Erin McFadyen reviews Newcastle Sonnets by Keri Glastonbury

Newcastle Sonnets

By Keri Glastonbury

Giramondo

ISBN 978-1-925336-89-4

Reviewed by ERIN MCFADYEN

Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets are at their most mimetic when firing off their dazzling one-liners. The collection is interested in the processes of de- and re-composition that make up, continually, the post-industrial suburbanscape of Newcastle. Taking the city as a kind of monkey-bars apparatus for throwing together and for tumbling apart, the Sonnets treat language the same way as the landscape. They revel in the (re)generative potential of double-meanings, puns, and hyper-specific referentiality, but also, in the end, searing take-downs of local teens and late capitalism alike, delivered with a glimmer to the gut.

The weirdly quick, mercurial march of gentrification is right at the centre of Glastonbury’s target. There’s certainly a pleasure in the poet’s sharp wit, if not an entirely easy one for readers complicit in enjoying her knowing ivory tower in-jokes. Glastonbury might, for example, follow the humour of recognition, in passages like

There are still flashers at bus stops
but now the grapevine is virtual
& kids have Fjällräven Kanken backpacks
in candy colours

with wonderful pastiche puns:

The unbearable lightness
                   of rail (34)

These lightnesses, slightly unbearable though our delight in them may be, are fast hits of readerly reward. Often several times over in each sonnet, we’re given viscerally indulgent lines like ‘What is Batman’s guilty pleasure? / Clive Palmer’s soft, shitty body,’ (35) or ‘the thick oatmeal / of Sandliands’ face’ (8). We can smile, satisfied, at jokes overlaying the literary and the local —  ‘Tess of the Erskinevilles’ (7) — and at speculative questioning with one foot in the university and the other in the clouds: ‘what if John Forbes had lived / to live tweet during Q&A?’ (6).

These moments offer us something like shining hard lollies of poetry, sugar hits immediately delicious on the tongue. It’s tempting to suggest that they puncture, redirect, or interrupt what Glastonbury elsewhere describes as a Novocastrian ‘ambient attention’ (4). We can consider that they give us all of our reward at once, a high-energy hit; the laugh, the immediate vision of reference points coming together. Conversely, we can also think of them as spilling our attention outwards, simultaneously in all the directions of the poet’s many gestures: across landscapes, across literary history, across registers and experiences both haptic and intellectual. In both ways, these joyfully — and, yet, not uncritically — hilarious poems lean into the kind of attention deficit that Glastonbury describes in ‘2 Hours South’:

A farrago of ways to be jealous, ways to be vicarious
ways to suffer, swiped away like old screens (71).

 And, yet, to pin these poems as insufficiently attentive would be misrepresentative. Indeed, there’s a way in which they’re exactly the opposite; Glastonbury’s investment in the particularities of the ‘little big smoke’ of Newcastle signals a poet invested in deep attentiveness. Indeed, Glastonbury is critical of views of regional life which deal in broad strokes, in cliché, or in snobbish selectivity. In ‘The White Bird,’ for example, she’s unimpressed that

The metropolitan critic comes to town
& goes only to the regional gallery
— a poetry of complaint, misses the authenticity
of the drying paint. The blacks,
the Prussian Blues (72).

There is certainly a will to recenter the regional in this attitude and in the poems which enact it, positioning Newcastle the minor metropole not simply as secondary or merely aspirational, but as real and affecting and deserving of references that Melbournians might have to Google to get.

Attentiveness to these kinds of details, these minutiae, might be a kind of love. This would be fitting, perhaps, given the nominally generic form of the pieces here — I mean, given that these poems refer to a history of, and are, sonnets. The most obvious point of reference here might be Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, which Glastonbury mines and mimes in poems like ‘Just Quietly Babe.’ Glastonbury’s opening line here — ‘Dear Hamish, hello. It is 5.15am. / Guess we’re more West Coast…’ (29)—  walks behind the eminently East Coast Berrigan, whose second sonnet begins ‘Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m’ [1]. Equally explicit, though less exegetical, is Glastonbury’s gesture to Shakespeare in ‘The Pink Flamingo (of Trespass).’ In this instance, ‘the Tromp family’s psychedelic road trip / unfolds like a Netflix folie a deux / as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 127 is read in Noongar’ (67). Sonnet 127 is the first of Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ sequence. Here, double meanings help to figure an ostensibly unconventional object of love:

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty is slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so. [2]

If ‘beauty’ comes apart from ‘fairness,’ (as in lightness) here, and attaches itself instead to the raven black of the apostrophised woman’s eyes, ‘fairness’ becomes a truly polyvalent term. Both beautiful and opposed to beauty — because it is the opposite of darkness — fairness’s ambivalence is its foundational feature.

Glastonbury’s gesture to doubleness fits her approach to the sonnet form itself. Even with her clear references to the sonnet in its various historical guises, she’s interested in challenging precisely what this form can do, and what it can reasonably ask poets to do. We might configure her use of the form using Berrigan’s phrase, imagining these works as ‘Poem(s) in the Modern Manner’ [3]. The poems in Newcastle Sonnets are 14 lines long, getting us over the line for formally recognisable Elizabethan sonnets, but rhythmically and in rhyme (as well as in geography, in topography, in politics) we are a long way from London. Her treatment of the sonnet shortens and stretches out the lines, swings the rhythm. So considered, Glastonbury can be seen as, at times, crafting an exposed-brick iteration of this historical form, drawing attention to its structural foundations if only to ironically distance herself, and the aesthetic she ends up with, from them. In this, she makes the sonnet something exciting and relevant for the kinds of readers she might teach in her ‘cushy lecturing job in a regional town’ at the University of Newcastle:

…an anthroposcenester, the full cast
of Girls in every class, like every town
has a Kurt Cobain… (77)

Yet, exposed brick doesn’t always signal the fresh, the new, or the thrilling for Glastonbury, who also sees ‘the pebblecrete poles of the East End / speaking to an historicist melancholy’ (11). Indeed, in ‘The Sea Folding of Harri Jones,’ Glastonbury pictures stone not so much as reconstruction, but as ruin:

Someone’s doing parkour on the military ruins,
no one is washing up in Shepherds Hill cottage,
the ghost of artist-in-residence past… (56)

Looking back and documenting decay — as well an enacting it formally, in protracted blank space and grammatical cul-de-sacs — is always at the centre, then, of Glastonbury’s vision of the gentrifying city, and the new sonnet that she writes it in. For this reason, I want to offer the possibility of reading Gastonbury’s attention to Newcastle not only as ‘ambient,’ but also as meaningfully ambivalent. These aren’t poems written by a ‘metropolitan critic,’ but nor are they really poems of home. Glastonbury, indeed, has commented publicly on her arrival in Newcastle as an adult, and her dual senses of intrigue and distance from it at this time [4]. Hers are poems which register decay and hold gentrification in contempt, while still revelling in the vibrancy of locality, sparkling with gleefully specific references, in a voice that might almost sound proud. Perhaps Glastonbury formulates her own attitude most aptly: Newcastle Sonnets feels ‘post-celebratory’ (71), deflating the glamour of new money and construction, but also finding reparative feeling in the forgotten corners of a city living in the shadow of its historical self:

From below the bridge the neon reflections could be koi,
everyday rewards glimmering in karmic glissando (41).

 
Notes

1. Ted Berrigan, ‘II,’ in The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan, by Alice Notley, with Anselm Berrigan, and Edmund Berrigan (Berkley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 3.
2. Colin Burrow (ed.), The Complete Sonnets and Poems (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 635
3. Berrigan, ‘Poem in the Modern Manner,’ in Collected Poems, 6.
4. Jim Kellar, ‘Newcastle poet minces no words capturing a city in transition,’ Newcastle Herald, 19 August 2018.

Jackie Smith Reviews Turbulence by Thuy On

Turbulence

By Thuy On

UWA Publishing

ISBN 978-1-76080-119-9

Reviewed by JACKIE SMITH

If you pay attention to the nation’s arts sector, you’re probably familiar with Thuy On. For many years, she has worked as a freelance writer and arts critic with The Age and The Saturday Paper and Books+Publishing as well as holding the books editor position at The Big Issue. Earlier this year, On released her debut poetry collection Turbulence to rave reviews of her own.

I’ve been wanting to read Turbulence since it was released, largely due to the praise it has received not only from On’s contemporaries, such as Maxine Beneba Clarke and Kevin Brophy, both of whom praise On’s work with Brophy stating, “It’s fluid, it’s vibrant and it doesn’t stop talking to you. Thuy On has (as she says) a cynic’s head and a poet’s heart.” (UWA Publishing 2020)

Reading is subjective. Dependent on the reader, all the accolades in the world mean nothing. On addressed this in a 2013 interview with The Big Issue, “Just because every other critic in the land loves the book and has showered it in accolades, doesn’t necessarily mean that I would feel the same. Diversity of voices in the media culture is a good thing.” (White 2013).

On doesn’t shy away from tackling a wide variety of emotions with her first collection. She touches upon themes of hope, love, loss, dating, envy, and sadness, sparked by the breakdown of her marriage and the relationships she has tried to build in the aftermath. And it’s all tied together with perseverance, as evidenced by the koi that feature on the book’s cover. This is then divided into four parts, which she discusses in an interview with Liminal Magazine.’Wreckage’ deals with the aftermath of separation, ‘Chimera’ with the trajectory of the affair I had not long after, while ‘Fish’ is about online dating and ‘Turbulence’ is about the general upheavals of life.” (Liminal Magazine 2020)

To say that reading Thuy On’s poetry is as if we are on that emotional rollercoaster with her is an understatement. One minute, you’re excited by the prospect of new love, and the next you’re aggrieved with loss.

And On’s gift is in being able to spark this catalogue of feeling within her readers. But the the skilful way in which she can manipulate words with such vivid imagery that we can almost reach out and touch it is impressive. The opening poem, ‘Surface’, is one example of this.

“Let others wax mauve

about dandelions and baby’s breath

braving cool breezes

that brush off regret

these winsome odes to blades of grass

dewy mists and sheaves of corn. (10)”

While love and relationships are at the forefront of this collection, romantic love is not always the main focus. Featured in the first part of the book, which focused on the aftermath of On’s marriage breakdown, there is a beautiful ode to the maternal love On has for her daughter in ‘Lodestar: For Ava’.

“Your mother

is an inbetweener

from what is

to what will be …

Shield your eyes darling girl

I don’t know

what will become of us …

but you are the lodestar

to light me out

a reminder

of a life to be kissed.”

What I like most about this piece is how vulnerable and honest it is. Most parents in her situation would be hiding the fact that anything is wrong, and trying to be strong for the benefit of their child. In this poem, On acknowledges that it’s not always true and, as much as she is trying to shield her daughter from the worst of her separation, she is still sorting through it all herself.

Another thing that I enjoy about this collection is the way some of the pieces play with language. As an arts critic, On presumably spends most of her working life critiquing books and language in accordance with how literature conforms and disregards these rules. Therefore, it’s refreshing to see her play with those certain rules, or at least acknowledge these metareferences in her use of language with poems like ‘FIN’.

“I’m turning the last page

it was supposed to be a short story

but unwilling for it to end

I kept tacking on chapters

footnotes where emotions cross-refer

erased stet highlighted

blanked out (66)”

This poem, the title of which comes from the French word for finish or ending, is a subtext in itself. It also closes the ‘Chimera’ portion of the collection, which gives it even more of a reference to the subtleties of language and meta-references. But the way On uses references to things like unreliable protagonists and mistakes (things she no doubt would call out if found in a book she was critiquing) is a nice way of tying the collection in with her work sphere. If I was to list favourites from Turbulence, this would be one of them.

With the current political climate, it would be remiss of me not to mention ‘To Date an Asian Woman’ (80 – 81).

“Learn my name

I’m not a mass of continents

a chopstick dish

to be poked.”

There is no denying the poignancy this particular piece has in the midst of Black Lives Matter and race relations protests, both overseas and in Australia. There’s an underlying anger to this poem that comes through quite clearly and if, like me, it’s not something you’d really considered, it’s a little confrontational and unsettling.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, at least in my opinion. Part of the reason I enjoy poetry so much is the way it’s able to draw attention to things and feelings you hadn’t considered before, and ‘To Date An Asian Woman’ certainly does this.

I’d also like to draw attention to ‘Vale Anthony Bourdain’(135) ‘Vale Eurydice’ (136). Both are poems of loss, lamenting a life cut short but with more of a public focus, given Anthony Bourdain’s status as something of a celebrity chef during his lifetime and how Eurydice Dixon’s made headlines nationally.

The way these poems are crafted is beautiful yet incredibly respectful of the impact the subject’s passing would have on friends, family members and even strangers. The below snippet of On’s tribute to Eurydice Dixon is an example of how she deftly combines feelings of loss, tragedy, anger and justice to create something that is tender and lyrical.

‘… saying your name

means wide justice

but now once again

shadows will be jumped

twig break a warning

the sky on the crack

of becoming a bruise.’ (136)

It highlights the way in which poetry can draw attention to life’s important moment, shining a light on complex issues and breaking them down for others to understand, and experience.

Despite having been in the arts industry for some time, Turbulence cements On’s place not only as a critic but as a refreshing poetic voice to be heard. If this is any indication of future work, I cannot wait to read more.

Notes

1. On, Thuy/UWA Publishing. Turbulence. UWA Publishing, 2020.
2. On, Thuy/UWA Publishing (2020). Thuy On Reads From ‘Turbulence’. Accessed via <https://youtu.be/uuTn7USYt4w> 28/7/2020
3. White, Patrick (2013). Q & A with Thuy On. Accessed via <https://www.thebigissue.org.au/blog/2013/01/28/q-a-with-thuy-on/> 31/7/2020
4. Liminal Magazine (2020). 5 Questions with Thuy On. Accessed via <https://www.liminalmag.com/5-questions/thuy-on-turbulence> 29/7/2020

 

JACKIE SMITH is a freelance journalist, editor and proof-reader and marketing graduate based in Brisbane.  Her work has been published through a variety of local and national media outlets. Follow her via her blog, Jackie Smith Writes, or Twitter (@jasmith_89) for regular updates.

Abigail Fisher reviews Heide by π.O.

Heide

By π.O.

Giramondo

ISBN 9781925818208

Reviewed by ABIGAIL FISHER
 
Trying unsuccessfully to write this review in June, I ride alongside the Eastern Freeway to Bulleen. The gallery is closed but I visit the bees, the bare trees, the corrugated cows. Plaques along the path by the river gloss over the Wurundjeri history of Bolin (‘lyrebird’, later Anglicised to Bulleen) and the process by which Indigenous custodians of the land were ‘driven out’ of the area throughout the 1850s, while documenting with painstaking detail the white settler casualties of severe floods in the following decades. That night I google the scar-tree, a red gum towering over the entrance to the kitchen garden, and learn its Woiwurrung name: Yingabeal, or ‘song tree’. Yingabeal is also a marker tree, situated at the convergence of five song lines and estimated to be between 600 and 700 years old. I am reminded of a line in Π.O.’s Heide:

A ceremony was held
                         under an old Red gum (in
              the Botanic Gardens);
separation from NSW, was officially declared.
                            Without a verb
it’s impossible to make sense of a sentence.
                            A train of thought, doesn’t need a ticket
A honey-bee doesn’t need a compass.
      A council is a group, of people
                            /
                            the tree’s
                                          still there. (29)

Meanwhile, on Instagram, heidemoma reminds me ‘to be sure to pop in for a takeaway coffee and tasty snack’ when ‘taking a stroll through the Heide gardens and sculpture park’, and offers the recipe for Sunday’s Orange Brandy, a ‘simple aperitif that is popular in France’ replete with black and white image of Sidney Nolan, Sunday Reed and Joy Hester around the fireplace.

In Heide Π.O. tackles the sticky, cloying cocktail that is the myth of the Heide Circle — along with the more expansive clique that is the Australian cultural canon — with the same disciplined anarchism that characterises 24 Hours (1996) and Fitzroy (2015), producing a third epic, encyclopaedic volume on culture, power, and place. Heide is the first of the trilogy to move away from the streets of Fitzroy, and away from the attention to migrant and working class lives so characteristic of the previous volumes. Instead Heide focusses primarily on the individuals both central to and marginalised by white settler Australian art history, with particular attention given to bohemian movements in and around Melbourne. The first section focusses on Australian history pre-Federation, with a particular emphasis on art and literature, and part two pivots towards the 20th century and the lives of the Heide Circle: their art, literature and infamous affairs. Π.O. does not shy from the latter subject, but rather interrogates the politics of Bohemian relationships, posing questions that are both nuanced and unashamedly didactic: How are such romantic entanglements anarchic? And how are they conservative? To whom do the lives, the artworks, even the children of the Heide Circle really belong?

In the process of formulating these questions, Heide enacts a number of artistic, literary and personal encounters in a way that is constantly and deeply attuned to the role of privilege in artistic production and consumption. Through imitation, ekphrasis, adaptation, and parody, Π.O. produces a poetics that, like Joy Hester’s art, delights in having ‘[come] into existence rubbing up against other people’s’ (365). Echoing Michael Farrell on Amanda Stewart, we could even say that Π.O.’s technique ‘suggests the copying mode of the lyrebird’ (or ‘bulin’), with both the ‘comic aspect’ that such a repetition entails, but also the ‘sense of both contingency and agency in its song, in that it could always be or have been a different sound that they cho(o)se to make’ [1]. This is Π.O.’s disciplined anarchism, and a joyful challenge to observe. Certainly of the best and most entertaining poems in the collection are reprisals of others’ work — whether offering a doubly parodic rendition of Ern Malley’s ‘Darkening Ecliptic’, (409), or reimagining the work of Lawson (149), MacKellar (164), Durer (242) and Buvelot (71), Π.O. never misses a chance to remind us that ‘Imitation isn’t creation, / it’s re-creation!’ (261).

Typical of Π.O.’s work, there is a preoccupation in Heide with the notion of selection: who gets a seat by the fire when the cocktails are served? This speaks to Π.O.’s complex relationship to the canon, and to his anarchist methods of poetic production. The effect of the encyclopaedic range of facts and source texts in his poetry gives the impression that nothing is necessarily included, but rather that in writing a line he selects from everything in the world, constantly emphasising processes of inclusion and exclusion, emphasis and absence. The effect is that his work simultaneously public and deeply personal, as the ‘character’ of the ever-present selecting agent becomes increasingly distinct. As in Fitzroy, much of the material in Heide is sampled from historical records and newspaper articles, although there is a shift away from police reports towards art reviews, poetry and literature. Π.O. uses dominant material, the fabric of canon, but unpicks the stitches and lets down the hem. In speaking to the lives and labour that Art History neglects, he interrogates the potential for art and literature to hold hegemonic institutions accountable. Heide is history, tribute and protest, all caught up and eddying in Π.O.’s characteristic rivers and creeks of abstracted data and sampled material.

Something that sets Heide apart from Π.O,’s previous works is the emphasis on ekphrasis, the primary method in this work by which Π.O. insists that ‘the (eye) has to be led back to the place it has been ignoring the most’ (226). In a kind of manifesto, the narrator explains that ‘Frank Stella (the artist said, his paintings were “based / on the fact that only what can be seen” / ditto here, / same’ (12); Heide is preoccupied with the materiality of Art on the page, but also on the notion of making the hitherto unseen visible, and challenging our patterns of perception and historical memory. Π.O. unashamedly aligns himself with those whose lives and creative output serve to ‘frame’ the canonical greats — like Tom Robert’s wife, Lillie Williamson, a flower painter who ‘got into carving / “wooden picha frames” / the flowers & tendrils, loops & / vines that run round the edges’ of her husband’s paintings —

                                                                              i.e. the bits that
get “cut” out as irrelevant, when you get to see the painting
reproduced in a book, or online. (145)

This lends nuance to the narrators previous confession that ‘Often, i leave an Art Gallery, or a painting, feeling / uncertain, about what I just saw’ (19). Π.O. experiments with ekphrasis to blend poetic methods with ‘minor’ modes of artistic production, noting that ‘Art distinguishes between paint and stoneware products, (on one hand) and ////// threads and ## fabrics on the other’ (69). This method is neatly expressed in the concrete poem ‘Textiles’ (179), dedicated to the author’s sister Athena, and comprised of diagonally intersecting repetitions of the word TEXT and TILE. Another highlight is the reproduction of Ellis Rowan’s ‘A Bunch of Australian Wild Flowers’, which uses various text sizes, styles and orientation to replicate the artist’s floral bouquet, achieving the same calm discordance as Rowan’s original, a kind of lyrebird cacophony which takes up the statement in the preceding poem on Rowan that ‘Representation absorbs, the object’ (140).

Philip Mead, among others, has pointed out Π.O.’s affinity with the Objectivist poetry movement, given his focus on Breath (spoken word/ performance), the tendency to approach the page as a ‘field’, and attention to the materiality of language. Mead writes that in Π.O.’s work ‘is brusquely impatient of generic comformity, radically insistent on the materiality of language’, thus representing the ‘plain contingencies of everyday speech, but in uncommon, innovative poetic language’ [2]. This is certainly true of Π.O.’s latest volume, in which each poem takes up Olson’s call for words ‘be treated as solids, objects, things’, and thus be ‘allowed, once the poem is well composed, to keep, as those other objects do, their proper confusions’ [3]. Heide responds to Olsen’s insistence that ‘all parts of speech suddenly, in composition by field, are fresh for both sound and percussive use, spring up like unknown, unnamed vegetable in the patch, when you work it, come spring’ [4]. This analogy is particularly fitting in case of the joyfully visceral ‘To Granny Smith’, which ploughs the proper confusions of turnip, carrot, fly, spider, rabbit, wasp, sunlight and caterpillar before relishing the ‘)cHew  CruNch ^ # mUsh ) M*uNch!’ of an apple in a way that distinctly resembles playing with one’s food (163).

At times, Heide veers towards something slightly Edenic, seeming to buy into the ‘fairytale’ of the Heide bohemia, dwelling a moment too long in the delicately-curated-as-chaotic kitchen garden and verging on namedropping the poet’s own connections (perhaps gesturing towards an interesting parallel between the author’s own self-conscious myth-making and that of the Heide Circle). Certainly ΠO is not willing to dismiss his subjects outright. To Kershaw’s question, ‘“just what the hell” was Heide for?’, the narrator asserts ‘Everything!’ and reminds us that ‘we all have “a little Heide” in us yet’ (506). Happily, these sentimental moments rarely come at an expense to Π.O.’s unflinching attention to the white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, elitism and disfunction of the modernist art movement, whether quoting at length John Reed’s racist letter lambasting the artwork of Western Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira (525), or the role of entrenched privilege in founding Melbourne’s cultural bohemia — ‘Love her / hate her / [Sunday’s] father’s / a Bailieau’, and the ‘dead weight of / a Patron’s hand, is always in the work’ (343). In Π.O.’s hands, the fact that ‘John and Sunday are RICH!’ informs a somewhat cynical interpretation of their vision of ‘Art’ as having ‘an organic quality about it’ and thus the necessity for it ‘to grow out of the soil, as it were’ (343).

It would be fair to say that Heide never fully dismisses nor embraces what Alexander Kershaw derided as the ‘collective farming’ of the ‘cocktail-swilling cretins’ out in Bulleen (448). Yet nor does it stroll through the grounds and sculpture park, flat white in hand. Rather, it examines the materiality of culture and oppression, celebrates minor’ and marginalised art forms, teases out the tensions in the Australian artistic canon and interrogates the potential for creative production to be truly radical. At its best, Heide jumps the hedge into the kitchen garden and proceeds, like the larrikins in Fitzroy, to

pull / up the pumpkins
and other plants, and throw
them about /
the place  [5]

 
Notes

1. Farrell, Michael. “The Conceptual Lyrebird: Imitation as Lyric in the Poetry of Amanda Stewart.” Journal of the European Association for Studies on Australia 9.1 (2018).
2. Mead, Philip. “Unsettling Language: π. o.’s 24 Hours.” Aberration in Modern Poetry: Essays on Atypical Works by Yeats, Auden, Moore, Heaney and Others (2011): 161.
3. Olson, Charles. Projective verse. Brooklyn NY: Totem Press, 1959.
4. Ibid.
5. Π.O., Fitzroy: The Biography. Collective Effort Press, 2015.

ABIGAIL FISHER is a writer, editor and part-time Zoom tutor living on unceded Wurundjeri land.

Adele Dumont reviews The Girls by Chloe Higgins

The Girls

By Chloe Higgins

Picador

ISBN 9781760782238

Reviewed by ADELE DUMONT

The title of Chloe Higgins’ debut memoir is shorthand for her two younger sisters, victims of a fatal car accident when the author is aged seventeen. Her family avoids using their individual names, explains Higgins, so that ‘they are separate from us, an abstract thing on which we need not hang our pain’. In her frank depictions of drug use, sex work, mental illness, and her fraught relationship with her bereaved mother, Higgins might be described as unflinching in her approach. But the telling of this story is equally characterised by a flinching: from the memory of her sisters; from her own pain. 

‘In reality, you speak of everything except those who have just died’, says Higgins of the immediate wake of her sisters’ deaths. This reality is mirrored structurally in Higgins’ narrative: the girls themselves are notably absent figures until late in the book. According to Higgins, ‘The most painful part of grief isn’t immediately after the unthinkable happens, but a little later, once the space empties and other people go back to their normal lives’. Her focus is squarely on the aftermath of the accident: how this single cataclysmic event has reverberated through her own life. In this, it bears comparison to Roxane Gay’s Hunger or Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s I Love Elena. The violence at the heart of those memoirs is inflicted, and not accidental, but all three are compelling accounts of how trauma can manifest not only psychologically but also bodily. 

In what Higgins calls her ‘descent’, ‘slowly, the line of what I will and won’t do moves further and further from my pre-accident self’. She fleshes out this gradual unravelling in meticulous and moving detail. In chapters which shift back and forth in time, and which traverse continents (Kolkata, Manhattan, Wollongong) we follow the narrator as her ‘attempts at escape turn into obliterations’. Drugs allow her to live ‘in a world separate from the one the girls have been taken from’, one where ‘everything is all extremes and opposites’. She uses sex as distraction; as an attempt to satisfy her ‘skin hunger’, but ultimately this behaviour leaves her shrouded in shame, and further disconnected from her own body. Eventually, she is admitted into a psychiatric ward. Higgins closes her account of her time in the ward with a skilful shifting into conditional tense; a technique Lisa Knopp calls ‘perhapsing’(1). Here, she draws together what could have been; foreshadows what is yet to come; identifies her incapacity to express her pain as catastrophic ; and deems such expression critical to healing. ‘If I had my time on the ward over’, she writes:

I would have shown them what I couldn’t tell them.

And then when someone came to me, unable to express themselves, I would know what they needed: the space to perform their emotions. 

And maybe this story would have ended more appropriately than injecting heroin into my veins and letting strangers insert body parts inside me because I didn’t know how to say please, someone hold me. 

This is what grief looks like: an inability to speak. (p.131)

As well as charting the author’s gradual unravelling, The Girls traces her incremental growth. Higgins rejects the idea that the grieving process is innate or linear, instead framing grieving as something that we need to learn; like learning to ride a bike, it involves ’falling over and fumbling as we go’. She must learn how to perform her grief; ‘to teach myself to cry at the appropriate times’. Slowly, she learns how to navigate her shame and guilt, and to balance her own need for space with her mother’s competing need for closeness. She learns how to be gentle with herself, and how to live healthily. While the book’s temporal and geographical transitions might indicate a certain vitality, part of Higgins’ growth in fact comes from moving away from this restlessness and towards a place of stillness. Sitting still, she says, is ‘the hardest thing to do’; she finds it is ‘little things’ that allow her to anchor herself: reading, walking, running, swimming in nature. This recalls Jessie Cole’s memoir, Staying, in which the natural world is grounding, stopping Cole from surrendering to a state of grief that has the power to destroy her. 

All memoirists must grapple with the fallibility of their memories, but this dilemma is all the more acute for Higgins, since her own too-painful memories have been the object of her concerted attempts at a ‘forgetting verging on obliteration’. How then to depict her experience on the page? It is a convention of narrative nonfiction to reconstruct scene and dialogue for dramatic purposes, and mostly, Higgins succeeds in rendering her experiences viscerally. ‘Trauma and time erode memory’ though, and this basic truth means sometimes her prose loses precision and colour. A scene, for example, in which she wields a kitchen knife against her mother (‘It will be easier this way… We can all be with Carlie and Lisa again’), no doubt contains a concentration of feeling for the author, but falls oddly flat on the page. Swathes of dialogue feel stilted, and at times veer into the expository: 

‘Are you friends again yet?’ Dad asks the morning after, as he and I are on our way to see the therapist. 

‘Yes, of course. Why?’

‘Because you were so angry at each other. You came to me in tears’. 

‘Oh yeah, but we’re friends again now’. (P.86)

Perhaps in an attempt to patch over the cracks in her memory, Higgins includes lengthy excerpts from her father’s diary; her mother’s Facebook posts; correspondence with her editor. This approach feels piecemeal however, and where Higgins is strongest is actually where she straightforwardly admits to the gaps in her memory, and the shame attached to this. One of the most powerful lines of the entire book: ‘The thing is this: I hardly remember anything about my sisters’. Honouring the murkiness of her memory makes the glimpses of her sisters that do return to her all the more tender. She does not remember being physical with her siblings for example, but then, looking at a photo, she observes how her and Carlie’s bodies are ‘pushed up against one another, our arms meeting in the centre’. ‘This makes me happy’, she says, ‘to know I hadn’t always pushed her away’. 

Of the violence inflicted upon her, Osborne-Crowley says: ‘by far the most dangerous element of my assault was the fact that I lived in a world where it was unspeakable’(2). Maria Tumarkin, writing about the deaths of highschool children writes: ‘No place until recently in our Western anglophone culture for overflowing, unpushawayable grief. Big grief. Long grief’ (3). Higgins is acutely conscious of the unspeakability of what she has experienced. In her Author’s Note she says some people advised her to publish her story pseudonymously, or to leave out the ‘scandalous parts’.

But I’m sick of people not talking about the hard, private things in their lives. It feels as though we are all walking around carrying dark bubbles of secrets in our guts, on our shoulders, in our jumpy minds. We are all walking around thinking we’re the only one struggling with these feelings. And the more I open up about them, the more I realise I am not the only one struggling with my secrets and my shame. (Pp. 305-6)

We might see The Girls as what Laurie Penny calls an attempt at ‘unspeaking’: when it comes to experiences rendered ‘almost unsayable by any number of forces, external and internal’, unspeaking is important in ‘walking ideas and experiences back from the ready-made language and the ready-made audience for their telling’ (4). Higgins’ heartfelt memoir is testament to the power of writing to express the unspeakable, and to help heal. 

Notes
 1. Knopp K, 2012, Perhapsing: The Use of Speculation in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity.
 2. Osborne- Crowley L, 2019, I Choose Elena, Allen & Unwin.
3. Tumarkin M, 2018, Axiomatic, Brow Books
4.  Penny L, 2014, Unspeakable Things, Bloomsbury.

 

ADELE DUMONT was born in France and moved to Australia before her first birthday. After studying Australian Literature at the University of Sydney, she spent two years teaching English at the Curtin immigration detention centre. She is the author of No Man is an Island (Hachette). She is currently in residence at the Booranga Writers’ Centre.

Caitlin Wilson reviews Thorn by Todd Turner

Thorn

by Todd Turner

Puncher and Wattmann

ISBN: 9781925780635

Reviewed by CAITLIN WILSON

An Uneasy Symbiosis: A Review of Todd Turner’s Thorn 

Todd Turner’s Thorn mines the relationship between the earth and the things which populate it, musing on their motives and daily moves. An uneasy symbiosis between animals and people, the natural and the built, is rendered in detail-oriented odes to memory, observation and wonder. In this, his second volume, Thorn re-treads some of the ground of Woodsmoke (2016), reflecting a similar drive to luxuriate in the minutiae of language. The specificity of Turner’s images allows the reader to see through the poetic eye, lending a haptic quality to his creations. There is a clarity and care to each poem, a tiny world where every word is in its right place, even if everything is not. As the collection’s blurb, written by Robert Gray, explains, Turner has much to draw upon in his rendering of a complex world; “a horseman and boxer on one side, a craftsman who creates artistic jewellery for a living on the other”. This eclectic collection of life experiences is reflected in the breadth of this collection, unconstrained by any one influence or vantage point from which to connect to the world around him. 

The collection’s strongest moment comes early, with “My Middle Name”. The poem is memoiristic and confessional. The speaker explores the power of missing things – words, family, motives. Turner forms a loquacious ode to the power of silence. The festering presence of the unsaid is palpable; the speaker tells of “swallowed silence” (8) and describes his mother’s habit of “trying to air the echo of her father’s silence” (7). Turner gracefully conjures the feeling of holding in words, the ghostly figures of the past lingering on the tips of each character’s tongue.  This is not Turner’s only engagement with silence: Later, in “Switch”, the speaker relates that “a certain silence grew within me-/ an inwardness that only seemed to inflate” (32). Indeed, attention is paid throughout the collection to the power of invisible forces. The wind, silences, unspoken bonds and burdens weigh on the speakers in the early personal poems. In “Tiny Ruins”, the air itself chokes and confines; it “ropes” the speaker with “hefty knots” (22). In “The Raft” (24), nostalgia exercises its invisible power, a mix of crystal clarity and the hazy, rose-coloured mysticism of childhood memories. 

A frequent allusion in section one is the image of the tree, connected strongly with family and heritage. Family history is “sprung in roots” in “Heirloom” (28). A stick, an instrument of corporeal punishment, is “an instrument of my mother’s affection”, “rooted in living memory” in “The Stick” (25). That the tree, particularly evoked in its roots and the knots, appears frequently in Thorn’s musings on family and the past gives an ominous undercurrent to the at times prosaic remembrances of his speaker. Such clean relation of memory is on display in “Dolls” (29), where the imminent death of a mother is presented with care but without overwrought description, its matter-of-factness walloping the reader with the reality of loss. It is a hard poem that demands to be read and remembered. 

Section 2 brings with it observations of the animal kingdom with myriad seeming motives. In “Magpies” (35), “Guinea Fowl” (40), “The Echidna” (45) and “Horse” (51), animals are imbued with a quotidian majesty, watched and set down in detail for their own sake. These poems feel like a walk through the country and pausing to ponder the daily toils of its non-human dwellers. Turner burrows into the metaphoric potential of each creature, for its own sake and in the case of poems like “Villanelle for a Calf “(39) and “The Pigeons” (43), to illuminate something of the human condition. Through the premonition of “The Pigeons” closing stanza – “Poor pigeons, they were only looking for a place to lay their rotten eggs” (43) – Thorn conjures a self-fulfilling prophesy of doom, a pitying external voice which looks down upon the simple desires for home and safety. In “Snail” (44), Thorn takes on the invertebrate as character – lending it the humility of a blue-collar bloke. These poems are a refreshing reprieve from the chore of humanity – they do what good poetry should, taking us out of ourselves for a moment, and ensure we know more about ourselves and our world when we return. They contrast with the arguably more powerful personal poems, never letting the reader dwell on humanistic problems without consideration of our animal counterparts. 

Section 3 deals in the macro and micro earth – spinning out to consider big questions among the celestial imagery of “Solar Lunar” (55). This penultimate section feels loftier, not just in its allusions to technology and the mechanical and its concern with height and a bird’s eye view, but also in its pondering of humanity from the top down. “Theorems of geometry” and “the horizontal lines of the stave” (55) conjure mathematical and musical precision, as opposed to the grubby chaos of creatures both human and not. The loquaciousness of the earlier poems returns in “The Sweet Science”, where a fighter is a “fox-trotting shaman” and a “poetic pugilist” (59). However, this section is primarily concerned with things. Thorn renders them weighty and lit from within by meaning, waiting for someone to puzzle out their importance. Poems like “Stilled” (61) render simple objects like crockery gilded with significance; containers, it says, “seem to reverberate in the mute dust-fall of light and shade” (61). Further dimensionality is added to this third section is Turner’s sources of inspiration for these poems. Turner is in conversation with an eclectic bunch of poets; poems are ‘after’ John Donne, Ted Hughes, Li Po and Jo Shapcott to name a few. This gives the sense of a poet speaking about the world to the world and gives the collection an intertextuality that turns reading into a treasure hunt, sending the reader scurrying to their bookshelf to find the inspiration points for the works. 

Thorn reveals a poet in fine form, wielding language with an enviable control. The collection certainly stands as an excellent work outside of the context in which I read it, though I can’t help but ponder how my appreciation of this collection, so filled with images of the natural world existing without human interference, is enhanced by the state of the world at present. The constant pressing in of news about pandemics, climate change and natural disasters, hammers home the powerless of the individual being. Thorn is a welcome reminder that despite chaos some things go on, perhaps without fanfare or seeming purpose, but steadily and beautifully. 

 

CAITLIN WILSON is a Melbourne-based student and writer of criticism and poetry. Her poetry can be found in Voiceworks, Farrago and Above Water, and her criticism can be read in Farrago and The Dialog, among others. She was recently accepted into the University of Oxford Mst Film Aesthetics.

Hayley Scrivenor reviews Benevolence by Julie Janson

Benevolence

by Julie Janson

ISBN: 9781925936636

Magabala Books

Reviewed by HAYLEY SCRIVENOR

‘I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigated pain. It is important to share how I know survival is survival and not just a walk through the rain.’ (Audre Lorde, 89)

What do we expect stories to do? I have always felt that, deep down, we expect them to tell the truth. I come to fiction for the gut-truth – what did it sound like, smell like, feel like? 

The gut-truths presented in Benevolence are tied to a larger reckoning needed in Australian society – one that involves a centring of First Nation voices, a willingness to address not just a violent history, but a hostile and violent present – and it’s worth reading Julie Janson’s book for this alone. But the reason I will keep returning to this work is the beauty of its language and the connection I felt with its protagonist, Burruberongal woman, Muraging.

This is a story of survival, revolving around love, family and country. We first meet Muraging (or Mary, as she is called by her white ‘guardians’) in her home Darug country (Parramatta) in 1816 and as the story unfolds, we learn of her struggles to flee. We see how she is stalked by hunger and loneliness, deriving comfort and hope from the violin she learns to play at the Native Institution in Parramatta. We watch as she is forced, time and again, to return to her ‘guardians’. In the afterword, we learn that Muraging is based on author, Julie Janson’s great-great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Thomas. Janson is a Burruberongal woman of the Darug nation, novelist, playwright and award-winning poet. 

As a work of historical fiction, Benevolence offers a satisfying mix of the specificity of fiction (the gut-truth) with true events, and rare insights into what it might have been like to experience the devastation of British colonisation firsthand. I am not a historian, but this book gave me a way into important history – this is the story of a woman’s life shaped by violent and pervasive forces she cannot control, rendered in exquisite and compelling detail.  

Benevolence opens with the following description:

‘The grey-green eucalypts clatter with the sound of cicadas. Magpies and currawongs warble across the early morning sky as the sun’s heat streams down. It is eaglehawk time, the season of burumurring when the land is dry, and these birds fly after small game. Muraging’s clan, the Burruberongal of the Darug people, gather their dillybags and coolamons and prepare for the long walk to Burramatta, the land of eels, and Parramatta town. The old women stamp out the fire, and one gathers the baby boy in her arms and ties him onto her possum-skin cloak.’ (p.1)  

Readers familiar with Julia Janson’s poem ‘Duria burumurrung: eaglehawk time’ (which was co-awarded the 2016 Oodgeroo Noonuccal Poetry Prize) will recognise the below lines in the opening prose of the novel, and the poem echoes throughout the book:

Magpies, currawongs call across morning sky.
Sun’s heat streams down.
Clan gather belongings, dilly bags, coolamons
Walking, walking to a new town.
Old women stamp out fire, gathering babies in arms.

I am always telling my writing students they should look up words they don’t understand, instead of passing them by, assuming they are picking up the meaning from context. You’re missing out on an important part of the story when you do that, I say. The unfamiliar (to me) words in the opening paragraph – ‘dillybag’ (a woven bag), ‘coolamon’ (a carrying vessel) – forced me to slow down a little. 

Reading words in the Darug language is valuable for its own sake, but slowing down, lingering over new words, was for me one of the greatest pleasures of this book. Janson often folds definitions in seamlessly, telling us Muraging hears ‘rattling carts full of waibala, whitefella, and the sound of pots against iron wheels’ (1). Janson is always, generously, teaching the reader how to read the text. Sometimes the Darug words are given context in the sentence itself: ‘Pale dingoes, mirri, walk around a destroyed world and are lost in an empty landscape’ (26), sometimes you will have to remember a word you have been given already, or wait until a word is used several times. It’s always worth slowing down and looking up words that don’t immediately reveal themselves. There is a poet’s care for language throughout Benevolence; In places, a lack of punctuation adds poetic rhythm: ‘She longs for food chews wattle gum to ease her thirst’ (2), and words are placed side by side to hint at a way of knowing: ‘She panics and grips his hand. Alarm rises and her aunt mothers look away’ (2). 

Muraging is the character we follow through this story, but we are not confined to her impressions:

‘She looks at her dark hand in his pink one and can see that his nails are clean and trimmed while hers are dark and filled with ash. He smells of camphor, Russian leather bibles and cedar trees. She smells of eucalypt and smoke. He can see her beauty, again it disarms him.’ (123)

Time and time again we are confronted with the horror of the project of colonisation: at worst the white characters are openly violent and spiteful and at best, mealy-mouthed and ineffectual in their ‘compassion’. The title of the book – Benevolence – is a nod to the absurd and violent distance between the things the white characters say, and the things they do. Their speech is often stilted and strange. At one point, a phrenologist doctor measures Mary’s head. He wishes ‘to take it with him as a fine specimen but it is, inconveniently, still connected to [Mary’s] body’ (103). The following exchange shows the insurmountable disconnect between two ways of being in the world:

‘Why do you want our heads?’ she asks.

‘Young lady, I am scientist. And my craniological specimen studies indicate that the intellectual abilities of natives are by no means despicable,’ he says. 

‘That might be; the people who take our heads are wrong. And if you take them, you might be despicable,’ Mary replies. (103)

In her review of Julie Janson’s first novel Crocodile Hotel (2015), academic Alison Broinowski wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘The problems are too familiar, painful and perennial, and I am squeamishly frustrated because I know too little about them and have no solutions’. Broinowski is talking about contemporary health and education outcomes for Indigenous Australians – but her words speak to the greasy feeling of my own initial reluctance, as a white woman, to engage with the settler colonial history of Australia. After all, reading this book is a vivid and uncomfortable reminder that I live on stolen land, that I am not just a bystander but an active participant in the ongoing trauma of colonisation. As academic and writer Evelyn Araluen points out, ‘Today Indigenous Australians still face significantly reduced life expectancies and significantly higher rates of incarceration, child removal and suicide. The colonisers have not left, but instead police our borders and imprison those who seek asylum from conflicts in which we are implicated.’ 

Of course, white squeamishness is not just irritating or exhausting, but dangerous and insulting for the First Nations activists, academics, community leaders and writers doing the actual work of truth-telling; white squeamishness is fatal. 

It’s one thing to know colonisation changed the landscape. It’s another thing to see the following through Muraging’s eyes:

‘Log-splitting men follow the axe men and the sound is deafening, night and day. Fiery pits burn all night with wasted bark. Her peoples’ footpaths have become bullock tracks with deep greasy mud churned by huge wagons full of logs. The tiny fruits and flowers are being crushed. Nothing is left of the forest’s ceremonial sites. Their stories cannot be told if the places and sites of the ancestors are gone. The waterholes are ruined by cattle and the goona-filled water cannot be drunk.’ (91) 

Water rendered literally undrinkable by colonisers has stayed with me. Gundungurra and Darug women teach Muraging to use coals from the fire to filter the goona (shit) from the water and make it potable (96). This is just one of the thousands of ways Muraging finds to live. 

This shitty water, which Muraging makes drinkable again, matters; to borrow again from Audre Lorde: it’s how we know survival is survival. Benevolence is a book which needs to be read so we begin to know how survival feels, how it smells, what it tastes like. 

Notes
1. Lorde, Audre (2004). Conversations with Audre Lorde. United States: University Press of Mississippi
2. Broinowski, Alison. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/fiction-book-review-the-crocodile-hotel-by-julie-janson-explores-indigenous-themes-20151006-gk230l.html
3. Araluen, Evelyn. https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-227/feature-evelyn-araluen/


HAYLEY SCRIVENOR
is a writer, sessional academic and former director of Wollongong Writers Festival who lives and works on Dharawal Country. She was awarded the 2019 Ray Koppe/ASA Fellowship for her novel-in-progress The Push Back, about a young girl who goes missing from a small country town. In March 2020, this manuscript was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize. 

 

Gabriela Bourke reviews Archival Poetics by Natalie Harkin

Archival Poetics

by Natalie Harkin

Vagabond

ISBN 9781925735215

Reviewed by GABRIELA BOURKE


It can be tempting to imagine that colonisation is a thing of the past; that posting an infographic on Instagram on Sorry Day counts as activism; that the horrors white settlers inflicted on First Nations peoples can be considered in the past tense. Natalie Harkin’s
Archival Poetics reminds us that colonisation is ongoing and that far from fading away, the savagery of colonial oppression remains constant in our communities and our culture. 

Some salient examples: it’s Reconciliation Week, and mining conglomerate Rio Tinto has blown up an ancient Aboriginal site dating back 45,000 years – a site perhaps unrivalled in historical significance. The act of blowing up this site is within the law. It’s Reconciliation Week, and Kamilaroi woman, Cheree Toka, continues to campaign for the Aboriginal flag to be flown on the Harbour Bridge all year round, and not only as a token gesture once a year. It’s Reconciliation Week, and the government has announced funding is to be halved for AbSec, the peak body for the protection of Aboriginal children, even though Aboriginal children make up close to forty percent of children in out-of-home care. It’s been twelve years since Kevin Rudd’s apology speech and ‘Australia Day’ is still being celebrated on a day marking the commencement of the genocide of First Nations people.

 This is the discomforting ground in which Archival Poetics takes root. Harkin’s first few lines about the archive, ‘a small spotlight on the state, its institutions/systems/processes/that generate and maintain particular fantasy-discourses and/representations on history, on people; that actively silence/suppress/exclude Indigenous voice and agency…’ (11) make clear the enormity of the challenge of decolonisation. German sociologist Max Weber defines the state as a ‘…human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a territory.’ (Weber, 1946) It’s important to make something very clear here. Weber’s definition clarifies that we are that human community. The violence implicit in the destruction of Indigenous sites and in the removal of funding from organisations tasked with the care of children who have been taken from their families has been legitimated by our government whom we have elected. Not me, I hear you say, nor me, but us as a people. 

Acknowledging this complicity is imperative before entering the landscape of Harkin’s collection, so as to recognise the continuing reverberations of our colonial past in our present and future, and to pay heed to the way our legal system has and continues to fail Indigenous culture and communities. ‘Memory Lesson 2 | Feeding the Fever’ (19) underscores this failure (‘prepare to be drip fed ACCESS DENIED’) and reveals what we already know – that the archive is where bad things are hidden. The narrator’s attempt to reconfigure the shadowy spaces of this country’s history are held up at every turn by the state and its ‘…dystopian-drive to institutionalise/assimilate/control/categorise/collect/contain Aboriginal lives.’ (19) Harkin uses the humble verb in an unusual and powerful way a number of times throughout this collection, accenting the violence of colonial power and conversely, the agency of the Aboriginal people. We see this again in ‘Trace and Return’ which begins: 

return to the concealed origin
trace blood from there
enter spaces invisible
rouse beyond the official (29) 

and, a few stanzas later, condenses into 

return trace enter rouse gather seek
accumulate tend unshackle gather
provoke destabilise expose ignite (29) 

Although this poem comes after some of the others I’ll mention, the sense of energy and painful effort foregrounded by ‘Trace and Return’ is significant. The idea of writing poetry as a kind of restful activity is prevalent in a society that doesn’t particularly value creative endeavour, but Harkin tears this notion to shreds throughout her collection and certainly in this poem. The act of putting together these poems was surely both challenging and disturbing; the act of rendering the genocide of one’s people into poetry traumatising in ways I and other white readers of the collection are not able to comprehend. The poem ‘Dear Sir’ (22), the title of which holds a sickening sense of enforced subordination, is borne of a two hundred page file on a child of the stolen generation. The second stanza brings home this jarring sense of recognition of self and family within the devastation of state records. 

I turn the pages
there she is
perfect old-school cursive
so familiar
never-before-spoken-of      letters
to Inspectors      ‘State-Ladies’   Protectors (22)

The enjambment and punctuation of this poem increases the intensity with which the reader reads and removes any sense of pause which a more traditional structural approach might engender. There’s no holding back when reading these poems, there’s no moment’s reprieve to be taken from the spaces between words. Inspectors, ‘State-Ladies’ and Protectors are one and the same, a realisation which underscores the privilege of not-knowing and the importance of being made aware. The photograph that accompanies the poem, an item woven from the papers of the archive, displays the old-school cursive mentioned by the narrator. The most salient phrase visible is ‘good girl’ on the bottom left of the image, which could belong in the list of adjectives that conclude ‘Dear Sir’ – state child, half-caste, obedient, well-spoken, destitute, neglected (22). 

‘State Lady Report’ (26-28) includes similarly conflicting descriptors of stolen children. Preceded by a quote from Ann Laura Stoler’s Tense and Tender Lies (2006) about the gendered and racialised ‘intimacies of the everyday’, ‘State Lady Report’ explores the all-pervasive nature of state control. (Note: each line is preceded by a box marked with an x to give a checklist impression.) 

State Lady spills kitchen cupboard contents to the page and sniffs at the oven: I noticed an assortment of cakes and buns had been baked that morning. (26)

Then 

State lady inspects my house, body, hair – notes I am not causing trouble, and I am reasonably clean. (27)

All facets of life are under the jurisdiction of the state. An allegation of ‘consorting’ further drives home the kind of social and emotional deprivation employed by the state in achieving domination. The visual elements of this poem – the marked-off checklist, the typewriter-like font in bold to mark out the difference between the ‘I’ of the state lady and the ‘I’ of the narrator – visually repurpose the structures of regulation and control to tell a different story. 

In his review of Archival Poetics, Nathan Sentance points out that the narrative of the archive relies on the suppression of Indigenous voices. He says, ‘This is not to say that we, First Nations people, are not in the archives…we were usually included in archives without our informed consent. Our histories, our cultures, and our people were recorded by those commonly involved in the attempted physical, cultural and spiritual genocide of our people: police officer, government officials, and anthropologists, for example.’ (Sentance, 2019). Archival Poetics is itself an archive, a re-recording of the physical, cultural and spiritual experiences of First Nations people, a repossession and reconfiguration of a history rent with trauma. 

But again: is it history? At the time of writing this review, mass protests are taking place all across the world in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in US police custody. My social media landscape is one of outrage – as it should be – but this sentiment is aimed at American police, at American policy, at American people. The Guardian’s Deaths Inside tracks Indigenous deaths at the hands of police in this country, a number currently at 432 since the end of the commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody in 1991. In a devastating parallel, George Floyd echoed twenty six year old Dunghutti man David Dungay’s cries that he could not breathe while being restrained by police officers in November, 2015. And yet, there were no mass riots in Australia for Dungay, or for any of the First Nations people who have died or suffered abuse at the hands of police. So what are we doing about it? 

Natalie Harkin’s poetry works to decolonise the archive in a way that is distressing, arresting and aesthetic, and tells us that we need to pick up the gauntlet, continue the work and be better. Be better at recognising and rejecting the racism and violence propagated in the spaces we live and work and in our media. Be better at dismantling the systems from which we have profited at the expense of First Nations people. Be better at amplifying Indigenous voices instead of our own. Be better at listening, instead of speaking. Wondering where to start? Get yourself a copy of Archival Poetics.

 

References: 

Evershed, N., Allam, L., Wahlquist, C., Ball, A. and Herbert, M., 2020. ‘Deaths Inside: Every Indigenous Death in Custody since 2008’ Tracked [online] The Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/ng-interactive/2018/aug/28/deaths-inside-indigenous-australian-deaths-in-custody> [Accessed 1 June 2020].

Sentance, N., 2019. ‘Disrupting the Colonial Archive’. Sydney Review of Books, [online] Available at: <https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/natalie-harkin-archival-poetics/> [Accessed 1 June 2020].

 

GABRIELA BOURKE is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney. Gabriela is most interested in fictional representations of animal and human trauma, and the ways in which these intersect. Her work appears in Hermes and Southerly.

Jeremy George reviews Where Only the Sky had Hung Before by Toby Fitch

Where Only the Sky had Hung Before

by Toby Fitch

Vagabond

ISBN 978-1-925735-32-1

Reviewed by Jeremy George

For all the obvious reasons I have been reflecting lately on what Walter Benjamin’s observes in his essay ‘The Storyteller’ ; “Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience… [however] his nesting places — the activities that are intimately associated with boredom are already extinct in the city”. If Benjamin draws a causal link between the destruction of experience and the genesis of modern information; the decline of “storytelling” and the rise of “news”, it is hard to imagine what his judgement would be of our relationship to the web today. The internet is, of course, a fundamentally nauseating and overwhelming ex-American military technology of mass surveillance. However, it is simultaneously (and undeniably) the nexus of new “experiences” and modes of living. The internet is an experience, indeed, strictly in Benjamin’s sense. If anything has brought the activities that are associated with boredom back to the city, it is the internet – the inventor of the “infinite scroll” sincerely regrets the consequences of his actions. So, what’s the pay-off regarding experience?

Toby Fitch’s latest collection of poems Where Only the Sky had Hung Before, hinges on this juncture. The index at the back of the collection explains that nearly all the poems are collages, inversions, supercuts, ghostings or ekphrastic renditions of pre-existing texts. Other poems and poets yes, but also, social media streams, news articles, songs, a list of a child’s first words and buzz feed threads; as Fitch says of his own work in a recent interview “my poems are often simply accretions… [I] gather the relevant textual materials together and just play, make Lego of them, see where it goes”. Fitch’s collection asks, what limits the criterion of the “post-ready made” work? What happens if poetry embraces the technological paradigm of “information” to which it has been historically opposed?

The longest sequence in the collection is a sequence titled ‘Argo Notes’; “amorphous calligrammes after Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. It is not coincidental that Fitch categorises the ‘Argo Notes’ as specifically calligrammes as opposed to concrete or visual poetry. Indeed what were Guillaume Apollinaire’s original ‘Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War 1913-1916’ but the attempt to synthesise typography with the burgeoning technology of the cinema and the phonograph. The form of the calligramme itself bespeaks not only the historical imbrication of poetic production and technological “means of reproduction” (as Apollinaire dubbed them in a letter to André Billy), but indeed the precariousness of the poet’s own status as productive as opposed to simply mimetic, an insecurity stretching back to their banishment from Plato’s Republic. In flagrantly anchoring the majority of poems in this collection in techniques of productive plagiarism, Fitch can trade off this age-old tension with its major contemporary iteration (the internet), whilst recognising that despite the major rupture the Internet has induced for poetry, it is not exactly uncharted territory. The calligrammes are significant for a further reason too, as morphing textual forms they perform a queerness that realises the historical etymological root of “stanzas” as body. The conflation of language (which is of course, the first technology) and the sexual; the productive and re-productive culminate and confuse in the queer textual body as:

“pro-Babel & shooting white eggs
Bulbous beautiful
Tears sprouted”
(32)

Following from this point, in ‘Poetry is 99% Water’ Fitch asks us to remember;

“It happened
between 4.5 billion and 3.8 billion years ago,
a period called the Late Heavy Bombardment
and we’ve been recycling poems from these fragments
of larger epics ever since – into whirlpools and tornadoes
and other spinning turbulent flows”
(12)

Fitch’s “whirlpools and tornadoes” recall the epic simile of the swarm, which first appears in Homer’s Illiad, becomes domesticated in Virgil’s Aneiad as the “hive” and reappears as the cacophony of Fallen Angels in Pandemonium, during the first book of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Inserting a poem concerned with (albeit on a comic register) making literal the ‘life-giving’ ability of poetry into this epic lineage points out that whilst the mechanisms of literary history and influence are of course technologies of reproduction and transmission themselves, this is clearly not a death sentence. Therefore, whilst the wasteland logic of the web, as explored in ‘Feel like I’m Somehow Related to Everyone on the Internet’, gives in to the paradoxical stasis of being “relegated to everywhere” (on the internet we are famously ‘alone together’), and it becomes more difficult to discern what you are “trashing” and what you are “recycling” (possibly alluding to Fitch’s own appropriative strategies), poetry and the poet should not submit to nihilism. Indeed, the production of the collection itself, as one that is inextricable from the consequential language, modes of existing and practices that web occasions, performs this defiant gesture;

“no such thing as reproduction
Only acts of production” (28)

In one of the funniest poems in the collection ‘Life Stream’ , Fitch pleads with the reader, or with himself;

“& you can too
APPROPRIATE POETRY’S SENSE OF
WHAT IS MEANS TO BE AN EMPATH” (50)

The poem frenetically replays the condition of living not only the preceding poems of the collection – the “toenail” from ‘Vague or I Can’t Explain It Any Other Way’ makes an appearance. But also the conditions of existence the contemporary poet finds themselves in — the casualised work force of the academy, the reduction of a politics to “flicker Netflix representations”, the anxiety of knowing you’re being surveilled every moment you spend online, which now, thanks to its technological bulldozing, feels like “IRL” itself. And of course, “our notional national poet… his eyes [are] the size of/ thumbnails not poems” (50).
Fitch’s poems are contemporary in that they take as their key interlocutor the contemporary conditions of poetic production in the Internet Age. But they are not symptomatic of this age, in that they do assume de-facto status as poems purely as formally experimental texts that exist within this internet environment. A tweet today is not automatically a poem, as the corporate-poet mercenaries Fitch describes would have us believe; but they can be, maybe. This is the formal question Fitch’s collection interrogates head-on; how do we escape the infinite scroll? Or, under what conditions is the found-poem today categorically defined as the latter? Fitch’s ‘In Memory of My Furlings’ ghosts the first section of the great Frank O’Hara poem, transforming ‘Feelings’ to a noun that seemingly means both an “advanced alien race” from the Stargate universe, and a distance of 220 yards — the web has managed both figuratively and literally to alienate or distance us from our most felt human intensities. O’Hara’s final line is prescient for Fitch;

“and presently the aquiline serpent comes to resemble the medusa” (103)

But Fitch’s poem finishes on a different note;
“the furlings and unfurlings
I continue to have to save and put down” (21)

Keep hitting save is Fitch’s ethical maxim. And it seems right, Where Only the Sky Had Hung Before shows the continuing potential of poesis as a rebellious practice that can re-organise and create anew the techno waste we are enmeshed in. If there isn’t much experiential payoff in boredom being reinstated in the city, Fitch’s collection is at least one.

Notes

1. Walter, Benjamin. “The Storyteller”, Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, Mariner Books, 2019, pp. 26-56.
2.  Fitch, Toby. “The amorphousness of meaning-making”, Cordite Poetry Review, 1/2/2020, http://cordite.org.au/interviews/gomez-fitch/
3.  Apollinaire, Guillaume, quoted in the preface by Michel Butor Calligrammes, Éditions Gallimard, preface copyright 1966), pp. 
4. O’Hara, Frank. “In Memory of My Feelings”, Frank O’Hara Selected Poems, edited by Mark Ford, Alfred A.Knopf Random House, 2008, pp.102-103  

JEREMY GEORGE is a writer from Naarm/Melbourne

Megan Cheong reviews Mother of Pearl by Angela Savage

Mother of Pearl

by Angela Savage

Transit Lounge

ISBN 978-1-925760-35-4

Reviewed by MEGAN CHEONG

Mother of Pearl: Perspectives on exploitation

When I open a book by a white writer and am confronted by the point of view of a person of colour, my body tenses as if in anticipation of a blow. Rather than reading, I pick nervously at the writing in search of cliché and oversimplification. Because the source of the tension I feel in relation to point of view is less a question of who has a right to whose story than it is one of craft. As Rankine and Loffreda point out in their introduction to The Racial Imaginary, “our imaginations are creatures as limited as we ourselves are” and therefore susceptible to the same preconceptions under which we labour as the products of an entire history of racist culture, politics and violence. The first-principle question is not therefore: “can I write from another’s point of view?”, but instead: “why and what for?”

The narration of Mother of Pearl is shared by three women, each of whom bears a distinct experience of exploitation. Meg has endured almost a decade of infertility treatments at the hands of a for-profit fertility industry in Australia. Her older sister Anna has spent the greater part of her adult life working with the ostracised and oppressed throughout South-East Asia. And early in the novel Mukda, or ‘Mod’, turns to surrogacy in an effort to lift her family out of the poverty endemic to the Isaan region of north-eastern Thailand.

Savage cycles quickly through each perspective to kaleidoscopic effect – each chapter is just a few pages long and written from a different point of view to the one before – and by interweaving Meg and Mod’s trauma, Savage expands the limits of an essentially western narrative of infertility to encompass the non-white suffering that it brings about. Her portrayal of the medical procedures that Mod undergoes are particularly uncomfortable:

‘Inserting the speculum,’ the doctor said to no one in particular.
The slide of cold metal against her skin made her catch her breath.
‘Cleaning the cervix.’
It felt like something had crawled up inside her. Mod bit her lip.
‘Transfer catheter.’

A woman doctor joined them in the room, carrying what looked like a long, uncooked vermicelli noodle. The two doctors glanced at the screen Mod couldn’t see, murmuring in voices she couldn’t hear. She closed her eyes and brought an image to mind of Pui at the market. She’d been buying bplaa krai when a catfish leapt from its basin and slithered through the mud over Pui’s foot, making him shriek with laughter. He’d shown off the muddy whorls on his toes to his grandmother as proudly as if they were new shoes.
(123-4)

The medical staff’s failure to address Mod, let alone guide her through the process of implantation, signals her objectification as a surrogate – within the framework of the surrogacy industry, Mod is nothing more than a receptacle for the embryos of paying customers. As I read these scenes, I recall the gentle and attentive manner in which the midwives and doctors navigated my body during pregnancy, the work they did to keep me informed and seek my consent. Mod’s passivity is both assumed and imposed and elucidates the way in which capital, or a lack of capital, can strip back an individual’s humanity in the eyes of both institutions and the individual themselves. Similarly, the poverty of her circumstances, in combination with the warm rendering of her love for her son, Pui, speak to the illusory nature of choice in destitution. 

By placing the reader on the examination table and leaving their knees dangl[ing] from hard plastic bars (123), Savage embodies the human cost of surrogacy and succeeds in her aim of lessening the distance that “enables overseas commercial surrogacy to happen in the first place”, and yet I am never able to sink into Mod’s world in the same way I do Anna’s or Meg’s. The finer details of Mod’s character are the product of much careful observation and deliberation. Like Anna, Savage spent several years living and working in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam; her research for the novel took her as far as Mod’s hometown of Sisaket; and she revised the manuscript in consultation with a Thai friend. 

The grain of sand in my eye: while there is something in lending your voice to the voiceless, I don’t think I will ever be fully at-ease with characters whose submissiveness so closely aligns with “the kinds of feelings and attributes” that “our culture has imagined over and over again” for Asian women, and at times, Mod’s passivity and generosity facilitate the narrative in such a way as to remind me that writing from another’s perspective is inevitably an act of habitation and appropriation. One that can so easily lead to exploitation.

Savage enacts the awkwardness of her position as an outsider through the character of Anna. Anna’s knowledge of Thai culture, as well as her ability to speak Thai, simultaneously afford her greater access to Thai perspectives, and bring her face-to-face with the limits of her understanding as a farang, or white foreigner. When she expresses concern for the Thai surrogate who will carry Meg’s child, her Thai friend’s wry smile stops her mid-sentence:

‘What? The surrogate mothers are vulnerable, aren’t they?’
Fon shrugged. ‘Probably not as much as cleaner and factory workers. And the salary is better.’
‘So you think it’s okay for farangs like my sister to pay Thai women to have their babies for them?’
‘Why shouldn’t women in my country take advantage of such opportunities? Reuu dtawng gin naam dtai saawk mai?’
The expression was one Anna had heard Fon use before, the Thai equivalent of being satisfied with the crumbs from the rich man’s table. Translated literally, it was more visceral: ‘Must they drink only the water that drips from the elbow?’
‘Being a surrogate mother is a way of making merit,’ Fon said. ‘It’s considered a humanitarian act. A lot better than sex work.’
Anna chased the ice cubes in her water glass with a straw. She’d assumed that as a feminist, Fon would be dead against commercial surrogacy.
‘Neither surrogacy nor sex work seem like great choices to me.’
‘That’s because you’re thinking like a farang.’
(126-7)

This and other similar encounters serve to undermine Anna’s conventional authority as a white woman narrating Asia and in turn, reflects Savage’s awareness of the fraught nature of her own narrative choices. But for all her awkwardness, of the three women, it is Anna who allows Savage to articulate the problems of distance and othering with the greatest clarity. Anna’s acquaintance with the extreme poverty of South-East Asia makes her an exacting judge of others’ suffering. As Australia mourns in the wake of the Black Saturday fires, Anna wonders why those who are poor to begin with don’t seem to make it onto the radar (84) and stroking Meg’s hair at the hospital, where she is being treated for overstimulated ovaries, Anna sees that:

Meg would be all right. She had Nate, her family and friends, a comfortable home, a steady job. Compared with what the people Anna encountered in her work had to contend with, Meg’s sadness was a small burden.
(297)

It is shocking, in a way, to see infertility described as a small burden, yet throughout Mother of Pearl Savage interrogates the notion of ‘infertility’ until it starts to come apart. Reflecting on the last ten years of her life, Meg observes:

Once, a woman in her circumstances would’ve been classified as barren, with no room for ambiguity. But infertility was something else: a diagnosis, subject to an ever expanding array of medical interventions. Even the word infertility carried with it the hope, false or otherwise, of fertility. More than once Meg had thought it would be easier to know that there was no hope, that she would never have children. But no doctor or nurse, not a single professional she had dealt with, ever suggested she give up.
(56)

Mother of Pearl is not, in the end, a traditional portraiture of infertility. Nor is it a blunt condemnation of international surrogacy. Savage writes from the centre of each woman’s hopes and fears and the end product is a complex web of exploitation, accomplishment and loss that reaches farther than any one woman’s story.

NOTES

  1.  Rankine, C. and Loffreda, B., ‘On Whiteness and The Racial Imaginary’. Literary Hub, April 9, 2015. https://lithub.com/on-whiteness-and-the-racial-imaginary/
  2. Hunter, B., Mother of Pearl. FEMALE.com.au. https://www.female.com.au/mother-of-pearl.htm
  3.  Rankine and Loffreda, ‘On Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary’.

 
MEGAN CHEONG is currently working as an editor and completing her Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Her work can be found in Overland and Farrago.

Victoria Nugent reviews Blueberries by Ellena Savage

Blueberries

by Ellena Savage

TEXT

ISBN: 9781922268563

Reviewed by VICTORIA NUGENT


Memoir, poetry, probing essay-style musings and competing inner voices exist side-by-side in Ellena Savage’s
Blueberries, a bold and incisive collection of experimental non-fiction. 

While Blueberries is Savage’s debut essay collection, she has been widely published, with her works appearing in literary journals, daily publications and various collections. Many of Blueberries’ offerings have appeared in various publications previously, in differing forms and have now been stitched together to form a well-flowing collection that explores big topics like class, colonialism, feminism, reproductive rights, sex and trauma. 

In her sharp and intimate prose Savage’s essays probe into what it means to be a woman, a feminist, a writer, a modern Australian and a product of a colonial society. While she never shies away from important issues, Savage imbues her work with a warmth and expressiveness that adds levity when needed. 

Keystone work, “Yellow City”, which was last year published in chapbook form, kicks off the collection strongly, taking the form of diary entries tracing Savage’s steps through Lisbon in 2017, a city that she has returned after being a victim of a sex crime there some 11 years earlier. “Yellow City” is haunted by that past incident and by questions about the reliability of memory. 

“—‘My first memory.’
—Is buttressed by recalling it.
—‘My first memory.’ A fiction fixed to the linear self.” (8) 

Savage lays herself bare in this piece, scraping back the layers to show how the trauma had shaped her in the intervening years since the “encounter during which my flesh remembered the possibility of a violent death. When my body understood for a second that corpses are dismembered to cover-up crimes.” (6) 

The second essay, the titular “Blueberries”, explores the learnings that Savage takes from an elite writing workshop she attends the USA, delving into questions of privilege, gender, what it means to be a woman and a writer and what associated obstacles come with those two roles. 

The essay had a cadence all of its own, coming back to the phrase “I was in America at a very expensive writers’ workshop” (41)  or variations of it to drive home each new stanza. Dropped commas make the prose flow with a heightened sense of urgency, a sort of feverish enthusiasm that somehow sounds more like the dialogue might have with an impassioned friend, eager to convey the import of the issue weighing upon their mind. 

The intersection between gender and the creation of art is a key theme of the work, with Savage delving into the role gender played in the dynamics of the workshop and how that mirrored inequality between the sexes in wider society and in the arts.

In many ways, Blueberries could be seen as modern day response to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, delving into these inequalities, even while acknowledging the “thud of guilt knowing that someone, like, I don’t know, my own mother, would have wrung her neck to have been given the opportunity to attend her art’s version of the workshop I was at;” (57)

Savage’s musings hold an echo of Woolf’s own thoughts on women writers, brought into a modern era. Woolf wrote that “it would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?” (Woolf, 87). I found echoes of Woolf’s frustration in Savage’s own thoughts on the writers’ workshop, where she “was disappointed not for the first time that ‘excellence’ was turning out to be mediocrity dressed up in money and maybe masculinity too, not the masculinity that is visible to us, brawny and street-smart, but real masculinity, which is reedy and tepid and well read and invisible.(42)

The piece also touches upon class and race but only in a relatively minor way. Savage recognises her privilege, pondering on the “kind of class mobility that I have because maybe my race is my class now” (45) and at the same notes that women writers made up “ninety per cent of the cohort, and most of them white” (54). Despite this acknowledgement though, white feminism remains the predominant lens for Savage’s analysis.

“Then one day me and my friend were at a big gallery and I looked at a wall of photographs of famous European artists, artists whose faces you’d recognise as those of famous European artists, and for some reason I saw it all at once laid out and the only thing I could say was ‘Where are all the women artists’, like I had only just noticed, which could as easily have been where are all the Aboriginal artists where are all the trans artists where are all the Asian artists, except that we’re talking about a group that constitutes fifty per cent of any otherwise marginalised population and any privileged one too.” (53)

This quote signifies (intentionally or not) that despite Savage engaging with ideas about how race might factor into marginalisation, her chief  concern regarding representation still remains how much recognition women might receive in artistic spheres. With her argument about women constituting 50 per cent of the population, Savage subtly indicates a belief that the representation of female artists is of more important than that of the other groups she mentions. Women’s issues are thus given prominence over issues facing Asian and Aboriginal artists.  Savage’s analysis stops short of unpacking how women of colour might face further struggles with representation as compared to white women. 

Savage better acknowledges her own limitations in “Satellite”, a musing on her family’s Coburg background and the area’s gentrification, where she likens her roots to “an introduced grass species that thrives everywhere by choking its competitors, that avoids detection by passing for a native species, and this laboured metaphor is trying to say something about colonial figures like me who’d really like to not make things worse than they are, but who by simply accepting the yellow blotted sun through the pane of glass, by accepting the home built atop spirits silent and  angry, have roots that are caught in the seams of rotten foundations.” (79)

Class and how cultural capital is linked to social mobility is another theme Savage takes an interest in. She puts forward the supposition in Blueberries that “the accumulation of cultural capital for the purpose of social mobility is a stone-cold fact of life” (57), but one that is seldom talked about. Savage links this pursuit of elitism to the willingness of writers to pay for courses of “expensive mediocrity” (46) in a liberal arts environment where a kind of morality is associated with eating locally sourced, organic food, stemming from “the entitlement of an elite class to impose its moral directives on the people whose labour allows them to be elite in some way or another” (50). In “You Dirty Phony Saint and Martyr”, Savage writes that she imagined some of her own accrued cultural capital would “morph into material capital, but it has not, yet and might never” (133), as part of an essay in which she touches lightly on “the nexus of power, privilege and prestige in literature” (130).

In “Unwed Teen Mum Mary”, Savage seamlessly transitions from recounting the process of seeking paid work into a contemplation of what the word choice means, specifically in the context of having the agency to make reproductive choices. It’s a powerful personal essay that both takes the readers into the intimacies of Savage’s own life and looks broadly at the cultural narratives surrounding abortion and how Christian tradition has shaped them.

“In my view, any effort to pair femininity with maternity with biological destiny with virgin births with earthy crystal-lovemaking is an effort to relegate the female form to a position of inferiority, to a state of constant need and gratitude and dependence.” (112)

Savage shows a firm grasp of a variety of styles throughout the collection, playing with form in creative and clever, and sometimes disconcerting ways. “Allan Ginsberg” (fittingly) takes a poetic form, while “Friendship Between Women” has a compelling, rambling, stream-of-consciousness feel, rich with poetic description. Another interesting piece is “Holidays with Men”, which juxtaposes two separate works on each page, effectively creating two pieces in one. The first of the two reflects on a series of vignettes Savage once published in a zine, the second is a form of that vignette series, though one anecdote recounted in the companion piece about an acquaintance recognising herself in a vignette indicates that this version of “Holidays with Men” is not the same one. The eye and the mind don’t know which narrative to follow first but once the reader detangles the two, the combined work is a rich exploration of our modern relationship with travel, as well as the effects of travel upon relationships. 

“Travel, in the broadest sense possible,
encompasses the furthest
reaches of a culture. Networks
driven by survival, by desire,
by a twinning of the two, have
flung bodies and stories away
from homes for all of history,
and all of prehistory, too.” (125)

“The Museum of Rape” could also be read in multiple ways, thanks to its use of numbered paragraphs, with the references throughout the text making it possible to skip to other parts of the work for a non-linear experience. 

“8.0
What I am saying is that I understand the total collapse of structured
memory.
I asked myself, what does it mean to anticipate the loss
of one’s rational function (7.0, 7.1, 7.2).” (67)

In the penultimate work in the collection, “Portrait of the Writer as Worker (after Dieter Lesage)”, Savage offers anecdotes of a writer’s life, a series of almost fragmented thoughts that strung together paint a vivid picture of how creation intersects with earning a living. Together with “Yellow City” and “Blueberries”, it can be seen as one of the collection’s key pieces. 

“You are a writer, and you know what that means: you don’t do it for the money. You don’t do it for the money, which is a great reason people have to not pay you for your writing.” (211)

Savage’s works drip with references to other literature… Hemingway, Shakespeare, Elena Ferrante, Jamaica Kincaid, philosopher Theodor Adorno and the list goes on.  By drawing from all these different source materials, Savage expands the scope of the work and imbues it with even more meaning. 

As a debut collection, Blueberries is strong, sharply drawn, thought-provoking and easy to devour. Each individual piece earns its place in the collection, providing depth and insight across a broad range of topics and showcasing a rich toolbox of writing styles. Savage digs deep to scratch at the mysteries of self and of social structure in this personal, compelling work, which defies easy categorisation, revealing more with each subsequent reread. 

 

References 

Savage, Ellena. Blueberries. Text Publishing, 2020.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Classics, 2000.

 

VICTORIA NUGENT is a full-time journalist and part time fiction writer living in regional Queensland.