Mike Ladd lives and writes in Adelaide. He produces Poetica each week on ABC Radio National. Mike’s most recent book is Karrawirra Parri: Walking the Torrens from Source to Sea published by Wakefield Press in 2012.
wanting living space
and a little justice,
became an orange-yellow orchid
Tich Quang Duc,
a wavering lotus of flame
Palden Choetso – a smoky iris,
deadly bright at its centre.
For his land of snow
and a spinning prayer,
Tsering Tashi was a gaping petro hibiscus.
Elizabeth Allen is a Sydney poet and the events manager at Gleebooks. She is also the Associate Publisher at Vagabond Press. Her poetry has been published widely in Australian journals. She is the author of Forgetful Hands (Vagabond Press, 2005) and Body Language (Vagabond Press, 2012), which won the Anne Elder Award.
The mint and the rosemary
endure in the concrete backyard.
The star jasmine is taking over the
shed and the end of the clothesline
which is bare. A single sock lies
in the dead dried leaves and
a pair of lacy black underpants hang
off one of the succulent’s long spikes.
I can guess which flatmate they belong to.
The leaves are gathering in the corner
of our concrete backyard.
token of the summer dalliance
we wish we had.
Early one Saturday morning you watch
her as she shuts the door to her three
bedroom terrace & crosses the road,
highlighted for a moment in the sunshine.
She is wearing a red & white made590 skirt,
a black Witchery top with a blue plastic bird
brooch, Salt Water Sandals on her feet
& a hat made from a patchwork of recycled
vintage fabrics. She has a Monsterthreads
jumper over one arm & a tote bag with an owl
on it over the other & a KeepCup in her hand
(in your mind you can smell the coffee).
Some days she walks to the GoGet parked at the end
of the street. But today she appears to be walking
in the direction of the local organic produce markets
where she will no doubt buy carbon neutral food.
Sometimes you wonder what she is doing inside
her house: eating ash-coated goats cheese
on sourdough bread while listening to FBi radio,
or flicking through a magazine of new emerging
writers, or rewatching Mad Men? You think,
not for the first time, about how she would
be such a good character for a play: the wealthy
girl from the North Shore who makes her way
to the hipster wilds of the inner west & goes
no further, apart from occasional trips into
Marrickville for Pho or to Parramatta to visit
the one friend she has who lives out there;
how she would be so easy to write,
how it would be so easy to mock her
so much harder to take her seriously.
Susan Hampton is a Canberra-based poet. With Kate Llewellyn, Hampton edited a major anthology, The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets (1986), and followed this with two publications of her own work: a sonnet sequence, White Dog Sonnets: A Novel (1987), and a second collection of poetry and prose, Surly Girls (1989). She has published three further poetry collections, A Latin Primer (1998), The Kindly Ones (2005) – winner of the ACT Judith Wright award, and News of the Insect World: And Other Poems (2009).
I think it was a beach show, maybe Gidget. It was when next door first got TV, and all the kids in the street were invited, maybe about fifteen of us. Anyway in the show these two girls are good friends and they go the the beach and put out their towels and get set up and have a lot of fun and then some boys turn up, complete dickheads I thought, kicking sand and showing off and next thing you know Gidget is kissing one of the boys. (pause) It seemed natural to me she’d kiss the girl – they’d been kind of flirting – so I said, Oh what? and all the kids turned around and looked at me and said, What?
Andrea Lemon had the best name of any lesbo I met. Lots of lesbians are called Lesley; Mase and Lesley Lynch to mention two.
She walked by me in the parade at Mardigras and my lesbometer erupted.
Maybe I want to look cheap.
I kept looking at the word lesion, it was so close. For a year we were Lebanese. No one likes the word lesbian. I’ve never met a single person female or male who likes the word.
It was the 1990s when we – that gay ‘we’ – pored over film history for evidence that we’d been there all along. There they were. Rock Hudson and Doris Day, whose real name was Doris Kappelhoff.
I knew a girl called Monique Blackadder whose sister was also gay and then her mother turned gay. The Blackadder women, I remember seeing them together on the street in Glebe one day.
This woman I knew put in to the Visual Arts Board for a grant to make a movie and have a scene set inside the vagina.
Could it speak?
No it was this beautiful cave with red velvet linings and ottomans and rugs and secret cupboards and an excellent bar.
And what was the scene?
The idea was there’s a host sitting in the room, or who appears in the room, a woman in her underwear, who invites members of the audience to come up and strip down to their underwear and talk to her. She asked them questions like, How do you feel about your vagina? and What was the best time your vagina ever had? Where were you? Were you alone? If your vagina wanted to speak what would it say? What objects have you put in your vagina? What would be a good idea for a vagina’s day out? Where would she go? Does your vagina have a mind?
Mum read somewhere ten percent of the population is gay. I don’t know how they work that out. Do they count family men who go to male sex workers, or go to beats and then go home to the wife and kids? There are plenty of men like that. They are basically family men and don’t identify as gay, yet they fuck men more than women. Or just as often.
Ten percent you say? All right, now this is a plane of four hundred people.
She half stood in her seat, turning around and said, All right where are the others?
The stewards, I said. Are all gay.
‘They think we are present by some sort of mistake or accident, and that thanks to their guidance and advice this mistake can be put right. . .’ Cocteau
Can you explain the circle kiss to Shannon?
All right. Shannon, we’re going out under the big tree at the back, there’ll be about fifteen of us when the others arrive, and sit in a circle and someone offers to start, and they kiss the girl next to them. They make the kiss as long or short as they want, but it must involve tongues. Girl B then turns to Girl C and kisses her, and so on, till the circle is complete.
Meanwhile the rest of the circle is watching?
Right, right. It can get interesting and very funny too. You should join us.
I don’t know any of these women.
That’s good. It’s actually harder if you know them, if they’re friends, I find.
But you do it anyway.
We sure do.
It was the winter of 1990 and they blew the lights out and sat around on rugs near the fire telling scar stories. Showing their scars in the firelight. Three of the stories involved hitch-hiking, and several happened in other countries. Most though were from childhood.
I don’t like to be competitive, Lara said, but – and pulled up her trouser leg. The mark of Ducati, she said.
To be born gay is to be born under the sign of chaos. There’s a significant problem of knowing who is telling you lies. All at once, through nobody’s fault in some cases, you are being lied to – in that people who love you assume you are something you’re not. It’s hard being raised by heterosexual parents.
She shoves the money in her boot, got money everywhere but in a wallet, it’s in her hat, her sunglasses case, under the car seat, falling from her pockets. It’s a permanent floating economy. The reason she likes men’s coats is because of the inside breast pocket. She folds notes into neat squares and puts them in there. She is also the kind of person who writes on money. Shopping lists and tips for the TAB. Arctic Angel in the fourth at Doncaster.
What did she study?
She went to TAFE and learnt how to handle a chainsaw. Clean it, sharpen it, use it safely. When not to use it. Steelcap workboots. Kept the chainsaw under the bed. She had an allotment in the state forest and went in for firewood. Fifty bucks a ton. Mandy worked with her for a while, throwing the cut wood into the ute.
When I was at college I found this ten dollar note with a mobile number on it. I was walking along the street with two of my girlfriends and they said, Ring the number! Ring it! So I rang the number and a guy answered and we asked him his name and what he was doing – we took turns talking to him, he was OK for a while but then started wanting to know where we were and wanting us to send photos, so we hung up. What can you do. It killed off a beautiful anonymous friendship.
Who cares about whether they have their legs waxed?
She getting power-steering fitted to the Falcon.
I mean if she can’t even get it together as a friend, just because she fancies me, well too bad. She loses on the friendship.
So why did you become a lesbo, Chris?
On my birthday my father hit me over the head with a pair of ballet shoes.
We got to Burning Palms and at the café Sal raised her eyebrows at me twice quickly then turned to a table where two goodlooking local girls were sitting and said to them, May I sit with you?
Cath came in and gorged on a shank of lamb for lunch and when Janice said, ‘Nice hat’, Cath said, ‘Afghani national costume.’ She (Cath) is in love with four women. One lives with an orangutan, two live in Bendigo and are actually on together, so what hope has she got there, and one is a Fast Forward TV star, Magda. And, ditto.
Then years later Magda came out as gay. Cath was onto it!
What does she drive?
Well she used to drive a Corona when she was with Cindy, but now it’s a 1978 HZ Statesman DeVille with mags and pump shocks. Airbrakes for towing.
She’s become a bogan?
She loves it.
I thought she was studying Italian.
She loves university too. She’s doing a thesis on body markings. She’d be interested if you have any tatts or scars.
I don’t have tattoes. Or scars.
Vixen on the Nile
The first image of Vixen. She is a small girl, in a white dress, wearing sunglasses. She’s walking along between her mother and a younger sister. They are holding her hands. There is another sister on the other side of the mother, pushing the stroller. The baby makes no noise. None of them make noise. They all walk along quietly. It’s hot, a hot day in the country town. The girl wearing the sunglasses seems to float between the others, her tread is not as purposeful as theirs. She seems slightly removed, it’s not just the sunglasses, it’s the way she walks.
The second image of Vixen. Now she’s twenty, already married, walks along beside her husband Tony. At this point in the story her name is still Vicky. She walks along in the same quiet way beside Tony. He doesn’t mean to harm her, but he doesn’t like women who fret about stuff and remain busy. This is why, all through his childhood, he had watched the girl in sunglasses holding her mother’s hand, even when she was quite big, watched her walking, and why he later married her. Close up though, she fretted – and he found it hard not to hit her.
Third image. Here’s a photo of Vixen now. She’s been vixen for ten years. Her hair’s bleached and short. The six ear rings in her right ear are the narrative of her life. She found her name in a footnote in Robert Graves’ ‘The White Goddess’, Vixen the Dog Goddess, Vixen Queen of Sparta. She’s a lesbian. She eats breakfast at the Angel before work every day, lives in Melbourne now. She’s working in a council gang – they’re building a playground. She’s the forewoman. They decide where to put the trees. At night she goes home to her caravan in Anna’s backyard. She’s not unhappy. In this photo you can see she still wears sunglasses.
There was a fourth photo in the packet with these but it’s lost. Vixen on the Nile, before she went to do her trade course. Hitch hiked around Egypt and Morocco. It helped that she looked like a boy, and sometimes she travelled with other boys, young men, westerners like herself. Then in the town wrapped herself up, became anonymous, went to the souk. She learnt some Arabic but never said any to us. Someone had taken a picture of her on the boat.
Manisha Anjali is a folk story writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She has also lived in Fiji and New Zealand. Manisha won the People’s Choice Award for her short story Goldie the Turtle in the NZ Writer’s College Short Story Competition in 2012. She was awarded a Hot Desk Fellowship by The Wheeler Centre in 2013. She is currently working on her debut novel, Peanuts.
Aji has put me in a small cupboard. I am to lie here in the darkness with the hots and colds until it all goes away. My eyes are sticky. They have glue coming out of them. It hurts to keep them open. But I am afraid to close them completely in case they glue themselves shut forever. Then Aji would have to cut my eyes open with a knife. I have big red spots from my chinny-chin-chin down to my ankles. They itch like a bastard but I am not allowed to touch. Aji will smack me if she sees me scratching. The hots and colds keep me awake and put me to sleep. I am somewhere in between real life and a scary dream. I can hear my brothers and sisters playing hide-and-seek outside among the trees; and my pussycat is scratching on the cupboard door because she is worried about me.
My oldest brother T-Rex had the spots first. He spent ten days in the cupboard. Then my sisters, Marigold and Uma, had the spots at the same time and they did their time in the cupboard together. Then it was Rita, then Dari, then our smallest brother who we named Rambo. I am the last to get it. Aji is our grandmother. She has had the spots three times. She has spent many times in cupboards and dark rooms. It is the only way to get rid of the hot spots, she says. No sun, no fun.
In the cupboard I meet Amitabh Bachan, a hero from Aji’s dreams. He wears a white suit and holds a shotgun. He has shiny hair and shiny teeth. But as he laughs, all his teeth fell out one by one, turning into little drops of blood as they hit the floor. In the shadows I hear the howls of my pussycat. She is trying to tell me something, but I cannot understand her. Amitabh’s laughter shakes my eardrums and my head throbs as more glue fills my eyes and my spots are aflame.
I have had enough. I cannot lie here anymore and let this famous man bleed all over me. So I try to get out of bed. I begin walking sideways like a sea crab. I walk up the walls and onto the ceiling. I look down at myself writhing like a shrub in my bed. I am sad. I miss the sun. What a small, smelly cupboard. What a bitch my Aji is.
Then I sink into the floor. The splinters in the wood hurt my body. I feel like I have broken through a sun mirror and the mirror has scarred my skin and bones. I can hear the bell on T-Rex’s new bicycle, Marigold and Uma laughing under the mango trees and the cries of my poor pussycat outside my cupboard door. When I awake I am not in a mirror anymore. I am wet all over and my hair is all over my face. I must look like the devil. I feel like I have just been to hell.
I feel cold on my face. It is Aji. She holds a wet sponge to my forehead.
‘One day when your children get the measles, you will hide them from the sun too,’ she says, then coughs into her shoulder. ‘You might hate me for this now boy, but one day you will understand.’ She hums an old tune and puts the sponge on my heart. Then she holds my eyelids open with her old fingers and squirts some cold medicine.
‘The sun has gone down,’ she says. ‘You must come join us for dinner.’ She picks me up and carries me into the living room. All my brothers and sisters are sitting cross-legged on the floor with plates of rice, dahl and butter. They eat with their fingers.
‘Your pussycat just gave birth to five little kittens. You want to see?’ Aji asks. I nod. I really do want to see. Aji points to the living room corner. My pussycat is lying on her side with her four new babies. The kittens are sticky and wet. They have glue coming out of their eyes too. Their teeth are soft and they fit perfectly in my pockets. My pussycat licks her sleeping babies. They smile.
Nik Tan was born in Melbourne and is an Australian of Chinese-Indonesian background. He is a lawyer and former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officer, where he worked on the Indonesia desk. He is currently studying a Master of Laws at the University of Copenhagen and working at the Danish Institute for Human Rights. Nik is a freelance writer who has had work published in Eureka Street, Inside Indonesia and Muse.
Novi is up early climbing over Ari and sitting for a moment in the pre-dawn darkness. Her singlet slips down at one shoulder, her pregnant belly just discernible within the grey cotton.
She steps outside to the concrete shower, a cubicle open above chest height. She slings the singlet over one wall and slips a purple elastic band from her wrist around her hair, tying it back.
Reluctantly, she takes one of the hand-buckets strewn around the stone square and dips into a full bucket. She raises it high and pours a cascade of water onto her forehead. The water parts her black hair and runs down her face, neck, breasts, back. Gasping, she leans down again, trying not to upset the water onto yet more dry areas of her shivering body.
With each bucket, the stinging shocks ease as she ladles first one shoulder and then the other, until new bucketfuls come fast and sure, slapping on her wet brown skin, and puddling on the grey floor.
Novi rubs a layer of coconut oil into her hair and leaves it to set and absorb into her scalp. She uses an aged bar of soap sparingly, concentrating on her armpits, groin and feet. She eases a towel around her and pit-pats to the kitchen.
Although it is now grey outside, she lights the kerosene lamp. The light hits the recesses of the kitchen as the smell of the lamp’s fuel hits her nostrils, gritty and a little pleasant. She squats in her towel on a tiny wooden stool, legs open as she leans forward, still dripping, to begin the day’s cooking.
In front of Novi is a rectangular woven mat, slightly raised on four squat legs. On it lie stunted carrots, long beans, fresh greens, red sugar, garlic and shallots. Two round woven pans sit at one end of the mat, each half-full with rice.
She rests a chopping board the size of her stool on the edge of the mat’s solid wooden frame. Now awake and cold, she finely chops garlic and shallots into a small, potent mound.
Novi doesn’t need to look as her hands work, instead her attention is set to the dirty window directly in front of her. The cold scent of chilli mixes with and then overpowers the kerosene.
Moments before the sun’s morning rays cut through the soil caked on the window, a rangy cock walks past stopping as the compulsion to crow forces the sound from its upstretched throat. Answering calls from neighbouring houses herald the morning.
Taking a truss of fresh chillies Novi drops her right shoulder into the mortar, the pestle grinding red skin, flesh and white seeds into first a lumpy pulp and then a thick paste.
She turns her back against the sun, concentrating on the firelicked wall above the gas burner. She places the wok over its blue flame and waits. When a dash of oil sizzles she measures in teaspoons of the chopped spices and sambal before adding rice from one of the round baskets. She scoops the rice upon itself coating the glistening grains in chilli and oil. She leaves all the food for Ari, choosing hunger over breakfast.
Novi dresses in a starched white blouse and neat blue jeans. Leaving the coconut oil to absorb, she pares her hair back, shuffles into a pair of yellow flip-flops and starts for the mosque.
She picks carefully between the stone path before her and passes of her birth, schooling and marriage. Each house is a little bigger than the last as she approaches the mosque, the centre point of the village.
Around Novi insects buzz among sapling green trees, the morning sun reflecting off the white stones. Beside each house are small paths leading and losing one another throughout the steep steppes of fecund rice shoots.
Today is Idul Adha. She reaches the blue and dirty white mosque, ignoring the pack of boys milling around the muezzin’s tower, waiting their chance to scale the ladder and deliver the call to prayer.
One of them is her little brother, Alit. She stops and calls him over, waving palm-down. He runs over, face full of expectation at the chance to broadcast to the whole village the word of Allah. At thirteen, he is still a boy and shows no signs of manhood.
“Alit, how is our grandmother?” Novi demands of him.
“She is sick”, Alit replies, eyes darting back to the scrum of boys who are now calling their friend up the tower to come down.
“I know that”, she says impatiently, “but does she eat?”
“Nothing since grandfather died”, Alit says, eyes back on his sister now, lowered in respect even though they are the same height.
“Tell her I will visit this evening”, she says. She pushes him back to the gaggle of waiting boys, who are now grasping at the shorts of a boy descending the ladder. Alit nods as he turns and runs back to the tower, pushing past his friends to climb to the top of the tower.
Her grandfather died 27 days ago and her grandmother is still fasting. At his funeral she had kissed the ground in which he lay and vowed not to eat until she joined him. Her grandmother Oma Dirjo was bent by long years planting and harvesting rice, her toes splayed by time.
As she hears Alit begin his discordant calls, she passes into the mosque, leaving her flip-flops to join the neat line of shoes and sandals already there. Inside are friends and cousins, kneeling and murmuring invisible lines of the Koran. Novi prays for her grandmother and her own unborn son.
After prayers, Novi walks up the cobbled hill, past the cemetery to the small plateau where neighbours, cousins and friends gather. One hundred people stand around the clearing, chatting and smoking. In one corner, a frenzied group of children, Alit among them, pulse and chatter as one body.
In the middle of the clearing, on a blue tarpaulin it stands. Grey flanks shudder with anxiety, or maybe merely to discourage flies. Five men stand around the cow, Ari at its head, holding the rope leading from the bullring. He drags down the rope, asking the beast to kneel. Ari is dressed in faded green football shorts and a white singlet, his bare sinewy arms straining against the animal’s strength. His kind eyes are lowered against the sun in concentration.
As the cow reaches its haunches, ungainly but forbearing, one man ducks under its girth and deftly slips the noosed rope over her front hooves. She haltingly lowers her bags legs, tail flicking at flies. A second man slips an identical noose around her back hooves and draws it closed.
The two remaining men gently begin to push her left flank, coaxing the beast onto her right side. In silent terror she shivers, unable to kick or stand. Almost lovingly, Ari grasps her neck and pulls her down with him, his two brown arms barely encompassing the white-grey folds of her broad neck.
The children play on, unaware of the theatre and the blue tarpaulin’s pride of place centre-stage. Novi stands, arms crossed beside two of her sisters, watching Ari caress the cow to the surrender of slaughter. The ring of people watches and waits patiently, ten metres or more from the tarpaulin. This will take some time.
The cow is down, Ari still at its head, two men at its back and two at her outstretched knee-locked front legs. They pull her heavily so her head spills over the edge of the tarpaulin and above a small but deep hole, a plastic bucket set inside.
Ari is kneeling now, still embracing the cow’s neck. Her eyes loll in panic, dark and deep. Ari nods to Novi’s father, who stands to one side in ceremonial dress. His garb is Javanese, not Arabic, and except for the white cap on his head, he is not recognisable as a Muslim at all. He deliberately steps to the undulating body, and stops with his hands poised above the cow’s head and Ari’s kneeling body. His hands form the shape of an open book.
The chatter stops and even the children have stopped their play. The spectacle of the climax has finally drawn the attention of the audience. Alit runs to the tarpaulin and takes up the long knife. With both hands he lugs it to Ari.
For the first time, everyone can see the trauma as the cow lies bound and stricken before death. The clearing is silent now, but for the buzzing flies and the shuffling bulk of her doomed struggles.
Ari bends over the grey folds of the cow’s neck. Novi stands on the inside of the body, sees the regular rise and fall of Ari’s knife and the crimson waves falling over his hands and into the ground. The cuts are surprisingly gentle, like a fine saw slicing into soft wood. Ari’s strokes are sure and graceful. The cow makes no sound, its struggles spike then cede, its mahogany eyes turning wooden and glassy.
The final act is over, meditative children entranced by the show of death turn back to one another and begin to shake off the solemnity demanded by rite. Whispered Arabic honours Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ismael, his own thirteen year-old son. Two men replace the bucket, before Ari flays again through the slopes of grey skin, folding into wet linings of flesh.
Adults turn away from the stage too, still encircling, but now facing one another and filling the blood-heavy air with holy day chatter. Novi’s father, having presided over the ritual, walks three steps from the cow’s carcass, squats down and, tucking his sarong between his legs, lights a cigarette.
Novi stays watching, stepping forward to see the flow of blood into the ground. Ari is leant over the gaping head making swift nicks and cuts to ease warm brooks’ passage from arteries to soil. The four other men get busy now, laying into the body with their own machetes.
One man removes the hoofs while another carves lines in the slack skin like a tailor. Swathes of grey cloth come off, lubricated by the stretching inner layer of membrane and muscle. Cartilage and flesh shine in the sun, the mechanics of life exposed in death.
Two hours later six buckets in different colours are full of warm blood and stand in line beside the tarpaulin surrounded by a cloud of flies. Where the cow’s bulk lay sits a red pool, seeping across the blue surface, only fist-sized lumps of offal lolling in the scourge. The meat is distributed in thirds: one-third to the family; one-third to friends and neighbours; and one-third to the poor.
Everyone holds their own trussed plastic package of the spoils, rough rectangles of flesh, with a complementary bag of white and red bones for those who wish it. The mass that stood as a sentient beast now sits heavy and silent on children’s shoulders and in the arms of their mothers.
Novi and Ari turn for home, she holds a bloody bag and he nurses his hooves in one hand, his long curved knife scraping in the dust in the other. They take the prized body parts to her grandmother, Oma Dirjo, hoping she will agree to eat.
They arrive at her low doorway, calling out respectfully for the right to enter. Greeted by silence, Novi kicks off her sandals reflexively, thrusting the plastic bags of flesh at Ari and runs inside to check on the old lady. She has been left alone since morning as her children and grandchildren flocked to the slaughter.
She lies huddled on her woven mat bed, dressed in black mourning for her husband. She is on her side facing Novi, perfectly still. Her silver hair falls across her neck and black blouse. Novi knows she is gone, and pauses in the doorframe to take in the grace of her grandmother.
Shards of sunlight slant across the black cotton covering her back and legs. Her feet are neatly tucked together, pale soles pointing towards the sun. Her knees are drawn in towards her chest. Oma Dirjo’s wizened, lined face is hollow and peaceful. Above her head sits a portrait of her husband as a young man, black and white and blanched by time.
Pushing off from the doorframe, Novi walks reverently to her grandmother as if afraid to wake her. Practicalities run through her head: calling the uncles and aunts to attend her; explaining the death to her young cousins, nieces and nephews; organising the cleansing and final burial alongside her grandfather.
She leans down beside Oma Dirjo and holds her knobbly, cracked hands. Novi cries out suddenly, a surge of pain stabbing her gut as she realises her grandmother will never meet the son in her belly.
by Stephen Edgar
Black Pepper Press, 2012
Reviewed by LINDA WESTE
Publishers are not usually champions of narrative verse: it is not sufficient that writers of poetic narratives have literary history on their side. None would deny the pre-eminence of literary antecedent: the verse narratives that arose in each period — be it antiquity, the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance, the Victorian era, or modern times — are exemplars essential to the canon and remain in readership.
Small presses as a rule, are more willing to include contemporary verse narratives among their titles. Any style of narrative poetry may seek a place, but in a discerning literary market, a collection of the calibre of Stephen Edgar’s Eldershaw, by virtue of its formal accomplishment, asserts that prerogative, and is vouchsafed a welcome reception.
Edgar is conversant with the narrative poems valorised in western literature long before prose novels became an institutionalised genre. The technical elements of poetry accumulated over centuries are at his disposal, and he employs them with grace and ease. The process by which a poetic narrative emerges, unique, from each poet’s individualised treatment of elements and themes always inspires a sense of awe, and Edgar’s poems are distinctive; resolute in the contemporaneity of their storytelling, and full of references to the natural world, a feature for which his poetry is widely regarded.
Eldershaw comprises three long interlinked narrative poems spanning seventy-three pages in Part I, and a further sixteen single page lyric poems in Part II which in some measure link to the larger narrative. Part I has three sections: the first shares the volume’s title ‘Eldershaw’ and comprises nine segments set in the years 1941-1965; these have a non linear order that begins with 1955 and ends with 1961. The events in this story pertain to vicissitudes in the lives of twelve discernible characters, but focus in particular on the high and low moments of the central character Helen, who, twelve years after meeting Martin in London, finds herself unhappily married, with two daughters. Martin is attracted to men, and Helen’s affair with Lex over a period of years attracts detriment in Martin’s lawsuit; she loses both house and custody. In the later years, from 1961-65, after Lex has an affair with Vera, Helen lives alone in a Sydney flat, and the events of this period include a trip to Greece.
The second section of the verse narrative has a further seventeen pages in seven subsections with titles such as ‘April 1945. Evan. Fire’ and ‘November 2000. Isabel. Water.’ This cycle of poems, thematically framed by the title, The Fifth Element, conjures space, heaven, void, aether, quintessence- words used to describe ‘heavenly’ phenomena like stars or other supposedly unknowable, unchangeable, or incorruptible entities. ‘Character is destiny’- Edgar cites George Eliot citing Novalis, in the preface to the book, and we are drawn to what is vital about life, about energy, that is manifest in the fabric of these characters’ lives.
The third section, titled ‘The Pool’ provides a physical and emotional locus from which Luke [with whom the older Helen has had an affair]contemplates life, following Helen’s death. These poems draw attention to the miscellany of lives lived. ‘The Tapes’ recounts a drunken recording found among Helen’s possessions, and ‘The Papers’ refers to the documentation that gathers over a lifetime, and which stands in for Helen’s physical absence. Materiality is prominent, too, in ‘The Annexe’, one of sixteen shorter poems in Part II. The poem pans cinematically over the furnishings in a room: an Afghan rug, a television, a sofa and window blinds; nondescript, commonplace, generic, their qualities do not matter; they are objects that outlast us. What remains? The narrator of ‘Vertigo’ asks (105) ‘Are not your own/Made of the same and failing elements?’ (105)
Indeed the book makes much of material remains. In references to a Minoan comb, a crushed fossil, the detritus of millenia, Edgar’s narrative poems connect present to past. Edgar’s study of Classics finds synthesis in a host of classical allusions such as ‘Some drowned god drags your foot off Sounion’ (107) that imbue line, stanza, and narrative with mythical and allegorical constructions of place – the magnificent Cape Sounion of now with its temple dedicated to Poseidon, and the cliffs from whence Aegus leapt to his death, a narrative event in Homer’s Odyssey.
‘A Hansel and Gretel pathway’ (7) — an intertextual, thematic construction of place — leads to the site of Helen’s historic family home, Eldershaw; a distinctively Australian bush setting with its ‘embassy of possums’ (8). In ‘Lost World’ (108) Edgar maps loss onto place as he describes, without sentimentality, fire’s devastation of a home that could be Eldershaw: the roar of bushfire ‘dragged by the vacuum it creates,/ Swarms up the slope into the sky’s/Exhausted limit, where a cottage waits./ …Trees thrash and, one by one, volatize./Paint bubbles from the walls. The rooms explode./ Fragments of melted window strafe/The lawn like wept and frozen tears’ (108).
In an age inclined to posit verse narratives as anachronistic, to produce a work such as Eldershaw takes resolve. Only painstaking refinement enables contemporaneous words such as ‘tweezers’, ‘bureaucratic business’, ‘garage’, ‘home-made Florentines’, ‘truck’, ‘curtain’ and ‘landlady’ to perch comfortably at the ends of metrical lines- a good many of which contain the requisite number of syllables and feet for iambic pentameter, while occasional lines accommodate a triple foot with an extra syllable at the end. The rhythmic momentum of blank verse brings buoyancy to unfolding events in the verse narrative, and complements Edgar’s accomplished application of metre.
Reading verse narratives can take resolve too, if one prefers prose, but narrative verse in English is not inherently harder to read than narrative prose. One challenge with Eldershaw may be to keep track of the inter-generational characters across the entirety of the narrative. Faced with its non-linear discourse some readers may reconstitute the chronological sequence, while others will enjoy the free association and fusion of time-planes in memory, and the corresponding emphasis on existential and psychological concerns.
An earlier and shorter version of Eldershaw attracted funding assistance from the Literature Board of the Australia Council and was published in HEAT 13 under the title ‘The Deppites’. Stephen Edgar has been awarded the 2013 Inaugural Australian Catholic University Literature Prize for his poem ‘The Dancer’. This adds to several other significant poetry prizes in Edgar’s credit, including the 2003 Grace Levin Poetry Prize, the 2006 Philip Hodgkins Memorial Medal for Literature, and the 2011 Dorothy Porter Poetry Prize.
‘What compels writers to produce a verse narrative?’ Edgar once mused.  Now he has contributed to the longest tradition in literature in English. Eldershaw, constructed with great complexity, economy, and clarity, serves to demonstrate the staying power of verse narratives, despite contemporary preferences.
1. Edgar, Stephen (2006) Book Launch: Geoff Page Lawrie and Shirley: the final cadenza. <http://www.stephenedgar.com.au/prose/BookLaunchGeoffPage.html> accessed 20 November 2013
LINDA WESTE is a poet, editor and teacher of Creative Writing whose research examines poetic and narrative interplay.