Brenda is a writer and artist of Wiradjuri and British heritage. She has written three poetry collections and her next, ‘Inland Sea’ will be published in 2021. Her poems and reviews appear in edited anthologies and journals, including Australian Poetry Journal, Overland, Quadrant, Southerly, Westerly, Plumwood Mountain and Best Australian Prose Poems 2020 (MUP).
A Walk in the Park
Outside my window the street has lost all certainty. At first light there is an
uneasy haze, patterns drifts in and out of focus. On most days I am left with
this waking dream, a shadowy sense of the world closing in. Fear the dream
is becoming a reality, a life of dissolving shadows, disappearing pathways. I
wait for sunlight to bring definition, solidity to a row of pines. Under winter trees, I disturb patterns of bare limbs thrown across grass, circle the pond where shade swallows a mass of reeds. My mirror image trembles, shaken by wind over water. With the sun overhead, a shadow closes in, a hunchback weighty at my shoulder. Larger than life my companion looms ahead. I quicken my stride, strengthen my hold on ground tilting sideways, but it catches up in seconds as I change direction. Look back at the giant striding at my heels.
Isolation is now the default position for us all. To avoid the close down, we all have to find our own escape. Forget the measure of a city waiting to keep us in place. I am used to silence. For someone who likes to venture into solitary terrain, dreaming is my way out. Some say distancing is dangerous, but I have not disappeared. Inside this room, the air is full of ideas. Best thoughts build into songs, stories of Country. I sense the sound and smell of dry forests after rain, crackling under leaf litter. I have not disappeared. I am still moving, writing sacred places into memory. Words take off, hang on air like dust motes, scatter ahead as random thoughts on red earth country. Landscape grows sparse, arms and legs turn into branches smelling of mulga wood. I feel a slow cooling as my feet take root in water stored for the changing times. Some say I have already faded too far. May never find a way back.
Petra White lives in London. Her most recent book is Reading for a Quiet Morning (Gloria SMH 2017).
Because I was permitted to
I waded through water.
Eyelashes still as the tiniest fronds.
The pond pure sleep,
a demon thrust down into the dark,
the nestling of elm roots.
Then the slow drip of colour
in the mind, a friend
for the seconds the light held.
I walked out into new darkness,
where I was permitted to go,
the moon waiting for me
like a piece of enchantment
I was taught to resist.
The moon, with its grey blotches,
white as as my father’s face.
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
Unseasonable as a warm winter, pale on an utterly rainbow afternoon.
Not begging to be heard, not begging at all.
Here, everywhere, outside the window, on the streets and in the parks
danced men with twig like women in their ravenous arms, a dance
like that of creation, half terror, half the terror of love.
I fumbled into my small
red revolting car that smelt of rain and clattered with dirty coffee cups.
In traffic waited like a stumped parrot on a rod.
Then windows wide, the brashest air gushing in.
I drove and drove and never ran out of fuel.
And the road did not run out, the world turning in the sun’s glimpse.
Unbearably fresh the yellow flower fields
blazing in the heat
like crowded slabs of hell
the yellow flowers
blazing like tomorrow,
when I land and weep
the yellow flowers blazing like my skin
behind a hot windscreen,
pounding me into the here, the trickle of sweat.
When body becomes body,
only the flowers seem to sing.
See the muscular roos they leap above the nose-tickling weeds,
their flanks curved like machinery, paws bristling about the thin line
that is neither heaven nor hell but the tickly brush of the instant, barely tolerable.
Oh humans. Grainily composed of future and past,
who are, Rilke said, forever saying goodbye.
Suppose I got my teeth down into the instant, and lived there,
who would I know? The ‘open’, he called it.
How a spaniel enters a room and is instantly part of it,
how he knows just enough to get by,
fixing on a human like an apple grafted to a pear.
How a woman puts her head in her hands after a difficult conversation, how another says,
I am a tree planted halfway up a hill, I cannot spread my canopy to the top.
How the human hope sparkles everywhere.
Where is the chorus that wails around the car,
who sings the notes that make suffering true?
Melancholy silvers the tongue with ice,
freezes the self.
More light, more light.
Soul sits on a high shelf and eats breakfast,
the moon is a broken cabbage below her.
The god that created hell
and the hell that created god.
The strange joy of desiring nothing.
Wide sweep of road
and the waving spinifex know no minutes.
Only blank sunshine, desert.
The car carries nothingness,
empty seatbelts glinting in the light.
I stopped at a roadside diner and ordered chips, the only food, with ten different sauce bottles,
prepared in the bubbling silence and grubby neon light of the lonely diner
where nine people lived in the midst of vast planetary scrub and wind-bent trees,
feeding giant road-trains that arrived and left with a million lights dancing
each driven by one poor-postured man all day and night in solitude.
Colossal swathes of road like time, stretching before and after.
I sing the whole human package with its clutch of knowings,
the heart with its grappling of love, statistically half open a quarter of the time.
The body that travels like Ophelia into the estuary with hands outstretched
and nothing in them but reeds and echoes
of when the dust of the present washes off the fingertips entirely.
A journey unfolds of itself as the road unfolds beneath the tyres.
And then I turned toward death, my durian-scented hitch-hiker.
Life, he said, that reddish glow, it yet haunts your cheeks.
He spoke and as he spoke I could not choose but hear.
I stand like an animal with life and death intermingled in me, not unlike you
who have never felt more alive.
What if I offered to take you off your own hands now?
What would you say?
He said, like one who could not politely be refused.
The smell of chips ghosted the car.
The black road had gripped my soul.
I prayed for a stay of dawn.
And I clutched his thready arm.
Can we be friends instead? Will you visit me again?
Before long, he said, before long.
And vanished, leaving me with the long haul of life.
Always asking, what next, what now?
The formal voice that sings the formal notes.
By David Stavanger
Reviewed by DAVE CLARK
I recently attended a training course that looked into depression. As I sat, sipping on an Earl Grey tea, the presenter went on an acronym spree, throwing them around like a farmer with an excess of seeds. I was beginning to feel lost with the terminology when a lady across the room called out.
‘None of this will help the people I work with.’
We all paused in wonder. The presenter, flustered by what they felt was an unnecessary interruption, ploughed ahead with the phrasing that he knew, continuing to lock many of us out of the discussion. The lady threw her hands up in the air and called out again.
‘This isn’t how people describe their experience of mental illness.’
Sweat pooling on his brow, the presenter was now the one who seemed lost.
‘Well, um, you’ll have to find ways of explaining it to them,’ before reverting back to jargon that put the barriers back up.
Working in the field of mental health as a counsellor, I have seen for many years how the language used around mental health can block people out of their own experience. It constrains them, shames them. People can be reduced to a number, a label, a stereotype, a problem, an illness. Their find themselves on the other side of the door, locked out of their own story.
David Stavanger’s latest collection of poetry, Case Notes (UWA Publishing, 2020), picks up a crowbar at the outset and pries open the door for more than a peek inside. As the poems unfold, there are times where his works cut open a hole in the wall and leads the reader through, bypassing dehumanising phraseology and into an intimate, raw and illuminating insight of lived experience with mental illness.
The book of thirty-seven poems steps immediately into the impact of bi-polar depression, suicide, medication and electroconvulsive therapy, revealing them with wording that puts skin and bones back onto mental health. About medication, he writes,
‘They taste like a mixture of chalk and talk shows’
About the complexity of depression, we see that ‘he wants guarantees that can’t be given’ (p12) and that ‘Certainty is the strangest thing’ (p23).
No hard-and-fast words that package it up neatly. Instead, Stavanger steps beyond bland phrasing and poignantly describes an intricate world of ambiguity. His poem, ‘Electric Journal’, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Newcastle Poetry Prize, sees the writer trying to keep hold of his mind. Stavanger is able to breathe words into corners of mental illness that are usually, at best, misunderstood, and often, disregarded.
Halfway through the book is a poem called ‘P is for Power,’ listing roles starting with ‘P’ who hold influence. Patient is not one of them, and Stavanger uses his writing to claim some of his power back, and in doing so, giving some to the reader. This is a compelling skill and one that I was moved by throughout the collection.
The works not only deal with mental illness. They pivot into balding, bingo, fading relationships with fathers and being a father to his son. And yes, dogs. Dogs are mentioned over fifty times in Case Notes, including a discussion between the writer and his dog in ‘Dog Minding.’ Who’s the writer and who’s the dog is up in the air and adds to the enjoyment of the piece.
I found a trilogy of poems about his relationship with his Dad especially touching. The lines
there’s no way
to resurrect the living’
will surely strike home for anyone who has found it difficult to relate with a parent and the regret over what has been, and what continues to be, when looking at those figures that raised us. There is a tenderness expressed in these writings, lamenting that it is possible to have a pulse and yet still not be fully alive.
Another topic to explore in his works is the one around toxic masculinity. ‘How to be an Alpha Male’ highlights the destructive façade of the social script fed to many of us men over the years. It is an area that needs to continue to be discussed and pulled apart, and I would be interested to hear more of it from Stavanger’s satirical perspective.
Not only is there clever pivoting of topics throughout the collection, Stavanger uses an array of forms – free verse, lyric, cut-and-creatively-paste from discussion forums, poetic memoir, prose – to keep the reader’s interest up. And throughout is a playful, wonderfully absurd use of language. At no point did I find the humour degrading his experience of mental illness. Rather, the black humour and flat-out whimsy provided a clever counterbalance to the weight of what he addressed and left me laughing at regular intervals.
In the poem ‘Mental Health Week,’ he writes:
‘If you tell them such things
they will tie you to the nearest chemist.’
There’s this outstanding line in ‘Male Patterns:’
‘In the savannah of middle-class suburbs
you seldom see a bald man lose a street fight
with a wheelie bin’
And also this cracker – ‘I got into $ for the art’ (p76).
These turns of phrase occur at a pleasing rate and caught me off guard every time. I dare anyone to read his glossary of terms at the back of the book and not burst into a blazing smile.
Each line in this book is well-crafted, bumping you further along a path you didn’t know you were walking down, but glad you did traverse. In a recent interview with Jackie Smith (Smith 2020), David spoke about how he wrote some poems as an unreliable narrator. To my reading, this cleverly reflected the variability we find in our own minds, regardless of the state of our mental health, sometimes stumbling along to who-knows-where. Case Notes does this with deliberate vulnerability and incisive wit.
I agree with Ali Whitelock’s (Rochford Street Review 2020) assessment of the book, that it gets inside you and reminds you of your humanity. In a world where stigma and acronyms and labels predominantly fill up the experience around mental illness, this work pushes that aside to reveal a beating heart and a mind fighting hard to get itself back. It brings clarity and gives an approachable language to complexity. That is a welcomed feat. And while he says in interviews that he does not write for awards or his peers, it is no surprise that four of the poems in this collection have been shortlisted for prizes over the years. Unsought-for but worthy recognition for one of Australia’s finest contemporary poets.
The final three poems in the collection release some of the pressure built up from a tightly coiled selection, showing us an author finding hope, recovering in the waters of the ocean and a sauna. He remarks at the start of the final poem, ‘New Age,’
‘We dream, we heal, we are reborn’
To capture in poetic form the struggle of mental illness and the steps towards healing is an achievement. To capture it in a way that leaves the reader wanting more of it is a sign of a collection worth reading, recommending and reflecting upon. And whether it was Stavanger’s intention or not, this work provides one more key to the doors that usually lock people out of their own experience when it comes to mental health. Thanks to the poems in Case Notes, the barriers of stigma and acronym-filled-labels are one step closer to being undone.
Rochford Street Review, 2020, Reaching inside you: Ali Whitelock reviews ‘Case Notes’ by David Stavanger, https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2020/09/03/ali-whitelock-reviews-case-notes-by-david-stavanger/. Accessed 2/10/20
Smith, Jackie 2020, Exploring ‘Case Notes’: an Interview with David Stavanger, https://jackiesmithwrites.wordpress.com/2020/05/16/exploring-case-notes-an-interview-with-david-stavanger/. Accessed 2/10/20
Stavanger, David 2020, Case Notes, UWA Publishing, Australia.
DAVE CLARK in an emerging writer-poet who does his living and breathing in Alice Springs. He works as a counsellor and enjoys reading, photography and giving voice to silenced stories. His works have appeared in Verdant, Adelaide, Glow and read on 8CCC and ABC Radio.
by Victoria Hannan
Reviewed by MEGAN CHEONG
In lockdown, distance regained some of its former authority. For six of the last twelve months, many Melburnians have lived, worked and didn’t work within a five kilometre radius of their home. My parents live 22 kilometres away, and though there isn’t a great tradition of hugging in my family, I spent much of lockdown longing to see my two-year-old wrap his arms around his grandfather’s neck.
I think it was this particular longing which made me feel, acutely, the distance between Mina and Elaine in Victoria Hannan’s Kokomo.
‘I guess you know why I’m here,’ she’d said the day before as she’d pulled out a wooden chair to sit opposite Elaine at the table.
‘Why don’t you tell me,’ Elaine said, her voice taut.
‘Mum…’ Mina studied Elaine’s face, her long thin nose, her cool blue eyes; she looked older, tired, just as sad. She wanted to hug her mother, but instead she reached over and put her hand on Elaine’s hand. Her skin felt cold like paper. They sat there for a minute, their hands touching. ‘Are you –’ Mina started, but Elaine stood.
It has been seven years since Mina left to work in London, and 12 years since Elaine last stepped out the front door of the family home. When Elaine is seen out on the street, Mina is called and immediately flies back to Melbourne full of questions that Elaine seems to have no intention of answering.
Across the road, the Chengs offer a different model of family life. Both Kira and her mother, Valerie, wrap their arms around Mina when they first see her after her long absence. Their house smells like ‘fabric softener on just-washed sheets’ (10) and glows golden, ‘warm light beaming from all the windows’ (33). The contrast between Elaine’s cool reception and Valerie’s garrulous welcome is so stark that I am briefly worried about the dimensionality of the characters. I am tired of reading mothers whose lives seem to begin and end with motherhood, mothers like a stain on the intricate tapestry of the protagonist’s past. Then, gazing at a family portrait of the Chengs in matching red velvet outfits, Mina is struck by a feeling, a ‘want’ that ‘growl[s] and stir[s] deep down inside her’ (11), a surge of unmistakably sexual desire that interrupts my mounting indignation about the prevalence of flat literary mothers.
This kind of uninhibited swerve characterises the acuity of Hannan’s depiction of Mina’s psyche as a tortuous network of lacunae and hunger. Though it is a rare pleasure to read a novel set in Melbourne, and so to be able to fill out the details of the brown brick porches and the birdsong, Kokomo is deeply rooted in the psychological, presenting readers with a highly filtered version of reality. As Mina circles in and around her childhood home, her thoughts range from Melbourne to London, past to present, love to sex, cycling endlessly back to Jack, her co-worker and the object of the desire that permeates the novel. She tugs compulsively at the screen of her phone, waiting for a message, some kind of contact, some sign of reciprocal feeling:
She looked at the message to Jack again. Delivered. Ignored. She knew his phone was never out of reach, that he slept with it under his pillow, that he looked at it when he woke up, in meetings, constantly. He must’ve seen her message. He must’ve. This was the longest they’d gone without talking since they started working together just over a year ago. She reread the message. Maybe it was too cold.
I’m too cold, she thought. I’m a bitch. I should’ve said something cute, something sexy. It should’ve been a small x, two? One big, one small. I’ve fucked it all up.
The swarm of assumptions and images that rush in to fill Jack’s silence and the way in which Mina obsesses over the orthography of her message is uncomfortably familiar. In the moments between Mina and her phone, Hannan captures the work we put into constructing ourselves with embarrassing clarity, yet something beyond flirtation is at stake here. For Hannan, the social media age is one of distance and longing. The distance between who we are and the person we carefully curate in text messages and posts only adds to the distance between me and you. In Kokomo, social media is a form of surveillance, everyone watching each other without ever reaching out, the ‘double tap…an easy substitute for friendship’ (64).
The distance between what is real and what is imagined is situated at the focal point of the novel. As well as struggling to rediscover the self that was swallowed up by the tragedies of her past, Mina works hard to reach Elaine, the Elaine buried under years of motherhood. And far from neglecting the character of the mother, Hannan makes a poignant centrepiece of Elaine’s life in a way that reminds me of all the stories and all the living stored up in every one of us. All of it within reach if you just reach out.
MEGAN CHEONG lives and works on Wurundjeri land. She is currently working as an editor and completing her Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Her work can be found in Overland and Farrago.
Yumna Kassab is a writer from Western Sydney. She studied medical science and neuroscience at university. Her first book of short stories, The House of Youssef, has been listed for prizes including the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, Queensland Literary Award and The Stella Prize. Her writing can be found online at Kill Your Darlings, Sydney Review of Books, Peril Magazine, Meanjin, The Sydney Morning Herald and now Mascara Literary Review.
Woman // Her Words
Alexis, 37, 1994
You can bring the horse to water but you can’t make it drink. You try to help people: you give them things, you teach them, and what do you get for your efforts? Nothing, absolutely nothing.
In the 70s, they gave them houses, they gave them jobs, food, they sent them to schools but you take the man out of the jungle but you damn right can’t take the jungle out of the man.
Those homes, drive 20kms that way and you’ll see what’s left of them. They took off the windows first. Then they started building fires in their homes. If they were hungry, they’d loot the general store and bugger the handouts we gave them.
Karmila, 22, 2007
Australia says no? That’s funny. There he is beating the crap out of you and you’ll tell him: hold a minute while I call this number. As if you’d ever do that. That’s well and good for people like them but you know who survives in the end? The one who keeps her head down and her trap shut.
Brigid, 41, 1988
We went for two weeks. We thought two or three days for the wedding to set our nails, get our hair done, and then they’d go off on their honeymoon, and we would be free, but by the time you factor in the jetlag and the little one being sick, we had a couple of days to ourselves, and the next thing you know, we’re packing our bags and heading home. Still it’s a lot more civilised than this circus of monkeys.
Ebony, 20, 2011
A woman walks into a bar, alone. People are going to talk to her. If you don’t want that, don’t go to bars.
Josephine, 52, 2008
You’re pretty adventurous for a Muslim girl. How do your parents feel about you going on these trips by yourself?
Marlene, 29, 2005
Everyone knows he hits her. It’s so obvious. How many times can you walk into a wall or a door? So far I’ve heard it’s a door, the wall, she tripped down the stairs, her hair got stuck in the drier, it’s from kickboxing. I don’t see why she doesn’t just pack up and leave. It’s that simple. Get your things together and go. You don’t need him. It’s not only that. You get tired of the stories. I don’t want anymore of it. Stop spinning your lies. We all see through them.
Amal, 41, 2018
I only listen to female musicians. I’ve had enough of men singing about hoes and bros.
Zizou, 65, 1992
The purity of the bloodline must be preserved. Our traditions, we have had them for thousands of years and just because we’re living in this country doesn’t mean we let go of what our people believe. These are our ways. They are your ways. Don’t you ever forget that.
Samah, 32, 2016
I knew the moment I saw him he was gay. He was wearing jewellery. I wanted to say to her: can’t you see it? It’s so obvious. I wonder if he’ll tell her or if it will drag on for months.
Francesca, 37, year unknown
I got sick of him calling me sweetie and honey. He’s my manager. It’s so unprofessional. And he’s only two years older than me. That makes it worse. So on Saturday, I sent him an email. Would you mind – I put this in the email – not calling me sweetie or honey in the interest of maintaining a professional relationship? I haven’t heard from him yet.
Saaeda, 72, 1999
She should be a teacher. Or a nurse. Those are good jobs for a girl. No engineering or being a mechanic. What man wants to come home to a wife with dirty fingernails?
Hala, 46, 2006
They brought up my carbon footprint again. What about the impact of your travelling on the environment? Don’t you care about the environment? So I said to them: what about the carbon footprint of you having kids? That shut them up.
Najwa, 5, 1987
There was a woman in the bank. She had a moustache. Mum said she’s not a man.
Marina, 40, 2001
I feel I have two woman trapped beneath my ribs. The first one – she wants to live an ordinary life – go to work, come home, cook, clean, sport on the weekend but the other one says that’s not good enough, you need to do more, you need to be living a super exciting life. Most days I have no clue what’s exciting anymore. You know what excites me, what turns me on? Staying at home with a cup of tea and a book.
Sam, 63, 2017
Every year, I like to go away somewhere new. I go away overseas…a week to myself…a new country. It keeps my mind fresh. It stops me from being bogged down in my routine.
Kathy, 59, 1990
I’m still wondering what I want to be when I grow up.
Marjane, 37, 2016
I wish she’d stop playing the victim. You’ve got it tough? So do the rest of us. The difference between us and you is we don’t sit around complaining about it. We get on with it.
Salam, 49, 2013
Lots of mums bring in their kids pretty young. They don’t want to but they have to. This is an expensive city to live in and they have bills, a mortgage, they have older kids in sport and so on but given the choice they’d want to be spending the time with their kids. We have a few newborns at the moment. I feel sorry for them. I get to hold a woman’s baby while she’s off working to make ends meet. You see it in their faces. It’s guilt, pure and simple. They know they’re missing out on time with their baby. I remember the first time I told a mum her daughter had taken her first steps that morning and I thought she would be excited, that this was good news, but it made her feel terrible that she’d missed out on her kid’s first step. Now I say nothing. I let them believe they said their first word at home, that when that little one takes a step in the living room, that is their first step.
Angeline, 28, 2003
We all assume that people are telling us the truth. We act as if there aren’t a million ways people lie. It might be the detail left out, it might be the choice to remain silent for a whole bunch of reasons. When you get a version of events, you think it’s the complete version. Nine times out of ten it’s not.
Shereen, 32, 2018
I am tired of living in the suburbs where nothing ever happens. These places are made for work and there’s nowhere to play. Each weekend, I go east to seek out new people and experiences because it’s so dead here. I mean literally nothing happens.
Zena, 21, 1994
You say a sentence, you dismiss an entire person’s life.
Zeroic, 35, 2018
My mind is not for sale.
Leila, 22, 2000
If something is destined for you, then it is destined for you. You don’t fight it, you don’t argue with it. In life, you have to surrender. Not everything is in our control.
Konsta, 42, 2017
You wouldn’t believe what she did. She called me up to ask if she could have a slice of cake. I thought she was joking because who would eat someone else’s birthday cake? She laughed as she ate my cake. She actually had the nerve to go ahead and eat it without me.
Brodie, 24, 2019
The crime is so much worse on paper.
Pearl, 73, 2004
Our lives were made out to be lesser than theirs. It took me years to see that.
Nicole, 45, 2004
Modern feminism has lost its way. Once upon a time, women protested with “Take Back the Night.” It took me ages to understand what that even meant. Take it back where? What does it mean to Take Back the Night? And you realise that there are black spots in every city. You simply don’t go there if you know what’s good for you. Maybe it’s like that for men too. I don’t know but as a woman it’s drummed into you where you can and can’t go. You are taught to fear while men, it seems, are the captains of their destiny and go where they please. And you have to ask how do we go from that – protesting we should have the safety in dark places – to a politician advising a woman to not walk in the local park at night because that’s asking for it. We have to remember a victim should never be blamed for the crime. The onus is on the criminal, for society to act and say clearly this is not acceptable. I blame feminism. Somewhere along the way, we gave up. Maybe we just grew tired of our demands not being heard. There are times in life you accept your lot, you throw up your hands and you accept your place in the machine.
Mimi, 9, 1989
Mummy went crazy. They took her away. Daddy cooked our breakfast. I tie my hair and my friends plait it.
Cass, 32, 2006
Whatever you do, don’t cross the river.
Ursula, 35, 2001
You could say she had enough. It’s easy to reach breaking point. Every single day, there’s so much crammed in, so much to do, there’s bound to be something left undone. So she packed her bags and left just like that, no warning. Her daughter says she took one suitcase, the neighbours say she walked off with her handbag and sneakers in a Kmart bag. She caught the 11:09 train. She hasn’t called, she doesn’t answer anyone’s call but she’s kept the same number. You can call it. It’s not disconnected or anything. Her daughter wanted to declare her missing but the police say they knocked on her door, made sure it was her, asked some questions and then closed the case. The police had these words to say to anyone who asked. “She’s a woman best left alone.” Her daughter says: are the police saying that or were those her exact words? Either way, does it matter?
Disclaimer: Any resemblance to real people, living or otherwise, including their speech, is purely coincidental. The writer refuses any responsibility for words or whole sentences misheard. Years and names have been changed to protect the identity of the speaker.
Nicole Smede is a musician, poet and educator of Worimi and European heritage, exploring a reclamation and reconnection to ancestry through language, poetry and song. Her work has been broadcast on national and international radio, published in anthologies and journals and features on ferries, in visual art and sound art works. Nicole is grateful to live, learn and create on Dharawal country. https://nicolesmede.com
I hear voices of ancestors
crossing this country
with an anxious energy
I tread carefully
amongst old Lore
old grandmother trees
to ancient summits
where songs ebb
and flow with the wind
the songlines of my body
stirring the spirit within.
platypus in Gatthang
The landscape vibrates loud
beaming brightly from boulders
an intense hum of wings
where fearless thrill seekers
deep sea divers
rocky shelves overhead
trembling under our feet
stoney shoals set
immersed in cool silence
we tread tranquil waters
toward the embankment
we tread water
and the soundtrack rings loud
in our ears.
Yellow blossoms –
like bright shards of light
disrupt this green and grey landscape
they’re early this year.
Damp moss softens
underfoot moulded steps
and I ascend this rocky slope
does it, like the trees
recall my last visit?
birds in syncopated song
cut through crisp air
like the cold to the tip
of my nose
all is alive
in an awakening spring.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain
by Mirandi Riwoe
Reviewed by KATELIN FARNSWORTH
‘Meriem hopes that her wounds too will mend, that her jagged edges and disfigured depths will fade. Disappear. That one day she is restored enough to abide a loved one’s touch upon her skin’
I like stories that are raw, unflinching in their portrayals. Stories that pull you apart in some way, stretch you out, move you slowly, deeply, viscerally.
Dirt, sweat, rust, red, blisters, gullies, scrubland, blood. Cicadas and birdsong. These are some of the arresting images Stone Sky Gold Mountain conjures up. Bristling with poetry, almost every line in the book cuts in, places you somewhere else. Unsettling and thought-provoking, Stone Sky Gold Mountain is an accomplished piece of literary writing from a controlled and highly talented author. Indeed, Riwoe has many awards under her belt already, with a Stella Prize shortlisting for her novella The Fish Girl (Seizure, 2017) and a recent The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award for Stone Sky Gold Mountain.
We begin with Ying, and her brother, Lai Yue. Arriving in North Queensland, to a Chinese settlement, the two siblings hope to earn enough money to travel back home and buy back their enslaved siblings. It is 1877, the Gold Rush era. The camp they live in prickles with violence, teeming with gut-wrenching horrors and racism. Heavy but yet not difficult to read, Riowe is careful with her displays of racism; the writing is never didactic or moralising; instead the prose feels free and honest, acknowledging a harsh and sick reality without trying to glorify or shock for shock’s sake. In male dominated goldfields, Ying disguises herself as a boy, terrified that the truth will be uncovered.
Atmospheric, bringing to light an aspect of history in colonial Australia that’s often forgotten or simply disregarded, the story, particularly at the start, progresses slowly and took me time to digest and understand. But I am better for it. This isn’t a book that should be read quickly, although the writing is lush, full, and deep with nuanced observations. I think this is a that book yearns to be sat with, to linger within you, right inside your body, to be felt. Riwoe is one of those special writers; creating worlds and putting words together that truly feel transformative as you read, allowing you to uncover new layers of understanding all the time.
Strongly character driven and sparser on plot, the narrative shifts between three perspectives (Ying’s, Lai Yue’s, and Meriem’s). Lai Yue finds work as a carrier on an overland expedition; in Maytown, Meriem is a white girl, disliked and excluded by the town, working as a maid for local sex worker, Sophie. Ying befriends Meriem, finding a joyful space away from her brother, who is desperately unhappy and self-destructive. While an unlikely friendship, Ying and Meriem strike up a close bond. The relationship between Ying and Meriem was a pleasure to read, touching in its sentimentality without being cloying or over the top. While their verbal communication is light, they communicate in other ways; gifting food and sharing what little they can with one another. It was these scenes I loved these most, the gentleness the two of them shared was striking:
‘Merri smiles, revealing pink gums…Ying smiles back at her, her face softening into the tree. The air is muggy with the threat of rain and smoke…they listen to the comfortable dollop of a fish breaching the water’s surface, and along the river’s shingle banks, the branches of the paperbarks reach for each other and entwine’ (chapter 25, location 2160)
Ying also finds comfort working for Jimmy, a local shop owner. Each character in the novel is rendered convincingly:
‘Jimmy has the grace of a crane, his soft face is long and his hair thins a little on top. Behind his spectacles his eyes are kind. He doesn’t allow spitting, smoking or swearing in the shop, and always insists on a washed face, clean hands’ (chapter 10, location 1064)
The tone and mood of the novel is deployed seemingly effortlessly. The language is unpretentious but always vivid, original, captivating. All three characters wrestle with their own demons in varying ways. When a serious crime takes place in the town of Maytown, suspicion falls on Ying. The book shows us the best and worst of people, culminating in an exciting and well-paced finish.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain is consistently powerful, filled with tension. It’s well-paced and readable, despite its heavy themes of pain and loss. Feelings of connection and displacement are dealt with unflinchingly, and we are drawn intimately into the characters, into their emotions and challenging circumstances.
Significant questions are explored throughout – questions of identity and self, belonging, gender, resettlement, and migration. A destabilising story, the novel breaks down many of the dominant narratives we know about the nation called Australia, giving space to marginalised voices and examining ‘us and them’ notions. The narrative suggests history has not been accurately understood or documented, and as you read, questions rise to the surface: How far has this nation really come in its own prejudices? Do we know the full story? Can ever know the full story? In subtle terms, it poses the question: Do we, white Australia, even want to know the full story? Do we care?
‘Perhaps he doesn’t have loved ones across the ocean far from here, waiting for him. Perhaps they are lost. She has heard of her countrymen who have fled violence and homelessness to come to this place. But to not return! She’s never considered the idea’ (chapter 10, location 1029).
Without sanctimony, the book asks the reader to examine their prejudices, to consider the stories they’ve been told, and the stories that are still continually shared and perpetuated.
History, or we what know of history, does not always tell the truth, is not always accurate. In Australia, stories go unheard all the time, unacknowledged, pushed to the sidelines, forgotten about. With a refusal to listen, Australia is land of hidden layers, unheard narratives, and narrow view points. It’s these hidden layers the book is occupied with, giving voice to the unvoiced, making space for the those who’ve rarely been given such room.
As Mindy Gill writes in Sydney Review of Books ‘there is the way things have been told, and the way things were’. In other words, in this colonised land, single perspectives become the only perspective. Stone Sky Gold Mountain deftly challenges these skewed angles, asking us to reconsider what we think is true, and why we think it’s true. In doing so, the novel unpacks and disrupts our notion of this country and its brutal past (and ongoing present). This is brave writing, and Riwoe allows breathing space for the reader to sit between words, to consider what has been left absent, and imagine from there.
Riwoe steers the narrative ahead confidently; the writing is finely structured, with intricate detail and lyrical descriptions. An acute book of extreme strength, from its depictions of the land, to its layered characters, readers are invited to break open stale ideas and pre-conceived notions. With depth and insight, Riwoe digs into structural racism in a novel that I suspect will reveal more with each subsequent read. Rendered in enthralling and exquisite detail, Stone Sky Gold Mountain gives us a way in to realties we may never before have encountered in our reading. It deserves all of its awards.
Gill, Mandy, https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/riwoe-stone-sky-gold-mountain/
KATELIN FARNSWORTH is a writer from the Dandenong Ranges. She has been published in Overland, Tincture Journal, The Victorian Writer and Award Winning Australian Writing 2015 and 2017. Her manuscript ‘Found Again’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Penguin Literary Prize.
by Prithvi Varatharajan
Reviewed by MIRIAM WEI WEI LO
Reading Prithvi Varatharajan’s Entries, is like tuning in to an erudite conversation. At first my brain struggles. Then, like a middle-aged woman on the tenth day of exercise boot-camp, I suddenly find myself keeping up.
Twelve poems in, I’m not only keeping up, but I’m transfixed by a moment of connection in the (Proustian) prose poem “Speak, Memory”:
Writing memory transforms a beautifully shifting thought-picture into a static one, there for you to re-read but not to re-remember. It preserves memory while at the same time killing it. (15)
Varatharajan is discussing the fluidity of pre-written memory, of how it “seems to be fluid, letting you remember the same event in slightly different ways each time you recall it”. This may seem impossibly intellectual (like, oh, historiography) but I’ve had just that experience when I’ve written down memories of my own. Writing them down seems to kill, or at least fix, them in some way – like a dead butterfly pinned and mounted in a display box.
Other points of connection emerge, like the star-points of a constellation. Before I dot them out, I will venture some comments on form. Most of Varatharajan’s ‘entries’ are prose poems. There is the occasional foray into free verse (playing with many different line lengths), a couple of odes (one very cryptic), and one ghazal (that keeps the radif and dispenses with the qafia). The prose poems push at the ‘poem’ end of the boundary – there is a very deliberate prosaic-ness to their rhythm and diction as well as a palpable resistance to the kind of closure one often expects in a poem: the kind exemplified in, say, the closing couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet. This resistance to closure is also a resistance to synthesis and evaluation – this gives many of the prose poems the feel of an unedited documentary: reading them feels like watching live-stream footage from someone’s webcam. Except there are two crucial differences: first, these episodes include interior monologue; second, these episodes of footage are curated. They are carefully snipped-out portions.
The points of connection that emerge for me from Varatharajan’s curated entries include a sense of ambivalence towards cosmopolitanism. The poem “Inner City Reflection” submerges the reader, via the body of the narrator, in a pool of sparkling light – the inner-city lap pools of a thousand hotels come to mind – as our thoughts are directed to the sameness of the global urban landscape: “I’m in an everywhen of the central business district” (22). Varatharajan is summoning up metaphors for the cosmopolitan urban professional experience – an experience he participates in, like a swimmer entering a pool; but also steps out from, troubled. Varatharajan keeps disturbing the smooth aesthetic surface of cosmopolitan life in subsequent poems:
I was put off, in that group, by the pride taken in an appearance of effortless cosmopolitanism; I say ‘the appearance of’ because I’m sure it’s effortful – going through complex visa and immigration processes, not to mention the daily difficulty of communication in second and third languages (“Sombre Reflections” 71).
Bonny Cassidy, in her introduction to this book, highlights the ambivalence of Varatharajan’s poetic posture and celebrates it as “the most honest position” (xiv). In this instance, the ambivalence is fuelled by tension between the desire to obey the conventions of cosmopolitan etiquette and the desire to achieve more meaningful human contact.
Love and death twine their way through this collection in a double-dance of presence and absence – appearing occasionally as muted erotic touch: “I think of the exact weight and shape of you” (“Love Poem” 4); manifesting in the dead bodies of birds (“Bird Death” 5); materializing in gestures of friendship: “Julene in Spain says next time I’m in Europe she’ll visit me in whichever country I’m staying in” (“Ode to European Friends” 36); and receding through loss: “A Literary Shadow” documents the entry and exit of a significant connection – the South Indian writer Ashokamitran.
Travel is a constant reference. There are major and minor movements. The major movements take place between cities: Turin, Chennai, Adelaide, Melbourne, Istanbul – each of these places, and others, are captured in unique poems of anecdote and description (including “Opera Diary”, “A Literary Shadow”, “City Selves”, and “Nazim Hikmet and Radiohead in Cihangir”). The minor movements are between a succession of share-houses – “(Im)permanence” is a particularly helpful exploration of the difficulties of shared accommodation.
Some of Varatharajan’s most resonant poems, for me, are those that document minority experiences. I admire Varatharajan’s exquisite attention to the detail of these experiences:
The music is folky with paradoxical touches of darkness and whimsy. There’s no-one else like me there, so of course, I wear my difference heavily; of course, I berate myself for being so self-conscious: get over it, idiot (“Identity Anecdote” 23).
I don’t often come across representations of non-white traveller anxiety, so I am grateful for this, from a poem recounting experiences in Budapest:
I’m not sure where my defensiveness has come from … The Hungarian Prime Minister addressed the Viennese parliament today, and said Hungary was not interested in replicating Western Europe’s ‘failed’ experiment with multiculturalism by letting in non-European migrants. That is probably preying on my mind (“Incident in a Café, Incident in a Supermarket” 38-9).
I laughed out loud, with a sense of déjà vu, at this:
What’s to be done about being in the margins, since I find myself here all the time, even if I tell myself, some years, that I’m not going to keep putting myself in that position through my obstinate self-identifications? All that’s left to do now is to get comfortable, put my feet up in this virtual armchair, and find incisive perspectives on the world beyond the margin – perspectives that only a life in the margins could provide. Or – another option – suppress thinking about the margin and the mainstream, because this is after all just a story we tell ourselves, even if that story appears grounded in lived experience (“Occupying the Margins” 52).
I have chafed, as a writer, at the restrictions of the ‘Majority Gaze’ which seems to want to position me, always, in terms of my Asian-Australian ethnicity; with less interest in the many other dimensions of identity I currently occupy (‘housewife’, for example, seems particularly unworthy). I am anxious not to frame Varatharajan in a similarly restrictive manner; his work certainly resists any easy ‘ethnic’ categorisation; and yet, ironically, I am drawn to his poems about family, precisely for the deftness and honesty with which he handles the ethnic dimension of minority experience:
Last night I recorded a conversation in the kitchen … We dig up some dirt from the past. I describe my feeling of being embarrassed by our religious culture as a teenager, being embarrassed to bring my friends home because of this (nearly all my friends were white); I ask whether they were aware of this embarrassment, and if so, how it made them feel. In their answer they describe some of the other things that me and my brother did that were upsetting to them, which are heart-rending to hear; they relate to how we characterised their way of speaking English to schoolfriends we brought home. I say, ‘That must have been hurtful.’ It goes on like this for a while. It’s like a family therapy session (“Memories in the Kitchen” 62-3).
Entries is not an easy read. I confess there are a couple of poems that completely eluded me (“Apperceptions” and “Informal Poetics”) but it is still worthy of close attention. Other readers might like to mine it for its range and depth of literary references. Fans of arthouse films might find their own points of connection too. Readers looking for ‘Australia’ will find it here – in ironic refractions. I’ll conclude with one of them, from “The Australian Bicentenary, and a Memory”:
A friend of mine today recalled how he sat in a cinema in St Louis as a young boy (in 1989 or 1990), watching a selection of footage from the Australian Bicentenary … Going to see the Bicentenary was his father’s attempt to get his son enthused about the country they’d soon be moving to. As he was describing the scene to me – a childhood memory that seemed incongruous (You watched the Australian Bicentenary in a cinema in St Louis?) – I warmed a little, thinking: ‘Ah, this is real. I’m writing about something real.’ (50)
MIRIAM WEI WEI LO is intrigued by complexity and seduced by simplicity. Simultaneously. She teaches creative writing at Sheridan College in Perth, Western Australia. Find her online @miriamweiweilo (Instagram).
The Tiniest House of Time
By Sreedhevi Iyer
Wild Dingo Press
Reviewed by JENNNIFER MACKENZIE
“How will you remember her?”
“As someone who knew so much, and kept it well hidden.” (316)
Sreedhevi Iyer’s The Tiniest House of Time is a book for our time, examining as it does the profound silences that a family lives with, silences embedded in a history of displacement, and the uprooting from what was considered home. In tracking hidden and unspoken histories, of which there is little written record, the author has written something of a psychoanalytically focused and politically acute narrative, as she explores through her finely structured novel, an evocation of generational trauma across migratory continental space. With much sensitivity and intelligence, Iyer delineates the colonial legacy of race relations, and how this legacy weighs down on those societies still navigating them.
The novel begins with Sandhya, who has lived and worked in Melbourne for some time, returning to Kuala Lumpur to be at the bedside of her beloved grandmother, Susheela. It is clear that Sandhya’s departure from Malaysia some years before has been a painful one, with unresolved and awkward family issues emerging as the narrative proceeds.
The scope of the novel, moving as it does from contemporary Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur in the 1990s during the Reformasi period, and back to colonial Burma in the 1930s, allows themes of recurrent events, of the emotional resonance of love and terror to ricochet over time and place. The structure of the novel is very effective in the way it allows Susheela’s story in particular to emerge in a piecemeal fashion, and to connect it to the growing crisis in the life of Sandhya. Iyer’s skill as a writer is displayed in the way she employs slightly different techniques in the Burma and Kuala Lumpur sections without in any way sacrificing the overall unity of the novel. Somehow, she has managed to pull off a sense in the Burmese sections of both a dreamlike yet naturalistic portrayal of an Indian family’s life in what was then Rangoon. With careful delineation, Iyer, with exceptional clarity and restraint, floods a number of events rich with incipient trauma. Scenes that appear to render the calm placidity of family life, transform into incidents so utterly terrifying that they resonate as a kind of collective and generational stigmata.
The Sastri family is introduced as living a comfortable life, centred on traditional and domestic ritual, in British occupied Rangoon, where the family patriarch works as a Postmaster. His daughter, Susheela, displays a strong relationship with places of ritual, from the family domestic shrine to the imposing structure of the Shwedagon, and inhabiting such spaces becomes for her a source of strength and comfort for the rest of her life.
The security of the family soon appears to be illusory as world events overtake their lives. Being part of the Indian population in Rangoon, a liminal presence between the British colonisers and the subjugated and increasingly restive Burmese, they become a highly visible target for communal violence. A heartbreaking sense of carefully insisted upon racial divisions is highlighted through Susheela’s friendship with Zaw, a Burmese boy, a friendship which results in his public humiliation. The first indication of imminent conflagration is presented in a devastatingly restrained manner in a paragraph describing why Susheela was now staying home from school:
She had been forced to stop school the previous year, but not due to poor results….But one day, the school bus was stopped mid-trip on Campbell Road. All the passengers had to get out. Susheela climbed down with her friends and stood by the side of the road. They watched the Burmese men burn it, with the Indian driver still inside. Since then, Susheela stayed home.. given to sudden quietude that only a trip to the Shwedagon would dispel. (161/2)
The novel also addresses the difficulties and constraints of decision making when the world as one knows it is on the brink of collapse. With the Japanese about to attack as World War Two accelerates, Postmaster Sastri, confounded by his loyalty to, and pressure from, the British, makes two fatal decisions. On seeming impulse, he unaccountably decides to take the family to the Shwedagon, when reports of large-scale trouble are rife, and when the streets are mysteriously empty of the bustle of the everyday. The scenes of their return home from the pagoda are terrifying, and result in family tragedy. His second decision, to delay his family’s departure by boat to India, leads to them joining a very large contingent of refugees who are forced to make the long trek by foot to the relative safety of Assam:
Trudge, shuffle, clink, flap, wail. These were the only noises Susheela could hear from crying babies to clanging pots and pans. From morning, when she stood up from her dry, baked earth, till night, when Father decided they would stop, along with some other families, and rest under a tree. (194/5) and:
Later, Susheela would have no memory of actually reaching Mandalay, the place of a thousand temples. She only would recall reaching a camp with the multitudes who swallowed space till the horizon. (200)
The sections of The Tiniest House of Time set in the Kuala Lumpur of the 1990s reflect the vitality and random topography of a large city. The almost dreamlike Burmese sections here have a different quality of urgency, as the writing becomes more incidental, incremental, and grungy in effect. Just as the narrative in Rangoon is underpinned by Susheela’s relationship with Zaw, and his growing political activism, Sandhya’s engagement with the politics of Reformasi, and the rise and fall of Anwar Ibrahim, is set in motion by her relationship with Faisal. A charismatic student leader, intellectually gifted, multilingual and well-connected, he appears to be too good to be true. A couple of incidents reveal his darker side, and during a massive demonstration, where the crowd is bombarded with water cannon, he is arrested and disappears from Sandya’s life, although he makes a brief and telling re-appearance late in the novel.
The Kuala Lumpur scenes sweep beautifully over the messiness and camaraderie of student life, the excitement of widening political awareness and subsequent disillusionment. The novel describes well the excitement, the current passing through the body, which can accompany political engagement:
She played with the percussion of the movement, acutely aware of being present, being relevant. The thrill of operating underground, of voicing in the streets what they normally shared in whispers. (238)
A crucial event occurs when Sandhya is travelling on a train, after going out to buy Faisal a birthday present. Just as Iyer excelled in presenting scenes of imminent violence in the Rangoon sections, in this episode thugs roam the carriages, shouting “Anwar or Mahathir?”, and brutally beating those who give the wrong answer. Sandhya manages to escape, but in the aftermath, Faisal appears to be more taken by the drama of the event vulnerability, its moral implications, and Sandhya’s vulnerability.
In the wash up, Sandhya is expelled for taking part in the demonstration that sees Faisal arrested. His mother categorically rules out any future marriage, and Sandhya in great distress returns to the family home. With Susheela, she goes to the local temple, and together they partake in ritual catharsis, as Sandhya, with great strength brought upon by overwhelming grief, smashes 108 coconuts. .(prologue, 278)
The Tiniest House of Time is an illuminating portrayal of the Indian diaspora across decades, with a sense of non-belonging, of always being a foreigner. Susheela in particular takes comfort in what remains in any situation, because no matter what difficulty, it cannot compare with the embodiment of the earlier apprehension of the ineluctable nature of trauma. The long trek to India, the disease and filth, the bombing, the sudden disappearance of her Anglo-Indian companion, Stuart, who attaches himself to her family, remain images which can erupt painfully at any time. The contemporary scenes where Sandhya, and a number of family members, visit Susheela in hospital provide the ballast and essential reference point for Sandhya’s growing understanding of forgotten episodes in family history, and provide her with the determination to seek out further information in Burma. These sections could have been shortened, with a few too many family scenes, well written as they are. However, this is a minor issue in what is an illuminating, warm-hearted and courageous novel; a moving tribute to those many who have been caught in a migratory impulse not of their own making.
JENNIFER MACKENZIE is a poet and reviewer, focusing on writing from and about Asia. Her most recent book is Navigable Ink (Transit Lounge 2020).
A Passing Bell: Ghazals for Tina
By Paul Kane
White Crane Books
Reviewed by PAUL SCULLY
“Paul Kane is a poet, critic, scholar and librettist” who splits his time between Australia (principally rural Victoria) and the USA and is well-known in the former as a driving force in the Mildura Writers Festival, along with Tina Kane, a textile artist and conservator who “has published numerous essays, translations and reviews” in both countries. “Tina died in Australia on 25 July 2015” after a two-year battle with motor neurone disease.
“The road I walk is one of sadness/ …. /Every time my step falls upon the road, I admit my bondage.” (Ghazal 72)
“Our love was always a response to the anguish of this world/ … / How could our anguish not be beautiful?” (Ghazal 73)
Paul Kane’s A Passing Bell abounds in phrases that could be extracted as summaries of the work. I chose the above to capture the tones of litany, compulsion and grief that pervade it, and the striving for some species of beauty that is part of all poets’ motivation.
A Passing Bell is book-ended by a Prologue in the voice of a third person commentator, witness or presence – a God or a God-substitute, the unnamed Master (perhaps Hafiz ), the spirit of love – that frames the ghazals that follow as involuntary exercises shaped by “a loss so fundamental he is shocked to be alive.” There is also an Epilogue, which is in Tina’s voice and which acknowledges her role in leading him out of his “underworld” “of cavernous grief” at her death to a point where he can turn his Orpheus away from her Eurydice.
Tina was (remains?) Kane’s wife and collaborator in the 2014 translation and illustration of twelve Hafiz ghazals, so the choice of the ghazal form within the Sufic remit seems natural and even an extension of that earlier work. (Kane mentions Hafiz by name in Ghazal 8, though he does not venture equivalence between himself and the great poet in any way). It might even be viewed as another joint project of his words and her animating spirit. This may speak of a deeper affiliation, it may hark back to collaboration, or it may be the product of aptness to themes. There are signs suggestive of the former– the work’s character as a verbal pilgrimage of sorts, the congruence of earthly and spiritual love, the marriage of truth and love, the invocation of a Master presence, the implication of stages in the grieving process (à la Kübler-Ross) and/or stations of enlightenment, e.g. “Passing” in the title, and references to an afterlife.
The ghazal’s last bayt (couplet) usually mentions the poet or narrator by name or requires a reversion to him or her in some way, whereas this occurs only in the Prologue, and then in the voice of the third person. All the ghazals in the body of the work revert to Tina and the Epilogue reverts to them both. This variation is consistent with the work’s inferred joint authorship, and its devotional and Sufic compass – the lover becomes the beloved and both manifest love itself.
While I am not overly familiar with Kane’s other poetry, internet samplings (Cordite, Snorkel, for example) make clear that A Passing Bell is a conscious, if natural, departure from all but the Hafiz translations. These samplings are quite different in construction and tone, and more modernistic, though there is a not infrequent correspondence in themes. Kane’s career demonstrates both a deep and broad interest in collaboration and cross-cultural forms, such as his and John Kinsella’s Renga: 100 Poems; and it is worth noting that Ouyang Yu has translated Kane’s poetry into Chinese.
There is a concept in the Qu’ran known as tawhid that signifies the uniqueness of God as creator and sustainer of the universe and is sometimes interpreted in Sufism as making us all part of God – in Attar’s A Conference of the Birds, for example, the birds resolve their pilgrimage to find their king, Simorgh, by peering into a mirror.
These comments are not intended as a religious or form-centred reduction of A Passing Bell. It so pulses with emotion and both light and dark humanity, and so alternates between the dirge-song and the lyric that it can be savoured without religious overtones and resonates beyond the form’s strictures. Nor do I want to stray into arguments of appropriation. The poetry is too organic to sustain such an accusation. Despite its deeply personal content, there is no sense of voyeurism in reading this book, though readers will naturally reach out to their own experiences and that is perhaps intended.
By the publication of A Passing Bell, Kane reasserts his faith in poetry – he is no Laura Riding – despite the traumatic disjuncture of Tina’s death. Meaning is neither necessarily singular nor requires certitude. Poetry is living by “words whose purpose is to say what cannot be said” (Ghazal 8), though “poetry” is itself “merely a word”. Poems are “like newborns shocked by the harsh alien air” of utterance and “part of a larger life which includes death, naturally,/ but only because, for them, death is another kind of life”, a life to be treasured “for it has touched you, Tina, and I cannot let it go” (Ghazal 46). In any event, “I wrote everything for you and waited like a child for notice” and this long poem is “at most a hint, perhaps an invitation or petition” for an acknowledgement in absentia and thus a “prayer” (Ghazal 130).
We all might be warmed by a prayer said by or for us, be it religious, secular or a simple contemplation of nature. Paul Kane has been brave and caring enough to share his and Tina’s.
PAUL SCULLY is a Sydney-based writer. His second collection, Suture Lines, was published in December, 2016 by Guillotine Press. His work has been published in print and online journals in Australia and the USA.