Jenna Cardinale writes poems. Some of them appear in Verse Daily, Pith, The Fem, and H_NGM_N. Her latest chapbook, A California, will be published by Dancing Girl Press in 2017. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
At Least this Music
I’ve filled out
What about decor. And how
does light work. The shadows of
the lamps. Static skeet.
In the shadows some of the people are small.
I’m not great at holding
up this heavy conversation.
This body. A gun.
Listen for the violence
of bow to curve.
Shark Eye, February
The way we walk on
I am an American, but
I still only find empty
shells on the beach
between the edge of ocean
and an auto-lit development.
The way we remember snow.
What it covers.
There are fewer shootings after
Everyone is well-read and understands danger.
Then a tiny predator
(that’s what we call it)
falls out. Dried out. Dead.
Darlene Silva Soberano is a young Filipino poet who immigrated to Australia at an early age. She is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts at Deakin University. This is her first published poem. You can find her on Twitter at @drlnsbrn
You Like The Smiths?
there’s someone in class today who looks like
you / she’s got the hunch of your back / the
spread of your teeth / & your hair when we
were 17 / but she’s not you / & I’m sorry for
that, but I’m glad, & I’m sorry for being glad /
sorry I never called you again / sorry this is
gonna be the year I don’t forget about your
birthday / but won’t send you a text / sorry
about ignoring you at the party last year / you
know which one / sorry you’ll never be a
passenger in my MINI / when we had so many
memories in my mother’s car / the Christmas
lights on that street in Wyndham Vale / & the
time we sat / singing / to die by your side / is
such a heavenly way to die / all the windows
down / a country road / I’m sorry I never
looked over at you like you always wanted
/ sorry we never got the scene in a film right
before the truck hits the car / I swear that was
never about love but about safety / which I
suppose are the same thing anyway / which is
all to say I loved you from our 15-minute
drives / to our 2-hour drives / & to the trip to
Sydney we planned but never went / & I loved
you when we walked / I loved you when we sat
on your bed listening to Stevie Nicks / singing
/ well, here you go again, you say / you want
your freedom / well, I got my freedom now / &
I listen to Stevie Nicks, still / & think of you /
singing / I’ve been afraid of changing / ’cause
I’ve built my life around you / well, I hadn’t
back then & I still haven’t now / & I’m sorry
for that too
R. D. Wood is of Malayalee and Scottish descent and identifies as a person of colour. He has had work published or that is forthcoming from Southerly, Jacket2, Best Australian Poetry, JASAL and Foucault Studies. His most recent collection of poems is Land Fall
Watching the Curry Van at Margaret River Mouth
the council dousing
the frailty of
the river effervescent
looms, bodies bristle,
where our identities pale
Roland Leach has three collections of poetry, the latest My Father’s Pigs published by Picaro Press. He is the proprietor of Sunline Press, which has published nineteen collections of poetry by Australian poets. His latest venture is Cuttlefish, a new magazine that includes art, poetry, flash fiction and short fiction.
On the Roof
The three sons are on the roof mending the ridge-caps, mortaring the cracks, cleaning the gutters. It is a mother’s day gift. They would like to say it is an act of love long overdue, but they want her to sell.
I have never really noticed the garden till I am on the roof. My mother has a bird bath, a little bird-house for them to rest. It hangs from a hook in the tree like a square uterus, its dark whale eye staring around the yard. She tells me the doves live in the sheoak, she comes out at dawn and feeds them. There are magpies that walk up the backsteps, crows whose whoosh of wings she hears from the kitchen, the occasional kookaburra and lorikeet, where would she go if she couldn’t feed the birds?
On the roof I stare into the jacaranda and see her life of busying herself: years cooking pots of soup or roast dinners, even the shank broths made for her dogs, are no longer needed. It must be lonely at night, till she hears the birds crazy with morning.
We all agree she is getting worse with age, She is half-mad and stubborn. She had been good with small children and animals, things that were helpless and loyal, but now all the grandchildren have grown up, her dogs died years ago and are buried side by side in the backyard. There is nothing left but these stupid birds.
From the roof I look across the hibiscus, the morning glory engulfing the fence, I hear the birds in the old jarrah tree, the doves are speckled along the ground, my mother must have just fed them.
Perhaps the roof will hold, I tell my brothers, as I fill in the cracks, rip out the loose concrete and tuck the mortar, using my fingers for the first time, at last ready to dirty my hands.
by Tina Giannoukos
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
Tina Giannoukos’s first book, In a Bigger City (Five Islands Press 2005), was a highly evocative and rather unsparing portrait of Melbourne at the time. The observations were close and clear-eyed, the tone generally colloquial. There was also a considerable social range in the poems though many of the protagonists seemed to be somewhat down on their luck.
Giannoukos’s second book, Bull Days, a collection of 58 sonnets, is very different and not just because of the stricter form employed. Sonnet sequences go back to the late Middle Ages and in their contemporary form (where rhyme and consistent line length are not considered essential) they offer poets considerable flexibility as well as an impression of on-going form.
Almost all the poems in Bull Days are written in the first person and are seemingly confessional (though, of course, this may not be the case). As in most of In a Bigger City the narrator is not very fortunate in love and many of the poems lament poor treatment by lovers who have proved to be less worthy than they seemed at first. A few poems are specifically erotic; most are more generalised. Occasionally, as in “Sonnet X” and “Sonnet XII”, the narrator seems to change. In the first we have the lines “These breasts are honey to your eyes, / nipples harden as lips close around them”. In the second we have “Her breasts are honey to my eyes, nipples / harden as lips close round them.”
In other poems the (presumably) female narrator seems to identify with a bull being slowly tormented and killed in an arena — along perhaps with mythical suggestions of the minotaur. The last ten lines of “Sonnet XX”, for instance, do much to explain the book’s title and dramatise the “lover’s complaint” theme that runs through most of the collection. “Sex is not easy, but it is natural. / I am your bull charging you and you, / a working matador, show your control, / drive the steel into my heart. / When you removed your blackwinged hat, / recall her to whom you dedicate this bull’s death. / What trophy to keep? My ears, my tail, my hooves? / No, throw the body parts to your sweetheart. / I hope she hurls flowers at you for it. / The crowd will wave their handkerchiefs.”
To some readers this extended metaphor will be poignant and effective. To others, it may seem excessive as do some of the book’s metaphors to this reviewer. I think particularly of “the mellifluous alphabet of ache” (“Sonnet XV”) or the simile “his sensuous fringe / like blond rivers of yearning” (“Sonnet XXIII”).
Not all of the book, however, is at this level of emotional drama. Occasionally, Giannoukos returns to the colloquial which was such a feature of her first book. “Sonnet XVIII”, for instance, begins with the feisty lines: “All this politicking. It’s a sign. Yeah! / Nothing in it if you’re single. Fuck! / Thirty per cent of women live alone. Whoa! / Let’s work out a way to tax silence. Cool!” Bull Days could probably have benefitted from a little more of this kind of thing.
“Sonnet XXI” is also a welcome change from the tearful and revisits the talent for sardonic social observation which characterised In a Bigger City. At times the integration of dialogue and clever rhyming is reminiscent of Sydney poet John Tranter’s skill with the form — and it’s no coincidence, perhaps, that twelve of this poem’s lines rhyme in the way one might expect. The first four lines establish the tone: “ ‘At the café? Eat in? Or take-away?’ / Oh, that’s my lover being open-handed. / That’s fine for him. He says it’s so passé / the wine-and-dine obsession. I’m branded … “
Taken as a whole, Bull Days, has the flexibility and variety we have come to expect of the sonnet sequence over the centuries. It has more than a few entertaining moments, as the above indicates, but it also strays into the over-written at times. Some readers may complain (in an old-fashioned way) that most of the sonnets don’t rhyme and that many don’t use the pentameter consistently but these features operate mainly to enhance the book’s diversity of tone and manner — which is considerable.
It’s an interesting exercise, on finishing Bull Days, to look back over the opening lines and see what they promise. “Sonnet II” starts: “When you touch me it is the hand of God”. That sounds a bit grand. “Sonnet XLIX”, on the other hand, begins: “My lover is shitty-eyed” and goes on engagingly to point out that: “He will not sit with my friends, whom he calls amoral, / so he sits alone relishing his principles. Now he’s forlorn / and a hypocrite, enjoying surreptitiously / the wobbles of the waitress’s sallow breasts.”
It is in poems like this that Giannoukos is at her artful best: those alliterating “w” sounds (“wobbles of the waitress’s”), the hissing onomatopoeia of “surreptitiously — and so much of the narrator’s irritation and resentment packed into that single word “sallow”.
It is also good to to see the Melbourne-based Arcadia imprint making one of its relatively rare excursions into poetry on this occasion.
GEOFF PAGE’s 1953 (UQP) was shortlisted for the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry. He lives in Canberra and has published 21 poetry collections, as well as novels, memoir and biography. He edited The Best Australian Poems 2014 and 2015 (Black Inc.) Hard Horizons is forthcoming in 2017 from Pitt St Poetry
The Blue Decodes
by Cassie Lewis
Grand Parade Poets
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
The Blue Decodes is the latest collection in a now considerable list from Grand Parade Poets, going back to 2011. It’s a diverse stable ranging from young avant-gardists (such as the late Benjamin Frater) through to Selected Poems from well-established, but somewhat neglected, senior poets such as Evan Jones.
Cassie Lewis’s book also has a sense of retrieval about it. Her three earlier works reach back to 1997 but the most recent, Bridges, came out eleven years ago. The Blue Decodes thus comprises work written in the San Francisco Bay area and upstate New York over the past decade or so. One can consider Lewis either an Australian poet-in-exile or a fully-assimilated American poet who happens to have been published in Australia.
The American influences on Lewis’s work here are strong and go back to her youth in Melbourne in the 199Os where the impress of the “New York” school of poetry was still fairly strong. It’s no surprise to see a reference to An Anthology of New York Poets ed. Ron Padgett and David Shapiro (1970) in the Acknowledgements.
Like much (but not all) of the work by “New Yorkers”, Lewis’s poetry has a surreal tinge and a considerable opacity. It’s as if she’s taken Emily Dickinson’s injunction to “tell it slant” literally. Unlike most Australian avant-garde poetry, however, Lewis’s work has an attractive musical surface which leads one back to subsequent readings and further understandings.
Lewis’s play with ambiguity begins, rather cutely, with the title itself where the word “Decodes” could be either a verb or a noun and “Blue” could be either a noun or an adjective. Similar games with parts of speech occur in poems such as “Postcard #15”, short enough to reprint in full: “So cold my ears listen / to bells! Snow / its hush. Snow has / fallen a starry blanket.” Again the first use of “snow” could be either a noun or a verb. By removing the putative comma after “fallen” we also have a momentary sense of “fallen” as a transitive verb rather than the intransitive one it normally is. The “blanket” could have been “fallen” by the snow. Even a “blanket” of snow being described as “starry” is arresting enough.
Fortunately, The Blue Decodes is not all games. There is considerable social (and aesthetic) commentary as well. In “Postcard #12”, immediately before the poem just discussed, we have a telling sense of an Australian poet not entirely in love with her new country. “I’ll pay more attention to Chet / Baker. I want to, honest. / And to this country, land / of unsought-for liberty, / where freedom comes disguised / as a book of poems.”
Like much of Lewis’s other work this, despite its apparent simplicity, is not an easy poem to interpret. We can take Chet Baker, the great jazz trumpeter, as a signifier of U.S. culture at its best (despite his addiction to heroin) or we can make the inference that even one of America’s best musicians is not really worth the effort of listening to closely (“want to, honest”). “Freedom”, of course, is meant to be a prime American virtue but Lewis seems to dismiss it as “unsought-for” (tell that to George Washington) and merely a dimension of the pervasive pop culture from which the only escape is a “book of poems” — by the New York school presumably! However the reader ends up interpreting the poem, there’s obviously a lot happening in a few lines.
The “New Yorker” jibe may be unfair, however, since there are references in The Blue Decodes that range well beyond that coterie — to Keats, for instance; to Theodore Roethke and, in “Lordy, Lordy”, even to William Blake. “Do you ever have William Blake days? / I do. They start amiably enough — coffee, toast — and lead / into a forest thick and lush as childhood.”
The Blue Decodes is broken into five loosely-grouped thematic sections, ranging from a concern with language, geography, history and the suburban quotidian through to the diaristic final section, “Bridges”. Of these perhaps the most striking are the seven prose poems in “Maps”. Its first poem, “Queenscliff” has a drily complex tone which is characteristic of Lewis’’s work more generally and is clearly manifest in its last two sentences: “ And from memory, that bus shelter at the edge of the world, with its wads of chewed invective, I see my absent father; mourning, directing cranes over the skyline. Labouring under the illusion that he of all people wasn’t loved.” It’s a disconcerting but stimulating worry that the cranes here may be birds “directed” by an unhappy father or building machinery he is in charge of.
One problem with playful, quasi-surreal, New York influenced poetry is that it can almost forget to be moving — or perhaps regards such a demand as a bourgeois distraction. It’s encouraging then to read a poem such as “Sophie” where Lewis seems to be writing about her own daughter’s birth and the primal bond that has existed between them from that moment. The poem ends, very convincingly, with these five lines: “But your light is entirely new. / You arrived here from a new charter. Cities so torn / but you were flying, you were running water. Biology is our bedrock. / In labour I woke up, and the nurses brought me you. // I was the door you chose to walk through.”
One has the feeling, after all the “slanted” games and the “trying to seem modern” (as Lewis jokes in “Bridges”) that this “bedrock” of biology is where the centre is — or what The Blue (eventually) Decodes. If you get my meaning.
GEOFF PAGE’s 1953 (UQP) was shortlisted for the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry. He lives in Canberra and has published 21 poetry collections, as well as novels, memoir and biography. He edited The Best Australian Poems 2014 and 2015 (Black Inc.) Hard Horizons is forthcoming in 2017 from Pitt St Poetry.
A Chinese Affair
by Isabelle Li
Margaret River Press
Reviewed by GAY LYNCH
In 2016, I met short story writer and poetry translator Isabelle Li at the inaugural Australian Short Story Festival in Perth. In conversation she conveys a graceful attentiveness. She tells me that she values the Chinese artistic tradition of training and craftsmanship and hopes her debut collection of stories will appeal to a broad readership.
Several are focalised through Crystal [Xueqing], an adult Chinese expatriate living in Sydney and her child persona, who convey the intergenerational trauma brought about by the Cultural Revolution. Crystal morphs into a minor character in one story and is renamed in others. Like Li, these young women take their hard-won education and migrate, to Singapore, London and Australia. Their psychological perspicuity and bold cleverness enliven the text:
I can afford to be controversial. I can blink my almond-shaped eyes and make provocative statements to people’s faces. I once said over family dinner, ‘The world is made of strings of energy. A brick and I are made of the same elements. The strings vibrate differently to form different particles’ (8).
Several of them have a yen to write creatively. Li confesses to her Perth audience that many of her stories are semi-autobiographical.
A Chinese Affair is structured in four sections, each containing four stories, some of them continuous or linked, many set in China, the first and last bookending Sydney. The action shifts back and forth between these places, traversing the psychological and physical journeys of the characters. Li’s writing is evocative. Sea, sky and weather adjust narrative tension: ‘The air is damp and heavy, the moon is hiding behind a cloud. The wind chime too makes a timid sound, as if it too is afraid to break the silence’ (14); ‘the sky is still fish-belly white and the clouds scaly silver’ (303); Stories are framed by nature and seasons that convey mood and foreshadow events: ‘everyone’s anxious, waiting for the tempest’ (304).
The authorial voice in A Chinese Affair is somber, questing and humble. Key characters are soft and tough.
…in a Chinese costume, which makes me feel like a porcelain vase, exquisite and brittle, to be treated with care, by others and myself’ (7)
I do not want to be special. I am not an exotic bird and have no interest in showing off my plumage. I am Crystal, perfect in structure and form, hard and clear in every molecule (105).
These images carry the dignity and restraint of their creator.
In the title story, ‘A Chinese Affair’, a Mandarin interpreter married to an older Australian man who has ‘had the snip’, seems resigned to her fate but, nevertheless, pursues IVF. Many of Li’s protagonists long for a child. After visiting home in China, Crystal experiences depression. Her husband advises her to listen to rock music, arguing that there ‘is nothing to get angry about in his society’ and that her sense of dislocation is ‘a Chinese affair’ (9). The reader will be aware that ‘affair’ has at least two meanings and that homesickness is a double-edged sword.
The stories are well paced rather than relentlessly action-packed. Most turn on a dramatic event: a diabetic coma, a murder, a betrayal. Li relates to the Perth conferees how every afternoon during the second school sitting – she attended morning sessions – she listened to radio and read and rote-learned poetry, locked behind a barred wooden door for safety, in a violent neighborhood. Her collection is well balanced, with passages of introspection and rapid descents into chilling backstories.
Common subjects and themes pervade the texts, throwing light upon a Chinese historical need for discipline, to survive great trials and threats of violence, to find the courage to leave, to achieve good mìngyùn/ fortune. Characters meditate on education, the art of love and fertility, exile and loneliness, violence and ambition. They have the kind of industry necessary to write one letter each week, 208 letters before joining the army, or to house sit and finance a portfolio of shares or a block of land in the Blue Mountains.
Gender inequity simmers below the surface of many stories. But suffering is dealt out evenhandedly between girls and boys. In ‘A Fishbone in the Throat’, the only story told entirely from a male perspective, Li offers a western role reversal with Chinese economy, when a husband loses his job as a fitness coach and teacher, becomes a cleaner and suffers heart disease. His wife berates him about cigarettes, alcohol and cholesterol. Ironically she escapes to Australia as a refugee after government persecution for her practice as a member of Falung Gong. Li’s women suffer stoically–taking on domestic work as well as big careers, aspiring to help their children leave. Contemporary expat partners tend to be supportive even when culturally perplexed. Women ignore or enact infidelities.
‘Further South’ addresses domestic violence. It could be argued that family violence occurs everywhere, along with corporal punishment, self-harm, adultery and incest, rape and assault, kidnapping, suicide and femicide. Li suggests, perhaps, that Chinese history exacerbates it. Many stories refer, sometimes obliquely, to horrible violence, springing from injustices and cruelty during the Cultural Revolution, reconstructed from Li’s memory of that time: for instance, a boy beaten to death, frozen, dumped next to a pile of Chinese cabbage; a teenage lover who meets a similar fate. Li paints a grim picture of injuries caused by manual labour in heavy industry and the consequences of socialised medicine and poverty.
The child voice in ‘Fountain of Gratitude’ and in other stories affords Li a construction to contain universal childish activities – climbing trees, turning cartwheels, sucking nectar from flowers, catching dragonflies, collecting birds eggs, making slingshots and pancakes, riding bicycles, eating sunflower seeds, acting out television series and ice skating. Set against the hardship of a Japanese invasion in which the fictional child narrator’s father was killed, the narrative presents efflorescent violence more pervasive than the child’s capacity to comprehend or articulate. But Li’s juxtaposition of innocence against violence is deftly done, offering readers none of the irritations of twee-ness, precocity or maudlin victimhood brought by some writers. Dark forces – occasionally understated – dislocate the rhythms of Chinese childhoods. Little Third suffers blow after blow until he disappears at the end of ‘The Floating Fragrance’. Li describes a mother’s hanging corpse ‘facing the wall, like a set of clothes dangling from a hook. Her right hand was in front of my eyes, small, smooth, yellowish, as if she is wearing a rubber glove’ (130).
At the conclusion of ‘Blue Lotus’, this titular flower is described as ‘a symbol of hope, of perseverance’ (126). The human discipline required to survive historical Chinese violence and material deprivation, falls into striking relief against Li’s depiction of Sydney dinner guests discussing ‘the perfect cup of coffee and lamenting the hardship of finding one’ (123). The narrator is disoriented by their comparative decadence: ‘As if walking in a snowstorm, I look back to find my footprints have been erased. I do not know where I am and can no longer find my way back’ (123).
In ‘Two Tongues’, the book’s final story, a poet suggests that ‘exile is not a subject on its own but a state of existence whence all poetry arises’ (318). Li applies metafiction to Crystal’s riffs on translation as an income source that leaves a writer free to write their past and to settle their aesthetic. The enlarging of sympathy in trying to understand another point of view sharpens acuity and skill. Memory and translation can commingle or diverge: ‘translation is like a woman, either faithful or beautiful, but not both’ (330). Li’s narrative sparkles with wit and energy and the narrative ends on a happy note. Perhaps love may be possible. In ‘Narrative of Grief’, researcher Lili hypothesises that ‘the very act of writing will change the nature of memory’ (275).
‘Amnesia’ is the only story in which I found language overblown, some of it cliched and self-consciously straining for effect but, in such a good collection, I might pass this off as characterisation. Olivia is ‘highly synaesthetic’ and mediating on grief with an analyst who, unprofessionally, stalks her and lusts after her during consultations. She seems close to psychosis: ‘I want to sail towards you in the black sea’ (195). The narrative is unreliably focalised through the young therapist and features Gothic undertones.
Li’s stories will hold wide appeal for general readers but especially for those interested in the effect of trauma on memory. Millennial readers may find the protagonists’ resignation and courage inspiring, particularly in stories like ‘Lyrebird’. In an age of global migration Li’s redemptive stories hold up a beacon of hope to those longing for a safer, happier future. The Chinese Londoner counsellor in ‘Narrative of Grief’ laments that ‘There are many who do not want to share their stories for fear of losing them’ (273). Li is not among them.
GAY LYNCH is a creative writing academic, working adjunct to Flinders University. She has published academic papers, Cleanskin, a novel (2006) and short stories: most recently, in Griffith Review (2016), Best Australian Stories 2015, TEXT (2015), and Sleepers Almanac: 8, 10 (2013, 2015). Two pieces of life writing are pending (2017). She was Fiction and Life Writing editor at Transnational Literature ejournal from 2011-2015. Her historical novel is presently being read by Picador.
By Julie Koh
University of Queensland Press
Reviewed by Stacey Trick
“There is something wrong with those who won’t see the laughing, and something is wrong with those who won’t see the crying. Don’t play dumb with me, China Doll.” ~ ‘Sight’ in Portable Curiosities.
The short story form, historically, has been regarded as a literary art form in its own right that often creatively explores the zeitgeist of a particular time and the psyche of the human condition. Throughout history, celebrated writers have often influenced a fixed supposition in their reader’s imaginations. When we think of Ernest Hemingway, the trials and tribulations of being a poor writer and expatriate during war times particularly in Paris comes to the forefront of our minds. To think of Arthur Conan Doyle evokes, at once, impressions of Sherlock Holmes solving mysteries in the bustling streets of London during the Victorian and Edwardian periods, between about 1880 to 1914. And certainly, when Edgar Allan Poe comes to mind, impressions of macabre and mystery influenced by the darkest corners of the human psyche are often explored in the most extreme and grisly circumstances.
The short story form invites us to dig deep within ourselves and search for meaning and connection to the external world around us; connection to the other; and ultimately, connection to our own internalisation of social, historical, and cultural world views. No other genre of literature has the same power and potential for such deep meaning-making. You may have heard the adage ‘everything is all well and good in hindsight’. This is particularly true when trying to make sense of the current zeitgeist of our times due to being so immensely involved in it. It can be incredibly difficult. However, a rising short story writer, Julie Koh has done quite an extraordinary job of exploring many different aspects of our zeitgeist and the internalisation of certain social issues. It seems that a new wave of literary satire is prevalent in Australia and a new notable author has been compared to the likes of Nic Low, Sonja Dechian and Marlee Jane Ward.
In her collection of darkly satirical and witty short stories, titled Portable Curiosities, Julie Koh explores issues in contemporary society including rampant capitalism, toxic masculinity, sexism, racism, and even our obsession with reality television series. Born and raised in Sydney, Koh came from Chinese-Malaysian heritage and studied Politics at University, before giving up a corporate career in Law she pursued a career in fictional writing. The new Australian success in the literary scene, Koh’s stories create new ways of understanding the societal, historical, and cultural issues in contemporary society. Koh was shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2016 and shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards in the Australian Short Story Collection: Steele Rudd Award, 2016.
Portable Curiosities, published in 2016 by University of Queensland Press (UQP), is Koh’s first collection of short stories. The collection consists of ‘Sight’, The ‘Fantastic Breasts’, ‘Satirist Rising’, ‘Civility Place’, ‘Cream Reaper’, The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man’, ‘Two’, ‘Slow Death in Cat Café’, ‘Inquiry Regarding the Recent Goings-On in the Woods’, ‘The Procession’, ‘The Sister Company’, and ‘The Fat Girl in History’.
In Koh’s Portable Curiosities, her reoccurring thematic approach of the entrapment of the individual in social structures are explicit and painfully pertinent in each story. In each story, Koh delivers a satirical twist in critiquing contemporary society’s pervasive and entrenched consumerism, casual misogyny, and the insidious nature of fearing otherness. Brimming with a unique and social critique from the mundane aspects of the everyday human life such as work to sexism, capitalism, racism, objectification, egos, and politics.
Koh’s literary style and techniques are used expressively in portraying those contemporary issues in a way that positions the reader outside of their comfort zone. She reveals truths that hide deep in our society; deep in our history; and deep in our culture. Throughout the collection, Koh experiments with style. Her short stories incorporate elements of science fiction, speculative fiction, magical realism, as well as satirical journalism. Koh imagines worlds where skyscraper floors are limitlessly high, a third eye can see ghosts, spirits embody lizards, and ice-cream eating is a sport worth dying for.
Julie Koh, a writer of satire; it only seems fitting to mention a particularly intriguing story titled ‘Satirist Rising’. Koh blurs the boundaries of fantasy and reality by embodying satire itself. Satire is an actual person in this story; the last living one to be precis. Another mentionable story in the collection, also brimming with social satire, is ‘Civility Place’. A man finds himself stuck in the never-ending loop of work that he cannot seem to physically escape. Koh explores the internalised entrapment humans have when it comes to capitalism and work.
The ‘Fantastic Breasts’ is pointed at the sexual objectification of women. In our zeitgeist, Koh’s story is highly relevant particularly in relation to the political turmoil our society is facing, rife sexism, and the consistent objectification of women. The following is a fine example of Koh’s satirical approach to literary style and social critique in this story:
“And as I sit there, stroking them to sleep, I think about how the Fantastic Breasts need me and how the metropolis, in turn, needs the Fantastic Breasts and therefore how, without my continued commitment to the care of the Fantastic Breasts, the metropolis faces doom. Then I close my eyes and I don’t feel so bad anymore, comforted by the knowledge that I am the manliest man the world has ever seen”.
The language used here implies that a woman is nothing more than her breasts; than an object purely for the purpose of a man’s ego. The short story form is a certainly an effective choice for Koh’s stories. This particular story touches on feminist critique and egocentrism which again, is rife in our zeitgeist. Many of Koh’s stories are intelligently written and her subject matters are chosen incredibly wisely and with tact.
The social satire and critique in Portable Curiosities is not only entertaining and thought-provoking to the literary community and the avid reader, but it is highly effective in encouraging ourselves to be mindful of our own prejudices and to question why we do the things we do. As an enthusiastic consumer of Australian literature, it is rare to come across an author with such a unique style and perspective on contemporary issues expressed so compelling in literature. Koh’s work is an incredible credit to her originality and has certainly set a benchmark for other Australian writers looking to make their mark in the literary world.
STACEY TRICK is a freelance book reviewer and journalist based in Brisbane. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing and Publishing, specialising in Creative Writing and English Literature. Stacey is currently writing her debut novel and blogs about her experiences as a writer at StaceyTrick.com.
The Long Run
by Catriona Menzies-Pike
Reviewed by JOCELYN HUNGERFORD
What we talk about when we talk about grief: The Long Run: A Personal and Cultural History of Women and Running
It begins with a huge loss. When Catriona Menzies-Pike was just twenty, she came home from a bushwalk to find that the unthinkable had happened: both her parents had died in a plane crash. How does someone even start to take in, let alone cope with, something like that: ‘this prospect that was just too gigantic to credit’?
The Long Run is a thoroughly researched, considered and absorbing analysis of what running might mean culturally to women, and other reviews of the book have covered these aspects, but the meditation on grief, bound up in Menzies-Pike’s own story of how she comes to start running herself, is one of its most compelling aspects. Menzies-Pike is a literary scholar and near the beginning there’s a witty list of options for the kind of book it won’t be (‘Library Lizard Joins the Jocks!’), as well as a brief survey of some of the literature of running already extant. As she observes of Haruki Marukami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, ‘Books about running are often like this, in that they’re about something else.’ (5) A defining characteristic of grief is that it is hard to talk about, and it’s a tribute to Menzies-Pike’s skill as a writer that she does find the words. There are many thoughtful reflections here on the way grief can take a person down; its intense, shocking loneliness, made worse by the necessity of performing ‘resilience’; the feeling of somehow doing it wrong. ‘Some people appear to thrive after trauma. Loss emboldens them, they form great ambitions and stride forward as if nothing, now, could hurt them. They are exhibits in those old stories about disaster being character-building, strength in adversity. My experience, to my shame, was nothing like this. I couldn’t find it in me to do much more than reel from one day and year to the next, with little optimism about what lay ahead. I must have been difficult to be around: self-destructive, and often full of anger and denial.’
It is ten years of ‘flailing’ before she begins to run, and her emergence from depressive stasis is slow; there’s no single conversion moment, just a quiet start on a treadmill in a grimy gym (and some wonderfully comedic moments, such as her encounter with ‘Biff’, the personal trainer with whom she is entertainingly mismatched). ‘It took more than running, of course, for me to haul myself out of the quicksand of grief,’ but as she trains, things begin to shift; the move from the inwardness of depression to a more expansive outlook is mirrored as she begins to train outside. Flashes of sensuous lyricism enrich some of the book’s most compelling passages as she notices colours, sounds, smells, the changing flowers and leaves of different seasons, and the lush physical beauty of her territory, Sydney. ‘I became a moving part of the tightly controlled curves that ricochet from Woolloomooloo to the Botanic Gardens, around to the Opera House and into the lopped oblong of Circular Quay. New categories for trees presented themselves: kind trees with broad shade; trees with treacherous flowers that turn the pavement into a bright slippery hazard; trees with bothersome hard fruits that roll underfoot like ball bearings. I kept track of the brick fences colonised by cats as snoozing spots and the gates through which friendly dogs wedged their wet noses. My own nose I stuck into other people’s gardens – magnolias, waxy gardenias, all the stelliferous jasmines, lilacs, daphnes: it was winter, and I wished it were spring so that the heavy fragrant flowers might start to bloom. I stopped once to chat to a man high on a ladder, harvesting a lilli pilli to make jam; I remember him every time I run through a windfall of the pink fruit.’ Running brings her into both her body and her surroundings, she becomes ‘an animal presence in the city’. The way trauma lodges in the body as much as in the mind and needs physical release becomes clearer: ‘When I began to run, my understanding of the significance of my body in the world shifted. I grasped the link between despair and immobility at both an intellectual and embodied level: for years I’d been stuck in grief, convinced my body lacked the eloquence for anything but sadness’.
It’s slightly embarrassing now to recall that when the author told me she’d started running, my first response was to feel concern. I worried that my friend might be prey to the same body insecurity in which I naively believed I was alone; I worried (in a clear case of overstepped boundaries and projection) about her knees. Such concern is telling; The Long Run is densely populated with concerned patriarchs – race officials, chaperones, health professionals – all terribly, terribly worried about the damage women might do to themselves (particularly their fertility) if they ran long distances. I was responding to some deeply implanted conditioning. Women’s participation in the sport now is thanks to some very brave, to say nothing of talented and determined athletes, who tried a number of tactics, from hiding in bushes at the sidelines or planning to run in drag, only for men to try to physically pull them off the track, or if they did complete the race, had their times discounted for running in the wrong kind of body. When women were officially allowed to run in long-distance races, all manner of caveats applied; the image of Violet Piercy running, chaperoned by men on bicycles and trailed by an ambulance, is particularly striking. As I read, a new respect formed for the female runners around me (until then, a mysterious, masochistic tribe), knowing someone had had to fight for them to be there.
My literally pedestrian response, the clueless assumption that the desire to run might be about getting thin, is also conditioned, of course. If you live in a female body it’s near-impossible to escape the messages – still – that how you look matters more than what you can do. Even if what you do is analyse cultural messages. The faces and bodies of female runners are scrutinised in a way those of male runners are not, and Menzies-Pike incisively examines how prevalent this focus still is; how, as she begins to run herself, she is subject to intrusive questions, comments on her body and unsolicited advice, when ‘What I wanted to look like when I ran was invisible. I didn’t want to be available for casting in any of these narratives. That’s why a shadowy gym was initially such a refuge. Some people enjoy being on display – might find it, ghastly word, empowering – but not me. I really did want to blend into my surroundings, to throw off the awareness that I was being looked at. This wasn’t just my own neurosis, but one that many women around me carry. “I could never run like you do,” a friend told me. ‘I’d look like a complete idiot.” … The desire to run unnoticed is a common note in memoirs by women runners, whether they’re champions or casual athletes. … It’s exhausting to have absorbed such demands about how we appear to the world. They can slow a woman down, they can stop you altogether.’ I cheered my way through this passage. This is a recurring problem for othered bodies: female, black, brown, disabled, queer and trans. How we would like to just get on and do our work, or our exercise, or even just walk down the street without having to be part of a spectacle. It’s tiring to be always doing the work of normalising something that should already be unremarkable. I’m conscious, even as I write, that I replicate those insidious messages, give them weight.
Because there are bigger reasons to run, or do anything that pushes us. As well as challenging received ideas about what women generally can do, running is a test of what Menzies-Pike has been led to believe she cannot do. Specifically, running occupies for her ‘the humiliated eternity of the maladroit teenager’ (what a perfect phrase this is, those assonant l’s and t’s sticking into the sentence like the awkward knees and elbows of its subject; she writes with a poet’s attunement to language and there are pleasures like this on every page.) ‘For me, as for many other dorky, uncoordinated kids, school sports were an intense and frequent humiliation … what I hated was that my sporting failures couldn’t be hidden. The kids who botched their algebra quizzes didn’t have their mistakes paraded in front of the class.’ When you are told often enough that you’re not capable of something it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; challenging that successfully can make a lot of other things feel possible: ‘Now when I run it’s as if I’m pushing the earth away with my feet and, with it, everything I told myself I could never do, and everything that women were told for centuries was beyond them.’
Her meditative approach confounds some of her fellow runners, and there’s an interesting discussion of friction within the sport over slow runners, who some feel are spoiling things. There wasn’t much space for the non-competitive exerciser in the Australian education system in which our generation grew up, and to those of us for whom school sport was a painful melee of boredom, confusion and being shouted at, it often put us off exercise altogether as adults, with predictable results for our mental and physical health. There are many deft moments of psychological observation in The Long Run; Menzies-Pike notes the childish competitiveness her running brings out in some people, who want to compare times and feel satisfied to learn they are the faster runner: ‘I want to tell them beating me is not much of an achievement.’ Playground dynamics are never far away even in adulthood, but as running turns into a source of pleasure, their significance recedes. Running becomes a place where impossible emotions – too huge, too angry, too sad – can move through her safely. As she runs, ‘[I] played through tiny scenes of family life that had once left me in a raw rage. … If my skull was suddenly flooded by unmanageable emotion, I ran faster and faster until the clatter of my heart and the burn in my calves hauled me back to the present.’
Menzies-Pike explicitly resists framing this as a redemption narrative, promoting running as a panacea for grief, or exhorting others to run; she is too careful a thinker for that, aware that there is a cruel underside to such narratives. ‘What is it that triggers the plasticity of mind required to change ingrained habits? To insist that it’s just a matter of getting started is a failure of empathy that makes losers of those who can’t flick a switch in their lives.’ She’s conscious that having the time and being able-bodied enough to run aren’t options everyone has, and conscientious about acknowledging this. Gentle fun is poked at the whiteness and middle-classness of it all. But a generosity of spirit drives the book; ‘if someone has a sad story to tell, I listen, because no story is sadder than the one that goes unheard’. The Long Run skilfully connects the personal and historical accounts and opens the way for more; it’s an absorbing and moving (literally; as I tie myself in knots writing this, the book itself reminds me to go outside and do some exercise) contribution to sport writing, to feminist history, and to the literature of grief.
JOCELYN HUNGERFORD is a writer and editor who lives in the Blue Mountains. She is categorically not a runner, but is a fan of women’s UFC, and is becoming quite handy with a chainsaw, axe and scythe.
Image: Jo Ranck
Mascara Literary Review gratefully acknowledges the support of the Australia Council for the Arts for Issues 3-18