Debbie Lim was born in Sydney. Her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies including regularly in the Best Australian Poems series (Black Inc.), Contemporary Australian Poetry and Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (both Puncher & Wattmann) as well as journals such as Cordite, Mascara, Island and Magma (UK). Her prizes include the Rosemary Dobson Award and she was commended in the Poetry Society UK’s 2013 National Poetry Competition. Her chapbook is Beastly Eye (Vagabond Press). She is working on a full-length collection.
The Year of Contagion
In times of virus
each cough hangs
a dark afterthought.
leaves its tingling
on the skin—
Still air can turn
Better whipping winds.
It remains unofficial
whether tears are effective
they keep urging us
to move on. We wear our days
with a new caution,
learn different ways
riddled with porosities,
we trail microclimates
like small habitable clouds.
Our peripheries burn.
By Chloe Higgins
Reviewed by ADELE DUMONT
The title of Chloe Higgins’ debut memoir is shorthand for her two younger sisters, victims of a fatal car accident when the author is aged seventeen. Her family avoids using their individual names, explains Higgins, so that ‘they are separate from us, an abstract thing on which we need not hang our pain’. In her frank depictions of drug use, sex work, mental illness, and her fraught relationship with her bereaved mother, Higgins might be described as unflinching in her approach. But the telling of this story is equally characterised by a flinching: from the memory of her sisters; from her own pain.
‘In reality, you speak of everything except those who have just died’, says Higgins of the immediate wake of her sisters’ deaths. This reality is mirrored structurally in Higgins’ narrative: the girls themselves are notably absent figures until late in the book. According to Higgins, ‘The most painful part of grief isn’t immediately after the unthinkable happens, but a little later, once the space empties and other people go back to their normal lives’. Her focus is squarely on the aftermath of the accident: how this single cataclysmic event has reverberated through her own life. In this, it bears comparison to Roxane Gay’s Hunger or Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s I Love Elena. The violence at the heart of those memoirs is inflicted, and not accidental, but all three are compelling accounts of how trauma can manifest not only psychologically but also bodily.
In what Higgins calls her ‘descent’, ‘slowly, the line of what I will and won’t do moves further and further from my pre-accident self’. She fleshes out this gradual unravelling in meticulous and moving detail. In chapters which shift back and forth in time, and which traverse continents (Kolkata, Manhattan, Wollongong) we follow the narrator as her ‘attempts at escape turn into obliterations’. Drugs allow her to live ‘in a world separate from the one the girls have been taken from’, one where ‘everything is all extremes and opposites’. She uses sex as distraction; as an attempt to satisfy her ‘skin hunger’, but ultimately this behaviour leaves her shrouded in shame, and further disconnected from her own body. Eventually, she is admitted into a psychiatric ward. Higgins closes her account of her time in the ward with a skilful shifting into conditional tense; a technique Lisa Knopp calls ‘perhapsing’(1). Here, she draws together what could have been; foreshadows what is yet to come; identifies her incapacity to express her pain as catastrophic ; and deems such expression critical to healing. ‘If I had my time on the ward over’, she writes:
I would have shown them what I couldn’t tell them.
And then when someone came to me, unable to express themselves, I would know what they needed: the space to perform their emotions.
And maybe this story would have ended more appropriately than injecting heroin into my veins and letting strangers insert body parts inside me because I didn’t know how to say please, someone hold me.
This is what grief looks like: an inability to speak. (p.131)
As well as charting the author’s gradual unravelling, The Girls traces her incremental growth. Higgins rejects the idea that the grieving process is innate or linear, instead framing grieving as something that we need to learn; like learning to ride a bike, it involves ’falling over and fumbling as we go’. She must learn how to perform her grief; ‘to teach myself to cry at the appropriate times’. Slowly, she learns how to navigate her shame and guilt, and to balance her own need for space with her mother’s competing need for closeness. She learns how to be gentle with herself, and how to live healthily. While the book’s temporal and geographical transitions might indicate a certain vitality, part of Higgins’ growth in fact comes from moving away from this restlessness and towards a place of stillness. Sitting still, she says, is ‘the hardest thing to do’; she finds it is ‘little things’ that allow her to anchor herself: reading, walking, running, swimming in nature. This recalls Jessie Cole’s memoir, Staying, in which the natural world is grounding, stopping Cole from surrendering to a state of grief that has the power to destroy her.
All memoirists must grapple with the fallibility of their memories, but this dilemma is all the more acute for Higgins, since her own too-painful memories have been the object of her concerted attempts at a ‘forgetting verging on obliteration’. How then to depict her experience on the page? It is a convention of narrative nonfiction to reconstruct scene and dialogue for dramatic purposes, and mostly, Higgins succeeds in rendering her experiences viscerally. ‘Trauma and time erode memory’ though, and this basic truth means sometimes her prose loses precision and colour. A scene, for example, in which she wields a kitchen knife against her mother (‘It will be easier this way… We can all be with Carlie and Lisa again’), no doubt contains a concentration of feeling for the author, but falls oddly flat on the page. Swathes of dialogue feel stilted, and at times veer into the expository:
‘Are you friends again yet?’ Dad asks the morning after, as he and I are on our way to see the therapist.
‘Yes, of course. Why?’
‘Because you were so angry at each other. You came to me in tears’.
‘Oh yeah, but we’re friends again now’. (P.86)
Perhaps in an attempt to patch over the cracks in her memory, Higgins includes lengthy excerpts from her father’s diary; her mother’s Facebook posts; correspondence with her editor. This approach feels piecemeal however, and where Higgins is strongest is actually where she straightforwardly admits to the gaps in her memory, and the shame attached to this. One of the most powerful lines of the entire book: ‘The thing is this: I hardly remember anything about my sisters’. Honouring the murkiness of her memory makes the glimpses of her sisters that do return to her all the more tender. She does not remember being physical with her siblings for example, but then, looking at a photo, she observes how her and Carlie’s bodies are ‘pushed up against one another, our arms meeting in the centre’. ‘This makes me happy’, she says, ‘to know I hadn’t always pushed her away’.
Of the violence inflicted upon her, Osborne-Crowley says: ‘by far the most dangerous element of my assault was the fact that I lived in a world where it was unspeakable’(2). Maria Tumarkin, writing about the deaths of highschool children writes: ‘No place until recently in our Western anglophone culture for overflowing, unpushawayable grief. Big grief. Long grief’ (3). Higgins is acutely conscious of the unspeakability of what she has experienced. In her Author’s Note she says some people advised her to publish her story pseudonymously, or to leave out the ‘scandalous parts’.
But I’m sick of people not talking about the hard, private things in their lives. It feels as though we are all walking around carrying dark bubbles of secrets in our guts, on our shoulders, in our jumpy minds. We are all walking around thinking we’re the only one struggling with these feelings. And the more I open up about them, the more I realise I am not the only one struggling with my secrets and my shame. (Pp. 305-6)
We might see The Girls as what Laurie Penny calls an attempt at ‘unspeaking’: when it comes to experiences rendered ‘almost unsayable by any number of forces, external and internal’, unspeaking is important in ‘walking ideas and experiences back from the ready-made language and the ready-made audience for their telling’ (4). Higgins’ heartfelt memoir is testament to the power of writing to express the unspeakable, and to help heal.
1. Knopp K, 2012, Perhapsing: The Use of Speculation in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity.
2. Osborne- Crowley L, 2019, I Choose Elena, Allen & Unwin.
3. Tumarkin M, 2018, Axiomatic, Brow Books
4. Penny L, 2014, Unspeakable Things, Bloomsbury.
ADELE DUMONT was born in France and moved to Australia before her first birthday. After studying Australian Literature at the University of Sydney, she spent two years teaching English at the Curtin immigration detention centre. She is the author of No Man is an Island (Hachette). She is currently in residence at the Booranga Writers’ Centre.
Dani Netherclift has been published in Meanjin, Cordite and Verandah. Her work was nominated for the 2018 Judith Rodriguez Prize and highly commended in the Cliff Green Short Story Competition.
At once vivid and spare in its delineation of a physical, material world, ‘Haunted Autumn’ attends to both the tangible and elusive (/allusive) particulars of place in ways that confirm the collective nature of a setting or site as invariably experiential; a temporal space shaped by sensory experience; by encounters; by context. In accord with Michel de Certeau’s oft-cited line in The Practice of Everyday Life that ‘space is a practiced place’ (1984, p. 117), place becomes space here in the sense that it is never singular or fixed, but invariably collective: multiple and subjective, comprising various vantage-points, and complicated by contexts of the past/present.
Via lines of striking observation and through deft negotiation of the (digital) page itself as space/site, Netherclift’s delicate yet incisive prose poem also calls attention to the often-invisible labour—rendered evident, in the past months, by questions around what work, whose labour, is ‘essential’ during ‘unprecedented’ times, and at what costs (physical and emotional; personal and collective). Notably, the ‘indelicate revelations’ this prose poem calls to our attention also remain, in broader representations, largely obfuscated or overlooked: most figures citing university-sector job losses (to date or to come) have not included the loss of work anticipated by vast numbers of casual employees, upon whose insecure labour these institutions have relied. Concurrently, international students, upon whose fees universities have also depended, have been mostly excluded from government support. Through these precise lines and luminous images, Netherclift shows with both clarity and nuance the university space as one of many sites in which the effects of the pandemic are felt unevenly, even as student bodies remain/return/endure, ‘haunting’ liminal junctures and uncertain futures.
This is timely, compassionate writing that we are excited and grateful to publish.
—Jo Langdon for Mascara Literary Review
X marks distance. We never used to know this. X was golden, treasure. X was illicit. X marked the spot. X was kiss, was marked wrong answers. One might rush then, towards X, before, or take it as a lesson. With X, we erase time before.
Autumn leaves from the rows of ubiquitous plane trees drift and settle across university entry roads, piling deep in concrete gutters and banking in the unopened doorways of the gym. These leaves are as big as a large man’s palm, outstretched. They have their own susurrations, whispered ephemeral languages possessing no word translatable as absence.
One Sunday a half-grown black cat basks in sun on a bench on the Barista Bar deck. Seeing me, it dashes into the unknown black space beneath the slatted wood.
On Tuesday music is piped through the entry building—then, too loud, into the library.
Spiderwebs have gathered, dew-settled across the unopened hinges of the red mailbox outside the main entrance.
It grows colder.
Purple swamp hens arabesque across cement outside, beneath the coloured glass panes of the library study space.
On the lake ducks glide and duck, flaunting evergreen of underwing, motifs of things we cannot see or predict. Hope without context.
All day, rows of buses arrive & leave, leave & arrive empty. Denuded of passengers, the bus stops are periods, punctuations. One morning a driver asks me when I disembark if I am okay going into the university. I assure him that it is still an inhabited place, despite outward appearances.
Another time, leaving, I walk from the library to the main building on a perfectly blue-skied day and a fine mist of water falls from the edges of the building, cloaked in motes of sunlight and the deep vibration of mysterious unseen machines.
The revolving doors are stilled, marked unusable with narrow ribbons of red-and-white pandemic tape delineating the scene of an unimaginable occurrence. Abandonment—
as though they have given up the ghost.
Security guards perform requisite rounds, enacting circles; each hour they walk once around the study room; I grow used to their attentions. They walk the perimeters of the university-emptiness, echoing inwards with hours and steps and an ironic loneliness. They are here because some of us remain.
They talk too loudly in the library.
Students sit apart without X’s denoting distance, our unmasked breath covenants of trust.
We keep our distance. We acknowledge each other with looks
signalling a collective new body of knowledge.
Meteors fly close to the earth. I remember those fragments of dinosaurs preserved in lava and Tektites in Mexico and America. The KT Boundary intersects time before time after.
The number 42 bus home tastes of antiseptic—red-and-white taped, its air hangs hospital-like, disinfected. Each day it is empty, carrying the driver and me and crowds of absence.
The books in the library are cordoned-off by locked roller doors, barriers like X’s that you never even knew were there, before.
The university indelicately reveals its inner workings; an army of tradespeople, maintenance workers who maintain the neat green grass, the sanitisation of tables, the cleaning of closed off spaces, puppeteers of vibrations/instrumentalists, rainmakers in miraculous spaces.
Cabbage butterflies limn the autumn trees.
The branches bare more skin with each day.
Tiny yellow-breasted wrens almost indistinguishable from butterflies flutter up from green like feathered golden raindrops reverse-flowing into coming winter.
More students return, spaced by unseen X’s; the trimester nears its end.
We are here.
by Todd Turner
Puncher and Wattmann
Reviewed by CAITLIN WILSON
An Uneasy Symbiosis: A Review of Todd Turner’s Thorn
Todd Turner’s Thorn mines the relationship between the earth and the things which populate it, musing on their motives and daily moves. An uneasy symbiosis between animals and people, the natural and the built, is rendered in detail-oriented odes to memory, observation and wonder. In this, his second volume, Thorn re-treads some of the ground of Woodsmoke (2016), reflecting a similar drive to luxuriate in the minutiae of language. The specificity of Turner’s images allows the reader to see through the poetic eye, lending a haptic quality to his creations. There is a clarity and care to each poem, a tiny world where every word is in its right place, even if everything is not. As the collection’s blurb, written by Robert Gray, explains, Turner has much to draw upon in his rendering of a complex world; “a horseman and boxer on one side, a craftsman who creates artistic jewellery for a living on the other”. This eclectic collection of life experiences is reflected in the breadth of this collection, unconstrained by any one influence or vantage point from which to connect to the world around him.
The collection’s strongest moment comes early, with “My Middle Name”. The poem is memoiristic and confessional. The speaker explores the power of missing things – words, family, motives. Turner forms a loquacious ode to the power of silence. The festering presence of the unsaid is palpable; the speaker tells of “swallowed silence” (8) and describes his mother’s habit of “trying to air the echo of her father’s silence” (7). Turner gracefully conjures the feeling of holding in words, the ghostly figures of the past lingering on the tips of each character’s tongue. This is not Turner’s only engagement with silence: Later, in “Switch”, the speaker relates that “a certain silence grew within me-/ an inwardness that only seemed to inflate” (32). Indeed, attention is paid throughout the collection to the power of invisible forces. The wind, silences, unspoken bonds and burdens weigh on the speakers in the early personal poems. In “Tiny Ruins”, the air itself chokes and confines; it “ropes” the speaker with “hefty knots” (22). In “The Raft” (24), nostalgia exercises its invisible power, a mix of crystal clarity and the hazy, rose-coloured mysticism of childhood memories.
A frequent allusion in section one is the image of the tree, connected strongly with family and heritage. Family history is “sprung in roots” in “Heirloom” (28). A stick, an instrument of corporeal punishment, is “an instrument of my mother’s affection”, “rooted in living memory” in “The Stick” (25). That the tree, particularly evoked in its roots and the knots, appears frequently in Thorn’s musings on family and the past gives an ominous undercurrent to the at times prosaic remembrances of his speaker. Such clean relation of memory is on display in “Dolls” (29), where the imminent death of a mother is presented with care but without overwrought description, its matter-of-factness walloping the reader with the reality of loss. It is a hard poem that demands to be read and remembered.
Section 2 brings with it observations of the animal kingdom with myriad seeming motives. In “Magpies” (35), “Guinea Fowl” (40), “The Echidna” (45) and “Horse” (51), animals are imbued with a quotidian majesty, watched and set down in detail for their own sake. These poems feel like a walk through the country and pausing to ponder the daily toils of its non-human dwellers. Turner burrows into the metaphoric potential of each creature, for its own sake and in the case of poems like “Villanelle for a Calf “(39) and “The Pigeons” (43), to illuminate something of the human condition. Through the premonition of “The Pigeons” closing stanza – “Poor pigeons, they were only looking for a place to lay their rotten eggs” (43) – Thorn conjures a self-fulfilling prophesy of doom, a pitying external voice which looks down upon the simple desires for home and safety. In “Snail” (44), Thorn takes on the invertebrate as character – lending it the humility of a blue-collar bloke. These poems are a refreshing reprieve from the chore of humanity – they do what good poetry should, taking us out of ourselves for a moment, and ensure we know more about ourselves and our world when we return. They contrast with the arguably more powerful personal poems, never letting the reader dwell on humanistic problems without consideration of our animal counterparts.
Section 3 deals in the macro and micro earth – spinning out to consider big questions among the celestial imagery of “Solar Lunar” (55). This penultimate section feels loftier, not just in its allusions to technology and the mechanical and its concern with height and a bird’s eye view, but also in its pondering of humanity from the top down. “Theorems of geometry” and “the horizontal lines of the stave” (55) conjure mathematical and musical precision, as opposed to the grubby chaos of creatures both human and not. The loquaciousness of the earlier poems returns in “The Sweet Science”, where a fighter is a “fox-trotting shaman” and a “poetic pugilist” (59). However, this section is primarily concerned with things. Thorn renders them weighty and lit from within by meaning, waiting for someone to puzzle out their importance. Poems like “Stilled” (61) render simple objects like crockery gilded with significance; containers, it says, “seem to reverberate in the mute dust-fall of light and shade” (61). Further dimensionality is added to this third section is Turner’s sources of inspiration for these poems. Turner is in conversation with an eclectic bunch of poets; poems are ‘after’ John Donne, Ted Hughes, Li Po and Jo Shapcott to name a few. This gives the sense of a poet speaking about the world to the world and gives the collection an intertextuality that turns reading into a treasure hunt, sending the reader scurrying to their bookshelf to find the inspiration points for the works.
Thorn reveals a poet in fine form, wielding language with an enviable control. The collection certainly stands as an excellent work outside of the context in which I read it, though I can’t help but ponder how my appreciation of this collection, so filled with images of the natural world existing without human interference, is enhanced by the state of the world at present. The constant pressing in of news about pandemics, climate change and natural disasters, hammers home the powerless of the individual being. Thorn is a welcome reminder that despite chaos some things go on, perhaps without fanfare or seeming purpose, but steadily and beautifully.
CAITLIN WILSON is a Melbourne-based student and writer of criticism and poetry. Her poetry can be found in Voiceworks, Farrago and Above Water, and her criticism can be read in Farrago and The Dialog, among others. She was recently accepted into the University of Oxford Mst Film Aesthetics.
Luke Fischer is the author of the poetry collections Paths of Flight (Black Pepper, 2013) and A Personal History of Vision (UWAP, 2017), the monograph The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the “New Poems” (Bloomsbury, 2015), and the book of bedtime stories The Blue Forest (Lindisfarne Books, 2015). He recently co-edited the volume of essays Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”: Philosophical and Critical Perspectives (Oxford University Press).
I am currently living in Tübingen, Germany, and these reflections on the coronavirus crisis have been shaped by the situation in Europe and considerations of the overarching similarities between the way in which numerous countries worldwide have been responding to the crisis. Although they are now being eased, the lockdowns in Germany have, in many respects, been more restrictive than in Australia, but not as severe as in Italy or France. Wherever one investigates, there are many gray areas and uncertainties around Covid-19, yet much of the public discourse has tended to reiterate one narrative. This essay is an attempt to ask and open up some vital questions.
––Luke Fischer, 16 May 2020
If an alien arrived on the earth sometime in April 2020 and, being already fluent in a number of languages, familiarised himself with the latest reports and news, he could be forgiven for coming to some of the following conclusions.
Human beings were virtually immortal creatures until a deadly new virus––Covid-19––spread across the world and became the greatest threat to human existence. This surmise would be confirmed by his first conversations with other human beings at a respectable distance of 1.5 metres.
After reading some history books on the twentieth and twenty-first century, and a little Sartre, he might identify a glaring example of bad faith. Western humanity claims to cherish democracy, which it almost believes in like a religion, but actually homo sapiens have very little trust in their fellow human beings acting responsibly out of their own freedom. Excluding Sweden and a few other countries, the majority of citizens around the world have welcomed the declarations of a state of emergency, the formation of governments with executive or authoritarian powers, a massive restriction of basic rights, extended forms of surveillance, and the deployment of police to protect them from the dangers of sitting on a bench. At present they are sequestered in their homes and passively await the next verdicts of politicians, CEOs, and a select group of experts as to what they are allowed and not allowed to do.
This alien meets a few individuals who question the official narrative and one has an especial liking for epidemiology and statistics; he paraphrases the findings of Stanford Professor John Ioannidis in the USA and University of Mainz Professor Sucharit Bhakdi, and their points about the unreliability of much of the current data. He also informs the alien that human beings were never close to being immortal (at least not physically––whether they are spiritually immortal is a whole other question) and that the average life expectancy of humans worldwide is 71 years old. This outlier also provides him with this list of estimations:
There are around 18 million poverty-related deaths each year
Around 9.5 million people die from cancer each year (this figure is an estimate for 2018)
Around 9 million people die from starvation each year
Around 2 million children die from a lack of access to clean water each year
Around 1.35 million people die in road accidents each year (and 20-50 million suffer non-fatal injuries)
Around 800,000 people die from suicide each year
Up to 650,000 people (and at least 290,000 people) die of the seasonal flu every year
Around 405,000 people die from malaria each year (this is an estimate for 2018)
At this moment (16 May 2020) an estimated 309,000 people have died ‘with’ or ‘from’ (we’re not quite sure) Covid-19. Estimates diverge widely as to how high this figure could climb. We lack reliable data!
But, the alien objects, I thought human beings were the most caring of creatures (far more caring than my alien race who dwell on a planet many light years away) in that the whole point of the lockdowns is to protect the most vulnerable members of society, especially the elderly who have pre-existing illnesses and are likely to die if they catch the coronavirus. Why, the alien asks, is so little being done to eradicate poverty and to ensure that everyone in the world has sufficient food to eat and access to clean drinking water? The outlier responds with a tilt of his head and a puzzled stare. Then he explains that the coronavirus has a rather high hospitalisation rate and that the lockdowns really have to do with the limited capacity of underfunded and understaffed hospitals––we need to ‘flatten the curve’ so the hospitals are not overwhelmed. ‘Oh’, replies the alien.
Problems of Abstraction
While much of the worldwide response to the coronavirus shows a care and concern for the most at-risk members of society, the observations of the above-mentioned alien serve to highlight a number of valid concerns: double standards, tunnel vision (humanity seems at present only to be able to recognize one crisis in the world), the rise and passive acceptance of draconian political measures, and an abstract way of thinking that fails to take into consideration the dynamic interconnections and delicate balance of human life, health, illness, and mortality. The sole ‘enemy’ is the virus and many governments have acted as if the only responsible option is to freeze almost all aspects of life to protect us from this enemy.
Many of the responses to the pandemic evince a problematically abstract way of thinking that overlooks the dynamic ecological balance of life and mortality, and the relationships that give meaning to human existence. In our fixation on addressing one problem, we are inadvertently bringing about many other problems.
In several controversial articles, the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, has voiced his concerns that in the government lockdowns and the correlated passivity of citizens, the value and richness of life has been reduced to the abstraction of mere biological survival. Agamben writes:
The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country [Italy] obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything—the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions—to the danger of getting sick. Bare life—and the danger of losing it—is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.
Another thought experiment might help to reinforce Agamben’s point. Imagine a grandmother who is 82 years old. She is told that she will be able to live until the age of 85 if she resides in a sterilised cell and has no contact with her children, grandchildren, and friends. She will have an internet connection and TV and all her food will be delivered to her front door. Alternatively, she has the choice to remain in her own home and receive visits from her family and friends, go for short walks in the park (she is still mobile) and so on, but if she chooses this option she will only live until the age of 84. Which one of these options provides for a richer conception and experience of life? It should be up to the grandmother to decide, but it is worthwhile for us to reflect on this question. Of course, this thought experiment is artificial. In real life we cannot predict the outcomes. Probabilistically speaking it is fairly unlikely that one will die in a car accident. Nevertheless, due to a moment of absent-mindedness on one’s own part or on the part of another driver, one might be the unfortunate victim of a fatal crash.
In ordinary life we are always negotiating a variety of risks and ideally strive to be responsible and caring, while being aware that the elimination of all risks is simply impossible. Life is a dangerous adventure, but, hopefully, nonetheless a rich and worthwhile one.
The new coronavirus took hold of the world by storm and the challenges of treating the little understood illness of Covid-19 should not be underestimated. And in this time of physical distancing, it is vital that we find ways to show sensitivity and compassion towards those who are at-risk and who have lost loved ones. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to ask: what level of risk does this coronavirus present?
Despite the sensationalism of the media and the draconian measures of some states, we are not confronting the Black Death. It is important to note that since March, estimates of the fatality rate for Covid-19 have significantly decreased––though medical experts continue to contest the various estimates. (While in early March the WHO was suggesting a case fatality rate of 3.4%, this was based on a recorded number of cases and not estimations of the amount of people infected. Later the Imperial College London estimated a fatality rate of 1%, but since then there have been some much lower estimations [based on antibody studies in various places].) A peer-reviewed study of the worst hit area of Germany has estimated an infection fatality rate of less than 0.36% (possibly as low as 0.24%) and a recent study in California (Santa Clara County) has estimated 0.17% (the flu is around 0.1%) for that area. Significantly, Ioannidis who was involved in the latter study, early on regarded other estimates as inflated.
As a philosopher I neither have the expertise to say how high the number of deaths could rise nor to offer a detailed assessment of the effectiveness of the measures being taken. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the arguments of the medical experts in Germany (and scientists elsewhere) that, contrary to the complete lockdowns, a better approach would have been to focus on protecting the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.  The current figures in Germany clearly indicate that the elderly population is primarily at risk (the average life expectancy in Germany is 81 years old and this is the average age of Covid-19-related deaths) and, in contrast to northern Italy, hospitals have not been stretched. A particular problem in various countries has been the spread of the virus in nursing homes. Nevertheless, leading virologists have spoken of some of the precautions that could be taken to minimise the risk of infecting elderly people while ensuring that they are able to receive company.
Complexities of Health and Mortality
Health is a complex matter because the human organism is a complex, dynamic whole, in which the health of the whole is dependent on the healthy functioning of the parts and vice versa. Illness and dying are similarly complex. When one part of the body becomes unhealthy it generally affects other parts. While some people infected with the new coronavirus remain asymptomatic or show only minor symptoms, elderly people with certain pre-existing conditions are at a greater risk of developing the severe acute respiratory syndrome. Thus, each case of Covid-19 is the expression of a particular relational dynamic between the virus and its host organism.
Most of the deaths relating to the coronavirus have involved comorbidities or pre-existing illnesses. The organism of someone who is already wrestling with cancer is less able to deal with the additional burden of the virus. If such a person dies, we can ask: did she die from cancer or from the coronavirus? The correct answer is neither (taken on its own) and both. Had she not contracted the coronavirus she may have lived longer, but the coronavirus was not the sole (or even the main) cause of death. Due to the complexity and interdependence of the part/whole relationship in a living organism, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant described organisms with the contradictory-sounding formulation that they are both the cause and effect of themselves. In other words, living organisms exhibit a holistic complexity in which there is no simple, one-way causality.
In some of the more detailed studies thus far of the epicentres of the pandemic, we can see that a complex of factors contributed to the number of fatalities. In northern Italy, these factors included (among others) a large elderly population, years of living with bad air pollution, a relatively high percentage of smokers, and a limited number of ICU beds. We should not assume that everywhere will reproduce northern Italy, although various other places might and will involve a similarly lethal complex of factors (as we have witnessed in some cities in the USA). One study suggests that there have been a much higher number of fatalities in cities with bad air pollution. What is the cause of death here? Coronavirus or air pollution? Both and, in each individual case, a whole host of other factors.
One of the positive outcomes of the lockdowns has been the improved air quality in many parts of the world due to the limited number of flights and other forms of transport and the correlative reduction of exhaust fumes. Though this was not their original intention, these limitations on transport have literally saved lives and are also something to keep in mind with regard to the larger crisis that humanity faces and has largely failed to address, namely anthropogenic climate change and the broader environmental crisis. But, as should be clear by now, I hope that humanity will find democratic rather than autocratic ways to address this crisis.
This should really go without saying, but given the disturbing rise of the libertarian far right in the USA, it is perhaps important to clarify that my concerns about civil liberties and democracy have nothing to do with the emphasis on negative freedom (‘the state should let me do whatever the hell I like’) of libertarians, but rather have to do with the best democratic impulses of modernity. Concrete freedom (as opposed to mere negative freedom) and democracy presuppose that individuals will act responsibly towards each other out of their own insight into the good. A mature individual does not act kindly towards others because they are concerned that the state will punish them otherwise, but because the individual recognises the value of kindness. In a mature democracy, the details of individual behaviour should not be monitored and dictated by the state. (The infiltration of the state into the private sphere is a mark of what Hannah Arendt identified as totalitarianism.) In a true democracy the individual is neither subordinated to the general will of the state (a kind of super-tyrant that maintains order and peace), nor is society a chaos of self-interested desires that disregard social goods. Rather, as the poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller argued, the common good is embodied in the free collaboration of individuals. Whatever the merits or flaws of the Swedish response to the epidemic, Sweden has as much as possible pursued a path which places trust in its citizens and gives advice and recommendations rather than encroaching on civil liberties. This strongly contrasts with Germany, in which basic rights have been restricted in a manner that has not occurred since the era of National Socialism and that contravenes the constitution. In Germany, where there has been a growing critique of the legality of the lockdown, lawyers have argued that, at this point, the denial of basic constitutional rights cannot be justified.
The fact that governments in many countries have declared a state of emergency, massively restricted civil liberties, and increased the policing and surveillance of residents (what Edward Snowden describes as the ‘architecture of oppression’) is perhaps a sign of the precariousness and immaturity of their democracies. (I am not saying that no sacrifices need to be made, rather I am questioning the extent of the restrictions, their consequences, and the undemocratic processes by which they have been instantiated.)
Complexities of Valuing Life
The famous Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek has politely disagreed with Agamben’s view that the lockdowns evince a reduction of value to a form of bare life that ultimately divides people. Rather, he regards them as showing a laudable concern for the lives of the most vulnerable. However, even if one thinks that our exclusive concern should be the preservation of lives, it is not clear that the lockdowns are the best strategy––though they may be for a time in specific places. (It’s worth noting that if we applied this logic universally, we would have long ago completely banned cars and countless other things.)
In a television interview, investigative journalist John Pilger recently mentioned studies that have indicated strong correlations between emotional isolation and the deterioration of health. Researchers at Oxford University have compared the health effects of chronic loneliness to ‘smoking 15 cigarettes a day’ and estimated that in 2019 there were 1.2 million chronically lonely people in the UK. There is growing evidence that the number of people suffering from loneliness and mental health issues as a result of the lockdown measures, self-isolation, and the climate of anxiety has significantly increased in the UK and various countries around the world (Japan is an interesting exception). There is now talk of an emerging global mental health crisis. In Australia, there are significant mental health concerns for Aboriginal communities (where suicide is the main cause of death for children between the age of 5 and 17) that are suffering under the lockdown.
The realities of loneliness and depression are only one example of the need to employ a broad concept of health that includes psychological, social, and mental health, as complementary to physical health. Since the lockdowns there has also been a marked increase in domestic violence, which not only causes physical injury (and deaths) but also psychological trauma for the members of a family.
The fixation on one health issue risks neglecting equally significant ones. We should question the logic and ethics involved in delaying cancer operations (however small the tumours) in Germany because a certain number of hospital beds need to be reserved for coronavirus ‘patients’, even when the beds are empty. In India, Arundhati Roy speaks of how healthcare for other illnesses has been placed on hold and describes cancer patients in Delhi being ‘driven away like cattle’ from the vicinity of a major hospital. In Africa, there are grave concerns that deaths from malaria could double this year (in comparison to 2018) to over 700,000 because of disruptions from Covid-19.
In the pandemic of panic, many people with other health concerns are afraid to visit doctors and such deferrals can lead to dire consequences. And we shouldn’t need doctors to tell us that sitting at home all day is unhealthy.
In debates about how best to respond to the pandemic, there has often been the articulation of a false dichotomy between protecting lives by means of the lockdowns and preventing an economic crisis. Of course, the current world economy is a disaster with its grotesque disparities between the wealth of the CEOs of mega-corporations and those on minimum wage struggling to make ends meet, from the devastating environmental impacts of many industries to the excess waste and consumption of our capitalist and consumerist societies.
But there is the very real danger that once the lockdowns end we will find ourselves in a situation in which the economy is even more unjust and destructive than at present. Due to the lockdowns around the world, the number of people facing the possibility of starvation has doubled to 265 million.
In a country like the US where healthcare largely depends on employment, a massive rise in unemployment and poverty will, of course, lead to many fatalities. Since the lockdowns, over 36 million people in the US have lost their jobs and there are predictions that, unless the government makes the requisite provisions the country will be facing a second great depression (given the current US government, something like a reiteration of the bailout of Wall Street in response to 2008 GFC, while millions of people lost their homes, is a more likely scenario).
Spain seems to have made a positive step forward in its plans to implement a permanent basic income. While Australia has increased its unemployment benefits, arts funding has been slashed in recent years and artists––musicians, actors, writers, poets, etc.––are suffering greatly due to the cancellation of so many events. To offer one example, all the members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra recently lost their jobs for the indefinite duration of the shutdown. Australian universities are also in a precarious position; an estimated 21,000 researchers are facing the threat of losing their jobs.
So it is a dangerous abstraction––and perhaps a form of vague sentimentalism––to insist on the idea that to be in favour of strict lockdowns is to be in favour of life whereas to be concerned about the economy is to value money over human lives.
And what about the abstraction and inequality in the immense disparity between what a lockdown means for the wealthy and the poor? If you own a waterfront mansion with a large garden being ‘confined’ to your home is no great challenge. If you are a poor family cramped in a tiny city apartment, it’s a whole different story.
The German philosopher, Markus Gabriel, has highlighted the shortsightedness and problems of what he describes as the ‘new virological imperative’ that has been determining political decisions: all human beings should be isolated so that they don’t infect others. While virologists and epidemiologists (who themselves also disagree on the measures that should be taken) can best inform us about how to address the physical dimensions of the pandemic, they should not be the exclusive advisors on decisions that affect the whole of society, decisions that are undermining fundamental aspects of democracy. Gabriel mentions the need for input from political theorists and sociologists, ethicists and philosophers. To this list, I would add psychologists, artists, small-business owners, lawyers, economists, religious leaders, and representatives from all walks of life. Recently Germany made a positive step in this direction.
The last example of abstraction that I would like to mention is the illusion that we can replace vital, embodied, social interactions with the virtual space of online communication. A coffee with a friend cannot be substituted by a chat on Skype, the social dynamics and learning that take place between teachers and students in a classroom and in the playground cannot be replaced by Zoom. Or as Michael Leunig so aptly comments in the form of a cartoon, an elderly woman cannot walk her dog through a website instead of a park.
Towards a Context-Sensitive Approach
Within the life of an individual as well as within society more broadly, a crisis is often a painful opportunity and catalyst for much needed transformations. The inadequacies and shortsightedness of much of the response to the pandemic are a significant part of the crisis. As we move forward, I hope we can work towards realising a fairer and more sustainable economy, and a transformation of our thinking from one-sided abstractions to a concrete attentiveness to the nexuses of life. We need to find creative ways to take care––physically, emotionally and mentally––of those who are most vulnerable, while at the same time taking into consideration the complexities of the world.
The above thoughts are the concerns of a philosopher (and poet) and not the recommendations of an epidemiologist or a physician. I am not aiming to provide particular guidelines and calculations about which health factors should be weighted against others. Rather, my aim is to draw attention to the complexities of life and the dangers (in some respects of catastrophic dimensions) of simplistic ‘solutions’. In response to the wave of panic that has spread across the world (greatly propelled by the media), measures have been applied by governments that fail to take into account the relations of life and the specificities of different societies, places, and cultures. In my view, it is crucial that we learn to approach life and the great crises that we face in a context-sensitive manner that considers all the dynamic interrelations and specificities of biology, social ties, individual freedoms, societies, cultures, and environments. There is no one enemy or problem. There is no silver bullet. One size doesn’t fit all.
Life is a light-footed circle dance on unstable ground. Or, as the poet and philosopher Novalis put it: ‘The whole rests more or less like persons playing, who without a chair, merely sit one on the knee of another and form a circle.’ Let us not overlook the relational complexities that constitute and give meaning to life.
 Sourced from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/
 There are many issues around how Covid-19 deaths are being counted in different countries (and debates about whether they are being overestimated or underestimated). It is well-documented that in Italy no distinction has been made between deaths ‘from’ and deaths ‘with’ Covid-19 and there are similar issues in other countries. As the present essay elaborates, there are also many deaths resulting from the repercussions of the lockdown measures (rather than Covid-19).
 In a very recent article Ioannidis also gives a clear overview of what he regards as a balanced course of action given the data and evidence that are now available.
 One of the significant criticisms of Sweden has been that its number of fatalities is much higher than that of its neighbours, Norway, Denmark, and Finland. Part of the reason for this, however, has less to do with the overall strategy and more to do with a problem in the management of nursing homes where over 50% of the deaths have occurred. Moreover, the per capita death rate in Sweden is lower than in a number of countries that have enforced strict lockdowns, including Spain, Italy, the UK, and Belgium. Finally, while there are gray areas around the development of immunity to the coronavirus, in the long term Sweden will quite likely be better placed than many other countries. Though the precise situation remains unclear, one recent study at Stockholm University suggests that Stockholm could reach community immunity by mid-June.
 Novalis Schriften: Die Werke von Friedrich von Hardenberg, vol. 2, ed. R. Samuel, H. J. Mähl and G. Schulz (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer. 1960-1988), p. 242.
by Julie Janson
Reviewed by HAYLEY SCRIVENOR
‘I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigated pain. It is important to share how I know survival is survival and not just a walk through the rain.’ (Audre Lorde, 89)
What do we expect stories to do? I have always felt that, deep down, we expect them to tell the truth. I come to fiction for the gut-truth – what did it sound like, smell like, feel like?
The gut-truths presented in Benevolence are tied to a larger reckoning needed in Australian society – one that involves a centring of First Nation voices, a willingness to address not just a violent history, but a hostile and violent present – and it’s worth reading Julie Janson’s book for this alone. But the reason I will keep returning to this work is the beauty of its language and the connection I felt with its protagonist, Burruberongal woman, Muraging.
This is a story of survival, revolving around love, family and country. We first meet Muraging (or Mary, as she is called by her white ‘guardians’) in her home Darug country (Parramatta) in 1816 and as the story unfolds, we learn of her struggles to flee. We see how she is stalked by hunger and loneliness, deriving comfort and hope from the violin she learns to play at the Native Institution in Parramatta. We watch as she is forced, time and again, to return to her ‘guardians’. In the afterword, we learn that Muraging is based on author, Julie Janson’s great-great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Thomas. Janson is a Burruberongal woman of the Darug nation, novelist, playwright and award-winning poet.
As a work of historical fiction, Benevolence offers a satisfying mix of the specificity of fiction (the gut-truth) with true events, and rare insights into what it might have been like to experience the devastation of British colonisation firsthand. I am not a historian, but this book gave me a way into important history – this is the story of a woman’s life shaped by violent and pervasive forces she cannot control, rendered in exquisite and compelling detail.
Benevolence opens with the following description:
‘The grey-green eucalypts clatter with the sound of cicadas. Magpies and currawongs warble across the early morning sky as the sun’s heat streams down. It is eaglehawk time, the season of burumurring when the land is dry, and these birds fly after small game. Muraging’s clan, the Burruberongal of the Darug people, gather their dillybags and coolamons and prepare for the long walk to Burramatta, the land of eels, and Parramatta town. The old women stamp out the fire, and one gathers the baby boy in her arms and ties him onto her possum-skin cloak.’ (p.1)
Readers familiar with Julia Janson’s poem ‘Duria burumurrung: eaglehawk time’ (which was co-awarded the 2016 Oodgeroo Noonuccal Poetry Prize) will recognise the below lines in the opening prose of the novel, and the poem echoes throughout the book:
Magpies, currawongs call across morning sky.
Sun’s heat streams down.
Clan gather belongings, dilly bags, coolamons
Walking, walking to a new town.
Old women stamp out fire, gathering babies in arms.
I am always telling my writing students they should look up words they don’t understand, instead of passing them by, assuming they are picking up the meaning from context. You’re missing out on an important part of the story when you do that, I say. The unfamiliar (to me) words in the opening paragraph – ‘dillybag’ (a woven bag), ‘coolamon’ (a carrying vessel) – forced me to slow down a little.
Reading words in the Darug language is valuable for its own sake, but slowing down, lingering over new words, was for me one of the greatest pleasures of this book. Janson often folds definitions in seamlessly, telling us Muraging hears ‘rattling carts full of waibala, whitefella, and the sound of pots against iron wheels’ (1). Janson is always, generously, teaching the reader how to read the text. Sometimes the Darug words are given context in the sentence itself: ‘Pale dingoes, mirri, walk around a destroyed world and are lost in an empty landscape’ (26), sometimes you will have to remember a word you have been given already, or wait until a word is used several times. It’s always worth slowing down and looking up words that don’t immediately reveal themselves. There is a poet’s care for language throughout Benevolence; In places, a lack of punctuation adds poetic rhythm: ‘She longs for food chews wattle gum to ease her thirst’ (2), and words are placed side by side to hint at a way of knowing: ‘She panics and grips his hand. Alarm rises and her aunt mothers look away’ (2).
Muraging is the character we follow through this story, but we are not confined to her impressions:
‘She looks at her dark hand in his pink one and can see that his nails are clean and trimmed while hers are dark and filled with ash. He smells of camphor, Russian leather bibles and cedar trees. She smells of eucalypt and smoke. He can see her beauty, again it disarms him.’ (123)
Time and time again we are confronted with the horror of the project of colonisation: at worst the white characters are openly violent and spiteful and at best, mealy-mouthed and ineffectual in their ‘compassion’. The title of the book – Benevolence – is a nod to the absurd and violent distance between the things the white characters say, and the things they do. Their speech is often stilted and strange. At one point, a phrenologist doctor measures Mary’s head. He wishes ‘to take it with him as a fine specimen but it is, inconveniently, still connected to [Mary’s] body’ (103). The following exchange shows the insurmountable disconnect between two ways of being in the world:
‘Why do you want our heads?’ she asks.
‘Young lady, I am scientist. And my craniological specimen studies indicate that the intellectual abilities of natives are by no means despicable,’ he says.
‘That might be; the people who take our heads are wrong. And if you take them, you might be despicable,’ Mary replies. (103)
In her review of Julie Janson’s first novel Crocodile Hotel (2015), academic Alison Broinowski wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘The problems are too familiar, painful and perennial, and I am squeamishly frustrated because I know too little about them and have no solutions’. Broinowski is talking about contemporary health and education outcomes for Indigenous Australians – but her words speak to the greasy feeling of my own initial reluctance, as a white woman, to engage with the settler colonial history of Australia. After all, reading this book is a vivid and uncomfortable reminder that I live on stolen land, that I am not just a bystander but an active participant in the ongoing trauma of colonisation. As academic and writer Evelyn Araluen points out, ‘Today Indigenous Australians still face significantly reduced life expectancies and significantly higher rates of incarceration, child removal and suicide. The colonisers have not left, but instead police our borders and imprison those who seek asylum from conflicts in which we are implicated.’
Of course, white squeamishness is not just irritating or exhausting, but dangerous and insulting for the First Nations activists, academics, community leaders and writers doing the actual work of truth-telling; white squeamishness is fatal.
It’s one thing to know colonisation changed the landscape. It’s another thing to see the following through Muraging’s eyes:
‘Log-splitting men follow the axe men and the sound is deafening, night and day. Fiery pits burn all night with wasted bark. Her peoples’ footpaths have become bullock tracks with deep greasy mud churned by huge wagons full of logs. The tiny fruits and flowers are being crushed. Nothing is left of the forest’s ceremonial sites. Their stories cannot be told if the places and sites of the ancestors are gone. The waterholes are ruined by cattle and the goona-filled water cannot be drunk.’ (91)
Water rendered literally undrinkable by colonisers has stayed with me. Gundungurra and Darug women teach Muraging to use coals from the fire to filter the goona (shit) from the water and make it potable (96). This is just one of the thousands of ways Muraging finds to live.
This shitty water, which Muraging makes drinkable again, matters; to borrow again from Audre Lorde: it’s how we know survival is survival. Benevolence is a book which needs to be read so we begin to know how survival feels, how it smells, what it tastes like.
1. Lorde, Audre (2004). Conversations with Audre Lorde. United States: University Press of Mississippi
2. Broinowski, Alison. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/fiction-book-review-the-crocodile-hotel-by-julie-janson-explores-indigenous-themes-20151006-gk230l.html
3. Araluen, Evelyn. https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-227/feature-evelyn-araluen/
HAYLEY SCRIVENOR is a writer, sessional academic and former director of Wollongong Writers Festival who lives and works on Dharawal Country. She was awarded the 2019 Ray Koppe/ASA Fellowship for her novel-in-progress The Push Back, about a young girl who goes missing from a small country town. In March 2020, this manuscript was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize.
by Natalie Harkin
Reviewed by GABRIELA BOURKE
It can be tempting to imagine that colonisation is a thing of the past; that posting an infographic on Instagram on Sorry Day counts as activism; that the horrors white settlers inflicted on First Nations peoples can be considered in the past tense. Natalie Harkin’s Archival Poetics reminds us that colonisation is ongoing and that far from fading away, the savagery of colonial oppression remains constant in our communities and our culture.
Some salient examples: it’s Reconciliation Week, and mining conglomerate Rio Tinto has blown up an ancient Aboriginal site dating back 45,000 years – a site perhaps unrivalled in historical significance. The act of blowing up this site is within the law. It’s Reconciliation Week, and Kamilaroi woman, Cheree Toka, continues to campaign for the Aboriginal flag to be flown on the Harbour Bridge all year round, and not only as a token gesture once a year. It’s Reconciliation Week, and the government has announced funding is to be halved for AbSec, the peak body for the protection of Aboriginal children, even though Aboriginal children make up close to forty percent of children in out-of-home care. It’s been twelve years since Kevin Rudd’s apology speech and ‘Australia Day’ is still being celebrated on a day marking the commencement of the genocide of First Nations people.
This is the discomforting ground in which Archival Poetics takes root. Harkin’s first few lines about the archive, ‘a small spotlight on the state, its institutions/systems/processes/that generate and maintain particular fantasy-discourses and/representations on history, on people; that actively silence/suppress/exclude Indigenous voice and agency…’ (11) make clear the enormity of the challenge of decolonisation. German sociologist Max Weber defines the state as a ‘…human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a territory.’ (Weber, 1946) It’s important to make something very clear here. Weber’s definition clarifies that we are that human community. The violence implicit in the destruction of Indigenous sites and in the removal of funding from organisations tasked with the care of children who have been taken from their families has been legitimated by our government whom we have elected. Not me, I hear you say, nor me, but us as a people.
Acknowledging this complicity is imperative before entering the landscape of Harkin’s collection, so as to recognise the continuing reverberations of our colonial past in our present and future, and to pay heed to the way our legal system has and continues to fail Indigenous culture and communities. ‘Memory Lesson 2 | Feeding the Fever’ (19) underscores this failure (‘prepare to be drip fed ACCESS DENIED’) and reveals what we already know – that the archive is where bad things are hidden. The narrator’s attempt to reconfigure the shadowy spaces of this country’s history are held up at every turn by the state and its ‘…dystopian-drive to institutionalise/assimilate/control/categorise/collect/contain Aboriginal lives.’ (19) Harkin uses the humble verb in an unusual and powerful way a number of times throughout this collection, accenting the violence of colonial power and conversely, the agency of the Aboriginal people. We see this again in ‘Trace and Return’ which begins:
return to the concealed origin
trace blood from there
enter spaces invisible
rouse beyond the official (29)
and, a few stanzas later, condenses into
return trace enter rouse gather seek
accumulate tend unshackle gather
provoke destabilise expose ignite (29)
Although this poem comes after some of the others I’ll mention, the sense of energy and painful effort foregrounded by ‘Trace and Return’ is significant. The idea of writing poetry as a kind of restful activity is prevalent in a society that doesn’t particularly value creative endeavour, but Harkin tears this notion to shreds throughout her collection and certainly in this poem. The act of putting together these poems was surely both challenging and disturbing; the act of rendering the genocide of one’s people into poetry traumatising in ways I and other white readers of the collection are not able to comprehend. The poem ‘Dear Sir’ (22), the title of which holds a sickening sense of enforced subordination, is borne of a two hundred page file on a child of the stolen generation. The second stanza brings home this jarring sense of recognition of self and family within the devastation of state records.
I turn the pages
there she is
perfect old-school cursive
to Inspectors ‘State-Ladies’ Protectors (22)
The enjambment and punctuation of this poem increases the intensity with which the reader reads and removes any sense of pause which a more traditional structural approach might engender. There’s no holding back when reading these poems, there’s no moment’s reprieve to be taken from the spaces between words. Inspectors, ‘State-Ladies’ and Protectors are one and the same, a realisation which underscores the privilege of not-knowing and the importance of being made aware. The photograph that accompanies the poem, an item woven from the papers of the archive, displays the old-school cursive mentioned by the narrator. The most salient phrase visible is ‘good girl’ on the bottom left of the image, which could belong in the list of adjectives that conclude ‘Dear Sir’ – state child, half-caste, obedient, well-spoken, destitute, neglected (22).
‘State Lady Report’ (26-28) includes similarly conflicting descriptors of stolen children. Preceded by a quote from Ann Laura Stoler’s Tense and Tender Lies (2006) about the gendered and racialised ‘intimacies of the everyday’, ‘State Lady Report’ explores the all-pervasive nature of state control. (Note: each line is preceded by a box marked with an x to give a checklist impression.)
State Lady spills kitchen cupboard contents to the page and sniffs at the oven: I noticed an assortment of cakes and buns had been baked that morning. (26)
State lady inspects my house, body, hair – notes I am not causing trouble, and I am reasonably clean. (27)
All facets of life are under the jurisdiction of the state. An allegation of ‘consorting’ further drives home the kind of social and emotional deprivation employed by the state in achieving domination. The visual elements of this poem – the marked-off checklist, the typewriter-like font in bold to mark out the difference between the ‘I’ of the state lady and the ‘I’ of the narrator – visually repurpose the structures of regulation and control to tell a different story.
In his review of Archival Poetics, Nathan Sentance points out that the narrative of the archive relies on the suppression of Indigenous voices. He says, ‘This is not to say that we, First Nations people, are not in the archives…we were usually included in archives without our informed consent. Our histories, our cultures, and our people were recorded by those commonly involved in the attempted physical, cultural and spiritual genocide of our people: police officer, government officials, and anthropologists, for example.’ (Sentance, 2019). Archival Poetics is itself an archive, a re-recording of the physical, cultural and spiritual experiences of First Nations people, a repossession and reconfiguration of a history rent with trauma.
But again: is it history? At the time of writing this review, mass protests are taking place all across the world in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in US police custody. My social media landscape is one of outrage – as it should be – but this sentiment is aimed at American police, at American policy, at American people. The Guardian’s Deaths Inside tracks Indigenous deaths at the hands of police in this country, a number currently at 432 since the end of the commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody in 1991. In a devastating parallel, George Floyd echoed twenty six year old Dunghutti man David Dungay’s cries that he could not breathe while being restrained by police officers in November, 2015. And yet, there were no mass riots in Australia for Dungay, or for any of the First Nations people who have died or suffered abuse at the hands of police. So what are we doing about it?
Natalie Harkin’s poetry works to decolonise the archive in a way that is distressing, arresting and aesthetic, and tells us that we need to pick up the gauntlet, continue the work and be better. Be better at recognising and rejecting the racism and violence propagated in the spaces we live and work and in our media. Be better at dismantling the systems from which we have profited at the expense of First Nations people. Be better at amplifying Indigenous voices instead of our own. Be better at listening, instead of speaking. Wondering where to start? Get yourself a copy of Archival Poetics.
Evershed, N., Allam, L., Wahlquist, C., Ball, A. and Herbert, M., 2020. ‘Deaths Inside: Every Indigenous Death in Custody since 2008’ Tracked [online] The Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/ng-interactive/2018/aug/28/deaths-inside-indigenous-australian-deaths-in-custody> [Accessed 1 June 2020].
Sentance, N., 2019. ‘Disrupting the Colonial Archive’. Sydney Review of Books, [online] Available at: <https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/natalie-harkin-archival-poetics/> [Accessed 1 June 2020].
GABRIELA BOURKE is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney. Gabriela is most interested in fictional representations of animal and human trauma, and the ways in which these intersect. Her work appears in Hermes and Southerly.
Where Only the Sky had Hung Before
by Toby Fitch
Reviewed by Jeremy George
For all the obvious reasons I have been reflecting lately on what Walter Benjamin’s observes in his essay ‘The Storyteller’ ; “Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience… [however] his nesting places — the activities that are intimately associated with boredom are already extinct in the city”. If Benjamin draws a causal link between the destruction of experience and the genesis of modern information; the decline of “storytelling” and the rise of “news”, it is hard to imagine what his judgement would be of our relationship to the web today. The internet is, of course, a fundamentally nauseating and overwhelming ex-American military technology of mass surveillance. However, it is simultaneously (and undeniably) the nexus of new “experiences” and modes of living. The internet is an experience, indeed, strictly in Benjamin’s sense. If anything has brought the activities that are associated with boredom back to the city, it is the internet – the inventor of the “infinite scroll” sincerely regrets the consequences of his actions. So, what’s the pay-off regarding experience?
Toby Fitch’s latest collection of poems Where Only the Sky had Hung Before, hinges on this juncture. The index at the back of the collection explains that nearly all the poems are collages, inversions, supercuts, ghostings or ekphrastic renditions of pre-existing texts. Other poems and poets yes, but also, social media streams, news articles, songs, a list of a child’s first words and buzz feed threads; as Fitch says of his own work in a recent interview “my poems are often simply accretions… [I] gather the relevant textual materials together and just play, make Lego of them, see where it goes”. Fitch’s collection asks, what limits the criterion of the “post-ready made” work? What happens if poetry embraces the technological paradigm of “information” to which it has been historically opposed?
The longest sequence in the collection is a sequence titled ‘Argo Notes’; “amorphous calligrammes after Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. It is not coincidental that Fitch categorises the ‘Argo Notes’ as specifically calligrammes as opposed to concrete or visual poetry. Indeed what were Guillaume Apollinaire’s original ‘Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War 1913-1916’ but the attempt to synthesise typography with the burgeoning technology of the cinema and the phonograph. The form of the calligramme itself bespeaks not only the historical imbrication of poetic production and technological “means of reproduction” (as Apollinaire dubbed them in a letter to André Billy), but indeed the precariousness of the poet’s own status as productive as opposed to simply mimetic, an insecurity stretching back to their banishment from Plato’s Republic. In flagrantly anchoring the majority of poems in this collection in techniques of productive plagiarism, Fitch can trade off this age-old tension with its major contemporary iteration (the internet), whilst recognising that despite the major rupture the Internet has induced for poetry, it is not exactly uncharted territory. The calligrammes are significant for a further reason too, as morphing textual forms they perform a queerness that realises the historical etymological root of “stanzas” as body. The conflation of language (which is of course, the first technology) and the sexual; the productive and re-productive culminate and confuse in the queer textual body as:
“pro-Babel & shooting white eggs
Following from this point, in ‘Poetry is 99% Water’ Fitch asks us to remember;
between 4.5 billion and 3.8 billion years ago,
a period called the Late Heavy Bombardment
and we’ve been recycling poems from these fragments
of larger epics ever since – into whirlpools and tornadoes
and other spinning turbulent flows”
Fitch’s “whirlpools and tornadoes” recall the epic simile of the swarm, which first appears in Homer’s Illiad, becomes domesticated in Virgil’s Aneiad as the “hive” and reappears as the cacophony of Fallen Angels in Pandemonium, during the first book of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Inserting a poem concerned with (albeit on a comic register) making literal the ‘life-giving’ ability of poetry into this epic lineage points out that whilst the mechanisms of literary history and influence are of course technologies of reproduction and transmission themselves, this is clearly not a death sentence. Therefore, whilst the wasteland logic of the web, as explored in ‘Feel like I’m Somehow Related to Everyone on the Internet’, gives in to the paradoxical stasis of being “relegated to everywhere” (on the internet we are famously ‘alone together’), and it becomes more difficult to discern what you are “trashing” and what you are “recycling” (possibly alluding to Fitch’s own appropriative strategies), poetry and the poet should not submit to nihilism. Indeed, the production of the collection itself, as one that is inextricable from the consequential language, modes of existing and practices that web occasions, performs this defiant gesture;
“no such thing as reproduction
Only acts of production” (28)
In one of the funniest poems in the collection ‘Life Stream’ , Fitch pleads with the reader, or with himself;
“& you can too
APPROPRIATE POETRY’S SENSE OF
WHAT IS MEANS TO BE AN EMPATH” (50)
The poem frenetically replays the condition of living not only the preceding poems of the collection – the “toenail” from ‘Vague or I Can’t Explain It Any Other Way’ makes an appearance. But also the conditions of existence the contemporary poet finds themselves in — the casualised work force of the academy, the reduction of a politics to “flicker Netflix representations”, the anxiety of knowing you’re being surveilled every moment you spend online, which now, thanks to its technological bulldozing, feels like “IRL” itself. And of course, “our notional national poet… his eyes [are] the size of/ thumbnails not poems” (50).
Fitch’s poems are contemporary in that they take as their key interlocutor the contemporary conditions of poetic production in the Internet Age. But they are not symptomatic of this age, in that they do assume de-facto status as poems purely as formally experimental texts that exist within this internet environment. A tweet today is not automatically a poem, as the corporate-poet mercenaries Fitch describes would have us believe; but they can be, maybe. This is the formal question Fitch’s collection interrogates head-on; how do we escape the infinite scroll? Or, under what conditions is the found-poem today categorically defined as the latter? Fitch’s ‘In Memory of My Furlings’ ghosts the first section of the great Frank O’Hara poem, transforming ‘Feelings’ to a noun that seemingly means both an “advanced alien race” from the Stargate universe, and a distance of 220 yards — the web has managed both figuratively and literally to alienate or distance us from our most felt human intensities. O’Hara’s final line is prescient for Fitch;
“and presently the aquiline serpent comes to resemble the medusa” (103)
But Fitch’s poem finishes on a different note;
“the furlings and unfurlings
I continue to have to save and put down” (21)
Keep hitting save is Fitch’s ethical maxim. And it seems right, Where Only the Sky Had Hung Before shows the continuing potential of poesis as a rebellious practice that can re-organise and create anew the techno waste we are enmeshed in. If there isn’t much experiential payoff in boredom being reinstated in the city, Fitch’s collection is at least one.
1. Walter, Benjamin. “The Storyteller”, Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, Mariner Books, 2019, pp. 26-56.
2. Fitch, Toby. “The amorphousness of meaning-making”, Cordite Poetry Review, 1/2/2020, http://cordite.org.au/interviews/gomez-fitch/
3. Apollinaire, Guillaume, quoted in the preface by Michel Butor Calligrammes, Éditions Gallimard, preface copyright 1966), pp.
4. O’Hara, Frank. “In Memory of My Feelings”, Frank O’Hara Selected Poems, edited by Mark Ford, Alfred A.Knopf Random House, 2008, pp.102-103
JEREMY GEORGE is a writer from Naarm/Melbourne
Mother of Pearl
by Angela Savage
Reviewed by MEGAN CHEONG
Mother of Pearl: Perspectives on exploitation
When I open a book by a white writer and am confronted by the point of view of a person of colour, my body tenses as if in anticipation of a blow. Rather than reading, I pick nervously at the writing in search of cliché and oversimplification. Because the source of the tension I feel in relation to point of view is less a question of who has a right to whose story than it is one of craft. As Rankine and Loffreda point out in their introduction to The Racial Imaginary, “our imaginations are creatures as limited as we ourselves are” and therefore susceptible to the same preconceptions under which we labour as the products of an entire history of racist culture, politics and violence. The first-principle question is not therefore: “can I write from another’s point of view?”, but instead: “why and what for?”
The narration of Mother of Pearl is shared by three women, each of whom bears a distinct experience of exploitation. Meg has endured almost a decade of infertility treatments at the hands of a for-profit fertility industry in Australia. Her older sister Anna has spent the greater part of her adult life working with the ostracised and oppressed throughout South-East Asia. And early in the novel Mukda, or ‘Mod’, turns to surrogacy in an effort to lift her family out of the poverty endemic to the Isaan region of north-eastern Thailand.
Savage cycles quickly through each perspective to kaleidoscopic effect – each chapter is just a few pages long and written from a different point of view to the one before – and by interweaving Meg and Mod’s trauma, Savage expands the limits of an essentially western narrative of infertility to encompass the non-white suffering that it brings about. Her portrayal of the medical procedures that Mod undergoes are particularly uncomfortable:
‘Inserting the speculum,’ the doctor said to no one in particular.
The slide of cold metal against her skin made her catch her breath.
‘Cleaning the cervix.’
It felt like something had crawled up inside her. Mod bit her lip.
A woman doctor joined them in the room, carrying what looked like a long, uncooked vermicelli noodle. The two doctors glanced at the screen Mod couldn’t see, murmuring in voices she couldn’t hear. She closed her eyes and brought an image to mind of Pui at the market. She’d been buying bplaa krai when a catfish leapt from its basin and slithered through the mud over Pui’s foot, making him shriek with laughter. He’d shown off the muddy whorls on his toes to his grandmother as proudly as if they were new shoes.
The medical staff’s failure to address Mod, let alone guide her through the process of implantation, signals her objectification as a surrogate – within the framework of the surrogacy industry, Mod is nothing more than a receptacle for the embryos of paying customers. As I read these scenes, I recall the gentle and attentive manner in which the midwives and doctors navigated my body during pregnancy, the work they did to keep me informed and seek my consent. Mod’s passivity is both assumed and imposed and elucidates the way in which capital, or a lack of capital, can strip back an individual’s humanity in the eyes of both institutions and the individual themselves. Similarly, the poverty of her circumstances, in combination with the warm rendering of her love for her son, Pui, speak to the illusory nature of choice in destitution.
By placing the reader on the examination table and leaving their knees dangl[ing] from hard plastic bars (123), Savage embodies the human cost of surrogacy and succeeds in her aim of lessening the distance that “enables overseas commercial surrogacy to happen in the first place”, and yet I am never able to sink into Mod’s world in the same way I do Anna’s or Meg’s. The finer details of Mod’s character are the product of much careful observation and deliberation. Like Anna, Savage spent several years living and working in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam; her research for the novel took her as far as Mod’s hometown of Sisaket; and she revised the manuscript in consultation with a Thai friend.
The grain of sand in my eye: while there is something in lending your voice to the voiceless, I don’t think I will ever be fully at-ease with characters whose submissiveness so closely aligns with “the kinds of feelings and attributes” that “our culture has imagined over and over again” for Asian women, and at times, Mod’s passivity and generosity facilitate the narrative in such a way as to remind me that writing from another’s perspective is inevitably an act of habitation and appropriation. One that can so easily lead to exploitation.
Savage enacts the awkwardness of her position as an outsider through the character of Anna. Anna’s knowledge of Thai culture, as well as her ability to speak Thai, simultaneously afford her greater access to Thai perspectives, and bring her face-to-face with the limits of her understanding as a farang, or white foreigner. When she expresses concern for the Thai surrogate who will carry Meg’s child, her Thai friend’s wry smile stops her mid-sentence:
‘What? The surrogate mothers are vulnerable, aren’t they?’
Fon shrugged. ‘Probably not as much as cleaner and factory workers. And the salary is better.’
‘So you think it’s okay for farangs like my sister to pay Thai women to have their babies for them?’
‘Why shouldn’t women in my country take advantage of such opportunities? Reuu dtawng gin naam dtai saawk mai?’
The expression was one Anna had heard Fon use before, the Thai equivalent of being satisfied with the crumbs from the rich man’s table. Translated literally, it was more visceral: ‘Must they drink only the water that drips from the elbow?’
‘Being a surrogate mother is a way of making merit,’ Fon said. ‘It’s considered a humanitarian act. A lot better than sex work.’
Anna chased the ice cubes in her water glass with a straw. She’d assumed that as a feminist, Fon would be dead against commercial surrogacy.
‘Neither surrogacy nor sex work seem like great choices to me.’
‘That’s because you’re thinking like a farang.’
This and other similar encounters serve to undermine Anna’s conventional authority as a white woman narrating Asia and in turn, reflects Savage’s awareness of the fraught nature of her own narrative choices. But for all her awkwardness, of the three women, it is Anna who allows Savage to articulate the problems of distance and othering with the greatest clarity. Anna’s acquaintance with the extreme poverty of South-East Asia makes her an exacting judge of others’ suffering. As Australia mourns in the wake of the Black Saturday fires, Anna wonders why those who are poor to begin with don’t seem to make it onto the radar (84) and stroking Meg’s hair at the hospital, where she is being treated for overstimulated ovaries, Anna sees that:
Meg would be all right. She had Nate, her family and friends, a comfortable home, a steady job. Compared with what the people Anna encountered in her work had to contend with, Meg’s sadness was a small burden.
It is shocking, in a way, to see infertility described as a small burden, yet throughout Mother of Pearl Savage interrogates the notion of ‘infertility’ until it starts to come apart. Reflecting on the last ten years of her life, Meg observes:
Once, a woman in her circumstances would’ve been classified as barren, with no room for ambiguity. But infertility was something else: a diagnosis, subject to an ever expanding array of medical interventions. Even the word infertility carried with it the hope, false or otherwise, of fertility. More than once Meg had thought it would be easier to know that there was no hope, that she would never have children. But no doctor or nurse, not a single professional she had dealt with, ever suggested she give up.
Mother of Pearl is not, in the end, a traditional portraiture of infertility. Nor is it a blunt condemnation of international surrogacy. Savage writes from the centre of each woman’s hopes and fears and the end product is a complex web of exploitation, accomplishment and loss that reaches farther than any one woman’s story.
- Rankine, C. and Loffreda, B., ‘On Whiteness and The Racial Imaginary’. Literary Hub, April 9, 2015. https://lithub.com/on-whiteness-and-the-racial-imaginary/
- Hunter, B., Mother of Pearl. FEMALE.com.au. https://www.female.com.au/mother-of-pearl.htm
- Rankine and Loffreda, ‘On Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary’.
MEGAN CHEONG 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.
by Ellena Savage
Reviewed by VICTORIA NUGENT
Memoir, poetry, probing essay-style musings and competing inner voices exist side-by-side in Ellena Savage’s Blueberries, a bold and incisive collection of experimental non-fiction.
While Blueberries is Savage’s debut essay collection, she has been widely published, with her works appearing in literary journals, daily publications and various collections. Many of Blueberries’ offerings have appeared in various publications previously, in differing forms and have now been stitched together to form a well-flowing collection that explores big topics like class, colonialism, feminism, reproductive rights, sex and trauma.
In her sharp and intimate prose Savage’s essays probe into what it means to be a woman, a feminist, a writer, a modern Australian and a product of a colonial society. While she never shies away from important issues, Savage imbues her work with a warmth and expressiveness that adds levity when needed.
Keystone work, “Yellow City”, which was last year published in chapbook form, kicks off the collection strongly, taking the form of diary entries tracing Savage’s steps through Lisbon in 2017, a city that she has returned after being a victim of a sex crime there some 11 years earlier. “Yellow City” is haunted by that past incident and by questions about the reliability of memory.
“—‘My first memory.’
—Is buttressed by recalling it.
—‘My first memory.’ A fiction fixed to the linear self.” (8)
Savage lays herself bare in this piece, scraping back the layers to show how the trauma had shaped her in the intervening years since the “encounter during which my flesh remembered the possibility of a violent death. When my body understood for a second that corpses are dismembered to cover-up crimes.” (6)
The second essay, the titular “Blueberries”, explores the learnings that Savage takes from an elite writing workshop she attends the USA, delving into questions of privilege, gender, what it means to be a woman and a writer and what associated obstacles come with those two roles.
The essay had a cadence all of its own, coming back to the phrase “I was in America at a very expensive writers’ workshop” (41) or variations of it to drive home each new stanza. Dropped commas make the prose flow with a heightened sense of urgency, a sort of feverish enthusiasm that somehow sounds more like the dialogue might have with an impassioned friend, eager to convey the import of the issue weighing upon their mind.
The intersection between gender and the creation of art is a key theme of the work, with Savage delving into the role gender played in the dynamics of the workshop and how that mirrored inequality between the sexes in wider society and in the arts.
In many ways, Blueberries could be seen as modern day response to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, delving into these inequalities, even while acknowledging the “thud of guilt knowing that someone, like, I don’t know, my own mother, would have wrung her neck to have been given the opportunity to attend her art’s version of the workshop I was at;” (57)
Savage’s musings hold an echo of Woolf’s own thoughts on women writers, brought into a modern era. Woolf wrote that “it would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?” (Woolf, 87). I found echoes of Woolf’s frustration in Savage’s own thoughts on the writers’ workshop, where she “was disappointed not for the first time that ‘excellence’ was turning out to be mediocrity dressed up in money and maybe masculinity too, not the masculinity that is visible to us, brawny and street-smart, but real masculinity, which is reedy and tepid and well read and invisible.(42)
The piece also touches upon class and race but only in a relatively minor way. Savage recognises her privilege, pondering on the “kind of class mobility that I have because maybe my race is my class now” (45) and at the same notes that women writers made up “ninety per cent of the cohort, and most of them white” (54). Despite this acknowledgement though, white feminism remains the predominant lens for Savage’s analysis.
“Then one day me and my friend were at a big gallery and I looked at a wall of photographs of famous European artists, artists whose faces you’d recognise as those of famous European artists, and for some reason I saw it all at once laid out and the only thing I could say was ‘Where are all the women artists’, like I had only just noticed, which could as easily have been where are all the Aboriginal artists where are all the trans artists where are all the Asian artists, except that we’re talking about a group that constitutes fifty per cent of any otherwise marginalised population and any privileged one too.” (53)
This quote signifies (intentionally or not) that despite Savage engaging with ideas about how race might factor into marginalisation, her chief concern regarding representation still remains how much recognition women might receive in artistic spheres. With her argument about women constituting 50 per cent of the population, Savage subtly indicates a belief that the representation of female artists is of more important than that of the other groups she mentions. Women’s issues are thus given prominence over issues facing Asian and Aboriginal artists. Savage’s analysis stops short of unpacking how women of colour might face further struggles with representation as compared to white women.
Savage better acknowledges her own limitations in “Satellite”, a musing on her family’s Coburg background and the area’s gentrification, where she likens her roots to “an introduced grass species that thrives everywhere by choking its competitors, that avoids detection by passing for a native species, and this laboured metaphor is trying to say something about colonial figures like me who’d really like to not make things worse than they are, but who by simply accepting the yellow blotted sun through the pane of glass, by accepting the home built atop spirits silent and angry, have roots that are caught in the seams of rotten foundations.” (79)
Class and how cultural capital is linked to social mobility is another theme Savage takes an interest in. She puts forward the supposition in Blueberries that “the accumulation of cultural capital for the purpose of social mobility is a stone-cold fact of life” (57), but one that is seldom talked about. Savage links this pursuit of elitism to the willingness of writers to pay for courses of “expensive mediocrity” (46) in a liberal arts environment where a kind of morality is associated with eating locally sourced, organic food, stemming from “the entitlement of an elite class to impose its moral directives on the people whose labour allows them to be elite in some way or another” (50). In “You Dirty Phony Saint and Martyr”, Savage writes that she imagined some of her own accrued cultural capital would “morph into material capital, but it has not, yet and might never” (133), as part of an essay in which she touches lightly on “the nexus of power, privilege and prestige in literature” (130).
In “Unwed Teen Mum Mary”, Savage seamlessly transitions from recounting the process of seeking paid work into a contemplation of what the word choice means, specifically in the context of having the agency to make reproductive choices. It’s a powerful personal essay that both takes the readers into the intimacies of Savage’s own life and looks broadly at the cultural narratives surrounding abortion and how Christian tradition has shaped them.
“In my view, any effort to pair femininity with maternity with biological destiny with virgin births with earthy crystal-lovemaking is an effort to relegate the female form to a position of inferiority, to a state of constant need and gratitude and dependence.” (112)
Savage shows a firm grasp of a variety of styles throughout the collection, playing with form in creative and clever, and sometimes disconcerting ways. “Allan Ginsberg” (fittingly) takes a poetic form, while “Friendship Between Women” has a compelling, rambling, stream-of-consciousness feel, rich with poetic description. Another interesting piece is “Holidays with Men”, which juxtaposes two separate works on each page, effectively creating two pieces in one. The first of the two reflects on a series of vignettes Savage once published in a zine, the second is a form of that vignette series, though one anecdote recounted in the companion piece about an acquaintance recognising herself in a vignette indicates that this version of “Holidays with Men” is not the same one. The eye and the mind don’t know which narrative to follow first but once the reader detangles the two, the combined work is a rich exploration of our modern relationship with travel, as well as the effects of travel upon relationships.
“Travel, in the broadest sense possible,
encompasses the furthest
reaches of a culture. Networks
driven by survival, by desire,
by a twinning of the two, have
flung bodies and stories away
from homes for all of history,
and all of prehistory, too.” (125)
“The Museum of Rape” could also be read in multiple ways, thanks to its use of numbered paragraphs, with the references throughout the text making it possible to skip to other parts of the work for a non-linear experience.
What I am saying is that I understand the total collapse of structured
I asked myself, what does it mean to anticipate the loss
of one’s rational function (7.0, 7.1, 7.2).” (67)
In the penultimate work in the collection, “Portrait of the Writer as Worker (after Dieter Lesage)”, Savage offers anecdotes of a writer’s life, a series of almost fragmented thoughts that strung together paint a vivid picture of how creation intersects with earning a living. Together with “Yellow City” and “Blueberries”, it can be seen as one of the collection’s key pieces.
“You are a writer, and you know what that means: you don’t do it for the money. You don’t do it for the money, which is a great reason people have to not pay you for your writing.” (211)
Savage’s works drip with references to other literature… Hemingway, Shakespeare, Elena Ferrante, Jamaica Kincaid, philosopher Theodor Adorno and the list goes on. By drawing from all these different source materials, Savage expands the scope of the work and imbues it with even more meaning.
As a debut collection, Blueberries is strong, sharply drawn, thought-provoking and easy to devour. Each individual piece earns its place in the collection, providing depth and insight across a broad range of topics and showcasing a rich toolbox of writing styles. Savage digs deep to scratch at the mysteries of self and of social structure in this personal, compelling work, which defies easy categorisation, revealing more with each subsequent reread.
Savage, Ellena. Blueberries. Text Publishing, 2020.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Classics, 2000.
VICTORIA NUGENT is a full-time journalist and part time fiction writer living in regional Queensland.