Bronwyn Lovell’s poetry has featured in Best Australian Poems, Meanjin, Southerly, Cordite, Antipodes, Rabbit, Verity La, and Strange Horizons. She has won the Arts Queensland Val Vallis Award and the Adrien Abbott Poetry Poetry Prize. She has been shortlisted for the Judith Wright, Fair Australia, Newcastle, Montreal, and Bridport Prizes.
You and I can both get jobs
and finally see what it means to be living
— “Fast Car”, Tracy Chapman
I trade time for dollars at the minimum
wage exchange. I wipe tables instead
of writing poems. I am well versed
in the cycle of reheating and eating
frozen meals in the windowless staff
room. I know my worth in hourly
increments. I have purchased property
with my body. I have a small patch
of grass the bank lets me mow. I live
within my fence, make my garden
pretty, iron my uniform to hang an
empty effigy to my hollow shape.
I am paying the bank off for a metal
box in which I cart myself across
suburbs pumping noxious gas exhaust
on my way to the shopping centre
where I serve the fried flesh of dead
animals to pigs who don’t think they
are animals. I scrape the waste from
their plates into the trash to be shipped
out to stink up some other place
where garbage piles like body bags.
I want to do the real work — I want
to write the world anew but that’s
not what companies pay me to do.
I am the overqualified unskilled.
I am the doctoral student you drive
-thru, that see-through counter chick.
Sometimes I wonder what lipstick,
wig, tit tassels and a spray tan might
do. How much could I make? What
would it strip from me and could I
break even, pay my way out? What’s
a small heart-sink for cash in hand?
I see how it happens — an overdue
power bill, medication for the cat,
funding cuts, no penalty rates, my
savings account stripped bare.
There isn’t a woman in my lineage
who hasn’t earned her keep.
Stripper me does not differ greatly
from strapped me. She’s just a girl
trying to make some money. She’s
simply more practical: writes off
fish-net stockings and pole-dancing
classes on her tax. It wouldn’t take
much — full body wax, theatre-thick
foundation, waterproof mascara
and a spine. The girls in International
House do it. Call them Asian beauties
or student slaves. Call me by my name
badge, ‘Love’, or something else entirely.
Aiden Heung is a native Chinese poet, born and raised on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau; he holds an MA in literature from Tongji University in Shanghai where he currently works and lives. His poems in English are published or forthcoming in many online and offline magazines, most notably Literary Shanghai, The Shanghai Literary Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, New English Review, A Shanghai Poetry Zine, Aesthetic Apostle among many others. He is an avid reader. He can be found at Aiden-Heung.com or www.twitter.com/aidenheung
The face I’ve put on for almost twelve hours is in terrible
need of repair. I take off my face and rinse it
in the sink scrub it cleanse it smear on some lotion
and hang it in the cool air to dry. I look in the mirror –
blank gaze of a man staring like a black bird before winter
who’s forgotten the migration routes.
Time urges everything into a mound
of dirty underpants in the hamper. The only
thing worthy of preservation is the face. It
should be charming again tomorrow when I use
it in the office, and I should be happy as one who can
easily fit in and leave no trace of recognition. You don’t
Angela Costi has four poetry collections: Dinted Halos (Hit&Miss Publications, 2003), Prayers for the Wicked (Floodtide Audio and Text, 2005), Honey and Salt (Five Islands Press, 2007) and Lost in Mid-Verse (Owl Publishing, 2014). Her full-length play, Shimmer, has been remounted at several South Australian secondary colleges, 2016-17.
Her poetry, essays and reviews have been published in Australia and overseas, including Hecate, Southerly, LINQ, Meanjin, Tattoo Highway, Alternative Law Journal and Peril. In 2009-10, with funding from the Australia Council for the Arts, she travelled to Japan to work on an international collaboration involving her poetry and the Stringraphy Ensemble. Her essay about this collaboration, and performance text, A Nest of Cinnamon, are published in Cordite, 2009 and 2013.
The Weed Eaters
Flower beds, veggie patches, nature strips, paved courtyards
you are all under attack, the weeds have arrived in droves
deep-rooting themselves in your clay-based soil
they pretend friendship but you know they are here to compete.
I search for my tools of decapitation and with my trusty glove
begin the ritual of tearing them out, they may sting, they may weep,
they may resist the tug, but I have no sympathy for their resilience
despite their appeal to my heritage of peasant foraging and eating.
Baba with his weak knees and ailing joints continues the ritual
of picking them selectively from his yard of green excess,
with his large plastic bag, seductive swing in his grip,
each nettle, thistle, dandelion, creeper and clover are his.
He offers me their contents as the world’s source of wisdom
but regrets with a ragged look not knowing how to cook them like
‘your mother’. I stare at them and can’t see the scripture
or verse of Cyprus yet promise to keep them safe in my fridge.
At night, I can hear her robed in her silence opening the fridge.
I know what she’s up to, feeding her hunger for nostalgia,
she has them cooking in my non-stick pan, then slides them
onto two plates, squeezes the lemon liberally, drizzles the oil.
Paused in the hallway, I almost return to my bed, but
her bitterness seeps in and I long for the horta of childhood.
Mama is waiting. We eat as one, ravenous for what was.
The Good Citizens of Melbourne
Trams are the good citizens of Melbourne… There are nearly 700 trams on Melbourne streets. Looking after them takes a lot of men: cleaners, overhaulers, tradesmen of all sorts…
—Citizen Tram, a 1960s film by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board
Sitting next to my young mother is Deena, her sister
with eyes men fall into.
She’s older and focused on
getting them to work,
making sure they don’t miss
stop 20. Facing her
but almost falling into her lap is Thelema, her cousin
with arms and legs that don’t stop talking:
did you hear about Effie? Yes, you know her…
she’s the one with the glass eye,
the one that works the zipper machine…
She’s fifteen, younger than me – she looks fifty.
She has a proxenia,
he’s at least thirty,
her parents want to get rid of her
because of the zeemia
with the gelato shop boy.
With a slight lean of her head
away from the window
Effie shouldn’t be forced,
it’s criminal, her parents are vavaree!
Then my mother, who is a mere fifteen herself
says: Maybe she’s better off,
who wants to be sklavee
for the rich man
and his needle and thread machine?
Deena, Thelema, Young Mum are
a trio of handbags, lunch boxes,
orange, apricot, lavender skirts,
shirts with wide white collars
showing neck bones, smiles
of modest pink lipstick,
earrings that clasp the ear tight,
knees protruding with pent up
bursts of freedom as they speak
in a flurry of Cypriot-Greek
on the busy tram
heading to a factory
where young women
before stop 20,
turns his mouth into a fist:
on this tram we speak English
if you keep up with your gibberish
you can get off at the next stop!
The language hovers over their heads
like a thought cloud of orexee,
sending them down into a well
where there are no windows to see
the plum trees, the magpies, the milk bars…
Each day they caught that tram
they renewed their vow
Carolyn Gerrish is a Sydney poet. She has published five collections of poetry. The most recent The View from the Moon (Island Press, 2011). She enjoys performing her work and is currently working on her sixth collection.
at my new apartment block (circa 1935)
in the suburb where everything has
happened & is set to begin again there’s
only three flats (plus mine) & no one watches
T.V. (reception unavailable in the building)
Bin Night is an urban mystery Sorry
she says from behind her chained door
I think it’s Tuesday then again it could
be Wednesday & how effective are your
phone and internet connections? a nest
of fraying wires above the unlockable
letterboxes in the lobby
where a scissored gesture from a jaded
prankster could render you perennially
Mark Anthony Cayanan is from the Philippines. They obtained an MFA from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and are a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide. Among their publications are the poetry books Narcissus (Ateneo de Manila UP, 2011) and Except you enthrall me (U of the Philippines P, 2013). Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Foglifter, The Spectacle, Dreginald, NightBlock, Crab Orchard Review, Cordite, and Lana Turner. A recipient of fellowships to Civitella Ranieri and Villa Sarkia, they teach literature and creative
writing at the Ateneo de Manila University.
Who gets off backpack heavy with sweaty clothes tired but ready to supply their name
at the front desk one of the unremarkable many
who before this was seat 27A kept asking for gin and ginger ale from a flight
attendant who during her stopover hired a catamaran for the day to go snorkelling
four days later a passenger will grow livid when she can’t give him his order
whiskey on the rocks no ice and who upon entering a cab that smells of
grease and farts will crack open a window
the driver snickering as the streets even out into oiled anonymity and the midnight
DJ on the radio harangues a heartbroken caller who’ll take his dead heart with him
to work and while in line for the train overhear a girl telling her friend about her
sister a performance artist who used to snap
pigeons’ necks on stage she’s since quit her imagination limited to feats of
borrowed depravity now she’s one of the 1.6 million of her kind in the country
working five days a week 11 hours a day she sweats
shallots and ginger in a pot that spans two burners and adds among other death
sentences two pounds of butter the invitation to hunger
wafts across the street toward a bank with a guard who has no history of violent
behaviour but who’ll six years from now
hold a gun to his wife’s temple five straight days without sleep
today his wife applies Subtil Crème
to a customer’s cheeks using an angled brush that’s more than her daily
salary a customer who hums a song from the jeepney a college student who’ll decide
to spend her allowance on tickets to the Ultra Lotto Jackpot P1.18 billion
the body once mastered must have no need
for food she bums cigarettes off her best friend his phone constantly vibrating
who just wants one thing grows impatient
with those who refuse to send dick pics
wind rattling the windows of the empty classroom
Natalie D-Napoleon is from Fremantle, Australia. Her writing has appeared in Southerly, Westerly, Meanjin, Griffith Review, and Australian Poetry Journal. In 2018 she won the Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize. Her debut poetry collection First Blood will be released by Ginninderra press in 2019.
Dedicated to those who continue to fight for the preservation of the Beeliar wetlands
I pluck from my
ribs one black feather
then another three
arise in its place.
I remember feeding bread
to the black swans with
my father as a child
at Bibra Lake, how ripping
off one chunk would bring
a bank of swans; a
magnet through the
sand to attract iron ore.
My shoulders itch,
spines of feathers
spiking through skin.
I flap my arms, not yet
ready to fly. The Noongar
throw a handful of sand
into a body of water,
let the Waugal
know we are here.
Now, we live in the time
of the Mass Forgetting.
Now, bulldozers come
to scrape and wrench
the earth clean for
of sand pour into the lake
but there is no ceremony,
only the low din and vibration
I remain the good wife;
I whistle to my cygnets,
I flap my wings three times,
honk and hiss at the
golden demon —
rara avis in terris
cygno. My fleshy lips turn
into a keratin-skin bill,
flag-red, a memory:
arrogant white feathers;
falling, falling, falling.
A sepulchral cloak of
black loaned from
a saviour of ravens.
The white tips remain
on my wings, tracks of
my fall marked by stars of
flannel flowers. Kooldjak,
gooldjak, maali you will call
my Name. Even if you deny
my existence I continue:
a wedge of obsidian wings
beating beneath the
*Kooldjak, gooldjak, maali — “black swan” in various Noongah languages.
Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language
by Amanda Montell
Review by TAMARA LAZAROFF
Wordslut, as the ironic title suggests, is a book about language, gender and power by debut author, Amanda Montell, an LA-based self-professed linguistics nerd, feminist and also magazine features editor. It’s no surprise, then, that the writing is entertaining and that Montell is able to elucidate in a concise, relatable manner the precise ways in which ‘… people use language to express gender, how gender impacts how a person talks, and how their speech is perceived’ (4). In short, she demonstrates how words are inherently social and political tools. And if anyone has any doubt about this, Montell cites a 2002 legal case in Kansas Supreme Court where the dictionary definition of woman prevented a transgender spouse from inheriting her deceased husband’s estate.
Montell continues to illustrate her arguments by mining history and making use of other case studies in the book’s eleven chapters, which cover topics such as cursing while female, girl talk, how to confuse a catcaller, and the struggle of being a women who speaks in public. She also conducts interviews with leading North American sociolinguists, such as Lal Zimman, Deborah Cameron and Sonja O. Vasvári, Montell’s former NYU professor. The book is certainly well-grounded and well-researched.
In the first chapter, for instance, Montell, reveals the etymology of various English slur words usually reserved for women, which refer most commonly to either desirability, ‘evilness’ or promiscuity. One of these words is ‘slu’t. Apparently, in the Middle Ages ‘slut’ referred, fairly innocuously, to an untidy woman or man (29). But, Montell asks, even if contemporarily meant to offend, why is this slur and so many other slur words so enjoyable to say out loud? Well, studies show that, phonetically, short and plosive sounds and stop consonants, such as b, p, d and t, are human favourites from birth. Thus, reclamation and reappropriation, Montell believes, is key, and is, in fact, what is already happening. Terms like bad bitch – ‘a confident, desirable woman (40-1)’ – and the chicer, Frencher-looking ‘heaux’ instead of ‘ho’ are currently being used as terms of endearment and humorous affection between women, thanks mostly to speakers and creators of African-American Vernacular English.
So, words can and do change in meaning, Montell wants to stress. Sometimes slowly, but also sometimes quickly. To take an example, she asks us to recall the word ‘suffragette’, which, when it was first coined by political opponents, was intended as a smear and referred to the ‘husbandless hag[s] who dared to want to vote’ (42). However, activists immediately ‘stole’ the term for their campaign, and now the label connotes qualities such as courage, honour and strength. If anything, this is Montell’s aim in Wordslut: that women, and indeed any other groups oppressed by language, continue to consciously take language into their own hands in order to verbally, as they say, ‘smash the patriarchy’.
Another area that Montell suggests women can take linguistic action is in describing the act of sex. Disturbingly, as a beginning reference, she cites, British slang lexicographer, Jonathan Green’s collation and study of terms used for male and female genitalia spanning from the 1500s to 2013. (Interestingly, he collected 2,600 word items, more words than were in the first English dictionary.) But more to the point, Green was looking for patterns, and what he found was that the penis has been, over five centuries, most commonly described as some kind of weapon, and the vagina, a passageway, a passive void. Furthermore, terms for intercourse were more often than not a way of saying ‘man hits woman’ (256). Montell sums up: ‘…our languages most potent phrases… paint a picture of women, men and sex from a cisgender dude’s perspective’ and ‘… portray… sex as… violent’ (205) What about instead, offers Montell: ‘We enveloped all night… I sheathed the living daylights out of him… it would be a real head-scratcher’ (257). Alternately, she goes on, could some inspiration be taken from trans folk who self-identify their own genitalia – venis, diclit, click (268) – and their own sexual experience? Overall, this is what Montell thinks is needed:
A discourse of sex as pleasure… acknowledging women as active desiring and sexually assertive subjects, not necessarily centred around the erect penis, will challenge and confront established power structures … a new mythology, one which speaks about mutual exploration, communication, discovery, and pleasuring one another, where penetration is not an end unto itself, but one of the many possibilities for erotic enjoyment.’ (Crawford, Kippax and Waldby in Montell, 268).
In subsequent chapters, Montell takes further inspiration from the linguistic creativity and inventiveness of queer communities. She gives the example of gay men in the Phillipines who have developed a particular, ever-changing lexicon called swardspeak, which ‘combines imaginative wordplay, pop culture references, malapropisms and onomatopoeia’ (242). Then, in the early to mid-twentieth century, there were the British gay men who used a particular vocabulary called Polari, which contained several hundred words and was a ‘mix of London slang, words pronounced backwards, and broken Romani, Yiddish and Italian’ (248). It, like swardspeak, was mainly used to identify speakers as homosexual and also as a protective device, but Polaris was ultimately discarded when homosexuality was legalised in 1967.
Lesbian slang and/or secret codes, on the other hand, writes Montell, are largely unrecorded or absent prior to the 1970s, mostly due to the fact that lesbians were once socially, historically and even linguistically invisible. Unbelievably, the word ‘lesbian’ was not added to the Oxford English Dictionary until 1976, and even then its usage was illustrated with this chilling example sentence:
‘I shall never write real poetry. Women never do, unless they are invalid, or lesbians, or something’ (281).
Nevertheless, second-wave feminists – lesbian or not – were incredibly productive and wrote umpteen feminist new dictionaries, transforming patriarchal speech ‘into a language for and about women’ (275). The most famous, Montell notes, was Mary Daly and Jane Caputi’s Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (1987). It includes revamped definitions such as this:
HAG: A Witch, Fury, Harpy who haunts the Hedges/Boundaries of patriarchy, frightening fools and summoning Weird Wandering Women to the Wild (in Montell, 276).
And then there were those who invented whole new feminist languages, such as the linguist, Suzette Haden Elgin, who coined words to sum up what she thought to be ‘common physical, social, and emotional experiences shared by women, which were otherwise unspoken or would take multiple … sentences… to describe’ (279). One of Elgin’s head-nodding terms is this: radiidin, ‘…which translates to “a non-holiday”, or an occasion generally thought to be a holiday but is actually a burden due to women having to cook, decorate, prepare for so many guests single-handedly’ (279). The entire final chapter of Montell’s book is devoted to these second-wave feminists’ ambitious and expansive linguistic undertakings.
In many senses, Wordslut is a carrying of the torch, a continuation of these earlier feminists’ work. Like her forebears, Montell shows and gives women ‘the knowledge to reclaim the language that for so long has been used against us’ (20). She sees language as the next frontier of gender equality and her book has plenty of suggestions for how to take charge. One, as recent research has indicated, is this: for women in the public eye or in positions of authority, the best approach is, rather than listening to spin doctors and life or voice coaches, simply to be oneself (225). This is advice that Montell certainly takes on herself. Readers will enjoy her shameless humour, the intellectual stimulation, historical detours, current-day relevancy and the way her book deconstructs social norms in many unexpected ways. Ultimately, Wordslut is hopeful. And for those who want more, there is a TV adaptation coming soon.
TAMARA LAZAROFF is a Brisbane-based writer of short fiction and creative nonfiction. She has a particular interest in hidden histories, the migrant experience, feminist and queer themes, oral storytelling traditions and celebratory stories of social interconnectedness.
by Marlee Jane Ward
Reviewed by Fernanda Dahlstrom
Prisoncorp is the third volume in a young adult speculative fiction trilogy that engages with issues in contemporary Australian society. Marlee Jane Ward posits a near-future setting where current legal and economic trends have gone to an extreme, but which contains enough of the current features of our country to ring uncomfortably true. The first book, Orphancorp won the Victorian Premier’s Award in 2016 and was heralded as timely, in the same year that confronting footage of human rights violations in Don Dale Youth Detention Centre became public, raising questions about the criminalisation and institutionalisation of vulnerable youth.
Ward’s series centres around orphan Mirii, who believes herself to be Aboriginal, but has lost her connection to family and country. She knows her last name means ‘shooting star’ in an Aboriginal language, but only because she looked it up on the Tab that is her only connection to the outside world. In Orphancorp, Mirii counts down to the day she will obtain ‘age release’ from the privatised foster system in which she has grown up. A rebellious girl with a dirty mouth, Mirii is subjected to brutal forms of discipline in the days leading up to her release from the ironically named Verity House, where information is near impossible to come by.
In the sequel, Psynode, we re-join Mirii a few months after her age release. She is staying in a women’s dormitory and feeling that, while at Verity House it was ‘us and them’, now it’s her against everyone. Mirii gets a job and waits impatiently for the day she is supposed to meet up with Vu on the steps of the old Sydney Town Hall, one of the few old buildings still standing. However, her plans go awry, and she is arrested for a suite of offences committed in the process of trying to free Vu, the girl she ‘like-likes’, from her captors.
Prisoncorp opens with Mirii being held in a solitary confinement cell at the notorious corporatized prison located in a remote part of the Australian desert. She is not, however, alone. Her nemesis, Freya, is with her and the novel plunges straight into action with a fist fight between the two girls. Mirii reflects that although she earlier had an epiphany about how their enmity ‘played into what the system wanted of me’ (p.2), Freya has not achieved this insight. Relationships between women are consistently foregrounded in Prisoncorp. Mirii’s friendships are staunch, but we are afforded no illusion that any general sense of sisterhood can be counted on. An unknown prisoner of whom Mirii asks a favour promptly tells her, ‘go fuck yourself’ (p. 6). A day out of solitary, Mirii discovers her crimes are so serious as to warrant a ‘real, human lawyer’ (p. 31), whose face pops up on a screen to tell Mirii that she will be doing 25 years for manslaughter.
Mirii is soon reunited with kids from Verity House. Young people who grow up in the system are seen beating a well-worn track into prison, a familiar pattern that reminds us of how far along the path to this future we have already come. The privatisation of the prison system, which began in Australia in the early 90s, is now complete, with the prison headed up not by a Warden but by a Chief Operations Officer (COO), who ‘represents the board’ (p. 36). Ward’s depiction of prison from the point of view of an Indigenous woman alludes to current concerns about prison demographics. The fastest rising incarceration rate in Australia is currently that of Indigenous women This concern is made explicit when another prisoner tells Mirii, ‘There are a lot of us in here…it’s a crime to be Koori in our own bloody country’ (p. 97).
Ward presents the prison industrial complex and the immigration detention industry as inseparable, with the screws announcing unceremoniously that 200 immigration detainees are to be amalgamated with the prison population. This prompts Mirii to reflect:
I feel about as hopeless as they do. I wonder where they’re all from, how they thought their new life in Australia might go. Did they expect to be rounded up and put into this dusty camp, to waste away on starvation rations? Weren’t they seeking something better, and is this better, or is it more of the same? (p. 61)
The book’s engagement with current human rights issues gives Ward’s predictions an uncanny immediacy, but it also leaves us craving more detail. How did we get from the Australia we know to this near future? Why are there few old buildings left? Where does the climate crisis stand? Where is this hellish private prison located?
Mirii’s sexual involvement with Vu is presented as unproblematic throughout the series (except to the extent that touching anyone is forbidden in the Orphancorp). Ward also presents a number of other same-sex sexual encounters and their queerness passes without comment. Monogamy seems to be a thing of the past, as do fixed sexual identities. In Psynode, Mirii recounts a history of sexual experiences that would make Tony Abbott and other opponents of Safe Schools shudder: boys, girls, threesomes and kink. The unproblematised sexual fluidity of Ward’s characters provides welcome relief from the overall bleakness of her premise. It allows the focus to remain on the struggle of these young women against a brutal and oppressive system while suggesting some more liberal developments in Australian society in the near future, taking Ward’s vision beyond a simple dystopia.
The plot progresses swiftly, with Mirii’s initial hopelessness turning into resolve as she and her friends conceive of an escape from Prisoncorp, which snowballs into a full-scale riot. Characters express doubts over where they will go after breaking through the fences, given they are in the middle of the desert. The situation calls to mind the mass break-out of the overcrowded Woomera Immigration Detention Centre during a protest by refugee activists in 2002, which led to clashes between Corrections and asylum seekers fleeing across the South Australian desert.
The novel climaxes with an uprising that confronts us with some of the ethical dilemmas associated with rebellion. How to treat one’s captors once they become one’s prisoners? To what extent can individuals be blamed for acts committed in obedience to orders? Can you justify risking the life of someone whose name you don’t even know to attain freedom for the group?
Prisoncorp includes an epilogue of only a few pages in which we glimpse the aftermath of the series’ dramatic conclusion. This is precious little space to explore the myriad ways characters have developed over the three books or how society may look outside of the institutions where most of the action has taken place and this feels like a missed opportunity. However, Prisoncorp offers a powerful vision of the future of the carceral state and a warning of the dark places to which prison privatisation threatens to lead.
FERNANDA DAHLSTROM is a writer, editor and lawyer who lives in Brisbane. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Art Guide and Feminarsty.
Too Much Lip
by Melissa Lucashenko
University of Queensland Press
ISBN: 978 0 7022 5996 8
Reviewed by CAITLIN WILSON
Talking Back: Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko
If this book were a sound, it would be the roar of a motorcycle down an empty road; bold, and for the moments when it’s in your path, dominating of all your senses. This book swallowed me and churned me in its guts and, as all good books should, spit me back out, a little bit different.
Its premise is not unfamiliar: a woman is called to return to her home as her grandfather nears death to say goodbye, and finds more waiting for her than she had anticipated. But Lucashenko renders this framework classic rather than clichéd. Melissa Lucashenko’s name has been synonymous with vivid characters negotiating the complexities of belonging since her debut novel Steam Pigs was released in 1997. Tangled and tumultuous relationships are her hallmark, and the Salters, the family around which Too Much Lip centres, are no exception. The story boils with emotion, and its characters carry scars both physical and invisible from their shared past.
In Too Much Lip, a stranger rides into town, “but it wasn’t a stranger, it was Kerry”— the novel’s observant, funny and immediately likeable in a she-says-what-we’re-thinking way protagonist. She roars into frame on the back of Harley, headed to her hometown of Durrongo in Bundjalung country, northern New South Wales. Kerry is a marvellously difficult woman to pin down—a self-described lesbian who falls for a man, a ‘lone wolf’ who thinks often of her ex-girlfriend and cares deeply for family, almost despite herself. The novel doesn’t dwell overly on romance, but Kerry’s burgeoning relationship with her handsome former schoolmate, Steve Abarco, complicates her understanding of herself. Kerry never calls herself bisexual rather than a lesbian, a fact that was jarring at first. However, I came to see it as a part of her all-or-nothing image of the world, rather than any oversight on the part of the author. That the exception to her sexuality is a white man is even more of an about-face for Kerry, who treats the white ‘redneck’ townsfolk of Durrongo with earned suspicion:
“Had they realised at all that running was a bulwark against the taunts slung about so casually at Patto high? Nigger, nigger, pull the trigger. Kerry would sneer at the white faces mouthing the words- Abo, black bitch, boong- and picture their owners wheezing on the edge of the track as she floated past triumphant, her giant banner reading: Whatever, maggots.” ( 59)
Jim Buckley, the land-grabbing white mayor of Durrongo, slights Kerry nearly as soon as she arrives home, and threatens a beloved site of family history for the Salters. Drawn into the fight for her family’s land, Kerry is a reluctant activist, her cleverness and rage useful weapons against greedy developers. While it would be easy to call Jim Buckley the antagonist of the novel, he is only its human form: personifying white selfishness and the disrespect of Indigenous people that is all too persistent, in fiction as in historical fact. White Australia’s callous disregard for Indigenous people is the social and structural violence at work in this novel; and slaying it, or chipping away at it the best one person can, is Kerry’s heroic journey.
Too Much Lip is thus as much about repairing past damage and safeguarding against future destruction as it is about new romance. The Salters distance themselves from each other in ways literal and metaphoric. They are tough, loving, violent and soft by turns, never easy and certainly never dull. Kerry’s older brother Ken drinks and rages without quite knowing why, his son is entranced by the escapism the computer screen offers, and her mother’s Tarot cards guide her way through the world. Kerry and her middle brother, Black Superman, have put physical distance between themselves and Durrongo, and their sister Donna, missing since her sixteenth birthday, is a gaping hole of absence in the Salter family.
Despite—or perhaps because of?—its depth, Too Much Lip retains much of the dark comedy for which Lucashenko’s 2013 novel Mullumbimby was so well received. Winner of the Queensland Literary Award for Fiction, Mullumbimby also circled themes of the bittersweet familial obligation and the sacredness of land, though Too Much Lip arguably pushes Lucashenko to darker and more personal places. Lucashenko herself described the writing of Too Much Lip as “frightening” and “retraumatising”, and while the enduring rawness is evident, the novel reads as anything but fearful. Lucashenko’s characters feel real and personal. The first chapter is preceded by a quote from a 1908 court case, where an Indigenous woman has shot a man. This woman, Lucashenko reveals, was her great-grandmother, Christina Copson, and a source of inspiration for Too Much Lip’s incisive depiction of the white people in power in Durrongo.
Early in the novel, Kerry stumbles on a quintessentially-Australian image of sublime natural horror- a crow, having tried to eat a dead brown snake, has caught its head in the skeleton of the snake. This grotesquery is Australia writ-small; a penetrating force attempting to invade that which it does not understand. Three other crows that have gathered near the snake speak to Kerry in a mix of English and Bundjalung, a moment which allows Lucashenko to establish the uniquely Indigenous realism of her novel.
“The snake-crow tilted its mutant head at her.
‘Gulganelehla Bundjalung’. Speak Bundjalung. A test of good character.
‘Bundjalung ngaoi yugam baugal,’ she said. My Bundjalung is crap. The bird hesitated.” ( 9)
Moments like this evoke Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book: terming them as ‘magic realism’ undermines the deft translation of an Australian experience as real and complex as any described by a Tim Winton or Christos Tsiolkas text. Too Much Lip doesn’t gesture at universality, or attempt to speak for anyone. Instead, it speaks personally on shared issues of family, home and loss.
Indeed, one of the many remarkable feats this novel achieves is its determined peeling away of the layers of toxic masculinity to reveal the trauma at its core. The male characters in Too Much Lip, particularly the four generation of Salter men, carry heavy burdens that are revealed bit by aching bit through their interactions with each other and the women of the novel. Even the local landscape, so loved by the Salter family, imparts an omnipresent threat of violence:
“Maybe it was a dog to begin with, or a doob, for that matter. But make no mistake. That mountain’s a fist now, girl.” Pop told her, letting his arm drop. He looked at her in anguish.
“It’s a gunjibal’s fist waiting for us mob to step outta line, waiting to smash us down. We livin’ in the whiteman’s world now. You remember that.” (64)
Memories like this proliferate the novel, as the Salter siblings attempt to make sense of their past and protect their future. Lucashenko’s writing is never sentimental, and yet the careful revelation of the secret darkness rotting the heart of the Salter family is deeply moving. By lovingly sketching characters who are deeply flawed, Lucashenko hints at redemption without the need for saccharine prose. It was fascinating to read this book in the wake of the debate over the cogency of Erik Jensen’s decision to disqualify from the Horne Essay Prize “essays by non-Indigenous writers about the experiences of First Nations Australians”. While it’s a complex issue I wouldn’t presume to be able to solve, I was struck reading this book the importance of telling your own story, your own way. What makes Too Much Lip not only engaging while reading, but memorable, is its tangible roots, which burrow deeply into the realities of Australian existence, through the author, this country, and now, this reader.
Chernery, Susan. “Melissa Lucashenko: Too Much Lip was a frightening book to write”. The Sydney Morning-Herald. 27/07/18. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/melissa-lucashenko-too-much-lip-was-a-frightening-book-to-write-20180724-h1326h.html
Lucashenko, Melissa. Too Much Lip. QUP. 2018. Pp. 9, 59, 64.
Wahlquist, Calla. “Horne essay prize scraps rule change after judges resign in protest”. The Guardian. 24/9/18. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/sep/24/horne-essay-prize-scraps-rule-change-after-judges-resign-in-protest
Wright, Alexis. The Swan Book. Giramondo Publishing, 2013.
CAITLIN WILSON is a Melbourne-based student and writer of criticism and poetry. Her poem was recently short-listed for the University of Melbourne Creative Arts poetry prize, and her criticism can be read in Farrago and The Dialog, among others.
Stone Mother Tongue
by Annamaria Weldon
Reviewed by LINDSAY TUGGLE
Resurrecting the Oracle: Stone Mother Tongue
Annamaria Weldon’s luminous fourth collection returns the poet to the archipelago of her birth. Stone Mother Tongue begins in prehistoric Malta, where Weldon mourns the “goddesses we trample[ed]” across the centuries. The poet guides us through shifting incarnations of her homeland, where “Recollection is mapped country folded backwards / along familiar creases” (50). Weldon’s poetry enacts a uniquely feminine divination; she calls forth a goddess oracle unbound from history, a statuary tongue unloosed from time. Ancient relics —museumed, looted, or abandoned—are portals to haunted islands where “pre-history seems just offshore . . . time’s lost coast in stone, not words.” Weldon elegantly negotiates the fraught territory between conflicted and conflicting histories: collective and personal, traumatic and resilient, human and divine.
At first glance, Stone Mother Tongue is arranged geographically and chronologically: Part 1) Prehistoric Malta, Part 2) Phoenician Malta, Part 3) Anthropocene, Antipodes. Yet Weldon’s mesmeric slight of hand is already at play. Within each section, her poetry unsettles both geographical borders and linear time, paradoxically disturbing the author’s own system of organization. Weldon’s readers cross and recross liminal thresholds, inhabiting poetic interstices where boundaries and clocks have no sway.
In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) signifies the ambiguity of middle rites, when the seeker has shed her pre-ritual status but has not yet completed her rite of passage. Arnold Van Gennep integrated the concept of liminality into anthropology in his 1909 study Les Rites de Passage, which outlines three distinct phases of ritual progression: separation, liminality, and incorporation. Van Gennep’s ritual trinity is relevant not only to Weldon’s poetically resurrected antiquity; the anthropological concept of liminality also captures the elegiac melancholy of her work. At once preciously specific and sweeping in their historical resonance, her poems mourn the erasure of deities, landscapes, selves and beloved others.
In a land where “asteroids once smashed to earth,” language remains as eroded as geological history: “Each remnant’s recorded by era, / but Beta counting only calculates rates of decay, / a relic’s meaning remains cryptic (50, 23). This curated vacancy creates space for illumination and divination. Weldon calls on “incantatory” stones to resurrect an ancient, maternal language, born of a time “When everything was the Goddess /and stone was our mother tongue.” Her elegiac “undersong” mines the blank spaces beyond and between words, the inability of language to capture the most enigmatic aspects of human history: our ancestors and their deities. Yet, she insists that the oracle’s translation can only ever be partial. The Goddess speaks “a language [as] untranslatable as stars in daylight.” Despite the poet’s efforts at resurrection, “a relic’s meaning remains cryptic” (23).
The first section in Part One, “Divining the Neolithic,” shows us that even when ancient matriarchal rituals and relics have been ravaged by time and violence, traces of divinity linger. “Geomancy” reconfigures the “broken altars” of abandoned temples.
Time and weather, the ploughman’s husbandry
and urban sprawl effaced them, leaving us to guess
the geomancy, gutted now from enigmatic temples. (32)
Agriculture, exposure, and expansion have “effaced” this holy site, but the final desecration is rendered as an anatomical wound: the temple has been “gutted.” Part of Weldon’s poetic magnetism lies in her capacity to evoke visceral responses through language that is often violently acute: “History’s survivors have heard it all before / the sound of invasion that some call arrival.” Yet, Weldon asks far more of her audience than simply outliving the open wounds of history. Survival, she tells us, “is not endurance alone” (20-21). As an (inevitably partial) antidote to the unceasing escalation of gender violence across the centuries, she conjures divine maternal voices from the deep past, a chorus that both harrows and heals.
Goddess, when your body was worshipped
as holy matrix of the world incarnate
no clerics or sceptics mocked our devotion
and love conjured more power than hate. (18)
Throughout Weldon’s work, divination is disturbed by the arrival of new wounds, both personal and cultural. The deconsecrated temple has become a tourist destination, its deities reduced to ancient curiosities.
Inside the sanctuary walls, torba floors endure
as bone-white ground, broken as the silence now
deities are curios, gift shop souvenirs. (31)
While it may not be possible to resurrect the goddesses that once inhabited this hallowed ground, Weldon compels us to try. She invites us to listen beyond the gaudy white noise of our century, for the low hum of an oracle who keeps the secrets of her own survival well guarded, despite the hoards of curiosity seekers who trample her grave. Yet, Weldon’s poetry is far more nuanced than directive. While she argues that survival entails more than mere endurance, she does not reveal the resilient alchemy for surviving history’s ravages. That mystery belongs to the deity, alone.
Catalogued as myth, in time She was denied
all ceremonies, those rituals that temper
time’s lapse to entropy. (45)
This inquiry underpins the poems of Stone Mother Tongue: How do we, as a species, survive “time’s lapse to entropy”? Could the resurrection of ancient, maternally-embodied rituals help us to “temper” the technologically-saturated ennui of late capitalism? These questions are integral to Weldon’s work, even as they are revealed as unanswerable. The goddess’s stone tongue remains immobile, her “silence mystical and terrible” (33).
“In Geotherapy” Weldon’s archival poetics turns inward, enigmatically curating personal wounds alongside antiquity’s ravaged aftermath:
Enlist a devoted archivist to polish history.
When topography frames experience, you will accept
the residual changes heartache left in its wake. (50)
The poet becomes her own “devoted archivist,” preserving histories that are at once personal and collective, ever-present and archaic. In “Devotion’s Aftermath,” the Goddess shines as an elusive specimen of antiquity, “hidden in plain sight” (45).
In “Borderlands,” Weldon guides us into the liminal “Interstice” between the living and the dead. “Disarticulated by its darkness, we / have traversed all the stations of being / from birth to the excarnation of bones.” The portal of “sympathetic magic” is guarded by the “gaze of ancestral protection” — a hollow skull “watching all our futures.” (56). Under the protective eyes of this this spectral guard,, women gather, “as if willingly entombed,” crooning not in mourning but in celebration: “mantras of maternal consolation that rise / and fall with the birthing cries of the woman crouched on the cusp of deliverance.” Now, after the desecration and (partial) resurrection of ancestral deities and their followers, a birth arrives, and “the boundary between worlds is breached” (57). A new divinity — human, this time– emerges from “the cocoon of smooth deliverance. . . / a priestess / is not made, nor merely / born, but recognized” (59).
The poems of Part 2, “Phoenician Malta,” document the atrocities inflicted on the Maltese people by “colonizers, slavery, trade, cruelty” (70). Weldon interrogates what the Phoenicians brought with them as well as what they stole or destroyed, treating the islands merely as a “stepping stone settlement” (73). “Entire seashores, bays and beaches made middens” by an insatiable hunger for beauty that demanded destruction:
A quarter million snails sacrificed
for one ounce of dye.” (69)
In “This Precious Stain,” Weldon questions “What stories lay– still lie–beyond beauty!” and whether, “if we knew / their true cost, would their magic be dispelled / or the enchantment deepen?” Other poems elegize the human cost of quarrying the islands’ precious stones (formerly the source material for the statues of maternal deities who dominated Part One, “Prehistoric Malta”). These stones are now subjected to a “violent separation.” “Enormous slabs” are quarried and “prised open with fire, sanded smooth to elide the trauma / of calving rock.” The colonizing labour of unsettling these relics of geological time is equally violent: “Boys died here from a moment’s slippage, manoeuvring the masonry.” “Crushing has many sounds,” including “an exhalation / vaguely human, hanging in the air / hauntingly as final breath.” (71)
Alongside the desecration of the islands’ people and resources, the Phoenicians left something behind: an alphabet. “Newly designed Phoenician letters” gave those who survived the invasion and its aftermath the words to record their trauma: “incised on clay / or inked on papyrus. Before their invention / thoughts that could only be wept / sank unmarked into the dark water.” (67) In “A Shoreline Scripted for Heartbreak” we follow the “arrivals and departures” of the “Literate, captive women . . . assigned as scribes to passing merchants.” Starkly rendered in sparse language, the poem elegizes the “Ill-fated, unrecorded, charged encounters” these women endured in the “ceaseless maritime traffic” of “colonisers, pirates, naval flotillas, hospital ships, refugee boats, cruise liners, smugglers.” Weldon once again holds our hand to the flame, forcing us to see the harrowing similarities between the human trafficking of their century and our own.
Part Three, “Anthropocene, Antipodes,” merges Australia’s cultural amnesia with the aphasia of personal grief. “What I Saw at the War Memorial” articulates the national tendency towards historical erasure with the compulsion to create monuments that privilege nationally sanctioned deaths, while participating violently in the erasure of other, marginal massacres.
Grief is the gap where words
won’t meet. Time is a stone-cutter
quarrying rocks for monuments.
Memorials are what we build
to limn the invisible, mark thresholds
we can’t cross [.] (101)
In the 21st century’s amnesiac liminality, such thresholds of grief remain invisible and impossible to cross, rendered in fissures of language and memory. The poems of this final section embody an enigmatic loss of unity, sketching a deliberately fragmented picture of “grief’s blurred peripheries” against the hazy backdrop of “memories that rise like mist” (99). Weldon’s final poems elegize a multiplicity of losses, including a harrowingly beautiful tribute to her father’s remaining memories as he struggles with dementia:
when all that’s left
of your former life are those memories of the journey,
sightings and oracles remind me who you are — had been
before your mind soared to where there are no maps. (103)
In the end, Weldon brings us full circle, the poet herself becomes an oracle in “Leaning Back Towards the Neolithic.” Returning to her ancestral homeland, divination is not invoked or invited, but embodied:
From village to hamlet, the valley path from Gharb
to Birbuba has become my pilgrim’s way, each step
rephrasing me as I walk it. Words come unasked,
immersive as the weather of prayer, heartache
like a fig tree’s barren longing to bear fruit.
In her “Epilogue,” Weldon shows us that even when the statues of ancient dieties have all been effaced, the oracles silenced for centuries, poetry can offer a portal into the liminal threshold of harrowed divinity — if we only are willing to seek out the ruins, and to listen to the halting echoes of our Mother’s stone tongues.
LINDSAY TUGGLE is the author of The Afterlives of Specimens (The University of Iowa Press, 2017) and Calenture (Cordite Books, 2018) which was commended in the Anne Elder Award and shortlisted in the Mary Gilmore Prize. She has been a fellow at the Library of Congress, the Mütter Museum / College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and the Australian Academy of the Humanities.