in ‘Birrarung Billabong’

Our hair was long and curled and magical, our eyes the
richest brown, our skin carried water, our water carried skin.
The sounds of the river rushing at the falls shared a pulse.  (66)

For Birch water is a vital element of the visceral. It becomes, as we see in ‘Desecrate’ – in spite of urbanisation and canalisation: ‘sacred blood of Country/ running with a song’ (76). Water alludes to life and locatedness at its most vivid. As an integral part of Country, it shares a sense of the maternal. In ‘Beneath the Bridge’, concerning the Westgate Bridge collapse, the tenderness is poignant and profound:

when the monster span thundered
across the west the bridge gave way
thirty-five workers came falling
and the Birrarung lay waiting
to gather the dead together 

she gave their souls a home
comforted fear and sadness
and returned battered bodies
to riverbank mourners clasping
soft hands of fatherless children    (74-75)

The essentially feminine nature of Country is rendered once again, in ‘Black Ophelia’:

deny the lord
the holy word
deny the gun

the wire and hoe
caste and colour theft
of ground of bodies

now be and be
with drifting river
with spirit water     (63)

The poem’s title alludes to Ophelia, the character in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. Unlike Shakespeare’s character, though, black Ophelia does not drown herself, but rather as an individual becomes sublimated with the river. She asserts an autochthonous presence, and an undeniable sovereignty over the land – one that is not negotiable.

go

to Black Ophelia
shimmering within
a sheet of glass 

open lips rising breasts
she sounds – always was
always will be…
(63)

A similar transcendence is seen in the final poem of the collection, ‘The Great Flood of 1971′. Here water overwhelms the landscape, and in turn demonstrates the inherent power of Country. Given the negative impact of organized religion, as noted in the poem ‘Sacred Heart’, the flood offers a chance of a genuine spiritual connection, with a kind of baptism in its own right, but where one becomes unified with nature’s vitality or elan:

surface gasping in a deluge
lightning tearing holes in sky
this river of rising life

            flood me  
(78)

In Whisper Songs, Birch moves beyond ordinarily compassed notions of authenticity, as something that is something self-consciously existential. Birch brings history and Country together in a journey to the soul. It is a journey of pain, poignancy, hope and sometimes humour. Birch’s abilities as a writer adeptly convey the songs whispered along the way. This is the gig. It is time for us to sit and listen.

Cited

McCredden, Lyn. ‘The Locatedness of Poetry’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature 11.6 (2009).
Birch, Tony. ‘The Trouble With History’, Australian History Now, Eds. Clark, Anna and Ashton, Paul), New South Publishing, University of New South Wales Press, UNSW (2013).
Masel, Carolyn and Ryan, Matthew. ‘Place, History and Story: Tony Birch and the Yarra River’, Australian Literary Studies 31.2 (2016).
‘Tony Birch’s “Whisper Songs”’. Spoken Word, 3CR, broadcast on 1 July 2021, Naarm (Melbourne).

 

BEN HESSION is a Wollongong-based writer. His poetry has been published in Eureka StreetInternational Chinese Language ForumCordite, and Can I Tell You A Secret?, the Don Bank Live Poets anthology. Ben’s poem, ‘A Song of Numbers’, was shortlisted for the 2013 Australian Poetry Science Poetry …

Kevin Hart reviews The Strangest Place by Stephen Edgar

The Strangest Place: New and Selected Poems

Stephen Edgar

Black Pepper

ISBN 9780648038740

Reviewed by KEVIN HART

 

Poetry always involves a delicate negotiation between craft and art. Craft can easily be misunderstood as a set of skills completely external to what is being written. Yet a poet shows craft by moving confidently within the work developing on the page. Often, when one looks at an intricately rhymed stanza, perhaps one with five, six or seven lines of varying length, such as Stephen Edgar favors, one might be tempted to think that the work has been composed, even revised, in the poet’s mind and then set down on the page. There are such compositions, some of them admirable, and examples can be found in volumes of minor seventeenth-century verse. The effect is known as “Ciceronian”: the style is marked by balance, antitheses, and repetition; it was developed to a high pitch in prose, not verse. Nothing could be further from Edgar’s characteristic way of writing, which is usually “Anti-Ciceronian.” Here sentences unfold naturally rather than exhibit a resolved formal beauty, and often the style is marked by asymmetric constructions. The poem shows a mind thinking as it progresses from stanza to stanza.

Too little is said, then, when critics say Edgar is a formalist, or range him against some of the better American “new formalists.” Like theirs, his poetry is often plain spoken; unlike theirs, it tends more surely to the baroque. With respect to contemporary poetry, “baroque” need not connote stylistic excess, invention or ornament. Nor need it prompt us to admire the deft use of elaborate poetic forms. In fact, Edgar has no deep investment in received poetic forms. Baroque poetry nowadays is more concerned with the presentation and contemplation of compound phenomena. Edgar’s poetry is baroque in this manner and is also remarkable for its fine sense of timing. In many of his most impressive poems he is concerned to investigate complex situations, sometimes unstable ones, which often involve fragility and loss: his consciousness becomes divided, or he encounters problems in constituting the world, or he quickly passes from one attitude to another (perception, belief, half-belief, fantasy, anticipation, recollection, and so on). “Timing” in poetry is not only a matter of pacing one’s speech, spacing out metaphors and similes, and seeking closure at the right moment. It is also the difficult practice of using enjambment, rhyme, varying line lengths, and metrical substitutions in order to place a word or a phrase. The proper timing of a word, a phrase, a figure, does not merely follow formal rules; it must also release thought and feeling at the right time and to the right degree. To read an engaging poem well is partly to be aware of the confidence and agility, of the poet as he or she writes, and to notice those moments, given only to very fine poets, when craft leads one to think of the phrasing as inevitable. Such reading perceives that in a poet as good as Philip Larkin craft and art become almost indistinguishable, and something similar may be said of Edgar.

The Strangest Place is a selection from ten previous volumes of poetry. “Nasturtiums” (81) was written in 1976 and the most recent poems, in the opening section entitled “Background Noise,” were completed in 2020. So the book distills forty-four years of practice as a poet. I should say “achievement as a poet,” and it would be a lapse of responsibility not to observe that Edgar’s work has only recently been read with anything like the attention and thankfulness it deserves. Quite simply, Edgar is one of the most rewarding poets currently writing in English. Poems in this volume are likely to survive when many of his contemporaries are remembered only in footnotes. At the moment, though, it is sad to testify how difficult it is to obtain any of his earlier books. I have repeatedly tried to purchase Eldershaw (2014), only excerpted in this selection. Nor can any library in the United States supply me with a copy. One can only hope that individual volumes will be brought back into print once the accomplishment of this selection has been duly acknowledged. 

Edgar is chiefly a contemplative poet. Not that, like the Romans, he looks into a templum to discern the will of the gods or has even the faintest streak of religious faith. When he listens to Thomas Tallis he says, “Not one word or wound, / One shred / Of their doxology can sway / Me to belief” (173). His templum is his mind, which is utterly modern, entranced more by physics than theology, and emotions and thoughts cross it, sometimes alone and sometimes together. For readers, though, each of his poems is a templum. What do we discover when we gaze at them? Many things, no doubt, but chiefly his imagination works in eschatological terms: everything points eventually to nothingness. He entertains the idea of “a posthumous, / Unpeopled world, a plot / That has no further use for us” (55) and he meditates on the aftermath of war: an empty town left to “the chaos of // Abandoned use” (134). More generally, he is haunted by the “black and empty corridor” which “lies in store” for all of us (283). The same imagination is entranced by divisions of the self, as when he identifies the inner voice that is forever murmuring in our heads: “always there is that accompanist, // Not caught on film or sound, who’s guaranteed / Each moment to intone / A running commentary” (29). In another poem, set in a restaurant, he sees his own reflection in a wall mirror behind where his friend sits: “I catch odd glimpses of it watching him, / And eyeing me / Askance, as he shifts and sways from side to side” (61). Always, Edgar is aware of the fragility of existence, human and non-human alike. Sitting in a house during a strong wind, he observes, “The house is brittle as an hourglass” (80). Often enough, it is an interruption of ordinary life that prompts a revealing change of mental attitude and gives an insight into the frailty of things: too many clocks in a house (20-21) or the recognition that books really write us (116). 

Edgar’s great theme, though, is the relation of mind and world. Sometimes, like Tolstoy and Montale, he is beset by the apprehension that the visible world might be an illusion. We spend our days, he says, “clearly reciting / The myth of an outer world” (196). In “Parallax” he recalls “a droll / Advertisement that had the Martians hoist / Before a rover’s lens screen after screen, / Across which it would scroll, / Filming a fake red desert, while unseen / Their high-rise city quietly rejoiced” (5). It leads him to ponder that something similar happens while “Walking the crafted streetscape” of Sydney: “A suite of flimsy panels” is perhaps sliding beside him, “screening who knows what?” (5). One approach to this theme comes by way of what Edgar calls “the conjuror” (12), and indeed worldly beauty is much like a magic show for him, both in what it offers us (“The silken trance it’s spun and shed” (246)) and in the chilling dénouement that awaits us. No wonder that we think of Schopenhauer when we read lines such as these: “The world cannot pretend / And with the end / Of the masquerade throws down its great disguise, / Like a magician’s cape whose folds / Descend / About an object which then disappears / Before unseeing eyes” (125). At other times, it is reading in physics that disturbs the otherwise unquestioned relation between mind and world. Handling a snow dome, he reflects that in a world of two dimensions, the third dimension would be “just a dream that quantum tricks produce” (32). Then panic sets in: “Put down that ornament and look around, / And breathe, for fear / The virtual world that some propound / Is ours, here, now, a program that supreme, / Conjectured beings engineer, / Where we imagine we are all we seem” (32). 

In Mauvaises pensées et autres (1943), Paul Valéry has a piercing aphorism entitled “Ex nihilo”: Dieu a tout fait de rien. Mais le rien perce [“God made everything out of nothing. But the nothing comes through”]. It is no wonder that Edgar is attracted to this line of Valéry’s — it forms the epigraph to the splendid conceptual lyric “The Menger Sponge” (148) — for the Australian and the French poets inhabit overlapping worlds. In this imbrication, poetry, music, science and a cool skepticism about religion live in rich harmony. Unlike Valéry, however, Edgar has no temptation to be all mind (as with Monsieur Teste), and he has no abiding interest in theorizing about the creative process. Only very obliquely does he offer us an ars poetica in “Feather Weight” (44). Nor is there anything like Mon Faust in his work: he is one of our most discreet poets. Not that one should thereby think, as some people do, that Edgar has little blood passion. The excepts from Eldershaw (2013) testify otherwise. Nonetheless, to read Edgar well is to learn to let the feeling in the verse display itself in its own good time; it will not overwhelm the reader on a first or second reading, neither by way of intense metaphors (which Edgar avoids) nor by way of ardent declarations (which he would most likely think to be in bad taste). 

Consider “Nocturnal” from History of the Day (2002). The opening stanza shows Edgar’s confidence handling a difficult stanza, nine lines, ranging from trimeter to pentameter, rhyming abbacccdd. Quite by chance, the speaker discovers an old cassette with a recording of his distressed partner talking years ago:

It’s midnight now and sounds like midnight then,
The words like distant stars that faintly grace
    The all-pervading dark of space,
    But not meant for the world of men.
It’s not what we forget
But what was never known we most regret
Discovery of. Checking one last cassette
Among my old unlabelled discards, few
Of which reward the playing, I find you. (202)

Many of Edgar’s qualities are tightly coiled in these lines: elegance and lightness of touch, to be sure, but also plain speech, and, more, the relish of drawing an apt distinction. Notice the timing of the lines, how the drama of hearing the lover’s voice, now she is long dead, in the final word of the stanza, is embodied in the rhyme “few” – “you.” It is characteristic of Edgar that the discovery does not lead to confession or a registration of immediate grief but that a contemplation begins, one that leads us first to that wonderful poet Gwen Harwood (1920-95). Long ago, the lovers were jolted by hearing their friend’s voice on the radio reading “Suburban Sonnet.” Technology exhumes the dead with ease, and with them it brings our loss immediately before us. 

Again, characteristic of Edgar, the contemplation continues, passing now to the North Head Quarantine Station, near Manly, where people who were feared to harbor contagious diseases were kept until they were considered safe to enter Sydney. Many died there, and stories abound that the place is haunted: “equipment there records / The voices in the dormitories and wards, / Although it’s years abandoned. Undeleted, / What happened is embedded and repeated, // Or so they say” (202). The skeptical reflection, delayed until the beginning of the new stanza, is nicely placed. Edgar’s former lover was not mistrustful of the dead’s power to cling to the world, however: “You said you heard the presence which oppugned / Your trespass on its lasting sole occasion / In your lost house.” (“Oppugned”? Yes, Edgar has an extensive vocabulary and is not afraid to use it.) But the poet himself can accommodate the belief only by way of technology. The final stanza runs:

            Here in the dark
I listen, tensing in distress, to each
    Uncertain fragment of your speech,
    Each desolate, half-drunk remark
        You uttered unaware
That this cassette was running and would share
Far in the useless future your despair
With one who can do nothing but avow
You spoke from midnight, and it’s midnight now. (203)

The word “midnight” in the last line is no longer the simple temporal marker that we encountered in the first line of the poem; it is also a dark emotional state shared across decades by the two lovers, though not in the same way or for the same reasons. Among the many things to admire in this stanza, not the least is the careful choice of the almost retiring adjective “useless.” What was to be the future for the woman can have no effect on her now, and the speaker’s present gives him no way of comforting either her or himself.  

Stephen Edgar, now seventy years of age, has assembled a body of work that is as durable as any poetry written in his generation. If we read it steadily from Queuing for the Mudd Clubb (1985) to Background Noise (2020), we encounter a poet who apparently knew from the beginning what he wanted to do. His gifts were already fully apparent, and the decades have only helped him to refine and extend them. The Strangest Place is a book to read and re-read; it invites us to choose the poems that most pierce us and to get them by heart. Robert Schumann famously reviewed Chopin’s “Variations on Mozart’s ‘Là ci darem la mano’” in 1831. In that piece, he imagined his character Eusebius entering his room where he was sitting at the piano with his friend Florestan. Pointing to Chopin’s score in his hand, Eusebius declared, Hut ab, ihr Herren, ein Genie [“Hats off, gentlemen, a Genius”]. We don’t say such things these days, not wearing hats, not being so dramatic, and having rather exalted ideas of genius, but had he been around today Eusebius might have been just as enthusiastic had he brought into a room a copy of Edgar’s new book. 

 

KEVIN HART is internationally recognised as a poet, critic, philosopher and theologian. Born in England, he grew up in Brisbane, and taught Philosophy and English at the University of Melbourne. He has recently taken up a position at the University of Virginia. 

 

Donnalyn Xu reviews Take Care by Eunice Andrada

Take Care

by Eunice Andrada

Giramondo

ISBN 9781925818796

Reviewed by DONNALYN XU


How do we give shape to what resists language? How do words move against the body, in dialogue with its silence, its noise? These tangled questions emerge from my reading of Eunice Andrada’s second collection of poems,
TAKE CARE, and the writing of this review, which has taken weeks of slow thinking. Like many others, I have found both comfort and discomfort in poetry during a time of immeasurable loss. I leave most things unread, I seek a return to what is comfortable and familiar. In my own work, I attempt poems about windows or flowers; always in the eyeline of where it hurts, but slightly out-of-focus. Yet, TAKE CARE is piercing in a way that cuts through the haze with a deliberate sharpness. Connected through the theme of rape culture as it exists in everyday and institutional scales, these poems do not flirt around the intensity of their subject matter—they demand your recognition, as well as your unease. As Andrada writes in her author’s statement with Giramondo Press, in TAKE CARE she has “attempted to get as close as possible to the hurting bone”. 

The plurality of meaning layered in the phrase ‘TAKE CARE’ is magnified by loud and insistent capital letters. It is what I say to women instead of saying goodbye, always on my mind in the process of leaving: take care, which also means be careful. Take and care can also be read separately as verbs in their own right, though they might seem contradictory if we consider care as giving, or care as sacrifice. Structured into four parts—take, comfort, revenge, and care—Andrada weaves a tapestry that embraces multitudinous and non-linear paths towards healing.

The body is at the centre of Andrada’s poetry, though not always enfleshed by language—these are the bodies of our ancestors, our mothers, our sisters; the bodies of those who can only be remembered for having been dismembered. In the opening poem “Echolalia”, the collapse is imminent, as a disruption that is also an entry point. Tracing the violence of history in the space “[b]eyond a dilated island”, the rhythmic and rocking imagery of rising water culminates into bullet-like fractured sentences in the present—“Then the hands. Not mine.” The poem ends with a sombre reflection on the constraints of writing about the body through poetry as a medium; the traditions it must wade through, and inevitably carry: “For my human body to be seen as the centre / of a poem, it must be buoyant”. 

‘Buoyant’ evokes a range of images that reverberate throughout the entirety of the collection, as the last word of the first poem. A buoyant body is lifeless, deceased, or maybe even light and at peace, having given in to the currents. Water is a recurring feature in Andrada’s poetry, not only as a symbol, but also structurally, through lines that float in and around empty space, and feelings that simmer. As an ecopoet, Andrada explores environmental and cultural imperialism through the connection between bodies, both human and non-human. The speaker does not simply observe nature, but actively participates in its ecosystems. Or rather, the act of observing is also a form of participation, much like our reading of these poems. In “Kundiman” (a genre of Filipino lovesongs), a Filipino senator orders radio stations broadcasted overseas to play music in the Tagalog language to ward off invaders. The speaker’s tone is cynical about this tactic, but ultimately closes with a sincere desire:

I want to be there with a love song
not to wield as a weapon,
but as a comfort to the water.

A love song is not enough to “thwart a battalion”, but it serves a different purpose, and it requires an approach to softness that extends beyond either weakness or strength. Softness as comfort, not only for each other, but for the pain the land and its waters have suffered, which we carry with us even as we leave its shores. 

So much of the strength in TAKE CARE lies in its varied yet interconnected moments, like ripples on the surface of water. One of the longer poems, “Vengeance Sequence”, is spread across six pages. Divided into sections by a single colon, it follows the same structure as the earlier “Comfort Sequence”. While “Comfort Sequence” uses archival and documentary fragments of text to situate the act of rape in a history of imperial violence, “Vengeance Sequence” considers various scenarios in seemingly speculative and atemporal worlds:

:

The most dignified rape scene on TV
is where the rape doesn’t happen.

He attempts to do it but can’t get hard,
stroking his cock, pliant as shore-washed

seagrass. She can’t stop laughing.
The bliss surges from her throat,

a carafe unfractured, her cackles
erupting and erupting. 

I am drawn to the simplicity of a bolded colon that speaks as loudly as the enormous silence it encompasses. It is a connector symbol, but standing alone, it draws a vertical line. It leads us into sentences that require the immediacy of present-tense to close the distance between the dots, the reader, the persona, and the words themselves. I love the description of bliss as “unfractured”, and the movement of cackles that are “erupting and erupting”. I laugh with the speaker as she laughs. 

The delight that infiltrates Andrada’s writing does not outweigh the necessary ruminations of violence, but allows the reader to gain insight into alternative ways of being that do not replicate the simplistic narratives of grieving that have been assigned to us. I want to read closely into the deeper meaning of the poem as a series of disconnected but interwoven scenes, but perhaps a close reading also entails my fixation on this sudden and unexpected joy. It is the feeling of reading alongside, rather than watching from a distance. The speaker imagines an anti-rape device that comes with a KILL button, and I think, yes, yes. The speaker “take[s] naps to undo the myth that [she is] hardworking”, and I think, well, me too. Relationality is essential to the construction of these poems, and in every personal testimony that both is and isn’t an address to an audience, the speaker appears to ask—where are you standing? How are you reading?

One of my favourite poems in TAKE CARE, “The Chismis on Warhol”, begins with an epigraph from a poem by Alfred A. Yuson entitled “Andy Warhol speaks to his two Filipino maids”. Written from the perspective of American pop artist and filmmaker Warhol, Yuson’s poem offers a poignant and humorous meditation on the meaning of art and American imperialism. Andrada’s poem responds to Yuson (and to the speaker of Yuson’s poem, Warhol himself), not by ‘speaking back’ to the man, but by speaking behind his back; speaking in a language that is entirely our own. I cannot faithfully translate the meaning of the gossip that is ‘chismis’, except to note that my family often calls me chismosa, which has a girlish inflection to it that I revel in, which this poem revels in too. A poem full of chismis and rhetorical questions (“Did you hear the canned sopas / was a hit at the galleries? / How they ate that shit up.”) ends with a question that answers itself: “Did you hear / he calls them ‘girls’? Just girls alone / a few moments, all theirs.”

When I read that line, I feel like I am in the room with them. He calls them girls, but their loneliness is theirs. Andrada is attentive to the colonial narratives that strip Filipino women of their agency, and in writing about these women as more than bodies of service in the imperial machine, she has ascribed them with possibility. There are only questions, only imagined scenes of intimacy. However, the significance lies in the asking, which orients the poem away from what has been lost, towards what we can hope for and wonder.

Of course, I am cautious of intrinsically leaning towards expressions of joy and comfort in a collection that is also a necessary punch to the gut. There were some moments in TAKE CARE that I found so graphic and painful, I had to close my eyes. I was tentative to write about this feeling, but I have come to learn that hesitation and uncertainty are critical tools we must engage with meaningfully. In Curating Difficult Knowledge, Erica Lehrer, Cynthia E. Milton, and Monica Eileen Patternson ask: “what is our responsibility to stories of suffering that we inherit?” I don’t think that poetry can offer a suitable answer to this question; it can only ask it again, in a different language, with a repetition that is comforting, and unsettling.

I often find that the most difficult feeling to draw into poetry is anger. “I’m not an angry person, but I have to be one” is a phrase that I have used many times. It sounds too much like an excuse, like saying “in my defence”, but what am I defending myself from? Anger, or the way I feel it has been unfairly given to me? In “Uninhabitable”, the speaker’s anger does not transform or serve a purpose.

Rage is the whale I must dwell in
when I move through the cities my body
cannot inhabit.

This is no hero’s journey.
The objective of my wrath is not
to save.

The sense of surety in the speaker’s position is echoed in the use of enjambment that cuts like a blade. It reminds me of a passage in Audre Lorde’s 1981 essay “The Uses of Anger”, in which she states, “the angers between women will not kill us if we can articulate them with precision, if we listen to the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of saying. When we turn from anger we turn from insight, saying we will accept only the designs already known, deadly and safely familiar.” In reading TAKE CARE, I felt invited to sit with resistance—against oppressive power structures, and against my own unease. There is movement in resistance, because resistance is also mobilisation. Significantly, the final poem “Echolocation” ends as a call-to-action, much like how Lorde writes about anger as growth:

Our song maps the terrain
of past to future labour.
We trust the others hear us.
They are gathering.

It is also significant that Andrada refers to struggle and survival as a song, which is to say, musicality. There are echoes and resonances that lift off the page. I hear them, I feel compelled to respond. I feel that the loneliness of writing as a Filipina poet living on unceded land—the specificity of that loneliness—is shared by a choir.

A final note on music for a collection that truly sings—the first time I read TAKE CARE in one sun-filled afternoon, I listened to Andrada’s eponymously named Spotify playlist on shuffle. As Rina Sawayama’s “Chosen Family” faded into Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money”, I was reminded of the varying and often conflicting shades that exist in the act of ‘care’, whether that be anger at the exploitation of caregivers, care for one another, care as a weapon, or care as the most vulnerable and necessary act of survival. What TAKE CARE teaches us is that care is not the antithesis to pain. Sometimes it is joyful, at other times, blinding with red. An anger rises and cools within us. It continues this way, but it does not settle.

 

Cited

Andrada, Eunice. “Eunice Andrada: a note on TAKE CARE.” Giramondo Publishing. 31 August, 2021, https://giramondopublishing.com/eunice-andrada-a-note-on-take-care/.

Lehrer, Erica, Cynthia E. Milton, and Monica Eileen Patternson (eds). Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of Anger: Responding to Racism.” In Your Silence Will Not Protect You, 107–118. London: Silver Press, 2017 [1981].

 

DONNALYN XU is a Filipino-Chinese writer, poet, and artsworker living on Darug land. Her work has appeared in PerilVoiceworksOverland, and elsewhere. She is currently completing her Honours year in Art History and English at the University of Sydney, and writing her thesis on the poetics and materiality of Filipino national dress.

 

Lesley Lebkowicz reviews While I am drawing breath by Rose Ausländer (trans)

While I am drawing breath

By Rose Ausländer,

translated by Anthony Vivis and Jean Boase-Beier

ISBN 978 1906570 30 9

Arc Publications

Reviewed by LESLEY LEBKOWICZ

Black milk: the poetry of Rose Ausländer

Many poetry readers, asked about the poetry of the Holocaust, will think of Paul Celan’s Todesfuge and its powerful opening image:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink . . .

Fewer readers will know that the image of black milk is from an early poem by Rose Ausländer. She was Celan’s senior by some 19 years. They both lived in the predominantly Jewish town of Czernowicz (now Cernauti) and became friends.  She was something of a mentor to him. When he used her profoundly paradoxical image of black milk, she generously said he was the greater poet and that she was happy he had used her image.

Celan’s suffering after the Holocaust was great: he committed suicide by throwing himself in the Seine in 1946. Ausländer, however, went on, and went on writing. She was prolific, with 24 books to her name, two published after her death in 1988. Writing was fundamental to her survival, and though she had already begun to write and publish before the Holocaust, her writing, her poetry, was the breath which sustained her life through and after the many dislocations and losses the Holocaust imposed on her.

Ausländer was born Rose Scherzer; her husband’s name was Ausländer. The name means ‘foreigner’; literally, someone from another country. Their marriage didn’t last. Ausländer’s use of the name did. It fitted her life, her frequent re-locations; it suited the way she felt about these dislocations. The subject of her work, most often spoken of indirectly, largely through imagery, is the Holocaust and the way it shaped her life. One of her recurrent images is of ash:

In the rain of ashes
is the trace of your name

It was
a perfect word

Fire
consumed it
‘Ashes’ (91)

Ash and language are again conjoined in ‘Your House’:

Ash
choking on the words
(73)

And so powerfully in ‘Ark’:

On the sea
waits
an ark
of stars

for the
ashes
that survive
the flood of fire
(89)

In one respect ash is the literal outcome of the cremation of the bodies of the camp prisoners. The literal embodies the metaphor of the worthless residue of precious people destroyed. Ausländer rarely speaks of individual people; her voice is not explicit about the personal or even about the historical.

Hard truths are hard to speak; and hard to avoid: they seep into, and colour experience and writing which alludes to the experiences. Ausländer shares this impulse with W.G. Sebald whose prose was deeply informed by the same Gargantuan and subterranean subject.

Instead of the personal and the historical, Ausländer speaks in the language of fundamental elements: snow, fire, house, air, water, so that while her writing is born of historical specifics, it transcends those conditions and speaks to the elements which underlie the horrible capacity of humans to destroy each other.

In Your House:
The sun says
sleep yourself awake
my child
I will light your way
home

The rain
I am weeping for the
children . . .
(73)

And ‘Shut Out Their Love’ is almost entirely made up of elemental imagery:

They came
with guns and jagged banners
shot down the moon and all the stars
and shut out their light
and shut out their love

That day we buried the sun
And there was eternal night
(83)

Ausländer rarely capitalises anything other than the initial letter of a stanza. The additional capitalisation of the ‘And’ beginning the last line heralds the significance of the final statement.

Ausländer’s preference for working in these univeral elements means that not only does she transcend the specifics of history, she also transcends (or bypasses?) the specifics of individuality, of personality. While the piles of shoes or clothing displayed in Holocaust museums and memorials inevitably carry the imprint of the person who once owned and wore them, she does not give us this.

What she gives us instead is the power of language as a way of surviving what is too harsh to be specified, to be spoken of. Again and again she refers to language. Language has the power to give life; in Hunger:

Secretively I plant
the word in this cell
exhorting the apple to grow. . .
(63)

In a poem the title of which is translated as Words (though it is Sprache in German, which means Language), she begins:

Keep me in your service
my whole life long
let me breathe in you

I thirst for you
drink you word for word
my source
(23)

Even when Ausländer writes of despair, it is expressed through an image about language. From ‘The Net’:

I want to say something
one word
which says it all

not
I am who I am

/ . . ./

The word
fails me now
My words
fall silent in me
(23)

That Ausländer goes on to write of the failure of language is of course paradoxical. While I am Drawing Breath is seeded with paradox.

Dust that joins is a series of paradoxical images which Ausländer piles one on the other to both create and annihilate the universe she inhabits:

We
weavers of words

heretics who believe
we fly to the stars
in love
with the earth
which we burn to ashes
in cleansing fire
(21)

Paradox is the stuff of much spiritual discourse. To take logically opposed notions and unite them is to defy reason and drive the conscious mind beyond reason’s limitations into a spiritual reality. This is how Ausländer’s poetics works. The reality of the war, its racism and violence, drives us either to insanity or to spiritual reality. Paradox allows Ausländer to speak the unspeakable.

*

While I am Drawing Breath was published in 2014, a republication from 1995 of the collection then named Mother Tongue. The translation, by Jean Boase-Beier and Anthony Vivis, is presented as a parallel text: German on the left, English facing on the right-hand page. There is an integrity, an honouring of the text and the reader, in publishing a parallel text. While I respect this integrity, it sometimes made my reading a vexed thing.

I came to this review by virtue of my experience as a poet and reviewer, not as a native German speaker, nor with any academic qualifications in German language and literature. But my parents were native German speakers and I heard the language and learnt its cadences as a child. Some years ago I worked on the translation of an early Buddhist verse cycle with two Pali scholars, Pali being the language of the verse cycle. In the course of this I learned about the three-fold pattern of translation where a teams of translators collaborate: one fluent only in the first language, one bilingual and the third fluent only in the language of the translation, a system which makes both for accuracy and ease in the final version.

This fluency and fidelity is not always present in the book under review. For example, ‘verbrannte Kinder’ in Your House is translated as ‘children who played in the fire’. ‘Verbrannte’ means ‘burnt, burnt up, incinerated’. There’s no playing in Ausländer’s text. Some of these deviations from Ausländer’s uncompromising voice might better have been described as being ‘after Ausländer’. Though these glitches are unfortunate, it’s good that Ausländer’s poetry is available in English. The brilliance of her writing documents the possibility of transcending the worst of which we are capable.

 

LESLEY LEBKOWICZ lives in Canberra on Ngunnawal land. She has published five books, including the award-winning The Petrov Poems (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013), a collaborative translation of Book IV of the Sutta Nipata (the oldest Buddhist verse cycle) and most recently, Mountain Lion (Pitt Street Poetry, 2019).

Amy Walters reviews The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins

The Everlasting Sunday

by Robert Lukins

ISBN

UQP

Reviewed by AMY WALTERS

Robert Lukins’ debut novel follows seventeen-year-old Radford as he commences at Goodwin Manor, “a place for boys who had been found by trouble” (19). The Manor is a dilapidated institution of reform in the Shropshire countryside, which the Queensland-raised Lukins has said was inspired by an old house he encountered while working as a postman in Shropshire. In the tradition of the British boarding school, the students are referred to by surname. To call it a school, however, is a bit of a stretch; as the narrator notes with characteristic obliqueness: “There was no schooling, but things like lessons” (42). The Manor is overseen by Teddy, whose good intentions are undercut by his tendency towards depression and alcoholism. While Government inspectors nose around from time to time, this intrusion of authority only serves to highlight the boys’ marginalised position relative to society at large. 

This sense of isolation is heightened due to the novel’s backdrop of the Big Freeze: the winter of 1962-63, when snow started falling on Boxing Day and continued for ten weeks. In her recent book Frostquake, Juliet Nicolson argued that during this period Britain underwent “a process of incubation” whereby “society was preparing for the moment when a different landscape would emerge. This was a winter in which despair and hardship both personal and political contrasted with a burgeoning sense of liberation and opportunity. It was a winter in which the structural pillars of class and entitlement … were starting to fragment and crumble.” (#)

The tension in the novel largely derives from this sense of liminality: as the outside world re-emerges, will the boys be rehabilitated, or will they enter adulthood in their current state of iniquity? If the atmosphere is anything to go by, the odds do seem stacked against them. Inanimate objects are imbued with a menacing quality: the piano delivers “a clap of untuned thunder” (26) and, as Radford is driven to the Manor by his uncle, he sees the city “effecting a cowardly retreat” (3) through the car’s rear window. Snuffy, a former Goodwin resident who returns for a visit after being released from prison, is a sad portent of a life that may be to come. Winter, similarly, is a character, and the boys its plaything: “From high above, where fates were decided, these boys appeared as helpless as they truly were. Winter’s show was so great and rare it too could only wonder at what it was getting away with. These lonely humans here, these children, were like currants to be pressed into the cake’s surface.” (53)

For a novel set on the cusp of the counter-culture revolution, the prose style is reminiscent of a nineteenth century novel. Granted, the newsreaders still wore suits to read the news in 1962, but some of Lukins’ narration is more suited to a Victorian novel than one set just over half a century ago. Ian McEwan’s 2007 novella On Chesil Beach was set in the summer of 1962, just before the Big Freeze, and manages to capture the sense of a bygone era without resorting to florid description. “This was still the era,” McEwan writes, “… when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure.” (6) There is a sense in which the two protagonists, Florence and Edward, are sandwiched between those who fought in the war, and a more liberated generation to come. Florence gleans worrying details of what she can expect on her wedding night from a “modern, forward-looking handbook” (7) while Edward feels obliged to accept a job in her father’s business. As they receive their dinner in their hotel room, they are conscious of the old men downstairs who are “filling their pipes for one last time that day” and waiting for the main bulletin on the wireless, “a wartime habit they would never break.” (24) 

Whereas McEwan’s prose is crisp and sophisticated, The Everlasting Sunday is full of convoluted passages, which often read as overwrought and artificial. This passage is indicative of some of the contortions Lukins devises:

“… Radford tried to remember the last time his hand had been held. Now the man added a second palm to the act such that he held both of Radford’s. Having completed this ligature he resumed motionlessness.” (12)

It becomes apparent, however, that Lukins is genuinely taking his cue from Victorian literature. Upon arriving at Goodwin Manor, Radford muses to himself that the place is “[a]ll too Tom Brown and the neat perils of boarding school. Perhaps Foster would play the thick-necked bully and there would be a dastardly teacher to make unstuck. All too cute.” (34) This is a reference to Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the 1857 novel by Thomas Hughes which gave a semi-autobiographical account of life at Rugby Public School, and spawned an entire genre of fiction for boarding boys. Unlike Rugby, Goodwin Manor is not a bastion of privilege, but it fulfils a similar function to the public school: the making or breaking of adolescent boys. Although on the surface they are capable of scraping along together in relative peace, sharing beer, cigarettes and unauthorised visits to a nearby cemetery, the threat of violence is never far away. Radford is instantly attuned to the taught atmosphere of his new home, making a “commitment [to] expose nothing of himself to this house.” Dilapidated and foreboding, Goodwin Manor is also a nod to the Gothic, with the plot haunted mainly by the mystery of Radford’s crime, which is cleverly revealed in the final pages. 

The Everlasting Sunday is a layered and complex debut. While at times the floridity of the prose can be an impediment, reading the novel with the Gothic in mind helps to put its melodramatic overtones in context. The subject matter, already curiously old-fashioned, is oddly devoid of contemporary resonance, but Lukins’ sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of the plight of vulnerable boys against whom the odds have always been stacked transcends its archaic posturing. Though the thaw comes for the nation, the reader suspects Radford’s emotional life may always be frozen.

 

Cited

Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Oxford University Press, 1989 [1857].
Ian McEwan, 2008, On Chesil Beach, Vintage, London.
Juliet Nicolson, Frostquake. Vintage Publishing, 2021. 

 

Katelin Farnsworth reviews Our Shadows by Gail Jones

Our Shadows

by Gail Jones

ISBN 9781922330284

Text Publishing 

Reviewed by KATELIN FARNSWORTH 

Our Shadows by Gail Jones is a family saga that examines the intimate lives of three generations living in Kalgoorlie. The story starts with Paddy Hannan, an Irish-born prospector who discovered gold back in 1893. Paddy’s history is woven in and out of the text and we travel back and forth between his story. We also meet sisters Nell and Frances, and grandparents, Fred and Else. The relationships drawn out in this novel are complex and layered, unfolding slowly as you read. There’s no doubt that Jones is a beautiful writer, precise, perceptive, and full of razor-sharp observations. 

Aptly named, shadows imbue this novel. Nell and Frances were close as children however are alienated from one another in adulthood. After the death of their mother, they were raised by their grandparents in Kalgoorlie (the ‘shadow’ of the super pit) and are united by their love of reading. Estranged as adults and now living in Sydney, Nell and Frances both deal with different shadows. Frances is grief stricken, mourning her late husband, Will, while Nell deals with mental health issues. Their grandmother Else has dementia. The book slowly and lyrically unpacks and dissects their relationships together, the way they move and shift, closing and opening. The scenes with Else are touching, written almost like poetry, a true tenderness in the words. 

‘Yes, it was Else, but in an altered state, not only with extreme age but with the air of subtraction and inwardness that a monk might possess. Her eyes were dim with medication. Her skull outline was clear beneath wisps of white hair. Yes, it was Else, who sat unaware and apart, with her long, notched fingers resting inert in her lap. Nell took her hand, but Else did not register her touch.’ (p115)

While Nell, Frances and Else are all living in Sydney, memories of Western Australian – consciously and subconsciously – sit under much of the work. As readers, we are drawn again and again to Kalgoorlie, this vivid place that is almost a character in its own right. There is also a lovely juxtaposition between the water of Sydney and the aridity of Kalgoorlie. 

We meet Fred, Else’s late husband, through Nell and Frances. Fred was a worker in the mines and later a prisoner of the Japanese. Tragedy has filled his life, from haunting scenes in the mines to becoming a prisoner of war. Jones handles these themes delicately. While these tragedies undoubtedly change Fred, shaping his life, the way he understands himself and his future relationships, we see Nell and Frances remember him with courage, kindness, and strength: 

‘Sometimes, on weekends, Fred took the girls prospecting. ‘Speccing’, he called it. In the desert beyond the town, littered with the remains of disused shafts and the mounds of old diggings, they set off together, peeling their eyes, scouring the dirt, searching fastidiously for something golden.’ (p200) 

Mining infuses Our Shadows in multiple ways. Fred attempts to bury the horrors of war through the mines; for Nell and Frances, the mines represent their childhood stories, loss and grief. The unknown, the unseen and the unspoken all play out in this novel. Silence (and the silencing of Aboriginal Country and culture), looms large, even if not at the forefront of the story. This silence is imprecise, as silence often is, because the bulk of the book follows characters who are not Aboriginal and who benefit from systemic privilege. 

Paddy Hannan, the Irish miner, who made his way to Kalgoorlie and found gold in 1893, slowly begins to understand the mines differently. The mines represent intense greed, a place where white people continuously take with little thought or regard to the violence they are enacting. The land is given no respect and the rightful Aboriginal owners are ignored and cast into shadow. Wangkathaa land is devastated by greed and destruction. Jones examines this toxicity with a subtle hand, exploring some of these damages and abuses, as well as the consequences (or no consequences, as it may be). An intense silence exists in Australia’s national identity, one rarely confronted or engaged with. Jones uses Our Shadows to show us that colonisation continues to exist  – a shadow, or shape if you will, that isn’t simply going to go away. In a book already filled with deep shadows, this shadow of colonisation may, however, be the most important one. It  sits underneath everything, every character and every action, even if not always immediately recognised. Colonisation has had a devastating impact on this land: it should not be ignored and Jones does not ignore it, bringing it into the story and asking the reader to consider its effects. 

In the second part of Our Shadows Frances returns to Kalgoorlie in search for more answers about her father. While there, she meets Val. Val is a compassionate and generous Wiluna woman who shares her knowledge with Frances about Aboriginal languages and customs. Aboriginal history is largely ignored by white people, and so these scenes are significant. Although fleeting, these encounters are important not only for Frances, but for the white reader too, serving as a reminder that the land is not theirs to claim, never has been and never will be: it does not belong to them. The friendship between Frances and Val may be complex but it is also essential. Sections with Val are brief, something I think worth mentioning, perhaps highlighting the fact that this is not Jones’ story to tell but still deserves space and time on the page. 

While line by line Jones is a joy to read, at times I was uncertain about how all the pieces came together. With a fragmentary narrative, there were occasions where I drifted off while reading and had to consciously bring myself back to the story. This is a prominent feature of Jones’ writing – her style often travels between the past and the present, cleverly using gaps, stillness and silence to make a point or convey a message. With a history of striking narrative techniques, there is an elusive and indefinable quality to much of Jones’ work. Often experimental, patterns and repetitions abound in her work. In Our Shadows, we see this play out through the use of Japanese artist Hokusai’s art piece The Great Wave. As children, this piece plays an integral role in connecting Nell and Frances to one another, as well as heightening their desire and longing for the ocean. Consequently, a wave-like, almost dreamy quality to the story exists, an ebb and flow, a swelling and a surging. 

Shadows of our pasts are tricky things, weaving in and out of lives often without our knowledge. Coloniality and settler guilt is a recurring theme in Jones’ work and there is a sense of collective loss in the national story. A nation built on invasion, lies and genocide means that everything becomes unstable in a broader sense. We see this instability again and again in Jones’ characters. Paddy, Frances, Nell, Fred, and Else all grapple with various ghosts and with different ideas around loss, silence and memory. Detachment is another strong theme. Perhaps, there is an intentionality to the text, a ‘holding back’ from the author that is designed to mirror something in the characters and bring something – invoke some kind of new feeling – in the reader. Either way, Jones’ writing is nuanced and she writes about memory thoughtfully. The following passage from Frances, thinking about her late husband, speaks to this idea beautifully: 

‘Not all recollections of Will took their toll; some returned her to their body part, and the things they had said to each other. To their shared personal life and their history of seeing and knowing. It was still an enigma to Frances why the past was so difficult to manage. She hoped that eventually her feelings would detach or simplify…’ (p197). 

What does it mean then, for feelings, to disappear? Can lives at once be meaningful and meaningless? This book questions us to consider the shadows of our past, our future shadows, the enigmas that have not yet happened, and the shadows we will leave behind. People are multidimensional and ‘Our Shadows’ shows us some of these dimensions, asking its reader to dissect, think and explore these characters and the shifts in time. 

Our Shadows is a complicated book, with a lot to consider. It is one I will continue to revisit, thinking about greed and silence – the shadows that permeate this country, the echoes left behind, and the way I understand myself, the world I live in, and the deep scars that fill this land we call ‘Australia’. 

 

KATELIN FARNSWORTH is a writer and reader living on unceded Wurundjeri land. She loves imagining stories and spending time in nature. She was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize in 2020 and won an ASA Mentorship in 2021. 

Dženana Vucic reviews Admit the Joyous Passion of Revolt by Elena Gomez

Admit the Joyous Passion of Revolt

by Elena Gomez

Puncher and Wattmann

ISBN 9781925780741

Reviewed by Dženana Vucic
 
 
To read Admit the Joyous Passion of Revolt (2020), Elena Gomez’s second full-length poetry collection, is to be propelled headlong through the dizzy intersect of postmodernity and Marxist-feminist critique, to be flooded with possibilities for distraction, and for engagement. It is a work that not only demands rereading but requires it. Which is not to say that it cannot be drunk down along with your breakfast coffee (it’s slim enough that this is possible), but it is to say that the work is best enjoyed over a series of re-readings, with time for the ideas to settle into your insides, digest. 

In the first instance, one can let the references wash over them, become background to the compulsion forward and through. The writing is pacey, and the direct, sometimes conversational tone—so removed from the intellectual posturing that marks much academia-adjacent work—allows readers to slip easily into the pages without getting hung up on their theoretical or historical underpinnings. The critique is there, underscoring everything, but the first reading can be one of pure pleasure. Slowing down, or (as in my case) re-reading, leads to uncovering. 

Gomez peppers her work with references to revolution, to Marxist-feminist theory, to pop culture and to our contemporary and each reading unfolds possibilities, invites further study and collaboration in meaning making. Names and dates appear with little preamble or explanation and re-readings lead to google searches and rabbit-hole Wikipedia binges, the collection sitting at the centre of a web of connections from which the reader is pushed to questioning what it means to exist in postmodernity. Objects, in particular, are everywhere in the work, cast into affective relation to one another, to world structures and to readers. There are batteries, bobby pins, snap back caps, calico rugs, silk scarfs, black patterned shawls, bloodstained bedsheets, mulberry lipstick, cowskin purses, pools, headphones, babydoll dresses (Courtney Love’s, in peach), ungainly frocks, pianos, lavender mist pillows, and more. The excesses of capitalism fill the pages, are turned and refracted across vectors of desire, need and obligation. For example, of a ‘ribbed cream short sleeve maxi’, Gomez writes: 

Her judgement takes into account the labour involved
in anger vs the labour involved in disappointment.
She is to be worn by someone who withstands rotating
modules for productivity

Readers are gently oriented through Gomez’ experiences as a cis Woman of Colour and arts worker, and through this prism Gomez explores legacies and realities of labour, care, gender and bodies under neoliberal capitalism. The collection is a snapshot in time, but one which is careful to capture the generational nature of the project—the past and the present are in intimate communication, inextricable in a Marxist-feminist poetics that captures the Russian Revolution, the early Soviet era, the mid-to-late-20th century and our post-GFC moment. 

The collection is at once an epic poem and a series of poems, each page offering both a discrete moment and a continuous slippage into past and future. This is evident from the first page where Gomez seems to draw the poem to a close only to throw it wide open again upon the turn:

          ready 2 enable

like how you enable
me to be

demanding of pleasure

Gomez’ writing makes clear that history is open-ended and incomplete, ongoing. So too is the revolution. 

The future is evoked too, through Gomez attention to intertextual clues and the paths she is sending readers on, and in her use of frequent rhetorical questions, calling the reader to attention: ‘Am I too far inwards? Is this a way to conduct a mob?’; ‘What does aesthetics even do these days’; ‘What kinds of poetry are you making? Why is this so hard to contemplate?’; ‘Could you shout more or are we sufficient’. 

Alexandra Kollontai, revolutionary, politician, Marxist theorist and writer, is a central and recurring figure, one who allows Gomez to explore the gendered nature of precarious and unwaged labour, particularly in literary and/or artistic communities. Gomez calls to her, an apostrophic address that, through its invocation of one who cannot respond, implicates the reader in the search for answers: 

dear Alexandra please where are the new women were the
old women somewhere is the un-born woman anywhere or
does work also abolish the rest

dear Alexandra how many lovers does it take to bring
down an empire

Kollontai, an oft-forgotten figure who experienced something of a revival in the seventies, was especially interested in parsing love, desire, gender and family under communism, weaving her lived experience with her theories of communist futures and often using literature to elaborate her ideas (for example in her novel Red Love (1927)). Her interests have been taken up by Gomez and reframed through our contemporary, and through poetry. 

There’s a delicious irony in critiquing capitalism through poetry, a form which has little to offer in terms of ‘market value’ and a form which traditionally skews away from the type of ‘rationality’ underscoring capitalism as an economic system. Despite its low ‘profit margins’ and understanding the privilege inherent in having time to write, poetry allows a certain freedom to make this critique since poets know very well that they are mostly exempt from the limitations imposed by market pressures. Gomez nods to this, writing: 

There is a question surrounding us i.e. how may poems
will recuperate the surplus value produced by a worker
who must read in order to produce the company’s
commodity

There is a curious balance, too, between surreal elements (I climbed away/ A mountain goat/ found me weeping / and I refused its offer’) and riffs on the language of work-place (A keyboard shortcut; you could’ve said something. / I watched for a bit before we packed up the office./ Whatever else was going on/ You were still supreme at note-taking / When pamphlet distribution was at an all-time low’). At moments these disparate threads meet:

After a boss leaked the surplus
labour all over your standing desk

we divided the chips from my
snack pockets. I was too girly

and it showed.

All through the collection, Gomez nods to the un/reality of our situation and to that which distracts us from this, in particular to objects and pop culture, offering us possibilities for reframing. For example, drawing on Kim Stanley’s utopian Mars trilogy she writes: ‘I am meant to be thinking about revolution RIGHT NOW/ but all I can think of is outer space.’ This, I think, neatly summarises the focus of the collection: the way that we are distracted (by neoliberalism, by the realities of waged and unwaged labour, by our many objects, and indeed, by love and desire) from our revolutionary goals and how we can reframe those distractions for revolutionary ends. 

 
Dženana Vucic is a Bosnian-Australian writer, poet and critic. She has received the 2021 Kat Muscat Fellowship and a 2020-21 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship to work on an autotheoretical book about her experience as a refugee, the Bosnian war, identity, memory and un/belonging. Her writing has appeared in Cordite, Overland, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Australian Poetry Journal, the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, Rabbit, and others. She tweets at @dzenanabanana.

Joshua Bird reviews British India, White Australia by Kama Maclean

British India, White Australia

by Kama Maclean

ISBN 9781742236216

New South Books

Reviewed by JOSHUA BIRD

Perhaps one of the most under-appreciated elements of systems of racial discrimination is their sheer banality. 

Whether it be the efficient genocidal bureaucracy of the Nazi holocaust or the complex racist laws and policies that held together the system of Apartheid in South Africa, their existence reminds us that racism and prejudice are not just the remit of bad people—‘racists’—doing ‘racist’ things. Rather, racism is a concept that explains—indeed generates—entire systems of oppression and exclusion. Such systems are administered soberly and dutifully by governments and their representatives often in pursuit of their own perception of the common good.

For a real-world example of countries whose histories are informed by the administration of racism you could not find two clearer cases in India and Australia. Both countries are connected by a shared experience of colonialism of the British variety yet they participated on quite different ends of the imperial spectrum. The central explanation of that difference is, of course, race. Australia was not only a part of an empire constructed with Whiteness at its core, it was a nation who had only just recently declared most proudly its intention to be the purest, whitest nation in the British Empire. India, on the other hand, was a proud ancient civilisation now denied equal standing within the Empire, despite representing its largest source of resources and income, solely on the basis of its non-White status.

Using race and colonialism as a common thread, British India, White Australia, by Kama Maclean, attempts to explore this complex set of inter-relationships between Australia, India and Britain (as both nations and peoples) from Australian Federation in 1901 until India’s independence in 1947. In the first half of the twentieth century, British propaganda efforts went to great pains to emphasise the kinship of the Imperial relationship. This narrative was particularly emphasised during World War II when the survival of the Empire itself rested very heavily on India’s contribution to the war effort. Yes, despite this narrative of brotherhood, it would be some time before Australia even approached recognising India as a sovereign nation.

Historically, Australian perspectives on India were mediated through the triangulated prism of Britain – and the British Empire. For example, while Australian trade to India was robust, such trade was transacted largely with British colonial enterprises and seen as a component of global Imperial Trade rather than a bilateral economic relationship with India itself. India’s economy was shackled to Britain’s as a prime source of raw materials for British industry and a captive market for British manufactured goods. As Maclean notes, “India was more imagined than experienced in Australia, with the vast majority of transnational connections heavily mediated through the white mechanisms of the British Raj” (Maclean, p55). This was not an accident. Rather, it was by British design and intent. 

From India’s perspective, the ties of Empire served to increase tensions with Australia rather than bind them closer. Australia’s stridently racist immigration policies—which treated British Indians just as unfairly as Chinese or other non-whites—put it at odds with a country looking to assert itself on equal footing within the Empire. Australia, for its part, tended to see Indian criticism of its restrictive policies as indicative of the Indian people’s ‘hyper-sensitive’ nature (Maclean, p233), rather than a genuine grievance borne of justifiable concern. In international forums Australian diplomats did their best to frame the country’s policies of prejudicial exclusion in economic terms rather than explicitly race-based ones. Australia’s concern was with non-whites’ willingness to work for low wages without union membership, it was argued, rather than any sense of racial superiority or prejudice that motivated Australia’s actions. Those paying attention will recognise similarities to contemporary Australian political discourses around migration (for both refugees and non-refugee).

Arguably, for much of the 20th century content to follow Britain’s lead, Australia was most active internationally when combating attempts to progress racial equality. For the antipodean colony, the issues of challenging apartheid, softening the White Australia policy and Indian home rule were all connected—each an equally slippery slope which must be defended against at all costs lest the Empire come undone. Most famously, the advocacy of Australian Prime Minister Hughes was instrumental in halting a resolution in favour of a racial equality clause during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Maclean covers negotiations of this kind in great detail in the book, although the casual reader may find the content covering various international agreements and domestic legislation a dense read.

However, British India, White Australia is as much about British hypocrisy on the issue of race as it is about Australia’s own discriminatory policies in relation to Indians. While Britain often joined India in showing dismay over Australia’s policies, this was only because of their perceived impact on the stability of the Empire rather than any higher moral argument. Indeed, Maclean argues that Australia’s race-based immigration regime was entirely consistent with the Empire’s principles and values rather than an aberration from them. 

Race and inherent white superiority were used to justify Britain’s refusal to extend self-rule to India just as much as they were used to justify the exclusion of non-whites from Australia. As Australia’s third Prime Minister Chris Watson argued: 

“The British Government do not think of putting the Hindoo (sic) or any other native of India upon the same plane as the people of the United Kingdom. The ground I take is that the natives of India are British subjects and subjects only, whilst the people of the United Kingdom are citizens as well, and British subjects in Australia are citizens also. That constitutes a wide distinction” (Maclean, pp25-26)

The sensitives of relations within the Empire meant that the reasoning for this distinction was seldom explicitly stated—the racist assumption that Indians were not capable of self-rule (at least not currently). Similarly, Australia’s selective application of a theoretically colour-blind language test allowed the country to effectively bar the migration of non-Whites without stating their true intent.

Ironically, Australians themselves balked at Britain’s use of bureaucracy to discriminate against them in the form of access to roles in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). At the time, Britain required applicants for work in the Indian colonial administration to attend examinations that were held in London, thus limiting access to only those Australians with the time and funds to allow for the trip to Britain. Australian lobbying for the holding of examinations locally were resisted by Britain at least partially on the grounds that giving in to such a request would increase pressure on them to hold similar examinations in India itself—thus opening the door for increased numbers of Indians working in the ICS. As with Australia’s language test, Britain felt the need to maintain a veneer of procedural fairness in enacting its racial discrimination. As Maclean notes, “discrimination was effectively concealed in the garb of the efficient and procedural bureaucracy of the examination” (Maclean, p41).

While the low numbers of Indians migrating to Australia in the early Twentieth Century meant that they were never a target of specific legislation or policies to curb their numbers or influence, they nonetheless suffered at the hands of Australia’s racist policies which aimed to discriminate against all non-Whites equally. Indeed, it was this failure to give British Indians the proper standing expected of fellow members of the Empire that was the greatest source of grievance for Indians in Australia.

Those Indians resident in Australia balked at their second-class standing and were very active in petitioning governments—both domestically and internationally—for a recognition of their special status. Having spilled blood for the Empire in the recent war, surely they had done enough to prove themselves loyal subjects and worthy of respect? ‘No’, was Australia’s response. If anything, Indian migration to Australia represented a new threat to the Australian worker and fed into the long-running inferiority complex of the Colonial Australian. The expansion of Western models of education to the Indian middle classes, including English language training, had created a generation of Indians who could not only compete with Australian workers but exceed them in capacity and skills. 

Despite these tensions, there was engagement and contact between Indians living in Australia and local people. However, given the scarcity of first-person Indian accounts, Maclean is generally forced to adopt the perspective of non-Indian Australians in painting a picture of the lives of Indians in Australia at the time. This includes a fascinating analysis of the presence of Indian hawkers through the family photos and remembrances of those rural Australian families with whom they traded. For many of these isolated families, particularly women, the arrival of a travelling Indian hawker represented an opportunity to sample new wares, share local gossip and access the world beyond the farm. However, such representations are just snippets; distant and casual.

While Maclean herself acknowledges the limitations of first-person sources, the book would have benefited from more illustration of the internal life of Indians resident in Australia at the time. How did they reconcile their identities as Indians, Australians and British subjects? Instead, the greater availability of official documentation over personal accounts means that much of the book is concerned with the formal administrative aspects of Indian identity in Australia in the early twentieth century—such as the advocacy for equal legal and/or residential status. 

In the end, Australia’s reticence in engaging directly with India and Indians gave way to shifting political realities. Even by the 1920s, Britain’s primary role in mediating the Australia-India relationship had started to recede. This allowed for both parties to establish more direct engagement for the first time. Oftentimes this engagement was led by niche organisations; Communists, Theosophists and Friendship societies. The Australian public’s impact on India’s independence movement was minimal at best. Despite this, the book explores the activities and internal machinations of a number of these well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual efforts. 

With Britain’s retreat from Asia during World War II and India’s newly won independence, Australian policy-makers quickly acknowledged the need for a recalibration of its diplomatic priorities. As European powers retreated from their former colonial territories in the region Australia was now looking at a more isolated future. Cultivation of stronger diplomatic ties with India was needed as Australia pivoted to face a new foe—global Communism. Soon both countries would establish respective diplomatic representation, opening channels for direct political communication without British involvement. This would eventually be followed by the first cracks in the White Australia policy, allowing Indians to study, work and migrate to Australia. 

In recent years, political necessity sparked by shifts in international power relations has once again seen Australian political leaders turn their attention to India. This time, however, it is China to whom the West seeks India’s help in balancing. India has become one of Australia’s key strategic partners in responding to the growing economic and military might of China, joining the United States and Japan as members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (‘the Quad’). On the economic front, Australia’s two-way goods and services trade with India now totals a massive $24.4 billion per year, and has become a key market for Australian exporters looking to avoid an over-reliance on China. At the individual level, engagement has never been higher. India is now the second largest country of origin for overseas-born Australian residents, and last year well over 100,000 Indians studied in Australia. Exchange goes both ways, as Australian cricketers ply their wares throughout the Indian Premier League and Indian cuisine and culture now firmly within the mainstream. 

And yet, the central question raised by British India, White Australia remains. Do Australia and India truly share a set of common values and understandings? The poor treatment of Indian-Australians trying to return to Australia during the recent surge of Covid-19’s Delta variant revealed fractures in the relationship. Racist incidents, such as the apparent targeting of Indian taxi drivers in Melbourne, have also undermined any argument that racist attitudes towards Indians are now in the country’s rear-view mirror. While some may suggest that any hope for long-term engagement between India and Australia rests on an embrace of their common history, others like Maclean will continue to assert that in fact it is this shared colonial experience that has prevented the relationship from evolving beyond its racist origins.

 

JOSHUA BIRD is a community development specialist and scholar who focuses on minority rights and multicultural policy.  He has spent the last twenty years living and working across the Asia-Pacific and has a Masters of Asia-Pacific Studies (2010) and a Doctor of Philosophy in China Studies (2016). Joshua is a regular contributor to the Asian Review of Books and Cha Asian Literary Journal, and his first book Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity Along China’s Multi-ethnic Borderland was published by Routledge in 2017.

Anne Brewster reviews The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar

The Mother Wound

Amani Haydar

Panmacmillan

ISBN 9781760982454

Reviewed by ANNE BREWSTER

Strong Women

Amani Haydar’s powerful memoir takes its title from Dr Oscar Serrallach’s term ‘the mother wound’, which describes how ‘the relationship between mothers and daughters is affected by unhealed traumatic experiences passed down matriarchal lines’ (333). In her family, Haydar says, the wounds have been inflicted by male aggression, war and migration (329).

If memoirists produce memoirs in order to make their lives count in the public record, Haydar’s memoir is motivated by the strong imperative to make her mother’s life count – for it to be recorded and commemorated publically – as her mother, Salwa Haydar, was the victim of lethal violence at the hands of her husband, Haydar’s father. Amani Haydar has a high profile as a writer, artist, lawyer, community activist, media commentator and advocate for women’s rights, and has talked a lot in the media about her mother’s death so I expect it’s not a spoiler for me to identify this as the event that galvanises Haydar as a memoirist. She herself refers to her mother’s passing proleptically early in the book, before the narrative has even touched much upon her mother.

Haydar spends the first section of the memoir establishing the close and mutually respectful (67) relationship she had with her father as a child and the way he had inspired and dominated her sense of herself and her future. This is a deftly written memoir which skilfully records the changing narrative point of view of the protagonist/memoirist. Haydar describes how as a child she internalised her father’s view of the world, and saw the world in effect through his eyes. This included being inadvertently complicit from the sidelines as a child in his disparagement of her mother. Haydar recognises all too late that her father’s pattern of coercive, controlling, belittling and intimidating behaviour comprises the gendered domestic abuse that would prove fatal to her mother (91). The memoir thus traces Amani Haydar’s rites of passage as she comes to understand the functions of patriarchy as they intersect with gender and race. It describes her dissatisfactions with mainstream feminism and her efforts to ‘carve out’ (58) a feminism that would account for these intersectional complexities.

The feminism that The Mother Wound articulates is informed by scholarship (in particular the history of Muslim women’s writing and feminists working in Islamic frameworks), grass-roots and local activism, and debates on social media. This repurposed feminism allows Haydar to address issues such as the pernicious stereotyping of Arab and Muslim people in the media (for example, the correlations of Muslims with violence), and to challenge the entrenched binaries that promulgate these stereotypes (such as the binary of ‘traditional’ versus ‘modern’ which besets representations of CaLD communities and individuals, a binary mobilised by both the mainstream media and her father’s family alike, to the detriment of Muslim and Arab women).

Haydar identifies the ‘double bind’ that Muslim woman activists and survivors of gendered abuse often find themselves in of having to fend off Islamphobia on the one hand and to challenge patriarchy in their own communities on the other (304). This can result in self-censorship and a reluctance on the part of Muslim and Arab women to ‘share their truth freely’ (304). Haydar’s memoir makes an important contribution to Australian public life in countering this silence and I urge all Australians to buy and read this important book. Beautifully-written, intelligent and passionate, The Mother Wound is profoundly moving in its bravery and breathtakingly astute in its analysis of the operations of race, gender and class. It makes a paradigm-shifting contribution to the genre of life-writing and memoir in Australia.

In the course of reading this book I enthusiastically recommended it to a number of white friends and colleagues. It elicited virtually the same response: ‘oh, that sounds a bit grim’. Why are some things just too unpalatable for white readers? Haydar talks a lot about the lack – in the period following her mother’s death – of the recognition of and adequate ethical responses to her and her sisters’ grief: from her father’s family, the community, the mainstream media and other actors. The book forcefully draws my attention to a significant component of toxic whiteness – its refusal to acknowledge and commemorate the griefs of minoritised peoples and respectfully accord them mainstream space in public culture.

If Amani Haydar’s memoir is a commemoration of her mother and her untimely passing before she had time to realise the many different goals and ambitions of her public and private life, it is also a gesture to her grandmother and her shocking death in the South Lebanon conflict some years earlier. Haydar’s Teta was in a civilian convoy of three vehicles travelling through the countryside to escape shelling when they are killed in an apparently inexplicable Israeli drone attack. As one of her relatives stated: ‘there was nothing around the area where we were attacked, only fruit orchards – no people and no fighters. It was an empty area… we were clearly civilians, we had white flags’ (69).

Haydar meditates on the fact that the mortalities occasioned by war can leave people with a feeling of helplessness, and the sense that there is no recourse to justice. In her work as a lawyer she had attended a workshop on the investigation of war crimes with lawyers and investigators who had worked at the Hague Convention. She found the statistics of civilian mortalities particularly disturbing; ‘In modern warfare it is estimated that eighty per cent of casualties are civilians and seventy per cent of those civilians are estimated to be women and children’ (54). The rationale of ‘acceptable collateral in military operation[s]’ (55) was equally disturbing for her, given her family history. As the only Arab in the room at the workshop she was acutely aware that her own proximity to the Israeli-Lebanese war made her uncomfortable and distressed with the approach of the workshop to this material on civilian deaths which was on occasion cheerful and even jocular (55).

Haydar’s memoir demonstrates the many ways that war intrudes into diasporic peoples’ lives, not just in professional settings like the workshop but also their private living rooms: her family received news of Haydar’s Teta’s death in a tv news report. Hearing of her mother’s violent death with no warning in this way was deeply traumatic for Haydar’s mother and other family members (61). Haydar’s memoir raises the question for me: how can space be made in the national social imaginary (beyond the significant memorials in local communities) for the commemoration of those wars from which diasporic Australians have fled? The memory of these wars already exist within the memories of individuals and collectives; how can they be recognised at the national level?

In its dual homily to her mother’s and grandmother’s untimely deaths, The Mother’s Wound forensically analyses the intertwining of gender and violence in both the settings of the private home and in warfare. It aims to record truths that often remain unrecognised and unacknowledged. This analytical and memorial work comes at a cost. Haydar describes her acute sensitivity to war and violence; even watching the normalised stream of violence on mainstream tv provokes anxiety in her. The imagery is overwhelmingly immediate, real and ‘fleshy’ (129), reminding her inescapably of ‘a heightened sense of [her] own mortality, and the mortality of those around [her]’ (129). She describes numerous occasions when journalists and other people seeking to report on and commodify the grief of Haydar’s family (on the occasions of both her mother’s and her grandmother’s egregious deaths), showed little ethical awareness of and response to Haydar’s and her sisters’ grief. These anecdotes about normalised invisibility of minoritised people’s suffering make me as a middle-class white woman very much aware of the risk Haydar exposes herself to in offering her story to a variety of readers and audiences; and of my own responsibility to try to avoid contributing to this violence and harm.

Haydar insists that in spite of their violent deaths her mother and grandmother were strong women. Although she was indisputably the victim of wrong doing her mother was not only a victim but also a courageous and loving woman, an activist who ‘fought misogyny’ (93) and who left a legacy of resilience, intelligence and helping others (254). In bearing witness to the stories of her mother and grandmother Haydar herself celebrates the spiritual resources of gratitude, faith and joy (307) which sustained her during her writing of the memoir as well as her art practice, her family, community and her activism as a survivor-advocate.

 

ANNE BREWSTER is Honorary Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. Her books include Giving This Country a Memory: Contemporary Aboriginal Voices of Australia, (2015), Literary Formations: Postcoloniality, Nationalism, Globalism (1996) and Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiography (1995, 2015). She is series editor for Australian Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives