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.

Holden Walker reviews But The Girl by Jessica Zhan Mei Yu

But The Girl

Jessica Yu

Penguin

ISBN: 9781761046148

Reviewed by HOLDEN WALKER

 
 
Jessica Zhan Mei Yu’s novel But The Girl (2023) is the story of protagonist and narrator “Girl”, as she embarks on a study abroad experience in the UK while immersing herself in British culture, contemplating her thesis, attempting to write her novel, and sharing her innermost thoughts with the reader. Yu’s novel possesses intimate autofictional narration, inspired by the oeuvre of Sylvia Plath and animated by intertextual allusions to her work. But The Girl explores various other subjects, from the creative process to the Malaysian-Australian experience; however, Yu brings personality and uniqueness to this novel by examining femininity in the postmodern and postcolonial context while commenting on the Australian “cultural cringe”.

 In the context of Australian postcolonial literature, the “cultural cringe” was coined by literary critic A.A Phillips in a 1950 essay published in Meanjin literary magazine. The phenomenon describes a feeling of inferiority (felt particularly by Australians) in their own culture, including the feeling that Australian culture is embarrassing compared to other cultures. The Australian cultural cringe is well documented, even before the time of Phillips, as Henry Lawson provided an extensive diatribe in the preface to the 1894 edition of his Short Stories in Prose and Verse, stating that Australian writers were always in the shadow of British and American writers, and this frustrated him to no end (Rodrick, 1972).

Yu brings the same sentiment into the twenty-first century, breathing new life into a conversation as old as Australian literature itself. She writes:

“Feeling embarrassed about Australia’s provincial personality…had always been automatic to me and everyone I knew. A sense that we were no one, that we had nothing, that spending your whole life secretly trying to get away from the huge yawn that was Australia made you somehow important. Sometimes I wished my parents had immigrated somewhere else…” (p.17).

Yu’s writing, as evidenced by this excerpt, achieves a level of relatability that is likely to enchant many Australians, whether they arrived on Australian shores recently or their ancestral ties to the land span the entire history of the continent. Although we may not be able to point to a shared “Australian experience”, I imagine many have, at one stage, envied the marvel of Britain’s castles or been starry-eyed at the innovation of the capitalist mega-utopia that is America. After a while, our cultural signifiers no longer seem impressive, for “we are no one…we [have] nothing.”

Throughout the novel, Yu continues to explore the feeling of being unable to compete with the UK as an Australian, an emotional experience that may very well be symbolic of the immigrant experience in Australia. However, Girl challenges the notion that her postcolonial novel will inevitably draw from the ‘immigrant novel’ genre. Girl’s hesitation to write an ‘immigrant novel’ reminds me a lot of Nam Le’s ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, a short story in which Le contemplates whether to write the inspiring ‘immigrant novel’ that is sure to be an instant classic, or something much more personal to him. For Girl, and by extension, Yu herself, But The Girl is a clear example of taking the second path, as she finds the intersection between postcolonial criticism and Sylvia Plath that is the subject of her thesis, and in a less explicit way, Yu’s novel.

As Girl contemplates how she will address Plath from a postcolonial perspective, Yu implements an arguably genius metafictional strategy by taking direct inspiration from Plath’s The Bell Jar and reinventing the novel to detail an Asian-Australian experience, all while keeping the autofictional style of Plath’s novel. In my view, But The Girl serves as a text that fills an emotional gap identified by the narrator, for although she finds The Bell Jar to be an incredibly powerful text that shaped her adolescent experience, it is clear that certain elements of Esther Greenwood’s narrative are unrelatable.

“When I read The Bell Jar for an undergraduate women’s writing class, I felt something new, brand new. It took me in from the start with its woozy charm and kidnapped my mind clean away. Which meant that it hurt like hell when she wrote about being ‘yellow as a Chinaman’ and worse when a few pages later there was ‘a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman . . . staring idiotically into my face’” (p.30)

In light of its flaws, Yu brings the feminine experience of coming of age in an academic setting into the twenty-first century, reinventing Plath in a way that caters better to modern, Australian, and diasporic readers. While there is no doubt that this updated classic will resonate with mainstream audiences, it should also serve as a love letter to Plath fans. Although I hate to disrespect Lawson and continue the vicious cycle of comparing Australian writers to their more recognised foreign predecessors, I can’t help but suggest that Australian literature has found its Sylvia Plath in Jessica Zhan Mei Yu, and in But The Girl, it has found its The Bell Jar.

Yu’s context, audience, and style deviate from Plath’s, who favoured a razor-sharp and occasionally even confrontational method of prose. Yu exhibits writing that is more contemporary and discursive, while still maintaining the “heart-on-her-sleeve” narrative style often associated with Plath. As a result, the novel provides detailed and intimate accounts of the experiences we often associate with coming of age, such as the struggle to establish our own identity. Girl often references the complicated intersection between being an educated woman who is a second-generation immigrant in the era of what she calls the “bimbo.”

Yu’s narrator identifies many facets of femininity, from the hyper-feminine facades of womanhood from her youth to the strong and empowered women she read about in her gender studies class. Girl struggles to find what types of femininity “fit” her, a feat complicated by her complex relationship with her family.

“Once, when I was walking home from dinner after an undergraduate class with some girls…A car full of young men had slowed to yell obscenities at us…one of the girls had stuck her finger up [at them]…I didn’t do anything to back her up. I reasoned that my parents hadn’t brought me to this country only for me to be found dead on a street somewhere near the university…unlike her parents, mine would never forgive me for dying on them.” (p.29)

Girl’s thought-provoking observations and accounts of how she navigates the world as an Asian-Australian woman in the process of defining her own understanding of womanhood serve as the perfect representation of her desire to examine Plath through a postcolonial lens. Readers witness Girl’s writing endeavours and the memories of her youth play out alongside each other, a sequence of juxtapositions that reveal the possibility that the inspiration for the narrator’s thesis had been hiding in plain sight all along. 

Further, Yu also touches on the feelings of shame that plagued Girl’s adolescence and young adulthood, a facet that contributes significantly to the relatable tone of the novel and allows readers to see their own anxieties reflected in the text, eliciting greater reader engagement through the process of identification with the narrator. The theme of shame can also be tied into the concept of the “cultural cringe” that is explored in this novel, as Girl recounts a feeling of shame that came over her when she visited the Oxford campus in the UK, as it reminded her that Australia doesn’t have grand and prestigious schools like Oxford, just pastiches of them. 

In a similar vein, Yu also explores the shame of femininity and how cultural perceptions of female adolescence impacted Girl’s self-esteem and ability to take herself seriously.

“When I was a teenager, I had thought that there was nothing more embarrassing in the whole world than being a teenage girl…And even more embarrassingly, no one cared about your humiliations because they didn’t matter that much anyway in the ‘grand scheme of things’…” (p.39)

The concepts come together to create a narrator who uses her life experiences as a catalyst to explore the complex emotions associated with coming of age in Australia, a subject matter that is bound to resonate with many readers, particularly those whose identities intersect with Girl’s in some way, be they PhD candidates, women, second-generation immigrants, or all of the above.

But The Girl is a testament to Jessica Zhan Mei Yu’s technical skills as a novelist, her appreciation for Sylvia Plath’s impact on emerging female writers, and the desire for women of diverse backgrounds to see themselves represented in the stories that define our youth.

 In essence, I believe Yu achieves Girl’s dream of writing a ‘postcolonial novel’, arguably surpassing that ambition by also composing a text that has the potential to be highly influential on the emerging generation of young Australian women. A likely candidate for canonisation alongside Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi and Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, as well as being a stand-out contributor to the developing canon of Asian-Australian literature. In the same intertextual vein as the thematically similar Daisy & Woolf by Michelle Cahill, But The Girl is a title amongst a growing collection of texts that represent the contributions of Asian-Australian novelists to the historically white-dominated field of feminist literature.

Citations

Phillips, A 1950, The Cultural Cringe, Meanjin, viewed 17 March 2024,
Rodrick, C 1972, Henry Lawson: Autobiographical and Other Writings 1877-1922, Angus & Robertson, pp. 108–109.

HOLDEN WALKER is a literary critic and researcher of English literatures and writing from Yuin Country, NSW. He is a PhD candidate with the School of The Arts, English and Media at the University of Wollongong. His current research focus is on postmodern literary fiction and representations of the American Southwest.

Caroline van de Pol reviews Slipstream by Catherine Cole

Slipstream

By Catherine Cole

Valley Press

ISBN: 9781915606341

Reviewed by CAROLINE VAN DE POL

As an admirer of Catherine Cole’s earlier novels, short story collections and memoir such as Sleep, Seabirds Crying in the Harbour Dark and The Poet Who Forgot, I awaited the publication of her new book, Slipstream: On Memory and Migration, with great anticipation. I was not disappointed. The book’s subject matter of memory and migration had its appeal for me as the daughter of an Irish immigrant and Australian mother.

The book was inspired by a flight between Australia and the UK when Cole sensed that she ‘had been infected in some way by a blight common amongst the children of migrants; that desire to experience a life missed in the country abandoned by my parents.’ (Cole, p. 12). A little while later during her Hong Kong stopover she enviously watched the locals laughing and sharing stories or pointing things out to one another. ‘The city teemed with families who seemed welded to their lives there. They went back a long way, I decided, generations and generations, or so it seemed to me on that humid, solitary day.’ (Cole, p.14)

Cole dedicated the book to her brother, Brian, who as a small boy, travelled with his parents in 1949 from Yorkshire in northern England to Australia under the Ten Pound Pom scheme to Bankstown in Sydney’s South Western suburbs. Brian died in 2022 so he didn’t see the book in print but he and Cole spoke regularly about his memories. This loss of a brother adds a tinge of sadness to the book, an imperative also that we need to talk about our lives and acknowledge the courage with which we live them. I have lost family members too and this plangency echoed with me. I was drawn also to Cole’s thoughtful examination of what migration means to people and communities, especially her parents’ experience of migration.

There were many moments during my reading of Slipstream when I thought about family and friends from Vietnam, China and India who also have shared both joyful and devastating memories of migration. These dichotomies are well illustrated in the book in its reflections on the wider themes of migration and also in stories about what Cole describes as ‘reverse’ migration, her six years spent in the north of England. Cole also challenges the idea that Australia is a new country. In her chapter, Becoming Australian, she notes:

It rankles when people speak of Australia as a new country or part of the ‘new’ world. That is a colonial construct about who ‘discovered’ the place, denying its original people their land and culture – the oldest continuous surviving culture in the world – asserting that the continent was empty. In fact, we live on a thin veneer of history, a ‘relatively short span of Australia’s British settler colonial history, a history that has barely scratched the land’s surface.’ (Cole, p 123)

The layering of wider issues beyond migration, of the split self as depicted in Cole’s reminiscing and reflecting, is a feature of the texture of this tale of contrasting worlds: the sacrifices of leaving home and family in search of a better life. Migrants leave their old homes to seek a new one in a new place. Like so many post war migrants, Cole’s family built their own home first living in a garage sized temporary homes as the permanent home took shape. Cole reflects on what this rehoming means and how home takes on a whole new meaning when sacrifice and optimism meet. She quotes the social historian Ghasan Hage who wrote that a home:

has to be a space open for opportunities and hope. Most theorizations of the home emphasize it as a shelter, but, like a mother’s lap, it is only a shelter that we use for rest before springing into action and then return to, to spring into action again. (Hage in Cole, p102)

Slipstream also explores what has changed since the post war experience of migration and why we are far less tolerant towards migration today. Early in her book, Cole poses the question of changing sympathies for migrants and refugees. While her parents’ journey in 1949 was part of one of the world’s largest mass migrations and one in seven people have now made a new home somewhere in the world, she interrogates this shifting attitude:

Why then, are we so unsympathetic to those who need a safe place? When watching as people flee wars, march towards closed borders or apply fruitlessly for economic migration, it is easy to forget just how fortunate our own families were. (Cole, p 16)

Slipstream also examines the impact of migration on family members, especially those families where some of the children were born overseas and others in the new land. Cole explores a migrant’s grief and loss and the way in which they often cling to their former cultural identity to assuage these feelings. Slipstream offers a humorous and heart-warming story of Cole’s own split between two worlds (the one of her parents in northern England and that of the sandy shores and sunburn of Sydney) while also witnessing from a young age, the struggle of her parents to ‘fit in’. She writes, ‘I want to chronicle how they plaintively memorialised the old world while staying ambitious and optimistic for the new one.’ (Cole, p20) This chronicling takes a number of forms throughout Slipstream. As well as her reflections of migration history and the ways in which other writers have pursued the topic, Cole uses anecdotes and memories to heighten the book’s atmosphere and affect. In one she recalls the way the old world entered the new Australian one via letters and parcels from Yorkshire:

One of the first things my father built on our block of land was a letter box, a neat tin affair with a sloping lid that made it look like a little tin house on top of a post, or like one of my brother’s Hornby tin train stations. The number 80 was painted clumsily on the front. It waited daily for the postman, who rode on his bike down the hill to our place, to deposit whatever thin aerogramme he had in his mail pouch that day. Sometimes he brought a parcel wrapped in canvas or parachute silk, but as time progressed these thinned out to birthdays and Christmas. (Cole p109)

Cole’s search for self in this classical memoir is engaging and offers a balance of distance and introspection. She longs for more detail about her parents’ former lives in their Yorkshire mining village and the shock of Sydney’s western suburbs in comparison. Yet she manages to draw a rich portrait of those early years:

I also want to revisit my parents’ old ‘stomping grounds’ to talk to the ghosts who populate their former lives. What might I gain from these encounters? Self-understanding, historical context, peace of mind in regards to my oddly misshapen identity, that layered self I carry about with me; Australian, British, global, one of the ‘citizens of everywhere and nowhere’. (Cole, p.20)

A feature of Cole’s approach in this important memoir is the inclusion of other views, writers and academics who have looked closely at migration and what it means for them personally and for society. The discussions of migration’s impact on individuals and communities offers perspectives, including writer George Kouvaros who wrote that migration is about a ‘dispersal of the narrative details that we use to understand the people close to us’. The book also draws on the research of historians Paula Hamilton and Kate Darian-Smith, and Hammerton and Thomson in the UK whose research focused on families such as Coles, calling them ‘Australia’s Forgotten Migrants.’

The ways in which the children of migrants feel torn between their parents’ old culture and their own new one offers reflections on the passion for travel that Cole and her peers pursued in backpacking holidays to the ‘old’ country. Cole made several such journeys to her parents’ homeland, the first a six-week journey on a ship bound for England, as a backpacker when she was still a teenager. The significance of the sea – its moodiness, the inability to hold on to it, this kind of ‘slipstream’ permeates Cole’s story and travels. She notes that it is no accident that she first travelled to England by sea – all her life she had heard stories about her family’s passage to Australia on the Empire Brent and here was her opportunity to experience their sea voyage in reverse:

Travelling by sea seems to open vast philosophical conundrums. It causes you to rethink your size and shape and mobility. It offers danger, beauty, secrets. You ponder them at dusk as the sun sinks into the ship’s churning wake and syrens call you to them.’ (Cole, p 41)

Reading about Cole’s desire to trace her parents’ footsteps around northern England – in particular, the roads and lanes and coal mines of Yorkshire – I was reminded of my own desperate longing to live the life I felt I missed out on. This desire to keep our dead relatives living through writing is well-documented by memoirists around the world. Cole writes about her journey through Yorkshire with the ghosts of her family, following them north across Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumberland to their stepping off point on the Clydeside docks of Glasgow. In similar sentiment of the longing and remembering shared by Palestinian author, Atef Abu Saif, Cole shares her yearning to keep her family and her dying brother alive and moving forward.

Cole’s travel is revelatory. She waits ‘like an animal ready to pounce’ on any new insights or stories that help her to understand her own family and their place in the world’s migrant stories. All the while, she is wishing for the conversations with her parents – more stories, more jokes or explanations – she never got to fully enjoy before both had died. It’s true that our thanks to our parents for their sacrifices often come too late. ‘Waiting for the next story and the next,’ she writes, ‘those narratives which, stitched together, make a person who they are and what they understand of themselves.’ (Cole, p 210)

The shape and structure of Slipstream is both meandering and provocative, encouraging the reader to see more than one view of the places Cole visits or where she resides, Bankstown, Liverpool, London, Melbourne, Sydney and of the people and politics she encounters. A favourite part of the memoir for me was a recall of her university days and the reforms made possible to our generation by the Whitlam Government of 1972 – 1975. Those years transformed Australia with their visionary changes, including those to migration policies and multiculturalism under the guidance of Ministers such as Al Grassby. Slipstream also captures the tyranny of memory and the ways in which we remember our families. One particular passage felt particularly poignant as the child Cole lines up for a family photo underneath a flowering jacaranda tree:

Our family home in Bankstown also retains a tyranny of memory. Now both parents are dead, my siblings and I rarely talk about the house, nor about those unsettled early years when we became Australians, in theory at least. The house might rise before us when a memory needs verification. Was it then? Where was that? Waiting for older siblings’ memories to act as the binding agent for something not quite formed. Our parents can’t be asked at all. But the dead speak through photographs and tape recordings, in a flickering family home movie of us all standing self-consciously in front of the flowering jacaranda opposite the back door, its bell flowers drifting above us like purple snow. (Cole, p.113)

Cole’s migrant parents sacrificed so much of themselves and their history for her and her siblings but their story suggests they had no regrets about leaving. Once settled in their new lives they eventually embraced Australia’s way of life, all the while retaining their quintessential Yorkshire ways and accents. Now Cole’s extended family is a multicultural one. The Cole children marries partners from Maltese, English, Irish, Austrian, Indian, and Italian backgrounds. The opportunities of work and education available in Australia in that era are well documented in Slipstream too and they convey how much countries benefit from and can support diverse communities. This is the hope and promise of migration.

 

CAROLINE VAN DE POL is a writer and university lecturer in media and communication. She has a PhD in creative writing and teaches writing workshops internationally. Caroline has worked as a journalist and editor and is the author of the memoir Back to Broady (Ventura 2017). She lives in regional Victoria.

 

Katie Hansord reviews slack tide by Sarah Day

slack tide

by Sarah Day

Pitt St Poetry

ISBN 978-1-922080-04-2.

Reviewed by KATIE HANSORD

“Rules are what people think,
They aren’t a law of nature”. 

(House Like a Folk Tale, 42)

Deeply thoughtful and brilliant, Sarah Day’s most recent collection, slack tide (Pitt Street Poetry, 2022), deftly invokes the wider world of natural imagery and symbolism. A prolific and talented writer, currently living in nipaluna, Lutruwita (Hobart, Tasmania), Sarah Day’s first book was published in 1989. She won the Anne Elder award for a first book of poetry, and this most recent collection marks the increasing wisdom, strength and breadth of her poetic achievement. Like that of the “slack water”, suggested by the title, the poems traverse a kind of collective and introspective lull, such as that which exists between the tides coming in and going out. Day explains that this

“Slack tide, also known as slack water, is the brief lull in a body of tidal water when the tide is neither coming in nor going out. It can be a deceptive term since, although the surface water may appear to be almost stationary, it is no indication that the same is true below the surface; the various competing forces may give rise to a diversity of currents, some even flowing in opposite directions”.

Day situates the poetic ranges of emotional, intellectual and experiential engagement within the metaphorical spaces of both the deceptively quiet surface and the powerful underlying unseen currents, movements, and directional shifts. The metaphor of slack water brings into question natural and human confluences of contemplation and change. They move gently through shifts, rest and consideration, processing through cycles and directional pulls. The poems themselves are frequently very neat, measured and concise, frequently contained within a page or two yet with often wildly expansive, deep and radical conclusions. Through their careful organisation, concepts and epiphanies beyond control break through.

The volume contains six sections, opening with the poem ‘Transhumance’ (subtitled ‘Plague Year’) through reflection on the experiences of intense (yet often seemingly still and quiet) disruptions to Capitalist norms and the various veneers of ‘business as usual’ and ‘normalcy’ during the 2020 Covid lockdowns. The poem takes in these new landscapes, ‘In the absence of the city’s noise’ and the subsequent movement ‘as we follow one another / out of the old into the new’ (3). The title poem, ‘Slack Tide’ (4) muses that ‘this was a world we thought we knew / but it resembles nothing that we know, / insists we think like water at slack tide – / ambivalent, sensing whether to come or go” (4). There is a sense of return or recognition of what had always been obscured in all the noise and bustle, and its associated imagery that continues to surface here and there in ‘the right-wing headlines of last week’s news’, (12) or the sudden appearance of a ‘dented Coca-Cola can’(35). Like lapping water, or waves, eroding and changing what may have seemed immovable, the poems return again and again to questions of truth, particularly as it is found to be conflicting with contemporary cultures of hyper-individualism, catastrophic environmental degradation, and neo-liberal capitalist society. The poems move through and across landscapes, guiding the reader through richly visual evocations. 

Scenes shift from the School strike for Climate where ‘A young girl beside me at the busy crossroads / grips her placard: Save Our Earth its letters scrawl / unevenly…” (24) to the river ‘Ouse’, to ‘River Pans’, always insisting and bearing witness to the knowledge that the unending harm and destruction of what has been and has come to be regarded as ‘normal’, cannot continue.  In ‘House Like a Folk Tale’ this is articulated as the truth that “Rules are what people think / They aren’t a law of nature” (House Like a Folk Tale, 42). Human rules, and even the ways of thinking behind them, as distinct from laws of nature, assert their clear links to memory and violence, bloodshed, death, loss and war, as component parts of the larger environmental destruction. In ‘Everyday Losses’ the speaker shares these intimate familial memories of destruction and harm with us, the italicised casual banality of the phrase ‘During the war – so many of my father’s / conversations started off this way’ (47). In ‘Standish’ the memory of ‘Alice, my missing grandmother’, in an asylum, where ‘A husband then could lawfully erase life / could eliminate a woman’ (52). This backwards looking reflection on the past and the continuing gulfs between morality and law, of man-made rules as constructs and constructors of eliminations swirls into the lines ‘I write these words in anger / and in tenderness.  A harm was done’ (55). Speaking to the powerful emotional registers which arise and can be expressed through anger and grief, and through which both love and hope transfer and can transform. These poems hold a deep sense of love and hope, for humanity, the environment, and animals, as deep as their grief and rage at these systems and symptoms of depravity, through a poetic process of truth seeking, reckoning and accountability.

The emphatic overarching eco-feminist approach of the poems, entails a clear recognition and articulation of the interconnectedness of each of these poems and of the forces driving the various oppressions and horrors that are manifested and reflected within them. In ‘Pathologist’ a diagnosis of this crisis is made explicit, in a perhaps satirical reversal of the pathologizing language used by the dominant social order, recalling a sense of correction – or at least connection- to the false hysterical claims and incarceration within an asylum of the lost grandmother; this too was always environmental destruction:

Called in to diagnose a pathogen,
he plucks the feathers from the penguin’s breast,
inserts the scissor tip beneath translucent skin
and snips along the keel, but now undressed
the bird reveals its actual cause of death –
and all its fellows’ too on their rocky island in
the ice, hapless, fractured, bleeding from within,
found dead and dying on their nests.
The melting sea ice rippling on a tidal surge
has crushed each innocent swimmer-tobogganist
unaware. From errant waves emerge
a few survivors limping home from fishing trips,
broken clues with which to join the dots for passing ships.

(68)

These environmental impacts are situated in the same understanding that the environmental degradation is itself of course bound up in the conflicting rules, ‘what people think’, the upholding of unethical man-made laws of this exploitative system, and in turn, how these interact with the laws of nature.  This shorter, carefully constructed poem, perhaps like any other in this collection could, in many ways perfectly encapsulates a sense of Day’s stunning poetic skill and of the many intricate interconnections being continuously woven throughout the collection as a whole. The striking enjambment of the lines ‘…crushed each swimmer-tobogganist / unaware. From errant waves emerge’ link destruction, un/ awareness and the waves, with all the visually striking scenes offered. From this the dots we must connect emerge between constructed hierarchies of value and contrasting realities of value, in light of environmental, human, animal and spiritual destruction. 

This collection is beautifully written and elegantly, carefully deliberated, yet clear, unwavering and powerful. It is as tender in its articulations of grief as it is deep in its commitment to ongoing love through a poetics of relentless returns to the threads of truth, detail and care, amid vast seas of damage and unknowns. In the final section, the poem ‘Paradise’ reiterates this sense of hope in its refrain, ‘The many parts make up a green cohesion’. Similarly, in the poem ‘River Pans’, each poem connects to us and to the world of natural laws:

Think of the river’s waters
stirring stones on bedrock
round and round and round
into a geometry of perfection,
pans deepening over millenia –
the permanence of moving water,
the permanence of loose stones,
being the only essentials
for water to shape unyielding
dolerite to its own ends.
In such a way, a poem, fluvial
may run through time to move us,
finding itself briefly in the present
like the clear water with its pestles
at the bottom of this round hollow
in which you almost disappear. (87)

The waters, and the ocean as metaphor, crystalises too its incredible depths of time and space, of unknowns and mysteries, which are juxtaposed skilfully with the everyday, observable, the obvious, the ‘melting sea ice rippling on a tidal surge’, as the pieces we connect together in producing and sharing knowledge, through experience and understandings. All of these factors that must, once recognised and named as truths amid the quiet and the chaos, inevitably shift our adherences to old rules and collective directions, like a tide.

KATIE HANSORD is a writer and researcher living in naarm. Her PhD was completed at Deakin University. Her research interests include gender, poetry, feminism, disability justice, decolonisation and anti-imperialism.

Lisa Collyer reviews Carapace by Misbah Wolf

Carapace

by Misbah Wolf

ISBN 978-1-925735-41-3

Vagabond

Reviewed by LISA COLLYER
 
 
You can imagine tracing the spiral on the white snail shell on the front cover of Misbah Wolf’s second poetry collection, Carapace to find yourself centred in a temporary house. Wolf’s scintillating and edgy collection of prose poems form individual houses with their fully justified box-shape with an entrance and an exit. Each house is named for their characteristics experienced subjectively by the poet, an experience of phenomena that transcends walls, closets, and beds, and rather how houses shape the inhabitants. In ‘COMMON PEOPLE HOUSE’ (p.21) the female residents transform into ‘witches’ (p.21) as they ‘tuck him (‘a man almost dead drunk’) in again, us in our dark robes/ muttering over his body and bringing water to his lips’ (p.21) in an alchemical reinvention of self.

Wolf opens the door on the house, and the mysteries of poetry with the use of the egalitarian form of the prose poem, a revitalised form that is on trend for its sense of breaching genre boundaries. We, the readers are invited in, to follow the inner perimeter of house. There are entry points and exit points, but this is not a linear progression, the spiral turns in on itself, in an attempt, to find itself at home, unrealised until the final poem, ‘THIS MUST BE THE PLACE HOUSE’ (p.45). But first there is a journey into strangers’ homes like in ‘HOUNDS OF LOVE HOUSE’ (p.9) where possessions are so limited, they can be ‘bundled into four garbage/ bags’ (p.9). Unlike the objective account of a home that appears on paper to be inviting, the ‘kitchen was white marble’ (p.9) the phenomenological experience is alienating ‘a middle-aged woman/ who never wanted to talk to her’ (p.9) and ‘a/ fridge stocked with food that was not hers.’ (p.9) Perhaps the symbolism of ‘white’ is the dominant racism that the POC poet suffers. The speaker’s dreams help her make sense of her rootlessness as she is transferred symbolically into a ‘tiny white poodle incessantly scratching at her bedroom door…’ Won’t anyone let me in?

This search for home is at times a plea in ‘H IS FOR’ (p.10) and conjures Gaston Bachelard’s poetics of space in the way it takes root in the sensory and experiential relationship to setting. This longing to be let in, to find a house that feels like home, is a desire to belong where the senses reign supreme, the urge to ‘run my hands through the dad’s hair’ ‘over the dirty knives on the kitchen counter, block/ out the telly with my form’ (p.10) is perhaps a need to take up space, inhabit a setting, to be seen inside as part of the furniture and therefore safe as houses.

Wolf is unapologetic in her honesty of the most intimate goings on in-house. This is what makes the collection so authentic; it doesn’t gloss over the abject nature of ablutions and sex. In ‘MRS ROBINSON’S HOUSE’ (p.25) the speaker enters a prohibited space with a tryst with a married man, hence the allusion to the film ‘The Graduate’ and theme song. The drole tone with the familiar yet unlikely excuse ‘You were married but you had an understanding with your wife’(p.25) follows the abject ‘You slipped your finger over my bloody menstrual pad which only/ amplified the sincerity of your next move’ in homage to Kristeva, the abject and desire are intermingled into the most confessional and private moment in the hunt for transcendence. And we know this, and we’ve all been there, but Wolf gives this space in the most personal of place, the home.

The sense that faraway places inhabit our beings and form our sense of self is captured in the lusty ‘JE TE VEUX HOUSE’ (p.31) where Tibet inhabits ‘The house (that) stretched like a big turd that’s been freshly shitted from a gigantic/ brick beetle (even though it)…was 9351 Km (away.)’ (p.31) The bodies are separated, not by proximity but spirit of affiliating with another country being occupied by the lover, invaded by the raider, and discarded like the two-timer is sensuously rendered ‘In the night a ribbon-like body of water called you and I realised/…there was now a ravine between us.’ (p.31) The speaker addresses the lover with the direct ‘you’ and we the reader are invited to be privy to the affair that coils to a fever pitch only to be discarded for a new temporary abode, another shell, perhaps new shelter.

The prose poem is an outlier: its form is defiant as is Queer space, an intimacy seen as genre bending. Hence, the form has taken off with Queer expression that is flammable in ‘UNDER THE PINK HOUSE’ (p.32). The poem begins ‘It was pornographic science fiction’ with the premise of speculative fiction, ‘What if?’ laying down a dare to imagine Queer space as mainstream. The speaker’s passion is whipped into a sexual frenzy that ‘lassoed me to the bed, and your pussy adopted/ the same penetrating gaze’ disrupting the male gaze for the queer gaze and the site of cunt power. The pluralism of female genitalia embodies Luce Irigaray’s book, ‘This Sex which is not One’ in its celebration of the layers and multiplicity of that which is considered ‘one’ ‘hole’ ‘empty space’.

‘In the centremost labyrinth of your labia, I unintentionally/ scryed your future and saw echoes of tall trees in gentle winds, fingers/ turning pages of burning books with images of hungry baby birds that/ would be unlikely figures of your liberation.’

The ‘L’ word is tossed around in a search for togetherness but like the search for home, it is elusive. In ‘WILD HORSES HOUSE’ (p.12) there is a violence to the coupling ‘This awkward painful screwing that will bleed/ out.’ (p.12) and is perhaps significant of the first time, or sexual violence, or just bad sex. The futility of life is expressed through allusion to Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ where the speaker’s bleak life is reflected upon with ‘This/ cannot be it, surely’ demonstrating the restlessness of the speaker and the hope for so much more. The violence or just lack of real affection is amplified with the only tender touch to be that of ‘Kafka roaches’ soft antennae combing her face in the/ night.’ A sense of annihilation is vividly rendered with the very stark image of ‘cockroaches may survive up to a week without a/ head by just breathing through their skin’ (p.12) and we reflect on what seems the futility of everyday life.

The poem ‘THE CONSTRUCTION OF LIGHT HOUSE’ (p34) reads like an inventory of a rental account of a shared house: a bit battered like its residents but will do as a temporary space, but there is more than just ‘mustardy yellow cupboards’ ‘unpolished wood’ (p34) and ‘windows looking on to a sloping backyard’(p34): there are also ‘contrails’ (p34) on the floor, residue of a face planted, the imprint a person leaves behind on the house, and the marks left within the bodies of the experiential ‘this line/ cuts through time and flesh.’ (p34) This poem is an homage to the share house, to temporary house buddies who are everything in that sliver of time, but will not live on in your next transformation and the boy who will ‘never make it as a writer’; he too is a passing fling, like the ‘stray (cat) who wandered in one day and/ never left. You end up belonging to each other.’ (p.34) And like the temporary houses we call homes, they too are like a beacon of hope, where when the lights go out, love, lust and violence happen. Most of all Carapace is about the discarded shells and the resonance of those shelters that live on and on in our bodies, our only permanent homes.
 
 
LISA COLLYER is a poet and educator and the author of How to Order Eggs Sunny Side Up (2023)
Life Before Man Books, Gazebo Books. She was short-listed for The Dorothy Hewett Award
and was an Inspire writer-in-residence with The National Trust of W.A.

Jennifer Compton reviews The Detective’s Chair by Anne M Carson

The Detective’s Chair

by Anne M. Carson

LiquidAmber Press

ISBN 9780645044980

Reviewed by JENNIFER COMPTON
 
 

Poetry has many pleasures, and, as quite a few of us might suspect, an almost equal share of pains. But every so often, every so often, a book comes along that panders to my desire to loll about reading a detective novel, one hand dipping into the box of chocs and riffling the paper cups to come upon an orange cream, which is my favourite. I am aware, out of the corner of my eye, of the literature outlining the comfort of a rules-based, escapist genre, where the murder victim is rarely, if ever, someone you have come to like. But it wasn’t until I read Carson’s “Reflections on writing The Detective’s Chair” at the back of this book, that I twigged that what I am really liking is the almost preternatural intuition of the crime solvers.

‘The insight came to me while I was sitting in my favourite red, upholstered chair with my legs curled beneath, a pot of Madura tea to hand: my favourite fictional detectives solve crimes similar to how I write poems. They are essentially creative people – and solving crimes is an essentially creative act.’

Then I surrendered, willy nilly, to my baser nature and riffled through the pages to check out my favourites. My orange creams. Miss Jane Marple of St Mary Mead. Who, whilst weeding her herbaceous borders, looks boldly into the dark heart of wickedness. And Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgleish, of Scotland Yard, who resorts to writing poetry – your actual slim volumes – between cadavers. Although he is appropriately self-deprecating. And, of course, Inspector Kurt Wallander in Ystad, Sweden, shambling around in a welter of piles of dirty laundry and unmet obligations –

‘ … desperate for a few motionless
moments to let his thoughts run unfettered. A niggle, just out of
reach, an uneasy ache he knows holds vital clues. Something
someone said or didn’t say–elusive since the first murder. If only he
could sit quietly, listen long and open enough for it to unfurl, maybe
it would crack the case wide open.’ (p65).

Now this poem is called “Uneasy ache” but I first came upon it when it was called “The Detective’s Chair” – a singeleton, an outrider, the harbinger of plenty – and I was very much struck with the intersection of popular culture and poetry. I may have become forceful in my desire for more. I remember discussing the difficulties of tackling Commissario Guido Brunetti, because he is happy, as Anne and I took our keepcup coffees down to Carrum beach during the longeurs of Covid lockdown.

‘There is nothing noir about Guido Brunetti. Noir needs ground of
loneliness, food of melancholy. Crime-solving gets him down from
time to time but he is reflective, philosophical, dives into Herodotus
for distance. On the case, he is professional, meticulous; his nose
and native cunning winkle clues out. He doesn’t come home from
violence to empty taunting rooms, to the siren song of ghosts -’ (p11).

However, I am not meaning to imply that this is not poetry of the most serious intent and of the highest order. It understands its place within the oeuvre, it invokes tried and true devices, it succeeds as poetry. But, because it is entangled with another genre, there is a kind of slippage, and also of homage. Carson has laid down solid rules for herself, in the spirit of the genre she has playfully appropriated. Each take on a detective is a fourteen line prose poem. I suppose you could almost aver – sonnets of the prose poem ilk.

Quickly, I must mention, one of the delights of this delightful book, produced by the indefatigable Liquidamber Press, are the quirky illustrations by René Carrasco, which seem to glow with nostalgia for a simpler age. As does the dedication to Dorothy Porter for her heroic ploy to get poetry out of the bottom shelves at the back of the book shop into the display stands at the front with The Monkey’s Mask. That worked well for her, but that was 1994. However it was a bold move, and it made its mark.

‘Jill’s too busy courting trouble on the mean streets for
time in a chair, feet-up. When she grabs moments from the
malestrom, it’s her backyard fishpond which settles her. She
becomes mesmerised by the gold swirl and swish beneath, the
glimpse of a tail, hypnotic lure of dreamy movement and then the
shape of an idea emerges from the depths, leading to her next step.’ (p7).

Please do buy this book for a childhood friend or a brother-in-law or a great-aunt who isn’t quite sure they like poetry much, but who you know devours detective fiction. And then watch them forget that it is poetry they are reading, as they flick back and forth checking out whether Carson has included their particular favourites, and also to get ideas for authors new to them to chase up. And then watch them becoming absorbed and reflective as the poetry does its work.

 
 
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.

Suyanti Winoto-Lewin

On my friend’s ankle

Tipping Points

On my friend’s ankle, painstakingly inked with individual pricks of a four-pointed needle, is a symbol that ecologists may recognise as a sign of our times.

A sine wave steadily swells and falls across their skin, holding two seeds in its valleys. One rests sleepily at the base of a valley. Another, one wave to the right, is climbing steadily up the rollercoaster. Bit by bit it climbs, defying gravity. Once it reaches the peak it is in danger of rolling unimpeded into the next dip.

This symbol represents the concept of alternative stable states and tipping points. Each valley represents a state in which a system can be. Even when the system is perturbed (that is, internal or external pressures cause a system to become off-balance), negative feedback loops draw it back to its stable norm. However, large changes, either sudden or occurring in persistent increments, can push a system to a tipping point, where the seed rolls down to the next valley, a new state of being which is reinforced by a new set of feedback responses.

We feel our present to be a precipice. We stand at the edge of all manner of tipping points. One push, and we could roll in any direction away from all the patterns and truths of the system we know. The picture is of chaos and off-balance, any new stable regime on the other side of the hill far away and unknown.

I imagine the seeds on my friend’s ankle racing over the hummocks, careering off the end of the line and rolling down his foot, over his toes, into the dirt beneath his feet.

Circles

When I was young, I would crouch in the soil of my mum’s garden in naarm/Melbourne, watching the buds of poppies intently. Surely, if I looked for long enough, I would catch the moment when the first petal peeped out from the green. I never did.

The continent known as Australia travels north at a steady pace of 7 centimetres per year, yet rarely do we feel the ground shift beneath our feet. It has been resolutely ploughing away from the south pole since it started to pull itself free of Antarctica, a divorce which begun about 30 million years ago. I am intrigued by the idea of a moment in which the final tear occurred between the two land masses and water rushed into the scar. That gap allowed an oceanic current to form a tight, ceaseless ring, circling round and round the south pole, unimpeded by land. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current (AAC) is the only oceanic current to circumnavigate the world. The formation of this current barred Antarctica from warmth delivered south from the equator by the East Australian Current and the Leeuwin Current, which could not pass the ceaseless whirl of the ACC. Though Antarctica sat over the south pole long before the formation of the ACC, only when this current gained momentum did it lose its forests to a permanent blanket of ice. This change, like so many of the catastrophes of geological history, happened unimaginably slowly. Even so, the glaciation of Antarctica formed part of the mass extinction event which marked the end of the Eocene epoch.

In that forested southern world over 30 million years ago, as Tasmania drifted north and ocean started to gather its furious momentum around Antarctica, I imagine the tree ferns and myrtle beeches unfurling fertile growth and sending their spores and seeds off into the wind. Some of those seeds may have caught a northward breeze, or hitched a ride on a dinosaur feather to land on fertile soil of the new island of lutruwita/Tasmania. As I walk amongst myrtle beaches and tree ferns in the Gondwanan forests of lutruwita, I imagine that I am shaded by the descendants of some of these refugees. As I breathe in the perfume of a leatherwood, I imagine its ancestors summoning Antarctic insects with their scent.

Antarctica has been trapped within a whirling ring of cold water for about 30 million years—time enough for some of the hardiest and most specialised marine life forms on our planet to evolve. A complex community of tiny animals, fungi, bacteria, protists and stranger things creep across the dark underside of the icepack or thrive within the network of briny channels etched within sea ice. Like most beings, their energy comes from the sun, alchemised from within the ice by algae.

In this frozen world, each fraction of a degree of warming makes some difference; more briny channels; less light as snow heaps up on top of the sea ice; changing growth rates of organisms. Trophic webs flail, recalibrate, adjust. But it is when the temperature crosses melting point that we humans stand to attention. Glaciers calve in loud surrender and the comfort of predictability is lost. Creatures which rely on sea ice die, while other waiting spores bloom. We watch the seed topple from a rise to a deep crevasse.

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is changing. Driven by the roar of increasing westerlies, eddies which fling warm water south through the ACC are becoming stronger. This warm water travels under the sea ice pack and melts it from below, allowing glaciers to speed up behind it. The ACC long ago condemned Antarctica to apocalypse, but now protects the unique systems which have evolved there. Recent research warns that we have reached a critical threshold of warming, a tipping point, which determines even if we stop emitting fossil fuels today, the icepack of the West Antarctic Peninsula will continue to melt at increasing speed for the next one hundred years.

Spirals (contacting)

At the time of writing, there are 686 species of plant, animal, algae and insect recognised to be at risk of extinction in my home state of Tasmania. Climatic tipping points endanger many more. Some of these species have existed since Antarctica was lost to the cold; they may call that white continent their ancestral home.

Though I don’t feel that I am ready to grieve, the work I do as an ecological consultant resembles a form of mourning. I spend my working days documenting the decline of species. The small losses; a trigger plant smaller than a fingernail growing in drainage depressions of the site of a new factory; a skink distinguished by the arrangement of scales on its head losing habitat to a road. My job is to survey areas proposed to be covered in concrete or dug up for minerals, searching for signs of these 686. What I find, I carefully identify, count, photograph and map. I may make 500 mapping points in a day marking threatened plants, hollow bearing trees and vegetation communities. My colleagues produce a map and upload the information onto Tasmania’s online database called the ‘Natural Values Atlas’. We write a report describing all the life in that area that we can. The proponent then applies for a permit to ‘take’ any threatened species we have identified within their project area. Unwilling to stand in the way of development, government generally grants these permits. Concrete is poured. With a disturbing symmetry, living beings are lost in the physical world just as they become represented in the virtual. The state database collects points on a map as if this could substitute for plants in the soil, as if to codify what we have lost is to justify losing it. The Natural Values Atlas is becoming a virtual graveyard where we may visit and grieve. Our report becomes a callous obituary.

Sometimes, the design of a project will be altered somewhat to avoid harming some critters considered significant. Often, conditions of the permit require an environmental offset – take from here, but protect over there. Offsets only make sense if a norm of destruction is assumed, so that even decreasing the possibility of destruction can be considered a positive action. Further, offsets deny individuality, functioning on the premise that individuals lumped under the same name by taxonomists, or vegetation communities considered similar by ecologists, are interchangeable. Recent legislation provides for a ‘Nature Repair Market.’ Though this offers some promise of promoting good restoration work, it is based on similar principles of interchangeability. Our ‘natural values’ have become currency; the rarer the more valuable.

The independent review of our current federal environment laws found that ‘surveillance, compliance and enforcement under the EPBC Act is ineffective.’ The legislation relies on developers self-assessing whether the impact they will have on natural values is ‘significant’ or not – only if a developer decides their impact is significant will they present it to the federal regulator for assessment. This means that the regulator does not see most of the projects which chip away at our continent’s ecosystems. When a project is referred, the odds are on the side of approval, with only 13 projects out of over 7000 refused approval between 1999 and 2022. Often a permit has conditions, but there is little to no oversight on whether these conditions are followed. In the decade from 2010-2020 the federal regulator issued $230,000 in fines for compliance breaches. By comparison, Hobart City Council expects to issue 8.3 million in parking fines in 2023-24.

I recently met with a representative of Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water (DCEEW) about offsets for a road project. She calmly informed us that ‘in perpetuity’ means ‘20 years.’ I was stunned, as she only looked about 30 herself. A standard logging cycle for eucalypts is about 80 years. It takes at least one hundred years for a eucalypt to form hollows suitable for birds or gliders to raise their young in. 20 years is less than a human generation, a mining lease, a life sentence in jail. In 20 years’ time, that offset will have done its job. It can either be destroyed or it can be used to justify another round of destruction. So we spiral inward, towards extinctions.

While the separation of Antarctica and Australia occurred (and is occurring) at a speed beyond the comprehension of human senses, and human induced climate change can be perceived within my own 26 years, many of the factors causing extinctions occur at the pace of a bulldozer or a supertrawler. Whales which depend on the sea ice-reliant Antarctic krill were almost driven to extinction long before the effects of global warming were recognised. Today, regional overfishing of Antarctic krill is adversely affecting colonies of krill-dependent species such as penguins and seabirds. Scientists worry that catch limits for krill do not take into account the effects of climate change on krill populations. Australia has lost 38 mammal species in the 250 of European colonialism which has brought feral predators, habitat loss and hunting. These are threatening processes which have barely relented their breakneck pace for the past 200 years. They continue in the form of some of the projects I work on. Each extinction, each loss of a population of a species or a of community of beings, reduces our resilience to global warming and adaptive capacity in the face of change.

The seed

As a young person peering over the precipice of the present while grieving the past, I cling to uncertainty as a tired polar bear clings to drift ice. Planetary systems are so complex we can never fully emulate them within our computer models, which seem to spit out the future like a curse. We don’t know how the ground will shift beneath us, only that it will shift. We don’t know which way the seed will roll, nor in which valley it will get trapped. For me, uncertainty provokes hope and curiosity.

Ecologists use the word resilience to describe the ability of a system to remain stable in the face of environmental perturbations. This could mean raising those hills higher, so that the seed has a little further to climb before it falls to other side. It could also mean forming that seed into a tough little bugger with a thick skin – a system with high adaptive capacity. One of the key ways of building adaptive capacity and maintaining resilience of a system is by nurturing diversity. This includes diversity in genetics as well as in human communities, and importantly, in relationships. This is the work of our generation—a turn back to nurture and stewardship. A building and rebuilding of relationships in creative ways. We also need fertile ground, places for seeds to land as continents shift, such as healthy soil, hollow bearing trees for breeding critters and unpolluted waterbodies.

So, whilst we do all we can to slow the climate crisis, we must take loss of biodiversity on home soil seriously. Even ‘single-mindedly,’ the term Tasmania’s liberal government recently used to dismiss advice against a windfarm offered by experts on migratory birds. Themselves employed by the government, these experts cited the harm it may do to critically endangered orange-bellied parrots. We are not supported by the good nature laws we need, but our government is rewriting them, and there will be opportunities for community to be involved in this process. Rather than turning the protection and rehabilitation of particular ecosystems into a commodity that becomes more valuable as each one becomes more rare, stewardship of nature needs to become standard practice, written into law rather than governed by economy. Offsetting needs to be tightly regulated, and permit conditions policed. In a political and social environment in which protecting planetary resilience is as ordinary as maintaining public infrastructure we can find a more creative form of development. We can strengthen the seed and nurture the soil.

*

As the individual pricks of a tattoo artist’s needle create an image on skin, ecologists’ mapping points paint lines and blots across the landscape. Often these draw out patterns of destruction that follow mineral riches, ever expanding roads and fertile soils. But there are also patches of growth such as where plans have changed to avoid harm to critters, where rehabilitation has occurred, or where seeds have been collected to spread to new places.

Our current system shows that we can take notice of diversity, and record it with the precision of an artist. If we add an artist’s intentionality to this, and take note of the bigger picture we are drawing, we can create a constellation of hope at the scale of our continent. With our actions and our noticing of the beings around us we can create an image that, beyond the uncertainty of tipping points, holds fertile ground where resilient seeds can grow.
 
 
 
SUYANTI WINOTO-LEWIN lives by the Derwent in lutruwita/Tasmania. She is an ecologist working in consulting and land management. Her creative work has been published in Overland Journal, and her research has been published in the Australian Journal of Botany.

Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn reviews Every Version of You by Grace Chan

Every Version of You

by Grace Chan

ISBN: 9781922806017

Reviewed by Zowie Douglas

 

In 2022, as AI-generated images began to populate our social media feeds, RnB artist SZA released Ghost in the Machine, in which she sings: ‘Robot got future, I don’t.’ The future and the present are uncomfortably close in Grace Chan’s Every Version of You, where the characters inhabit a world that is startingly familiar to ours. The protagonist, a young woman named Tao-Yi and her partner Navin live in Southbank, Melbourne, where the average outdoor temperature is too hot for prolonged exposure. Other than the climate, places such as Berwick, Townsville and Port Douglas are recognizable. Most people wear ‘Revisions’, AI-augmented interfaces which filter the world and provide useful information, including temperature, radiation, and airborne pollution levels. Characters consume ersatz food like Koffee and use robotic vacuum cleaners. Nursing homes employ droids to deal with old people. All these things build on current trajectories to create a mid-2100 era that feels too close to home, from technology to language use. Internet slang like ‘meatspace’, for example, has been adapted to become vernacular to describe the physical world as opposed to being in Gaia, where most of the characters in Every Version of You spend their time.

The novel plot turns on the decision to ‘upload’, that is whereby characters physically die, giving up their bodies in exchange for eternal ‘life’ in hyperspace. In this way, Every Version of You introduces humanoid technologies similar to other recent works of science fiction, such as Olga Ravn’s The Employees, whose narrator says: ‘It’s my job to get rid of terminated workers and, in a few instances, bodies left over after sickness or re-uploading.’ Instead of being a ship steward, Tao-Yi is a woman overboard. The plot of Every Version of You operates as an Odyssey of sorts: Tao-Yi could upload to Gaia with her lover and ‘exist’ in a state of eternal youth, but she decides not to; instead, she remains on earth, where she is determined to return to her grandmother’s ancestral home. Tao-Yi grew up in Malaysia, where her attachment to earth appears to be rooted in childhood memories and obligations: ‘Honouring Poh-Poh is more important than playing with friends in a make-believe world,’ her mother, Xin-Yi scolds a young Tao-Yi. ‘How would you feel if no one paid respects to your soul after death?’ To which Tao-Yi replies, ‘I’d be dead, so I wouldn’t feel anything.’

In Every Version of You, hyperspace becomes the locus of existence, even though its permanent residents are technically, corporeally dead. Those who visit Gaia experience a host of larger-than-life experiences, while life on Earth is stifling and depressing. Tao-Yi’s partner Nevin, who suffers from chronic kidney disease, is one of the first characters to abandon the crumbling spectre of Melbourne to upload into Gaia. Notably, the first subject to undertake the uploading process is a disabled woman. ‘A car accident at the age of three rendered Marisa quadriplegic. She moved and fed and bathed with integrated assistive technology.’ Here, Marisa’s state of being is similar to the experience of people who access Gaia inside the Neupod, a kind of isolation tank filled with gel. The user needs to shave their head to attach the equipment, rendering them infant-like in appearance. There is an element of body horror to the book’s tactile fleshiness; while the user is physically motionless, the body breaks down in graphic detail. In this way, the world building of Every Version of You is not always the most original, but it builds on influences from The Matrix and other science fiction in a compelling fashion, tempered by detailed character arcs and emotional depth.

In terms of augmented reality and artificial intelligence, the book feels prescient. In August of 2023, a 47-year-old woman was able to speak for the first time in 18 years through an avatar with the assistance of a brain-computer-interface, or BCI. The woman had lost her mobility at age 29 as a result of a brainstem stroke. The BCI is attached via electrodes to an area of her brain and runs a on language model similar to Chat GPT, where her electrical signals are ‘translated’ into words and conveyed by an avatar on screen, simulating speech much more quickly and accurately than earlier speech synthesisers.

In a similar way, language and technology are tightly intertwined in Every Version of You, where everything is bodily, earthy, tactile. Tao-Yi’s Revision is ‘clotted’ with advertisements. Bundles of wires are described as being like ‘spilled guts’. Nevin and Tao-Yi argue ‘with their mouths to each other’s ears, breathing in synchrony.’ Nevin is far less attached than Tao-Yi to the physical world. ‘We kill off our old selves all the time,’ he says to Tao-Yi. This idea of reinvention as self-obliteration is a recurring duality in Every Version of You, alongside the blurred border between information and language, mind and body.

Throughout the novel, Tao-Yi is haunted by her grandmother’s history of depression. ‘Her poh-poh died in 2043, fifty-four years old, alone in a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur. A suicide note, torn from the pages of a journal, crumped between the sheets.’ Tao-Yi’s maternal lineage forms a bastion of reality that is returned to over and over, bringing her literally down to earth while her peers are rushing to escape into hyperspace. ‘The earliest Uploaders will be seen as pioneers,’ said Zach, a friend of Tao-Yi and Navin. Here, I was reminded of Shoshana Zuboff’s nonfiction book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, in which Zuboff likens the advance of Big Data as a kind of digital dispossession, harvesting private citizens’ information to enrich tech empires while controlling their access to the online world. But those who upload see themselves as explorers of a new frontier, even as their memories are being absorbed into servers at a high financial and physical cost.

Gaia might provide an escape from mortality, but it’s no panacea. As Tao-Yi says, ‘We built the same spaces and borders, the same sort of bodies, and set everything ticking to the same flow of time.’ To this her friend Zach replies, ‘We stick to the boring utopias.’ I was reminded of Steve Toltz’s novel Here Goes Nothing, where heaven turns out to be a bureaucratic world of austerity, full of the same inconveniences and absurdity of earthly life.

In Gaia, the line between commerce and life remains nebulous, creating an anxiety between what is ‘real’ and what is artificially manufactured: ‘Her tummy grumbles. Is the system telling her that her actual tummy is grumbling, or has the Neupod tracked her blood sugars dropping and triggered an artificial signal? Or has the cafeteria paid for hunger triggers?’ Marketing imbues the world in ‘comm’ speak, and most human art including music is widely designed by algorithm. The characters inhabit a world where mathematical order rules, but this tends to recreate inequalities rather than level them out. For instance, bots abound in poorer, outdated districts: ‘Some have been bought by earnest shopkeepers from developing countries, taking advantage of the cheaper real estate to find a way into Gaia.’

In any case, for Tao-Yi and those few who remain on earth, their commitment runs through the knowledge that they are the outliers in a world saturated by artificial intelligence, a kind of hanger-on to a sinking ship as the earth’s regulatory systems break down. They are the ghost in the machine, even as the avatars who flit between servers lose their bodily forms.

 

ZOWIE DOUGLAS-KINGHORN lives in Tasmania. Her work has appeared recently in Overland, Island, Meanjin, The Age and others, and her essays and short stories have been awarded the Scribe Nonfiction Prize and the Ultimo Prize for Young Writers. She is the previous editor of Voiceworks.

Dominique Hecq reviews she doesn’t seem autistic by Esther Ottaway

she doesn’t seem autistic

by Esther Ottaway

Puncher and Wattman

ISBN 978-1-922571-76-2

Reviewed by DOMINIQUE HECQ

Esther Ottaway’s third book of poetry, she doesn’t seem autistic, explores a neglected area of psychological medicine: autism in women. It is by default that Ottaway herself was diagnosed, when a specialist established that her youngest daughter was autistic. Although partly autobiographical, the persona in the poems is ‘a composite woman and girl,’ Ottaway tells us in her foreword: she wants ‘to show [us] a profile of autism that [we] are not familiar with’ (12). 

The collection documents the symptoms of female autism across a spectrum as well as the inevitable misdiagnoses. It also poignantly exposes the core of the speaker’s humanity—in this case, what affects her. In Andy Jackson’s words, the book is ‘a revelation.’

Symptoms of female autism include empathy arousal, rejection sensitive dysphoria, alexithymia, situational mutism, masking, echolalia, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, dyspraxia, hypotonia, dyscalculia, avoidant/restrictive food intake syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, delayed sleep disorder, narcolepsy, pathological demand avoidance, dysautonomia, panic disorder, depression, etc. Repress the desire to laugh, because this is not funny. Miss Diagnosis is psychological medicine’s own worst symptom. As Ottaway shows triumphantly towards the end of the collection, labels come unstuck. Are torn to shreds. And yes, as she affirms in ‘Joy to my world,’ her own ‘revelation’ (74) means a belief in change.

And the poems? Ah, the poems. They show how poetry is created from the bodymind, its affects and memories. Riposting to Ottaway’s dismissal of the word ‘good’ in ‘How are you?’ (57), I’d say the poems are achingly good. These are not poems trapped on the surface—the surface of observation, information, narration, sleek language.  Here, there is rhythmic intensity that fuses emotion, breath and thought, incorporating profound, associative insight.

Consider, for example the opening to ‘There is always a giraffe,’ which takes us back to the persona’s childhood:

Cool as a whale
Mrs Haydon is stepping backwards through water

patient with this small giraffe
who has failed at every sport

all neck and skittery hooves,
large-eyed, patterned with shame.

Consider how it catches gracefully the movement it needs for grief. How it carries with dismay the child’s terror, and then with respect the newly found knowledge of death, ‘asking if it’s worse to drown, or fall’
(28).

Perhaps these unknowns associated with terror and death present Ottaway’s powering creativity with a tempering negativity. This would seem to be the implication of the book’s first poem, ‘After writing a book on female autism, I decide to bury it,’ where birth and death, breath and dread are intertwined in the figure of ‘that bleating woman’ (13) who nonetheless dares to offer the danger of poetry. 

‘The shamed body addresses its owner,’ responding to a sense of dissociation, is achingly good, too: its feeling is finely judged, its observation has a convincing mix of deflection, fixation and ambivalence. It is almost speechless:

You say my names: but will you introduce me
to your friends?  Are you still ashamed –
(52)

Another standout in this collection is ‘Illanelle,‘ where the body is at war with itself, its ‘lifelong illness… auto-immune,’ adumbrating as it does its own ‘release’ (53). There is something about death that is teaching Esther Ottaway’s layered poetry a new clarity. Perhaps it is a particular kind of newly found carelessness. Or confidence.

At another level, it encourages just a little too much care, as if presence, evoked through sensate detail, might compensate for absence, as in ‘Perennially gaslit, the autistics reject humanity,’ where the persona talks to (her)self and needs more detachment so that desire can get free of guilt and shame:

We aren’t’ wanted,
won’t be missed. Little wonder
that we shy now at this pillory

go to the insects, plants, land, sky. (65)

In the face of such debilitating condition, Ottaway finds in poetic practice a way of enacting a discipline. It might seem effortless, but not many poets can achieve this balancing of the imponderable and impermanent, this balancing of lines so that they incorporate at once the movement of breath and bodymind. Ottaway has learned how to set her subject free: she exercises a discipline of line; she practices precise observation and sometimes self-deprecation; she discreetly deploys a specialised lexicon and, above all, empathy. Some might say that she writes without ego, but I disagree: wit and humour undercut a refreshing self-consciousness.

In ‘Neurodiverse’ Ottaway achieves a level of imaginative embodiment I find puzzling. Through a linguistic play of deferrals and reversals, the poem achieves something close to spiritual power. Something I only experienced by accident in a yoga practice I failed at again and again—and have long since abandoned. Here suffering, emptiness and desire coalesce:

Deserve in our
derive. No ruse.
Revise, undo re
overused rein.
Never die sour! (75)

The imaginative process rests on inter reaching reciprocities; it is useless to want one dimension to explain another, as if the poem were a response to an idea that had some temporal, causal and linguistic priority. It is a pared down, even compact poem. And yet it spawns innumerable interpretations through letter reconfiguration and linguistic border crossing.  Never die sour / [nev-uh-duh-zai-uh]. Rein / rien (nothing). Derive / dérive (drift). Who is writing here? Esther, or me? Until fairly recently, ours (ours?) was not a subject-position from which autism was usually considered, writes another poet grappling, as I do, with what it means to write from the perspective of an autistic subject.1

Themes recur and resonate throughout Esther Ottaway’s work: pregnancy, parenthood, loss, grief and more generally, family ties, but it seems to me that she has found ways to embody them more fully in she doesn’t seem autistic than in her two previous collections to amplify the architecture of her poetry so that what might have been mere observation or information acquires layers of narrative and thought that convey a more profound, a more fully realised experience of interconnectedness. Here is the opening to ‘How to have an autistic friend,’ where the syntax performs this interconnectedness:

See that my scales flash gilt:
the prowess, gift.
Acknowledge the lack in me,
how baffling the lacunae.
Invite me, fit the schedule to me.
If I can’t answer. If I forget,
remind. Remind anyway. When I can’t follow through,
be kind. Remember the iceberg
balancing under this peak,
how intensely I’m thrashing
underwater. See
what can’t be seen, like city stars. Give me rest
and more rest, time, time
and more time.
(79)

Above all, what strikes in this collection is the inventiveness of the language. Enjoy the full response to ‘How have you succeeded despite having autism?’. Here is the hilarious beginning:

At first, I am disauder, distressed auganism. I cannot count on the
audinary. Efforts come to naut – I triage, relinquish, harden up: hindsight
and forethaut my advisors, flight my reliable last resaut. I am an auphan
in this singular authogenesis, autonomous but so hamstrung, my
writing my only authodox ability, stamp on my passpaut…

My own revelation comes intertwined with an anecdaut. 

… empathy arousal, rejection sensitive dysphoria, alexithymia, situational mutism, masking, echolalia, sensory processing disorder, avoidant/restrictive food intake syndrome, delayed sleep disorder, pathological demand avoidance, panic disorder, depression… mania and hypervigilance …

My youngest (a boy) says: We’re all on the spectrum, mum. That includes you. My jaw drops. F. labels. Mind the book’s last poem, ‘The autistic woman’s self-compassion blessing,’ I sway to myself. 2

Notes:

1 Joanne Limburg 2017 ‘The Shape of the Problem’, The Poetry Review, 131.
2 Pun intended.

DOMINIQUE HECQ was born in the French-speaking part of Belgium. She now lives on unceded Wurundjeri land. Hecq writes in English and French. Her creative works comprise a novel, six collections of short stories and  fifteen books and chapbooks of poetry. Her latest publications  include After Cage (2nd ed., 2022, Liquid Amber Press) Endgame with No Ending (2023, SurVision), winner of the 2022 James Tate Poetry Prize, and a bilingual poetry sequence titled Songlines / Pistes de rêve, with photographs by Natia Zvhania (Transignum, 2023).