Jill Jones has published eleven books of poetry, and a number of chapbooks. The most recent are Viva La Real with UQP, Brink, The Leaves Are My Sisters, The Beautiful Anxiety, which won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry in 2015, and Breaking the Days, which was shortlisted for the 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her work is represented in major anthologies including the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, Ed. Nicholas Jose and The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry. In 2014 she was poet-in-residence at Stockholm University. She is a member of the J.M.Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, University of Adelaide.
Patience Without Virtue
Everyone loves the female voice.
Am I forgiven for having one?
I wait patiently, hoping it’s only
to do with simple flowers. It never is.
I dissent again, the moon goes as it came.
There’s nothing transcendental within reach.
What must I do amongst sweat
grey flannel, car parks, and theories?
I can only be a certain kind of lunatic
and women are vaster than history.
It’s the way I don’t step forward politely.
No point sitting on the fence.
It’s the way I have to fix things
by painting a sign. ‘I can’t believe
I still have to protest this fucking shit.’
I can’t put the leaves back.
My affinity is always a question.
I can’t recall when these things didn’t happen
in my cells or beaten-up memories.
I’ll never be as dead as a man.
by Michelle Cahill
5 Islands Press, 2011
second edition UWAPublishing
Launch Speech by JUDITH BEVERIDGE
As Michelle tells us in the notes, Vishvarūpa is a Sanskrit word meaning: manifold, having all forms and colours. This aspect of diversity is beautifully played out in Michelle’s book. She ranges from different locales in and around Sydney, to Mumbai, to Dharamasala, around an impressive range of mythical and cultural references, and around voices, which are both personal and imagined.
This is a book of highly textured, rich, elegant poems that probe into Eros, power, mortality, place, dream, culture, myth. The particular way this book juxtaposes and interweaves Australian and Indian experiences makes it unique. Its contribution to contemporary poetry I’m sure will be regarded by many as highly significant, and a book that will act as an important touchstone for the way that different cultural experiences can be sustained and interwoven.
So Michelle is juggling quite a few balls with this book, yet I never had the sense that she was taking on more than she could manage, or that the risks were tipping her over, making her lose control. What is so impressive about the book is the singular strength, confidence and vigour of the language.
We as readers know when we are in the presence of language that’s being used in exciting, brilliant combinations, whose effect is immediately intoxicating. You’ll notice an astute control of diction in this book, a diction that can accommodate formal elegance, the vernacular, specialised knowledge, the mundane world. A diction that can range from words such as: tumuli, orogeny, haptic, myocardium, porcine, swithering, glutaraldehye: to crow, magnolia, butterfly, motorbikes, possum, rain.
We know as readers we have to be a little wary of poets who create dazzling surfaces, but who don’t, finally, have all that much beer under the foam. But with Michelle’s work there is a sense that text and texture are rightly married, that the poems are “imaginatively right”, that the rhythms move as the mind moves. Michelle’s poems flow exquisitely from phrase to phrase and line to line. She also has a remarkable ability to do jump-shifts that seem to change the tone quite drastically, yet still maintaining an overall coherence.
One of my favourite poems in the volume, “The Abbey” illustrates this point. This is an intensely evocative poem, full of a strange, unsettling sensuality, and it attains its power from the way in which beauty and menace play off against each other. There’s both a sense of the corporeal as well as a ghost-like insubstantiality, which provides a great deal of tension and suspense:
Why do you ask? Haven’t we already touched
as we lay on the lichen, the stones, uneven and
tessellated into a path, your hand on my dress.
We lay with forget-me-nots, whispered vows
resting our gaze. The air was heavy as the scent
of lilies stewed and spilt across the dry grass.
I felt the shock when you parted my hair.
I saw crushed petals falling from the sky
like paper moons in flawless pink and red.
I believe there was a dead dove, its neck swollen
as if it had been strangled. And I saw what looked
like one stagger into the shade of a fluted yew
We could hear the voices of those we knew,
the organ player’s notes receding from the abbey,
the sound of wooden bells. Or was it broken wings?
Impossible to read the names. How could we see
the living or the dead ghosts rise from their graves,
pacing, becoming frantic. Our eyes were stitched.
All that we saw was the soil, sweet and sad, leaves
beginning to fray, to curl, and the splatter of moss
sown like a seam through stone, a silent threnody,
a trickle beneath the earth’s skin as if something
stirred in darkness that was unspoken, the dove’s
wings, perhaps, or the heart weighing its secret.
This is a common feature in this book, the play of contradictions. Pablo Neruda in his essay “Toward an Impure Poetry” said that he wanted poems “smelling of lilies and urine”. There is something immensely appealing about juxtaposition, about the concurrence and interaction of unlike truths, of lines or sentences where one impression confronts another. In Vishvarūpa Michelle has made this her own aesthetic, she is often shifting her stance, or assertion and making us as readers feel the world as multi-toned, as manifold.
In the poem, “The Ghost Ship”, another one of my favourites, the scent of the albatross feathers are described in terms of both beauty and disgust:
pungent as magnolia, tossed with brine and bilge.
In the poem “The Chase” the speaker talks of:
the lavender scent of evening
which is a drug. It drives you to the periphery, the deepest part
of this gorge where we last crossed the river, our feet cold
amongst, the tangled roots and the rain.
In the poem “Tryptich of Wings” – the dead butterfly has one wing “bright as velvet” the other “Mendelian, a mosaic sequined with ants.”
In “Ode to Mumbai”, the speaker declares:
I hang in a gap between the sound and meaning of words
dipping my subconscious in different time zones, where
my bed is a temple and a brothel, where dream defines me.
I love the richness and all the compound, multi-layered impressions that Michelle evokes. She seems so able to make cosmos out of chaos. Her two poems about Mumbai – “Ode to Mumbai” and “City of Another Home” so adeptly portray the multitudinous and multifarious aspects of such a place. All the contrapuntal comings, goings and doings of a wide-range of people- from the haggling women, the taxis, the beggars, the spivs, the sadhus, the cows, the dogs, the middle class folk, the members of a Laughter Club, the auto-rickshaw drivers that inhabit Mumbai are all so seamlessly threaded through the poem, and by the end we get a sense of rightness and peace:
City of divine deliriums, the dogs are chained. the Laughter Club
members fatigue their raucous morning bellows from a plinth
of recreational park. the auto-rickshaw wallahs doze in the shade.
Some of the most powerful poems in the volume are the poems, which either speak about or assume the voices of various Hindu Gods and Goddesses. There’s ” Kālī from Abroad” ” Pārvatī in Darlinghurst, ” Durgā: a Self Portrait”, “Ganeśa Resurrected “”Laksmī Under Oath” to name some of them. Michelle has a great deal of fun with these destructive and capricious deities. She modernises them, flirts with them, taunts them, brings their faults and foibles to the fore. There’s a strong sense of the erotic, of taking these figures off their pedestals and revealing their feet of clay. These are multi-toned gods and goddesses revivified in contemporary settings.
Kālī is described as ” adroit in drugs and aphrodisiacs/ a nude dominatrix/ a feminist export with a sado-masochistic bent”. She wears “punk-blue leggings” and has “skull-and-scissor charms.”
Here’s the goddess Pārvatī speaking of the affair between herself and Shiva in the poem “Pārvatī in Darlinghurst”: The tone is sarcastic. Pārvatī is confident, fully empowered, full of her own intentionality and will:
We scorned the Purānas, our tryst no Himalayan
cave, but a hotel bed I had draped with stockings,
lingerie, and the crystal ice of a Third Eye. I admit
that’s why I spoke with the speed of an antelope.
It seems the acharyas were mistaken: I hadn’t
dated for marriage or adultery, nor with a wish
to deck his house with flowers or sweep his floors.
I am too busy, I declared, for dalliance or abstract
gossip. I have no interest in honeybees and birds.
All I wanted was a good time. I swear as the river
is my sister, that this guy was not my sun or my sky.
No way did it even enter my mind to have his kids.
His first wife’s ashes are scattered all over the city.
Goddamn it, Shiva is a walking disaster; whatever
he touches burns.
Again the language is uncompromising, beautifully weighted and nuanced.
I found that Vishvarūpa kept me engaged with its rhythms and patterns of sound, with its narrative power and sense of exact detail, with the way the imagery and tone negotiate the very subtle changes of mood or modes of feeling. I love the humour, the nostalgia, the regret, the obstinacy, the tenderness.
There is so much more I could say about Vishvarūpa, there are so many fine poems I haven’t touched on or mentioned. So I urge you to buy it and relish in the poems as I have. I’d like to end on a quote by Octavio Paz because I think it sums up that wonderful quality that Michelle’s poetry has:
Each time we are served by words, we mutilate them. But the poet is not served by words. He is their servant. In serving them, he returns them to the plenitude of their nature, makes them recover their being. Thanks to poetry, language reconquers its original state. First, its plastic and sonorous values, next the affective values; and finally the expressive ones.
Michelle has done all of this is in her book and I’d like to congratulate her and 5 Islands Press for the great gift of Vishvarūpa.
JUDITH BEVERIDGE is the author of six collections of poetry, all of which have won major Australian book prizes or been shortlisted. Devadatta’s Poems (Giramondo Publishing) was short-listed for the NSW and Qld Premiers’ poetry prizes and the Prime Minister’s Poetry Award. Hook and Eye, ed Paul Kane was published by Braziller in New York. Sun Music: New and Selected Poems, was published in 2018 by Giramondo.
out of emptied cups
by Anne Casey
Launched by ELEANOR HOOKER
The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote poetry is a ‘dividend from what you know and what you are’.
I am going to tell you about Anne Casey, the person, things I imagine you already know – Anne is a powerhouse, a force for good in a world where cynicism and doubt abound. She is collegiate, kind and considerate of her fellow poets, wherever they might live – just look at her social media, her reach and her conversations are global, she celebrates our successes and commiserates when we miss – that’s a rare thing and something to be cherished. Thankfully, Anne’s accomplishments and achievements have not changed her, she is too steady and noble a character to have her head turned by that.
The poems in out of emptied cups, Anne’s second collection with Salmon Poetry, make the unseen appear, whether it is beloved family members long gone, souls transitioning between this world and their next incarnation, or monsters (who are ever denied a hiding place in a Casey poem).
In many of Anne’s poems, tragedy and joy collide, and it is this collision that moves her poems toward: action – that which nudges us toward conscience, ecological consciousness, and self awareness, and, discovery – that which incites in us the wish to live well. I will talk about this later.
Just as a cinematographer uses a camera, Anne uses language in her poems to create a visual aesthetic – in her poem ‘out of a thousand cups’ (the first poem in the collection) Anne employs a filmic pan to show us the ascent of a soul before its turnaround and return to re-emerge in a different form, and the effect is feather light.
She uses the same technique in ‘All Souls’, the final poem in the collection – shifting between the noises, sights and sounds of Australia, and those desperately poignant images of her mother, delivered of a terminal diagnosis and yearning for her child, twinned with a suffocating religious iconography, associated with old Ireland. All of this is in contrast to the openness and natural exuberance of her adopted homeland, where ‘rainbow lorikeets… ‘will swoop… lifting our hearts/out of emptied cups and away with them into/the heavens’ – a suggestion that Australia is the land where Anne will live out her days.
When I’m editing footage from a lifeboat rescue, I’m careful where to place transitions so as to move the story of the callout scene from scene – transitions are like a blinking eye, that, each time it opens it encounters another image, another time. Anne places her ‘transitions’ to masterful effect in her poem ‘if I were to tell you’, as she shifts our view place from place and person to person central to her life – the second verse is a heart-stopper and illustrates how in describing the personal, that moment of wanting to speak to a parent and remembering that they have died, Anne depicts a universal moment of grief. (I was brought back to a moment soon after my own Dad died when, alone in my car on my drive home, I called out ‘Dad?’ – I frightened myself, and the absence of a response was just desperate.)
This collection includes poems that are at once mysterious and captivating. ‘Wildness’ is a personal favourite, and though the wild creature is never named (and that restraint adds power to the poem,) Anne draws on the many tropes of woman as shape-shifter: selkie; of the woman-hare that links to the Otherworld (a notion central to Irish folklore – Aos Sí), and even to the concept of doppelgänger. At another level the poem is about woman denying her true nature, suppressing her instincts. Interestingly, at her launch, Anne gave an altogether different account of this poem – which shows how a reader imports meaning to a work.
and I will curl up
wrap myself in your shed skin
and marvel at its length
all that had held you back
your wildness denied
This haunting poem encapsulates one of the central themes in out of emptied cups, that of a woman navigating an often unforgiving world, but ultimately recovering self and strength through family and history, by loving and being loved.
If poetry is the closest art we have to silence, Anne’s poems frame the silences. She is fearless in observing what can and should be named, and what should remain unnamed.
Jane Hirshfield has said that one of the ‘laws of poetry seems to be that there can be no good poem of unalloyed happiness, that good poems always pull in two directions’, and this is certainly what Anne achieves in her book, that sudden shift, that collision, achieved purely by precision of words.
A wonderful example of this (and of an exquisite employment of visual metaphor and experimentation with form), is offered in Anne’s poem thank you for shopping with us – a remonstration that our eco-destruction will literally cost us our earth.
This collection is one of vitality and rhythm. It uses the music of words to make silence felt, and leaves the reader with the glad appreciation that there is so much more to poetry than meaning alone.
Before I conclude I would like to acknowledge the Trojan work Jessie Lendennie and Siobhan Hutson do at Salmon Poetry, their support for poets and especially women poets is phenomenal and is celebrated; the Press is an inspiration.
I will finish with another quote by Czeslaw Milosz written in 1996 and as pertinent today as it was then, and which relates both to Anne’s poetry and Salmon Poetry – ‘that poets today can form a confraternitas transcending distances and language differences may be one of the few encouraging signs in the current chaotic world order.’
Congratulations Anne, I wish you and your work every success.
Photograph: Anne Casey with Eleanor Hooker and Luka Bloom
ELEANOR HOOKER is an Irish poet and writer. She has published two poetry collections with Dedalus Press: A Tug of Blue (2016); The Shadow Owner’s Companion (2012). Her third collection will be published in 2020, she is working on a novel. Eleanor holds an MPhil (Distinction) in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin, an MA (Hons) in Cultural History from the University of Northumbria, and a BA (Hons 1st) from the Open University, UK. Eleanor is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London (FLS). She is a helm for Lough Derg RNLI Lifeboat.
The short story of you and I
by Richard James Allen
Reviewed by Kyra Bandte
At first, The short story of you and I by Richard James Allen seems to exist in the liminal space between awake and asleep; the space where your psyche turns the familiar sound and scene around you into something altogether unfamiliar; the space where love and death coexist in the same ghostly breath.
The epigraph to The short story of you and I includes a black and white photograph of the poet, Richard James Allen, along with the imploring words: “My poems are sleeping in these pages, waiting for you to rouse them.” This connection between writer and reader continues throughout the book with Allen’s use of second person “you”. Whoever the poet truly speaks to, the persistent use of second person draws the reader close in a faceless kind of intimacy.
The book’s dedication whispers “for you”, and the first poem of the collection, ‘Delicate Awakening’, shows the poet’s persona vulnerable in sleep like a lover in a bed, needing to be woken “delicately / like raising an ancient shipwreck” (10).
The short story of you and I is, ultimately, a story of love and life (and death) from the moment the book is opened; from the moment the reader rouses the poems, gently awakening the sleeping poet in the opening stanza.
We slip through time and dreams in ‘Schlafwagen und Wunderkammer’, in “the long tail of a tall tale” (12) where “you were fairly certain it would be a normal sleep… but on the contrary” (13). We awaken into poems rich with seemingly everyday moments that Richard James Allen expertly transforms to spin a yarn so familiar it aches. One poem, ‘Espresso’, is a single exquisite line that holds a well of subtext within it: “There is no such thing as an innocent cup of coffee” (38).
But these everyday occurrences converge with the unreality of dreaming in ‘A Party in Small Moments’, which seamlessly slips between the macro and micro of our lives, asking “How can we have survived so many generations… and yet still come back to the tinkle of a spoon in a china bowl?” (17). Allen repeats the words “every moment” and the motif of tea cups and tinkling spoons, bringing the reader home with these everyday domesticities before asking “did you follow your dreams / or did you just fall asleep?” (20).
Using prosaic sentence structure and constantly addressing the “you” in the reader, Allen turns his poems into the little fictions of our lives. “I think maybe you thought your life was going to be a wall-size narrative painting… but somehow it turned out to be a quietly reflective line drawing” (23), Allen writes in ‘how life turned out, or Details of the Now’, making the reader feel quite insignificant for “this miniature of your life” (24).
A beautiful example of the way Allen uses colloquial prose in his poetry is in ‘Central Dreaming’, where the poet’s persona tells the story of how Sydney’s Central Station used to be a cemetary, now filled with ghosts “peering out from their unresolved darknesses / at the relentlessly colourful parade / of generation after generation” (33-34). This poem feels like a conversation, a casual story told from one commuter to another on one of Central’s suffocatingly humid underground platforms.
The poem not only demonstrates Allen’s articulate use of everyday scenes but brings two of the book’s main themes to light: life and death dance together in ‘Central Dreaming’, where the ghosts of the past drift alongside the “newer and newer Australians / right up to the drag queen in the hijab / standing nervously next to you” (34). The reader even becomes a ghost themself in ‘How we met’, where “The taxi stopped to let out its ghosts. / You were among them” (71).
The haunting middle between life and death is most obvious in one of the book’s final poems, ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’; a phrase referring to the sicknesses of consumption and pneumonia. The poem encapsulates the collection’s key themes of life and death while showcasing Allen’s technical poetic skill using language, structure and white space.
Filled with metaphysical, rhetorical questions (“What stands between you / and your dreams? [p93], “What can one patch of blue teach an overcast sky?” , “Who knows anything about souls anyway?” ), the poem is one of the most introspective in the collection. The shroud of everyday moments and conversational prose falls away in this long poem of constant questions, repetition and the grim motifs of body parts, sickness, trees and dreams.
Allen implores “you” to find un/consciousness: “You must understand now. You must understand now. / You must imagine now. You must sleep now. You must remember now, old friend.” (101) Then revives the reader with the state of familiarity that the rest of The short story of you and I presents, telling us to brush our teeth, shower, dress, step outside and “become just another metaphor for incompleteness” (102-103).
The collection shows the variety in Allen’s writing style, with the contast between seemingly simple poems (like ‘Espresso’ or ‘How we met’) and the more complex or sprawling poems like ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’. But more than that, The short story of you and I by Richard James Allen is an exploration of binaries and the ghosts between them; life and death, love and hate, you and I. It all starts with awakening the poet, and slipping into his dream.
KYRA THOMSEN lives and works on Dharawal Country. Her fiction and poetry have been published most recently in Cordite, AntipodeanSF, and Seizure, and she has reviewed books for Mascara, RABBIT Poetry Journal, the NSW Writer’s Centre and Writer’s Edit. Kyra was selected for the ‘Slinkies Under 30s’ program by Spineless Wonders in 2016, and co-won the Questions Writing Prize in 2012.
The Red Pearl and Other Stories
By Beth Yahp
Vagabond Press, 2017
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
Australian, Malaysian-born writer Beth Yahp’s short story collection The Red Pearl and Other Stories (2017) navigates between different locations and time periods. It is resolutely transnational and transhistorical in nature. At times, the collection veers towards the metaphysical and abstract. Yahp also experiments with different forms, styles, modes and genres of writing. The title story draws its suggestive force from what a specialist in Asian Australian fiction, Tseen Khoo, had defined as “Oriental grunge” in her analysis of Lillian Ng’s novel Swallowing Clouds. As often in Asian Australian women’s writing, the “sexotic” is deployed as a strategic (al)lure. The cultural politics of the collection’s cover page is relevant in this matter. A young Orientalised woman appears dressed in a crimson cheongsam, looking passive, her lips closed, with the top of her face cropped out from the cover frame. In so doing the Orient comes to be marketed and packaged as a desired object of fantasy deprived of the basic attributes of subjecthood, such as the power to think and reflect, as well as to see and develop a critical worldview, or speak of its own volition. “The Red Pearl” is a love tale between a sailor and a dancer met at the Shanghai Bar. Located in an unnamed Asian port city (most likely Singapore), the story bears “the promise of anonymity, abandonment, delirium, dream,” (Yahp 43) as well as poetic grace. Counter to what might be expected from the book cover, the lover clearly has an agency and power of her own, as proven by the fact that “when she agrees to dance, the sailor lies mesmerised.” (44)
Male-female relationships are also addressed in Yahp’s introductory story in the collection, entitled “The Other Room,” about a woman apparently gone mad. From her side of their adjoining wall, she observes through a peephole a man fashioning doll-like female faces made of clay or glass that he hangs on the wall. This “other room” adjacent to hers is in many ways a product of her imagination and a metaphor for the mind. The female narrator’s mind is utterly alienated and colonised by her obsession with faces and inability to move beyond her “imago.” The term in psychoanalysis stands for “an unconscious idealised mental image of someone, especially a parent, which influences a person’s behaviour.” (Oxford Dictionary of English) I am here reminded of Lyn Jacobs’s literary essay, “About Face: Asian-Australians at Home,” concerned with fiction that may indeed remain about face unless women authors of colour have a creative room of their own, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf. The mysterious, unnamed craftsman situated in the other room “shapes faces in the dark. In the sweltering dark he traces the outline of my face, the roughness of my skin, and his hand is sometimes cold, sometimes burning.” (9) On display in this brief extract is the surgical care for symmetry and balance used by Yahp to craft her sentences. Yahp’s streamlined style matches in turn the man’s plan to rectify the narrator’s psyche: “You are in my image although you are other than I. You are not perfect. You are a scar. You watch and listen but you cannot speak. You watch through a crack in the wall like a thief. You are a slur, yet you are nearest to me. I will make you perfect.” (11)
The theme of gender oppression runs throughout the collection, as befits current debates in the West and beyond over sexual violence and predatory behaviour in the wake of the #metoo movement. It is made particularly poignant in “Point of no Return,” a story that tackles the Malaysian youth’s relation to sexuality in the face of a highly conservative society. As Nicholas Jose notes in the collection’s afterword, Yahp keeps returning to her native country, “realis[ing] how deeply and passionately she is invested in Malaysia as sometime citizen and activist,” (217) although Yahp left her homeland as a student for Australia decades ago. This Nietzschean eternal return of the diasporic back to its roots is a gesture I have observed before in this literary journal amongst more mature Asian Australian writers. Such writers do not so much aim at reconnecting with their origins as they intend to shed new light on the neighbouring Asian region for Australian readers, beyond Orientalist clichés. For Yahp, this preoccupation with Malaysia is nothing new but has indeed remained a constant in her work, from her award-winning novel The Crocodile Fury (1992) — a foundational literary text in Asian Australian fiction — to the publication of her family memoir Eat First, Talk Later (2015), which to a large extent discusses contemporary Malaysian politics and the resurgence of grassroots contestation from the late 1990s onwards. Yahp’s valuable contribution to demystifying Asia in the eyes of Australian readers challenges the widespread view that Malaysia is a successfully democratic, multiracial society similar to other multicultural nations such as Australia.
“Point of no Return” is a phrase that refers to a woman’s loss of virginity. Malaysia turns out to be a religiously intolerant, deeply divided country that polices its citizens and in particular its youth over private sexual matters and mores, in the same way that other hardline Islamic nations such as Iran do elsewhere. Yahp forcefully demonstrates the extent to which in Malaysia, the dominant, state-controlled media have played a decisive role in moulding the youth’s mindset and desires. Interwoven into the main narrative are newspaper clippings that the two protagonists, Bel and Deen, start collecting in a desperate bid to seam back those cut out pieces metaphorically standing for mutilated female body parts. As the postcolonial feminist scholar Gayatri Spivak warns, “couture carries the echo of the coupure or cut — the cut from the place or origin.” (172) These clippings (coupures in French) tragically project onto the young couple an image of their shared future with no outlet in sight but death, rape, murder, or the necessity for the youth to abstain from sex as a means of self-protection. These clippings constitute a most brutal rite of initiation into adulthood, a lesson that perhaps only the anecdotes or self-help sections of newspapers or popular magazines could teach them concerning violence (to gloss Frantz Fanon’s classic anticolonial essay) and the policing of youth deemed “deviant” or “sexually offensive;” the arrest of female teens at nightclubs for wearing “provocative” clothing; how there persists a strong incentive for Malay girls to remain virgin before marrying; how murdering a woman is deemed a lesser crime if she is not a virgin, based on a forensic examination of her vagina; the State’s repression of queer minorities; cases involving young girls or students or even women who, being unwed, decide to get rid of their babies; or the lingering taboo of divorce; plastic surgery and racial bleaching. In this regard, the irony consisting in forbidding plastic surgery and Botox injection under Islamic law, on the one hand, while tacitly condoning the disfigurement and dismembering of women by sexual predators, on the other, is not lost on Yahp:
She read: Two Syariah Law lecturers [stated] that the use of Botulinum Toxic A (Botox) to enhance beauty is haram (prohibited)…[since] Botox injections [were] not part of general regulation governing beauty process and procedure as allowed by Islam… [They] based their finding on the fact that the use of Botox would alter one’s look permanently and this could be considered as an act of deceit.
He read: Bone fragments of a Mongolian model who was shot twice and her body blown to bits with explosives were found on a hill near the Empangan Tasik Subang…Sources said [she] was shot in the head…before explosives were taped to her body and detonated. (103)
Yahp’s collection contains multiple instances of violent rupture changing the course of history and interrupting the main thread of the narrative, as in “Time and Again,” or constituting its chief fabric, as in “In 1969.” In “Time and Again”, the female protagonist, who happens to be a writer sojourning in Paris, like Yahp, bears witness to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in which terrorists opened fire on the headquarters of a satirical newspaper, killing dozens in the name of jihad. This resulted in the implementation of a more or less permanent state of emergency vindicating the curbing of press freedom and freedom of speech, the widespread use of preventive detention and house arrest of all types of dissidents — a situation, proportion wise of course, that Yahp would have been familiar with, having lived under Malaysia’s authoritarian regime. 1969 is an allusion to the Malaysian race riots, a historical event officially described as a case of Sino-Malay sectarian violence that led to hundreds of casualties, but which effectively marked the start of bumiputra rule (or ethnic Malay supremacy) in areas of employment, education, or the administration, and the ensuing relegation of other minorities — Chinese, Indians, Eurasians — to a second-class status. In both of these instances of violence, those who have had to suffer consequences have not been the perpetrators but the victims instead; the French population as a whole, on the one hand, and the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, on the other, who represent the overwhelming bulk of those lynched to death in the riots, so that it would be more appropriate to call these a pogrom. It is in the midst of such a terminal atmosphere that the protagonist’s fellow writer in “Time and Again” reminds the reader of the enduring power of literature: “It’s there, and will never leave. No one can take it away, even if the ink dries in its pen, the pages rot, the buildings crumble, the stony ground turns to dust.” (187)
Yahp’s collection conveys other elements of violence still that are in some sense far more insidious than being the target of anti-Asian racism in a suburban train, as happens to Lisa, a freshly arrived migrant and university student in Sydney: “In one carriage someone has drawn large anti-Asian signs, like anti-smoking signs, an Asiatic face cancelled out.” (160) The story where this incident is narrated, “So we walked down Abercrombie Street,” takes on a nostalgic tonality for Yahp, by featuring a group of tertiary students in creative arts who share a flat in the largely immigrant outer Sydney suburbs, using it as a kind of bohemian haunt. In their film-making project, Janie and Lisa freely embrace a Kantian view of art — purposeless, disinterested, immanent — yielding to the pleasure principle of communion and communication: “Form is content. The telling of a story is the story. The film is about boredom and escape, they write. If form is content should the film be boring, escapist? And they draw a vase the shape of a heart and they fill it with flowers. They talk about everything except the film.” (154) Violence, then, consists in the abandonment of youthful innocence, of the ability to dream and of the will to resist to growing disillusionment born out of the pressure to conform and access relative material security.
In “The Beautiful Hour,” migration is initially experienced as an epiphany by its central character, Prabhu, who left Malaysia for Australia in 1958, after Australia somewhat eased out its immigration policy regarding non-white applicants. Yet Prabhu actually epitomises the “reluctant migrant,” an allusion to Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, since Prabhu is not grateful towards his adopted country, as might have been expected from him. He prefers to cultivate Meursault’s position of the Stranger in Albert Camus’s eponymous novel, who refused to cry on command at his mother’s funerals, as decency and convention would have required. Both Changez, the protagonist in Hamid’s novel, who left Pakistan for New York in the midst of 9/11, and Meursault, a pied noir, a person of French origin living in colonial Algeria under French rule, retain a critical, detached outlook towards the respective societies in which they have remained outsiders. Prabhu’s vehement views of Australian society, as being struck by “cultural poverty,” excess “freedom” and the lure of opulence and stability, must be placed in the context of the White Australia Policy and Australia’s ignorance of its indigenous past and Asian neighbours. Instead of the Lucky Country, Prabhu dubs Australia the “Great Southern Lassitudes.” Prabhu refuses to let himself put to sleep by the slow, quiet drone of the status quo as questions keep buzzing back to him in the manner of a fly, a flea or gnat. Here, to “resist” (145) means withstanding the false appeal of pacified domestication and middle class bliss from Sydney’s ethno-proletarian urban sprawls, where Prabhu now lives. It also means recalling the violence upon which White Australia as a settler colony was founded.
The last story title in the collection, “Dogs in Love,” can be understood as a metaphorical description of the academic workforce, or what Yahp calls the “lowest common denominator.” Yahp draws a parallel with the impassioned yet pauperised figure of the Clerk in Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic medieval epic poem The Canterbury Tales, from which she quotes this pentameter: “And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.” (202) Lecturers and researchers are often passionate about what they do, yet their job has become increasingly absurd and dehumanising in the face of the onslaught of a market-driven nature on universities across Australia and around the world. Many Asian Australian writers, perhaps compelled by the precariousness of their position on the literary market, must complement their revenues with an additional occupation. Some, like Yahp, have joined academia as creative writing lecturers. In this regard, “Dogs in Love” demonstrates how lecturing has been downsized to an accounting, managerial logic. As the narrator’s ill-named HR explains to her:
‘That’s what the numbers say,’ she tells me. She taps on her keyboard, gives me a bonus of twenty percent here, five percent there in a different column, but my overall numbers are still too low.
‘You’ve got to make the percentages up in teaching,’ she sighs, adding three tutorials to my workload, over three courses I haven’t taught before. It’s a week before the new semester begins. She says: ‘Yours is a teaching contract anyway.’ If I reduce my hours, she tells me, I’ll lose my bonuses, and I’ll have to teach the old full workload, at half pay. (208-9)
There is violence in numbers, just as there is violence in certain words that are hammered in by those performance review jargonauts of the newly corporatised higher education system. Overall, Yahp may be considered an itinerant writer, not so much because she happens to be an experienced traveller who has lived across several continents, but rather because she has moved in and out of the academic profession, as well as in and out of the business of writing, publishing and marking other people’s work. Significantly, Yahp’s collection was published by a small, independent publishing house, Vagabond Press, which specialises in Asia-Pacific literatures and has headquarters in both Sydney and Tokyo. More than two decades stand apart between the publication of The Crocodile Fury and Yahp’s family memoir Eat First, Talk Later, aside from essays and short stories, some of which appear in The Red Pearl. A mode of living and being in the world encapsulated by Charles Baudelaire’s nineteenth figure of the Parisian metropolitan flâneur (Yahp 182), itinerancy seems especially suited to the short story format and to this collection in particular — stories directly drawn from Yahp’s rich, multifaceted imagination and life as a creative writing practitioner, traveller, and committed activist.
Jacobs, Lyn. “About Face: Asian-Australians at Home.” Australian Literary Studies 20(3), 2002.
Khoo, Tseen. “Selling Sexotica: Oriental Grunge and Suburbia in Lillian Ng’s Swallowing Clouds.” Journal of Australian Studies 24(65), 2000.
Spivak, Gayatri C. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Harvard University Press, 2012.
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained his PhD in Anglophone postcolonial literatures from Monash University in Australia. He works as a sessional lecturer in English at La Sorbonne University, Paris. He is involved in political activism and a member of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA).
by Tom Lee
ISBN : 9781925336900
Reviewed by JAKE GOETZ
Ever since the Little Athletics of my youth, I’ve always felt Australia to be a sporting nation. One that if viewed from an alien planet, could be mistaken as preparing for war through daily gym appointments, jogs and football. From my earthly confinement though, it is perhaps easier to consider this nation’s love of sport, or fitness more generally, as a type of religion: one in which people seek a ‘higher’ (endorphin-fuelled) meaning in life, or at least, a communal sense of belonging bought on by the routine devotion to a particular activity. Reading through Tom Lee’s debut book, Coach Fitz, it was hard for me not to reflect back on such feelings, and to then also look forward, following Lee’s ability to craft a narrative around a national fixation not often found in the pages of Australian literature.
Coach Fitz is narrated from the first-person perspective of the main character, Tom, who like the author himself, grew up near Orange in regional New South Wales. From the outset we come to understand Tom through his youth – as a boy plagued by self-consciousness and struggling to come to terms with his masculinity:
I began with a small body. Late to mature, I measured myself against my thicker, hairier peers. I sought advice from the magazines that displayed the bodies I desired. I needed muscle, a good layer of it, to make up for my lack of pubic hair (1).
Living in Sydney’s inner-city, Tom is now in what we gather to be his late 20s, and finds himself in a similar ‘emotional rift’ (3). Spurred on by thoughts of his once supportive, and recently deceased, grandfather, and the inner-crises provoked by the time he spent abroad with his ex-girlfriend, Alex, he again seeks to ‘use exercise to bring focus’ to his life (3). Employing the efforts of Coach Fitz – a middle-aged woman ‘rumoured’ to have once been an exceptional long-distance runner, as well as a student of psychoanalysis in the UK – Tom becomes immersed in her ‘training philosophy: a dynamic relationship between exercise of controlled intensity and a steadily growing curiosity about places, buildings, aesthetic and history’ (10). Fields which no doubt draw from author Tom Lee’s own interest in ‘landscape, technology and the senses’, and his experience as a lecturer in the School of Design at the University of Technology, Sydney (Author bio, back-cover).
If exercise can be considered a type of religion, then the book’s key activity, jogging, is the main form of prayer, or perhaps more apt, meditation: as Coach Fitz equips Tom with his very own mantra or ‘breath friend’: ‘hick-a-chee’ (25). The first half of the book centres around the pair indulging in the act of jogging and provides the narrative (to use the words of Tom) with a ‘direct, unmediated, sensory immersion’ in the micro-environments of Sydney’s parklands, beaches and streets (44). A narratological approach that harks back to Modernist texts such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses. On their first jog through Centennial Park, for example, we are taken through a ‘gauntlet of Moreton Bay figs, their roots a web of tripwires in the sandy soil’, before climbing a hill from where Tom sees a ‘pavilion through the trees sitting like a UFO from ancient Rome in the fields’ – drawing attention to the alien-like nature of colonial architecture in the context of the Australian environment (8). On a later jog the pair find themselves on Botany Road, running ‘past the remnants of brick factories converted into apartments, self-storage facilities and car dealerships’ – what coach Fitz is quick to quip as aspects of a ‘postmodern city’ – with ‘the ‘heritage-listed brick shells of industry giving birth to minimalist apartment blocks distinguishing themselves in a contradiction of gaudy minor flourishes …’ (77).
Through the pairs observations and conversations, Lee’s narrative finds itself balanced by richly-cinematic and critical evocations of the places the two pass through; the pursuit of ‘lasting delight, psychological expansion and nourishment of the spirit’ through jogging (13); and the ‘failings’ in Tom’s personal life, which Coach Fitz seeks to remediate and turn into strengths. One of the finest expressions of such psychological mentoring occurs during their run along the soft sands of Curl Curl Beach, when Coach Fitz remarks to Tom that ‘Adolescence is just perceived as this problematic, disagreeable thing that arrives and then stops … What I reckon happens is that young men don’t recognise they need to transform in order to live well’ (38). She goes on to meditate on how a flawed cultural understanding of masculinity has led to ‘raising generations of man-children who suckle on entertainment as a mild source of amusement’ (39). Feeding on such insights, Tom feels a renewed sense of empowerment, and goes on to reflect how such advice could have aided his past relationship with Alex, which saw him flee London in a state of ‘emotional turmoil’ (46).
Within such place-based dirges, surprising historical snippets also often emerge. During their jog through Sir Joseph Banks park, for example, Coach Fitz details that the area once housed a zoo, as well as a track renowned for foot races in the 1880s: the ‘golden age of sprint racing’ (28). This observation then leads into the story of Indigenous runner, Charlie Samuels, who ran ‘134 yards in 12.3 seconds in this very spot in 1888, barefoot, complete with the nicotine and alcohol addiction that was one of the many gifts bestowed on his people after white settlement’ (28). In light of such historical engagements, and for a text that is so attuned to the nuances of place, I could have only hoped for more aspects of Sydney’s Indigenous history to be elucidated – allowing for a more multi-faceted understanding of the places the two absorb themselves in. However, this aspect is not the key topic in the book, and perhaps Tom’s narcissistic desire to improve his own mental and physical health could act as an appropriate reflection of contemporary Australia’s inability to look past their own wants and needs in an un-reconciled country.
Plodding through Sydney’s varied ambiances, I couldn’t help but think of Coach Fitz as a type-of Antipodean feminising of French Marxist theorist, Guy Debord, who instead of walking a city’s streets, has been forced to run to keep up with the frantic nature of contemporary life. This psychogeographic, or physical and mental engagement with the world, coupled with Fitz’s belief in using ‘history, memory and imagination’ (30) to inform her jogging practice, enables Tom and Fitz like Debord, to criticise the shortcomings of capitalisms use of space, transcend the ‘métro, boulot, métro, dodo (subway, work, subway, sleep)’ of everyday life and nut out what it is to be a ‘man’ beyond the expectations propagated by mainstream culture (Waxman 2010, p. 87). Such a claim is illustrated in the book’s second section, where Tom feels that their jogging elongates time ‘and refreshes a sense of the city’ (22). Even earlier in the book, following their first meeting, Tom is so enthused by Coach Fitz’s practice and the idea of becoming ‘faster on foot, sensitive to the environment and mentally resilient’ that he takes on extra work and moves from his Balmain house into his beloved Honda Odyssey in order to save the money to pay Coach Fitz (11). This drastic transition into a car-sleeping and fitness-obsessed bohemian is rolled out in just over one page of the book, and was perhaps a part of the narrative that I felt could have been better realised.
Through Coach Fitz’s attempts to remedy Tom’s ‘failings’, Tom too eventually uncovers cracks in the mental and physical make-up of Fitz, such as her smartphone use during practice, which goes against her spatially immersive training exercises, and the ‘grog-lover’ scent she often carries on their jogs (59-60). Following a bout of beer-drinking and novelty games at Coach Fitz’s house in Annandale one afternoon, a drunk and naked Fitz embraces Tom in her bathroom. Tired of the ‘discrepancies’ in Coach Fitz’s ‘theory and practice’ (106), and feeling confident enough in his own devices, Tom flees the scene and his relationship with Fitz: seeking to refine his own spatially-engaged and psychologically-charged fitness training methods. This leads into the second half of the narrative, which centres on Tom mentoring his ex-girlfriend’s brother, Morgan: providing him with the opportunity to put his own methods into practice. It isn’t long though, before he again feels plagued by a self-consciousness reminiscent of his youth – recalling Fitz’s advice, that men fail to understand they need ‘to transform in order to live well’ (38). The situation is only made more troubling by his perverse attempts to infiltrate Morgan’s family in a somewhat demented longing for Alex, and to, in his own words: ‘observe their phenotypical relatedness and share in the general effervescence of their group behaviour’ (192).
In addition to the complex and often humorous relationships on display in Coach Fitz, I feel the book’s greatest merit lies in the steady jogging rhythm of Lee’s prose, the ode-like evocations of Sydney’s parklands, beaches and streets, and a philosophy of remaining open, aware and engaged with one’s environment. I like to think of it as a wake-up call to all those locked in a passive discourse with the world, and a critical engagement with what it is to try and truly see, hear, taste and feel a place. As (the character) Tom ruminates after a swim at Bondi: ‘I spent the afternoon swimming and uttering expressions of deep thanks to the climate and geography’ (140). Anyone interested in exercise and its psychological imperatives; the complexities of masculinity and male adolescence; or Sydney’s geography, history, ecology or architecture, will find a point of immersion, and a rewarding read, in Tom Lee’s debut book.
Waxman, L 2010, ‘Writing A Few Steps in a Revolution of Everyday Life’, PhD Thesis, New York University, viewed 15 April 2017, via ProQuest database.
JAKE GOETZ lives in Sydney’s Inner West. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) in Creative Writing from Griffith University. His poetry has most recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in Overland, Plumwood Mountain, Tell Me Like You Mean It Vol. 2, Rabbit, Pink Cover Zine, past simple, Otoliths and Cordite. His first book, meditations with passing water, a long-poem written alongside the Maiwar (Brisbane River) was published by Rabbit in 2018. He edits Marrickville Pause.
by Mariana Dimópulos
translated by Alice Whitmore
Reviewed by SAMANTHA TRAYHURN
We’re alone together, for the first time. I have to touch him now. I try stroking a foot, then a shoulder. But no current lifts in me, nothing pulls at my chest the way they said it would… (p.1).
There is something strangely refreshing about a book that opens with a mother staring down at her newborn and feeling nothing. For a woman in her thirties who does not yet have children, it is the perfect antidote to scrolling through social media and seeing countless images of my friends’ perfect babies. While not immune to the appeal of maternal joy, I am circumspect about our dominant cultural representations of motherhood. It is rare when another story is presented. And that’s just what I found in Argentine author Mariana Dimópulos’ second novel translated into English, Imminence. Here is the moment that women are so often told will be the happiest experience of their lives, flipped and presented as a stark reconfiguration. However, this isn’t just a book about becoming a mother, it is also a book about becoming a woman, and what that might mean to a narrator who bounces between the orbits of authoritative men. Through the use of surreal and abstract elements, Dimópulos also hints at what it might mean to be a woman writer. She presents a fragmented novel, layered not only by overlapping narratives, but also multiple significances.
Imminence (or Pendiente in the original Spanish) is a clever title because it suggests to readers that something is going to happen whether we like it or not. Alice Whitmore’s translation is deft not only for bringing the novel into English, but doing so with close attention to its nuanced, embedded meanings. We are pulled through the novel’s broken mirror like shards as we try to assemble a clear picture of a story that takes place on a single evening, but by memory, is dispersed across place and time. It begins with a new mother returning home from the hospital with her son after an extended illness following childbirth. How this nameless narrator came to have a son, and why she is having trouble touching him, will be unravelled in a braided story that criss-crosses between her life with current partner Ivan, her previous relationship with the intellectual Pedro, and her trysts with a domineering cousin. Along the way we will examine patterns – numerical, relational, personal – and will be confronted by recurring images that hint at unsettling correlations.
The blowfly of that other night needs shooing. Last time we ended up with a dead cat, and nobody should die today (p. 14).
Suspense is built around a box containing a cat into which our narrator drove a knife on the final night of her relationship with Pedro. As she reflects from her Buenos Aires apartment, readers are left to wonder how the cat is going to relate to the child in a thoroughly page-turning experience.
At its core, Imminence explores what it means to be a woman nearing forty who does not yet have children. The fragments trace the narrator’s life during her twenties and thirties, a time when she is strongly influenced by friends Ludmilla and Mara; two women whom she admires for their rebellious qualities.
Mara and Ludmilla didn’t have parties. They didn’t go to weddings or family gatherings, and they had sworn never to sign a piece of paper with any man. When they spoke about the future they would carefully weed out anything rose coloured: they didn’t believe in love the way most young women do (p. 24).
After Ludmilla dies, another imminent event we must wait to find out the details of, Mara surrounds herself with other childless ‘beer-drinking women’ (p. 91). However, when later in life Mara decides that she does want children after all, our narrator must move through her own process of questioning what it could mean to become a nurturer.
Kindness: some women say it grows on its own, like a weed, once you have a child. But sometimes a man is enough. Or a brother. Or a sick friend (p. 56).
Such a concept seems foreign to a woman who, in her relationships with men, is not nurturing, but heavily reliant on her own subordination.
The passivity of the central character is extremely interesting, because on the one hand she surrounds herself by strong-headed women, and in many ways considers herself to be one of them. On the other hand, she is seemingly incapable of saying no to the forceful cousin who incessantly pursues her, and always submits to the will of her partners. With Pedro:
I drank the several glasses he handed me. I did it for his sake, since I never drink… He insisted on walking, so we walked (p. 6).
Whereas with Ivan her acquiescence seems motivated by a belief that he has access to some superior source of knowledge:
He says something and then it happens. ‘The fever will go down’ he says, and the fever goes down. (p. 17)
Dimópulos paints a world that is certainly ruled by men – one in which even women who rebel are still not certain of their roles. This is clearest when Mara’s friends sit around ‘trying to understand, without centuries of literature and philosophy to orientate them, what it might mean not to be a man’ (p. 91). Therefore, when our narrator continually declares ‘I am not a woman’ (p. 5) perhaps what she is really saying is ‘I am not not a man.’ In refusing traditional feminine roles she is absorbed into masculinity; there is no liminal space for her to occupy.
The narrator’s post-natal depression is exacerbated by the fact that her child is a boy. She exhibits a large amount of distrust towards men, and often refers to repeated rejection. When Ivan leaves the room she sits
…spinning those threadbare, faithful stories that women like me cling to in the hope of forestalling the abandonment that always seems to lurk on the other side of waiting’ (p. 13).
It is unsurprising then that this woman is confronted by the fact that she must form an attachment to an infant man without knowing whether he will also hurt, deceive, or leave her. Through the narrator’s infatuation with mathematics, Imminence in many ways comments on patterns and cyclicity. We see how a woman finds comfort in numbers but can’t find a formula to solve the recurring problems of her relationships. Ultimately, it is the profoundly new experience of conceiving a child that is transformative in a way that nothing else has been.
I was a woman now… (p. 112)
When I speak, I have to be someone new (p. 113).
The traits and perspectives of this new iteration of our narrator are revealed alongside the events that have shaped them – like flowers traced down to their roots – so that by the time the novel ends, we feel a deep connection to her.
At times it is difficult to tell whether the surreal atmosphere that shrouds Dimópulos text is an intentional nod to Borges, or her own commentary on the way that all female writing that ventures into the abstract will still be absorbed into a male canon. She could also be drawing on the strangely unsettling affects created by predecessors like Norah Lange and Silvina Okampo positioning her work alongside contemporaries like Mariana Enriquez with her darkly surreal feminism. Perhaps, in allowing for multiple readings, Dimópulos embarks on a different kind of feminist protest. Imminence is not only an enthralling novel; it is a complex project that highlights the congruent struggles that exist between giving birth to a child and birthing a novel. It suggests that one seemingly can’t escape what is prescribed, but if looking for a silver lining, or the inclination to reach out and touch the ‘lustre of a silver foot’ (p.2), it is possible to rework the formula to arrive at an entirely unexpected result.
SAMANTHA TRAYHURN is a writer living on the Central Coast of NSW. Her work has appeared in Westerly, Overland, LiNQ Journal, eTropic, and others. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Western Sydney University. She is also the editor of Pink Cover Zine.
The Burning Elephant
by Christoher Raja
Book Launch Speech by NICHOLAS JOSE
Asia Pacific Writers & Translators Guangzhou
Kuei Yuan Café Gallery 24 November 2016
Who would have thought I would be launching Chris Raja’s beautiful book here in Guangzhou? Such is the river of life that flows into the ocean here at Canton, as Borges reminds us … There are many things to say about The Burning Elephant but, since we’re standing, I’ll keep it simple. The story is told from the perspective of an adolescent boy called Govinda whose world is his school and his family and his Kolkata neighbourhood—a world into which he doesn’t quite fit. This unease is focussed when an elephant is killed and then cremated in the schoolyard, providing an image that grows and mutates, disturbingly, through the book. ‘He was a strange boy, the way an elephant’s tail or Kali’s face is strange. He existed, and was perfectly made in every way … but he seemed not quite right for the world’ (8).
By the end of the book the burning elephant has become a ‘burning man’ (149). Sectarian violence has erupted into Govinda’s little world with political terror and the destructiveness of Kali. As he was warned: ‘Death and destruction rule. Bastard of a time.’ (21)
The family is taking ‘the Australian option’ – migrating, getting out. Amidst the extreme tragedy with which the novel ends Govinda boards a plane and makes the link between death and rebirth: ‘The flashing ruby-red lights on the wings of the aircraft reminded him of Kali’s tongue. The black tarmac looked like her arms and legs … Would home be a place he had never been to?’ (181)
This outline gives you an idea of The Burning Elephant. What starts as a memoir of boyhood becomes a story of larger disruption. Yet it remains personal at the same time. Things are seen from the inside. Raja’s writing is lucid and lyrical, replete with lists that find order in chaos and vice versa. His imagination animates the animal life of physicality and appetite in everyone and everything. Hierarchies of being are tumbled and churned. There’s a subtle distance too, even in the most intimate emotional turmoil. I am reminded of the young Marcel in Proust’s great novel of memory as he remembers his mother’s goodnight kiss, and of Alain Fournier’s recreation of adolescence in Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes called the lost domain. One world is seen from another, across a divide. One lost, one complexly found. The distance is spanned by language, story, memory. It is the migrant’s fate. The adult condition. Where Govinda’s father was an orphan turned sahib, the son’s life has a reverse pattern, as he is severed forcibly and in different ways from his filial position.
All of this is handled lightly, experienced vividly, as The Burning Elephant unfolds. We recognise other resonances and versions. Violence, flight: we see it everywhere if we look. Truly it is ‘a dark age’ (21). But as Govinda’s father advises us at the end of the novel: ‘The trick is not to panic. That is Kali’s whisper.’ (182)
NICHOLAS JOSE has published seven novels, including Paper Nautilus (1987), The Red Thread (2000) and Original Face (2005), three collections of short stories, Black Sheep: Journey to Borroloola (a memoir), and essays, mostly on Australian and Asian culture. He was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy Beijing, 1987-90 and Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University, 2009-10. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide, where he is a member of the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice.
by Tricia Dearborn
Reviewed by ROSE LUCAS
What are the elements – multiple, multivalent – which constitute and compose us as individuals, as bodies in time and place? What are the factors which make each of us precisely who we are, as well as who we might become? In her third book of poetry Autobiochemistry, Tricia Dearborn uses the analogy of the chemical elements which comprise physical matter as a framework for understanding a range of elements which contribute to a building of ‘self’: memory, childhood, the specificity of experience, sexual desire and love, the mesmerising world of ideas and of language itself. This is powerful poetry, engaging in its directness and emotional honesty and further establishing Dearborn’s position as an important voice in Australian poetry.
Riffing on an undergraduate experience in biochemistry, the poems in the first section are clustered under the signs of the periodic table; both separately and as a sequence, they gather and interpret various aspects of the speaker’s experience. In ‘Fe Iron,’ for instance, the poet recalls her first bleeding, recorded in her ‘pale blue Hollie Hobbie diary’ (p. 26); in ‘O Oxygen,’ she re-inhabits the gasping for breath as a childhood asthmatic, ‘hauling in triumphant/catch after catch of air’ (p. 15). In ‘C Carbon,’ the poet recognises and celebrates the permeability between the individual body and the structures of the universe, between the brief passage of our personal lives and the wider currents of time:
When my body stops, its carbon
will be freed as carbon dioxide
by fire or decay
and a tree may breathe me.
The poem ‘Na Sodium’ explicitly explores a fundamental tension between the search for a mythical element of stability and purity – a kind of prima materia ‘incorruptible’ as she describes in ‘Au Gold’ (p.35) – and a recognition of impurity or change as the only possible constant:
I wanted to be the pure metal
solely myself, self-sufficient,
swaddled in the safety
of needing no one
now I know we’re never pure
beginning as we do admixture
of the genetically new,
from the outset, chemically intermingled
then we separate, but never completely
even when we feel entirely alone
our mirror neurons
prove us liars…/
I grew up in a house of liars
a houseful of people
pretending to be separate
but humans are never
found free in nature
Connecting and being separate, wanting engagement yet feeling at the margins of acceptance, celebrating individuality and pushing the world away – these ambivalence and defences mark the recollections and re-inhabitations of childhood encountered in these poems. However, in the section ‘Covalent Bonds,’ there is a definite movement toward connection and an acceptance of the risks and sustenance of loving in its different forms. ‘…how lucky/that I outlasted/my inability to feel loved,’ she writes in ‘At last’ (p. 44). It may be painful to reach the point of release, but eventually ‘unexpectedly love/came flooding in/throwing the world open.’ Such connection is not sentimentalised in these poems. In ‘Phelgm: a love poem’ for instance, the labour of loving, ‘its energy and joy,’ survives even the contrariness and staleness of illness with its ‘fluorescent yellow-green phlegm’ (p. 40) and the disturbances of sleep. Similarly, ‘Ride’ explores the incipient violence of sexual encounter to identify the abrasion of surfaces which might exist even between two people who love each other: ‘my stubborn selfishness, your willingness/when pushed to ride roughshod’ (p. 39).
In the poems included in ‘Virginia Woolf’s memoirs,’ Dearborn shifts the focus from a more introspective style to consider how another person – someone else who is also a writer, who has documented and narrativized aspects of their experience and thinking – manages the complex elements of her ‘autobiochemistry.’ The Woolf whom Dearborn delineates, a little like the artist Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, is both overshadowed by a-figure powerful father – ‘while he was in focus/you could not be’ (p. 50) – and struggles to be seen by a mother who would always serve husband and sons first:
Despite your singularity
her eyes, which were yours,
never saw you (p. 51)
And when Woolf undertakes her own explorations of self and memory, she too finds ‘liars in the house,’ a violence at the heart of the family romance:
…When you started tunnelling
in earnest, excavating
the caves behind yourself,
a small you was spotlit
on that ledge, your half-brother’s
hand under your clothes
The ‘Elephant Poems’ see Dearborn undertaking her own tunnellings of memory and psyche, enabled by the caring structures of therapy. As in ‘The invisible elephant,’ this involves the excruciating process of admitting to the dominating element which has always crowded the psychic space of her life, ‘us[ing] up the room,/ breath[ing] my air/ fou[ing] the floor’ (p. 62) – no longer avoiding or pretending, but actually naming the debilitating shape of pain: ‘the shape of/stifled cries in the dark/fear of footsteps/waking in puddles’ (p. 63). This psychic and linguistic process of addressing what has been unaddressable – ‘to discover, astonished,/that the world is not made of amber/then to haul myself bodily/from the viscid exudate/of my father’s lies’ (p. 69) – is to find the possibilities of making one’s own self, of moving into a life which might exist ‘beyond amber’ and its frozen denials.
The poems included in ‘The change: some notes from the field’ are, by comparison with the emotional suffering and labour alluded to in the Elephant poems, celebratory. In these poems, which detail the inexorable rising of the hot flush, the loss of predictable patterns of ‘’bodily knowledge’ and being largely bodily and emotionally adrift where ‘conditions are choppy out on the water/storms blow up from nowhere’ (p. 93), there is nevertheless an acceptance of the literal integration of self and biology. In the playful concrete poem ‘Perimenopause, in which everything is a fan’ (p. 96) a life of love, creativity, family, connections, art and the physical body are brought together, seemingly no longer at war. Indeed, as ‘Perimenopause as uncertainty and invitation’ would suggest, this ‘change’ in the life of a woman is as much opportunity as loss, a space and time enabled by the biochemical in which to grasp a challenge for directness and courage and excitement:
you never dared
should you choose to accept it
to take no shit
for the rest of your life
Not only is it refreshing to read about hormonal changes in a woman’s life as part of the vital stuff of poetry, but these final poems do also suggest something of a triumphant gathering together of the troubling elements of experience, of being one’s self in the world.
Autobiochemistry is about the relationship between parts and whole, between the elements which shape us and the selves who emerge from that process of influence; these poems traverse that tension and impel us to enquire into the extent of the agency which might be possible in the emergence of self. As Dearborn writes so movingly in the poem ‘Your life as a jigsaw,’ we can only work with what we’ve got – analysing the pieces, trying to find what’s missing, trying to interpret and reincorporate fragments of colour and shape into an overall pattern that is meaningful, to take a path forward:
enough pieces matched
by painstaking experiment, by guesswork, by luck
until there is enough tree, or sky, or land or water
for you to see
which way is up
ROSE LUCAS is a Melbourne poet and Senior Lecturer at Victoria University. Her first collection, Even in the Dark (WAP, 2013) won the Mary Gilmore Award; her second collection, Unexpected Clearing was also published by UWAP in 2016. She is currently completing her third collection, This Shuttered Eye.
Kavita Nandan recently moved to Sydney and teaches creative writing and literature at Macquarie University. Her first novel Home after Dark was published in 2014. She is the editor of Stolen Worlds: Fijiindian Fragments. Her short stories have been published in Transnational Literature, The Island Review and Landfall.
Photo: by Michael Kosmider
The Family Circle
Arjun steps onto the cool marble floor of the Se Cathedral. Away from the hot stickiness of the street front, he can breathe. They have cleared four tourist attractions so far, and this is to be the last for the day. A giant chandelier spills like a waterfall from the ceiling. Brass candelabras rise like stalagmites from the low altar, and above it, in a panel of the gold screen, Saint Catherine awaits martyrdom. Sublime paintings of biblical scenes suddenly turn feral on a ragged wall, throwing up his suspicion that God is more absent than present in these holy structures. A loud clatter echoes behind Arjun and he turns. His aunts sit in the pews with their digits darting into bags of salty cashew nuts and one of them, probably Aunt May, has let fall the gaudy plaster model of the Se Cathedral with a digital clock face embedded in the remaining bell tower. Bloody aunty fingers! Perspiring nephews and nieces in their ‘I love Goa’ flea market T-shirts trot in twos down the aisle. Uncles fling themselves this way and that way as if part of a dance routine, in their attempts to capture every angle of the architectural wonder. How they gushed all over the centuries-old Portuguese church like a tidal wave. Surely, only his family possessed this special talent of diminishing grandeur so completely.
At first, Arjun had ignored the summons to the reunion. But as he sat outside under a cloudless Sydney sky eating carbonara pasta in a café he liked, the email with its subject heading, ‘Reunion is the go in Goa’, revisited him. A red-tipped tailed shark of a Qantas plane, slipped away in the distance. The sky’s spectacular clarity unnerved him and a feeling of loneliness reawakened in his heart. It had been a decade since he had gone back to the country of his birth. Then, whether vision or visitation, he swore he saw his long dead grandmother, gesturing North-West with her fleshless finger from heaven. Arjun booked his flight from Sydney to Goa.
The family commandeer six standard rooms at an inexpensive beach resort. The aunties, who had promised their mother before she died that they would remain a close-knit family despite the geographical challenges, organised for the clan to meet, every ten years, in a different part of India. On this occasion, May, Maggie, June and Preeti bubbled with moral superiority at the absence of the two elder sisters who lived in the UK and Australia. At least, they consoled themselves with exaggerated sighs, their strange children, with their Indian faces but foreign accents and values had come from overseas.
Jetlagged, Arjun, and his cousin Arti and her husband who have come from London, go to bed early. The domestic travellers settle in industriously, putting clothes away in cupboards, storing cooked food and snacks brought from home in the mini fridges, scolding the children for turning the ceiling fan on and off, pressing the buttons of the TV remote control at random, juggling ornaments and stabbing at the fruit pyramid gleefully.
The next morning, Maggie, dressed in a floral-patterned kaftan, is jubilant that consensus has been achieved: all 16 of them are visiting the Spice Plantation. A keen cook, she savours the aroma of vanilla, then cinnamon, then cardamom. Andrew, her son, excavates his nose with a grubby finger and retracting it says, “Look ma, spice!”
Arjun grins to himself. Obnoxious kid. Then a glimpse of a scarf the colour of kingfisher blue. He remembers that afternoon in Uncle Joseph’s and Aunt May’s bedroom – the first and only time Lara and he were together – how carefully she had placed her scarf on the side-table as if it was a fledgling bird. His cousin Lara darts through the spice trees chasing after her own child.
The guide leads them though the leafy green plantation, stopping often to point out the different spices and tropical trees. He hands out bananas and star fruit to the kids to soften their boredom.
Like the others, Arjun tries what’s on offer but he is not satisfied. He remembers this gnawing sense of want, of wanting more, from his year spent staying with his Aunties in his twenties. For a moment, he thinks back to those nights he smoked hash on his Uncle’s and Aunt’s terrace and how he’d stare up at the night sky, smeared with stars, seeing a portal warbling between a familiar and an unknown world. Always, Lara, there, by his side. Squeezing his hand. Back then, they’d thought fuck parents, fuck the establishment . . . fuck making money when the family already had enough to see them through to kingdom come. Now, he can’t get to that state of being high with a pre-party Ecstasy tab or hit of LSD.
One of the twins’ stuffs a handful of black pepper into his mouth and yells for a straight five minutes. The little potbelly of the other twin is convulsing with shrieking laughter as Aunt May skips and hops and scolds.
After the plantation excursion, the family return to the hotel restaurant for an early dinner. Light-hearted banter between family members soon turns personal and vicious.
Maggie, his mother’s sister reaches for two of the extra-large Goan chapatis, and looking first at May, then at the chapati pile again, says “The twins have grown fat, May, but poor little Bunty . . . is he not getting enough food? Look at him. Thin as a bhindee.”
May like a snake provoked, bites immediately, “Andrew has become very naughty, don’t you think? And his sister seems a little behind at school. I hope she doesn’t have to repeat class four.”
“Arjun, are you losing your hair?” Asks Uncle Harry as he runs his hand through his own, then repeats the gesture. “Pity your parents couldn’t make it. They always seem to be going to some overseas conference. Intellectuals eh?”
The bastard, Arjun thinks. He wouldn’t have minded so much about the hair comment if Lara, still cold as hell towards him, wasn’t in earshot.
Uncle Rai slurring and slurping his third glass of Feni begins his worn-out tirade: “It was Maggie’s butter chicken that finally killed the old bird. She knew Mummy’s doctor had expressly forbidden rich foods.” Maggie’s fingers are greasy and flakes of chapati are all over her lap, but Arjun can see her left ankle beginning to shake and he wants to stride across the room and slap his uncle for being such a patriarchal jerk.
Uncle Rai can’t stop himself: “So Maggie, I suppose it’s all decided now that the kids are going to private schools?”
“Rai! It was in our mother’s will that we get the house. We did spend a lot of time with her after you and June moved to Chennai.”
“Maggie!” June says heatedly, “You know we moved to be closer to Rai’s family after his father had the triple bypass.”
Aunt Preeti, who had been listening silently to the conversation up to this point, explodes like corn kernels hitting hot oil, one after the other. “YOU. ARE. ALL. OBSESSED. DID. ANY. OF. YOU. CARE. WHEN. MY. HUSBAND. WAS. DYING!”
Aunt May, red faced and perspiring replies, “Preeti, you never did see the value of money.”
“That’s why we all pay for her now!” shouts Uncle Joseph from the opposite end of the table.
“What an ass,” Arti mutters under her breath to her husband. Mark hurriedly hides the sucked curried prawns on his plate under the serviette, conscious that he might have taken too many.
Why do they bother? Arjun thinks. It’s as if the weeks of goodwill it took to work out the logistics for every family member coming from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore and as far away as Sydney and London, and meeting in one spot – Goa – had only pushed their divisive emotions underground temporarily. They toured the churches, the beaches, the plantations, the markets together, but seemed only vaguely interested in the attractions themselves, and only too willing to argue at every turn. A gap of ten years was a reasonable time to expect quarrels to be forgiven if not forgotten, but neither seemed to be the case. The family’s differences were returning like resurrection plants.
Maybe his cynicism came from his lack of innocence. Since nobody had committed murder within the family yet, he was probably the biggest deviant here. Though sleeping with his first cousin had felt. . . inevitable. . . for both of them.
Knowing that the year was almost up and he would be returning to Australia to start an MBA had made him daring and insanely horny. Lara had been willing, flirty and in unison they had drunk several whiskey gulps from Uncle Joseph’s liquor stash kept in his cupboard that he thought no one knew about. Three days later, he had left.
It was almost annoying how she gave nothing away, no secret looks in his direction or holding his gaze a little longer than necessary. She was behaving as if nothing had ever happened between them and seemed completely engrossed in the child. Since when did Lara have a child? He regretted now that he never hit send on that email he wrote to her. On all those emails he wrote her. What kind of an insensitive bastard was he? He had only thought of his own embarrassment.
Lara yanks back the pallu of her sari from Max who is gripping it with both hands and using it to slide around the room. Then she cuddles the boy and gives him a piece of papaya.
He needs her to look at him. He remembers the diffused, sexiness of her eyes like she was either tipsy or in a state of desire that she used to have. He feels guilty for wanting her, again. Christ. He’s nearly thirty-five, surely . . . He thinks of Michelle back home redecorating their small Sydney apartment so they might sell it and buy a house, start a family.
Lara grips the knife she is using to cut up the papaya and turns to him, transforming into Kali, the goddess of death, with human heads around her neck and arms of men in a girdle around her waist.
He knows then that he’s terribly wrong: of course she remembers and hasn’t even come close to forgiving him. Max is sticking out his orange-Fanta tongue at him.
The family spend the next day at the beach. They encircle three tables joined together in a beach shack. They are practically hijacking the place with their sheer numbers. But then he remembers this isn’t Darlinghurst. The waiters gossip amongst themselves in Konkani. His uncles consume bottles of local Kingfisher beer, except for Uncle Rai who is silently reading a philosophical tract at the table and avoiding everyone’s eyes, especially Maggie’s, after the insults of yesterday.
Boney M and Michael Jackson interspersed with Indian movie hits spin around the room, escape outside, tumble and disappear into radiant waves.
His aunts are chatting with each other and laughing as if they have forgotten the angry things that were said to each other the day before. Aunt Preeti, however, is sitting apart, on a deck chair. She wears her hair in a stylish knot under her European-styled hat and the leg of her salwar billows in the wind. A young man prances on a jet ski in gold speedos near the seashore. Arjun sees that his aunt is older and sadder but still beautiful like her daughter Lara.
The men, having eaten and drunk too much at lunch, lie like overcooked lobsters in deck chairs on the beach and the women fret about the kids drowning and what to prepare for the next meal. They pass the usual comments about the tourists being too fat, too skinny and too liberal. When a topless woman walks past them, Aunt May does not have enough hands to cover all three sets of eyes of her unruly boys. When she realises that the woman in the white triangle barely covering her private parts is her niece, Arti, her hands drop, enabling her sons to get an eyeful.
The next morning, Arjun wakes up before the others to go sightseeing on his own. Walking around the seventeenth century church, he looks at the revered statues of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Peter and Saint Paul and remains unmoved. The broken body of Jesus on the Cross, however, strikes a chord. All those years of going to church and reading the bible to please his grandmother, what did they amount to? He feels regret at all the wasted Sunday mornings at bible study, but not a lot, too much time has passed.
He finds Sonya, Aunt June’s and Uncle Rai’s grandchild, sitting on a pew, head bent deep in concentration. Perhaps like him, she had wanted some time alone. Sonya is sketching something on a large notebook. He sits silently behind her, taking a peek over her shoulder, which is newly branded with a thick white stripe from yesterday’s swim. She is drawing a caricature of Jesus on the Cross. Her Jesus looks a lot like Uncle Harry, the family’s only politician and self-proclaimed martyr. He wishes he’d been that savvy at her age.
At the Bom Basilica, he stops several times to take photographs for Michelle. Photos were the only thing she asked for apart from some Goan silk, ‘preferably in marigold yellow, beaded along the edges and large enough to cover a Queen sized bed.’
“Arjun,” she had asked while she was chipping away at the tiles in the splashback, “is the real reason you don’t want me to come that you are ashamed of me?”
Why does she walk like a giraffe? Arree, her clothes are so drab. She should close her mouth when she smiles – her teeth are too big, don’t you think? How could he explain to her that his family would find fault in everything he loved about her. So instead he offered no explanation at all and reiterated that of course he wasn’t ashamed of her. When he discovers extra pairs of underwear and sunscreen in his suitcase, he knows that this is Michelle’s way of forgiving him.
He notices Mark, Arti’s husband, up ahead talking to a dark and pretty Goanese girl. It is the waitress who served them yesterday at the beach shack. He sees Mark touch the girl’s arm and he strides forward, not willing to wait for something more to happen as it does so easily in this hot and fleshy city, when he hears a sudden braking followed by a series of skids, a loud bang and waves of screaming.
As he turns around, the crowd rushes past him leaving him isolated on a square of concrete, dwarfed in front of the great church with the heat piercing his brain like a bullet.
He can hear Mark’s voice, dream-like, as he runs past in the same direction: “Shit man, are you coming?” The crowd is forming a circle on the road up ahead.
Arjun is standing by Mark now who looks unsure of himself. He grabs Mark’s arm to steady him, but when it looks like Mark is about to spew, he shoves him away.
A person lies under a vehicle with his knees facing upwards. It almost seems as if he is repairing the bus. But why would he be doing that in the middle of the road? And holding up all this traffic? Now that he looks more closely the legs are remarkably still. He starts to notice, even though he doesn’t want to, other things like the paleness of the legs, the tattoo of a tribal lion covering a large area of thigh and one bright red flip flop still clinging to a foot.
The bus driver is sitting in his seat, his eyes darting everywhere and sweat running down his face like monsoonal rain. Soon they are surrounded by noises and activity: ambulance sirens blaring, cars screeching to a halt, doors being slammed, and policemen running about dispersing the unheeding crowd. The commotion dies down and some people within the circle leave, satisfied that they are abreast of the latest in Goa. They are easily replaced by others whose curiosity is yet to be satiated.
“Some poor foreigner,” Mark says in a hopelessly Scottish accent.
Arjun looks down at his shaking hands and legs. As he raises his head again he sees familiar faces interspersed in the crowd. Maggie is standing next to Rai and June next to Harry as if they have swapped husbands. Joseph picks up Preeti’s hat that has fallen on the road and gives it to her. May’s three boys are holding hands and Lara is covering her child’s eyes with the pallu of her sari and waving. It seems as if the whole family are there, looking through the multitudes and smiling tenderly at him.
As the ambulance workers are piling the foreigner onto the stretcher as they might a dead body, the bloodied and broken corpse sits up. The crowd gasps collectively, cheers collectively.
Arjun trembles as the ring of people holds fast, then breaks, and breaks again.