Ed. Catriona Menzies-Pike
Reviewed by LAURA PETTENUZO
As both a reader and writer, I was eager to dive into Open Secrets, to immerse myself in the wisdom of those with far more literary experience. As a disabled writer still shielding from COVID-19 and knowing that many of these pieces were written at the height of nation-wide restrictions, I was curious to see how (or if), the authors would engage with the impact of the pandemic. I came away from Open Secrets feeling simultaneously impressed, soothed and challenged. The multiplicity of my reaction affirmed the cohesiveness of the collection.
There’s no magical thinking here, no waxing lyrical about the elusive muse and the passion that more than makes up for the lack of recognition or remuneration awarded to writers in so-called Australia. This is a collection that boldly confronts the realities of the writing life, particularly during a pandemic: the challenge of making ends meet, the additional pressures for those living on the intersections of marginalized identities and despite it all, a commitment to the written word.
Open Secrets asserts the imperative to address the lack of recognition and compensation for writers in so-called Australia. As Catriona Menzies-Pike notes in the introduction, we live in a world that “measures value in dollars and widgets and accords so little to literature”. Fiona Kelly McGregor’s ‘Acts of Avoidance’ lists the pay rates for the publications she’s written for in the last few years and adds that, disappointingly, “these rates have remained the same since 2017.” In ‘Award Rate’ Laura Elizabeth Wollett recounts being shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (PLA). In an imagined acceptance speech, she says, “Thanks for the money. It’s a lot. I wish there was more to go around”. Despite her simple aspiration “to live and write,” Woollett doubts her ability to write if she wins the PLA, asking her husband, “What if I get so comfortable, I stop trying?” Her fears are echoed by other contributors, for different reasons.
No excavation of the writing life would be complete without a focus on imposter syndrome, which Open Secrets tackles with a frankness and vulnerability that called out to my own sense of writerly inadequacy. While Elena Savage Lisa Fuller’s ‘Fight or Flight’ confronts “the horrors of the blank screen” and the “urge to run” that it evokes. It is both heartening and disappointing that success does not dispel the “dark passenger,” as Fuller calls her disparaging self-talk. There are few Australian authors who have known as much success as Fuller in recent years, yet she describes being gripped by “absolute terror.” Receiving an email from a student wrestling with similar doubts, Fuller tells them, “The only way through is never to stop writing or learning.” ‘Fight or Flight’ was written as Fuller was “trapped inside [her] house,” during lockdowns, an experience that stifled some writers and galvanized others.
Several essays in Open Secrets explored the experience of writing (or attempting to write) amidst a global pandemic. For instance, Suneeta Peres da Costa described her mother visiting her unmasked, proclaiming, “COVID-19 is not contagious!” Throughout De Costa’s piece is the refrain, “I’m supposed to be writing this essay on technology,” even as she describes all the activities she does which are not writing. Peres da Costa captured the universal struggle of the literary craft, which, for some, was exacerbated by lockdowns: the way it seems we sometimes have to grapple with ourselves to simply sit down and do the work. She masterfully evoked the sense of futility of that work given all that was unfolding in the world, wondering if it “will matter even less now than any time before, given relative prospects of dying from an incurable virus”. But it was Fiona Wright’s piece, ‘On Being A Precedent’ with which I related most, which explicitly and bravely illuminated the ableism inherent in so much of the pandemic response and the writing life. Wright rejected the notion of a “new normal” because its precursor (normal) is so often “something that rejects us regardless of whether or not (and consciously or not) we mould ourselves to fit”. For Wright, and for many disabled people, the pandemic and restrictions brought a rare and unfamiliar sense of alignment with the able-bodied world, as well as opportunities to work and socialize that had previously been deemed impossible. Wright’s piece concludes with her defeated observation that she can only “watch on as wider society refuses to adapt for people like me, or to change”. The world, Wright noted, is vastly inaccessible to those of us with disability, as is much of literature.
The complexity of prose and ideas in some of the essays, ironically, mean that it is only accessible to a well-educated and/or highly literate audience. Writing, however, does not have to be intricate to the point of inaccessibility to be beautiful, engaging, and successful. I imagine this collection may have had a wider potential audience if it approached some of its ideas in a way with which readers with varying levels of literacy and/or education could more easily engage.
Open Secrets is not so much a celebration of the writing life as it is a collective, frustrated lament at the economic uncertainty with which creatives in this country must live, the impact of the ongoing pandemic and the long and often arduous and emotionally fraught writing process. And yet, each of the writers continue to sit down at their desk, at a table in their local café, in a park, pouring words onto a page or a screen. They believe, as one day I hope we all will, that literature and humanities mean “having a natural interest in the true, beautiful and the good,” which is worth all the rest.
LAURA PETTENUZZO (she/her) is a disabled writer living on Wurundjeri country. She has a Masters in Professional Psychology and writes Plain and Easy English for various organisations. Her words have appeared in SBS and The Age. Laura is also a member of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council.
Audrey Molloy is an Irish-Australian poet based in Sydney. Her debut collection, The Important Things (The Gallery Press, 2021), received the 2021 Anne Elder Award and was shortlisted for the 2022 Seamus Heaney First Collection Poetry Prize. Ordinary Time, a collaboration with Anthony Lawrence, was published by Pitt Street Poetry in 2022. She has an MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Manchester Metropolitan University. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, Cordite, Overland, Magma, The North, Poetry Ireland Review, Mslexia, and Stand.
A distinct, personal vocabulary as a key device in creating intimacy in the work of Natalie Diaz and Nii Ayikwei Parkes
How does poetry draw you in? Are there certain poems you feel you inhabit, almost as though you have lived them? Questions of intimacy in poetry have always intrigued me. When reading poetry, it’s possible to simply enjoy the effect, without having to lift the curtain to see the mechanism at work. But in order to write intimacy well, it is useful to understand various techniques that can be employed by the poet.
Emotional intimacy, or closeness, in writing, can be created using a range of tools, including tone, imagery, syntax, and, as I intend to illustrate here, vocabulary. This is exemplified in two recently-published (and personal-favourite) poetry collections, Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem (Faber & Faber, 2020) and Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ The Geez (Peepal Tree, 2020). Throughout these works, each poet uses a distinguished and highly personal lexicon that effectively communes with their subjects and conveys intimacy, not only with the body (of the self and the beloved), but also with family and with the land. This has the effect, in both works, of crystalising and heightening desire – as well as loss – of parent, lover, home, identity and family.
These themes overlap with much of what I explore in my own work. As an Irish emigrant living permanently in Australia, on Gadigal land, I believe that my transnational experience of dislocation and restlessness, and my search for identity and home, are relatable to other people of diasporic communities – those who spent their childhood and formative years in regions far from where they now live, and who never lost the early programming of their cultural heritage: flora and fauna, seasons and weather, music, food, traditions and rituals, languages, untranslatable words, i.e. everything that adds up to a sense of home. My physical distance from my original home has heightened the emotional value of these various elements of belonging. I was struck by how much the poetry of Diaz and Parkes resonated with me and, through my close reading of their work, I became acutely aware of the key role their distinct vocabulary plays in the poetics of bringing the reader close to the subjects and obsessions of these two poets.
Richard Hugo, writing in The Triggering Town, makes a distinction between two kinds of poet – the public and the private – with these two categories having little to do with the poets’ themes, and everything to do with their relationship with language itself. With the private poet, he says, ‘certain key words mean something to the poet they don’t mean to the reader.’ Citing specific examples of vocabulary choices such as William Butler Yeats’ gyre and Gerard Manly Hopkins’ dappled / pied / stippled, he argues that a poet ‘emotionally possesses his vocabulary’ and that a poet’s obsessions, or ‘triggering subjects’, curate a lexicon to generate his meaning.
Jane Hirshfield, in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, says that the ‘voice’ of the poet is as distinctive as their fingerprint, and identifiable as their unique instrument. While there is more to ‘voice’ than lexicon, for the purpose of this essay, I will focus on the specific, hallmark vocabulary of Diaz and Parkes – the words that have particular meaning to them – and how, in these collections, this allows the reader to get to know the poets and understand their obsessions.
DIAZ’S OPENING (AND TITLE) POEM – ‘Postcolonial Love Poem’ – sets the tone for her vocabulary throughout the book. Her lexicon of both unusual and recurring words is so rich and varied in this poem that I have organised it into a number of categories: wounds, water, minerals, desert country and skies, the body, light and colour, and Spanish, Mojave or other Native American words:
• bleeding /war /wound /hurt
• lagoon /thirsts /Drink /drought /flash floods /current /hundred-year flood /rain
• bloodstones /stones/cabochon /lapidary /jaspers /geodes /feldspar /copper /diamonds /quartz
• wildflowers /heliotrope, /scorpion weed /blue phacelia / snakebite /desert wash
• skin / breast /mouths /ribs /shoulders /back /thighs /hips /throat / hand / bodies
• pale /silver /dark /green /red /light /rose /blue
• arroyo /culebra
All this in one poem! The following two poems, ‘Blood-Light’ and ‘These Hands, If Not Gods’, as well as ‘From the Desire Field’ and ‘Manhattan is a Lenape Word’ add the following words to the above lists:
• blood /knife /stab /bleed
• rivers / water
• white mud / mica / mineral / salt
• stars /scorpions /Orion /Scorpius / Antares /fig tree /nightingale /bees /nectar /sweetgrass /coyote / gold grasshoppers /honey
• bellies /heels /bone /muscle /wrists /knees /thumb /leg /heart /stomach /horns /eye /carpals /metacarpals /lunate bone
• yellow /black /blue-brown /white /rosen /green /gold
• alacranes /verde /bestia /sonámbula
Notably, the list of words for the body and the land grow most significantly. This pattern continues throughout the collection. Diaz knows her indigenous country in a way not possible to those who haven’t lived on (or off) the land. While specific words such as feldspar or cabochon may be unfamiliar to the average reader, the sheer variety of terms for minerals and gems builds a rich tapestry of the traditional land of her ancestors. Diaz also writes the body intimately, particularly the body of the beloved. Anatomical words in common usage, such as throat, shoulder, and hips, build their effect by the extraordinary frequency at which they appear in the collection. The word ‘bone’, for example, appears eleven times on one page of ‘Ode to the Beloved’s Hips’. This intimacy with the body and with land draws the reader into the poet’s world and conveys the personal significance of her subjects.
In an interview with Janet Rodriguez for Rumpus, when asked about the way ‘ingredients and materials’ used to make ‘Postcolonial Love Poem’ informs the whole collection, Diaz’s response was that no single poem is ‘the key’ to the others, but that they all work together. She says ‘they were built from my image system, my way of constellating languages and images.’ She talks about intentionally ‘leaning in’ to words that are emotional for her – her life, land, hour, pleasure, grief, lover etc. Diaz deflects what might appear as mere repetition of words in her personal vocabulary by imagining each time these words recur as a new beginning.
Irish author Manchán Magan writes, in Thirty-Two Words for Field, when discussing the decline and disappearance of Irish (Gaelic) words, such as ‘colpa’ – a word that describes the grazing potential of a piece of land (one cow or two yearling heifers) – that ‘thinking about the term even for a moment makes you reassess your relationship with land. […] It requires getting to know a piece of soil, spending time observing it before laying claim to it. To appreciate it you need to be outdoors, immersed in the landscape.’ According to a recent review of Postcolonial Love Poem in The New Statesman, Diaz has, like Magan, worked alongside the last living speakers of her indigenous language on programmes to preserve it.
Diaz grew up on a reservation where her language was ‘taken’ from her, writes Sandeep Parmar in an interview in The Guardian. ‘This theft of language, and the superimposition of the occupier’s tongue, is imprinted on her,’ she writes. In part 3 of her poem ‘The First Water Is the Body’, Diaz writes, of the traditional name for her people:
Translated into English, Aha Makav means the river runs through the middle of our body, the same way it runs through the middle of our land.
This is a poor translation, like all translations.
In part 7 of the same poem, Diaz writes, ‘In Mojave thinking, body and land are the same.’ She writes that the words for body (‘iimat’) and land (‘amat’) are both shortened to ‘mat’: ‘you might not know if we are speaking about our body or our land.’
Erotic intimacy is taken to new heights in Postcolonial Love Poem through the startling array of words for the beloved’s body that Diaz employs. Open any page at random and you are likely to encounter the words mouth, thigh, body, skin, thirst, river, bone, etc. The poem ‘Ode to the Beloved’s Hips’ takes this motif to another level. Here, we get hips, throat, pelvis, sacrum, femur, mouth, ossa coxae, ilium, ischium, thumb, tongue, coccyx, bone, thighs, teeth, belly, legs, iliac crest. (Diaz admits, in an interview with Abigail McFee in The Adroit Journal, that one of her earliest images of obsession was the image of hips; her grandmother, with whom she was very close, was a double amputee. ) The reader cannot come away from such a list of anatomical words without being affected by it, without feeling close to the subject. The final poem of the collection, ‘Grief Work’, comes full circle, repeating many of the words from the opening poems – horns, hip, lips, mouth, red, thigh, hands, throat, breast, sweet, river(ed).
By weaving her collection through with traditional – often untranslatable – words as well as Spanish words for her locale, such as arroyo or alacranes, the poet weaves herself and her people into Mojave country and carries the reader with her. And by excavating the river, desert and skies through her familiarity with the vocabulary relating to gemstones, rocks, minerals, bones, the body parts of animals, star constellations, flowers, and so on, Diaz demonstrates her intimacy and kinship with her traditional lands, and her profound grief at the loss of not only her people, but of their proud stewardship of the land and river, and even the sustainability of the land itself.
NII AYIKWEI PARKES’ COLLECTION The Geez also builds emotional intimacy through several techniques, not least his novel 21-line poetic form, the gimbal, which evolves from logical to emotional thought, pivoting around a central axis. He employs an intimate tone from early in the collection, as in the opening lines of ‘Frankenstein’: ‘You know that Kareem Abdul Jabbar hook / shot, right?’ Parkes frequently uses intimate imagery, as in ‘a vaselined smile beckoning in the corner of a club’ in ‘Hangman’. But the focus of this critique is his distinct and personal lexicon, and how that private language conveys emotional, physical, sexual and spiritual intimacy and invites the reader to share his experiences, understand his vulnerabilities and become close to his subjects of family, loss, romantic love and cultural identity.
When examined in terms of specific word choice and frequency, there are similarities between Parkes’ collection and Diaz’s. Parkes also explores the body – especially the face – using recurring words such lips, smile, laugh, kiss, and mouth, in many of his poems. The series of nine poems that make up ‘Caress’ are peppered with words like thigh, skin, hand, shoulder, chest, flesh, heart, tongue, hair, neck, head, lap, ear, cheekbone, fingers, arms, and limbs.
There is also some similarity in words relating to sweetness. While Diaz, in ‘Ode to the Beloved’s Hips’, uses sweet, honey, sticky, nectar, candy, and cake, to evoke erotic intimacy, Parkes uses similar words to conjure sexual intimacy in several poems, most notably ‘Bottle’ (on my tongue the dance of her /sweat and the sugarcane’s trapped burn), ‘Break/Able’ (the berried tip of your left breast), ‘Dark Spirits’ (with the burn and treacly aftertaste of dark dark spirits) and ‘Caress, iii’ (how sweet it is to be loved…It is easy to forget in those treacle-sweet moments).
But there are clear distinctions that make Parkes’ vocabulary uniquely his. The counterpoint to sweet is salt, and the word salt, along with its cousin, sweat, recurs in Parkes’ collection. Starting in the last two stanzas of ‘One Night We Hold’ (We are salt separating into its elements…we are sweat without words), and recurring in ‘Bottle’ (the dance of her /sweat… the salt-charged taste of her), ‘Defences, ii’ (our first sweat-/ heavy coupling) and, in the following extracts from ‘Defences, iii’, salt prevails:
• thinking about the sheen of sweat that brewed /on your skin
• has sweat / far less salty than yours
• how you can never tell how much //salt hides in a tear /or a drop of sweat
• how much salt // will sour a heart?
We can almost taste it. Parkes, in an interview with Toni Stuart, when asked about the recurrence of salt in the collection, replied that he wasn’t aware of the extent of its recurrence, but that his family were fishermen and close to the sea, and fish, and all the salt that goes with that, as well as sweating a lot when he was growing up in Ghana.
It is interesting that these formative influences find their way into a poet’s vocabulary whether they realise it or not. In this instance, the tropes of the body, sweetness, and salt, build an intimacy and eroticism that seduce the reader and open up the lived experience of the poet to the uninitiated. In the Stuart interview, Parkes says, when asked about writing through the body in a visceral way, that, for him, ‘experience of the world is very much to do with my senses’. Stuart responds that ‘there is definitely a sense of living through a poem, like we are with you, in every breath, standing next to you.’ A key device in achieving this effect is the particular word-bank Parkes uses.
Parkes’ lexicon also reveals his obsession with ‘darkness’ and its relatives – dark, darker, shadow, night, blackness, blacken, ebony – all of which feature prominently throughout The Geez, not least in ‘A Gimbal of Blackness’, which includes blackness, night, blackens, darker, night, a dark thing, dark thoughts, black liquid, blacken me. The recurrence of these words evokes the frequently dark colonial history of the African continent. This family of words recurs notably in ‘How I Know’ (darkness, ebony), ‘Locking Doors’ (night /and darkness), ‘Dark Spirits’ and ‘Obscura Y Sus Obras’ (meaning shadow play), which contain the words blackness, charcoal, darker, dark, black, night, dark, black and nights. The effect is to communicate a closeness with, and understanding of, Parkes’ subjects – grief for his dead father, or for his country and extended family left behind.
Balancing and highlighting the dark trope deftly is the vocabulary around reflections. Shine, gleam, burnished, sweat, lustre, slick, sheen, and similar words are scattered throughout the collection. In a grisaille-like effect, they serve to highlight the images of darkness and dark skin, such as in stanza 2 of ‘Hangman’:
Round midnight, when the faded lip of the rim still
gleams from the desperate reach of a weak streetlamp,
like a vaselined smile beckoning in the corner of a club,
Tenderness, a key aspect of intimacy, is conveyed throughout this book via the specific vocabulary of Parkes’ cultural background, such as the shea butter mentioned first in ‘Ballade for Wested Girls Who Want the Rainbow’ (‘shea butter in dark male hands, fingers in grandmother’s hair’), again in ‘How I Know’ (‘the smell of almond and shea butter in the warmth of an embrace’) and for the third time in ‘Caress, iii.’ (‘and it absorbs sun, hatred, fire and shea butter’). Including these specific words in the collection builds an intimate picture of home life, and vulnerability, that brings the reader close to the poet and his subjects of family, home and love. That Parkes is close to his family – his immediate family, diasporic family, and the family left behind in Africa – is clear. This closeness is conveyed through the sheer variety of slang words for addressing family members – Brer, Anyemi, Omanfo, Manyo, I’naa nabi, Money, Ma, Ace, Abusua, all of which appear in ‘11-Page Letter to (A)nyemi (A)Kpa’.
‘Caress’ is a poem sequence where certain words are repeated like a motif, building a sexual intimacy: bud, fruit, flower, blossom, seed, as well as feather, tenderness, fondle, caress, kiss. There is also a concentration of anatomically erotic words that appear throughout the collection: heart, tongue, lips, shoulders, limbs, mouth, thigh, skin, hand, ear, shoulders. In the nine short poems that make up ‘Caress’, key words appear in greater frequency than in regular language, most notably, bud (x5) flower (x10) and fruit (x13). These words, along with petal, blossom, lily, stamen and pollen, create a combined effect that is erotic, sexual, tender and delicate. Humour, warmth and the enjoyment of kinship, or closeness with family, are similarly conveyed through an oral lexicon that includes smile, mouth, laugh, and giggle.
In her interview for the collection’s launch, Toni Stuart puts to Parkes that the intimacy in The Geez spans continents and generations – ‘parent and child, friends, self and world, self and history, continent and diaspora.’ This last intimacy (between the African continent and its diasporas) is transmitted in a subset of recurring words around pairings: twins, reflections, boomerang, mirror, echo chamber, and echo, such as in ‘Caress, iii’:
your very intestines are echo chambers
of dreams swallowed under an umbrella of whips
Like Diaz, Parkes has access to a language other than English with which to explore his experiences. As he says in his launch interview with Toni Stuart: ‘if we only have the language that colonised us, we are never going to be in a good place to speak about these things.’ Parkes incorporates some unique words into the collection, including ‘geez’ from its title. In an online tweet in Dec 2021, he has elucidated the derivation of this word: ‘My use derives from 3 sources: the ancient script & liturgical lang(uage) of the Eritrean/Ethio orthodox church, a play on the resultant homophone ‘gaze’, & the first letters of the book’s sections.’ The poem title ‘Lenguaje’ also provides the aural clue that ‘geez’ is how the word ‘gaze’ sounds in a West African accent.
I WRITE THIS AS AN IRISH emigrant-by-choice, coming from a country where the indigenous Gaelic language, Irish, was forbidden under the British by the Penal Laws of 1695 and never recovered. Even into the early 20th century, school children were whipped if they spoke Irish (Franks, 2015) . Growing up in Ireland in the 1970s and ‘80s, where English was (and is) spoken as the first language by almost all citizens, the Irish language was learned reluctantly and spoken rarely by many schoolchildren, despite being a mandatory subject. Reading the works of Diaz and Parkes has reinforced to me the importance of preserving indigenous language and, in particular, ‘untranslatable’ words. The Scots Gaelic word ‘scrìob’, which has no English equivalent, features in the opening line of the title poem of my collection, The Important Things (Gallery Press, 2021). While the overuse of non-English words could possibly confuse or even alienate a reader, judicious inclusion of such words can bring the reader closer to the cultural identity, heritage and personal obsessions of the writer.
The reader becomes more intimately connected to the work when the poet places trust in them, exposing vulnerabilities, revealing secrets and writing their own truth. As the work of Diaz and Parkes illustrates, the use of a highly personal vocabulary is one way a poet can invite the reader into their world. The discovery of the personal lexicon of Diaz and Parkes has emboldened me to permit a broader usage and greater repetition of personally-significant words in my own writing in order to better communicate my own vulnerabilities and passions. Uncommon words appearing in The Important Things, such as the verb ‘fossick’ – to rummage or search for – and the nautical term ‘leeward’ (both in ‘Curracloe Revisited’) can serve to not only place the work in location and time, but to bring the reader closer. I’ve also become more aware of the build-up, through my own collection, of a personally-significant lexicon of scientific and anatomical words (pudendum, gular, scapulae, mandible), fabrics (shantung, rick-rack, silk, velvet, taffeta, gingham, mohair, chintz, toile), colours (veridian, sap, olive, emerald, rose-madder) varietals of wine and other alcoholic drinks (vermouth, Negroni, tequila, whisky, Sauv Blanc) and so on. All these words, by the fact of their variety and repetition, highlight and share, intimately, my own subjects: the sea, the heart, female identity, family, diasporic dislocation, heritage, and home.
1. Hugo R. (1982) The Triggering Town. New York: W.W. Norton, pp. 14-15.
2. Hirshfield, J. (2015) Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. New York: A.A Knopf, p.
3. Diaz, N. (2020) ‘Ways to become unpinnable: talking with Natalie Diaz.’ Interview with Janet
Rodriguez for The Rumpus, 4 March 2020
4. Magan, M. (2020) Thirty-Two Words for Field. Dublin: M.H. Gill, p. 123.
5. Diaz, N. (2021) ‘Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem: a powerful reckoning with violence.’
Interview in The New Statesman, 31 March 2021
6. Parmar, S. (2020) Interview with Natalie Diaz ‘It’s an important and dangerous time for language.’ The Guardian, 2 July 2020
7. Diaz, N. (2020) ‘A conversation with Natalie Diaz.’ Interview by Abigail McFee, The Adroit Journal,
8. Parkes, N. (2020) ‘The Geez Launch 1: Nii Ayikwei Parkes chats with Toni Stuart’
9. Franks, M. (2015) ‘Ireland and the Penal Laws’
10. Molloy, A. (2021) The Important Things. Oldcastle: The Gallery Press
by Effie Carr
Reviewed by ALISON HATZANTONIS
Years ago, when my first baby was a few months old, my half Greek, Australian born husband and I took Greek language lessons. In the depth of winter on cold cold nights I would leave my baby sound asleep in her Yia yia’s care and traipse across the city to a freezing concrete classroom to study the language with a Cretan lady called Crisanthe.
All these years later I still have only a rudimentary grasp of the basics of the Greek language. I can, though, introduce myself, ask how much something is and, thanks to practising on my two small children who could easily grasp any language, even two at once, I know all the Greek names of colours, body parts, fruit and a myriad of animals. But mainly, I remember the complexity of conjugation in the Greek language.
It was on common ground with the protagonist, Stamatia, that I found myself when I started reading this novel by Effie Carr. With a flash of recognition in the first few pages, the difficulty and rote learning that is needed to conjugate verbs were a jolt to my memories. Stamatia’s struggle with past tense and past participle terms becomes one of the underlying themes running through this novel. Her focus and interest in the history of the Greek people, the nation of Greece and the trauma passed down through generations were all expressed through the use of tense, past present and future, that she applies to her verbs.
At the centre of this multi-level and, at times, multi-perspective novel, is a young Greek Australian girl named Stamatia. In the Greek language, Stamatia means ‘stop’. A fact that is pointed out early with the birth of Stamatia and the response by her rigid and traditional father. Vasili wanted to stop any more female children being born to the family. This was an effective strategy apparently as two younger brothers are later born into the family after Stamatia. They live in Stanmore, in inner west Sydney around 1973 when the family (or rather Vasili) decide to return to Greece. This move coincides with the aftermath of the 1967 coup that occurred in Greece. On the 21st of April 1967 the military took control of the country and for the next seven years this dictatorship severely curtailed basic democratic freedoms.
Stamatia is a great dreamer. She asks a lot of questions. In fact, most of her musings are expressed in the form of questions. This style of narrative is fine when used immoderately and cautiously but the novel is overwhelmed by the rhetorical format. We, the reader, understand that she is a curious and intelligent girl, but the continuous phrasing of her thoughts as unanswered questions takes the reader out of the story. The narrative veers into memoir territory as the author employs an omnipotent narrative style. This leads to Stamatia thinking and pondering things that a young girl couldn’t possibly know or understand. The novel could be viewed as a collection of essays. Each chapter is not necessarily linear and there is a lack of plot progression to keep the story moving forward. Stamatia is very observational but tying together her musing is fractured and, in some instances, not clearly linking with the storyline at all. This fusion of genres could be part of the author’s strategy. To combine rhetoric, fiction and non-fiction historical reportage and blend it through the narrative is an unusual and different way to tell complex stories of displacement, migration and inter-generational trauma. I am not sure though, if I agree that this is a successful interpretation.
There are a few chapters that are not fully realised. The lack of backgrounding, characterisation and world building left what was actually on the page, a bit aimless. A curiously out of place chapter concerns Stamatia’s tutor from when she lived in Australia, Mr Lalas, and how he came to have a glass eye. This flashback to a minor character’s past seems to serve no purpose in the novel and merely provides a vehicle for Stamatia to compare him to a ‘cigarette-smoking cyclopes’.
In chapter 6 ‘Stamatia Aged 6’ there is a foray into existential angst with the arrival of her baby brother. Stamatia feels supplanted by this male child and even tries to kill the baby by holding a pillow over his face. Stamatia is maybe trying to express an existential feeling that she could live perfectly happily by being only one. She can imagine that she could lock herself in a cupboard, not go anywhere but because she has this inner life, she is perfectly content. The arrival of brothers and her upheaval and move to Greece throws her into great turmoil. But the portrayal of a 6-year-old suffering existential angst draws a long bow. In another chapter, one that focuses on Stamatia’s arrival at her new Greek high school, there is a slightly bizarre meandering into a simile of Darwinism and comparing students in her classroom with wild animals.
The novel’s foray into the past is cleverly explored. Through the use of grammar, an effective metaphor for the way the past is viewed by the Greek people is nicely done. ‘Stamatia knew that there were three tenses that described the past: the aorist, imperfect and the perfect. But there was only one future tense’(p31). Stamatia starts to understand how much the past, the country’s history, runs through the people and the places of Greece. Her tutor, Mr Lalas points this out to her before she even leaves Australia. ‘To be a Greek means to remember the past, Stamatia’ (p31) he tells her when she questions why there are numerous ways to conjugate the past.
The rhythm and excitement of the novel is at its best when the story is moving forward. The pace picks up when the narrative focuses on actual movement like the flight back to Greece. Upon landing at the airport, with the family’s re-migration journey back to their homeland just starting, there is a fascinating scene involving Stamatia, her suitcase of books and the military running the airport. The irony with which Stamatia views the soldiers proclaiming order in their processing of the passengers, is very amusing. ‘We will have order in Greece booms a voice through a loudspeaker. Stamatia thought this was strange. The Greeks she knew didn’t like too much order at all. Her observation was that Greeks liked disorder and a bit of chaos, the excitement of the spontaneous and elusive kefi, a Dionysian spirit which could only be captured in the moment’ (p50).
Thematically, Carr weaves together migration, Greek culture and religion, the collective trauma felt by the Greek people after being occupied in WW2, the impact of a dictatorial coup and the resulting restriction on freedoms, teenage existential angst and the difficulty of Greek grammar, to name a few.
The novel ends with a return to the beginning and the journey being embarked upon by Maria and Vasili to Australia, pregnant with their first child, a girl who will be called Stamatia. In the circle of life, of heritage, of ancestors and descendants, stopping is not possible.
Effie Carr was awarded a Commendation for Foreign Literature at the Book Awards organised by the Greek-Australian Cultural Association of Melbourne and Victoria for Stamatia X. The novel’s complexity of prose, dialogue, themes and imagery make for a confident debut for an emerging writer. I do await her next foray with anticipation.
ALISON HATZANTONIS is a country born and bred, Sydney writer currently undertaking a master’s degree at Macquarie University which she is hoping to finish soon. She completed her BA Degree majoring in Creative Writing in 2020. Twitter @a_hatz5
How not to Drown in a Glass of Water
by Angie Cruz
Reviewed by NATALIA FIGUEROA BARROSO
Over a round of yerba mate is where I’ve heard the best storytellers. In these circles of trust, tongues and tales become tangible and ideas are formed. Before the written word came to lay claim of colonial histories around the world, this is how my ancestors passed on our truths in conversations as such. And precisely in this manner is how Angie Cruz’s fourth novel How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water speaks to us. The title’s even a clue. One that gringos may miss. In Latin America we use an expression that reminds us not to sweat small stuff. But of course, we don’t say it that way, instead we tell you, ‘No te ahogues en un vaso de agua’ which directly translates to, ‘Don’t drown in a glass of water’. And usually, 99.999 per cent of the time when you’re warned by members of our community by this idiom it’s because you’ve just desahogarte with them. Which the chatty protagonist of Cruz’s latest novel, Cara Romero, perfectly translates as, “Desahogar: to undrown, to cry until you don’t need to cry no more.”
Within the book, Cara undrowns her entire life story and knowledge in a mere six hours. The vignette-like capture of time through documents alongside the use of second-person monologue is skilfully done; “But listen. This is what I wanted to tell you today. Look, look at this. Like my life needs more problems. The management gave me this paper. Read it. They say if I don’t pay the rent I owe, they will throw me out of the building.” Through this narrative-breaking structure readers get a full insight as to what it’s like to live on ‘Obama checks’ (cheques) as a Dominican migrant woman in her mid-50s, whilst living in an apartment in Washington Heights during the Great Recession of 2009.
This poignant and specific tale got me thinking about my hometown in south-west Sydney, Fairfield, where a large part of the Latinx community reside and the unemployment rate is currently at 10.6 per cent. Three times that of the national unemployment rate of 3.5 per cent! In Cara’s misfortunes, I see mi gente on Barbara Street queuing up at Centrelink for hours—something I’ve done myself on more than one occasion—desperate to work and angry at a system that fails us. Because our names are too long on our resumes. Because our public transport is unreliable. Because our mother tongue has marked her rolling r’s on us.
With seamless codeswitching from English to Spanish, we continue to listen to Cara and her tales because she feels like a living breathing person standing before us. Why do I say listen instead of read? Well, because Cruz brilliantly crafts each sentence to sound like the madres, tías, vecinas and co-madres of our Latinx community which she dedicates this blood and bone of a book to. Dr. Janine M. Schall explains in World of Words (The University of Arizona) that, “Codeswitching is a purposeful literary device that can serve a number of different purposes. If the author wants to tell a story about a particular group of people, such as Latinos in the borderland, codeswitching can be a natural and authentic way to establish characters and setting.” And although this novel is not set at the border, it does speak to the large Dominican immigrants that settled in Washington Heights. “Codeswitching often signals a more casual register and offers the author to play with language. Sometimes, too, concepts work better in one language than the other.” In this way, when Cruz codeswitches between languages, she sets the novel in a tongue that’s recognisable by those from its diaspora. “What age do you have?” Cara asks her career advisor, which is how Latinx people literally enquire about someone’s age in Spanish. When reading dialogue like this, I felt like a child again, walking through Ware Street for Thursday night shopping and then quickly stopping at La Torre Cake Shop on Nelson Street – the Latinx bakery that I now take my children to years later.
Moreover, what I love about this novel is how Cruz amplifies the importance of community, especially through Cara’s care of her ninety-year-old neighbour, La Vieja Caridad. If it wasn’t for Cara’s tending of the old woman’s mandados at the bodega to cooking homely dinners of “the moro with habichuelas negras, the plátanos, and the salad of aguacate”, La Vieja Caridad would live alone, in filth and emptiness. This kind of solidarity is one I also recognise. In my tía, Jenny, who always helps with cleaning and cooking for her friends and family without them asking her to. My prima, Tania, immediately begins to knit booties and beanies at the news of any baby on the way. My husband, Gerard, has tiled, painted and plastered an extensive number of relative’s homes in exchange for a round of yerba mate.
Finally, what this novel has done exceptionally is explore Latinx parenting over the generations and how it has changed. From Cara’s parents who, “If we looked to them wrong, cocotazo. If we cried from the cocotazo, another cocotazo.” The novel compares this outdated strict and violent parenting style with that of Cara’s fifteen years younger sister, Ángela. Ángela uses a behaviour management plan with her children that offers choices and praise for positive behaviour. As I listened to Cara examine and critique both her mother and her younger sister, I could hear the common debates we have about parenting between my mother and my sister. From to co-sleep or not. Through to the taboo of smacking.
How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water is a masterful exploration of our Latinx community. Through Cara’s witty tongue she punctuates their value as migrants in western culture, transcending space and time. From vignette to codeswitching to second-person narration, the Latinx diaspora from the United States of America (Washington Heights, New York) to Australia (Fairfield, south-west Sydney) is drawn ever closer.
How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water was release 13 September 2022. Follow the author on Instagram: @writercruz and Twitter: @acruzwriter. Buy her books on angiecruz.com/books
NATALIA FIGUEROA BARROSO is a Uruguayan-Australian writer who lives on Dharug Country. She is a member of Sweatshop Literacy Movement and has degrees in Communication, Screenwriting and Media Production from the University of Technology, Sydney. Natalia has appeared in Sweatshop Women: Volume One, Racism: Stories on Fear, Hate & Bigotry, SBS Voices, Story Casters, Any Saturday, 2021. Running Westward, Kindling and Sage, Between Two Worlds, The Big Issue, Puentes Review, Meanjin and ABC Everyday.
by Marcelle Freiman
Puncher and Wattmann, 2021
Reviewed by ADAM AITKEN
Marcelle Freiman’s collection poems Spirit Level, her third book, surely deserves Jill Jones’ endorsement as a book where ‘clarity of memory [sits] alongside a shimmer of location’, whose ‘presences and absences’ are to be savoured. As restless, dynamic, and ‘unsettled’ as her earlier two collections, White Lines and Monkey’s Wedding, (which I reviewed on its publication). This new collection is structured into two parts, the first contains many poems about memories: of childhood in South Africa, of Freiman’s student days as an anti-Apartheid activist, and of parents and Jewish relatives killed and dispersed by the Holocaust. The second part of the collection explores various subjects, with many poems with Australian locations and subjects, including a number of poems on art and photography. Together the poems provide a vivid picture of the life of a South African migrant now settled in Australia. The deeper theme is the poet’s engagement with the past, not so much as nostalgia, but about how her present sensibility is now ineluctably imbricated with these memories. The poems bring a sense of presence to memory and amplify memory’s affective power, because the affect is often tied to traumatic events.
Freiman is clearly aware of the issues around South African history and questions of identity, and she is keenly sensitive to the way the ‘other’, the non-white or the indigenous is represented in this collection. Freiman examines white privilege and she empathises with those whose suffering is and was qualitatively different to her own. The collection shines a critical light on how poetry can be written on what it means to be a white woman who grew up in South Africa during Apartheid. Freiman is aware that privilege is complex, and that oppression comes from multiple directions, for she is a woman and a Jew who has migrated twice and feels the loss of her ancestors in WW2. The poems emphasise Freiman’s constant meditation on her motivations for leaving one home to make another in the postcolonial settler country of Australia. Other poems pose spiritual questions, for example, what a Jewish idea of faith could mean in a violent secular world that has done so much to sunder that faith.
Other poems grapple with the question of the settler’s place in the (colonised) landscape of savanna and desert, and with the aesthetic challenges for both poets and visual artist. Each poem is in one way or another about the way who we are much depends on what we choose to remember or forget. Being South African in Australia Freiman does NOT elide racism and many of the poems re-frame the settler as falling far short of a land or state that promises a settled and comfortable existence. As such some of the poems of place ironise a tradition of pastoral idyll. In the poem ‘In Forster (Sand up the Coast)’, Freiman acutely feels how identity, landscape and place are profoundly estranged. The poem considers the fate of Scottish woman Eliza Fraser, who was shipwrecked on a traditional Aboriginal island off Queensland. The poem figures the settler/castaway as a prodigal who must learn to adapt to new surroundings:
And I think of Eliza Fraser
in her fringe of leaves
on an island of sand
alien, harsh as salt
the pools of water filtered clean
through the grains –
how she had no choosing,
had to find in the straps
of the leaf bracts,
learn how to seek out
and her feet scratched and bare
were pushing down,
sucked into sand
as the wind blew
her green and leathery.
In other poems there is a strong post-romantic lens, (signalled from the start by the books’ epigraph from David Malouf:
‘The world not as it was, or as
we were, but as we find ourselves
again in its presence.’
David Malouf, ‘A la Recherche,’ An Open Book, 2018
Freiman’s poems about her childhood are seen through a lens of Wordworthian/Blakean innocence, and from there the critical context builds to a critique of settler “innocence” assumptions themselves. ‘The Dam’, a poem about her childhood holidays in South Africa, ambivalently deconstructs the figure of the innocent childlike visionary. ‘The Dam’ is a superb example of nostalgia with a sting to it, as the nostalgia becomes a critique of apartheid’s power over her as a child. The holidays are idyllic, and Freiman learns the workings of windmill pumps. But as in traditional pastoral Freiman acknowledges the other. We learn of Jacob, her family’s black worker, ‘who helped me to see which side of the scale was mine’. In this way the poem is driven by a need to speak truth to the past.
Poems about the poet’s university days in the end days of Apartheid period are fascinating and give a nuanced idea of her and her father’s strategies for rebellion. Her style is both lyrical and investigative, and her history is accessible, clear, and vividly described. Without being didactic the poems provide a rich recollection of Freiman’s South Africa and its contradictions, its beauty and ugliness. It deals with guilt too, the guilt of leaving, and the sorrow of having lost her Jewish ancestors in the Holocaust in Europe. Freiman takes the strengths of lyricism and combines it with a strong documentary base.
Freiman also address historical gaps and lacunae, silences and absences that haunt postcolonial spaces. The poem ‘Country of my birth, written 27 June 2013’ Freiman names South Africa ‘a country of misery’ and mentions the mine dumps and townships like Soweto, and asks
‘How did I love (hate a country
Where I knew so much silence?
This poem spans a period of her childhood to her student days as a student activist. With superb simplicity and a devastating pun on the word “white” she writes
I had no language
for the lost –
we lived in white houses of indifference
She goes on to ask parenthetically ‘(Can childhood draw blame?)’. Her father was able to survive and helped black South Africans as well, by bribing officials, for he had
‘ worked the system / and kept it quiet – the whispered names / the safe houses of the 1960s / for friends in banished parties’.
Freiman recounts how white citizens were literally kept in the dark about what was happening to Black South Africans, and white opponents of Apartheid were regularly harassed and victimised by the police.
Such questions about the blindness of colonial oppression are raised again in ‘Gold Miner’s Hut, Hill End 1872’, Freiman describes herself viewing a photograph by the early Australia photographer Holtermann. Her eye is withering: ‘Soaring eucalypt frames the foreground’. Freiman is reminded of Constable or Corot, a pastoral idyll with ‘cosy hut’ and smoking chimney. Crucially the mythic fiction behind the work is revealed.
but the ground here is unstable:
something has happened –
trees are stripped of their bark,
skin exposed out of season, broken
branches mess the valley floor
In ‘Feathered’, a fine ekphrastic poem describing an Arthur Boyd painting in the Art Gallery of NSW the text unpacks the viewing process – how does the viewer look upon Boyd’s antipodean Adam and Eve and his vision of the Old Testament parable. Freiman reads the painting as a dramatization of a colonial dilemma: the setters Adam and Eve ejected from privilege/paradise and cast into a haunted and subterranean hell.
In poems like these Freiman progressively reveals the layers of meaning in the title of Spirit Level, which is absolutely appropriate for this collection, as this is poetry that intends to do the levelling, and levelling by way of unpacking certain colonial epistemologies, and “balancing” those with the thinking of the indigenous Other. The poems achieve a “just” way of representing Freiman’s past, by way of gazing back at the past through today’s ‘presences’, a gaze solidly based in empiricism and facticity.
It is thus not surprising that Freiman pays homage to the great documentary photographer August Sander in ‘The Names – Photograph by August Sander’, a standout ekphrastic poem. Sander was a member of the Social Workers Party and made photographic portraits and catalogues his subjects by way of trade, profession, and by social status. Sander catalogued his Jewish subjects under ‘Victims of Persecution’, photography that prompts Freiman’s acknowledgement of an artist who can depict suffering and survival. Like Sander Freiman presents her history on a broad humane canvas with great empathy for the suffering endured.
Another balancing is achieved in the way Freiman uses fact alongside more oblique lyrical poems. In ‘Seven Ways of Mourning’, the effect of a suite of haiku-like stanzas gathers the metaphors for the way we mourn – ‘coins in black water, a favourite plant once mutually admired; ‘a bench / by the sea’; as well as the more traditional image of elegies, the engraved gravestone.
Forgetting is like
light on sharp edged fences,
clears spaces between
These spaces lie between the two scales, literally the space between the living and those mourned, white and black, empowered and the dispossessed.
The book is also giving voice to more traumatic ‘silences’. ‘The Mother Poems’ are enduring recollections of the murder of her own Jewish relatives in Lithuania. Here Freiman slowly unveils a matriarchal narrative, revealing in the most sensitive and respectful of ways the pain her mother and grandmother endured on learning about their death. The poem can only end where all such enquiries end, at the final barrier to our memory being the silence of the dead, as in this case her mother can’t speak of such a loss, and Freiman conveys this heavy burden. With remarkable modesty she writes of her ‘limited grappling’ and narrow vision of what her mother’s experience was.
In ‘Obliquely’, Freiman recounts her recovery in hospital in Sydney after an operation to mend a fractured skull. Freiman describes her time looking out at a view. Then one day her consciousness of her perception changes. Is it the effect of the trauma or something else she asks? Freiman experiences the aftermath of a coup de tête, the clarté du jour, or enlightening, which she terms ‘the ache of the real’. Freiman starts to perceive the most ordinary surrounds of suburban hospital with new clarity. ‘Obliquely’ is a fine poem that reminds me of the French poet Apollinaire’s own recovery from a head wound he sustained in WW1, which clearly damaged his faculties though he could be accepting rather than angry that he had suffered and survived. I read ‘Obliquely’ as a thanksgiving to the work of poets who shape memory and in turn are shaped by memory. But Freiman proposes nothing “divine”, or supernatural, just that the survival of the injured mind/body can seem ‘miraculous’, as imagination and indeed our power to remember, is magical. ‘Obliquely’ demonstrates a way to move beyond the melancholia of historical tragedy and the somewhat limited recounts of colonial histories.
Describing Freiman as ‘settler migrant poet’ does not do justice to this poet. But the book profits from Freiman’s lifetime of writing and researching (post)colonial literature. Such a career has been constantly ‘unsettled and resettled’ for a poet who has migrated twice, from her birthplace in South Africa then to the UK, hence to Australia. But such unsettling opens up so many vectors. Starting from the child’s vision of “nothing or nothingness” and then the immersing oneself in this world and this sensation is at the heart of Freiman’s writing process. The poem ‘What next?’ sheds ideological baggage and begins with no ready-made subject (or theme). Like the mind cleared, it can begin with a completely unpremeditated intention. Poems take shape in this ambivalent process of asking “what was it like, what happened, what did I NOT know what I know now?”. The question of “What next?” becomes “Where to next? Like her favourite painters, the subject of the representation can only be certain once the work is complete or abandoned. But then perhaps no collection of poems is ever ‘completed’ and no work of memory is ever complete, and no trauma is ever quite ‘cured’. Freiman’s poems are like the plants and people she most admires for their toughness, a toughness that she likens to drought resistant trees and plants in the veldt, to the spirit of old mining towns (despite their role in colonialism), and to the black South Africans who looked after her as a child and whom her father helped during the Anti-Apartheid struggle. Spirit Level is thus, a book that remembers the spirit of the survivor but looks to the future with great optimism and openness.
ADAM AITKEN’s last poetry collection is Revenants (Giramondo). He received the Patrick White Award in 2021.
by Gay Lynch
Reviewed by MICHAEL HANNAN
What does it mean to tell the stories of one’s ancestors? How do human beings endure landscapes dominated by scarcity, isolation, gruelling labour, and patriarchal cruelty? And what is the price to be paid for survival?
These questions animate Gay Lynch’s Unsettled, an historical novel focusing on a Galway family adjusting to life in south-eastern South Australia during the mid-nineteenth century. In struggling to forge a new existence on the colonial frontier, the Lynches are forced to navigate the unforgiving Australian landscape, hostile English neighbours, life-threatening diseases and injuries, the spectre of financial ruin, and an ever-niggling sense that a better life lies elsewhere. This last is felt particularly strongly by the two Lynch children who serve as the narrators. Rosanna, the headstrong eldest daughter, dreams of running away to the Victorian goldfields, while gentle Skelly, her younger brother, spends most of his time immersed in sketching rocks and fossils. As their surname suggests, the Lynches are modelled on the author’s own family; the novel is dedicated to her children and grandchildren “so that they might imagine their Lynch ancestors.”
Historical concerns are a change of pace for Lynch, whose last offering, cleanskin (2006), was a novel of manners about playgroup mothers in latter-day Port Lincoln. In that book, Lynch mined the social dynamics of pathologically bored small-towners for crackling interpersonal drama, which developed into rivalry, infidelity, and (maybe) murder. While she (eventually) demonstrates similar skills in Unsettled, sustained drama is largely sidelined in Part 1 in favour of setting the pastoral scene. Lynch relies heavily on sensual, lyrical similes: a flock of corellas, when disturbed, “[flies] up like a tossed hand of cards” (50), while morning “passes slow and steady like treacle poured from a spoon” (40) and foam “sets like chantilly around their horses’ mouths” (90). Those who live for imaginative description executed with technical finesse will find plenty here to savour.
If, on the other hand, you’re the kind of reader who sees description primarily as a means of rendering character and not an end in itself, Lynch’s prose style can veer into what Zadie Smith, in her 2008 essay “Two Paths for the Novel”, calls “lyrical realism”. In this mode, according to Smith, “only one’s own subjectivity is really authentic, and only the personal offers… [the] possibility of transcendence”. Thus, “personal things are… relentlessly aestheticized: this is how their importance is signified, and their depth”. The end result is often an onslaught of over description which “colonizes all space by way of voracious image”. Lynch can often be guilty of such imagism. A gown is never simply yellow, but “as pale yellow as early sunshine” (109). Words never just waft away; they have to “waft away on breezes sculpting the shea oaks” (181). Such, to again borrow Smith’s words, is the “anxiety of excess” where “everything must be made literary”.
For readers who find this kind of prose a bit much, the first hundred of Unsettled’s 417 pages, largely held together by verbal portraiture, is a somewhat tangled mix of events. Lynch’s unusually short chapters, some of them only two pages long, don’t initially provide a particularly cohesive reading experience. Each chapter, it seems, offers up a new, potentially intriguing situation, only to introduce an entirely new one in the next. The Lynches, we are told, have recently lost a baby. We don’t hear much about this, although it seems to be why Garrick, the grief-stricken family patriarch, slaps Rosanna, who retaliates by absconding into the bush. This is the kind of conflict which could be milked for suspense, but no; Rosanna comes straight back in the next chapter and hatches a plot to flee to the goldfields, only to be side-tracked when she accidentally lands a job with a family of wealthy English landowners. Throw in a few more subplots involving a visiting priest, a bullock found with a spear in its neck, and elder brother Edwin’s tendency to gamble away most of his money, and it’s fair to say there’s a lot going on.
This kind of constant cycling between loosely-connected narrative morsels so early in the novel, when we don’t yet know (or care) about the characters, makes it hard for any particular situation to hook the reader. We’re presented with a mosaic of the hardships (and tight-knit relationships) comprising the Lynches’ lives. Yet nothing from that mosaic is given the necessary space to help the reader invest in the characters, something that might have been achieved with longer chapters and fewer subplots. In lieu of a central narrative thread holding all the pieces together, we have Lynch’s lyrical realism converting everything in sight to image. If you’re not into that, Part 1 is tough going.
That said, things pick up in Part 2, when one of these fragments finally blooms into a compelling plotline. Through her job in The Big House, Rosanna is drawn into an affair with one of the guests, a handsome young actor from Melbourne. Any potential qualms about Lynch’s prose style are immediately made redundant; finally, we have real stakes. Secret trysts, close calls, and the constant threat of social ruin are all failsafes for weaving a suspenseful story, and the sustained human drama Lynch draws out of the relationship makes for captivating writing.
It’s also around this point that Lynch’s carefully cultivated brand of nineteenth-century Irish English comes into its own. Once Lynch’s dialogue gets more to do than simply establish her characters as Irish, there are some wonderful interactions. Take this exchange between Edwin and Skelly:
Edwin takes it [a newspaper] from him. “Skelly darling, look at this. Moffat’s Vegetable Life Medicines: for flatulence and foulness of the complexion… Shall I order some for you?”
‘Pog mo toin.’ [Irish for ‘kiss my arse’] (153).
Such a quintessentially rivalrous sibling interaction, for all its nineteenth-century points of reference, could have taken place yesterday. It’s a four-line demonstration of how closely the best historical fiction can mirror the present, and an indicator of how easy it is to find contemporary concerns in the societies of long ago.
One particularly relevant concern for Unsettled is modern Australia’s ongoing reckoning with the colonial violence conducted against Indigenous people during the novel’s time period. One consequent literary corollary of this reckoning has been the question of how (or even if) non-Indigenous novelists should engage with these atrocities, as well as how they might represent Indigenous Australian characters in their work. Much of Lynch’s engagement with these debates comes via the character of Moorecke, a Booandik girl of Rosanna’s age from a nearby station; the two girls are presented as fast friends. While it’s not for someone like me to critique whether Lynch gets Moorecke ‘right’, there’s no doubt she endows her with considerable humanity, thanks largely to Moorecke’s irrepressible personality. Despite Rosanna’s entreaties, she cheerfully trespasses on the English settlers’ (read: her) land as she pleases, kills their livestock, and steals their clothes to dance around in “like a brolga displaying its wings” (137). Moorecke is substantially more than a prop for the white characters, and challenges the flat, highly stereotyped representations of Indigenous people of which white writers have historically been guilty. Lynch is also smart enough not to narrate directly through Moorecke; such a step would be for Indigenous writers, and Indigenous writers alone, to take.
Interestingly, Lynch depicts relations between the Galway Lynches and the Booandik people as largely cordial. I admit to being initially surprised at the friendliness of this relationship, although I have no personal knowledge of whether or not Lynch’s portrayal of these relations passes historical muster. (The English landowners, by contrast, pursue the Booandik people more than once with intent to kill.) It should be noted that in the acknowledgments, Lynch namechecks contemporary Booandik custodians and linguists who have provided her with information about Country and even proofread early drafts of the novel. This collaborative spirit suggests a preferred path forward for future settler writers who attempt to write about the brutality in Australia’s colonial past in an ethical manner.
The approach taken to such a worryingly sensitive issue once again reflects Lynch’s chief preoccupations: the enduring power of ancestry, and the capacity of human beings to survive against all odds in environments filled with forces determined to erase their existence. Unsettled is a defiant riposte to such attempts, honouring the hardship and sacrifice of those who came before by creating a family whose members linger in the imagination long after the final page is turned.
Lynch, G 2006, cleanskin, Wakefield Press, Adelaide.
Smith, Z 2008, ‘Two Paths for the Novel’, The New York Review of Books, November 20, vol. 55, no. 18, <https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2008/11/20/two-paths-for-the-novel/>.
MICHAEL HANNAN is a PhD candidate and tutor in English literature at the University of Wollongong, Australia. His research interests include contemporary British literature and narrative theory. He has written for artsHub, Express Media, FORUM, Mascara Literary Review, and TEXT.
by Scott Patrick-Mitchell
Reviewed by HOLDEN WALKER
Western-Australian poet Scott-Patrick Mitchell has spent the best part of the last decade appearing in some of Australia’s most celebrated literary journals, headlining spoken-word poetry showcases, and contributing to acclaimed anthologies. However, in 2022, Upswell published Mitchell’s first full-length collection of poetry titled Clean. Clean is a personal and intimate collection that explores the nature of substance abuse and the process of recovery from all angles. Mitchell injects heart into the text through semi-autobiographical details and offers a gritty yet honest insight into the poetically taboo.
Texan poet Bill Moran’s homage to his sister and her struggles with addiction in “Dear Amy” is the fitting prologue to the first instalment of Mitchell’s trilogy. To experience Mitchell’s collection to the fullest, I consider it worth watching Moran read “Dear Amy” aloud at the Write About Now slam poetry event, if only to get a sense of how important it is that writers are candid about topics like addiction. Moran’s repeated use of the late musician Amy Winehouse as a metaphor for drug addiction highlights how prominent it is in our culture, a reality that we are no stranger to in Australia. The epiphany bleeds into “Dirty,” the introductory collection that explores every element of addiction. Addiction intertwines itself within additional themes, including trauma, queer romance and the significant moments of everyday life.
Mitchell wastes no time layering on the heavy subject matter, as the first poem, “The Mourning Star,” introduces the concept of substance abuse following childhood trauma. It is one of the multiple instances in which Mitchell highlights the cyclical nature of abuse in the collection, for this theme arises again in “blood thieves” and “It Begins With Burning (An Obituary).” The poem introduces the emotions and the actions associated with drug abuse, particularly as a reaction to dealing with trauma.
Mitchell composes memorable lines with the ability to communicate complex ideas in a conservative amount of characters. It was with the line: “It is known by how it tugs, draws into you. / Sight shall fill with shapes. / How we monster a bed.” (p.12) that I first noticed both the skill and care taken to produce lines that are the perfect middle ground between subtle and obvious. Mitchell’s semantic choices creatively communicate the process of being corrupted by trauma without compromising cohesion. It is clear that there was an audience in mind for this collection and that Mitchell wanted their poetry to be accessible to the people who would benefit from it most.
The collection reads like a fusion between Henry Lawson and William S Burroughs. While Lawson spent his career crafting a voice for working-class Australia through his poetry, often depicting the brutality of life for Australians living outside the metropolitan zones, Burroughs was best known for his post-modernist poetry, often masquerading as a beatnik fever-dream. Scott-Patrick Mitchell represents all of Burroughs’s queer, drug-fueled chaos, but set against a working-class Australian backdrop that I, someone living in the same cities Lawson wrote about, recognise all too well. Mitchell’s words resonate, for they trust me enough to understand their contemplative manipulation of language, sparing me the Wordsworthian elitism, yet never compromising the sublime.
Lawson’s voice in particular can be heard in poems including “This Town,” Mitchell carries on the tradition of reciting vignettes that depict the country and its communities brutally yet honestly. The poem is a tribute to every regional Australian community that grew up with the presence of vice. Mitchell allows the citizens of these places to be heard and understood, a luxury not often afforded. Mitchell tackles this subject matter the way they do throughout the rest of the collection, with empathy and understanding. Their words bridge the gap between the common person and the distinguished poet, the same style that had served as the backbone of our culture generations prior.
Mitchell writes: “Beer bottles vulgar the park. / Sun churns bitumen as we burn from the inside out ”(p15). Mitchell’s imagery cements both a familiar scene and feeling. I am invited to remember the town I grew up in, even if that memory isn’t particularly pleasant, and take a moment just to admire the art of it. This action can describe Clean as a whole; it is a collection that invites you to find beauty in negative places.
The sublime nature of Mitchell’s work is evident throughout, for the poet constantly juggles elements of both the picturesque and the sinister. The poem “blood thieves” presents the scene of a person going through a painful methamphetamine withdrawal, only to return to using by the end of the poem. Despite the dark subject, Mitchell’s words are comforting, if not pleasant. “When we were gone we were an ache of poison / grey thin wind erosion / we wanted to steal red / rush of blood from their heads”(p.19). In these lines lies a middle ground that is disturbingly beautiful. At one end is a poetically intellectual structure that experiments with the emotional relationships of colours and the ever-present motif of blood. This symbol is often recurring throughout Mitchell’s work. At the other end are the gruesome details of withdrawal and the presence of symptomatic episodes of hallucinatory deterioration. Many of Mitchell’s poems often can’t help but read like a love song hiding its juxtaposing eerie lyrics in plain sight.
Juxtaposition is a recurring theme in Clean, and this is most noticeable in the instances in which the subject matter shifts from the brutal portrayal of substance abuse and the culture surrounding it to something much more wholesome. “Night Orchids,” is a poem that took me by surprise, both concerning its seemingly out-of-place position amongst a parade of depressing scenes, but also in the way it portrays queer romance so simply and yet so divinely. Mitchell introduces us to a queer romance uncorrupted by the oversaturated mainstream interpretation of intimate relationships between two masculine-aligned people. Mitchell’s interpretation of the subject is infused with a level of realism and believability that feels not only genuine but sweet. “In the absence of daylight, we are just two young men / silent save a giggle and a shoe scuff” (p.21). Mitchell’s words make the relationship feel nostalgic. “Night Orchids” is particularly heartwarming for queer readers, many of whom don’t experience the privilege of true, unproblematic, young love. It is still significant to see it depicted, even when it’s sandwiched between two poems that explore the feelings associated with excessive drug abuse. Mitchell makes it clear that their work was created with queer people in mind, and the sprinklings of queer poetry throughout the collection cement our trust in the author’s ability to provide the stories they wish to tell with an authentic and honest voice.
There is an almost linear structure to the collection; therefore, after the long, hard road out of addiction, we find ourselves at the third and final section, “Clean.” The collection’s titular poem “Clean” introduces us to the last circuit of life. Mitchell lays out the nine stages in the process of reinvention after deciding to stop using drugs. The voice in the poem is empathetic and inspiring. Mitchell introduces this chapter of their life with so much tenderness and honesty. Admitting that the process isn’t easy or pretty, but at the same time providing every reason why recovery is essential. Mitchell also sneaks in some helpful advice between the delicate lines of prose poetry. “Remind yourself that these desires, they are dying: let them. / Sometimes death is slow. And painful.” (p.64). Mitchell allows themself to be the older, wiser voice of reason that many of us wish we had in a time when we were almost vulnerable. The poem fabulously introduced us to the encore.
Although never particularly confronting, Clean is still a compelling dedication to the often discussed but rarely understood concept of drug addiction and every facet of life surrounding it. The collection will hit home for many Australians, many of whom would have found themselves the victim of addiction at some point in their life. Clean isn’t just a manifestation of the complex world of methamphetamine, for it is still relatable to anyone experiencing any addition or hardship. Mitchell’s makes us feel less alone, at least for a little while. Fans of Burroughs and those genuinely interested in a snapshot into the macabre side of life will find pleasure in Mitchell’s writing.
HOLDEN WALKER is an essayist and literary critic from Yuin Country, New South Wales. He is an alumnus of the University of Wollongong, where he studied English Literature, specialising in literary history and analysis.
mō taku tama
by Vaughan Rapatahana
Reviewed by MARTIN EDMOND
I first encountered Vaughan Rapatahana in 2010, in the pages of brief magazine, in the days when it was being edited by Jack Ross. Rapatahana’s writing was bi-lingual ― English and te reo Māori ― typographically inventive and uncompromising in its engagement with matters of world concern as much as local issues. There were Asian references. In those days, it turns out, he was living between the Philippines and Hong Kong and making a living as a teacher of languages. He has also lived in Brunei, the People’s Republic of China, Nauru and the Middle East as well as in different parts of Aotearoa: Auckland, the East Coast of the North Island, Mangakino in the Waikato. The first time I saw a book of his was when Dean Havard of Kilmog Press, the publisher of the work reviewed here, sent me a copy of China as Kafka (2013).
Kilmog Press was founded around 2007 and, like brief, continues to this day; however, since Havard opened a bookshop, Dead Souls, in Dunedin, its once hectic rate of publication has eased somewhat. Kilmog books are distinctive: hardbacks with hand-crafted covers made as art objects by the publisher himself; with letterpress title pages and the rest of the internal matter offset printed. They are unique objects, in small editions (50 copies in this case) and marketed through the bookshop, the Kilmog website and by word of mouth. In the timid, highly institutionalised and subsidised literary economy of Aotearoa / New Zealand, Kilmog books are not often reviewed. Notwithstanding, Havard has assembled an international stable of writers chosen according to his own taste. When, for example, he read in an Australian magazine some poems by George Murray, poet laureate of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, he offered him a book: Exit Strategy (2010) was the result. Something similar may have happened with China as Kafka.
It was Rapatahana’s first book; but came out in tandem with another, Home Away Elsewhere (2011), from Hong Kong’s Proverse Press; there have been half a dozen more titles since then, including a major collection ināianei / now (2021) from Cyberwit in Allahabad, the closest Rapatahana has yet come to publishing a selected. Meanwhile this book, his ninth, mō taku tama (= for my son), collects the poems he has written for, and to, his son Blake, in the sixteen years since he died, by his own hand, aged 29, in 2005; this information appears in an author’s note at the front of the volume. ‘I cannot cease writing about Blake,’ the note continues. ‘In this way, I keep him alive.’ The direct address, the straightforwardness of the language, the refusal of sentimentalism and the documentation of raw experience, are characteristic of the poems too.
But that is not the whole story. Rapatahana is linguistically inventive in ways that few writers know how to be these days; and a complex poet who foregrounds his use of language in transformative ways. Erik Kennedy, in a recent review of ināiane / now, pointed out: ‘he is the most daring poet we have when it comes to seasoning his work with sesquipedalian lingo (that is, million-dollar words) . . . he has a more developed practice than anyone else when it comes to writing translingual poems in te reo Māori and English.’ One of the fascinations of his bi-lingual work is that it allows you to read back those arcane specimens of English vocabulary, those million dollar words, into his Māori translations of them, making both languages seem, not just stranger, but wilder and deeper too.
Even readers who have no Māori will be intrigued by these metamorphoses; and, since Rapatahana’s work has been translated into Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin, Italian, French, Spanish and Romanian, readers of those languages too can perform the exercise, reading back unusual words from their own languages into one they might not know well, or at all; and aiding Rapatahana in his mission ‘to push for a far wider recognition of the need to write and to be published in this tongue.’ In pursuit of this aim, and as a language teacher himself, he has co-edited two essay collections (English language as Hydra; Why English? Confronting the Hydra) which critique the rise of global English as a stripped down, utilitarian language of business and politics which cannot accommodate, let alone voice, the concerns of First Nations peoples.
Before he left Aotearoa / New Zealand for that long sojourn overseas, Rapatahana completed a doctorate at the University of Auckland. His topic was ‘Existential Philosophy and English Literature’ and his main subject the writer Colin Wilson, whose 1956 non-fiction book, The Outsider, impacted significantly upon a whole generation. Wilson, the archetypal Angry Young Man, has been ritually disparaged by the academy ever since; he remains an outlier, an existential philosopher inquiring into, among other things, true crime and its links with mysticism and the paranormal. Rapatahana continues to write about him; perhaps because of his own outsider status. He is one of a select few Aotearoan poets who have been invited to the annual Medellin Poetry Festival in Colombia. Another sesquipedalian, Alan Brunton, was the first, in the year 2000. Since then, David Eggleton, James Norcliffe and Apirana Taylor have also gone there. This year, Tusiata Avia will be a guest.
Rapatahana is also a well-read, generous, yet exacting literary critic, writing on poetry from Aotearoa / New Zealand and, particularly but not exclusively, upon Māori poetry and poets, in a series of commentaries published in Jacket 2. They open up a perspective upon Aotearoan literature that most Pākehā (and indeed most Māori) critics couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate. There is presently a fluorescence of writing and publishing going among Māori and Pasifika writers; but little critique, positive or otherwise, of their work. Rapatahana’s critical voice is measured, calm, inquisitive; never partial or even partisan; maintaining an inclusive stance while refusing to indulge the whims of coteries or the shibboleths of received opinion. He augments his critical and scholarly writing with hands-on teaching of the techniques and inspirations of bi-lingual poetry.
Although most of Rapatahana’s poems are brief and to the point, nevertheless they resist easy reading. Their insistence upon bi-lingualism may strike some readers as unnecessarily oblique. Even those who have a passing acquaintance with te reo will find his translations of his own English poems into Māori challenging; the same, I assume, is true of the English versions of the poems in te reo. The Māori, for English readers, requires study and not every reader is willing or able to do that. Additionally, fragments of other languages enter the poems, especially Tagalog (Rapatahana’s wife’s native language) as well as Mandarin; along with allusions to speakers of other tongues. His habit of stretching out or breaking words up, typographically, might also act as a disincentive to some readers. Really, however, what makes Rapatahana’s work difficult for mainstream literary culture in Aotearoa / New Zealand is its confrontational nature.
Rapatahana was born in Pātea, in south Taranaki, of Ātiawa descent; Ātiawa suffered as much, or more, than any iwi during colonisation. He has written poems about incidents in Tītokowaru’s War (1868-9) ― the massacre of children by militia at Handley’s Woodshed in 1868; Tītokowaru’s sexual transgression, and subsequent loss of mana, at the fortified pā at Taurangaika in 1869. He is also affiliated with Ngāti Te Whiti, the hapū of Te Whiti, the prophet of non-violence, whose ideal community at Parihaka was brutally sacked by government forces in 1880. In Aotearoa / New Zealand, bi-cultural teaching about the Land Wars (1845-1871), and the Musket Wars (1818-1845) which preceded them, has only this year entered the school curriculum. Pākehā do not like being reminded that the country they call their own is theirs only by conquest. Māori consider it still belongs to them.
Rapatahana is of the same cohort as current poet laureate David Eggleton; they went to school together in South Auckland and share a belief in the transformative power of writing. However they are very different poets. Rapatahana’s poetry is spare and sharp and bristles with intent. Every word is precisely placed. His prose too is considered and exact, setting out connections between historical crimes, especially the confiscation of land, and the high rates of incarceration, homelessness, unemployment, poverty and suicide amongst Māori today. In both poetry and prose he tells stories from the past in an attempt to heal the present, and thereby make a future possible. His bi-lingual texts emphasise that the loss of te reo was just as catastrophic as land theft. Lip service to the outrage he and others still feel about these losses is common these days among the literati and their enablers; but direct experience of its effects, or engagement with them, is not.
Rapatahana doesn’t however lay the blame for the death of his son upon the social evils land confiscation and loss of language have caused; he doesn’t blame himself either. Or not obviously. Rather he lays out the facts of an event he can neither forget nor comprehend; one which he can document but can’t resolve: hence the imperative to keep the conversation going. These poems are confronting because they insist you look, not at grief’s indulgence or its redemptive power, but at the impoverishment it causes. I think it is this, not the big or unusual words, or the foreign ones, or the stretched and broken ones, that makes the poems hard for some people to deal with. Erik Kennedy’s review of ināianei / now, which is intelligent and largely positive, was published by Landfall Review online under the derisory title ‘Prating in Alien Tongues’.
I could go further: mainstream New Zealand poetry is still dominated (though not defined) by the school of quietude: in Ron Silliman’s words, ‘poetry’s unmarked case, and its most characteristic ― even defining ― feature is the denial of its own existence.’ A poet of this persuasion wishes their poem to appear both authored and autonomous. It usually relies upon observation and then reflection on what has been observed; sometimes with an aphorism by way of a conclusion. Often the observation is of the self; but it might also be a wave of the sea, new red buttons on an old black coat, a bike ride through the suburbs or an encounter with a bird. We are to admire the poet’s skill with words, with metaphor; their sensitivity and their embrace of ‘intimacy’; above all their wise passivity before a largely inscrutable world. Or rather, a world made briefly scrutable by the poem.
Rapatahana’s work does not do this. I don’t mean that description, observation and / or reflection are absent from it, nor that he is unengaged; I mean he does not sentimentalise the world, the self or the other. He sets out the facts; and keeps his commentary upon them to a minimum; letting the words do the work. One of his poems begins: ‘I watched my father die’ and ends: ‘an uncanny / vomitous / odour, // no poet could ever / limn.’ Limn is an archaic term for the act of painting; its literary use indicates, archly, description of a landscape as much as a painting of a landscape; its contemporary equivalent is perhaps to be found in ekphrasis. But the root of limn is the same as that for ‘illuminate’; it also means ‘to light up’ and ‘to make clear’. As the last word of the poem it seems at first anomalous; but actually reverberates all the way back to the beginning and thereby articulates what has just happened: his father’s death.
Most of the poems in mō taku tama are laments which do not try to traduce the fact of death into something ‘poetic’; nor to make of this father’s grief for his son an occasion for fine writing; nor a demonstration of the nobility of his soul. Rather the poems bring before the reader the incomprehensibility of suicide and the inconsolable grief it occasions; which is, and always will be, lifelong. We are asked to contemplate, not so much the poet’s feelings, but the fact of the death that has occurred; which has, inter alia, made it impossible for him to write about it in any other way than this. There is no redemption, no closure, no way of assimilating what has happened; the only hope is, as the last words of the last poem in the book put it, ‘when I finally alight / I pray you’re waiting / at the terminus’ The omission of the full stop is of course deliberate.
Lament is a traditional genre of Māori verse, as it is in many poetries. The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, in 1966, recorded that ‘the largest number of songs comes under the heading of laments (waiata tangi) and love songs (waiata aroha)’; and goes on to mention (among unspecified others): oriori (a lullaby); pao (a derisive song); apakura (a lament for the dead, especially one killed in battle); tuki waka (a canoe song); and whakaaraara pā (a watchman’s song). The writer of this entry, most likely Ngāti Maniapoto kaumātua and scholar Bruce Biggs, was talking about the situation as it pertained in his day; even now, most non-Māori New Zealanders will know only the words and tunes of a few popular songs, the bi-lingual National Anthem, and the haka that precedes rugby matches in which the All Blacks take on whoever their opponent is to be.
Fifty years later, in 2014, musicologist Mervyn McLean, in a book about the Lapita people who are ancestral to all Pasifika cultures, including Māori, compiled a list of the kinds of songs that were sung in Polynesia before the European invaders came: ‘birth songs, boasting songs, children’s songs, courting songs, divinatory songs, entertainment songs, enumeration songs, erotic songs, farewell songs, fighting songs, food-bearing songs, funeral songs, game songs, greeting songs, hauling songs, incantations, initiation songs, insulting songs, juggling songs, laments, love songs, marriage songs, narrative songs, obscene songs, paddling songs, praise songs, satirical songs, spirit songs, tattooing songs, taunting songs, teasing songs, toddy songs, top-spinning songs, topical songs, war songs, welcome songs, and work songs.’
This broad range of songs must have been sung by Māori too; it would be strange if they were not. The decline in the number of categories in the present day therefore reflects the loss of a communal lifestyle; which would once have celebrated, for instance, the hauling of canoes over an isthmus as a common occurrence. Songs of love and grief remain of course ubiquitous. Rapatahana’s poems are usually either laments, waiata tangi; calls to action, like haka; or fragmented narratives which lay out the details of historical wrongs; of which his son’s suicide, if only by implication, may be seen as one. His work witnesses the past richness, and contemporary undervaluing of, the tradition he works within; even during a period of so-called de-colonisation. I think it is this aspect of Rapatahana’s work that Pākehā find it difficult to engage with. The same unwillingness to deal with feelings of anger and bereavement among Aboriginal people, let alone with the facts of their dispossession, is found among white Australians,.
The detail given of Blake’s life is minimal. His age, the manner of his death, where it occurred ― not much more. There is one grain of reminiscence around which a pearl has accreted. It comes two thirds of the way through the book, in the title of the tenth of the fifteen poems: ‘invictus redux’. The poem begins: ‘this was your favourite verse. / something I did not know / until / later. / far too late.’ The reference is to W E Henley’s ‘Invictus’ (1875), written while he was in hospital, bedridden, recovering from the amputation of a leg due to tubercular arthritis. Many readers will know the couplet with which the poem ends ― ‘I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul’ ― but few would be able to quote the beginning: ‘Out of the night that covers me, / Black as the pit from pole to pole, / I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul.’ Perhaps father and son share such a soul.
mō taku tama is a handsome book, a robust hardback, taller than most Kilmog publications; in its dimensions resembling the coffin in which the dead son lay, mentioned several times in the poems: Vaughan’s last sight of Blake. On the cover it has the title and the author’s name in black inside an appliqued ochre circle which looks like a sun; abstract, black shapes are glued down over the red boards in such a way as to make that sun resemble an eye, perhaps in a gate or on a door; there is also the visual pun: son / sun. The end papers are pale green, the unused leaves, front and back, have been cut large and left, like unlived years; and the type, as in all Kilmog books, is clear and unambiguous. On the title page, in a single decorative flourish, the author’s name appears in red below the black lettering. This is a heart-breaking book; but it is also a manual of how to stare down the facts of life and death, and especially death by suicide. It is by keeping on talking to the dead, even when there isn’t anything to say: ‘kua heke haere ahau / ki tēnei tāruarua o te toikupu; / kāore aku mea kē atu.’ ― ‘I am reduced to / this anaphora: / I have nothing else.’
Vaughan Rapatahana reading:
Erik Kennedy’s review:
Rapatana’s essays for Jacket 2:
Best NZ Poems 2017:
Mervyn McLean’s Music, Lapita, and the Problem of Polynesian Origins can be downloaded as a PDF here: http://polynesianorigins.org/
A dictionary of Te Reo:
MARTIN EDMOND was born in Ohakune, New Zealand and lives in Sydney, Australia. He holdsa Doctorate of Creative Arts from Western Sydney University. His most recent books are Isinglass (UWA, 2019) and Timelights (Lasavia, 2020). A non-fiction work, Marlow’s Dream, on Joseph Conrad, is forthcoming.
Body Shell Girl
by Rose Hunter
Reviewed by JENNY HEDLEY
I first encountered author Rose Hunter late in 2020 when I wrote about the decade I sold lingerie in strip clubs, hinting at but not claiming my own experience on the pole. Rose called me out on social media, furious at seeing ‘yet another conversation go by about sex workers, without a sex worker in it.’ She wrote, ‘My experience comes not from strip clubs but other areas of the sex work industry.’ I replied, ‘In truth, I have been on that side of the curtain, on your side and in various places in between.’ We had each outed ourselves on a platform that never forgets.
We were stepping into an unknown space, fraught with doxing and trolls. As Dr Brooke Magnati of Belle de Jour renown explains, ‘Having been a sex worker at any time in your life strips you of any other permissible identity and defines you absolutely. It makes you open to ridicule, regardless of your credentials in any other sphere in life.’ 
Unlike cyber bullies hiding behind avatars, Rose’s criticism of my essay was thoughtful. We slid into each other’s DMs, sparking a friendship divided by politics, bound by commonality, and sealed with an agreement to disagree. ‘It would not be sustainable at all for the war machine if everybody ended up respecting all points of view,’ writes Sand Talk author Tyson Yunkaporta . Instead of sticking our heads in the sand, Rose and I began to engage in rhetoric that is trauma-informed, based on deep listening.
When I say I love Rose Hunter’s memoir-in-verse Body Shell Girl, which chronicles her first two years as a full-service sex worker in Canada, I say this in spite of the cover blurb being written by the director of the Nordic Model Australia Coalition, which seeks to criminalise sex workers’ clients. (More on my decriminalisation stance later.)
In the tradition of Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem or Anne Carson’s ‘The Glass Essay,’ Rose Hunter takes us on a narrative journey in Body Shell Girl, proving that poetry need not be esoteric to be coded with feeling and meaning. She flirts with high and low-brow culture, crafting stanzas with artistry and care, like where she circles an ad for ‘Masseuses wanted! / $$$ / cash paid DAILY’ (3).
it was my hand that held the pen
I watched it join the curved edges of the line
a tiny red moon formed
which I smudged into a red comet (5)
In the first of three sections, as Rose stumbles into the massage parlours of Toronto to pay for film school, she meditates on her ‘freakish inexperience / for the ripe old age of twenty-five’ (8), hinting at her asexuality and hoping that ‘maybe this strange gig would cure me’ (22) and that ‘everything would be different / in my life from now on’ (14). We witness the one-sidedness of a client’s desire through language that is lyrical and lush—
my cheeks a rising warmth
his face a clearing house of amaze
seashells rattle-pulled with the retreat of a wave (14)
—contrasted with an uncanny detachment that results in a carnivalesque portrayal of her clients’ bodies. We witness a man like a ‘floppy white seal’ guiding her hand ‘to this gelatinous part of him / like a small pink sea cucumber // how strange how strange how strange’ (15).
Rose’s lack of self-worth and history of disordered eating follow her into the industry. The binge–purge cycle is captured in exquisite, painstaking detail—‘the teeth-grabbing heaving / the warm mouth-filling gushing’ (33)—in ‘Hungry Ghost Poem,’ which is the most visceral, arresting and relatable account of bulimia nervosa that I (also a recovering bulimic) have read.
Men who for sure ‘had more than two hands’ (29) and men with ‘hands like feathers / that felt like tarantulas / or tonnes’ (41) grope at Rose in poems like ‘This Gets Messed up Pretty Quickly’ and ‘Rick,’ as she appears to watch her body from outside of herself. Hers is a dissociated ‘bird’s eye view’ (25); she is both there and not-there, a sensation which is visited upon us by her prose.
think of my body as a shell
that I could vacate, not as metaphor, or symbol
but as real possibility (42)
Last year I’d been reading Katherine Angel’s powerful work on consent, where she describes how current models of desire view sexuality as a trade-off, something exchanged for intimacy at the risk of being devalued . I’d messaged Rose, ‘After being used and discarded so often by non-paying men who only valued me for my body it was like, fuck it, may as well get paid,’ and Rose responded, ‘An exact line in one of my poems.’
In this poem, ‘In Dreams I Can’t Remember, Imagining a Better World,’ Rose is sexually assaulted on a public bus, an experience to be categorised under—
as I called them, filed away as one-offs
(one one-off strange occurrence after another) (39)
—in which case she ‘may as well get paid’ (40).
The second part of Body Shell Girl takes place in Vancouver where Rose finds only brothels instead of massage parlours. ‘Red Velvet Suite’ is a haunting story of a client who refuses Rose’s ‘no.’ In earlier versions Rose had ‘added two men, added roofies, you know / to make [the rape] not my fault’ (68).
Common rape myths imply that a woman should sustain injury and at least shout for help in the struggle to escape her attacker, as Dr Jessica Taylor writes in Why Women Are Blamed for Everything . The statistics disprove this rape myth: the most common response to sexual trauma is the freeze response, the victim unable to respond.
Over DM, Rose recalls how writing ‘Red Velvet’ tied her in knots, because she only really ‘recognised it as actual rape halfway through the writing (about 20 years later).’ When we’re unable to process our assaults in real time, we repeat our trauma through dangerous situations, trying to find another way out. Rose and I each lost ourselves in abusive relationships. Writing has been our escape.
The most terrifying poem in the book is ‘Gravel,’ where Rose hitches a ride with a ‘man in a mesh cap with a green fish on it’ (84) to sneak across the Canadian border after a disastrous attempt to renew her visa. This man says, ‘You realise no one knows you’re in this country?’ (91), crushing Rose’s giddiness into fear as he veers off the main highway.
Rose portrays this scene methodically, titrating between corporeality and headspace. An accomplished poet, Rose gives us a reprieve from narrative tension as her mind drifts to film school, before unleashing a cacophony of thoughts: reasoning, negating, self-talk (‘he’ll show you some duckpond or whatever’ (94)) then overarching terror as he cuts the engine and
clinked like champagne toasts then clackety-tack
of the door opening (94–95)
‘Gutter trash,’ (96) he tells Rose.
The final section of the book sees Rose transform from naïve to ‘a knower of truths // like what was really behind those offices / and suits and pretty words men said to women / whomp-da-whomp’ (133). Rose summarises the trajectory of her healing journey between 2008 and now in the epilogue, where she describes feeling dehumanised by the industry.
‘The dehumanization of sex workers can render us impossible to victimize, or else it can render us the ultimate victims,’ writes Natalie West in We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival . West stresses how seeing sex work as work means workers may be ‘seen as laboring subjects in need of rights, not rescue’. In the introduction to We Too Selena the Stripper describes how anti–sex work feminists co-opt sex worker’s stories, pigeonholing them into the role of victim. Even though Selena experienced sexual assault, she says it doesn’t give anyone the license to take away her workplace, her means of support or her financial independence.
Former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant discusses how when anti–sex work reformers ‘rescue’ sex workers, what they’re really doing is disciplining them, setting them ‘back into their right role as good women’ . This enforcement of what Jill Nagle calls ‘compulsory virtue’, which is ‘a mandate not only to be virtuous, but also to appear virtuous’ further entrenches the whore stigma . When sex work is driven underground, it inherently becomes more dangerous.
The anti–sex work response to these arguments is always: WHAT ABOUT THE TRAFFICKING THE MINORS THE DRUGS THE MURDERED PROSTITUTES. But when I speak about sex work I am speaking of consenting adults who choose their profession. I am not speaking of child sex abuse or forceful coercion that occurs at all levels of society, from church to boardroom, when I talk about sex work. These crimes are symptomatic of a society that has malfunctioned.
Even though Body Shell Girl is being marketed as a cautionary tale against sex work, I see it as a horror story about what it means to inhabit a woman’s body under patriarchal capitalism. Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday studied the matriarchal society of the Minangkabau and found it was virtually free of rape and intimate partner violence . We should learn how to replicate this lack of violence instead of re-victimising people who consciously choose to trade in sex. Because so long as women ‘are trained to believe it is next to death to be mistaken for [a whore]’, writes Melissa Gira Grant, ‘men will feel they can leave whores for dead with impunity.’
1. Magnanti, Brooke. The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told is Wrong. Hachette UK, 2012.
2. Yunkaporta, Tyson. Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. Text Publishing, 2019.
3. Angel, Katherine. Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent. Verso Books, 2022.
4. Taylor, Jessica. Why Women Are Blamed for Everything: Exposing the Culture of Victim-Blaming. Hachette UK, 2020.
5. West, Natalie and Tina Horn, editors. We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival. The Feminist Press, 2021.
6. Grant, Melissa. Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. Verso Books, 2014.
7. Nagle, Jill. Whores and Other Feminists. Routledge, 1998. Taylor & Francis Group, https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203700655.
8. Sanday, Peggy Reeves. Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. Cornell University Press, 2002.
JENNY HEDLEY’S writing appears or is forthcoming in Cordite Poetry Review, Red Room Poetry, Diagram, Scum Magazine and other publications. She was a participant in the 2021 MAD Poetry workshop and writes about domestic violence and mental illness from a position of lived experience. She lives on unceded Boon Wurrung land with her son. Visit her website
My Pen is the Wing of a Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women
Ed Catherine Boyle
MacLehose Press Quercus London
Reviewed by ZARLASHT SARWARI
My Pen is the Wing of a Bird, draws us into the lives of fictional characters in Afghanistan in an anthology of twenty three unrelated but deeply connected short stories. Written by 18 women authors in Dari and Pashto, the works are translated for an English speaking audience. The stories traverse multiple decades in Afghanistan’s recent history, from the communist ruled period of the 1980s to more recent representations of Afghanistan society during the American occupation. The political climate of Afghanistan is not the focus of these stories, though it is important to be cognisant of the different regimes, wars and occupying forces which form the backdrop of these vignettes.
It is unfortunate, that we continue to learn of Afghanistan through the repeated narration of its affliction with war. A place devastated, cradling the broken hearts, maimed bodies and hungry stomachs of its people. The anthology illustrates how people are forced to endure life, amidst the manic conditions cumulative war and violence brings. As we read how the most basic of needs remain unmet for characters within these stories, we are forced to contemplate the banal and significant privileges we as readers, take for granted every single day.
We come to know the women and men in these stories, inhabiting urban centres or remote villages across Afghanistan. We move with them through their day, speaking to loved ones overseas, cooking meals, going to work, childrearing, dealing with colleagues, cursing bad health – all seemingly mundane tasks that anyone across the world can relate to. But these stories are not mundane. They are intense and impactful. They feel unbearably real. We witness characters negotiating everyday needs and obstacles in the midst of extreme poverty, injustice, want and violence. We witness so many contradictions and the convergence of so many unfortunate and unimaginable factors that weigh down on human existence. In between, we also witness acts of quiet kindness, unexpected wins and persistence in actualising personal agency.
Whether based on imagination or seeds of truth, these fleeting instances of hope within the stories, gives us the oxygen we need to continue reading. Even so, they compound the sad reality for how ephemeral hope has come to be for so many of the characters and by extension the men and women of Afghanistan. On the unimaginable complexity described within some of these stories, one can only surmise that in a society at war for more than forty years and plagued by foreign occupation, the authors may well have witnessed such things and laid them bare for us to also witness. It is this fortitude in storytelling, that brings hope and understanding in the midst of so much hopelessness.
The book is the outcome of a project led by Untold, a British organisation describing itself as a ‘development program for writers marginalised by communities and conflict’(1). The project was the culmination of two years work between writers in Afghanistan and translators and editors abroad. The anthology was published in 2022, following the shocking and chaotic withdrawal of US forces after 20 years of occupation.
The opening story gently invites us to witness the life of an elderly mother who stayed behind in Kabul after having sent all her children abroad. It is set during the post 2001 era of the US occupation and infers the myriad of geopolitical and transnational influences which plays out in her life. The lonely melancholy is obvious in her movement; pouring tea, turning on the television to connect with the outside world and forlornly looking at photos of her children and grandchildren living abroad. These images depict a familiar experience of separation among so many families and offers details that many readers who form the Afghanistan diaspora would recognise (tea with dried mulberries and walnuts, photo of a child posing in their traditional dress next to a large vase, a cloth draped over the television to avoid dust). These are the details that speak to the practices of home making and cultural maintenance replicated by many women of Afghanistan diaspora communities across the world.
We become anchored in the social and political reality of the protagonist, Nuria when we learn of the latest news bulletin about a violent attack targeting and killing staff at the Moby Media Group (MMG). As one of the many privately owned media companies which emerged in post 2001, the company was often targeted by the Taliban as it was a symbol of western influence and excess. MMG led the dynamic media landscape which was forming in the country with free market conditions and freedom of speech laws. The Afghan Australian owner of the company, Saad Mohseni is often referred to as the Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan. Nuria switches the news off as soon as she turns it on, suggesting fatigue by the violence, another experience common among the war weary people of Afghanistan. We witness her life through the series of photos she glances upon, marked by decades of war and regime change, social connection and loss, and her family’s migration to safety. She accepts solitude as part of her maternal obligation and derives satisfaction in keeping her children and their future safe. She does not fear living in solitude, but the realisation that she may die in solitude leaves her unsettled and distressed. This opening story sets the sombre mood and opens the door for us to walk in deeper to further explore the other more confronting stories to come.
Each story beautifully captures details, intimate perspectives and dynamic relationships. Each story allows us to come to know the characters closely in short, sharp scenarios. Though each story is concise, they are not an easy read. There is a need for pause, to breathe and reflect as one moves through this anthology. Despite some of the universally familiar scenarios, there are many aspects reflecting unique aspects of Afghanistan culture and everyday practice. The throwing of water behind the steps of a traveller to bless them a safe journey, the customary way of how guests are received, drinking tea with ghor – an unrefined sugar product common in South and Central Asia. There are also many depictions that represent negative and violent attitudes and treatment towards women, ethnic and sexual minorities. To an outsider it may reinforce the negative tropes routinely applied to Afghanistan as a backward country. However, it is a harsh reality that in a four decade climate of war, poverty and illiteracy, many aspects of human behaviour decline and become further perverted. For those with heritage from Afghanistan or familiar with the culture there, they may well be able to distinguish how problematic or difficult practices have become further corrupted or amplified. It is difficult and jarring to face these realities as they are presented to us throughout these stories.
The anthology opens windows to worlds and characters during different eras in the past four decades of Afghanistan, where we are able to enter the homes and communities of the people who inhabit the stories. The collection provides an overview of very diverse experiences from Afghanistan not commonly available to an English speaking audience. A positive and empowering move would have seen the stories published in the language they were written (Dari or Pashto) alongside English, rather than in English alone. English speaking audiences would of course read the translation but for those literate in Dari and Pashto within Afghanistan (whose speakers number over 60 million (2)) and those living within the estimated 7 million strong Afghan diaspora across the world, could have had the opportunity to read these stories in their mother tongue. It would have offered a fitting tribute to honour these works and encapsulate as part of the important body of literature documenting the complexity of life in Afghanistan, a region which has had a strong literary culture dating back to the era of the Samanid empire in the 9th and 10th centuries.
It was from the region which Afghanistan now occupies that many classic and contemporary artists and literary masters have emerged. Afghanistan was the birthplace of the great Islamic scholar, poet and master of Sufi mysticism, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī (known also as Rumi) born in the early 13th century, who produced the epic Masnavi – a six book poem comprising 50 000 lines. Rumi’s work has had significant international influence until this day (3). Other writers of cultural significance who made major contributions to the Dari literary canon and who came three centuries before Rumi include Rabia Balkhi, a poetess renowned for her ‘major contribution to the foundation of the Persianate literary canon’ and Abu ‘Abd Allah Ja‘far ibn Muhammad Rudaki of Bukhara, a poet laureate of the Samanid court (4). Rudaki was the first poet of note to compose poetry in the New Persian script and is hailed as the father of Persian poetry. The significance of his contributions are felt in the wider Persianate world including what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Iran. Though the nature of society and life has changed dramatically since the time of these literary greats, the trajectory of Dari and Pashto literature remains ever connected and forms the root of everyday literary practice loved and valued across Afghanistan and beyond. For a society still plagued with remarkably high illiteracy rates, literary works are often transmitted via musical arrangement. Poetry and prose are transformed with musical composition allowing those literate and illiterate to tap into the cultural assets of the literary realm through different generations of popular culture (5).
In reading the anthology, My Pen is the Wing of a Bird, one is reminded of a heartbreaking song which captures the sad sentiment of the experience of the people of Afghanistan.
Sarzamine man (My Homeland) performed by respected artist Dawood Sarkhoosh (1998), and written by Amir Jan Saboori, laments the ongoing suffering of a people forcefully displaced from their homeland. The song laments the pain of separation and the ongoing and cumulative trauma and dispossession rained upon the people of Afghanistan by external forces.
“My homeland, in uncurable pain, who composed your grief?,
My homeland, who opened your door… who stole your treasures?
My homeland, everyone has damaged and broken you, each taking turns”. (6)
It is this collective grief, captured through song and literature, that is detailed and given colour in My Pen is the Wing of a Bird. The stories are not only about war, they are of course about how people, families and communities live in spite of it. How justice and fairness are perverted, how basic needs are desperately met and how some women hold onto hope in the most unlikeliest of ways. How long standing cultural values are eroded by regime changes, and how betrayal and injustice is endured but cannot cause delay from picking up a child on time from preschool. The title of the anthology evokes the desire to transcend the physical and material hardships of life in Afghanistan. It is only upon completion of the anthology, where we feel the depth and extent of this desire, the reason for it and the necessity of it.
1. Untold Website, see http://untold-stories.org/
2. Unknown author, 2011, “The view from within: an introduction to new Afghan literature”, Words Without Borders, see https://wordswithoutborders.org/read/article/2011-05/the-view-from-within-an-introduction-to-new-afghan-literature/
3. Ali, R. 2017, “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi”, The New Yorker, see https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-erasure-of-islam-from-the-poetry-of-rumi
4. Ebtikar, 2021, “The story of Rabia Balkhi, Afghanistan’s most famous female poet”, Ajam Media Collective, see https://ajammc.com/2021/08/16/rabia-balkhi-afghanistan-poet/
5. Massoumi, M. (2022), “Soundwaves of Dissent: Resistance Through Persianate Cultural Production in Afghanistan”, Iranian Studies, 55, 697–718.
6. For an audio recording of the song Sarzamine man and credits, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdQP8-gHjxg.
ZARLASHT SARWARI is a researcher, writer and PhD candidate at Western Sydney University. Her research examines identity construction and belonging among Afghanistan diaspora communities in Australia. Her work considers what it means to be from Afghanistan in the context of a homeland, both real and imagined, which has become increasingly out of reach and under threat. Zarlasht has produced written works for Southerly Journal, ABC radio, Sydney Writers Festival, Parramatta Laneways Festival and Fairfield City Museum and Gallery.