Australianama: the South Asian Odyssey in Australia
by Samia Khatun
Reviewed by MATTHEW da SILVA
Samia Khatun takes a tack pioneered by Peter Drew, an Australian who made posters labelled with the word “Aussie” and featuring a migrant cameleer. He wrote about the development of his art practice in ‘Poster Boy: A Memoir of Art and Politics,’ (2019). It’s a slightly confused account of a life spent looking for battles to fight. Khatun fights her own battle but uses different language and aims stronger barbs at a long-absent colonial power.
As though every question in life might be answered satisfactorily by apportioning blame. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a Jewish author whom Indians cherish as one of their own, uses instead of incisive academic prose the language of sentiment filtered through a screen of humour.
Perhaps their twin aims are not running in parallel, but instead intersect – such as here, now. Khatun provides a much-needed lens through which to view South Asians in Australia in the colonial period. I was enchanted by the propriety of giving voice to such subaltern figures as a Pakistani merchant or an Indian peddler. The “lascars” – South Asian seamen used in the period following the abolition of slavery to crew steamships – also figure prominently in Khatun’s narrative, offering different ways to see White Australia and the developing form of nationalism Khatun acknowledges multiculturalism to be.
Given all these qualifications, how accessible is her book? Who might buy and read it? Is it a book for the general trade market or is it, rather, a work that must lie within the ambit of academic circles? I think that, as in the case of its focus, it is an intersectional work that can fit into multiple settings, much like a designer handbag or a 4-wheel-drive automobile. It will feel just as “right” if you carry such an accessory with jeans or with a Chanel suit. Similarly, with a modern 4-wheel-drive SUV, it looks fine in a CBD carpark or out on the open road climbing up a steep incline among trees with peeling bark that are filled with the sounds of cicadas.
Khatun’s register is elevated and her concern is, as is common with academic writing, to speak truth to power. She won’t concede anything her principles refuse to allow, so, for example, she refers to the Flinder’s Ranges in South Australia as having a name that is “current”. Not conceding allows her to embark upon a radical course of change, and she writes sympathetically of the dispossession of Aboriginal people in the process of writing about South Asians in Australia.
While the language is taut and the plan lofty – bringing the reader into contact with discourse systems that dominate elite circles – Khatun also tells a solid tale, and engages in a bit of novel coinage, as when she uses the word “tracks” to talk about storylines used by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. As such Khatun is writing a new “track” for her own people, locating them within the grip of a trading web stretching from Perth to Medina, and from Mombasa to Dhaka. She early on signals her intention to offer readers an alternative psychogeographical realm within which to tell her stories, and delivers on her promise, dredging up a range of colourful characters, each of whom, like Mohammed Bux, is able to tell stories that help to create new ways of living.
In Bux’s case the telling of stories not only made him a rich man, but saved his life. When on a hajj in the Arabian Peninsula, and robbed of everything including his clothes, it was his ability to describe what had happened to him that led to the provision of not only new clothes, but a place to sleep, and food. Telling stories continues to be an important way for Indigenous people in Australia to achieve their cultural and political goals, and this process is of course contested in the public sphere. Khatun is scathing in regard to former prime minister Tony Abbott and his 2014 “terra nullius” claim, part of a public performance during which, in typically blunt style, the politician tried to settle old scores – the “black armband” culture wars of a decade earlier.
Unsuccessfully, as it turns out. Khatun’s work forms a stepping stone for people who enjoy Drew’s art but my initial reservation – what appears at the outset of this article – should actually be taken as an index of my esteem as I thought that to dwell on such minor matters was unequal to the gorgeousness of what else is conveyed in this marvellous, and profoundly entertaining, work of nonfiction.
I was a tad disappointed that 19th century debates about knowledge that have been abandoned by all but the rumbling amateur and the most reactionary scholar animate Khatun’s narrative, which is otherwise – and, once you get over this opening hurdle – engrossing and rich in design and in execution. I’m really not sure that it’s all that useful to start quoting James Mill and Thomas Macaulay as though they were reliable witnesses to the fact of colonialism. Perhaps they are – in India?
They certainly cannot be in the West. It seems, in any case, unnecessary to drag out these particular skeletons, as though by displaying the bones you can resolve questions about why they’re not suitable to be used in a life drawing class. Nobody nowadays reads Mill or Macaulay anyway. Khatun has to ensure that people read her work. I prefer her investigations into the literatures of the subcontinent, for it is here that the incipient beauty of her text for the first time becomes apparent.
But Australianama not only charts waters rarely ventured into, and communicates effectively with what should be – if there’s any justice in the world (and of this many despair) – a wide audience, it also explores new avenues of enquiry that others might be tempted to pursue. Some of the tracks that Khatun follows reveal surprising truths about, for example, Aboriginal culture and the history of dispossession they’ve faced over much of the past 230-odd years.
Finding herself in the South Australian desert, Khatun takes a lesson in reading tracks left by passing animals, including a lizard that is taken by a snake. She writes:
This episode of high drama that Reg [Dodd] decrypted in the sand lies outside the bounds of what are recognised as significant events in most English-language history books today. In conventional histories of this Arabunna sandhill, the lizard and the eagle would not feature as central actors. And yet, it was this asymmetrical encounter between two creatures that gave me an invaluable insight into some of the principles of Arabunna storytelling. Beginning with the predatory gaze of the eagle, the central motif of these sand dune dramas was one of pursuit and escape, actions that left a trail in the sand. Like so many other narratives imprinted on the sandhill, the tracks of the lizard ended with dismemberment, consumption and disappearance from the face of Arabunna geography. Eating! Here, being eaten, the apprehension of being eaten, and the pursuit of other creatures in order to eat were ever-present prospects shaping how creatures moved across the land. (p.138 – 139)
Dodd had heard a story of South Asian cameleers from his grandmother, Barralda. In the story, two Aboriginal women were waiting for a train but it was late, and would not come. While they were waiting two cameleers arrived, with their beasts, and spoke to them, asking to see their breasts. The women showed the men their breasts. The men then asked to see their thighs. They showed the men their thighs. But in the telling the story evolved in a surprising way as the two women consider eventually – according to each teller of the tale – that the men want to eat them and thus want to see their flesh.
This is the central fact in the retelling as the story was passed down from mother to son, from aunt to niece. A cautionary tale told for the benefit of children, this particular track – Khatun discerned – was anchored in the same dynamic as that which resulted in the leaving of animal tracks upon the landscape. An ephemeral moment in world history, but a telling one.
MATTHEW da SILVA was born in Brighton, Victoria, and grew up in Sydney. He has Bachelor of Arts and Master of Media Practice degrees from the University of Sydney and lived for just under a decade in Tokyo. He has two adult children and lives in Sydney.
by Sheila Heti
Reviewed by DIVYA VENKATARAMAN
When I arrive at a decision about motherhood – to be, or not to be? – I almost certainly won’t get there by employing the kind of esoteric abstraction Sheila Heti’s unnamed narrator does. That being said, Heti’s discursive, conversational monologue of a novel is clarifying, poignant and devastating at times in its ability to condense the societal pressures that women – that is, women of Heti’s whiteness and relatively high socio-economic status – face in our age.
We meet Heti’s narrator just before she turns 37. She’s been bitten by the “bug” of wondering whether she will procreate. “The question of a child is a bug in the brain—it’s a bug that crawls across everything, every memory, and every sense of my own future.”
Heti’s narrator decides to embark on an intellectual quest, determined to interrogate the reasons for which she does and does not want to have a child. To illuminate her journey, in a common trope, the narrator looks to Eastern wisdom: here, the role of guiding light is given to the Chinese tradition of I-Ching, a method of tossing three coins and gleaning ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers for the combination of faces they show. The answers her coins give her lead her to her next question. There’s a dialogue between coin and question which gives away a great deal in its sparseness.
Heti’s narrator describes the feeling of being left out in the cold of childlessness in a touching, deeply felt way. “I had always thought my friends and I were moving into the same land together, a childless land where we would just do a million things together forever. I thought our minds and souls were all cast the same way, not that they were waiting for the right moment to jump ship, which is how it feels as they abandon me here. I should not think of it as an abandoning, but it would be wrong to say it’s not a loss, or that I’m not startled at being so alone. How had I taken all of us as the same?” The flowing present tense of the novel allows us to weave in and out of New York City life, in and out of her apartment, in and remain mired in, her arguments with her partner Miles. She writes honestly and deeply poignantly about the pain of not knowing how to feel in the face of societal pressure. “I fear that without children, it doesn’t look like you have made a choice, or that you’re doing anything but just continuing on – drifting.”
The circuitous conversations the protagonist has with herself evoke the circular nature of her mood swings and hormonal fluctuations. While being so concerned with motherhood, an event so rooted in the physical, Heti’s narrator often feels disconnected from her own body. Her period cycles are unpredictable, her moods more so. “On the one hand, the joy of children,” Heti writes. “On the other hand, the misery of them. On the one hand, the freedom of not having children. On the other hand, the loss of never having had them—but what is there to lose?” At the novel’s close, she finds comfort and a hazy kind of bliss in a prescription for anti-depressants.
The novel reads, in its confessionalism and oscillations of a mind not-quite-made-up, as more of a memoir or extended essay than anything fictional. The unnamed narrator at the centre of the book and the dilemma, frames her decision on motherhood as a choice to be made by the individual and the individual alone. In Heti’s narrator’s world – a white, upperclass heterosexual world – there is firstly a choice about whether or not to become a mother, and such a choice is framed as being one about sacrificing creative ambition and art for the creation of life. Motherhood, for Heti is conceptual, lofty, and understood in the context of a woman occupying several spheres of privilege making claims about motherhood. Should she create life or create art? The novel is driven more by the internal cogitation than any actual events – except for her conversations (which are very Rachel Cusk-esque in the way they are distilled only through the protagonist’s worldview), and the (somewhat repetitive) fights between her and Miles.
While Heti’s protagonist moves through a series of thrice-removed, theorised concepts about the sacrifices and privileges that motherhood will afford her, the decision that so many women around the world take is a result of myriad, competing desires – not exclusive to, but including cultural guilt, familial pressure, and financial stability. But this is not to say that, through her ambivalent, see-sawing conversations with herself about motherhood, she doesn’t delve into misconceptions about motherhood with humour, insight and painful acuity. While it’s perhaps unfair to ask Heti to write from the perspective of anyone else, the novel does not factor into its philosophising any broader sense of what motherhood is as understood in different parts of the world – or even different parts of her own city.
However, she is comprehensive about and critical of the overemphasis of women’s abilities as child-rearers and the conditioning of women as ‘natural’ in the role, and the challenge they pose to a society organised by nuclear families. “There is something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children,” says Heti. “What sort of trouble will she make?”
While these quotes, plucked out of context, may spark a feeling of recognition – of being able to relate – it is the process of her repetitive, rhetorical question-asking through flipping coins which grounds them in place.
While the novel is not as universal as it imagines itself to be, Motherhood is a crucial, deeply personal sketch of the conversations women have with themselves. In it, Heti sums up the anxiety of the constant wavering between freedom and being joyfully tethered – to create art, or to create life? No questions are answered, no conclusions drawn – but she finds a way to give shape to the anxiety and constant, underlying thrum of the indecision she feels as she decides what she will make next.
DIVYA VENKATARAMAN is an Indian-Australian lawyer and writer based in Sydney. Her writing has been published in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Time Out, the Sydney Morning Herald, Sweatshop Women and more. She was a finalist for the Newcastle Short Story Award and the Premier’s Multicultural Media Award.
by Jennifer McKenzie
Reviewed by ANNEE LAWRENCE
Jennifer Mackenzie’s collection of poems Navigable Ink takes inspiration from, reveres and amplifies the life events, writings, reflections and concerns with history of the Indonesian author and activist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006). The idea of writing the poems emerged after Mackenzie was asked to translate Pramoedya’s Arus Balik (Cross-Currents) in 1993.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer was born in the small Javanese town of Blora in what was then the Netherlands East Indies. His most famous work, the Buru Quartet novels – This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass – covers, in his own words, Indonesia’s time of Nationalist Awakening during the first two decades of the twentieth century.
Based on the life of the pioneer journalist Tirto Adi Suryo 1, the novels follow a young man, Minke’s, developing political awareness and consciousness of the colonial apartheid system. As his story unfolds, the reader is drawn into an emerging vision of a new country – Indonesia, and of a new national language and cultural identity – Indonesian. 2
When Suharto’s New Order government came to power after a military coup in 1965, it did so by overthrowing the government of the nation’s first President, Sukarno (in power since 1945) 3. The coup unleashed widespread violence and the extrajudicial bloody deaths of more than half a million people who were labelled communist or communist sympathiser. Feminists, trade union leaders, teachers, artists, writers, doctors, farmers, university lecturers, and all kinds of progressive community leaders lost their lives. Of those who survived, many were shipped without trial or sentence to the island of Buru where they were forced to do hard labour.
Pramoedya was imprisoned three times during his life: in 1947-1949 by the Dutch, for nine months in the 1950s by the Sukarno government, and in 1965-1979 by Suharto’s New Order regime. At the time of his arrest and imprisonment in Jakarta on 13 October 1965, his house was ransacked and his library and eight of his manuscripts were burned.
Mackenzie’s poem, ‘Manuscripts in My Library Destroyed by the Mob’ lists Pramoedya’s works and writing that were stolen or burned in 1965 – works about and by Kartini and other women writers before Kartini, a collection of Sukarno’s short stories, a preliminary Study of the History of the Indonesian Language – the list is telling. They represent the voices that must be silenced, histories that must be erased or reinterpreted including that of the birth of the country’s national language. When Pramoedya sought to recover ‘two volumes of Pre-Indonesian Literature’ he was told by the director of the Balai Pustaka (the Government Publishing and Printing House) that they were ‘burned at the request of his superiors’.
After four years in prison, Pramoedya was taken 1500 kilometres east by ship to the island of Buru on 16 August 1969, where he remained as a political prisoner until 12 November 1979. Buru was a barren, infertile swamp and life for the political prisoners was characterised by daily beatings, hard labour, hunger and filthy conditions. In the poem ‘Writing Materials’, Mackenzie captures the insane mechanics of the arbitrary and senseless repression on Buru that denied the author pen and paper.
there was no pen, no paper
then there was
after many years
pen and paper
I remember none of
At the poem’s conclusion Mackenzie does not look away from the trauma that has done its work: ‘nightmares lap the house/which wall is crumbling?’
The eventual provision of writing materials allowed Pramoedya to finally begin to write the four novels of the Buru quartet that had been kept alive in his memory by narrating them to his fellow political prisoners.
On returning home to East Jakarta on 21 December 1979, Pramoedya was placed under house arrest and made to report weekly to the local police station. For almost two decades, he and his family endured constant and systemic discrimination and surveillance. As each of his books was published during the 1980s and 1990s, they were banned – allegedly for spreading Marxism-Leninism and Communism.
During Suharto’s thirty-three-year New Order regime, the gap between rich and poor widened, and corruption, cronyism and fraud became widespread. When the economic crisis took hold in the latter part of 1997, the country’s students faced down the authorities and took to the streets, and the seemingly entrenched President was finally forced to stand down on 21 May 1998.
In Navigable Ink’s opening poem, ‘Before Nightfall’, there is at first moonlight and tranquillity, but attention soon shifts to the sea – gara gara – turbulence, trouble, stormy weather, and ‘frenzied moonlit waves’ that threaten those on board. On the shore there is the howling of forest dogs. From the darkness, having disappeared from view of family and society for more than fourteen years, the political exile returns white-headed to his family, finds his daughters once more at his side, ‘forest and grassland will always greet/each other’, while they giggle and tease ‘You look like Hanuman’, the white monkey general of the Ramayana.
Images of the sea, the coast, boats, boat journeys, and foreign armadas appearing to bomb the islands’ ports with cannon ball – ‘they want to plant their flags on this very shore!’ – are threaded throughout different poems. They mark devastating invasion and journeys into exile. Life goes on and there is a unity of design, the link to precolonial and colonial events, the death or enforced exile of those who use words to agitate and need to be shut up, and the relentless environmental destruction caused by cutting down forests to make way for cash crops (most recently palm oil plantations).
In ‘Daendels as Wayang Puppet Watching Over Us’ Mackenzie draws on Pramoedya’s film essay, Jalan Raya Pos (the Great Post Road) 4, with translations of Pramoedya’s text captured on the right side of the poem, alongside the scenes filmed on the road of workers ‘sodden, flooded, collecting sand/this rushing river’, ‘stoking the furnace of the sugar mill’, trying to repair ‘a mudslide’, and of ‘a wayang performance/the puppets of Daendels, the Regent of Sumedang/a cracking gamelan/battle it out’.
The one-thousand-kilometre Great Post Road extends across northern Java, from Anyer on the West coast to the port of Panurukan in the East. It is the ghosted legacy of the Dutch Governor-General Daendels who in just one year in 1809 conscripted Javanese labourers to build it. Many died in the process.
In the film essay, the road remains the lifeblood of transport and communication for cars, carts, public buses, and trucks, but its history echoes the Suharto era’s own use of the unpaid labour of the political prisoners to build roads and bridges on Buru, and the inequality, poverty and poor working conditions of those at work along the road.
One of the scenes of ordinary daily life and survival captured is the attempt of a driver to repair his broken down truck in pouring rain. Mackenzie captures this in ‘Writer’s Block’.
a break down
diesel fumes rising like clouds
a rinse in the river of spare parts
the bus will rattle into life
The poem draws on other scenes from the film essay including one in which Pramoedya admits that when he is affected by writer’s block, the study of his homeland and its history are a key tool for organising his thoughts.
The film also bears witness to Pramoedya’s daily routine. The passing of time. The push-ups, the burning of rubbish, the ‘click click click’ of the typewriter. The joy of grandchildren. Trauma kept at bay.
Mackenzie’s poems reflect the contemporary as well as the past. Young people leave their rural towns and villages to seek better lives on the coast where they find themselves living on the margins of broken dreams – as drivers, tea pickers, sand miners, or carting bamboo as in ‘The Buffaloes’:
the buffaloes, in a choreography of the tethered,
lift their feet lightly
above the wagon
drooping bamboo branches
sway, leaves catching the light
at the swirling’s centre the driver’s steady gaze
In the three-part poem ‘Memories of the Revolution’, ‘Bandung Conference 1955’ recalls the coming together of emerging nations called on by Sukarno (as NEFOS – new emerging forces) to refuse allegiance to one or other side of the Cold War. In the second part, ‘Borobodur 1959’ depicts a visit to Indonesia by Che Guevara. In part three, ‘Jakarta 1995’, the Cold War has ended, the prisoners from Buru have returned to their families where they are demeaned and discriminated against as ex political prisoners (TAPOL). This ongoing persecution (denial of jobs and education) under the New Order government extends to their children and other close family members.
In ‘Jakarta 1995’ the snapshot of scenes from daily life at home skews to the right across the page, fulfilling a pattern of days in the present, ‘watering the plants’, ‘gazing over to the/neighbourhood kids/springing about/flying kites’, but still reckoning with the past, still ‘thinking of Sukarno’, and arriving at a single word, ‘sunyata’ – in truth.
For Pramoedya, remembering is agency, truth telling, and revolutionary act. And personal survival, relationship and day-to-day living are necessarily intertwined with the political.
The poems in Mackenzie’s collection are a brilliantly realised weaving of Pramoedya’s preoccupation with the images and episodes of history which flow like ghosts into the present. If the nation could be ‘unified politically and administratively by Soekarno without spilling blood – an exceptional occurrence in humanity’s history’,5 – then how are we to understand the widespread horrific violence against their own that exploded in the wake of the US military-backed coup in 1965?
Pramoedya interrogates history and demands that the present be understood, and if it can be understood, he asks, then what is the role of the literary writer? In his essay, ‘My Apologies, in the Name of Experience’ he writes that ‘as a person and a writer who shares in bearing the burden of change’, he regards the era of Sukarno (until 1965) and the Trisakti doctrine as ‘nothing but a sort of thesis. The New Order, an antithesis. Therefore, for me, it is something that in fact cannot be written about yet, a process that cannot yet be written as literature, that does not yet constitute a national process in its totality, because it is in fact still heading for its synthesis.’6
In the last poem in the collection ‘Dawn’, the train heads east from Gambir station, crossing through the countryside,
red mounds of earth high as small hills
on either side of the narrow track farewell
what I sense of
And, at the end, a self that wears the marks and traces of brutal capture and incarceration, but who also goes on amid the details of daily living.
a chattering of bicycles and tea stalls
among the mud and puddles left after rain
hoed, black beaten, weathered, flaking away
Mackenzie’s Navigable Ink honours the inspiring, rich literary legacy of Indonesia’s most notable writer and pays tribute to his refusal to be silenced, subjugated or compromised. It is a wonderful collection that repays multiple readings.
1. Max Lane translated the Buru Quartet and as he writes in his Introduction to Footsteps (1990): ‘Tirto Adi Suryo was publisher and editor of the first native-owned daily paper, instigator of the first “legal aid service”, co-founder of the first modern political organization, co-publisher of the first magazine for women, and a pioneer of indigenous literature in the language of the nation yet to be born. All this and more is brought to life for the reader in an amazing adventure of intellectual discovery and emotion.’
2. Max Lane, Introduction, in Footsteps by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Penguin, 1990, p. 10.
3. In 1942 the Netherlands East Indies surrendered to the Japanese and, after the war ended, the
Indonesian nationalist leaders, Sukarno and Hatta, declared Indonesia’s independence on 17 August 1945. Sukarno was the nation’s first president and Hatta its vice-president. After four years of struggle, the Netherlands recognised Indonesian independence in 1949.
4. Jalan Raya Pos 1996, with Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Directed by Bernie IJdis.
5. Chris GoGwilt, 1996. ‘Pramoedya's Fiction and History: An Interview With Indonesian Novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, January 16, 1995, Jakarta, Indonesia’, The Yale Journal of Criticism 9.1: 147-164. http://muse.jhu.edu.ezproxy.uws.edu.au/journals/yale_journal_of_criticism/v009/9.1toer01.html
6. See Pramoedya Ananta Toer, 1991. ‘My Apologies in the Name of Experience’. Translation and
Afterword by Alex G Bardsley, 1996. https://sites.google.com/site/pramoedyasite/home/works-in-
translation/my-apologies-in-the-name-of-experience In the essay, Pramoedya relates that ‘the period of Guided Democracy in the last years of the 50s and first half of the 60s, [was] the period of the Trisakti doctrine – political sovereignty, economic self-reliance, cultural integrity – a doctrine that, while universal among nationalist states everywhere, was, however, a bogey for the countries stuffed with capital, and hungry for new fields of enterprise around the world. History teaches much about the power of capital. … The governments of so many states it turns into mere instruments of its will; and when they are no longer wanted, they are overthrown.'
ANNEE LAWRENCE’S debut novel, The Colour of Things Unseen (Aurora Metro, UK, 2020), engages with the rich cultural life that exists between Indonesians and Australians. She was the inaugural recipient of the Asialink Arts Tulis Australia-Indonesia Writing Exchange in 2018 (at Komunitas Salihara in Jakarta) and has published in New Writing, Griffith Review, Hecate, Cultural Studies Review and the online University of Edinburgh Dangerous Women Project.
by Shu-Ling Chua
Reviewed by Dženana Vucic
I raced through Echoes the first time I read it. Raced through it the second time, too. At under 85 pages it’s a short book—a chapbook, almost—and easily inhaled over an idle afternoon. If you can resist, the three essays can be spread over a few idle afternoons. But it’s hard to resist—Shu-Ling Chua’s writing is compelling, the kind of simple but lyrical language that propels you through the text at pace. It’s not exactly sparse prose, but unadorned, elegant like a figure-hugging structured dress from Cue. Chua is economical with her words, and direct. She avoids heavy description or lapsing into discursive commentary and instead, she takes the concrete and mundane—clothing, songs, water—as the loci from which to gently probe her broader concern, crystallised in the book’s blurb as ‘what does one unknowingly inherit?’
In the first essay, ‘(Im)material Inheritance’, Chua searches for an understanding of self in photographs of her grandmother, in her seeming divergence from her mother. The essay circles questions of glamour and the feminine, and what it means to dress for the world or for the self. Her economy of language leads to moments of ambiguity and momentary discomfort, as when, for example, Chua writes that she ‘was not like other girls’, a sentiment that lives in the space between the then (she is writing of herself in school), and the now (she is affirming, in 2020, that she was different). It is a niggling tension felt on a personal and political level: we at once know that this is an unfair and sexist disavowal of womanhood and know, too, that we have felt this way, have felt our failures to live up to idealized femininity, and have felt our refusal of idealized femininity as a special badge of honour (indeed, some of us still do).
In another instance, Chua tells her mother ‘You’re lucky I’m not anorexic,’ and soon after notes: ‘My stomach is not as flat as it used to be. (Neither is my mother’s),’ and the lack of contextualisation, explanation, makes the reader wince. This is intentional, Chua is not attempting to save face; she offers the self in all its embarrassing exceptionalism and cruelty, setting in relief our imposed relationship to beauty, a relationship which sets us to defining ourselves in relation to others in ways that make us feel better and worse, but which also denies us joy in our physicality. The essay traces Chua’s (self-)consciousness of this tension, played out through three generations of women in her family. And though Chua ultimately finds connection to femininity through her grandmother, and with her grandmother to femininity, she lets the tension linger on the page, unresolved.
In ‘Echoes’, Chua sifts through Chinese pop songs and their modern iterations, exploring her interweaving past and present to push at the limits of language and translation, and the gaps in between. Chua was born in Australia to Malaysian-Chinese parents and, like many immigrants and children of immigrants, she inhabits a space of linguistic inbetween-ness, a space whose contours she maps out through her relationship to Chinese music. Chua describes listening to songs whose lyrics she doesn’t fully understand, lyrics that she must google and google-translate and ask friends about. It is an exploration of second language that is full of the wonder of discovery, with that special attention to meaning that non-fluent speakers often have, a tentative peeling back of definitional layers to grasp a word that native speakers take for granted. In this, there is a nostalgia—and hunger—for something only partly-known that I, an immigrant to Australia who lost much of my mother tongue in the move, recognise.
Though Chinese characters or anglicised Chinese words (Cantonese and Mandarin) appear throughout the book, they are most common in ‘Echoes’. It is a choice that reminds me of Gloria Anzaldúa’s germinal Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), in which Anzaldúa used Spanish and Chicano dialects alongside English in parsing through and representing her multiply inflected Chicana identity. Languages co-existing on the page, without italicization or footnoted definition, is becoming increasingly common as publishers become aware of the othering and English-language hegemony that these choices represent. However the decision to slide between languages is not just political, it is deeply personal too. As Chua, and Anzaldúa before her, show, multi-lingual works are a textual performance of the in-betweeness and multiplicity of their authors’ linguistic and cultural identities, a way of letting aspects of the self sit together on the page without subordinating one to the other.
For Chua, the decision seems also to perform her coming-to-language, and, in this, a coming-to-be. She is always googling, translating, looking up, asking for help, for information. She takes lessons, practices. Chua is always active in her linguistic and cultural inheritance and she has to be—unlike English language songs, which are so ubiquitous in Australia that you neither have to try (nor even want) to learn their lyrics to absorb them; Chinese songs require effort from Chua. She is forced to use the internet, and youtube in particular, as access points to a culture that she is very much a part of but which a predominantly white, Anglo-centric Australian (and western) media attempt to obfuscate, if not override. Hence the importance of movies like Crazy Rich Asians, the sound track of which is fundamental to Chua’s essayistic musings.
The decision to leave lyrics untranslated, or partially translated, enacts instances of exclusion for readers who aren’t familiar with the script, forcing them to sit in the discomfort of not knowing and affectively bringing them into an experience paralleling Chua’s own language-acquisition. It forces them into participation. To know how the words are said, or what they mean, the reader must act, must watch the youtube video, must flick between pages to find where a line has previously been given meaning, or look up the songs and seek translations for themselves. The uncertainty and insecurity of this process, felt keenly by Chua, is offered to readers, too.
For me, it is Chua’s attempt to render as whole a self which is often split into parts that is most moving. Chua describes calling herself ‘half Chinese and half Australian’ in grade 3, while her mother suggest she use ‘ABC… Australian Born Chinese’. Both iterations split Chua in two, both evoking the neat split suggested by the hyphen in ‘Chinese-Australian (or, indeed, Chinse-Malaysian), as though anything could be so neatly parsed or disentangled. Chua does not describe herself, in any bio that I could see, as any iteration of the above, nor does she do so in ‘Echoes’. She has no time for the lazy signifier that is this hyphen and, in each essay of her collection, she speaks to, without directly speaking about, how poorly such a forced construction captures the breadth of her cultural relationality.
The final essay, ‘To Fish for the Moon’, details domestic life, habits and rituals, through water and washing. Chua describes water being saved in her parents’ home, the washing machines she has had, her (great) grandparent’s laundry business, sipping hot water, baths. Each anecdote is dropped into this flow of water and let go. Chua is gentle in this release, but unsentimental. To me, she doesn’t seem to be yearning for an imagined intimacy with the past, but rather seems to create and inhabit a present-future dimensionality that extends in all directions and take all things with it. Water is ordinary but it is also, implicitly, a connecting force, ubiquitous and mundane but life giving. To quote Anzaldúa, ‘I struggle with naming without fragmenting, without excluding… Identity flows between, over, aspects of a person. Identity is a river—a process.’ Chua takes this river, acknowledging the ways that it is communal and ongoing, and offers readers sips along its path.
Chua is an essayist and poet and in Echoes, her debut collection, these two worlds converge in an unexpected way. Rather than writing poetic lines into the essay form (and thus bearing the risk of sounding overwrought, tedious), Chua seems to do the opposite by writing essayistic sentences which slowly combine and accrete into a poetic form. She favours a sort of nimble restraint and the immediacy of concrete imagery on a sentence by sentence level. This is something of a contrast to the essays themselves which feel uninhibited, with a tendency to drifting: tangents, digressions, fleeting connections, departures and returns. They aren’t meandering per se, but multi-directional. Chua is writing towards knowledge, forgoing conclusions in favour of continuation and discovery. In tracing her connections and inheritances, she documents herself striving towards both, a process of self-actualisation rendered through her familial relationships and connection to things (tangible and otherwise) that bring her joy and pleasure.
Dženana Vucic is a Bosnian-Australian writer, poet and editor. Her work has been published in Cordite, Overland, Meanjin, Stilts, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, Australian Poetry Journal, the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, Rabbit, and others. She is a 2020 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow and tweets at @dzenanabanana.
Peace Crimes: Pine Gap, National Security and Dissent
by Kieran Finnane
ISBN 978 0 7022 6044 5
Reviewed by TAMARA LAZAROFF
I have to admit I jumped at the chance to review Peace Crimes, partly because I know two of the six so-called ‘criminals’ – the Peace Pilgrims – who are Finnane’s subjects. Andy Paine and I have moved in some of the same circles for close to a decade, including the Brisbane zine community. I have become acquainted with Franz Dowling more recently through my occasional volunteering at the Friday night Food Not Bombs street kitchen in West End, which Franz co-coordinates. Way, way back in late 2016, I also knew that Andy – I hadn’t yet met Franz – had an upcoming trial in Darwin. It had something to do with a direct action, a non-violent trespass into the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap (just 19 kilometres outside of Alice Springs), and he was – all six Pilgrims were – facing up to seven years in gaol. But my understanding about what exactly the group did, why they did it, and how their action fit in with the larger picture of war; war crimes, Australia’s involvement, resistance and civil disobedience, was vague. Of the enormity of their considered, courageous act of protest, I had no idea.
Helpfully, Finnane begins her book on the night the Pilgrims begin their journey by foot to the facility. She draws links, and not incidentally, I don’t think. (If anything, the entire narrative’s undercurrent is concerned with our undeniable connectedness.) In any case, in her recounting of that 28 September, 2016 late evening, she is looking up at the starry sky on her bush block on the southern side of Alice while the Peace Pilgrims – Jim and Franz Dowling, father and son, Margaret Pestorius (whom the police cast as an ‘elderly woman’, though she self-describes as a ‘direct action goddess’), Timothy Webb and Andy Paine are only just setting out on their 15 kilometre walk through the darkness, spinifex and scrub, and rocky, unknown terrain, sometimes uphill. It is the very same night that a missile from a US drone strikes the village of Shadal Bazar in Afghanistan, killing 15 people and wounding 19, most of them civilians – though the group do not know this yet. When they reach Pine Gap, Franz and Margaret, who have carried along their musical instruments, a guitar and viola respectively, begin to play a lament for the dead, for the victims of war. Andy livestreams the event on a borrowed mobile phone. They all pray, especially for those who have died by drone strike because of Pine Gap. As Finnane clearly details, this military facility supplies targeting data ‘used for drone killings in war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq and in countries with which Australia is not at war, such as Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen’ (12), making Australia potentially responsible for war crimes and the terrorism that is returned in response, not to mention incomprehensible human suffering. The number of strikes are rising, too. In Afghanistan alone, there are currently about a hundred a month – that’s about three a day. It is this the Pilgrims wanted to draw attention to – even at risk of their own incarceration – and they did. As a result of their on-site arrest, there was the subsequent trial at the NT Supreme Court and the international media interest that followed. Peace Crimes ultimately contributes to and advances this project of awareness-building.
Finnane is a journalist by trade. She is, in fact, one of the founders of the Alice Spring News, which has been publishing since 1994; and she personally reported on, and was present for, the entire two weeks of the Peace Pilgrims’ court case. Her first book, too – Trouble: On Trial in Central Australia (2016) – is focussed on the courtroom, violence (domestic, this time) and is also centred in Alice, where she has been living since 1987. With such long and close links to the town, Peace Crimes definitely has an insider’s perspective – and a lot of heart – alongside being incredibly well-researched, as would be expected. Particularly fascinating – engrossing even – are the sections on the history of the anti-war movement in Australia and overseas, which serve to foreground the Pilgrims’ actions. For example, during the Australian anti-conscription movement of the early 1910s, 34,000 citizens were prosecuted and 7,000 were imprisoned for their anti-conscription activities, including the future Prime Minister John Curtin! These details and more on the purposes, successes and challenges of civil disobedience, recent and past, are intertwined with the history of Pine Gap and those who oppose it (including another former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser). It is all compelling. Equally compelling is the court case itself – Nobel Peace Prize winner Richard Tanter, among many other public figures, come to give expert evidence for the defence – and the legal machinations on display are also, on occasion, a little farcical. All of this makes for mind-boggling, mind-expanding reading. Really, however, it is the protagonists themselves who shine the most brightly in the story that Finnane tells. She writes:
I was drawn to write about the Peace Pilgrims because of the large view they take of their social responsibilities. They may join campaigns, but really, their field of action is the whole of their life, as far as their capacities and nonviolence can take them. They are connected to movements, and even specific groups within them, but within the bounds of their strong spiritual and moral frameworks they seem remarkably free – unconstrained by waiting for consensus, or theoretical coherence, or numeric strength … (247-48).
For me too, as a reader, it is the parts of the book in which Finnane illustrates the ways the Pilgrims ‘embody justice’ (190) in their everyday lives – not only their more pronounced political actions – that are some of the most engaging, and heartening. Franz Dowling, for instance, co-facilitates a house of hospitality in Greenslopes, which is also his own home, providing free shelter and food for people in need in the Catholic Worker tradition to which he belongs. Jim Dowling, Franz’s father, a long-time peace activist also motivated by his Christian faith, lives in voluntary poverty on a farm in Dayboro with his wife Anne Rampa where they have brought up their seven children. They have a biogas toilet that fuels the stove, and other ingenious green power facilities, including a veggie oil-powered vehicle. Similarly, Timothy Webb, who was raised in hand-built house in New Zealand, lives a life that seeks to harm others as little as possible; his parents, like Franz’s, instilled in him the understanding that ‘the luxury and convenience of Western lifestyles were paid for by the ‘short, unbelievably miserable lives’ of other people halfway around the world’ (24). Andy, too, practises radical renunciation; he lives on less than $5,000 a year (without Centrelink), though his days are filled with endeavour – the production of his weekly community radio program The Paradigm Shift, for one. At the time of the writing of the book, too, he was ‘sailing towards Manus Island with a group intent on protesting Australia’s asylum seeker policies’ (243) in order to, once again, stand up for others. On the other hand, Margaret Pestorius, a social worker and therapist, ‘questions, gently, her friends’ dedication to voluntary poverty’ (25) – though she, too, shares her house Peace by Peace with others, including a friend she was at the time nursing through cancer. At home in Cairns, she has long been involved in organising healing rituals, such as the Frontier War memorial on Anzac Day eve for indigenous and non-indigenous people alike. And finally, Paul Christie – the sixth Pilgrim who walked alone a few days later on 3 October, 2016 and had his own separate trial – moved to a rural cooperative upon the hearing’s resolution as a response to and action against climate change.
Like the Peace Pilgrims themselves, Peace Crimes is an inspiring and radical work – though it shouldn’t be. Hopefully in these post-COVID times we will together begin to recreate our society for the better, and for all, in a spirit similar to the Peace Pilgrims’. For a further taster of Peace Crimes, you can watch this short video of author Kieran Finnane speaking about her motivation for writing the book against the backdrop of Arrernte land and the Pine Gap base, the huge information-collecting radomes in the distance.
Here is the link for the bolded section above:
TAMARA LAZAROFF is a Macedonian-Australian writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. She lives in Brisbane on Yuggera and Turrbal country. Her collection In My Father’s Village & Other Freedom Stories (Pollitecon Publications) was shortlisted for the 2020 Woollahra Literary Digital Literary Award; and her novella Husk, Root, Bone was recently published by Big Fiction Magazine (USA).
The House of Youssef
by Yumna Kassab
Reviewed by SHEILA NGOC PHAM
“The two chairs: tea, coffee, fruit. They discuss the house, banking, they keep away from the future. The birds play in their bath. She thinks of karma and pain and suffering. There is a world beyond this yard and she knows little of it. Her son used to say to her, There is a whole world beyond this one if only you would reach for it.”—from ‘The Two Voices’ in The House of Youssef
Yumna Kassab’s debut, The House of Youssef, arrived on my doorstep without forewarning. So this is how I first encountered the author: through her words. Léa Antigny, Giramondo’s then-publicist, sent me the book because she thought I would appreciate it; even though Antigny only knew me through my writing. Later, she suggested to Kassab that I might be a good candidate to speak at the book’s launch. In retrospect, Antigny’s literary matchmaking feels inspired, how her writerly mind was able to see a connection between the two of us before we saw it for ourselves.
It was an honour to launch such an unusual and accomplished book, and the event marked the start of a lively literary friendship. Reading my launch speech more than a year later, my understanding of The House of Youssefis now coloured by knowing more about the author herself. In any case, my first impressions of the book largely stand, though it’s fair to say how I now see that Kassab’s best work lies ahead of her.
Revisiting the book now, I find myself once again appreciating the crisp prose; how the restraint on the page demonstrates a woman in command of her ideas. But what struck me most then, and perhaps even moreso now, is the enormous feat of imagination and empathy that Kassab has pulled off. She honours the experiences of migrants without necessarily chastising or valorising them. The House of Youssef expresses the questions raised by the first generation, and attempts to describe the struggles of their offspring to seek answers as they grow up in a different world. In such a scenario, there are no obvious ripostes, only fragments, scenes and moments stretching out over the years.
“The house, some say it was unlucky. You hear stories, they make you not want to live there. It is good they knocked it down and took out the foundations too. It is a hole now but soon they make it flat and put in concrete and then it will be something new.”—from ‘The House of Youssef’ in The House of Youssef.
The dialogue is sparse, often absent: “The silence, the mountain, the words that will never see the light of day”. Many of us know this silence intimately. Kassab’s book attempts to provide a shape to this mountain, though does not attempt to conquer it. Narrative coherence is what so many of us yearn for—a novel—but perhaps the reality is closer to the book itself: a series of short stories, a novella, and two monologues from elders. What the structure also reveals is something of the fragmentary nature of diaspora, how it feels to grow up in a displaced community; particularly as we find ourselves living in societies which have come to be characterised by at-times aggressive individualism. The children of exiles and other kinds of settlers embody grief in different ways. All of which brings the following passage from Edward Said to mind:
“Exile is…the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.”
There is nothing heroic, romantic or glorious in Kassab’s stories; on the contrary, by focusing on the mundane her work depicts a community and its many complexities without apology. But that’s not to say that it’s not audacious, which is evident from how she dares to explore the shadows:
“Why a burning? Why not? A burning, a trampling, a stoning, a shooting.”
I recognised the insularity of the community depicted in The House of Youssef as being not dissimilar to what I had grown up with in another part of western Sydney. The specificity of place and culture is, in fact, what made it possible for me to relate in concrete ways. The stories were not a mirror; it’s more that I recognised the depth of feeling and emotional truths of the stories. In ‘Disgrace’, for example, a daughter is rejected by her parents for marrying ‘out’:
“She had always assumed there was time, that one day they would talk again, that her dad might be a grandfather to her kids. She had assumed that given enough time it would happen; they could be one big happy family.”
However, it seems important to state that being able to relate to these stories and characters in The House of Youssefis not the book’s key value. There is a strong emphasis nowadays about needing to see ourselves explicitly reflected in art—and how this mirroring needs to be external, with visible markers of our identity such as race described on the page. But this idea strikes me as being potentially solipsistic. While there is no doubt that representation is important as well as the need to enrich our national literature with stories from places like western Sydney, demanding representation at the cost of artistic sovereignty diminishes the power of artists and their works.
If you wanted to read The House of Youssef as a window into the lives of Lebanese Australians, you certainly could do that though. Kassab provides much-needed nuance, which has helped me to better understand what I have observed in the decades spent living in areas such as Lakemba and Bankstown. A little while ago I stopped by the Abu Youssef Fruit Market in Yagoona. It’s a short walk from home, though I only started visiting it because the pandemic forced me to spend more time in my neighbourhood. It was only on my last visit, however, that I finally noticed its name.
“Who is Abu Youssef?” I asked the handsome young man behind the counter. He’s the one who always calls me sister in a way that makes me want to learn more Arabic.
“He’s my oldest brother,” he said, while weighing the cheaper Chinese pinenuts I had chosen.
“So that means his son is named Youssef, right?”
I could tell he was impressed at my handle on Arabic titles, no doubt because of my outward appearance as an Asian woman. He went on to explain that the name Youssef has been passed down through every generation in his family. In turn, I tell him about my Lebanese friend who grew up around Parramatta and wrote a book called—The House of Youssef.
So I did not read this book to learn about a cultural group I feel are profoundly different to me. I have often felt a sense of kinship and even common struggle with the Lebanese I have lived alongside. It’s why I even visited Lebanon to see it for myself some years ago. Having been there made it easier for me to understand the narratives in the book that involved travelling back and forth.
“Why had she come to Lebanon? Everyone had an idea why she was visiting, everyone but her.”
At its heart, The House of Youssef is about the human condition. Understanding the similarities and differences between us is the only way multicultural societies can thrive and how we will ever truly accept each other. This is obvious but is worth restating nonetheless, in these times more than ever.
At some point, an unnamed narrator towards the end of the novella says, “Keep the plane in the air, keep the plane in the air, you can’t keep the plane in the air.” I paused after that sentence, thinking about the miracle of flight. How understanding the physics of flight does not necessarily make it easier to believe we are able to fly. Perhaps the truth is, sometimes we simply can’t stay afloat and we can’t keep the plane in the air—but we can create something meaningful from the wreckage.
The House of Youssef by Yumna Kassab has been listed for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards (UTS Glenda Adams Award), Queensland Literary Awards and the Stella Prize.
SHEILA NGOC PHAM is a writer, editor and producer working in radio, print, online and film. She regularly writes for a wide range of literary and mainstream publications, and is a current judge for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Sheila has held digital and editorial roles at the ABC and continues to produce radio documentaries and stories for ABC Radio National, most recently Tongue Tied and Fluent, a five-part series exploring multilingualism in Australia.
A History of What I’ll Become
By Jill Jones
University of Western Australia Press
Reviewed by ERIN McFAYDEN
Jill Jones’s A History of What I’ll Become practices profusion: formally, across its 85 interlocking poems and reams of reference, and affectively, in its oscillation between deep delight and an equally profound sense of frustration — even with, amongst other things, its own project. In ‘Oh Venus, That Zenith,’ day breaks across the persona:
Oh Venus I don’t forget you
in the spread
of tinted morning, the grids
I’ve wandered far in circles
around your heights
without shoes or sensibilities
I don’t forget you
and how I’ve climbed
into another balance, cusp
another arc and then
That a tinted morning might come over the poem as a ‘spread’ is fitting. We might hear, in these lines, echoes of ‘the spread’ as it’s used as a technical term in debate: a swelling-up of words in excess of grammar, and sometimes of meaning. The novelist Ben Lerner recently brought the phenomenon of ‘the spread’ to the attention of us non-debaters, claiming in The Topeka School that this glamorous (or clamorous) mode of speech characterises much ‘official’ language in contemporary life: ‘these types of disclosure were designed to conceal…even before the twenty-four hour news cycle, Twitter stems, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting ‘spread’ in their daily lives’ . Jones’s poems aren’t trying to conceal, so much, but nevertheless their constant movements through the folds and arcs of language are always tailed by a sense of something within this excess evading us, slipping away just as the shifting light breaks over it. All this profusion might not lead us to conclusions, or any fixed answers, that is.
An interest in the fragment is Jones’s launch point into these twin senses of proliferation and loss. The collection opens with a series of epigraphs drawn from Shelley, H.D., Stein and Sappho. Sappho, especially, has been a long-standing interest for Jones, who has noted in interview that she’d ‘like to hear the ancient Greek metres and how her poems worked whole, rather than as fragments…’ . ‘As Long As You Need / Fragments’ pieces together ‘a series of mistranslations, misunderstandings, or loose versions of several fragments from Sappho,’ and is Jones’s most direct engagement with her throughout the collection. One thing that the poem is, is a paean to desire:
Remember our burlesque hearts
and heads relaxing on sweaty breasts
in Sydney’s sun ecstasy
in its dusk-pink twinky hours.
Remember making our way
Among shadowy electro-shapes
no party too hot…no dance
where we were absent.
Jones remixes Sappho, (mis)translating her for contemporary Sydney, with its little resolute pockets of queerness. The poem doesn’t pretend towards preservation of literary-historical artefact. Nor, really, does it attempt to make Sappho’s fragments whole in some static way, or ‘complete’ in the sense of being finished. Rather, Jones revels in the generative potential of the gap, the trap-doors of language and of imagination that can be opened in Sappho’s fragments:
Still…to the ends of the earth
Desires! all of them older
all of them younger all now
still lifting above the roof.
…in fabulous style…just like
honey…for as long
as you need…with these
These ellipses feel like they might have something of the same burlesque about them that hearts do, earlier in the poem: so many bright possibilities spangling across our minds at once. In this sense, A History of What I’ll Become isn’t an archival project in the simple sense of functioning as a record. It even goes further, I think, than art critic Hal Foster’s ‘archival art,’ which makes its source material ‘disturbed or detourné…obscure, retrieved in a gesture of alternative knowledge or counter-memory.’. Rather than just reconfiguring historical narratives, Jones writes a way of looking toward (perhaps, desiring) possible futures that emerge from the ruptures, gaps, and incoherences — as much as from the intelligible material — of various pasts.
These pasts could be literary-historical, as in references to Sappho and a host of other, largely European and US, poets. They could also be distinctly Australian, or distinctly of Sydney, and autobiographical. Certainly the middle section of the collection is centred on a Sydney recalled both too foggily and too vividly: a Sydney the site of disappointment, decay, or plain grossness. One of the collection’s rare prose poems, ‘All That Shudder,’ sees the speaker returning to the empty set of their youth:
‘That year, I went back to the city alone, me and all my noisy solitude. Everyone’s gone now. I remember the way we’d gossip stories into night, along those roads, Glebe Point Road, Darlinghurst Road. Or walk to the harbour, listen to the wharves, what’s left of them…
…I remember helping another girl throw up, just here, in another century after a night nearby with booming walls, all of that survival in tune with a kiss, names and numbers on drink coasters, promises as opposed to meanings, too many women not watching you.’
The deflation of revisiting this personal history is palpable. Jones’s persona herself doesn’t even get to throw up her discomfort; she just has to watch somebody else get their difficult feelings out. Many of these Sydney poems call back to Jones’s earlier work, including Screens Jets Heaven (2002) with its ‘Marrickville Sonnet,’ and the suburban or domestic scenes of The Beautiful Anxiety (2014) and Viva The Real (2018), which work in the same mode and with the same surrounding materials, even where particular place names aren’t mentioned. In this way, Jones engages with pieces of her own writerly past, as much as with an extra-textual personal history.
So much for this past, then — what about the future, as Jones writes it? For one thing, it’s still the source of an anxiety: Jones writes into the frustration attending encounters with patriarchal or homophobic oppression that doesn’t look like dropping off anytime soon, as well as with the seeming inevitability of climate collapse. How, these poems ask, can we write towards a progressive future in good faith, given the conditions of our present? As with her examinations of Sydney, this frustration has long permeated Jones’s work. In Viva The Real’s ‘Small Things,’ for example, she asks that ‘instead of a dove-grey rapture,’ her reader ‘wake up and arrange your resistance’ . The limits against which a lyric voice breaks impose themselves, still, in A History of What I’ll Become’s ‘Patience Without Virtue’:
Everyone loves the female voice.
Am I forgiven for having one?
I wait patiently, hoping it’s only
to do with simple flowers. It never is.
I dissent again. The moon goes as it came. (31)
The moon is immune — like the myriad political failures toward which we might also address our lyric plaint — even to a poetry so obsessively interested in it. And, yet, while Jones does scrutinise her own efforts to write a future from fragments of the past and present, the collection doesn’t culminate in any sort of disavowal of poetry. It’s much too joyful in its abundance, its word-play, its feeling and its cleverness for that.
Interested as Jones is in the form of the lyric fragment, and in a lyric lineage from Dickinson through to contemporary phenomenological poets like Vahni Capildeo via John Ashbery, the sense of lyric impulse as ultimately bound up with something hidden, inaccessible, or ineffable could well be at play here. Jones’s refusal of closure is well noted , and I want to extend this commentary by suggesting that the irreconcilability of Jones’s work to easy conclusions is a feature of the lyric mode she writes, reads, and thinks in. In this mode, as Alphonse de Lamartine has it in one of Jones’s epigraphs,
The real is narrow,
the possible is immense…
…and irreducible to its signs, lush as they may be in this work. If Jones refuses conclusions, transcendental proclamations, or delivery of a firm futuristic vision, she does so with reverence to the past and utter delight in the sense(s) of the present(s). There’s something we can’t quite grasp at the centre of this work, but so much flickering light to fold through ourselves in its surface.
- Ben Lerner, The Topeka School (New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Girroux, 2019), p. 39.
- Jill Jones, ‘Jill Jones is Poet of the Month,’ interview in The Australian Book Review no. 382, June-July 2016.
- Hal Foster, ‘The Archival Impulse,’ October vol. 110, Autumn 2004, p. 4.
- Jill Jones, ‘Small Things,’ in Viva The Real (Brisbane: UQP, 2018).
- See, for example, Aidan Coleman, ‘Let a Thousand Errors Bloom,’ Sydney Review of Books, July 6, 2020.
ERIN McFAYDEN is a writer, researcher, and educator based on Gadigal land. Her work can be found in Artist Profile, Art + Australia, and The Cambridge Review of Books, amongst others.’
by Jaya Savige
Reviewed by J. C. MASTERS
This is what happens when you binge
on beauty: eventually the orgy kills
(‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’, 19)
If you’ve ever sat in on a literature class, at some point you may have heard someone mention Charles Baudelaire’s description of modernity from The Painter of Modern Life (Le peintre de la vie moderne,1863). His essays are often quoted when describing the transition that Europeans in the 19th century underwent, from functioning as a primarily agrarian society to one that depended on industry and embraced new technology built on principles of speed and transition. Baudelaire defined modernity, and the new sense of ‘being modern’, as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, (and) the contingent”, and suggested that instead of looking to the past for guidance, individuals should embrace the “transitory, fugitive element” of modernity.
Fast forward a little over 150 years later, and though we live in a very different world to the one he described, Baudelaire’s words are still appropriate for describing the sense of fleeting impermanence and rapid, unceasing change that our world tends to impress on its occupants. I am reminded of this when I first open Change Machine by Jaya Savige; from its opening to its conclusion; it is transformation of the self and world that carries Change Machine through to its end. The unevenness and dense patchwork of Savige’s poetry, spread across four chapters titled ‘Mean Time Between Failures’, ‘Biometrics’, ‘Hard Water’ and ‘There There’, results in a deliberately kaleidoscopic collection that depicts the subjective individual at the heart of the world’s flux. At times quietly reflective, and at other times wry and snarky, Change Machine is the story of a stone navigating an ocean; mired in sand but bent and smoothed by the waves outside its command.
Savige’s poetry chronicles the impact of various forces that determine the shape of individual experience. There are moments of both tranquility and motion, interspersed with a variety of referential signposts that assist in orienting the reader in space and time. Many of Savige’s references are specific to his own experience, though others who grew up in Australia in the 80s and 90s will recognise various cultural touchstones, such as his suggestion that ‘For a stack of platypus at the corner store,/Pac-Man was our minotaur’ (‘Études’, 18). Mentions of poetry, literature, art, science and history abound: ‘Rimbaud in Salatiga’ (7) borrows from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) and begins: ‘This is how the world ends/with strange foliage, ficus and tamarinds’, while ‘a pissed-off Apollo, deciduous Daphne’ mix in ‘Wingsuit Lessons’ (87-89). References pulled from a Western cultural canon mix with modern Australia (‘I interrupt one of the Maroubra boys/to mock his neck tattoo of Ouroboros’ (‘Inferno’, 29), while poems such as ‘The Keeper’ (30) recount aspects of the years Savige spent in London and overseas. However, though the allusive signposts pile almost galette-like on top of each other, it feels like Savige does this intentionally (and as deliberate distraction) while the paradoxical permanence of memory eddies underneath, accentuated by winking jabs at himself and others:
‘The number of fools is infinite,’
replied the man from Eccles Street,
but not the famous bit about there being nothing new under the sun.
It is as though Savige is challenging the reader not to be carried away by his nods to NASCAR or James Joyce (‘the man from Eccles Street’ references Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Joyce’s Ulysses) but to ride the wave through to the moments of stillness. Closer to the end of his collection, ‘Coloratura’ lists a number of pop culture moments connected by semi-colons (‘Kylie’s hotpants; Dame Joan’s coloratura; Angus Young for mooning Illinois; Michael Hutchence’s death by autoerotic asphyxiation; [etc.]’) heavily struck through with a black line, suggesting the pieces that make up a life, though coloured by these moments and cultural memories, are not defined by them.
Change Machine is self-reflexive and playful. Savige is proficient and impish in his flirtations with language, and uses cultural markers as entry points into a poem such as the delightfully named ‘Bach to the Fuchsia’. His musing on childhood favourite The NeverEnding Story in ‘The Nothing’ uses the movie’s idea of the creeping, all-encompassing Nothing to describe the sense of alienation that has become attached to modern life as perhaps its most infamous condition:
Compared to the Nothing that is nowhere
yet engulfs all Fantasia
in The NeverEnding Story, all other celluloid villains
a child encounters seem vanilla:
none of Scar, the Queen of Hearts, Cruella de Vil,
Sid Phillips, Voldemort, Vader or Jabba
comes close to its sublime incomprehensibility
There are echoes of Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Snow Man’ (1921), which concludes ‘For the listener, who listens in the snow,/And, nothing himself, beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’ ‘Snow Man’ is often discussed in terms of its perspectivism, which suggests that the only way to know reality is through the subjective experience of the self. Savige compares the Nothing from The NeverEnding Story (‘He knew the void, the gist of entropy’) to other ‘celluloid villains’ that are ‘vanilla’ in comparison to the movie’s ominous emptiness. Celluloid means ‘of film’ and references motion pictures and cinema, but the word also implies the one-dimensionality of these childhood monsters; they are single cells in comparison to the multicellular organism of the Nothing. The ‘sublime incomprehensibility’ of ‘the void, the gist of entropy’, is subsequently seen everywhere by the speaker of the poem, once he recognises the Nothing as both existential chasm and the threat of the self’s eventual end that haunts awareness (‘Then you saw it everywhere: in Villon and Nin;/Boundary Street; an episode of Friends; a wind chime;/and later still, in the car park of a crematorium,/say, or a clinical waste disposal bin.’)
The reference to his partner’s miscarriage, explored in more detail in poems like ‘The Cobra of Djemma el Fna’ (5) and ‘Tips for Managing Subsidence’ (70-71), is just one of the many bodies that permeate Savige’s work. He explores human bodies, bodies of water and land, bodies of work, and Savige’s own, but for all the larger and various embodiments of subjectivity, Savige’s poetry manages to create a sense of enduring intimacy that crosses the divide between author and reader. His ode to the humble spork (‘for you were always a bit like me, spork: a half-caste gook, an incendiary Spock’) in ‘Spork’ (78-80) discusses the impact of his half-Asian heritage while growing up in Queensland:
beamed in by genetic monsoon and plonked down hard
onto a patio on an island
that gave the most rousing ovation to One Nation;
a slap in Pop’s face,
who’d fought in the Pacific;
up-close physical proof of the peril, produced
in his own
The distance created in this poem by praising ‘the cutlery of choice in war and prisons’ means that it is heavy with the unsaid. At times, what is unsaid has a more impactful presence in Savige’s collection, due in no small part to the motley of images he collects and arranges. The postmodern proliferation of signs and symbols has tended to function as a postmodern challenge to dominant Western narratives that prioritise a narrow group of ‘classics’ as markers of high culture. Savige aptly reconstructs a vision of what Jean-Luc Baudrillard termed the ‘hyperreal’; an endless generation of images that are copies of copies, while losing any connection to an original. Within hyperreality, experience is composed of auto-referential exchanges and ‘the murderous power of images’ kills any existence of reality beyond that which exists in the reference itself. Savige’s observation in ‘Coloratura’ (94) that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ (referencing a passage from Ecclesiastes 1:8-10) reveals his postmodern playfulness as deliberately and tightly constructed.
However, one of the effects of Savige’s pastiche is that the iconoclastic assortment of references become just that; pieces of a larger poetics, all equal in allegorical value. In a way, it artfully composes a patchwork quilt of Savige’s life where we are able to take in the cacophony of colour all at once, but it also means that things that could afford to stand out are given the same hierarchical and referential power as Pac-Man and the Maroubra boys. I speak more specifically of Savige’s use of Indigenous place names in poems such as ‘Mirrigin’ (15):
I wish I could say precisely where Yugambeh
ends and Bundjalung begins, but we only had the crumbs
of Indigenous history, local or otherwise, at school.
We were flat out distinguishing Mayor Quimby
of The Simpsons from Chief Quimby
of Inspector Gadget. And sometimes I feel like a fool
or a fraud when I speak with Sam or Tara June, or anyone
really, about the place I come from, grew up in.
While the prophesied effect of hyperreality is that originals are decimated, there is little acknowledgment within Change Machine that this is what is actually taking place, despite the poetry’s strong Antipodean flavour. The original First Nations inhabitants of Australia are given cursory acknowledgment within the collection, and while this lack of presence is noted within ‘Mirrigin’ as being symptomatic of their wider absence in Australian history and culture (which tends to be circumscribed to the last 200 years or so), without greater signposting of significance, Australia’s black history sinks into Savige’s sea of symbolic exchanges.
As the collection evolves, it seems to slow down while simultaneously speeding up. Individual poems, sentences and stanzas get longer, while the flickering rush of images creates a familiar medley. Though it becomes obvious that this is an extended march through the bureaucratic culture machine, Savige’s own self is a constant presence. Quotes from popular songs, newspapers, literary criticism, and 18th century journals dot the pages, while Savige’s ‘Notes’ at the back of Change Machine helpfully explain some of his more obscure references. (This, perhaps, is a kind nod to his audience; one cannot best navigate modern life without advice and assistance from those better-travelled.) Stylistically, longer exhalations formed from luxurious sentences (‘behind the wreck, further up, where the angelfish are flashing/in and out of the rust, and the moon wrasse nose you while egg-hunting’ (‘The Offing’, 32) are counterposed with the crisp staccato of lean word-towers in poems like ‘Work Do’ (21), that emulate the mechanised clicks of clock-in clock-out employment:
By the fourth chapter, ‘There There’, structures are breaking down and we are left with the self-reflexive pieces of a poetry under pressure. There are hints of this earlier within other chapters; ‘Her Late Hand’ (41) in ‘Biometrics’ splits the poem into two columns and you can read it holistically left to right, or take each column separately. Alone, the right-hand column begins:
din, gnat whir
hard tin wing
nth drawing I hart,
Savige’s reflections accelerate until they are mostly held together by the community of meaning he has built for us. It is as though language, so ably wielded throughout, has succumbed to the demands placed on it. Context is your map to rebuilding these pieces, which also reflects the necessity of context when navigating the pictures and sounds of an urban environment. In Change Machine, language is simultaneously a vehicle to and obstructor of meaning. In the right-hand column of ‘Her Late Hand’, the final stanza reads ‘rh, giant wind/grand within/writing hand’, which asserts the place of the subjective individual in communication. The emphasis on phonetics helps give the poem a concreteness; words are Savige’s building blocks of meaning but also symbolically function as the divide between the sign and signifier – a divide which is echoed in the distance between image and missing referent, and the Self and the Other. This is highlighted in poems such as ‘Stagger Lee at Her Majesty’s’ (82-83):
Like salacious columnists
we’re in bits just witnessing
‘The Body’ sluice
through a bank of tail
ored suits, still
hot as lime juice
on a torn
cuticle, to blithely dis miss the crab mousse–
two decades on from the all-out
of her work for Diet Coke in ‘88.
My patois is a heady mix of am
Savige’s ‘patois’ is demonstrated moreso as the collection wraps up. Change Machine ends with the phrase ‘ache hoof hour crate cram shelled wren,/hand haul off there shelled wren to calm’ in ‘Cinemetabolic’ (98-99), though interpretation becomes possible when surveying similar phrases like ‘you shld quit it at ones’ and ‘–yelp, use gassed it–’, which offer clues into his phonetic play. His recollections of an Australia where ‘Chook, Buddha, Wayne, Stink and Rod/rarely conferred/and even when they did they talked/around it:’ (‘Hard Water’, 63) communicate the place- and time-specific role of memory in building the self, which is a self that exists in the physical body as much as the mind. In trying to reconcile the cultural imbalance that has historically privileged mind and reason over the feeling, living body, Savige uses language’s physicality through sound and structure to underscore the importance of the body as the central arbiter of modern experience.
Ultimately, we, as much as the cavalcade of modern life, are change machines. Bodies penetrate all levels of Savige’s poetry in the guise of machines, and machines in the guise of bodies. After the cascade of references ends, we are left with the collection’s exquisite humanity and colour, which are the quiet skeletons in the densely allusive works. Savige’s Change Machine is an extended meditation on the influence of history and culture on the self, while also skilfully exploring how individuals cut across the din of modern life to embrace moments of personal connection.
J.C. Masters is a postgraduate student in English Literature at University of Sydney. She tweets @_jclyons
A Kinder Sea
by Felicity Plunkett
Reviewed by J.C. Masters
Growing up on the coast, I felt like the sea and I were easy and old friends. The water framed my first two decades of life; smeared in sun cream and rash vests, my parents would take me to the beach on weekends where I would happily sluice myself in salted air and water. I realised later that I only ever knew the edge of the ocean where its fingers and toes gently touched mine. The one time I was caught in a mild rip, I was panicked-filled with the crystal understanding this was a stronger and fiercer swell than I had known. I knew the water’s strength in much the same way I know the universe is big: as a concept relative to my own smallness. Felicity Plunkett in her new collection, A Kinder Sea, seems to have no such reservations or fear. Her work reads as though she is immersed in the same deep place where the bedrock heart of the sea collects people’s daydreams and elegies. She speaks with penetrating insight and at times, a heartbreaking clarity.
Plunkett is a Sydney poet and critic, and her first collection – Vanishing Point (UQP) – won the 2008 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for several others. UQP’s Q&A with Plunkett, published on the book’s release, asks her what the collection is about and her answer starts to unlock the expansive space the poems contain:
‘There is a widely-quoted and heartfelt letter from Emily Dickinson, in which she wishes her friend ‘a kinder sea’. That she probably never wrote this letter highlights the imaginative space A Kinder Sea occupies: it is a book of unspoken hopes, unmourned losses, of mute and unprayable prays and letters never sent.’
The imaginative space in this collection swells at the same point where sea touches land, with Plunkett having a foot in both camps but neither in both. Paul Celan’s quote that poems make their way to readers like messages in a bottle, used to begin the long poem ‘Glass Letters’ (6-17), is an apt description for the way Plunkett’s poetry caresses and then plunges into the heart of you, crossing the divide between writer and reader. The collection is tenacious and tender. It explores the spaces between solitude and isolation, resilience and dissolution, art and traumatic experience, and vitality and loss, while her technical skill means the barest of ripples articulate the thunder of the moving sea floor.
A Kinder Sea is divided into five chapters – ‘A Corner of the Sea’, ‘Carmine Horizon’, In Search of the Miraculous’, ‘Grace’, and ‘Heartland’ – and accompanied by an introductory poem, ‘Sound Bridge’ (1-2). The chapter titles also describe an ocean journey, an extended metaphor that Plunkett wields to explore relationships, solitariness, connection, and the body. In this respect, the nautical craft of the sailor becomes the worded craft of the poet, each carrying them above the tense sea-glass potential of chaos and loss. The first poem ‘Sound Bridge’ begins with Plunkett’s son and meditates on the struggle of releasing a child into the world:
My son sings the Lacrimosa in Hodonín: joy-
bright teens with a hundred Moravian choristers. Lurch
and tangle, the holding, the letting-
Quiet music: tension, strings and frame
of what we can’t teach, because we are still
learning: what I can’t protect you from, can’t
come close to, must damper, love. Words untrans-
latable, but we feel their heft, close: light
Lacrimosa, part of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass and a movement from Mozart’s ‘Requiem in D Minor’, frames the melancholy background to watching a child grow up. Plunkett’s enjambment, used liberally in this poem, emphasises the dual nature of this process. The ‘letting-/go’ is divided between stanzas, showing the space between the hyphenated ‘letting’ breaking off into nothingness and the forward-moving ‘go’ beginning motion in a new line. Line breaks are used to break up compound words, except for when she splits the whole word ‘untrans-/latable’ in the fifth stanza, suggesting that there are parts of this experience that cannot cross the divide between language and meaning. Additionally, the change in this process is between the actors, not the scene; Plunkett notes it is ‘The same/question, same notes in new throats, same lesson strung/across centuries’ but this question is described in terms of the ‘Lurch/and tangle’ of wanting to hold on while needing to let go. The poem compiles the opposing forces acting on Plunkett – similar to the ‘Quiet music’ and ‘soaring bars’ that her son sings – and we are given a clue to a larger purpose that lies quietly but solidly in the collection: the role of poetry and art in healing the self and filling the gap between self and other. ‘As in the piano’s belly, a bridge’ suggests the between-space where individuals can connect and where one can move from being at sea to back on land. The symbol of the bridge also features in her third-from-last poem ‘Bridge Physics’ (82-3), which opens with a quote explaining that two forces act on a bridge at any one time: compression (a force that seeks to compress or shorten) and tension (a force that seeks to expand or lengthen). These opposing forces frame her collection; ‘Sound Bridge’ and ‘Bridge Physics’ enclose her poetry with a controlled but dynamic push-and-pull, resulting in a book that quivers with kinaesthetic potential. It feels a bit like the collection is balancing on the head of a pin: the poems encompass smallness and bigness, silence and roar, and they tightly compress language while expanding through symbolic and allegorical potential.
The push-and-pull of the tides is mirrored in her longest poem, ‘Glass Letters’, which is separated into 12 stanzas of six couplets each and spread across 12 pages. The regular motion of the elegiac couplets bring to mind tidal movements, while the poem is balanced between smooth sentences and jagged edges. It has a number of allusions between the work of poetry and the in-out work of the water; ‘Words wash/and maul me. How diligently we fish/for a noun to release/our correspondence into grace[,]’ while ‘Brine/and absence pickle/your arrival.’ The imagery in these beginning poems set the scene for Plunkett to explore the likenesses between the behaviour of the sea and the experience of the self. It provides a backdrop to poems that detail what I have heard described as ‘big feelings’: the emotions and moments that threaten to drown us, and how art can act as a lifeline in these moments.
‘Songs in a Red Key’ (29-31) depicts Plunkett’s time in St Vincent’s Hospital, with the recurrent call of ‘red keys please’ breaking through the stanzas intermittently. There is a routine when asking for pain relief in a hospital; only one nurse at a time has the keys to the safe, but two people are required to open it and witness you taking the allowed medication. In any ward in any hospital across the country the semi-regular cry of ‘Who has the keys?’ can be heard echoing across rooms and puncturing the quiet. This poem has a regular but razored rhythm, imitating the sharp flashes of memory that piece together a time of sickness. Plunkett intones ‘Doctor, I have swallowed a glass/alphabet’ and the words sting in their jumpiness:
I need your blade to unstring
me, song’s puppet: shaking,
humming, undressing, putting on
slash-backed robes of distress
as though for some mortuary
curtain call, where jagged
breathing staggers still
from each of us laid cool
in Ward EM-U 4-2
red keys please (29)
As the phrase ‘red keys please’ is repeated, the tone of the poem changes slightly and Plunkett notes ‘my hubris muted/below drug’s sea levels’ and ‘Night’s shadows lose their hold’. The final line – ‘prosody neonate-fragile/dreaming of song and flight, ready/to batter jamb, sash and snapped/cord: open into air’ – describes the separate feelings of the self expanding into a red-keyed morphine haze and a mother’s world expanding when a child is birthed into the open air. The ‘snapped/cord’ is literally snapped between lines, and functions dually here as the self’s medicated release of the pained body and the cord cut between mother and child. Another poem ‘Three’ (68-71) explores comfort and kindness during times of pain and injury. The epigraph is a quote about the importance of being kind, while the poem’s second page ends with the phrase ‘Always alone/when pain climbs to ten.’ Doctors will often ask patients to rate their pain out of ten so they can gauge change over time. Plunkett implores another, describing their head resting against hers, and says she has only ‘small gifts’ to give: ‘a poultice of godless/prayer, mute infusion’, while from their ‘torn mouth’ they offer ‘consolation, calm’. These poems artfully describe what Elaine Scarry has called the “combination of isolation and exposure” that characterises pain. It reminds us that though we may reach across bodies to connect with others, in pain we are unavoidably drawn back into our self’s centre and settled in our own mass. In these times, kindness is a floating buoy given to people in pain to reel them back to shore and remind them that they will emerge in time.
As the journey into Plunkett’s poetic sea continues, her experimentation with form and sound increases. Individual words do the work of hundreds, while poems in rhythmic stanzas meet free verse arrangements. The recycling of lines in ‘Waiting Room’ (78-79) echoes the monotony of time spent waiting, while ‘Cyclone Plotting’ (36) and ‘Bloody Days: Monochrome’ (57-58) are turned 90 degrees to the left and printed in landscape. ‘Cyclone Plotting’ is a prose poem compiled of sentences beginning ‘The danger is that’ and the effect is cumulative:
The danger is that if I’m not lifted out of this hot storm everything will open, slippery and roof-shaking. The danger is that I have invented you, and your hip bumping mine promisingly. The danger is that the rain will wash away by lightning-flash glamour. (36)
Plunkett’s poetic world tilts on an angle and is reflective of the way that when danger comes, it comes all at once, immediately and overwhelmingly. It also ends with the phrase ‘The danger is that.’, though it is not obvious if the phrase ends the poem by re-emphasising that which has already been said, or if it opens out into possibility. The other landscape poem ‘Bloody Days: Monochrome’ is list-based and defamiliarises us to Plunkett’s experiences. These are not memories described in loving detail and delivered from one mind to another; this is an edited recounting stuttering across restricted form and bursting out of the weak spots in its seams. When reading it, I wondered how we would view our own lives if they were listed in pieces and turned on their side. Would my most vivid memories, described sparingly on an angle and totalled sequentially, still ring the same way to me?
Dawn clouds, red as history, press down. I linger under sky-soft counterpane.
Bells that peel the day into segments.
Seams of lost memories. I speak to children about forgetting.
Rising, a flush that says the muse is on her head: the weight of it, the deciding-to. (57)
Many of the sentences bring to mind Plunkett’s school days, from her first years to ‘8./My last school residency, three years ago’ and finally, ‘9./Small voices bring me to my knees.’ Like Plunkett’s first poem, we have come full circle: her earlier reflection that it is ‘same notes in new throats’ (‘Sound Bridge’, 2) finds her bearing witness to her children. There is also a subtle suggestion here: though we learn our tables and grammar at school, Plunkett’s fine-tuning of school tropes suggests a wry rebellion that can come from dismantling the rules of the system. Within the parts of our lives that require neat lists, Plunkett offers the option of literally and metaphorically turning them on their side, dividing the lines so each sentence seems to float in the air, unattached to its isolated number. This is indicative of her collection as a whole: though she has a number of free verse poems, other poems sit in neat couplets or quatrains and are rhythmically regular. It suggests that for Plunkett, form is more effective when wielded rather than abandoned.
Some poems are not as strong as others but in such a tight collection, even an unnecessary word here or there is noticed. I found some parts in ‘Yellow’ (26-28) slightly redundant, with some stanzas losing their punch because of this:
Big. Big as loneliness.
At our wedding he cried
and cried. She darkens, shoves
scrambled egg into a child’s mouth.
The joy of having once
been wanted congeals. She spoons
a final mouthful. (26)
Here, cogent imagery of congealing egg juxtaposed with a cut-piece from a happier time delivers the impact. Parts like ‘Big. Big as loneliness.’ and ‘darkens’ are already inferred by the strong images, reducing the effective delivery of the stanza overall. However, this feels slightly like splitting hairs because the collection as a whole is powerfully compelling. Plunkett has a unique talent for articulating precise emotional moments, while her experimentation with form and language is expertly employed and never slips into gratuitousness. Some poems manage to weave a vista into words (her closing poem ‘Inclined’ (89-90) is one standout example of this) while others expand effortlessly into emotional landscapes.
Each poem in A Kinder Sea functions as Paul Celan’s message in a bottle, crossing divides between then and now, alone and comforted, poet and reader. Plunkett builds bridges out of sentences, paying homage to journeys that ended in nowhere, words left unsaid, and love felt so deeply it defied language. Reading A Kinder Sea felt like having a hand held out to me; in isolation, adrift in our own oceans, Plunkett reminds us that there are ways back to shore.
- Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: OUP, 1987), 53.
J.C. Masters is a postgraduate student in English Literature at the University of Sydney. She tweets @_jclyons
By Ellen Van Neerven
Reviewed by DANIEL SLEIMAN
In reading poetry, we look for those rare moments where a creative sequence of words thoroughly subjects our thinking, our feeling and our knowledge to a momentary realisation of reinterpreted or interrupted truth. There are many of those moments one finds while reading Ellen Van Neerven’s poetry collection Throat (2020). Take these three lines appearing in different poems.
Take me to the back of your throat, I’ll stay
Language is empty without ceremony
Climate is our only bank
Neerven can say so much with so little. In fact, that’s poetry’s appeal and the/ir craft in writing reflects the tightness and complexity of its form. They display a matured economy of expression but are as comfortable writing longer narrative-driven verse.
One of my favourite pieces in Throat is only ten words long and finds its place in the section called ‘Whiteness is always approaching’. It is a title, which based on the section’s themes, could have easily worked as ‘Whiteness is always encroaching’.
I was a perfect GF but sometimes I was black.
These words are presented on two full pages, the otherwise emptiness or silence gives them so much more meaning. One is tempted to even continue the writing with their own insecure reflected prepositions in the empty space. There is so much more to be said, and those thoughts are instinctively taking place in the reader’s cognitive play.
The conscious stylistic choices are also replete throughout the collection. The use of the Aboriginal flag along with text in ‘Logonliveon’ serves as a punctuating reminder, self-identification and reconstructed meaning to fit the changing moment of technology and living. A treaty is drafted and presented to the reader questioning the/ir relationship with the production of the book but also of white Australia—a status quo, often neglectful of Aboriginal voices on the question of sovereignty. Australia of course remains the only Commonwealth country without a treaty with its Indigenous population.
‘Treaty’ presents the reader with so many questions to unpack. And Neerven does that poignantly. Hard truths demand hard questions. Neerven takes up the role not only of a poet but as an educator. The book comes with a reading list for ‘Whiteness is always approaching’. It includes writers like Ghassan Hage, Toni Morrison and Vivek Shraya. The white reader is undoubtedly urged to spend some time in this section.
‘Expert‘ and ‘White Excellence‘ are two poems that really hit the nail when it comes to white presumptions, white language and the critique of Black Excellence centred around the white gaze.
Think I got
a non-Indigenous girlfriend
who thinks she’s an expert
don’t know how she got her expertise
There have been too many white ‘experts’ on what matters to Black people. This was especially noted during the #BLM movement where Australian TV panels got a lot of flak for not inviting any Black speakers on issues that directly affected them.
‘White Excellence’ comes in many forms but my favourites are the ones who cook for me. Listen, make space. Buy black books, buy black music. Never assume to know what we think or what we want.
T.S Eliot once wrote that poetry is ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’. There is a measured concern in Neerven’s writing, whether it’s the devaluing of Indigenous languages, connection to land and water or gendering. It is a judgment both in critique and insight, but one that opens conversation rather than shutting it down. Whilst subtlety has always been the measure of art, there is nothing wrong with calling a spade a spade, and Neerven even titles one of their poems ‘Call a spade a spade’ where they take issue with the mealy mouthed semantics in our everyday political discourse. Don’t say ‘no worries’ say ‘I worry’.
In ‘Four Truths and a Treaty’ they write:
We gotta talk about sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in the community. No point pretendin it don’t exist.
As a queer Black writer, Neerven explores the sometimes-knotty intersection of sex and race politics. It is a lived experience, and it comes through in their words both genuinely, and in exploratory ways giving no defining answers but retaining our attention nonetheless vividly and honestly. In the section titled ‘I can’t wait to meet my future genders’ their poem ‘Body Flow’ imparts a resounding expectation or even resignation in describing their body.
I guess it would be fitting to describe my body here.
nothing to hide
hips in the wrong place
Neerven’s writing however is anything but unambitious, with Throat being her third published work following on from Heat and Light and Comfort Food. It is a work that tackles familiar themes, but one that is done with a uniquely sustained style and an undeniably fresh voice; a voice that one can return to on the page and in recitation and find added nuance and meaning and a reason to care. One cannot help but to find a certain affinity with the poems, and the writer, as one reads and rereads Throat. It feels like a crush.
In ‘Crushed‘ Ellen writes:
All my crushes
have been books
What a wonderful way to think about our relationship with books. With a red, sinuously coloured cover featuring lips, eyes, and with an evocative title in Throat many readers will feel attuned to Neerven’s latest work.
- T.S Eliot, ‘The function of criticism’ first appeared in the journal he founded, The Criterion, Vol 2, No 5, Oct.1923
DANIEL SLEIMAN is a Canberra based freelance writer. You can find his articles and works in Eureka Street, Crikey, The Quo, Meanjin, Peril, SBS and Overland.