James Gobbey reviews Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar

Martyr!

by Kaveh Akbar

Pan Macmillan

ISBN: 9781035026074

Reviewed by JAMES GOBBEY
 

If the mortal sin of the suicide is greed, to hoard stillness and calm for yourself while dispersing your riotous internal pain among those that survive you, then the mortal sin of the martyr must be pride, the vanity, the hubris to believe not only that your death could mean more than your living, but that your death could mean more than death itself—which, because it is inevitable, means nothing.
(250)

Dying is individual, but death punctures the social, diffusing its impacts among those that remain. Martyr! then asks: is there meaning to be found in death? What lives on with the people that remain? What makes a martyr?

Kaveh Akbar’s debut novel, Martyr!, sees the established Iranian-American poet turn his attention to a new form. His novel asks uncomfortable questions in the name of identity and grief, culminating in a work that attests to the singular devastations that make up collective loss. And yet, despite a fascination with the lingering potential of death, Akbar achieves a lightness that lifts his novel beyond simple pessimism.

Martyr!’s focal character, Cyrus Shams, is surrounded by death. It permeates his life: he works at a hospital, playing sick for medical students to practice counselling the terminal; he is a recovering addict, sure that every day of sobriety is a day of life he should never have seen; he is haunted by the memory of his mother’s murder in the downing of a commercial flight by a US navy cruiser. All of this death culminates in Cyrus’s fixation with, and desire to begin writing on, martyrdom.

The above extract, ruminating on the sins of suicide and the martyr, forms part of Cyrus’s work-in-progress: “BOOKOFMARTYRS.” This book helps structure Akbar’s novel, seeing the inclusion of poetry dedicated to famous martyrs, as well as passages of essayistic prose. These textual interludes feature at the turn of each chapter, alternating to also include transcripts, emails, and further details surrounding the flight on which Roya Shams lost her life. Because, ultimately, it is the ongoing impacts of Roya’s death that drive much of this novel. 

Roya’s death is folded into the missile attack of Iran Air flight 655 by the USS Vincennes in 1988, which resulted in the murder of 290 civilians. The public memory of this attack is a site of contestation between Iran and the United States. In an interview with Nylon, Akbar explains, “When you say the Vincennes incident, people of a certain age will furrow their brows. It’ll sound vaguely familiar, but they won’t remember 290 innocent lives shot out of the sky. I’m fascinated by that. In Iran, they put it on postage stamps. They propagandize it. I’m fascinated by that, too.” The propagandization of flight 655 serves to make the civilians killed into martyrs. Their deaths assert the indiscriminate nature of the United States war machine, particularly when held against the failing memory of the United States public. In the aftermath of the downing of Iran Air flight 655, these deaths are given an ulterior meaning. 

For Cyrus, this moment of tragedy is a starting point. When asked about the kind of book he conceives of “BOOKOFMARTYRS” being, Cyrus explains: 

My whole life I’ve thought about my mom on that flight, how meaningless her death was … The difference between 290 dead and 289. It’s actuarial. Not even tragic, you know? So was she a martyr? There has to be a definition of the word that can accommodate her. That’s what I’m after. (75). 

Cyrus initially determines his mother’s death to be without meaning—simply a number among many. And although we must reconcile that Roya’s death is “not legible to empire” (75), this novel expounds a more expansive view of the potential meanings that death can carry. 

Foremost, Martyr! is a novel that takes the individual loss present in mass death and inspects it. Because, on some level, Cyrus is right. How do we feel the difference between 289 and 290 deaths? Rather than succumbing to the generalised negativity of significant loss, this novel takes a step forward to invigorate the connectivity of a single life—one marred by tragedy on a mass scale. 

I purposefully call Cyrus the focal character of this novel. It is a simplification to call him the protagonist—or even the main character. Martyr! uses Cyrus as a centre from which to work outwards, extending from him to offer life and voice to surrounding people and characters. Primarily, these voices belong to family and friends, but genuine martyred lives are also evoked: namely those of Bobby Sands, Bhagat Singh, Hypatia of Alexandria, and Qu Yuan. These martyrs each feature as poetic subjects of “BOOKOFMARTYRS,” their historic deaths speaking to Cyrus’s negotiations with his own time and identity. Bobby Sands, for instance, has a poem written to him that begins: 

there’s a Bobby Sands Street in Tehran

one block over from Ferdowsi Avenue, 

that’s true, Ireland, Iran, interchangeable mythos
(97)

This poem binds Ireland and Iran, recognising their shared suffering at the hands of colonial powers; it draws together Sands and Ferdowsi—a Persian poet whose story is later retold in Martyr!—creating a textual crossroads at which the two meet. Through Cyrus, through his human ties and writing on martyrdom, a world of active social ties is revealed. 

The connectivity of Martyr! rejects the individualism that separates us from others, perpetuating apathy. In Akbar’s novel, the relationships that spring from Cyrus allow us to feel more. Throughout the novel we touch on the real lives of martyrs, but we also encounter Cyrus’s family and friends. We meet Ali, Cyrus’s father, who made ends meet throughout Cyrus’s childhood by working on a chicken farm; Arash, Cyrus’s uncle, whose time in the Iranian army was spent riding through fields of the dying dressed as an angel of death; and it is through chapters and passages such as these that we meet a clearer version of Roya, unaltered by the filter of Cyrus’s faded childhood memories—a woman who reveals, “I never really loved being alive” (145). These affecting connections extend to include others important to Cyrus: his best friend Zee, and the Iranian artist, Orkideh, whose imminent death becomes an art installation. By allowing the presence of this whole network of characters, we become more able to comprehend the dispersal of feeling that takes place when loss occurs. 

Akbar does something vital in his depictions of social connectivity. He allows these characters the use of their own voices, rather than limiting them to the details known by Cyrus. Formally, as the novel shifts between characters, the point-of-view changes from its standard third-person to a more transparent first-person. While Cyrus is the centre through which we come to each of these characters, access to their experiences—their emotions—occurs through their own words. From this use of voice, these characters each come to exist as the centre of their own worlds, not exclusively the periphery of Cyrus’s, establishing the reality of their own personal connections, and a network that expands on and on. 

This connectivity, this network of people who know and feel for each other to varying degrees, is how we come to parse through the distinct losses that make up mass grief. Martyr! does not deal with the problem of mass death—with the difference between 289 and 290—but it does create the space for us to feel the expansiveness of a single death, and from there we can begin to imagine the social impact of death on a large scale. 

The expansive network depicted in Akbar’s debut novel alters how we come to understand the martyr, though perhaps creating more questions than answers. Finishing Martyr! I wonder if connection, if closeness, is one of the ways in which martyrs create meaning in death? Martyrdom does not exist in isolation: it holds meaning because of the life lost, and, crucially, the lives impacted. Cyrus Shams asserts that death, “because it is inevitable, means nothing.” But, death carries weight for those that remain. Grief is a testament to the life that did exist. Death’s inevitability does not necessitate the loss of meaning, rather meaning lives on with those that remain. 

There is also something else buried in claims that death means nothing. Consider the civilian deaths of Iran Air flight 655: the grief felt for the victims; the meaning attributed to their lives; the violence of the US—none of this should be lessened by death’s inevitability. As state sanctioned mass murder continues in Gaza, we cannot say that death means nothing. To disregard the significance of death is to render oppressive systems acceptable, and, ultimately, this undermines the social world that connects us. 

 

Works Cited:

Akbar, Kaveh. Martyr!. Picador, 2024. 

Akbar, Kaveh. “In Martyr! Kaveh Akbar Is Thinking About Eternity.” Interview by Sophia June, Nylon, 2 Feb. 2024, https://www.nylon.com/life/kaveh-akbar-martyr-interview.

JAMES GOBBEY (he/him) is a writer and bookseller from lutruwita/Tasmania. His work has previously been published by Aniko Press and Togatus Magazine.

Misbah Wolf reviews Moon Wrasse by Willo Drummond

Moon Wrasse

by Willo Drummond

Puncher and Wattmann

ISBN 1922571679

Review by MISBAH WOLF


When I first picked up Willo Drummond’s debut poetry collection, Moon Wrasse, I was torn between a deep panic of knowing I wanted to become mixed up in the muck, blood, and bloom of the work and wanting to also turn away from the words. Words are spells. Words are little invisible ties between what is captured and what is lost, and somehow, as if by magick, portals are opened for us to walk through. In a true sense, this is an offering from Drummond of a portal of initiation—you choose which kind—one you’ve already been in parallel with, one you have no memory of, or one you care enough to walk along with to experience and become more completely human.

I opened the book to the poem ‘Seed’ which, in a sense, introduces what I see as a quartet of work. I read;

At this season’s out-swelling
after the mangrove moon
she sets her grief in a small seed pod.
(7)

 I, myself, had been dealing with ‘unexplained infertility of ten years, and I wasn’t ready to read it, but the book called out for a conversation with me. I recognized it within my own immediate framework as a book of invisible connective tissue, a witch’s book of shadows, both literary and psychic, between the dead, the dreaming, grief, the acute attention to the breath of things and the indexing of transformations. This is a book where surfaces appear deeper once immersed, where continual intertextuality adds further dimensions, and no energy is ever lost since all is transmuted. A pause must be taken, and a return, like a Joseph Campbell Hero/Heroine, is undertaken; 

She’s looking for
a future to enframe the past

as it exceeds
it. Flickering familiar
like the pulse
of being needed.
(7)

Reading this work, I was able to chart a ship in the shadows of Drummond’s glorious book—through my own grief over childlessness, my estrangement from others/lovers, my deep love for ecology, for the mud and muck of various things I have lost, found, and re-imagined. These things grow in Drummond’s poetry through mud and shadow like mother mangroves, endangered blooms, and conversations with visceral transformations under ‘dappled light. (60) Such love is to be invoked in the poem “Moon Wrasse” where the narrative etches through the shifting cycling as a lover/other/self that is;

here, moving in
our translucent
cocoon
‘self-made’ and safe
as houses— (60)
It is an homage to great love transforming and witnessing the beloved’s
new lucency—
clear as the blue
of your new man suit
                                sweet as the day
                               true as the day (60)  

This enamoured lover/narrator bears witness/encourages and celebrates this alchemical corporeality with tender reassurance in this delicate liminal space, 

holding hands
like younger lovers
in a film
in a dream.” (60)

The shape of the month as I read this work was also colored by other books at the same time. Fitting for such a book that plays, converses, and returns to dialogue entries, quotes, and habits of other poets and writers. Rest assured, Drummond includes notes about particular moments, words or passages from other writers in this book to show how interwoven and entangled this book is with others’ work. In The Childless Witch, Camelia Elias says: ‘The age we live in is, indeed, no longer an age of lamentation. We lost that art long ago’ (Elias, 2020). The reason I’m including this quote from Elias is that Moon Wrasse has developed a very delicate language of lamentation, with images of ‘striking,’ ‘scraping,’ and ‘digging,’ further propelled after Louise Glück—as in Drummond’s ‘The Act of Making,’ (11) using techniques of alliteration, words beating against each other, switching to words that require the tongue to be pushed gently through lips—there is a feeling when reading this poem and many like this, of incanting. In ‘The Act of Making,’ Willo Drummond employs a rich array of poetic techniques that enhance its incantatory quality. Vivid imagery and sensory language, such as ‘gardens fecund with memory'(11) and ‘imagined blooms heavy with the scent of hope,'(11) create an immersive experience, while enjambment ensures a seamless flow between lines, propelling the reader forward, as in 

          .How can you bear
so many imagined blooms heavy with the scent of hope
let go? (11)

The use of repetition and parallelism, like ‘day after day,’ adds musicality, and the alliteration and assonance in phrases such as ‘fluffed intentions’ and ‘solitary bees’ create pleasing sound patterns that my mouth wants to vocalise. Caesura introduces rhythmic breaks for emphasis/division/rupture of grief; 

                  Unwomanly. Bent queen
brimful of love shame with nowhere to dig
in (11) 

Also, the sharp juxtaposition of contrasting ideas, such as ‘love/shame’ and ‘hope/let go,’ deepens the poem’s emotional impact. Symbolism, unconventional syntax, and strategic line breaks contribute to the poem’s unique rhythm and pace, while personification and metaphor, like ‘remembrance scratches your knuckles’ and ‘bees hover, uncertain,’ imbue the poem with lyrical depth. These elements combine to make Drummond’s poem feel rhythmical and lyrical, making me want to read it out loud. And I do speak them and it is a pleasure to let the words slip and pause between my teeth and tongue.

We can look further into such poems as ‘Note to Self (in Novel Times)’ that inscribes like graffiti on an ancient/new wall to a future/past/now self, on a fridge pinned up by magnets to;

Remember to love
the world. Love
the wailing, rolling world;
the air; the wildness
of wind lifting a million kites
of change (72) 

Such a poem circles back through voice, through lamenting, through oracle (as Earth) as change always present to call one back home. In The Childless Witch, Elias also reframes such a being as ‘able to cast a powerful spell of movement, a movement that goes from trembling, to dance, to the use of voice, the oracle and a state of grace’ (Elias, 2020). Looking through Drummond’s book, these states of ecstatic magic—shadowy and bright—are evident in the language and invocations that run rife throughout this collection. There is a language of lamentation here, as previously suggested—of that which will not grow among the commonly seen, and offers instead the witch’s second sight such as in the poem ‘Ways of Seeing.’ This narrator is pensive with ‘portents’- where moon cycles are traced and named; 

While others turn with such precision,
radiant orbs—content
filled—I dream of conjunctions
luminous alignments
stackings of hope  (20)

This second sight seems always pensively aware of the delicate nature of life in ‘The Art of Making’ that we as readers intrude/bear witness/are gathered round to see ‘Somewhere, a ghost orchid blooms’ (12) This rare orchid/child/being blooms only once a year, pollinated by mimicking male sphinx moths deep in forests where it sucks the moisture from the air.

With this invitation from Elias—’trembling, dance, voice, oracle, and grace’ resound through Drummond’s work. There is even a further complexity established by which Drummond records in her notes at the back of Moon Wrasse that the line from the poem ‘Seed’, 

where what cannot be
is (8) 

gestures to Jennifer Moxley’s claim that ‘lyrical utterances record voices structurally barred from social and political power.’ (Drummond, 76). This first poem is set adrift from the four sections as a poem in motion, of coming up from elsewhere by will; 

here in the lyric tense

she stills to witness
each furred pod/
gain its wild purpose— (7) 

This feels like an invocation to voice, to the tiny seed to speak its will, to inscribe and to create. Again, a voice unheard/heard is set in motion in ‘Sail,’ where the other’s silent voice is;

voice, a gaping mouth, calls
from a crack in the world: desolate
wind, sweep my knowledge
into oblivion, drop me back
into the well. (21)

Read it aloud, read it softly and it could well be the words of shamed/guilty/lamenting Medea, such a misunderstood and maligned witch, also a favourite childless witch of discussion for Elias. (Elias, 85)

I have enjoyed framing Drummond’s work as part of a Quartet, a story perhaps like a cycle connected in four parts, likened to the four major phases of the moon—the new moon, the first quarter, the full moon, and the last quarter—because so much of the work makes invitations, invocations, and references to the moon. In Drummond’s section ‘The Art of Losing,‘ ‘Of Finding and Not Finding Levertov,’ ‘Forming and Transforming,’ and ‘Arriving,’ why not take this as a template, traversing phases of the moon? Considering that in my reading, I felt poetic tidal shifts under the witch’s tools of moonlight and water, whether inscribed as bodies, mangroves, fish in moonlight, or rare blooms sucking at the mist. I enjoy mysteries and puzzles and esoterica, so I have dug into this deep pleasure in making these connections through the language or merely literary pareidolia. But there are clues to make such connections, such as mention of the ‘spun to song of sun played at waning moon(61) in ‘A Promontory/A Memory,’ and, of course, the poem ‘Moon Wrasse’—the fish that changes sex to mate and has a crescent moon on the caudal fin, the energy of such seems to suggest a letting go of what has been and finding hope in a ‘translucent cocoon'(21) moving towards the new moon. The new moon is, of course, the dark unseen moon. It is the place that calls for presence and to explore the unseen, and I pose that this is the beginning phase we enter from the start of the book, with poems that seem to scry into the unseen. Considering the first poem ‘Seed’ moves from the lines; 

In waning luminescence
on the aqua-terrestrial shore

she trains her eye
to velvet vivipary
on very salty water

She’s looking for
a future
to enframe the past
as it exceeds it. (7) 

It is the entrance towards the darkness of the new moon in the first quarter ‘The Art of Losing.’ In the new moon phase, there is no visible moon in the sky, and it is the time to explore the unseen, to call for presence, and to stretch the grief unfathomable into song and poetry.

The first poem of this quarter, “The Act of Making,” is indeed what Camelia Elias calls ‘the lost art of lamentation’(Elias, 15),  again inscribing vividly with a question; 

How can you bear
so many imagined blooms heavy with the scent of hope
 let go?” (11) 

Set behind this poem is hauntingly Glück’s ‘The Wild Iris’ (“Hear me out: that which you call death I remember”) like the wild Iris, reborn, returning from dissolution to ‘find a voice’—here Drummond masterfully extends the deep mystery of Glück’s poem of death and rebirth, and continues the esoterically charged moment to look for portents, to have knowledge of the rare ghost orchid ready to be born.

In this first quartet too, ‘Up to Our Knees in It’ explores the unseen mother mangrove beneath the surface, extending and connecting, living anywhere despite the ‘cinema seats and soft drink cans (15) thrown into the waters.

Furthermore, Drummond’s poetry, particularly in the sequence ‘The Rilke Index’ and ‘Open Secret,’ showcases a profound engagement with the poetics of Rilke and Levertov. By using index items as titles and integrating verbatim citations, Drummond creates a rich intertextual dialogue. This approach pays homage to Levertov’s method of personal indexing and underscores Rilke’s enduring influence on Levertov’s work, which in turn feeds and nourishes Drummond’s. The titles and substantive material, marked by italics for Rilke and inverted commas for Levertov, reflect a meticulous synthesis of response, citation, and allusion (Drummond, 2021).

Central to Drummond’s poetry is the theme of attention and participation, echoing Rilke’s poetics. In ‘The Rilke Index,’ phrases such as ‘True singing/ is a whispering’ (35) andIt hums along the avenue of original grief polished as a stone’ which highlight the importance of quiet, attentive engagement with the world (Drummond, 2021). Similarly, ‘Open Secret’ uses the imagery of a Peltops singing her inwardness to suggest a deep, participatory observation of nature.

Drummond’s work exemplifies Rilke’s Ding or thing poetics through its focus on sensory, concrete experiences. The detailed imagery in ‘The Rilke Index’ and the tangible descriptions in ‘Open Secret’ underscore the importance of observing and interacting with the material world. This attention to the physicality of things aligns with Rilke’s belief that true insight comes from an intense, participatory observation of one’s surroundings.

Reflecting deeply on the nature of creation and the self, Drummond’s poems reveal a continuous journey of self-discovery. ‘The Rilke Index’ and ‘Open Secret’ meditate on the interconnectedness of self and creativity, suggesting a composite identity shaped by various influences. Drummond’s imagery, such as ‘the owl afloat, the white egret’ andthe blood, the plough, the furrows made,’ captures the essence of seeing with ‘second sight,’ a deeper, intuitive understanding of the world (Drummond, 2021). This second sight is the sight of the witch, the seer, the being that dares, even when nothing necessarily will come of it—to look and to record presence/absence. Not only is second sight present here, but also the Owl—the totem of Hecate—Queen of Witches, and the action of tilling the land with blood and earth, much like the ingredients for a spell.

Willo Drummond’s poetry collection extends the poetics of Rilke and Levertov, emphasizing immersive conversations with the world—the unravelling power of careful observation and recordings. This work also creates carefully layered, intertextual dialogues. These inscriptions highlight the profound connection between self/other, the environment/body, second sight/inscription—all of which is the (witch’s) work of invocation with moon, of birth, death, rebirth, of longing (and the language of lamenting), and a complete presence of ritual observation, a conversation with invisible/visible forces transmuting. This book is an homage to love and magick and finding ways to reinscribe very necessary and vital voices and existences that have slipped/been silenced/written over/unpublished/forgotten. But it is also more than an homage—it is script that spells out the nature of time, looks closely at the Fibonacci spiral of bodies in presence with each other, of lamentation and joy rupturing through—detailed and woven with the echoes of other writers and poets, insistently in deep relationship to ecology, to the unseen dance of interconnection, such as the spellcasting in ‘All of it’ as ‘an ecology of selves’ (67) which with tremulous blooms/hands/words/voices reimagined worlds, relationships and love.

References:

Drummond, W. (2021). The Rilke Index. TEXT Special Issue 64: Poetry Now, eds. Jessica L. Wilkinson, Cassandra Atherton & Sarah Holland-Batt.

Drummond, W. (2023).  Moon Wrasse. Puncher & Wattmann. 

Elias, C. (2020). The Childless Witch: Trembling, dance, voice, oracle, grace. EyeCorner Press. ISBN 978-87-92633-57-6.

 

Javaria Farooqui reviews The Djinn Hunters by Nadia Niaz

The Djinn Hunters

By Nadia Niaz

Hunter Publishers

ISBN: 978-0-6453366-9-6

Reviewed by JAVARIA FAROOQUI 


The Djinn Hunters
is a literary fusion of colours, words, shapes, and heritage, which has been carefully crafted in very interesting and distinct poetic styles. Nadia Niaz plays with the strands of her memories of Lahore to build evocative narratives in the short space of her poems, which occasionally carry elements of horror and the uncanny. Each of her fifty-one poems in this collection exhibits a wide range of expression and literary finesse that provides a refreshing, consistently engaging reading experience. 

The horror in The Djinn Hunters is not meant to surprise the readers into a terrifying shock, rather it aims to disturb the very core of everyday existence. The first poem, “A Map of Mothers,” is primarily about the transmission of traits from female ancestors and the genetic inheritance that spans generations. However, Niaz’s dexterous use of simple words infiltrates the generational story line, unsettling readers with the image of grandmother and great-grandmothers haunting the voice of the persona. Absence of punctuation not only scaffolds the sense of continuity but also a deep feeling of horror:

I carry my mother in my mouth
in teeth and warm
bladed tongue

one grandmother, long absent
haunts my speckled skin
the rhythm of my feet

the other finds herself
in the set of my chin
the stubborn song in my belly
(1)

The poem starts with the imagery of carrying the mother in one’s mouth and concludes with varied maternal legacies interweaving and moving towards a surreal and ambiguous sense of belonging. The absence of pauses around “home” emphasizes the continuous evolution of human inheritance and gestures towards the uncanny behind the word that mostly signals safety and surety. The way in which the poem moves forward accentuates the haunting presence of ancestors within an individual’s identity, reminding us of pasts that perpetually influence the present:

great-grandmothers twine
in my hair, lurk in my bones
score my palms with their directions

each one pulling a different way
each one pointing towards home
(1)

 

The collection boldly utilizes poetic forms that blend verse and prose in engaging ways. The experimentation with form sometimes includes lines of varying lengths or concrete shapes, or some visually absorbing style like the one used in “A Dream of Daadi’s Paan Daan.” The consumption of paan, a mouth refreshment made from betel leaf popular in South Asia, has strong associations of tradition and culture. The paan holder, or paan daan, has a significant material value because of its association with the elders in South Asian households, and as such it symbolizes a sense of cultural rootedness and refinement. Niaz enhances this cultural reference by incorporating a unique visual element in her poetry. She prints four words, “roll,” “chew,” “spit,” and “fold” in grey ink behind the main text in black, inviting readers to decipher the entire process of paan consumption that involves rolling and folding the leaf, chewing the leaf, and spitting out the excess red substance (3). This creative approach not only adds depth to the poem but also engages readers in an interactive exploration of cultural heritage. 

The Djinn Hunters extends its thematic reach well beyond its primary focus on djinns and a distinct sense of horror, to present a rich tapestry of different subjects. As a native of Lahore, I found Niaz’s striking and picturesque descriptions of the city’s sights, sounds, and smells particularly resonant and evocative. She manages to capture the essence of Lahore with meticulously crafted sensory details that allow readers to become part of the vibrant atmosphere displayed on the page:

The corners of this city sag under stories of generations
more numerous than the grains of imported sand lining
its avenues poised to be mixed into concrete buildings
(“Fine Aggregate” 23)

Heritage, continuity, culture, and belonging are the themes that run throughout this collection and scaffold the stylistic experimentations. There are sub themes of romance, politics, and feminism that emerge from the crafted verses in the form of powerful statements and images. For example, in the poem quoted above, a simile of pomegranate is used for young women walking on the streets:

Young women wander under strict instructions to stay close
crowded as pomegranate seeds, skins leathered against leers while
their mothers pick stones from rice and dhal and swallow smoke
(23)

The mothers and the young women are bound by traditional roles and surrounded by misogyny. In this collection of poems, Niaz often juxtaposes the push and pull of cultural and heritage to paint the ways in which women are marginalized in patriarchal societies. “August in Lahore” questions the socio-economic class divisions and the misogynist attitudes prevalent in Pakistani society. While the boys from the lower working class have the freedom to “dive” in the dirty canal, upper-middle-class college girls keep sweating profusely in their modest outfits of “starched muslins and lawns” (20). The socio-economic class of the characters in the poem is determined by the “burned earth brown” bodies of the boys and their usage of the city’s “filthy oasis” to find relief from hot weather, and the connection of cars and cell phones with the girls (20). The four stanzas of the poem are precisely divided into six lines, which consist of a single sentence that duly ends with a full stop, representing the restricted existence of young women. The young woman who is traveling in cars and studying in colleges gets to listen to the humble start of her father who used to swim in the canal like the boys. The classed and gendered differences between the boys and the female protagonist in the poems are emphasized when the girl’s father looks back at the freedom and lack of social capital in his youth but makes “no wish” for the daughter to experience something similar. The “filthy oasis” of the city’s “refuse” in which the boys are swimming implies a disadvantage and a reduction, which finds an echo in the feeling of “drowning” that envelops the upper-middle-class privileged woman. She is wrapped in “days” that are like a “wet sackcloth, a dragging, dripping/weight that air-conditioning cannot lift” (20). The extended metaphor of “filthy ocean” epitomizes the socio-economic and gendered restrictions in a patriarchal and underdeveloped country.

The Djinn Hunters finds its pace in the exploration of the human and extra-human existence. The collection presents temporal reflections on heritage, culinary practices, cultural rituals, and the nuances of different spatiotemporal settings. Niaz experiments with a wide range of literary forms in this book, taking considerable creative chances. Her methods include visual construction of landscapes of words, code-switching to Urdu, and inclusion of Pakistani locales and subtle cultural differences without any explanation for the intended global readership. Her willingness to push limits and provide readers with a diverse and multicultural experience is evident in these daring stylistic choices. Readers can indulge in the The Djinn Hunters experience for leisure reading purposes or choose to let the book take them on a literary journey. In either case, it will provide them with new insights and coerce them to view the world through an inclusive lens with literary sophistication. 

 

Dr JAVARIA FAROOQUI holds a PhD from the University of Tasmania, Australia, and works at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus, Pakistan. Her recent book, Romance Fandom in 21st-Century Pakistan: Reading the Regency, is forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic.

Holly Friedlander Liddicoat reviews meditations with passing water by Jake Goetz

meditations with passing water

Jake Goetz

Rabbit Poetry

Reviewed by HOLLY FRIEDLANDER LIDDICOAT
 
 
 

It’s a sophisticated piece of work that imparts its subject matter through its form. This is what I distinctly remember from first reading Jake Goetz’s ‘meditations with passing water’, in one sitting, in 2018, and what still rings true on re-reading five years later. The opening lines flow and hum like currents—lines jut out from left to right, lap at page edges, then recede. Their layout instantly brings to mind gentle river waves. This flow-form continues throughout, a steady constant.

flexing against sky
ripples of sun and cloud
      knead through greens
and browns
(3)

‘meditations with passing water’ is a series of four long poems that chart experiences of the Maiwar (Brisbane River). It is not an exhaustive history. I’ve often referred to it as a book-poem in four parts, but Jake has just as often disagreed with me. In both ways, the poem-parts connect to share the river’s stories—focusing on contemporary experiences of the Maiwar, juxtaposed with British colonisation and its enduring legacy for both the traditional custodians, primarily the Jagera and Turrbal peoples of the Brisbane catchment, and others that live at its shores. As a Sydneysider living in Brisbane at the time of writing, Jake explores the river’s ‘mutterings’ by using the psychogeographical concept of dérive, undertaking many unplanned journeys through the landscape and juxtaposing these with text from scientific textbooks, found texts, newspaper articles, texts on First Nations and colonial history, and John Oxley’s 1823 Governor Report.

As a title, ‘meditations with passing water’ captures the book’s essence. If you get a chance to hear Jake read from this work, his aural performance adds further depth—the gentle, slow readings of each line lull you along the river, where you are buoyed by sound and feel. The form underpins the meditative feeling—the narrator is always meandering along the river bank, watching, “a group of Kiwis swimming in T-shirts / smoking cigarettes” (4), “each apartment Coles pram-pushing mother” (7), “two bottles of XXXX / covered in mud” (13). River as meditation. Walking along river as meditation. Sound of lapping water as meditation. 

Yet the idea of a river’s meditative calmness is juxtaposed with meditation’s truest aim—the making of mental space to find deeper meaning. What does a river do? It feeds. It houses. It runs. It stagnates. It floods. It dries up. It sustains and kills fish. It dreams. It divides. It’s the graveyard for trolleys, bodies, tires, oily mess. “it carries / the syntax of the city / on its back (30).” As a receiver of human decisions, it tells a thing about a psyche.

Jake finds our psyche by contrasting contemporary experiences of the Maiwar and its western archives. In the here and now, Brisbanites jog along it; donut, jetski and boat on it; suicide into it; as plastic bottles bob forever alongside. Its is very Brisbane—through its named local heroes (Uncle Sam Watson, Darren Lockyer, David Malouf, (Ken) Bolton, a little (Liam) Ferneyian experience) and unnamed. Brand names are markers of ongoing colonisation and signal the omnipresence of capitalism—they are always popping up, always visible, mostly because they are literally towering over the river (Meriton, Santos, Telstra, Suncorp, Mercure, Marvel). The branding of housing (Mercure, Meriton) and “RIVERFRONT APARTMENTS COMING SOON” (32), “ZEN cranes meditating on apartments” (20) showing it’s all for sale. Company omnipresence grates uncomfortably against ‘corporate responsibilities’—for example the 2017 newspaper text reporting our once national darling, Qantas, letting 22,000 litres of toxic foam flow into the Maiwar.

for what is Brisbane as a river
      but that man
            holding a signed figurine
      of Darren Lockyer
            in his hands
Gold Coast bound on origin night
(21)

Contrasting this with historical markers, Jake returns to concrete form, carving whole rivers of negative space out of colonial archives. The balance of archival poetics with the everyday is what makes this book exciting and accessible to a contemporary reader. In the second poem-part, “Highgate Hill to Hamilton / The Flood of 1823”, Jake quotes from John Oxley’s early recordings of his ‘discovery’ of the Brisbane River. Textually, distinct images of tributaries are carved out of text blocks. These concrete images, over and over again, reinforce that this is a poem-book about a river. And then, throughout the section, the river overpowers language, the source text becoming harder and harder to read. By removing more and more words from the original text to create the engorged river-image, the historical narrative becomes corrupted by the river—the Maiwar charting its own course regardless, reinforcing its place. 

As contemporary readers, we keenly feel the irony of the chosen text, the instability of western logic. “There was no appearance / of the River being / even occasionally flooded” (30). And yet in 1893, “Sunday morning in Brisbane never dawned / on so much desolation” (53). And then again, we now know, in 1974. 2011. 2022. With climate change and increased urban density, the risk of extreme flooding is likely to increase. History as teacher is being degraded, words harder and harder to read, the meaning murkier, the bottom difficult to see—“the negation / of knowledge / of progress / of the fixity of things” (29). As the greens turn to brown, we are threatened by our inability to see and act clearly—“a culture is no better than its woods (Auden)” (54).

the rise  to work   and fall as a city
that forms around   across   beneath
beyond yet
always from this river
(54)

To find ultimate meaning through meditation you must sit through the discomfort. Meditation is intensely challenging—your body hurts as you sit for long periods unable to move, your mind shrieks at you that you can’t do it, while sometimes being in the stillness releases all negative thoughts—and the point is to sit and breathe anyway. Like a sore body, the collection offers an uneasy feeling of place, “being from a nation / on a groaning earth / that fluctuates like an excess of alcohol / in the stomach” (6). Natural disasters are frequent, like the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef (10), cyclones near wrecking ships (27), “I don’t think people are aware / just how bad it is” (11). At the core of this, Jake struggles with what it means to live on unceded Aboriginal land. He moves between reportage about an Aboriginal flag painted on a major intersection as an angry response to gentrification (18), to records of the atrocities committed by early settlers, to asking if he, or “this” (poem?) has “ruined it”—the idea of “country as myth” (29).

That discomfort is metaphor for life, and meditation teaches that reconciling with that feeling is a path to freedom. This is the real heart of the book—that by delving into the discomfort/shrieking feeling of colonial impacts we can perhaps find a deeper truth. Perhaps a different way of engaging. Jake is not overtly didactic. But history is, if we allow it. The discomforting (more than discomforting) reality is the destruction our nation was built on, the myth like life buoy we settlers cling on to, and the destruction of climate that will relegate us to history if we don’t act fast and immediately. The Jagera and Turrbal people consider the Maiwar “the source and support of life in all its dimensions—physical, spiritual, cultural (Gregory 1996, p.2)” (Note on the text, 62). We must reconcile our relationship with Country, with climate, with First Custodians in order to (re)build a wholistic and ongoing life and a new relationship with this place.

Being with this discomfort, being open to change, to other ways of being. To deeply understand the intersections of the river and life, its interconnectedness, the looping in on time and space. The dreaming stories shared, how the first Mairwah (platypus) came to be. The polluting of the river that sustains us. Our complicity in our own destruction, as if we were above and beyond nature “a comfortable residence / smashed against the Victoria Bridge / like an egg in a strong man’s hand” (51). For all of the destruction the river has caused through flood, for all the destruction we cause it and its First Peoples, both offer us other ways of being (“the water was that clear / that we used to have a competition / to find the penny first in amongst the nice clean boulders”) (16). For the convicts that first arrived in Brisbane before Oxley, shipwrecked and lost, the Quandamooka people looked after them. Convict Thomas Pamphlett records that a local man stayed the night to “keep up the fire…” (60) and

            nothing could exceed the kindness with which
                  we had been treated by the natives
who had lodged us in large huts by ourselves
                   and given us as much fish as we could eat
(61)

The ongoing generous, openhanded spirit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country. Our ongoing failure to rise to the invitation of compassion, reconciliation, of truth-telling. Our slow rise and response to what Country, its rivers, are telling. For us to bring our water-particle bodies together as a course for change. ‘meditations with passing water’ does not offer us explicit answers—rather shifts through the Maiwar’s sediment, lays bare the layers for us to see, to feel, and to know.
 
HOLLY FRIEDLANDER LIDDICOAT has previously been published in Cordite, Overland, Rabbit, Southerly, The Lifted Brow and Voiceworks, among others. She’s edited poetry for Voiceworks and the UTS Writers’ Anthology. Rabbit Poetry published her first collection CRAVE, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Mary Gilmore Award. In 2022 she undertook a Bundanon residency and in 2023 her unpublished manuscript Doghouse was shortlisted for the Helen Anne Bell Bequest.

Luoyang Chen reviews The Open by Lucy Van

The Open

by Lucy Van

ISBN: 9780648917601

Cordite Books

Reviewed by LUOYANG CHEN

 
Perth is getting colder and I am getting cold. I am on my way to get some jumpers from Target. Writing this review in my head while walking to the bus stop, I am thinking: This is great. I want to test the limits of this review like Lucy Van tests the limits of poetry in The Open.

With being open comes full disclosure. I disliked Van the first time I saw her. It was early in the morning roughly 5 years ago and it was a poetry lecture on Sappho and O-. For someone like myself who only started eating breakfast about 2 days ago, Van’s monotone was pretty awful, adding agitation to my already agitated mood. I needed something more engaging! As the semester went, I became intimidated by her. Then I wished I were her. And then it was me who cried hysterically in her lecture because of “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”(1), because of Bhanu Kapil’s lying nakedly on the ground, drinking peepees(2), and Ban(3), because of the context of bringing personal experience into reading poetry of others, because of the context of interpersonal and institutional racism. And then, as it went, Lucy sent me an email, offering unconditional support to someone who she barely knows. Because it was not an act of kindness but kindness of an act. I did not reply to her email though because I could not make sense of what it is like to be on the receiving end. Then it was The Open

Gareth Morgan’s review (4) on the “sentence structure” (?) is pretty good. Angelita Biscotti’s take on “open relations”(5) is fantastic. And because they did that I am doing something different. 

Van brings poetry into living, not life into poetry. In The Open, the poet-speaker (or Van herself) narrates stories of her lively interactions with friends, families, strangers, and literature. On the surface level, I would be lying if I say it is not tempting to categorise the book as a travelogue. Melbourne, Perth. Saigon. Wangi… But let’s pretend that it is a travelogue, then poetry is nothing but documentation of descriptions, representations, observations, and self-reflections. This is to say that the poet makes poetry out of their lived experience. This is also to say that life is the raw material for poetry. In this sense, poetry is pretty much dead. That’s cool. What is cooler, though, is that (I feel) that is not what The Open is about. If anything, it is about testing the boundary of poetry, about redefining poetry as a verb, about poetrising (not poeticising) life, about making poetry alive, about making poetry become life. To write better is to live better. 

How to live better? 

For example, one can start, like Van does in the first line that opens the first poem, Hotel Grand Saigon, by brining writing poetry present in the here and now. Van writes: “I have gone back and now I am here” (p.3). Where is she? She is “facing a lifeguard’s chair and a lifesaver” in “a colonial swimming pool” in Saigon. Where did she go? Did her mind travel back to Australia? This first line is genius for its simplicity with great intensity. Ambiguous colonial identity (i.e., being the colonial subject and object at the same time), power imbalance, privilege, guilt, trauma, violence, and history are unleashed in the act of going back and coming here. “I have gone back and now I am here” is vitally apostrophic despite not having an obvious “O”. One way to start living better is to be aware of the background, the system that makes now now and makes here here. But where does poetry have a play in this living? Well, to me, this way of living itself is poetry. It is meaningful. It is aesthetic. It engages with the world. It has at least a point of view, a voice, a poetic technique, a form, a sense of weirdness…

How to live better? 

Van continues in sequence V of Hotel Grand Saigon, wherein she argues for the ethics of writing in her assertive NEVER. She writes, “Never write a poem about a boat. In fact, never translate and never use metaphors. Never use verse to pray for the sight of land nor record the anguish of typhoon season. This is when you leave because no one expects escape under these conditions” (p. 7). What more can I say here? Two things. One: do not write about experiences that are not yours. Two: even if it is your own experience, writing about it does not represent or transform that experience. Bombs are bombs. Typhoon is typhoon. Writing about this might make the writer and the reader feel better, but it can never negate the atrocity of the source of violence. Having said that, what Van does here is writing about not writing it. It seems like Van is unable to reconcile the paradox of this writing/living. However, if The Open is not poetry but life, or The Open is the redefinition of life as poetry, then it makes sense for Van to say NEVER. Because to say is to do. To say NEVER is to NEVER do. 

How to live better?

In her interview with Cher Tan on Liminal, Van said that “tennis is a major structuring principle of The Open”. What is tennis? Van explains,

“Tennis has no time limit. The question, ‘When does the match end?’ makes no sense. Tennis just goes on. Like other things that are real, there is no limit. Except for violations. If you have a problem with this, you don’t like the good tennis” (p. 39).

The Open is tennis! The Open is full of violations. For example, Van uses the real names of the real people. This is a violation of privacy. Another example, Van is an Aussie traveller who does “nothing for [her]self because the workers do everything for [her]” (p. 7). Last example, the life/poem is narrated in Australian English. None of these is Van’s choice. And yet. And yet, understanding these violations and the attempt of trying to reconcile these violations are present throughout the moments of life. And because I have no problem with this, nor does Van, The Open is a good tennis, good poetry, good life. 

I want to return to Van’s kindness, to my interactions with her. We never really spoke in person. In fact, we barely message each other over social media. To some extent, I am still intimidated by her. From another angle, I feel like she is a kin to me. But this is pure fantasy and imagination and it is full of this “I”. Van would probably think: What the hell. But consider this a violation.


Notes

1. This is a poem by Ocean Vuong.
2. To share the bodily experience of what it is like to witness and then experience racism in her childhood (i.e., a white-supremacist youth used to wake up very early in the morning so he could urinate into the milk bottles of Bhanu’s Gujrati and Kenyan neighbours), Bhanu Kapil drank her urine in front of a live audience at Harvard University in 2015. A recording of this performance can be found on YouTube
3. Ban is Ban en Banlieu (Nightboat Books, 2015), a body-poetry collection by Bhanu Kapil.
4. Gareth Morgan’s review titled “Shitheads: well are we doing this” was published in Overland Issue 245 Summer 2021.
5. Angelita Biscotti’s review titled “Open Relations” was published by Liminal on 30 November 2022.

 
LUOYANG CHEN currently lives on the unceded Whadjuk Noongar Boodja. Flow (Red River/Centre for Stories, 2023) is his debut poetry collection. He has another poetry manuscript and is currently writing “Who Live More”.  He was born and raised in Fujian, China.

Liz Sutherland reviews Breath by Carly-Jay Metcalfe

Breath

by Carly-Jay Metcalfe

ISBN 9780702268359

UQP

Reviewed by LIZ SUTHERLAND

Breathing was one of the few things in life I took for granted. Until I was 20, out with pneumonia for four months, three fractured ribs from excessive coughing. Then again at 32, post-COVID coughing for three months, two fractured ribs that time. Sickness and disability have a way of reframing things we otherwise consider inevitabilities: breathing; life.

Metcalfe establishes the tone for her bodily experience of Cystic Fibrosis (CF), and of the relentless heartbreak of losing friends to CF, at the outset of Breath. As a reader, I’m scraping into ‘stiffly laundered white sheets’ (5) with her as she wonders if these same hospital bed covers were recently the shroud of a child who’d just died. A morbid thought I push to the back of my mind anytime I walk the halls of a hospital. Places where people, lovers, significant others have died. Will die. Metcalfe reminds us of our mortality in the same breath as calling out the West’s culturally ingrained fear of death and dying.

‘The only thing promised to us in life, is death’ (211).

This inevitability, and our cultural reticence to witness it, is the pulse of Metcalfe’s memoir and her broader vocational drive. She doesn’t shy away from the impetus of her career and life choices: how they’ve been shaped by her experiences with CF and everything the illness created in, and stole from, her life. Where her fragile human body experienced intense and prolonged trauma and grief, came out the other side, survived. Against all odds, when others did not. Survived, but at what cost?

‘Some kids held on for weeks, while others only took a few days, but the end result was always the same: we were left breathing out our guilt in their absence’(17).

Breath centres on a lung transplant Metcalfe received at the age of 21, oscillating forward and backwards through time. She wields memory as a literary device and plays on subjectivity, flicking between past and present tense and timeframes, sometimes within the space of neighbouring sentences. At times dizzying, it’s articulated with self-awareness of how memory melds and warps with time: ‘I have a knack for opening jars of memories, but these moments are often trapped with an eternal present, and I can’t reconfigure them into a memory because they are so pervasive’ (34). Metcalfe struggles with forgetting: she can’t.

She expresses her ‘catalogue of traumatic events’ (11) as almost viral. Clinging tightly to her cells and nerve endings and brain paths as the decades pass. It may have been easier if she were able to fall into self-protective amnesia like some of the people in her life. But as her experiences with CF were grounded in the visceral, so too were her memories sutured deep under the skin.

‘Over the years, a faint memory – of surgeons pushing through skin, muscle, and fascia, and cutting through the strata of my chest until they strike bone – grows into something more tangible […] What happens in our lives writes itself into our flesh. There is wisdom in the body – a deep wisdom that beats its way through your blood. The body remembers’ (94).

Metcalfe’s memoir truly shines when she relates this pervasive, almost viral nature of living with CF to that of COVID and HIV. When she speaks of COVID from her perspective as an immunocompromised person, it is hard to ignore the mass disabling event that has created another layer of fear of death and dying. Where governments worldwide in the 2020s have decided that the economy is worth more than people, especially disabled and immunocompromised people, governments of yesteryear made the same calculations with queer people, sex workers, and people who inject drugs. Metcalfe compares cancer in the early 1980s with AIDS, similarly stigmatised and misunderstood. The kids with cancer were housed in cubicle A of Turner Ward, a ‘trinity of linoleum, stainless steel and suffering, it was a waiting room for death within the Royal Children’s Hospital’ (12), whereas the kids with CF stayed in cubicle E. This ghostly estate forms the backdrop of much of Metcalfe’s memoir. A spectral character in its own right. The harsh words of doctors clogging up its arteries. Dying children’s struggling breaths inflating its lungs. In speaking with a doctor who worked with people with HIV/AIDS on Oxford Street, Sydney in the 80s, Metcalfe realises their survivors’ guilt are kin.

‘We were talking about how many CF friends I’d lost, and he shared his own experience of collective and cumulative grief from losing hundreds of people in his community’ (177).

But where there is mutual understanding in some ways, Metcalfe seems to pull away from the possibility of camaraderie. Referencing Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, Metcalfe refutes the universality of the concept of a “before” and “after” illness. Her experience is that of being born into illness; born into a constant state of grief and resilience. This does lend her to being uniquely qualified to write this book, but I found myself frustrated that connections of this nature weren’t explored more fully, despite, or even due to, what set them apart.

As Metcalfe herself notes: ‘sickness has a way of making people seem less banal and far more interesting than they actually are’ (128). Though balancing the personal with the political or social in memoir is a tightrope act that rarely executes a perfect performance, I wished she went deeper into her own and other philosophical beliefs and mythologies around death and histories of CF and other chronic illnesses. There are moments when she leans into tangential storytelling as a reprieve from the self-contemplative nature of memoir, linking the personal to the other. These reflections are fleeting, however, and tend instead towards the rhetorical.

I recognise, though, that it’s in the personal that disability justice and medical advocacy becomes most effective. Metcalfe transmutes her survivor’s guilt into action by bringing to light some of the many facets of receiving medical care in this country. She recounts cavalier and callous medical professionals, many of whom were doing their best under a system of budget cuts and not enough staff. Some of whom resorted to eye-rolling and dismissing her pain post-op. Others who tactically and maliciously abused her and other CF children.

Metcalfe undoubtedly traversed harrowing and traumatic terrain over the course of her life thus far, and reading even a glimpse of it engenders an affinity for her perspective. Where I struggle with personal disability advocacy, however, is when it veers into violent illusions and exclusionary language. At times, Breath feels insensitive to the situations of other people, using them as metaphorical fodder to get the point across: ‘Ollie and I drove to McDonald’s, then we stopped at a lolly shop where I scraped half a kilo of diabetes into a brown paper bag, before driving back to Ollie’s where I ate like a starving refugee on his bed’ (66). Comments like this, and others centring around fatphobia, were difficult to read as a disabled person with a history of eating disorder.

It struck me as odd in a memoir about death literacy, disability justice, and advocating for organ donation, that Metcalfe at times eschewed specificities in lieu of generalities. I wished that she’d taken readers on her interior investigations into why she occasionally defaulted into using well-trodden and discriminatory phrases to describe something about her life. Examined what is repulsive or fearsome about diabetes? Questioned what it is that draws to the plight of people fleeing genocide and persecution to illustrate a personal experience? Even in our advocacy, we must still be aware of how our nation has treated people of refugee status for decades, and how our society and medical industry treat fat and disabled people. But none of this should be taken to minimise the impact that Metcalfe’s Breath will hopefully have on public opinion and public health systems as they view and relate to those with chronic illness and disabilities. 

‘More than once, I’d felt the breath of my friends’ departures, the timbre of their spirit winding down, the sad predictability of history repeating’ (5).

Despite its limitations, Breath is both a love letter and a call to action. Honest, lyrical, raw, and moving. It remembers the ones who died too soon, and reminds us to embrace this body, this life we have right now. Because we never know when this breath we take for granted will be our last.

 

Works Cited

Metcalfe, Carly-Jay. Breath. UQP, 2024.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

LIZ SUTHERLAND (they/them) lives on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. Liz is studying a Master of Arts (Writing and Literature) at Deakin University, is the COO of a nonprofit organisation, and recently joined the Board of Overland. They were a finalist in the Pearl Prize 2024 and the 2023 OutStanding LGBTQIA+ Short Story Awards. Their writing has appeared in the Hunter Writers Centre Grieve Anthology, the Wheeler Centre’s Spring Fling event ‘Stripped Queer’, ScratchThat Magazine, Into the Wetlands Poetry Anthology, at Q-Lit festival events, and more.

Jennifer Compton reviews Leaf by Anne Elvey

Leaf

By Anne Elvey

Liquid Amber Press

ISBN 9780645044966

Reviewed by JENNIFER COMPTON

 

Anne Elvey was recently shortlisted for the David Harold Tribe Poetry Award for one of her elegant, prayerful compositions, that hardly seem to be composed of words as we know them, and yet I suppose they must be. They lift up off of the page, they seem to linger in the air.

Don’t get me wrong, I was very taken with all of the shortlisted poets, as I hunkered down on Zoom, and any one of them could have won and I would not have been disgruntled.

But I was so taken with the flavour and intent of Elvey’s work, all over again, that I returned to re-read and reconsider her 2022 collection Leaf. This is a handsome book issued by Liquid Amber Press, the brainchild of Pauline Brightling and Rose Lucas, whom I can only suppose had a rush of blood and decided to test their relationship and work very hard, whilst ripping up $10 notes, bedazzled by something ineffable.

So, I am coming at this book for the second time. And this time through I pause to dwell on the epigraph from John Charles Ryan’s book Plants in Contemporary Poetry. Because, after all, a poet would not go to all the trouble of choosing a suitable epigraph, and seeking permission etc, unless they trusted their choice would illuminate the thrust of the book and guide the reader. 

‘How do we imagine plants? How might plants imagine us?’

Indeed, it may even have been the spark that lit the tinder that set the fire of imagination roaring. Because immediately, in ‘Part 1 To listen for the leaf’, in the first poem ‘Leaf’, Elvey sets about the task of addressing, if not answering, these questions. 

you touch from inside’s
other     vein and skin
silver

to a spot of rust     smooth
to the swell of an insect’s
egg     held in fingers

breath
becomes     a word
(p3)

The necessity of breath, which the leaf understands, as it converts light into sustenance into oxygen, again and again and again, is acknowledged and honoured. An ancient pact, a symbiosis, almost, indeed, a cabal. And there is a kind of psychometry in this first section, as if hands can hear, as if hands had another sort of ears that listen for and to the unsayable, that can know, ‘beyond the break and repair of language’ what is not unknowable.

                         Ask what
answer your hands should

give. It is time. It is time
they listened for the leaf.
(p12)

And so, the preamble done and dusted, Elvey sets to work in “Part 2 The dark industry of life” amplifying the musicality of the daily round. In “Artefact” the wooden table contains hidden messages. It’s just a matter of knowing where to stand in the angle of the light to decipher them. And in ‘Taking leave of no. 5”  the trees are condemned, the landlord is adamant. But do you listen when they tell you not to look back? No, you don’t. Not when you are imbued with a reckless generosity and also like to keep a sanguine eye on circumstance. The times. How do they do? Do they do well? Do they do ill? And how does the weather, the soil, and every other constituent of the macrocosm? Take your lesson from the tree. Take advantage.

A tree takes
gives. Prudence

means nothing
to a tree.
(p22)

The book swirls on through ‘Part 3 Luring water’ and ‘Part 4 These knuckles’ welt on wood’ and ‘Part 5 Not to spoil the well’ with a limpid and supple assurance, ‘like a liquid handling a thing.’ Or, like a walking meditation, which is the next best thing to prayer. As if prayer is doubting and hoping in equal part whilst moving mindfully. In ‘Leaf and tumble’, which I find to be the apotheosis of this book, and which I happen to know was the poet’s preferred title, comfort is sought, out in the natural world, within its blithe imperatives and its deep and deepening mysteries. 

Did I imagine the whispered
intent, the certainty of my ground

as way to go, the tether
of limb to trunk, until I could

no longer suppose you were
or are? My feet unrooted

from earth, what answer comes
to my tentative cry? Without

a word wind lifts
again. Leaf tumbles.
(p45)

Elvey’s craft is gentle and! astute. She untethers her mode of enquiry from antique certainties and shibboleths to, as it were, begin again. To see afresh what can be seen and to understand, feelingly, what can be understood. To ask questions that, as of yet, cannot be answered. 

From ‘Under the rotary clothesline’

               Reaching               for a peg
I wonder       how might
        I have looked
                                  to another
(p67)

 

JENNIFER COMPTON is a poet and playwright who also writes prose. She lives in Melbourne on unceded Boon Wurrung Country. Recent Work Press published her 11th book of poetry the moment, taken in 2021.

Pip Newling reviews Women and Children by Tony Birch

Women & Children

By Tony Birch

UQP

ISBN: 9780702266270

Reviewed by PIP NEWLING
 
 
Tony Birch holds a rare place in Australian literature – a male writer focused on telling domestic and working class stories. His pages shimmer with the dirt of hard work, difficult choices, and  everyday of life. The joys in reading his stories are intimate and quiet: a secretive embrace, a hand reaching to another, a warm blanket, a story, a memory shared. As simple as his narratives may appear though, the lives of Birch’s characters are rich and their journeys complex. Aboriginality and the intergenerational impacts, including violence, of the colonial project surface in all his work, exploring questions of belonging, of inescapable difference, of class, of gender and of how racism, sexism, disrespect, judgement and exclusion shape people. Women & Children though, delivers a key change to his previous stories and novels. While no different in its motifs and themes, here there is a subtle and soft joy, a quiet heartfelt hope lifting through the journeys of the two children.

The novel tells the story of Joe and Ruby Cluny, a brother and sister, their mother, Marion and aunt Oona, and their grandfather Charlie, a close-knit group. It is mid-1960s inner suburban Naarm. Joe is 11 years old and Ruby, 13 years. Birch reveals their world through the Sister Mary’s of the Catholic school that Ruby and Joe attend. The hierarchical authoritarian nature of the school flows into the streets of the surrounding suburb, a reputation for ‘hard men’, and for violence both on the street and behind closed doors.

Joe sees the world with a humane and gentle heart, a rare and precious kid, and one who is appreciated and understood intimately by both his mother and grandfather. The rest of the community are uncertain how to respond to him, his questions, his perspective, or the birthmark on his face, a legacy of his Aboriginal ancestry. At school, the nuns always call him out in class as a dreamer, a disruptor, as a low achiever and Joe believes their hellfire and brimstone stories. They have him convinced he is un-save-able. He lives with a very real fear of eternal Hell.

His sister, Ruby, is more socially mature, more attuned to the machinations of the world. She has developed a strategy. She has witnessed the pain and the hurt the nuns cause other children and has realised that if she behaves, and is an excellent student, it will be to her benefit. She understands from a young age how to get ahead without compromising her own values.

Marion works at a dry cleaners, a job she has held since she was 16 years and has brought the children up on her own. She has provided a calm and loving home for her children. Marion’s father, Charlie, has just retired from a council street sweeping job he held for over thirty years. ‘Char’, as Joe calls Charlie, lives by himself, after his wife, Ada, died 5 years ago. Without Ada to stop him, Charlie is slowly bringing his ‘collectables’ (p50), street-found riches – bottles, books, records, marbles, and boxes of other people’s lost photographs – into the house from the large hoard he maintains in the backyard.

Joe and Charlie’s relationship is one of the delights of this novel. Charlie listens to and discusses Joe’s questions; he doesn’t steer away from the open-hearted curiosity that rests deep in Joe. He openly loves the boy and Joe shines under his gaze. Ranji, a scrap metal and junk merchant and one of Charlie’s oldest friends, provides a foil for Charlie. They are both gentle respectful men of the community – Ranji with his prayers and Charlie with his belief in the good of the world. Both have stories of faith and fathers to tell each other.

Oona, Marion’s younger sister and beloved aunt of Ruby and Joe, is in an abusive relationship with Ray Lomax, an entrepreneurial electric goods salesman.

While Ruby has explained to Joe that he must never mention the bruises on other children’s bodies when they go to the local swimming pool, neither Ruby nor Joe have ever witnessed violence in their home. Birch conveys the intimacy of their shock, first for Joe when Oona turns up to Marion’s seeking help and then for Ruby, when she visits Oona unannounced. From the doorway of Oona’s flat, Ruby sees Oona’s beaten face and has an uncontrollable physical reaction. These scenes are crafted carefully and are as shocking for the reader as for the characters. Birch is clear-eyed about the impacts of violence. He knows that violence should always be shocking, and he tells it true.

Marion and Charlie are both devastated by the assaults on Oona but for different reasons. Marion is desperate and angry. At herself. At all the men in her life who choose not to assist Oona. Marion knows they see the unrelenting beatings as something private that Oona has signed up for. She feels the powerlessness, silence and shame that frequently come with family and domestic violence. Silence is a key theme in the novel. When Charlie asks Marion when Ray started to assault Oona, Marion tells him of how his daughter changed once the couple moved in together.

‘Oona never said a word to me, but I knew. Not so much the bruises. She did a reasonable job of hiding them. It was her mood.’
‘How so?’ Charlie asked. ‘I didn’t notice any change in her.’
‘Sorry to tell you this, Dad. But men never do. She went so quiet. Lost her voice.’
(p200)

When Charlie says he knew nothing. Marion counters gently.

‘Maybe you did know, Dad? I think we all know. The biggest secrets on these streets are the ones that we share, but somehow find ways to ignore. And to pretend… all along I knew I was lying to myself. I think we always know, Dad.’
(p200)

Charlie feels he has let Oona down, and that he is a foolish old man. He feels he needs to protect his child but is bewildered because he can’t. He also worries – remains guilty – about a time when, he tells Marion, ‘I was like him. Almost.’ (p172): a time before Marion was born when he and Ada argued, and his anger overwhelmed him.

‘In that moment,’ Charlie said, ‘I knew what my father would have done… He would have put that woman in her place and kept her there… All of them years, when I was a boy cowering in my bed, hearing him beat my mum, although I didn’t know it at the time, he’d been teaching me how to be a man.’
(p174)

There are stories within stories in this novel – parables of sorts. One of Charlie’s collections is a jar of glass marbles. He tells Marion of their significance in a wonderfully tender scene:

‘Mum took one in her hand and explained to me that there was life inside. A world in miniature. All I had to do was look closely and I would see it. Each marble had its own story and its own people. She told me these stories for days.’
(p197)

Charlie reflects further: ‘A simple act from my mother. It taught me such a lesson… ‘Care.’ Charlie smiled. ‘It costs nothing.’ (p199)

Early in the novel, Joe asks Charlie what he could do for work when he is older and is surprised when Charlie suggests that Joe could ‘become a writer’. (p62) Joe had no idea that being a writer could be a job and Charlie goes on to tell him that, ‘There are stories about this life … that will one day need to be told.’ (p62)

Over the course of the story, Joe learns an intimate truth. Through Charlie’s gentle guidance and his mother’s defiance – on Joe’s behalf – he comes to understand that his way of seeing and being, the way he feels the world, is a decent and humane perspective and that stories are inherently valuable. Equally, Ruby’s self-directed strategy is successful. She wins the holiday, and she realises her confidence about her own academic and social opportunity is sound. She knows what she wants, and she can see how to achieve it. She stands up to the boys at the pool, and coaxes Oona out of her flat. Her trust and confidence in herself, in her physicality and her value, grows.

Ruby and Joe may still be branded by society as different, lesser, working class, but they each come to see pathways for themselves beyond the kitchen tables, back lanes, and violent men. They are destined for other futures. For Charlie, the ‘good man’ (p174), the dilemma isn’t resolved. Is the good man the one who turns away from violence? If so, what good is he when violence turns up on the doorstep? Charlie has to re-negotiate his value with himself. Marion’s care and love are never diminished, and she comes to realise she has some control, can exert some power.

Women & Children reveals that Birch – who is also a son, father, brother, grandfather – has found hope for the future. For Birch, it is possible to break the hand-me-down pattern of violence, traits and class, but to do so requires women and children be supported. And for men to care.

 
Dr PIP  NEWLING reads and writes on unceded Dharawahl Country. She has published memoir and essays, including Knockabout Girl (Harper Collins, 2007).
Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

Samuel Cox reviews Murnane by Emmett Stinson

Murnane

by Emmett Stinson

Melbourne University Publishing

ISBN: 9780522879469

Reviewed by SAMUEL COX

Emmett Stinson’s Murnane offers a critical and enlightening assessment of the Gerald
Murnane’s four late fictions, and through these incredibly self-reflexive works, a reading of
the eponymous author’s entire oeuvre. Stinson’s superb introduction gives way to chapter-
length considerations of Barley Patch (2009), A History of Books (2010), A Million Windows
(2014) and Border Districts (2017), before concluding with an assessment of Murnane’s ‘late
style’. The study confirms this late style is intensely introspective and genre-bending –
somewhere between novel, memoir and essay – as Murnane seeks to retrospectively reform
and recontextualise his entire body of work.

If this then provides a faint outline of Stinson’s method and the briefest summary of his
results, I would like to focus on pursuing what I see as the two most intriguing and important
lines of investigation that underly Stinson’s study and make it utterly compelling: his
exploration of the entirely ‘singular’ phenomenon that is Murnane, and, deeply interrelated,
his recurring pursuit of the enigma that is the author’s lack of widespread recognition in the
country of his birth.

I’ll begin with the second question, as it appears, initially at least, the more straightforward to
answer. Whilst noting Murnane’s unfashionable peculiarities, which form the bones of this
study, Stinson rightly invokes Patrick White’s criticism of Australia’s aesthetic inclination
towards ‘the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism’ (qtd. in Stinson 15). From
the Ern Malley affair, through to the harsh local critiques of White’s early works, and similar
treatment that influenced Randolph Stow’s decision to leave the country, the cultural
philistinism of settler-colonial Australia has long cast a dark shadow over any emergent local
avant-garde. Overall, literary modernism in Australia remains a critical frame that, if not
abhorred, then has largely been ignored.

An intriguing counterpoint to Murnane is David Malouf, a writer of a similar era who achieved widespread literary fame and popularity. If we admit that Malouf’s use of modernist techniques
has a lighter and less experimental (and thus more palatable) touch, then we can also see that to answer this question, we must return to the first line of investigation I proposed and seek out a deeper exploration of what Stinson repeatedly refers to as Murnane’s ‘idiosyncratic’ and ‘singular’ nature. Brilliantly characterising Murnane as ‘a homemade avant-garde of one’ (103), Stinson reveals the unique breadth of literary influences on Murnane’s work, but it is the unique ‘homemade’ peculiarities that appear essential to understanding the riddle that is Gerald Murnane.

Stinson establishes that it is precisely Murnane’s distance – not just today but across his
career – from intellectual trends, his singular even perverse pursuits, which have opened him
to criticism; however, as his body of work has grown, these traits have increasingly set him
apart as his obsessive pursuits have made him an original, adding a unique chapter to the
literary explorations of the human condition.

It should be noted that, on the surface, many of Murnane’s concerns appear to align with the
well-established conventions of literature. J.M. Coetzee has described Murnane as a ‘radical
idealist’ and his relentless probing into the power and truth of inner imaginative worlds is not,
in and of itself, unique. Indeed, Murnane’s insistent interest in the imaginative life is in many
ways one of the timeless pursuits of art and literature; rather, it is the inimitable
idiosyncrasies of Murnane that make him utterly unique. What rises irrepressibly from
Stinson’s work is the deeply paradoxical elements that shape Murnane and fuel his fiction.

Murnane is a novelist who ‘never tried to write fiction’ (21); an avant-garde
modernist who has barely left his own state, let alone the country; a working-class writer who
persistently aestheticises reality; an author whose embrace of the ordinary often leads the
reader into sensing the mystical qualities of the extraordinary; an experimental author who is
a stickler for ‘traditional grammar’ (qtd. in Stinson 33). He is a writer who roundly criticises
literary criticism and yet Stinson notes that ‘he is technically the first author of a critical work
about the complete oeuvre of Murnane’ (16). Despite his deeply introspective explorations,
and his endless returning to the same images, scenes and themes, the authorial self remains
remote and inaccessible for Murnane. Stinson isolates a moment at the conclusion of
Murnane’s A Million Windows that represents this truth when the narrator glances up at the
window of a writer: ‘I looked up and saw… a window and behind it a drawn blind. In short, I
learned nothing’ (qtd. in Stinson 67).

This moment is echoed in the 2019 interview with Stinson that is included as something of an
afterword. Murnane retells how he became convinced that a filmmaker who had bought the
rights to Inland didn’t understand the book, so he set out to explain it: three quarters of his
way down the page he realised that even he ‘wasn’t on the right track’ admitting that, ‘I don’t
think I even know what it’s about’ (qtd. in Stinson 116). It is not everyone who is going to
read a Murnane book and enjoy it. Certainly, many in Australia weren’t ready when he started
his career. Indeed, as Stinson notes, some have even been repulsed by his interest in the
obsessions and perversions of lonely, monastic men. His work pursues a
relentless, at times forensic examination of the self through writing, even as he recurringly
acknowledges that this is in part a futile exercise: the writing self is multitudinous; both true
and false.

A casual reader who might have only encountered Murnane’s older works, particularly his
most well-known and influential work, The Plains, might question Stinson’s decision to focus
on his late career. It could even be considered – unsurprisingly, given Stinson’s approach is
deeply informed by the author’s work – something of a Murnanian conceit. However, what
uniquely emerges in Stinson’s study is how his late career works create a mirage-like
refraction of his early career works that radically reframes them. For example, aspects of The
Plains, like the filmmaker’s literary patron and its isolated ‘secular monastery’ of a manor
(Stinson 58), become linked to longstanding and recurring concerns of Murnane’s fiction.
Finally, Stinson presents a detailed argument that Murnane’s final novel, Border Districts,
reconstructs The Plains as it was originally intended – as part of a dyad or textual diptych.
New readings of The Plains are offered and whether they are superior appears beside the
point. Instead, Stinson forces us to reconsider The Plains, and indeed Murnane’s entire
oeuvre, through what he terms the ‘retrospective intention’ of Murnane’s late career works, as
the aging author attempts the daunting task of shaping his disparate body of work into the
‘seeming coherence’ of an ‘aesthetic totality’ (81). If, in reality, this totality ultimately lies
always just out of reach, like the distant horizon of the plains, then Stinson shows us that its
simulacrum is given form by its continual refraction throughout Murnane’s fiction.

We inevitably return to the lingering question of his unsure place within the literary
canon of this country. In Nicholas Birns estimation he is the ‘most Australian of writers’ and
‘the least Australian of writers’ (qtd. in Stinson 90). This is a man who has barely left the
state of Victoria, is obsessed with horse racing and currently lives in the small rural town of
Goroke in the Wimmera, Victoria. As J.M. Coetzee has noted, the underlying dialectics of
Murnane’s narrators can be traced back to the lingering imprint of Australian Irish
Catholicism. Many of the landscape images that recur across his fiction are characteristically
Australian in nature. And yet, the authors he is in conversation with not only remain classed
as ‘difficult’ by most Australian readers, but they are also distant from these shores in both
space, and, increasingly, time – Joyce, Rilke, Proust, Emily Bronte, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo
Calvino, Henry James, are a just a few that Stinson recognises.

Murnane’s long and persistent struggles with publication and readership over his career, pose
big questions over whether we can accept and support challenging and self-critical art in this
country, even when it is unfashionable. A further problematic is that it is not just new and
emerging voices who struggle for readership and attention – Australian literature as a broad
category remains criminally underread and understudied. As Ivor Indyk, Murnane’s editor at
Giramondo, has noted, ‘most of our literary tradition is out of print, undertaught and largely
unknown to the Australian public.’ It was Giramondo’s unwavering support of Murnane that
brought him out of his self-imposed retirement and enabled these four late career novels to
emerge in their desired form. If Giramondo stands out like a beacon in an Australian literary
landscape that has lost some of its lustre, then so too does Gerald Murnane – the ‘homemade
avant-garde of one’ who, after years of persistence in the wilderness, is enjoying a well-
deserved late career resurgence.

Stinson’s treatment is deeply sympathetic and yet even this importantly represents the current
moment that seemingly demands a revaluation of Murnane’s work. His claim that Murnane is
‘the most original and most significant Australian author of the last fifty years’ (104) is bold,
but international acclaim and murmurings of Nobel Prize nominations surely mean even local
critics cannot deny that Murnane now must have a place in the conversation. For those
seeking an entry point into the complexities of Murnane and his fiction, Emmett Stinson’s
Murnane presents the clear place to start.
 
 
SAMUEL COX teaches Australian literature at the University of Adelaide. His work has been published in JASALThe Saltbush Review, Westerly, ALS, Motifs, SWAMP and selected for Raining Poetry in Adelaide. In 2022, he received the ASAL A.D. Hope Prize. He was awarded the Heather Kerr Prize, and was a joint winner of Australian Literary Studies PhD Essay Prize with Evelyn Araluen.

Naomi Milthorpe reviews H.D. Hilda Doolittle by Lara Vetter


H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

by Lara Vetter

Reaktion Books

ISBN:9781789147599

Reviewed by NAOMI MILTHORPE

It may say more about my own tastes than about the culture more broadly, but most of my reading in the past months has been about misunderstood and multifaceted women. Lara Vetter’s slim critical life of the modernist poet H.D. has slid snugly between Anna Funder’s ponderous counterfiction Wifedom (2023), Katharine M. Briggs’s neglected 1963 witchy Scots fairy tale, Kate Crackernuts, and Nancy Mitford’s 1952 fizzing biography of Louis XV’s official mistress, Madame de Pompadour. It’s important to state at the outset that Vetter’s book is fundamentally unlike any of these books – neither ponderous nor witchy nor particularly fizzing. Yet in focusing on a woman who thrived exploring experimental modes of writing and relished occupying new forms of identity and relationship, it offers an engrossing contrast to the picture these other books offer, of the way history, circumstance, and choice, impact upon women’s lives. H.D. has been taken as a biographical subject by a number of earlier writers, including most recently Francesca Wade in her excellent 2021 group biography Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars. As Wade writes, ‘A biography offers one version of a life, and H.D. lived several.’(1) In living several ‘lives’ – or as Lara Vetter suggests, in living a life that flourished through contradiction and multiplicity – H.D. is also a fascinating subject for readers interested in what it takes to live, thrive, and create through cataclysmic social and political change.

She was born Hilda Doolittle in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1886, the daughter of Charles, an astronomy professor and Helen, a musician and painter. Hilda was the only daughter of six children. The Doolittles were members of the Moravian church, an evangelical German Christian sect that focused on community, family, and ritual, including a strong devotion to music. H.D.’s early life – portrayed by her in autobiographical novels like HERmione, written in the late twenties but published in 1981 – was bounded by both the pleasures and frustrations of this life. As a scientist her father encouraged his children to closely observe nature in their rambling garden and the surrounding forest. Hilda’s elder brother Eric also taught astronomy and tutored his siblings in botany and ecology, which Hilda was fascinated by: ‘There were things under things, as well as things inside things.’(2) Helen passed on her skills in music and the arts, with Hilda playing piano and participating in musicals and Shakespeare performances. Hilda taught herself ancient Greek; throughout her life she remained deeply inspired by Greek history and myth. Hilda enrolled in Bryn Mawr College, studying the classics, and meeting Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams along the way, but dropped out after three semesters to focus on her writing.

It was meeting the poet Ezra Pound, and the mystic and writer Frances Gregg – both fellow Pennsylvanians – that caused the first cataclysm of her early life. The three were caught in a tumultuous love triangle for several years. Pound called Hilda ‘Dryad’, and for him, she was a muse that haunted his early poems. Pound and Hilda became engaged and then broke it off. But the relationship with Frances Gregg was the more electrifying. Both Hilda and Gregg viewed sexuality and gender as non-binary, and both (at this time) were polyamorous. Pound went to Europe in 1908, and Hilda and Gregg followed in the summer of 1911. Although the romance ended (Gregg returned to the U.S. and married, a profound betrayal for Hilda), Pound and Hilda would stay in Europe for good, entangled in each other’s lives and writing until well into the thirties.

How Hilda became H.D. is literary legend, sketched by H.D.’s. earlier biographer Barbara Guest: Hilda, sitting with Pound in the tea room of the British Museum in 1912, showed him some poems. ‘But Dryad, this is poetry.’ Then, in his manner, he made some adjustments, and signed them off for her, scrawling H.D., Imagiste, at the bottom of the pages and posting them to Harriet Monroe at the then newly-established magazine, Poetry. (3) These poems – ‘Hermes of the Ways’, ‘Epigram’, and ‘Priapus’ – were published in January 1913 and Hilda, now H.D., became the figurehead for what Pound hoped would become a revolutionary literary movement, Imagism. He would expound these theories in one of his early aesthetic manifestos, ‘A Few Don’ts By An Imagiste’, as well as in some now-much-anthologized poems like ‘In a Station of the Metro’. H.D.’s husband Richard Aldington suggested, though, that Pound’s theories were ‘based on H.D.’s practice’ (4). While the literary notice was gratifying, H.D. was soon embarrassed by the ‘Imagiste’ moniker and asked Monroe to remove it from any subsequent poems she published. In 1916 her first collection, Sea Garden, was published, to both acclaim and puzzlement – especially over gender identity, for some reviewers veiled by those obscure initials. Throughout her life, H.D. would experiment with multiple nom-de-plumes, relishing in the simultaneous effacement and expansion of identity they offered.

It is still often for these early poems that H.D. is best known – poems like ‘Oread’, ‘Sea Garden’, and ‘Sea Rose’. The adjective ‘crystalline’, was attached to her poetry so doggedly that she began to resent it, especially given her later experiments with long form verse and prose. But as Vetter ably argues, reading H.D. only for the poems published in the 1910s risks understanding only a fraction of her life and writing, which were deeply intertwined and profoundly multifaceted. Vetter sees her as dramatically inconsistent, ‘swing[ing] wildly between poles’ of personality according to who is giving the account of her (5). But consistency of self is only a problem for the biographer, not for the liver of the life (as many of H.D.’s biographers, Vetter included, are well aware). As Vetter writes, ‘Work did not reflect life. Rather, she wrote her life into existence. She was ever-mindful that it is narratives that construct identity, and not the other way around.’(6) For H.D., who variously embraced and was challenged by the profound changes witnessed in the 20th century (cinema, psychoanalysis, total war, gender fluidity and sexual experimentation), the capacity to lose an identity, as she wrote in her 1928 poem ‘Narthex’, was ‘a gift’(7).

Vetter has previously published extensive scholarship on H.D.’s later work, especially her prose. As Vetter shows, any account of H.D.’s long and varied life needs to carefully weigh Imagism, which she left behind in the twenties, with her other creative endeavours and personal milestones. These include her writing for and about film, pursued in the pages of the landmark film journal Close Up but also through film-making such as in the avant-garde feature Borderline (1930) in which she acted opposite Paul Robeson; book length poems such as Trilogy, written in response to World War Two (published between 1942 and 1946), and Helen in Egypt (1961); her writing on Shakespeare (By Avon River, 1949) and Freud, with whom she entered analysis in 1931 (Tribute to Freud, 1954); and her autobiographical novels, such as Paint it Today, Asphodel, HERmione, and Bid Me to Live. Many of these novels – besides Bid Me to Live – remained unpublished in H.D.’s lifetime, which explains why her reputation was, for so long, based on the early poetry. But the novels provide rich evidence for her life, relationships, sexuality, and literary development; they also emphasize, as Vetter argues, ‘the self as object of narration’(8).

In her personal life – which H.D. viewed as a source of art – she was similarly uninterested in conventionality as it was defined in the early 20th century. Though married to, and living with, Aldington throughout the twenties, she pursued other romantic and sexual relationships with both men and women. Her daughter, Perdita, was the child of a relationship with Cecil Gray, a Scottish composer whom H.D. lived with in Cornwall in 1918, though Aldington was named on the birth certificate. But neither of these men were Perdita’s primary carer. Though she initially thought she might raise her daughter alone, at the end of the Great War Hilda met and began a relationship with the heiress and writer Bryher (Winifed Ellerman), who became her lifelong partner. Bryher and Hilda were, as Perdita later wrote, her two mothers (Vetter suggests Bryher may today likely have identified as transgender, having in 1919 been reassured by the sexologist Havelock Ellis that ‘she was only a girl by accident’(9)). The relationship was romantically and creatively nourishing – Bryher shared H.D.’s enthusiasm for film and travel – and, thanks to Bryher’s immense wealth, protected H.D. from the need to write for commercial reasons.

Anna Funder’s Wifedom is focused on the traps which heterosexual marriage, home keeping, and motherhood seem to lay for many, especially low-income women. In comparison, Vetter’s study shows the relative freedom H.D. enjoyed in pursuit of love and art. Where Funder portrays Eileen Orwell chained to the home, mucking out blocked toilets and making endless rounds of tea, devoted in unpaid servitude to the project of George Orwell’s writing, from which she was studiously erased, Vetter shows H.D. able to combine parenting, travelling, loving, and learning, with writing. Hilda was not bogged down in wifedom (neither, I should add, was Bryher, though both according to Perdita, were devoted parents). H.D.’s adherence to the first principle of art = life meant that she devoted her whole existence to creative and personal liberty. Of course, Bryher’s independent wealth, and the freedom of movement permitted to their white bodies, enabled their living largely unthreatened by the injustice and oppression central to, and ongoing beyond, the 20th century.

Part of why H.D. was forgotten by the academy following her death in the 1960s may have been her unclassifiability. By the end of her career, she could no longer be called simply an ‘Imagist’. But part of the reason she could be recovered by feminist researchers in the 70s and 80s was because she kept so much of her unpublished writing, and so many of her letters and notebooks. This is another point of comparison with Eileen Orwell, whose archival existence is, comparatively, slim. H.D. is a creation of paper, self-fashioned by her own autobiographical writing, and by her early deposit of a ‘shelf’ of manuscript papers at Yale’s Beinecke Library. Writing was H.D.’s motivation for living, and living fuelled her writing. As the poet Robert Duncan wrote in his monumental work, The H.D. Book, ‘she took whatever she could, whatever hint of person or design, colour or line, over into her “work”.'(10) It is fortunate that ongoing editing and publication since the 1980s by the publisher New Directions has made so much of her writing accessible to the general reader.

This ‘Critical Life’ of H.D. is necessarily an introductory one, especially given the wealth of published and unpublished material to cover. Vetter states from the outset that this book is intended for those mostly unfamiliar with H.D.’s life. Vetter manages the breadth and depth of materials with deftness, moving between archival and literary evidence to create a portrait of an individual who was totally unique but not at all one-dimensional. It is worth the attention for those who are interested in understanding this fascinating poet and her devotion to art.

Cited
1. Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (Faber, 2020), p.38.
H.D., Tribute to Freud (Carcanet Press, 1997), p.21
2. Barbara Guest, Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and her World (Doubleday, 1984).
3. Letter from Richard Aldington to Hilda Doolittle, 20 March 1929, in Lara Vetter, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), p.48.
4. Vetter, p.14.
5. Vetter, p.12.
6. Quoted in Vetter, p.15.
7. Vetter, p.101.
8. Quoted in Vetter, p.80.
9. Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book (University of California Press, 2011), p.242.
 
NAOMI MILTHORPE is Senior Lecturer in English at the School of Humanities. Her research interests centre on modernist, interwar and mid-century British literary culture, including most particularly the works of Evelyn Waugh. Naomi is currently completing a scholarly edition of Waugh’s 1932 novel Black Mischief, volume 3 of Oxford University Press’s Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh.