S.V. Plitt

S.V. Plitt is a queer author living and working in Naarm, Melbourne. Son’s writing has been published in Archer magazine, Darebin n-SCRIBE, and won second place in the Odyssey House Short Story Prize 2022. Their manuscript ‘Strange Intersections’ was Highly Commended in the VPLAs Unpublished Manuscript Competition 2022. They also appear on the (Un) Marginalised Season Two Podcast, discussing themes included in their writing, such as gender identity, mental health, religious oppression, and intergenerational trauma. Son draws inspiration from volunteering as a carer and their work in customer service.
 
 
 
A Fairy God Princess

A subversive tale of feminist woes 


There once was a Fairy God Princess.

She kissed a lot of toads looking for her prince.

Not only toads, in fact.

She pranced through the forest kissing lizards and lions and amorous amphibians.

With each slippery kiss, her disappointment grew.

The disappointment grew and grew inside her belly like a bag of snakes in a battle for sovereignty.

Battling for the prize of turning the princess into a lizard, or a lion or an amorous amphibian.

They fought fiercely, keeping the princess up at night.

Whenever she drifted into an exhausted slumber, the lizards or goannas, the toads or the lions would pull the tendon by her tailbone.

Like a puppet, her legs wriggled and squirmed out of bed and tried to run away with her.

To turn the princess into a toad or lion or amorous amphibian.

To make her a bride.

But the princess was also a warrior and worried that if her legs ran away with her,

the battle in her belly would boil and boil, filling her up with a storm for scales and fur.

She begged the moon and the stars and the emptiness in between,

that the lizard prince whose eyes gleamed like black jewels,

the prince that had so chivalrously waited in the forest for a decade,

that he might be the victor, in this battle of bravado that boiled in her belly.

But like all the contestants, his price for saving her from the lions and the toads and the amorous amphibians, was sovereignty. To possess the flesh in which she resided. To grow a lizard in her belly. To grow a king.

The Fairy God Princess, the warrior that worried, knew deep down that the flesh in which she resided, could not be divided. It was hers and hers alone.

No heir, no king, no lizard, no amorous amphibian, no lion, and no toad would chain her to the future. She prayed to the moon and the stars and the emptiness in between.

An answer came. It was a vast and empty silence that spread through her heart, her belly and her mind. She relinquished her title. No more a Fairy God Princess.

She remembered her true identity and became they. They knew the I in them. Their I was in all of the fairies, gods and princesses, in all of the princes, lizards and toads, all of the goannas, the lions and the amorous amphibians. They were all of it and nothing. And belonged to themselves and no one.

And they all lived ever after in a confusing land of grammatically problematic pronouns.

Violence, Pain and Blistering Power: Women in Lauren Groff’s Matrix by Az Cosgrove

Az is a 26-year-old trans wheelchair user with an acquired brain injury. His works of both fiction and non-fiction have appeared in such publications as Voiceworks, Archer, Overland, Mascara Review, ABC News, and the 2023 anthology of the Australian Short Story Festival. He is currently completing a Master of Literature and also graduated with distinction with a Bachelor of Biomedical Science in 2017. He was recently one of the 2023 ABC Regional Storyteller Scholars, and is also an enthusiastic user of social media. When he’s not writing, he’s spoiling his assistance dog, Ari, working out, or getting yet another tattoo.

 
 
 

When I listened to the audiobook recording of Lauren Groff’s Matrix, I could hear those men in the kitchen, the ones with scarred knuckles and violence in their hearts and between their legs. Inside my empty stomach, the familiar icy snake of fear writhed. I gripped my pocketknife and repositioned myself on the pillow I had wedged under my butt to prevent pressure sores. I tried to ignore the acidic flush of anxiety and focus instead on the excellent narration by Anjoah Andoh.

As the night progressed, the murky yellow light of my room in the crisis accomodation building—the “house of horrors” my friends and I have come to refer to it—faded, and was replaced by the clean, bright air of a nunnery in medieval England. Instead of the pall of cigarette smoke, I inhaled the scent of fresh bread and the vague musk of manure. Instead of the sound of my housemate pissing loudly with the bathroom door open, I heard space cracked open, expansive—a placid quiet in the time before motorisation, broken only by bird calls and the hushed voices of nuns passing below my open window.

Matrix had been a gift from my cherished friend and author, Katia Ariel. I wish I could do more, she said (or rather typed, as we are geographically separated by a state line) but it is the understatement of the century, or at least of my year: she had in fact given me an entirely new world.

Matrix tells the story of a community of nuns led by a character named Marie, who is based on the very real figure of Marie de France, a woman who lived in the 12th century and is considered by many historians to be one of the first writers of French prose. In the first couple of pages, we are introduced to both the Abbey and the language Groff uses, which is wonderfully evocative of the decadent prose of high fantasy:

‘She sees for the first time, the Abbey: pale and aloof on a rise in this damp valley; the clouds drawn up from the ocean and wrung against the hills in constant rainfall.’
(Chapter 1, 00:35-00:45).

However, while the language used in Matrix sates the guilty craving that high fantasy indulges, it describes a reality not too far removed from our own. Matrix presents a version of history close to that which likely did exist but was never documented: one full of queer desire and love and unapologetic feminine power. These are historical wounds that have long scarred, but which, through fiction, Groff somehow manages to draw fresh blood. Or, maybe not blood, but something else: something iridescent and shimmering.

My phone dings and it is a message from a member of my personal squadron of superheroes, all of whom are women. Here, from a desire for political correctness, I am tempted to replace the word “women” with “people of gender diversity”, but, while there are people, precious beyond words, of diverse gender identity in my life, it is simply true that my first line of defence during that time were all cis women. These women were the ones both willing and able to drop everything and rush to my aid, the ones with both the will and the resources to save me, to pluck me from between the teeth of the corrupt machine of a society that still feeds on bodies that don’t fit into the silhouette of the norm. Women. I will refer to them as they are (I will not erase them, as has happened enough in mainstream history. To celebrate women is not to erase the trans and non-binary experiences, but to honour the historical bedrock that underpins gender divergence.)

The message reads: Are you OK to talk? The question is an unfortunate necessity, because often the answer is “no”. Our conversations are shrinking and hushed things. Our voices—the differing pitches forming a euphoric contrast—weary with a history that we share, an inheritance of silence that runs deeper than the testosterone that now courses through my blood. But occasionally our muted whispering lights up with the sparks of genuine human connection (sudden laughter, a moment of dorky enthusiasm, the sound of her toddler daughter’s voice—soft and sweet, shy—in the background).

Those moments led me to a truth: that, though vastly different, both the lives of these women and my own curl from a shared historical line.

I was a daughter, I say to my therapist, and am stunned into silence by the truth of it, how much it explains of me. And lately, it is a truth that I can’t stop thinking about. I think about it when I listen to the news and hear that, in 2024 so far, in the so called “lucky country”, a woman has been killed on average every four days. I think about it when I hear the names of the five women killed in the attack at Bondi Junction in April (I say them under my breath: Ashlee Good, Pikria Darchia, Yixuan Cheng, Dawn Singleton, Jade Young), and when it is reported that during a wave of national protests calling for action against gendered violence, the ex-partner of WA woman Erin Hay is charged with her murder.

Maybe, at last, change will come. But maybe not. I can’t be sure. All I can be sure of is this: women are fucking amazing. And though I am not one, I am incredibly proud of the history that we share.
A similar sentiment is at the core of Matrix. It is fundamentally a celebration of women; Specifically of female wisdom, made literal by the “visions” experienced by Marie. In the description of the first of these visions, language that is decadent and richly evocative blooms like colour from the page, as sudden and overwhelming as a thunderclap:

“Lightning sparks in the tips of her fingers, swifter than breath it moves through her hands, the flesh of her arms, her inner organs, her sex, her skin, and settles jagged and blazing in her throat.”(Chapter 1, 04:09-04:20).

While Marie attributes such visions to the Virgin Mary, the otherworldly figure that appears “wears the face of her own mother”(Chapter 1, 05:40), and when the vision fades, Marie finds herself “in a ring of her own daughters.”(Chapter 1, 06:07). While the exact cause of the visions is not made clear, what does become apparent is that with the bending of reality, the maternal line does not break. Indeed, it reappears, intact, woven through the rest of the book, and the reader need only turn a few pages before encountering some variant of the words “mother” or “daughter”.

Throughout the novel, the nuns retreat further and further from the rest of society. Under Marie’s instruction, the Abbey is fortified by the construction of a labyrinth through the forest, and all men are exiled from its grounds. While in today’s context, this narrative might seem to reinforce the rigid essentialist rhetoric of “man-hating” feminism, which gave rise to the TERF movement, a la J.K. Rowling, we must read Matrix as what it is: a breathtaking piece of historical fiction written to embody the reality faced by women in the 12th century.

The women in my life continue to astound me. They are women with eyes of steel, painted nails and hands that never tremble. They are women with a love for their daughters so blisteringly intense that I almost can’t bear the heat that radiates from it.

I celebrate these women every time I rub my hand in awe over my stubbled chin. I celebrate them every time I trace an ecstatic arc with a dumbbell curled towards my torso, every time I absently lay my palm against my top surgery scar and feel my heart beating just beneath the surface.

Matrix is a celebration of the history that these women have passed down to their daughters, and that I, too, have inherited. It is a celebration that transforms a history riddled with gaps, silences, into one fissured with crystal.

 

Note
Voicestamps from Matrix, Lauren Groff audiobook, 23/09/2021, Language: English
Penguin Audio Whispersync for Voice-ready

Holly Friedlander Liddicoat reviews meditations with passing water by Jake Goetz

meditations with passing water

Jake Goetz

Rabbit Poetry

Reviewed by HOLLY FRIEDLANDER LIDDICOAT
 
 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luoyang Chen reviews The Open by Lucy Van

The Open

by Lucy Van

ISBN: 9780648917601

Cordite Books

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

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

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

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

How to live better? 

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

How to live better? 

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

How to live better?

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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

Liz Sutherland reviews Breath by Carly-Jay Metcalfe

Breath

by Carly-Jay Metcalfe

ISBN 9780702268359

UQP

Reviewed by LIZ SUTHERLAND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Works Cited

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

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

Jennifer Compton reviews Leaf by Anne Elvey

Leaf

By Anne Elvey

Liquid Amber Press

ISBN 9780645044966

Reviewed by JENNIFER COMPTON

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

you touch from inside’s
other     vein and skin
silver

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

breath
becomes     a word
(p3)

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

                         Ask what
answer your hands should

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

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

A tree takes
gives. Prudence

means nothing
to a tree.
(p22)

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

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

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

no longer suppose you were
or are? My feet unrooted

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

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

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

From ‘Under the rotary clothesline’

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

 

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

Chris Ringrose

Chris Ringrose is a poet and literary critic who lives in Melbourne. His poetry has won awards in England, Canada and Australia, and he has published critical work on modern fiction, literary theory and children’s literature. He is the co-editor of the Journal of Postcolonial Writing and a poetry reviewer for the Australian Poetry Journal. His latest collection of poems is Palmistry (ICoE Press, 2019). Creative Lives, a collection of interviews with South Asian writers, was published in 2021 by Ibidem/Columbia University Press. His poetry website is http://www.cringrose.com

 

Widow

She listens all day
to the flapping of sheets on the line
the banging of the barn door

At evening, unpegs
the sweet-smelling washing.
An arrowhead of migrating geese
stirs a longing for elsewhere

Their honking
drifts faintly down, breath
speaking Earth’s subtle logic

Two years have passed
like the backwards shuffling of pages
as one searches for forgotten lines

She has shut down the news, knowing
that when the big thing happens
someone will knock on the door

Notes the silver trail, leading upwards.
Last night the snail scaled the wall
that the hound could not leap.

 

The way things are

The rain is talking to the night.
It’s blustered on the farmhouse panes
for centuries, and never blown itself out.
The trees are reined back by gales
then plunge their heads like horses.

Our farm is manhandled by the seasons:
plunged into an icy bucket of winter
hauled out spluttering into the towel of Spring
summer bristled in an upheaval of grass, crops and weeds
shaved by the blades of autumn.

Our cattle dung the earth;
the clouds scamper across East Yorkshire
to the North Sea or glower through the drizzle.
This is the way things are, year after year.

Tenants of earth and sky, raisers of stock,
we walk the bounds at evening with dog and gun,
smell pine resin in the place where we began.

Christmas Day’s a work day
when the grass beneath our feet
crackles like the icing
on the massive cake indoors.

Future farmers conceived to the sound
of hail that volleys on the bedroom wall
as the farm hauls itself
from season to season
and we run to keep up.
We speak to the trees.
The woods are slow to answer.

Servants of the soil,
we gather the eggs,
shoot the foxes and crows,
and walk into summer.
Sap pulses in the stalks, below
disintegrating dandelion clocks;
they, too, have to hand on life.

Pigshit and steam, and
this summer’s swallows
bolting from the stables
to wheel up and around
the insect-laden air.

David Ishaya Osu

David Ishaya Osu is a poet and street photographer living in South Australia. His work has appeared in Magma PoetryMeanjinThe Victorian WriterPoetry WalesNew Welsh ReviewGriffith ReviewThe Hopkins ReviewThe Oxford Review of Books, among others. David is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide.

 

 

The art of remembering

On our last day at work, we exchanged social media handles; we promised each other to stay in touch. We had worked together as museum assistants for two weeks and decided to spend the last night together over drinks, music, chats, reminiscences, laughter, hugs. We recounted moments on the job, trying to master museum vocabulary, museum paces, museum gestures, museum postures. Ten of us, new to the job, were recruited on the same day. And for the two weeks we worked together, we became a family. 

Call it the unity of strangers: from Poland, Korea, Nigeria, China, New Zealand, Britain, India. 

I once saw a building in Abuja with a familiar name printed on its wall. I broke out laughing. A building carrying the name of my colleague and friend, Asma. I took a picture and sent it to her instantly. Recently she collected pictures of her name scrawled on walls, boards, in random streets, all from different places. I commented on her Instagram: you are beloved of the streets, darling. Home anywhere in the world. Your friends will find you everywhere they go; they carry you in their hearts. That is how we keep in touch—with memories. 

Distance is no barrier—to the fondness we have shared, moments made. 

I woke up in the middle of the night missing London, remembering long walks, bus rides, train rides, street photography in central London. I logged on to my laptop and scrolled through loads of photographs I had taken. London is calling me back, I mused.

I used to claim that I do not miss people or things, yet I wake up every day with streams of memories. Memories of friends, places, of things, of losses, adventure, accidents, victories, and so on. The other day a song popped up in the radio, and boom came memories of my friend, Juliet and her sister, Judith. They are the only ones I think about each time I hear the song. We had once hung out at a restaurant and the song played that day. 

We remember people, places, in many ways: songs, dresses, cologne, gestures, words, dances, food, so many to mention. Sometimes a wink opens the window to thoughts of someone, and they instantly become a tangible presence in your mind; you want to phone or email them, or even want to be with them right in that physical moment but they are faraway. You are evoking the past into the present; indeed, the past never ended. For instance, Liskeard, as a town, will never ever pass away; it has become a full component of my psyche. I clocked twenty-eight in Liskeard. I have saved memories of a town in perfume bottles. It is not just a town—a physical entity—it is a spiritual embodiment. Small town it is, but mighty an archive of history.

Call it the unity of memories: fragments, the continuity of time, of thoughts, of generations. Call it the art of remembering. Call it the science of going back and forth. Call it the application of mind to the past. 

One of my favourite sports was listening to dad tell stories of the past. I listened with keen interest as though those days never went away; I listened with my imagination taking root in places, events, names mentioned. I asked questions, I got answers. I noticed tinges of regret in his voice as he went on; I also noticed tinges of contentment. I imagined that, one day, me too will tell stories as an older folk. I daydream ahead of time, ahead of the stories told to me. I daydream into my own stories, my own life, my own making. Visualising a future is like visualising my birthday cake—there is no limit but the vision, the cake. 

I got introduced to Joe Brainard’s classic, I Remember, during my master’s at Kent. Reading the book did not only take me through Joe’s remembrances, but it also took me through old and sometimes forgotten routes. Memories have no end; they are rivers; they meander; they flow down the slope of time; they flow into other bodies of memory; they become seas flowing from the past into the future, and from the future into another past. I think of where water bodies meet; I think of where they start from; their varying layers, depths and widths. Like water, memory takes or makes a shape on us—our experiences, our imaginations, and even our voids. 

I remember the last thing on my mind as I boarded the plane for London. I remember waking up on the flight and thinking to myself: where am I? I remember layovers. I remember the thick, smooth taste of Milo Singapore. I remember the days I snuck around the house to steal a lick of chocolate powder. I remember Istanbul. I remember my first day in Adelaide. Dreams come true.

I remember my father’s fingers. 

I remember how mother worked hard to make us keep neat nails. 

I remember I never became the neatest boy in primary school as I had aspired to be. 

I remember once dreaming that I sneaked into a garden to poo and to pick mangoes. 

I remember Nigeria. 

I remember the two mango trees in our green yard. 

I remember how I used to laugh till my stomach began to hurt. I would roll on the floor, cry and laugh. 

I remember the last time I cried. 

I remember heartbreaks. 

I remember I usually did not have the words to say my mind. I only did on paper. I would lock myself in a quiet room and put off the light. 

I remember no sandwich.  

I remember fearing the dark as a kid.  

I remember transparent curtains. And silent doors. 

I remember our first house. 

I remember the day I was knocked down by a car along Abuja-Keffi expressway in Mararaba, Nasarawa state. I suffered a compound fracture on my left leg, and I was bedridden for months. I remember praying to never get involved in any accidents again. I do not want to remember the accident twenty years after. 

I remember Fela Anikulapo Kuti. I remember he was my diet on Sunday radio.  

I remember I wanted to be a smoker. And I remember why I never got to smoke. 

I remember someone asking if I smoke to write. ‘I do flowers,’ I remember answering them. 

I remember dad teaching us how to plant and water flowers. He would hum country songs while telling us the names of flowers. He never got tired of beautifying the house. 

I remember dad saying he wanted to be an architect. But his father was not so rich to send him to architecture school. So, he became a geologist. 

I remember my father’s shelves of assorted stones. 

I remember seashells I picked from the beach. 

I remember Lagos. 

I remember trying to jump out of and into moving vans. 

I remember lunch with Unoma Azuah in Lagos. She had invited me over for a workshop. I remember her telling me to write about the blue house—the venue of the workshop. I have yet to finish the ‘blue house’ piece up until today. I remember she told me to never stop writing. 

I remember boarding school. I remember boys and girls preparing for Valentine’s Day. I remember waiting for visiting days. I remember waiting for holidays. 

I remember my mum is not afraid of snakes. 

I remember cold mornings with lemongrass tea. And honey. 

I remember my paternal great-grandmother. I remember running away from her because she had no teeth and had white things on her head. As children, we called them white things and not grey hair

On a visit to the village, I remember asking where my great-grandmother was. She travelled, they replied. I later found out that that meant death. Travel as death? Travelling as dying?  

I remember telling myself I will be a traveller. Like my great-grandmother. Like my grandfather. Like my father. 

I remember the last phone call I had with my father before he died.

Ana Duffy

Ana Duffy is an Argentinean-born writer. She teaches in Communications and Creating Writing units at QUT; her work has been published in Island, Coffin Bell, Swamp and has been shortlisted in QWC Flash Fiction Competition and long-listed for Fish Anthology (Ireland). Ana holds a PhD in the field of Latin American literature from UQ and, in between teaching semesters, she is working on a novel.

 

 

Language spoken at home: Spanish

A mess of application forms are scattered on Josefina’s table. I see one with a green stain that will need to be reprinted.

If not for the rain, it would be a more pleasant day.

If not for the day being a Sunday, it would be a less gloomy day.

I pour a bit of water that is no longer hot into the mate that no longer tastes of anything. The quintessence of Argentinean infusions disgracefully vandalised somewhere 12000 km away from home. I sip. It is washed-out and cold: lavado and frío, as expected. I was never pedantic enough about the whole ritual: the slow pouring of the water on the Yerba Mate, methodically set in bevel into the gourd; the right temperature of the water, never boiling hot, unless you can live with the unsupervised sticks of Yerba Mate floating as in a shipwreck. As for the mate-drinking ritual, I know of my bad habits:  a widely accepted legacy from the uni years, when the same mate could go on for as far as to a full chapter (with inevitable green stains), or as far as to the first half of a deconstructed two-hour lecture; when the end of a full mate round was determined by our concentration span, and not water temperature or taste.

I sip again. Josefina jumps at the sucking sound. I pass it back to her.

She mumbles something and keeps on filling in the application form.

No me va a gustar’, Josefina says, and rolls her eyes when she sees the green stain at the centre of page 2.

(I agree that she will not like this job either. But she will push on, and keep doing the work that architects from UQ or Melbourne uni will take credit for, while her own UBA degree coils in a black tube along with five years of study and green mate stains in a stationary vortex of defeats).

I put the kettle on and refill the mate: an old gourd with Josefina’s initials carved clumsily with a pocketknife. I have the same gourd. We bought it together at the markets, in San Telmo, at a time when having it meant nothing of what it now means: a whole ocean, and decades away from there and then. The gourd feels so loaded now, so heavy with every past tense plastered to it. 

Josefina fills in her third application. Nothing out of the ordinary. A name that anyone could say, and a surname that no one could: Rodriguez. An un-rollable ‘r’. An ‘o’ that was not meant to be turned onto an /oʊ/ and an impossible ‘d’, if you try to sound it with your tongue behind the teeth, instead of squeezed between them. The carnage done to the poor ‘gue’ sound is by now such a given, that she’s stopped trying to fix it altogether.

She says she would, if she could, add subtitles to everything around her. Subtitles or a voiceover. And everyone would be happy. The reader and the writer. The speaker and the listener. Maybe, she says, a full-time hologram: a three-dimensional translation under everything said, written and done. And everyone would be happy.

Spanish. Brief description: 27 grafemas. 24 fonemas. If you care to listen closely, it sounds as if you could dance it. Closed embrace. Walk. Figure. At the right time of the day (that can be any time of the day), it tastes like asado, slow-cooked, on an open fire, medium-rare. The signature sound of the “y” and the “ll”, the same fonema: as if we were pissing on the language to own it, to make it Argentinean, to sound it our way.

Spanish. Ancestral tongue, all flat-packed and put away during business hours.

Josefina asks me if I would like to hear about her dream last night.  

I say yes, because no one would want to leave an untold dream festering under Josefina’s vindictive skin. Or maybe because it’s a rainy Sunday, and rainy Sundays make me mellow and a little conforming.

She tells me about an eulogy she was giving in Argentina. An eulogy for a friend. En Puerto Blanco. In a white church. I think of Nuestra Señora de Lourdes because that’s the only church I remember. In any case, you can whitewash the walls of a church that lives, roughly sketched, in your memory. 

(No one really does eulogies in Argentina, Josefina, I know you know it too). No eulogies: we rather cry ourselves dry and exchange hugs and kisses and flowers and tissues and donate to Pétalos de Vida if playing the local philanthropist is your thing. It almost feels as if when dead people die over there, they are a tad dead-er than here in Australia, or we are a tad sad-er because we are all a tad inoculated with tango lyrics, and we are able to sip mate for hours on end in a profoundly depressing, ceremonial silence. Endemic things that give us a kind of death that is thicker, more substantial.

It’s her turn with the mate now and her hands are soft around the gourd. Her fingernails are splitting under a badly applied, inexcusable blue nail polish. She purses her lips and takes a long sip, “el agua de Brisbane no es lo mismo” she says frowning. I do not feel the difference; hot water tastes the same here than in Puerto Blanco, but agreeing with her, today, takes no effort. I nod.

And then she goes on; she describes how she was reading the whole eulogy in English, ‘in fucking English’ (she has been using fucking lately, and it pains me to see that it’s starting to sound almost natural); she says that yes, that she is sure that it was her speaking, when I ask; by now her voice has that pitch voices have when the images run too fast and the narration starts to feel out of sync. A vortex of dead and alive, known, and unknown, friends and foes, in a white church, listening to Josefina’s eulogy.

I can picture the general confusion of a non-English-speaking congregation when Josefina goes “we are gathered here today to bid farewell (a bit overdone, I’d say) to the amazing (she cannot remember who had died) whose goodness was beyond measure, a beacon of light (really? Is that what you said? Did you ChatGPT it, or what?). 

She tells me how she was hyperventilating when the alarm went off, and when she sat on her bed, she was toda chivada: all drenched in sweat. She brushes her fingers up and down her body, with a contorted face.  Now she’s all big-eyed as she brings the kettle back.

The dream story goes on and on and on. About how she had tried hard to stop and go back to Spanish. But again, and again she would revert to English, as if her own words were gone, as if they were trapped in the coffin with the beacon of light. And then, as you would expect of her, she Googled. She told me all about an article from the BBC on multilingual dreams, and how hers could have been a ‘linguistic anxiety dream’. She is sipping her mate slowly, holding on to it, watching the hollow gourd as if trying to find deep answers by dowsing in the yerba

Porque es como vivir con un pie en cada cachete del culo” Josefina says, the metaphor of an expat life, quite un-Borgesian indeed, of living as if she were standing on a giant butt: one foot on each butt cheek, makes me chuckle. The living not here, not there, and with a looming fear of falling into the crack. Her metaphor lingers heavily between us.

(At times, I know how much I hate speaking. When my LOTE language cannot be tamed, nor hidden. When it bobs up, unrequested as a Spanish-sounding-English. Because it is always there. At home. In songs I sing along. On a t-shirt. In books and books and books I cannot share. In instructions for the blue Anilina Colibri that was never used to dye a tattered shirt into its senses. Over the years I have fought it; pushed it in, scratched it out, painted it over, flattened it down. Nothing worked. Languages can be some stubborn creatures.)

‘Y si un día lo perdemos del todo?’ she says, half a spewed thought, and half a rhetorical question.

And the truth is that I do not know what would happen if suddenly, we could not find ourselves in Spanish anymore. If one day we wake up and we see pieces of rolled ‘Rs’ spread out like starfishes on the ground; or if we see an ñ (please, pronounce eh-nyeh, like you do for Enya, the Irish singer) clearly determined to get rid of its wormy hat in a way never seen before in anything with no arms, only because it wants to fit in. What if, the mourners in a sad, Argentinean funeral start to sway uncomfortably because of an English eulogy without subtitles, and we feel nothing at all.

(Is anyone able to un-dream a dream, Josefina? Can you at least, edit an alien eulogy out of it?) 

The mate is cold now. And maybe tasteless, again. The biggest and lightest Yerba Mate sticks are floating up and I am butchering the most basic mate etiquette turning the bombilla around and around, stirring thoughts and sticks together like a narcotic cocktail.

Tengo Pilates a las 5’, Josefina checks her phone. Broken screen; battered cover; battery almost flat. She walks while slipping into a pair of black leggings. Her Pilates mat is next to the door (it lives there, but she forgets it again and again). 

Te llevo?” she asks me as she frantically searches for her car keys in one of the many miscellaneous, poli-rubro, drawers.

I say no, that I rather walk. I always rather do.

I hum a Seru Giran song that lands me on the 80s (our 80s) and I forget Josefina’s dream. No one died recently, at least no one that I know of. No one I care for. Or maybe someone did die. And maybe in Argentina, they do eulogies now. I don’t know. I will Google it when I get home. 

Not a clue how to say eulogy in Spanish, though. 

A pity, really.

 

Pip Newling reviews Women and Children by Tony Birch

Women & Children

By Tony Birch

UQP

ISBN: 9780702266270

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Charlie says he knew nothing. Marion counters gently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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