Adele Aria reviews Racism edited by Winnie Dunn, Stephen Pham, Phoebe Grainer

Racism: Stories on fear, hate and bigotry

Edited by Winnie Dunn, Stephen Pham, and Phoebe Grainer

Sweatshop Literacy Movement

Reviewed by ADELE ARIA


I was eager yet simultaneously exhausted to begin reading
Racism: Stories on fear, hate & bigotry. This is not a criticism but rather acknowledges my visceral familiarity with the phenomenon. I suspect too many of us know, intimately, what racism feels like and how it manifests in our lives, often infusing our lives as embodied trauma, regardless of attempts to refuse the internalisation of harmful othering narratives. Produced by the Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement, the editorial team have curated a suite of stories by First Peoples writers, Black writers, and writers of colour to create a timely insight to the multiplicity of personal experiences. Reflections and stories of racism are interwoven with varied perspectives on how racism exists, ranging from the foundational violence of colonisation, Australia’s ongoing coloniality, the nuances of structural and systemic racism, to contested definitions, often imposed by those who inflict it rather than those who endure it. Centring experiences and voices who are often marginalised for their difference, the anthology enacts a resistance to how discussions on racism are derailed or quelled. It is also hard to know if contributors felt empowered, given this form of exposure and substantial labour is so often demanded from people whose lives and identities are marginalised. Attempts to challenge or claim social power often come with costs. It is also a delicate undertaking when Aileen Moreton-Robinson, in Talkin’ up to the white woman cautions that virtuous objectives of fighting racism might instead entrench the essentialising ideology of it.

Racism blurs lines between writing forms such as memoir or testimony and fiction, refusing to clearly distinguish them to focus readers on the complex and multi-faceted truths of racism. It reflects the heterogeneity of possible responses to the invitation to share stories on fear, hate, and bigotry. The anthology is the unflinchingly intimate product of three literary collectives: Western Sydney Writers Group, Sweatshop Women Collective, and Black Lives Workshop. The project intentionally confronts the broad spectrum of racism as a very real othering experience faced by many Australians despite the propagated myth that Australia isn’t racist. It recognises the colonialist brutality that provides the foundation of Australia and prompts interrogation of how racism is encultured.

Some stories portray understandable yet detrimental internalisation, while others rage at the way it imposes shame for being different and discomforting to whiteness. Other narratives evoke a sense of distress, rage, and demand for change. Some writers share poignant appreciations of how survivalism can be a unifying drive across the intersections of being diverse to a mythic norm in which Australia remains invested. The changing tones and approaches provide a journey of tension, without being so unrelenting that it becomes overwhelming. The stories do not feel like they have been censored or reshaped for palatability, but instead often dive into raw truths. The arresting lyricism and evocative depictions of bigotry build an urgency to keep reading.

Potentially, this collection is an opportunity for those at different stages of allyship, solidarity, and learning about how others live with apparently unavoidable burdens of othering and racialised stereotypes. The alienation exerted by racism upon First Nations people, Black people, and people of colour (FNBPOC) are transformed by insistence that readers recognise their humanity and question the acceptability of such harmful processes. It represents a compelling invitation to see, witness, and understand. Simultaneously, it signals the complexity of allyship and demands anti-racism be more than symbolic. As Max Edwards notes, the “desire to prove a lack of racism by demonstrating proximity to Blaknesss… dehumanises us”(175).

Challenging the tokenisation of non-white existence, the anthology honours the critically conscious existence of being racialised and objectified. The collective has refused the colonialist gaslighting narrative that racism doesn’t exist, revealing its pervasive influence upon social systems, structures, and day-to-day lives of people living in a nation state founded through violence. ‘an act of advice in motherhood’ by Meyrnah Khodr is steeped in the need to cultivate safety and protection in the face of the supposedly absent racism. In Amani Haydar’s ‘hijab days’ we see vilifications of religious practice made into excuses for bad behaviour.

I argue Racism also provides value for anyone whose own lives are inextricably bruised by others’ fear, hate, and targeted bigotry. Necessarily, there are nuances to others’ experiences, despite the often-unimaginative ways people enact the cruelty and brutality of racist attitudes and beliefs. Some readers might see their own lives and difficult moments represented in this book and may also find insight into varied vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies. Difference and experiences are idiosyncratic, such as at the intersections of anti-Blackness and power dynamics between child and adult in Guido Melo’s account which reminds us that the trauma of racism is often written into people before they find homes in so-called Australia. I also do not think FNBPOC owe further immersion in the lives and pain of other people made busy surviving racism.

Juxtaposed with examples of racist attitudes and thinking, the collection also considers the reality that survival and resilience often coincide with internalisations, which might manifest as the lateral violence described in Shirley Le’s ‘looking classy, what are you?’, the anti-Blackness of an advertisement in Ayusha Nand’s chapter, or Chris Tupouniua’s and Rizcel Gagawanan’s accounts of judgements about what constitutes an adequate performance of race.

The anthology winds through preoccupations of belonging and identity, the exclusionary impulse that categorises and dehumanises, and the fraught navigation of power dynamics. Despite mainstreamed voices suggesting these are historic processes that no longer exist, it becomes undeniable they are ongoing contemporary issues. It becomes clear that people are not single-issue representatives, showing intersectionally marginalising forces such as sexism and classism. 

Wresting power from white creators who have been dominant voices defining representations and stories of diversity, the anthology draws readers to the perspectives of FNBPOC instead. It reveals the insidious harm of mainstreamed voices dictating the order of things. It is the judgement produced by whiteness and propagated by others in Chris Tupouniua’s first prose piece. A character in Daniel Nour’s story contrasts the food of ‘multiculturalism’ with ‘normal foods’ like steak and broccoli as if there is magnamity in whiteness permitting diversity.

While Heikmah Napadow’s ‘zooper dooper’ shows us how simple an ally’s act of defiance can be, there is no pandering to those who offer allyship, conditional upon gratitude and sufficiently placatory anti-racism activism. In a world that recently witnessed the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement and localised Blak Lives Matter action, reading Racism might be challenging for self-titled allies. It is gloriously non-compliant with the false boundaries of niceness in tone and content. 

Overall, the writing rejects attempts by whiteness to rehsape racism as inconsequential or rare unpleasantry. In the conclusion, Sarah Ayoub counters with the stark and disturbingly growing statistics of the many Indigenous people, amongst others, are paying with their lives.The harms and pain are no longer abstract. The ways in which some are empowered or emboldened to police identities and tone is made visible and problematised. Without falling in the trap of tediously explaining what racism is, the narratives are a testimony of the pervasiveness of the phenomenon. It unequivacolly rejects a reader’s power to dissociate.

The omnipresent force of racism can literally take lives and also steal precious moments. Sara Saleh skillfully takes the reader into the anxiety and denial of personhood that can occur, particularly amid the militarised precarity of Palestine. Even as global attention increasingly scrutinises the terror people are facing in Palestine, Saleh situates moments that might otherwise constitute togetherness and rituals of family in the omniprescence of colonialist violence. Like many other accounts, ‘beit samra’ interrogates whose lives are valued enough to galvanise change.

Understandably, the compilation might exclusively include writing to expose and commodify trauma and scars for educational consumption of others, but its span is greater than this. Janette Chen uses acerbic humour, playing with the apologism that underpins many racist behaviours. While resisting demands of consumability, writers artfully explicate how people are required to produce evidence of humanity. They must justify their existence, from producing literal receipts (such as the dockets Sydney Allen proffers under interrogation) to insistent demands of conformity with stereotyped ideas of what FNBPOC are supposed to be. Adam Phillip Anderson’s ‘round eyes white asian’ parallels the policing of racial identity that the protagonist is subjected to with how it might also serve as a shield, highlighting the distancing power of othering.

Childhood, beauty standards, tradition, success, grief, and colonialism are just some of the interwoven themes. Even in supposedly congenial workplaces, Amani Haydar shows the casual derision in a colleague describing Ramadan as “that thing”. Vacillating between the objectification of diversity as an educational exercise and the anxieties about what visibility might bring, Daniel Nour’s ‘tournament of the ethnics’ narrates the advocacy of a father who wants a son to be able to exist in his own way. In ‘palangi’, Chris Tupounia calls out the lazy demonising caricatures created by whiteness but also weaponised by other FNBPOC.

Featuring emerging and established writers, hailing from Indigenous, Arab, African, Asian, Latinx, African-American and Pasifika backgrounds, readers can engage in a robust provocative journey. It moves through explorations of racism, its universality and potency, the homogenising force of it, the power dynamics it propagates and is served by, survival and struggle, and its many forms whether directed outward or inward. The powerful, often raw and prosaic, lyrical works in the “micro aggressive fiction” portion serve as a crescendo for the collection. Crossing genres from poetry to prose to commentary, this section signals the movement through discomfort, self-doubt, and sorrow, but revels in withstanding and challenging of racism. They are bite-size rejections of demands to avoid being “angry while Blak” or to prove that a “model minority” person only speaks gently when spoken to. 

As the editorial team Winnie Dunn, Stephen Pham, and Phoebe Grainer attest, Racism is intended to be “raw, honest, provocative”(13). During the resurgence of the #BLM movement, booksellers reported a significant upswing in purchases of books on racism. This was soon followed by evidently prescient concerns that anti-racism books would remain unread, merely performative acquisitions displayed on bookshelves. I worry that people who could benefit from reading it, will not. Those of us who face racism infiltrating our lives might only relive those moments replicated in its pages. I urge readers to share and recommend it, insistently. Ensure the labour and talent contained within its covers an opportunity for more readers to dive deeper into understanding racism to be and why it exists. The potential value of the reading experience is limited by who will not pick up the book. However, I personally have some reservations about some inclusions perpetuating ideas such as ableism in describing antagonists, conflation of Asian identities with yellowness, and the colonialist possessiveness of “our” Aboriginal people or “Aboriginal Australians”.

FNBPOC are not a homogenous monolithic identity, and neither are the stories homogenous. Refreshingly, the collection is unconstrained by cookie cutter ideas of what literature is supposed to look like, resulting in writing imbued with the individualism of the authors and their lives. There is a range of exploratory narratives from the humorous allegory of chasing away Eurocentrism in Tyree Barnette’s ‘invasions’ to the anguish in Nellie Tapu Nonumalo Mu’s ‘the white don’t like the black’. Contributors share vulnerably in explorations on vulnerability, rage, grief, defiance, exhaustion, and reflect upon the lived reality of racism. Facing into the unsettling reality that the pathway to resilience is paved in survival, the comfort of whiteness is not privileged. Australia’s persistent coloniality generates a liminality to which it pushes anyone who doesn’t meet the narrow definition of “Australian” but Racism: Stories on fear, hate & bigotry centers and amplifies voices from the edges. Embodying the Sweatshop editors’ commitment to the power of literature, it refuses to be party to the erasure of the pretense that racism isn’t real, here and abroad. The white gaze is, finally, not the defining approach to racism in Australia.

1. I use the atypical initialism of FNBPOC in recognition and acknowledgement of the primacy of the traditional custodians of the lands upon which the anthology writers and I are situated. The many First Nations peoples whose sovereignty was never ceded, have been most targeted by the violence of racialisation in the founding of the Australian nation state. However, I note the preferences in language are constantly shifting and I do not intend my use of this term to override any individual’s self-representations or community preferences.

Adele Aria is a queer disabled writer, advocate, and artist. Informed by lived experience and studies, their writing focuses on human rights, social justice, and domestic and family violence. Adele’s writing has featured in international and Australian publications and literary events. Writing across multiple forms, Adele has been awarded several fellowships. As a person of colour, they are grateful to be living in Boorloo of Noongar Country. Connect with Adele:


Fernanda Dahlstrom reviews One Hundred Days by Alice Pung

One Hundred Days

Alice Pung

Black Inc



Alice Pung’s fifth book and second novel,
One Hundred Days (Black Inc, 2021), deals with the difficult relationship between sixteen-year-old Karuna and her manipulative and overbearing (but also loving and hardworking) Chinese Filapino mother. Karuna’s father, who is Anglo Australian, has left the family and she has fallen pregnant to a boy she knew only briefly. The setting is 1980s Melbourne. Information is not readily accessible and hysteria about AIDS is rife. Pung tells a simple story that is rich and layered, exploring with compassion both the dysfunction and the strength of a complex mother-daughter relationship and ultimately empowering and vindicating the teenage protagonist. 

The novel begins with Karuna addressing her unborn baby as she lies in bed beside her mother who ‘says she can’t sleep by herself, that it’s too dark’ (p.1). The claustrophobia is palpable and Karuna wishes she 

could start off with a fairytale (sic), something that makes you think the world is much bigger than us beneath our ceiling. But it’s just me and you and your Grand Mar…there is no big bad wolf, even though your Grand Mar wants to wring his name out of me (p.1-2). 

We soon learn than the Grand Mar in question plans to treat the baby as her own and to raise her believing that Karuna is her sister. The older woman’s looseness with the truth becomes clear and Karuna’s frank and intimate narrative is a pushback against her mother’s attempts to rewrite her story.  

Karuna’s mother decides to confine her daughter to their housing commission flat for one hundred days to keep her safe. We then learn that Karuna met a medical student during the summer before Year 11 and got him to take her on long drives through the western suburbs, before having sex with him in the back of his car. The second person point of view is mostly limited to referring to Karuna’s parents as ‘your Grand Mar’ and ‘your Grand Par’ in an unobtrusive reminder of whom the story is being told to. Karuna’s mother works for a hair and makeup salon during the day and cooks at a restaurant in the evening. Karuna likes to read but cannot think of anything more pointless than studying literature at university and has no professional ambitions. When she finds that she is pregnant, she thinks that at least she’ll have something of her own. 

All too often, mothers are romanticised, even fetishized, as selfless, wise and endlessly emotionally giving. Their sometimes-questionable behaviour towards their teenage daughters is a subject often spoken of with a platitudinous whitewashing that belittles or erases the experiences of daughters who have been subjected to true abuse. In contrast, One Hundred Days thoroughly interrogates the mother’s abuses of power and misconceived overprotectiveness of Karuna. She complains, ‘Aussie(s) think everything is child abuse’ (p. 12) and uses her culture to excuse her controlling and eccentric behaviour towards her more educated daughter. This extends to making Karuna boil watermelon, forbidding her to eat crab in case the baby is born with six fingers and warning her not to use glue as it will cause the baby to be born with birthmarks. Karuna eventually suspects ‘she is just making it up as she goes along, this cultural stuff’ (p.227), highlighting the disconnect between migrant parents and their Australian-born children. 

Pung deftly captures the difficulty for a teenage girl of conveying to outsiders the wrongness of her relationship with her mother when, on the surface, it does not appear abusive. ‘Your mother’s just making sure you get plenty of rest’ (p.108), a teacher tells Karuna, when she tries desperately to tell the woman about her confinement in the flat. After her baby has been born, she ponders, ‘She doesn’t hit me, she doesn’t hurt us – how would authorities see what is wrong with our situation?’ (p.101) Pung also captures the ambivalence of a child who is mistreated by a parent and the half-awareness about one’s rights that can exist in this space. Karuna is at once outraged at the disrespect she receives from her mother and quick to protect the woman from consequences and from the judgements of others. When emergency services suggest sending out police after her mother locks her and the baby inside the flat on the hottest day of the year, she panics. When at last she succeeds in winning some autonomy and space, she is quick to reflect on how her mother has worked overtime for weeks, rocked the baby to sleep and got her everything she owns that’s not donated. Their relationship, at last, starts to resolve into one of mutual respect. 

As someone from a single parent background, I found it refreshing that One Hundred Days does not play into some of the common tropes of narratives of single motherhood, where characters often yearn to connect with an absent father. Karuna gives the baby’s father only the most fleeting importance. Her own father’s absence from her life is also largely peripheral to the story, with the focus kept squarely on the relationship between the women. When she loses her virginity to nineteen-year-old Ray, the conquest is hers, but it is primarily a victory over her mother’s stifling control; the boy a means to an end.

If I hadn’t been in his car, I would have wanted to raise a triumphant fist in the air. Woohoo!…It didn’t make me a woman, but it did make me a separate person with secrets. (p. 56)

Ray is cast as harmlessly buffoonish. He asks if The Handmaid’s Tale is some kind of fairy tale and tries to work out Karuna’s ethnicity from her name, with an arrogance for which she gently mocks him. 

Fairy tales pervade Pung’s novel, with Karuna’s confinement in the apartment tower calling to mind the story of Rapunzel. She repeatedly recalls the 1986 Jim Henson film Labyrinth as she tries to find her way through the maze of her relationship with her increasingly paranoid and delusional mother who has ‘stolen’ her baby, and to escape the prison she has made of their flat. However, Karuna’s relationship with her mother is too complex to reduce to fairy tale archetypes. Ray is eventually relegated to ‘the Once that started this Upon a Time’ (p.239).

One Hundred Days contains echoes of Caroline Baum’s Only: A Singular Memoir (2017), in its exploration of the claustrophobia of life as an only child and the over-identification with parents that this can bring. Karuna’s situation is also reminiscent of Margo Lanagan’s The Best Thing (1995) but in Pung’s world it is the middle-aged grandmother, rather than the teenage mother, on whom it is incumbent to make concessions so that the pair can move on to the next stage of their lives. The novel engages with issues of race and class while dealing primarily with a relationship that teeters on the edge of family violence. Karuna is ultimately delivered in her struggle for recognition and autonomy, while the hardships faced by her mother are acknowledged, in an uplifting validation of both women. 
FERNANDA DAHLSTROM is a writer, editor and lawyer who lives in Brisbane. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and Art Guide.

Bec Kavanagh reviews Ordinary Matter by Laura Elvery

Ordinary Matter

by Laura Elvery


ISBN 9780702262760

Reviewed by BEC KAVANAGH

Laura Elvery’s second collection of short stories,
Ordinary Matter, takes its inspiration from the mere twenty times women have won the Nobel Prize for science. And yet it isn’t science that connects the pieces in this collection, but the ‘softer’ stuff: the women in these stories are united by themes of motherhood, love, art – experiences which are often problematised, or portrayed as obstacles to a more ‘successful’ career-driven life. The choice between intellectual and domestic fulfilments, women are typically told, is an either/or deal. In Ordinary Matter, Elvery upsets these stereotypes, levelling the playing field between domestic, creative, and intellectual ambitions.

It comes as no surprise that Elvery is an academic writer as well as a creative one – Ordinary Matter is a collection that celebrates research and academia in both theme and structure. The framework of the book is proudly conceptual and crisply punctuates the stories: each piece prefaced by a paratextual nod to the prize-winner who inspired it, such as ‘1988. Gertrude B. Elion. Physiology or Medicine. Prize motivation: ‘for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment’. The individual stories are then gathered into this framework, some building directly on the scientist or her discovery, some connecting more ambiguously – a baby washed ashore and transforming the parents who adopt her, or a grieving man looking to understand and avenge his brother’s death. 

For some this framework, changing as it does with each story, will be a puzzle, a tantalising investigation into the threads of research woven carefully through the narrative, deepening with each reading. Perhaps others might ignore it altogether. On the other hand, it can be a distraction, the overt nature of the project somewhat at odds with the ambiguity of some of the stories. And although Elvery does provide a short glossary at the back, a paragraph summarising the notable accomplishments of each of the scientists, wondering where the narrative of each piece aligns with the object of its inspiration can be too much of a diversion, particularly when the connection isn’t so obvious. Having said this, there’s a beautiful leap of faith that Elvery places in her reader, a belief that they are up to the intellectual challenge of the work without clear or consistent signposting.

Elvery’s strength lies in the surreal elements of her writing – the sense of displacement that comes from the alignment of stories set in past, present and future with characters who are outliers, women who trouble the edges of their gendered roles. The subtle ways Elvery teases the reality of her subjects is captivating, leaving the reader with a sense of wonderment, of wondering. In ‘Something Close to Gold’ (Irene Joliot-Curie, Chemistry, 1935), my favourite piece in the collection, a couple grieving multiple failed attempts at IVF find a baby on the beach and, through an absurd but not altogether unrealistic bureaucratic process, manage to adopt her. The story works on a knife’s edge, keeping a fine balance between the push-pull of grief and loss, of hope and release. It is a piece that might be read in many ways, depending on the way the reader interprets the imagery, it might become a straightforward piece about the fragile, disturbed metamorphosis of motherhood. Taken another way it might be an allegory for colonisation, or Australia’s heartless policies on asylum seekers. Elvery provides enough details to make these pieces rich with meaning, allowing them to be held and turned over and over, revealing new parts of themselves each time.

Jerome de Groot (The Historical Novel) proposes that ‘historical novels clearly invite the reader to reflect on the ways in which ‘history’ is told to them. They have a double effect, a kind of unsettling uncanniness, which seeks to enable an awareness of the wroughtness of both ‘history’ and ‘fiction’.’ That term — ‘unsettling uncanniness’— suits these stories, which do bring together the duality (among others) of fiction and fact, inviting us to reflect on the limits imposed on women in science – where they come from, who upholds them, and the ways in which they are still ongoing. In ‘Better Nature’ (Ada E. Yonath, Chemistry, 2009), a pregnant researcher is abruptly cast out from her research circle. The story takes place in the in-between, in the moment where she is neither academic nor mother – ‘I had been in that city, and in that world with my famous, fearsome supervisor and her loyal group of laser-focused students. And now I wasn’t.’ There are moments like this in most of the stories, where Elvery holds her characters in the space of what will be/what might have been. Sometimes, as in ‘Grand Canyon’ (Marie Curie, Chemistry, 1911), these edges manifest literally, with Curie ‘staring into the void’. Cleverly (at times frustratingly), Elvery often leaves us at the edge of these moments, refusing solid resolutions.

All of the stories are experiments in one way or another, and this sense of playfulness goes some way to balancing the overt intellect of the academic construct. Elvery experiments with theme, voice and structure – ‘Hyperobject’ (Maria Goeppert Mayer, Physics, 1963) is written in secretarial shorthand, the lightness of the text in powerful juxtaposition with the severity of the theme, while ‘Little Fly’ (Tu Youyou, Physiology or Medicine, 2015) uses a baby’s point of view to amplify her inability to control her surroundings. Whether these experiments succeed is incidental really – the appeal lies not in their success as much as Elvery’s willingness to be versatile in her prose, refusing (much like the subjects of her stories) to be restrained by a singular set of expectations.

The magic of Ordinary Matter is in Elvery’s ability to find the ordinary from the extraordinary rather than the other way around. In a world that tells women they must be exceptional in order to succeed these stories bring forth all the ordinary moments upon which greatness pivots. Despite its occasionally dense intellectual frame, Ordinary Matter is an impressive collection which invokes a sense of curiosity and play.  


BEC KAVANAGH is a Melbourne-based writer and academic whose work examines the representation of women’s bodies in literature. She has appeared at writers’ festivals nationally, and judged a number of literary prizes, including the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. Her literary criticism can be found in The Guardian, The Monthly, The Saturday Paper and The Big Issue, and she has written fiction and non-fiction for a number of publications including Westerly, Overland, Meanjin, and the Review of Australian Fiction. Bec is the Youth Programme Manager at the Wheeler Centre, and a sessional tutor and PhD candidate at LaTrobe University.

Tony Messenger interviews Ali Whitelock

Ali Whitelock is a Scottish poet and writer. Her second poetry collection, the lactic acid in the calves of your despair was long listed for the ALS Gold Medal for an outstanding literary work in 2020 and is published by Wakefield Press. Her debut collection, and my heart crumples like a coke can, was published in 2018, also by Wakefield Press, with a forthcoming UK edition by Polygon in 2022. Her memoir, Poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell, was launched to critical acclaim at Sydney Writers Festival (2008) and in the UK (2009).


This lockdown has seemed endless, reflecting back to March 2020 when I was first sent home from the office, temporarily we thought, I’ve now endured more than eighteen months of working from home, an interrupted social calendar, sporadic lapses in concentrated reading and writing, and all of the other associated ills that most are now to blasé to even consider.

Take a moment to feel for those writers whose books were released, or scheduled for release, during the last eighteen months. Launches, readings, hoopla and hurrah all cancelled, whilst their works attempt to garner support via social media channels and via online sales.

Ali Whitelock, Scottish born and Australian resident, is one such writer, her second collection from Wakefield Press, ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’, was due to launch on the same day that NSW had its first lockdown. Zoom book launches had not even been thought of at the time, so yet another writer must start swimming harder against the currents to get their work recognized. 

Similar to her first book published by Wakefield, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’, Ali Whitelock’s poetry approaches personal places in a raw and open manner, as the opening lines of the first poem “in the silence of the custard” attest:

Night crept in, stumbled and fell at my feet
badgers keeked from hedgerows
window wipers wiped, grouse tails flashed, patsy
cline played on the stereo i listened in the dark and fell to pieces.

 Onomatopoeia, alliteration, and metaphor abound, in these poems that address personal subjects such as grief, hysterectomies, climate change and politics. Spiced with irony, the juxtaposition of helplessness with humour is unbalancing, you move from shock to smile within lines and once done return for another reading.

…now the ice caps are melting & the fucking polar bears are dying.
then trump got elected. i tried to write a poem about this heat but it ended
up being about the daughter i never had & sadness crept up behind me,
put its hand over my mouth and pulled me backwards into a filthy dark
alley i hadn’t been game enough to venture into before.
– from “kmart sells out of cheap fans made in china”

Trump, “turbo charged” air conditioned shopping malls, attempted suicides, unborn children, climate change, and dying polar bears all in a single poem with an ironic title. However, it is the helplessness, the impossibility of a single person making a difference that rings true throughout. 

Ali Whitelock carefully balances the broad social issues with her deeply personal revelations, a reconciliation with her father before his death, her personal health problems come up against cures such as “chrysanthemum tea” or humour such as the process of writing a poem in “a poem walked into a bar”, the opening section here:

thrust a sheet of A4 paper into my hands, said,
‘here, have this.’
‘what do you mean?’ i said, ‘what is it?’
‘it’s a poem,’ the poem said. ‘a poem?’ i quizzed.
‘aye, a poem,’ the scottish poem replied.
‘ well how come you’re just handing it to me?’ i said
‘because,’ the poem said, ‘i’ve been watching you from the driver’s
seat of my big poetry bus and every time i pull up at your stop
i see you hunched over your laptop only stopping now and again
to get a cup of that kombucha or whatever the fuck it is you’re drinking
these days, or to rub the RSI in your forearms from your too much typing
and i see you agonise trying to find exactly the right word with exactly
the right weight that conveys the exact emotion you are trying
to get down on the exact page exactly no one gives a flying fuck about.’

Formal poetic processes such as responses to other poems, ekphrastic musings or found lines all make their appearance in this varied and readable collection. As Ali Whitelock’s work matures there appears to be a more sinister, wiser head, she’s “veering off the well lit path into unexpectedly intimate spaces” as she explains in her interview.

As always with any interview subject I would like to sincerely thank Ali Whitelock for her time and honesty in answering my questions.

T.M: Both of your books, from Wakefield Press, have interesting covers, your first, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’, has a photo of you looking directly at the reader, as though “I’m open here, I’m sharing my life’s moments with you”, the second, ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’, you appear more knowing, Rodin’s ‘Thinker’. Two questions here, did you have a say in the cover designs? And is it a case of the more you write the more circumspect you become?

A.W: Ah, cover design. I’m pretty hopeless when it comes to anything visual, so I leave cover design to Wakefield Press and their vast experience in publishing. Given my poems are deeply personal and very revealing, I completely understood the rationale to go with my face on the cover. Still, it did feel a bit confronting in the beginning, which was weird because what was I afraid of? Being exposed? I’d already exposed just about everything about myself in the pages of the book, so why stop at the cover? So I gave myself a bit of a talking to and now I don’t think twice about it.

As for ‘the more I write the more circumspect I become’, I have always taken risks in my writing, and that continues. The moment I find myself thinking, ‘oh shit, I can’t say that’, then I definitely have to say that. Having an edge of fear as I write brings an excitement for me and an edge to the process which I hope translates into the finished poem. If I’m not excited by what I write, how can I expect anyone else to be excited by it?  And while we’re on the subject, what is a writing life without risk and fear? I’m reminded of Robert Dessaix in his book Night Letters where he writes about his character Robert stepping out of the doctor’s office after being diagnosed with an incurable disease. Robert becomes, suddenly, very acutely aware that until that point in his life he’d always taken the orderly, well lit path through life and had never ventured off it into the undergrowth. With my writing, my excitement comes from veering off the well lit path into unexpectedly intimate spaces and trying to express myself as individually and originally as I can. My pal, and poet, Magi Gibson, once said, ‘You know Ali, your metaphors are daringly banal’, which I loved because that’s precisely what they are. They are always rooted in the every day banality of baked beans and fried eggs and our basic human foibles. I am not one for the grandiose. (I was chatting with Magi recently and I brought up her ‘daringly banal’ comment. Magi immediately pointed out that when she’d said that, she’d also said they were breathtakingly beautiful:) There you go Magi, the record has been set straight!)

At risk of banging on, your question also reminded of a time when I was in the audience at an opera masterclass at the Sydney Conservatorium. I wasn’t singing in the class although I was having private singing lessons at the time. The visiting American professor was trying to get the students to be less wooden as they sang. As the day drew to a close he urged the singers not to fear and not to hold back as they sang. He ended the masterclass with this exquisite line: ‘Safe singing. What’s the point?’ Perhaps that’s where I got my own writing philosophy from –– ‘Safe writing. What’s the point?’

TM: In James Tate’s poem ‘It Happens Like This’ the protagonist looks after the town’s goat. In your homage ‘natural born goat killer’ you inadvertently kill the goat. How did this leap occur? 

A.W.: I used to gather all my veggie scraps for my neighbour’s goat. Around the same time a dear friend of mine (who also has goats) asked her neighbour to feed them while she was away. Her neighbour inadvertently fed the goats rhododendron leaves not knowing they were poisonous to goats. One of the goats tragically died. I could only imagine how devastated my friend’s neighbour must have felt. After that I became terrified that I may, unwittingly, feed poisonous vegetable matter to my neighbour’s goat, so I would Google any of my more unusual vegetable matter to make sure it wasn’t poisonous. It was around about this time I stumbled on James Tate’s poem (also involving a goat). It is such a quirky poem and it inspired me to write down my very real fears about unintentionally murdering a goat and having an entire village turn against me as a result. For the record, I love animals more than I do humans and the worst thing I can imagine is having unintentionally caused an animal harm. Perhaps the true genesis of my goat poem centres around a time when I was around 17 and my cat had two kittens, Morticia and Pandora. One day, when the kittens were still little, probably only 12 weeks old, I got into my car and reversed out of the driveway not knowing that Pandora was under the car. I can’t begin to tell you of the horror that unfolded. The kitten died a horrific death. So maybe in some way my goat poem is speaking to the fear, horror and devastation that still lives in me since I, however unintentionally, killed my own kitten. 


T.M: The poem ‘if life is unbearable’ was obviously written pre-Covid, but it is reminiscent of lockdowns, baking crazes etc. Are you a prophet?

A.W: Ha ha, yes. But obviously, no. Look, the dark place we inhabit in ourselves is the place where all the juicy stuff lives––all the secrets, lies, fears, regrets, love, hate, shame, the list goes on. This poem comes from that same dark place inside of me and tries to speak to the banality and extraordinary weight of mechanically trying to enact things that are meant to bring us a sense of purpose or perhaps joy, (be that baking a cake or a loaf of sourdough or [insert your own sense of purpose/joy here] ), despite the fact that some mornings you can barely lift your head off the pillow. This poem seems to say, whatever’s going on in your life, you still somehow have to find it in yourself to keep going, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. And that can feel like an incredible burden.

This next bit may be slightly unrelated, but bear with me. I’m reminded of Jerry Seinfeld accepting the Clio Award from the Advertising industry for services to advertising. Who knew Jerry wrote ads? Anyway, Jerry gives an acceptance speech which is super scathing of the advertising industry. The audience of advertisers laugh heartily as he says, ‘I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of their hard-won earnings to buy useless, low-quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy’ and goes on to say, ‘if your things don’t make you happy, you’re not getting the right things’. It’s such a philosophical moment that comments so loudly and clearly on what it is that’s meant to make us happy, ie., buying stuff. The message from advertisers and capitalism at large is all we have to do is spend money and we’ll be happy. Well, this aspect of society is one I rail against and I guess it’s what I’m also (albeit less obviously) railing against in this poem––this idea that all you have to do is XYZ or buy ABC and we’ll all be happy. Well, I’m afraid simply doing XY Z or buying ABC may not be the answer for all of us. This poem is trying to acknowledge that in this shit storm of a world (where we’re bombarded by advertising and social media lies), how difficult it can be to keep putting one foot in front of the other regardless of how we are actually feeling. For some light relief, here’s a link to Jerry’s speech:


T.M: These are very personal poems, working through stages of grief, hysterectomies, bodily changes. Is it a cathartic experience to work through and craft these subjects onto a page?

A.W: My catharsis comes from the regular therapy that I’ve been having since, oooh, around 1995. When I’m writing my poems, it’s never about trying to work through my experiences (bodily or otherwise). I’ve never sat back after finishing and poem and thought, well, I’m glad I sorted that shit out. By the time I come to write a poem I’ve already emotionally and psychologically processed whatever it is I needed to process and that’s why I can then go on and write the poem freely, honestly and without fear of consequence. So really, when I write what I’m doing is retelling (not reliving) my stories/experiences in ways that are as poetic, artistic and original as I can make them. I wonder how my poems would come out if I hadn’t already processed the issues before hand. The phrase, madwoman’s breakfast comes to mind. 


T.M: In your author’s note, again obviously written pre-Covid, speaks of Edinburgh, Melbourne, Sydney, how has the restriction of travel impacted your full-time writing, and of course your poetry readings?

A.W: For the last twenty years I’ve had a house full of pets. Because I’m an animal maniac, this has meant I haven’t been able/prepared to travel as much as I would have liked. Sadly the last of our fur family (Nellie the cat) died last year. We had her for 21 years, her brother Angus for 19. Our darling Hector The Dog left us the year before Angus. We’d always said when the last of our pets departed we’d head to Scotland and France for an extended period. But when Nellie died, Covid was here and we were in lockdown . So here we are––perfectly able to travel because we have no pet responsibilities, but unable to travel because of the virus. 

My latest book was due to launch on the same day that NSW had its first lockdown in March 2020. The lockdown was so fresh, Zoom launches weren’t even a thing yet––look at us now! So in lieu of a launch, I video recorded myself making a bit of a launch speech. Nellie The Cat made an unexpected appearance and naturally the video was infinitely better as a result. When Nellie died, as a tribute to her I edited the video to show less of me and all of the Nellie highlights. It’s right here if you fancy watching. She was damn cute (if not super demanding). RIP little girl.

As for poetry readings, when live readings opened up briefly in Sydney in May and June 2021, I made hay while the sun shone. But yes, both lockdowns have clearly massively impacted all of us, let alone us poets.


T.M: How has this impacted your writing practice?

A.W: I still write every day so the lockdown hasn’t affected my writing practice. But I’m sure it has affected/influenced what I’m writing on a day to day basis. If there’d been no pandemic I’d have based myself in the remote Scottish highlands or France (my husband is French) for a few months so there’s no doubt I’d be writing something different to what I’m writing now. I can’t help fantasising about writing in a French medieval village––wandering around with a pen in my hand and freshly baked baguette under my unshaved armpit.

During this most recent lockdown I finished writing a new collection. Luckily for me, before Covid graced our shores, I already had a writing routine which I lived and died by––nothing gets in the way of that. For me, writing is all about the routine, the showing up for it every single day. When I sit down to write each morning, I’m like one of Pavlov’s dogs. I lift the lid and start salivating.


T.M: How do you see the relationship between style & form (for example you use various styles, responses, slides, prose, concrete) and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?

A.W: Mark Tredinnick once said, ‘the poem escapes from the form.’ This was way back when I first started writing poetry and I had no idea what this could mean. But eventually, I started to see that some poems looked and read better and seemed to come to life when they were laid out on the page in a certain way. So the relationship between style and form is massively important. I think the form adds a new layer to the meaning of the work and makes the poem more whole, more 3D, more complete.

How do I know which layout will be the right one? I don’t really know, for me it’s just a feeling. As I’m writing, I move lines around, indent things, centre things, make shapes … I experiment with various forms and miraculously, one will fit and the poem will be brought to life. I think writing overall is like learning to make bread. Eventually you understand how much yeast to put in without weighing it, you understand when the mixture needs more flour, you understand how long you will have to knead it before putting it in the oven. Your writing process becomes intuitive and personal to you. This is why making writing a regular and routine practice is so beneficial. The more time you spend kneading a poem, I think the better you get at it.


T.M: I ask about your writing practice & the impact of Covid, however looking back, once you had made the decision to be a full-time writer, what were your main creative challenges and have they changed over time? 

A.W: My biggest initial challenge was getting over the fear of not being able to produce. I had given up a salaried job in order to pursue my writing dreams. The fears were there from the start – what if I sit down and can’t write a word? What if what I do write is crap? What if I’ve been kidding myself all this time and I’m not a writer but a big fat loser? We’re all familiar with that negative self talk. So I didn’t try to get over those fears. Instead I sat down to write with the fears in the room. I invited them to ‘come and pull up a chair, but please, keep the fucking noise down cause I’m trying to get some writing done here.’ From day one, somehow, I felt if all I could do was merely show up, then the writing would take care of itself. Somehow I knew I had to create the environment where writing could exist as opposed to the pressure of, ‘I’m now sitting down to write’. I also knew I had to give myself permission to write crap. One of the other challenges for me was to accept that each day will not bring about a masterpiece. That’s just a fact. But over time, if you chip away at it, if you keep showing up every day and making space where writing can happen, you might just write something that makes you happy. 

And here’s the thing, writing is not only about producing ‘good writing’. A day of writing may yield some good writing, but in my case, mostly it will be mediocre or crap. This doesn’t get me down. I now have enough experience to know that the bad and mediocre writing can and will be made into something that’s good. The mediocrity is just the first draft. Once the mediocrity is down, then begins the real writing––where I have to work hard to make my mediocrity into something that’s good. I can only achieve that by the hard work of chipping away at it every day. Writing, for me, is always hard work but it’s never a chore. There’s a massive difference.


T.M: I ask all my subjects this question as it has built a great reading list, what are you reading right now?

Contempt –– by Alberto Moravia. 

Oh my god, this book.  The Boston Review says, ‘The most striking aspect of Moravia’s fiction isn’t its once-daring sexual focus, but the cool calculated way it looks at love – or lack of it – in the modern world.’ The atmosphere created in this book is mind blowing.

Mark Rothko: Towards the Light in the Chapel –– by Annie Cohen-Solal. 

I’m a huge fan of Rothko’s work. This book maps the journey of  Mark Rothko from young Jewish migrant to world renowned artist. Fascinating insights into the jealousy between artists of the time and the quest to gain recognition and the disdain these new expressionist artists held for the  establishment of the time.

Conversations with John Berryman –– Edited by Eric Hoffman

I have a fascination with Berryman. This series of conversations satisfies me in ways I can’t quite explicate. 

Anthropology and a hundred other stories –– by Dan Rhodes. 

Little snippets/single paragraphs detailing lost loves. I dip into this book time and again, it is gorgeous, tragic, tender, funny & utterly joyous. 

The Only Story –– by Julian Barnes. 

An utterly engrossing novel. So tender and heartbreaking. 

Stuff on my Cat –– by Mario Garza

Because who doesn’t want to look at photographs of a cat with whipped cream and a cherry on its head –– or a cheeseburger on its back?

T.M: And finally, what are you working on at the moment, anything you can share with us?

A.W: I’m working on a second memoir about travelling around Scotland with my brother. I’m looking forward to the day when I can get back to Scotland to complete the travel and hope to write it holed up in a rickety fisherman’s cottage somewhere in the north west corner of Scotland, gazing out across the Minch, a peaty malt in my hand, perhaps even a sprig of heather in my hair. 


Tony Messenger is an Australian writer, critic and interviewer who has had works published in many places including Overland Literary Journal, Southerly, Mascara Literary Review, Sublunary Editions in the USA and Burning House Press in the UK. He blogs about translated fiction and interviews Australian poets at Messenger’s Booker and can be found on Twitter @Messy_tony


Ben Hession reviews Whisper Songs by Tony Birch

Whisper Songs

by Tony Birch


ISBN 9780702263279

Reviewed by BEN HESSION

Tony Birch is a Naarm (Melbourne) based writer, who is probably better known for his prose, including his short story collections and novels, of which, The White Girl, won the Indigenous Writers’ Prize of the 2020 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. He was also the winner of the Patrick White Award back in 2017. Whisper Songs is Birch’s second volume of poetry and comes five years after Broken Teeth. Much of Whisper Songs was written during last year’s COVID -19 related lockdowns and may be seen as a meditation on his Aboriginal identity. However, in Whisper Songs, the reader is more than a mere spectator of the poet’s autobiography and revelation. Rather, Birch invites us to share something of a largely personal journey, exploring a sense of heritage and connection to Country.

Throughout Whisper Songs, Birch creates narratives that are underwritten, yet offer a vivid sense of a time and place which are traced towards their meaning and impact. As we see in ‘Dragster’, and the masculine trials of youth: 

red bicycles ring in tandem

slalom empty streets

chrome                             on morning sunlight

tyres                                 on crumbling bitumen

floating                             on air

we rode the world together

fearless 501s barefoot 

no shirts no hands


reckless                            bodies battling

we were                            born to pain

Similarly, in ‘How Water Works’ the movement of water between the macrocosm and microcosm appears as an essential life-force:

bowl of arctic water
moving slowly south
sleeping ebbing rising
upwelling loops of life
seconds     centimetres
patience slowly spirit
beauty and humility

shape shift onward
through air bodies
entwined with other waters
in plants in soil in Country

The collection is divided into three sections – Blood, Skin and Water – which are stages of a lateral exploration of something of what Lyn McCredden describes as a ‘locatedness in poetry’ (McCredden 3). In Blood, Birch deals with family connections with much of these educed through a “meat on the bones” (Birch, 267) social history, which, as Carolyn Masel and Matthew Ryan note, with respect to Birch’s short story, ‘Shadowboxing’, provides ‘the map-like evocation of place and the idea of an alternative ‘obscured’ history running through that place’ (Masel, Ryan 5). But rather than use the fictive elaboration of a short story to access the “individual experiences of marginalisation” (Masel, Ryan 5), Birch uses recollection and emotional attachment. This, at times, is elegiac, as we see in ‘Leaving’, with its fusion of day, the suburban place and personal relations: 

a moment of light,
a painted face of beauty
glimpsed in Saturday shop window
forever waiting our return

blood ties on every street corner
aunties uncles cousins
grandparents haunted shades
of black on white all gone   (25-26)

Similarly, we see in the poem, ‘Little Man’, place, time and connection:

searched for you at night
beyond the creaking gate
old haunts street corners
back lanes dressed in rain
big sky darkness

spoke soft words
calling your name
echoes to glimpsed light
fell with a dying moon
our whispered songs for you  


In this poem, as well as in ‘Dragster’ and others in the collection narratives are not filled out, but are kept allusive with the bonds with family members being as deep as their stories are implicit. This may prove a little difficult to follow, at least initially; though, identity is often about piecing together the past, and the past with the present while our bonds with others are carried within us, unseen. In ‘Blood’, Birch opens us to a small-letter sense of familiarity. In ‘Fading Light’, this allows us feel the sense of loss for the poet’s grandfather: 

my mother a girl of twelve
found his soulless body
slumped across the bathtub
he left her no story
and the coroner gave little away:

              well-built man
             aged forty-seven
             came home from work
             took carving knife
             cut his throat

Blood is symbolic as an elemental part of Birch’s Aboriginal lineage. Its loss, as seen in this poem, or potential for loss, as seen elsewhere, therefore, is emblematic of a disruption that is shown to be violent and self destructive. Importantly, what remains is not silence, but the cold language of the State, and, particularly in Trouble, Trouble, Trouble: Probation File 29/1957′, the colonizing apparatus. Here is the choice is made between the blood associated with internalized violence or the affirmation of identity and the resistance to colonization: 

the boy himself becomes that which he fears
violence courses his veins and therefore –
therefore he must become the protected one
by us for us and himself and for the country
this the only Nation girt by sea

Blood is thus political as it is personal. It provides that locatedness, which, as McCredden says, ‘is able to speak with earthy, experiential and historical authority, and to offer alternatives to the often too readily universalising, national and global discourses.’ (McCredden 3) And, as demonstrated in the poem Isobel, written for the poet’s granddaughter, the bloodline carries hope and strength for the future:

beautifully stubborn
four years and rising
deep frown eyes fierce
limbs of courage
a girl holding ground
bone and memory
of women reaching back
meeting deep time then
cartwheeling forward
armour for her courage

            she is the circle we gather

 With blood, Birch establishes a personal sense of locatedness and identity.  Skin, we see, then explores the external definitions of these parameters. The section opens with ‘The Eight Truths of Khan’, wherein Birch’s Punjabi ancestor, must affirm his humanity against the racist formalities of the White Australia Policy, which restrict the movements of people of colour.

‘I agreed that yes, I was fortunate to be allowed to reside
in such a fair prosperous Nation. That evening I again
sat with my wife & child, I again bathed & my wife &
I shared the same bed.’ (33)

In this poem, Birch uses parody as a means of emphasising the absurdity of the restrictions imposed upon his ancestor, as well as the casual and banal nature of the racism: 

applicant Khan should be seen, physically,
& compared to image held of him
by Customs, in grey metal filing cabinet
(alongside the oven) in staff kitchen (36)

Here, and elsewhere in Skin, Birch interrogates history by mimicking the language of institutional racism, recontextualising it, thus denying any erstwhile pretences towards “civilized” or legal neutrality. We see in ‘Forbearer’, the subject’s humanity is set against the dry inventory of attributes that routinely deny it. Again, Birch puts flesh back onto history. In the subsequent poem, ‘A Matter of Lives’, (where the title, itself, alludes to Black Lives Matter), this idea is given a more contemporary setting, with powerful effect, with a reference to the situation concerning Tanya Day and her death in police custody. Here, her humanity is also set against the cynical machinations of mainstream media:

a black woman asleep on a train
is no news is good news
until the day arrives
and she becomes
a fact of death
a number

Throughout Skin, Birch demonstrates the specialised use of language as an instrument of power for white people over black or brown, who have thus been forced to populate the feared and denigrated ‘Other’. The poem, ‘Razor-wire Nation’, shows this intentioned positioning through a language reserved for an enemy belligerent:

while love is an empty box
we busily tend the cages

gun-turret warriors
for a razor-wire nation  (50)

Conversely, skin and colour as a self-signifier of collective identity allows its assertion as a form of strength and power, against a world “slumbering at home”, as seen in ‘Waiting for a Train with Thelma Plum’:

we slouch beaten
except for a Girl in Blak
kiss of life in black boots
black jeans and hoodie
black/red/yellow flag on her back
headphones soon to pounce

she moves raises an arm
fist clenched ‘Hey!… Hey!’ –
Fuck that                                 (45)

The poem, ‘Tunnerminnerwait’, closes the Skin section. Here, identity is signified through the white skin of the coloniser’s language.  The inherent sense of identity, as elsewhere seen in Skin, is confronted by colonial laws, naming and presumptions. Through capital punishment, these attempt an absolute control with the overbearing threat to one’s own body, one’s own life. Against these, an ineffable, physical connection to Country provides resistance.

his name was Waterbird
and on the morning of
execution he announced

I have three heads

one for your noose
one for my grave
one for my country   (55)

The condemned bears insight, dignity and intransigence. These qualities permeate the underlying premise of ‘Whisper Songs’. In this collection, as blood courses throughout the body, so water does the land, each metaphorically reflecting the other. As Birch writes in ‘Birrarung Billabong’

Our hair was long and curled and magical, our eyes the
richest brown, our skin carried water, our water carried skin.
The sounds of the river rushing at the falls shared a pulse.  (66)

For Birch water is a vital element of the visceral. It becomes, as we see in ‘Desecrate’ – in spite of urbanisation and canalisation: ‘sacred blood of Country/ running with a song’ (76). Water alludes to life and locatedness at its most vivid. As an integral part of Country, it shares a sense of the maternal. In ‘Beneath the Bridge’, concerning the Westgate Bridge collapse, the tenderness is poignant and profound:

when the monster span thundered
across the west the bridge gave way
thirty-five workers came falling
and the Birrarung lay waiting
to gather the dead together 

she gave their souls a home
comforted fear and sadness
and returned battered bodies
to riverbank mourners clasping
soft hands of fatherless children    (74-75)

The essentially feminine nature of Country is rendered once again, in ‘Black Ophelia’:

deny the lord
the holy word
deny the gun

the wire and hoe
caste and colour theft
of ground of bodies

now be and be
with drifting river
with spirit water     (63)

The poem’s title alludes to Ophelia, the character in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. Unlike Shakespeare’s character, though, black Ophelia does not drown herself, but rather as an individual becomes sublimated with the river. She asserts an autochthonous presence, and an undeniable sovereignty over the land – one that is not negotiable.


to Black Ophelia
shimmering within
a sheet of glass 

open lips rising breasts
she sounds – always was
always will be…

A similar transcendence is seen in the final poem of the collection, ‘The Great Flood of 1971′. Here water overwhelms the landscape, and in turn demonstrates the inherent power of Country. Given the negative impact of organized religion, as noted in the poem ‘Sacred Heart’, the flood offers a chance of a genuine spiritual connection, with a kind of baptism in its own right, but where one becomes unified with nature’s vitality or elan:

surface gasping in a deluge
lightning tearing holes in sky
this river of rising life

            flood me  

In Whisper Songs, Birch moves beyond ordinarily compassed notions of authenticity, as something that is something self-consciously existential. Birch brings history and Country together in a journey to the soul. It is a journey of pain, poignancy, hope and sometimes humour. Birch’s abilities as a writer adeptly convey the songs whispered along the way. This is the gig. It is time for us to sit and listen.


McCredden, Lyn. ‘The Locatedness of Poetry’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature 11.6 (2009).
Birch, Tony. ‘The Trouble With History’, Australian History Now, Eds. Clark, Anna and Ashton, Paul), New South Publishing, University of New South Wales Press, UNSW (2013).
Masel, Carolyn and Ryan, Matthew. ‘Place, History and Story: Tony Birch and the Yarra River’, Australian Literary Studies 31.2 (2016).
‘Tony Birch’s “Whisper Songs”’. Spoken Word, 3CR, broadcast on 1 July 2021, Naarm (Melbourne).


BEN HESSION is a Wollongong-based writer. His poetry has been published in Eureka StreetInternational Chinese Language ForumCordite, and Can I Tell You A Secret?, the Don Bank Live Poets anthology. Ben’s poem, ‘A Song of Numbers’, was shortlisted for the 2013 Australian Poetry Science Poetry …

Kevin Hart reviews The Strangest Place by Stephen Edgar

The Strangest Place: New and Selected Poems

Stephen Edgar

Black Pepper

ISBN 9780648038740

Reviewed by KEVIN HART


Poetry always involves a delicate negotiation between craft and art. Craft can easily be misunderstood as a set of skills completely external to what is being written. Yet a poet shows craft by moving confidently within the work developing on the page. Often, when one looks at an intricately rhymed stanza, perhaps one with five, six or seven lines of varying length, such as Stephen Edgar favors, one might be tempted to think that the work has been composed, even revised, in the poet’s mind and then set down on the page. There are such compositions, some of them admirable, and examples can be found in volumes of minor seventeenth-century verse. The effect is known as “Ciceronian”: the style is marked by balance, antitheses, and repetition; it was developed to a high pitch in prose, not verse. Nothing could be further from Edgar’s characteristic way of writing, which is usually “Anti-Ciceronian.” Here sentences unfold naturally rather than exhibit a resolved formal beauty, and often the style is marked by asymmetric constructions. The poem shows a mind thinking as it progresses from stanza to stanza.

Too little is said, then, when critics say Edgar is a formalist, or range him against some of the better American “new formalists.” Like theirs, his poetry is often plain spoken; unlike theirs, it tends more surely to the baroque. With respect to contemporary poetry, “baroque” need not connote stylistic excess, invention or ornament. Nor need it prompt us to admire the deft use of elaborate poetic forms. In fact, Edgar has no deep investment in received poetic forms. Baroque poetry nowadays is more concerned with the presentation and contemplation of compound phenomena. Edgar’s poetry is baroque in this manner and is also remarkable for its fine sense of timing. In many of his most impressive poems he is concerned to investigate complex situations, sometimes unstable ones, which often involve fragility and loss: his consciousness becomes divided, or he encounters problems in constituting the world, or he quickly passes from one attitude to another (perception, belief, half-belief, fantasy, anticipation, recollection, and so on). “Timing” in poetry is not only a matter of pacing one’s speech, spacing out metaphors and similes, and seeking closure at the right moment. It is also the difficult practice of using enjambment, rhyme, varying line lengths, and metrical substitutions in order to place a word or a phrase. The proper timing of a word, a phrase, a figure, does not merely follow formal rules; it must also release thought and feeling at the right time and to the right degree. To read an engaging poem well is partly to be aware of the confidence and agility, of the poet as he or she writes, and to notice those moments, given only to very fine poets, when craft leads one to think of the phrasing as inevitable. Such reading perceives that in a poet as good as Philip Larkin craft and art become almost indistinguishable, and something similar may be said of Edgar.

The Strangest Place is a selection from ten previous volumes of poetry. “Nasturtiums” (81) was written in 1976 and the most recent poems, in the opening section entitled “Background Noise,” were completed in 2020. So the book distills forty-four years of practice as a poet. I should say “achievement as a poet,” and it would be a lapse of responsibility not to observe that Edgar’s work has only recently been read with anything like the attention and thankfulness it deserves. Quite simply, Edgar is one of the most rewarding poets currently writing in English. Poems in this volume are likely to survive when many of his contemporaries are remembered only in footnotes. At the moment, though, it is sad to testify how difficult it is to obtain any of his earlier books. I have repeatedly tried to purchase Eldershaw (2014), only excerpted in this selection. Nor can any library in the United States supply me with a copy. One can only hope that individual volumes will be brought back into print once the accomplishment of this selection has been duly acknowledged. 

Edgar is chiefly a contemplative poet. Not that, like the Romans, he looks into a templum to discern the will of the gods or has even the faintest streak of religious faith. When he listens to Thomas Tallis he says, “Not one word or wound, / One shred / Of their doxology can sway / Me to belief” (173). His templum is his mind, which is utterly modern, entranced more by physics than theology, and emotions and thoughts cross it, sometimes alone and sometimes together. For readers, though, each of his poems is a templum. What do we discover when we gaze at them? Many things, no doubt, but chiefly his imagination works in eschatological terms: everything points eventually to nothingness. He entertains the idea of “a posthumous, / Unpeopled world, a plot / That has no further use for us” (55) and he meditates on the aftermath of war: an empty town left to “the chaos of // Abandoned use” (134). More generally, he is haunted by the “black and empty corridor” which “lies in store” for all of us (283). The same imagination is entranced by divisions of the self, as when he identifies the inner voice that is forever murmuring in our heads: “always there is that accompanist, // Not caught on film or sound, who’s guaranteed / Each moment to intone / A running commentary” (29). In another poem, set in a restaurant, he sees his own reflection in a wall mirror behind where his friend sits: “I catch odd glimpses of it watching him, / And eyeing me / Askance, as he shifts and sways from side to side” (61). Always, Edgar is aware of the fragility of existence, human and non-human alike. Sitting in a house during a strong wind, he observes, “The house is brittle as an hourglass” (80). Often enough, it is an interruption of ordinary life that prompts a revealing change of mental attitude and gives an insight into the frailty of things: too many clocks in a house (20-21) or the recognition that books really write us (116). 

Edgar’s great theme, though, is the relation of mind and world. Sometimes, like Tolstoy and Montale, he is beset by the apprehension that the visible world might be an illusion. We spend our days, he says, “clearly reciting / The myth of an outer world” (196). In “Parallax” he recalls “a droll / Advertisement that had the Martians hoist / Before a rover’s lens screen after screen, / Across which it would scroll, / Filming a fake red desert, while unseen / Their high-rise city quietly rejoiced” (5). It leads him to ponder that something similar happens while “Walking the crafted streetscape” of Sydney: “A suite of flimsy panels” is perhaps sliding beside him, “screening who knows what?” (5). One approach to this theme comes by way of what Edgar calls “the conjuror” (12), and indeed worldly beauty is much like a magic show for him, both in what it offers us (“The silken trance it’s spun and shed” (246)) and in the chilling dénouement that awaits us. No wonder that we think of Schopenhauer when we read lines such as these: “The world cannot pretend / And with the end / Of the masquerade throws down its great disguise, / Like a magician’s cape whose folds / Descend / About an object which then disappears / Before unseeing eyes” (125). At other times, it is reading in physics that disturbs the otherwise unquestioned relation between mind and world. Handling a snow dome, he reflects that in a world of two dimensions, the third dimension would be “just a dream that quantum tricks produce” (32). Then panic sets in: “Put down that ornament and look around, / And breathe, for fear / The virtual world that some propound / Is ours, here, now, a program that supreme, / Conjectured beings engineer, / Where we imagine we are all we seem” (32). 

In Mauvaises pensées et autres (1943), Paul Valéry has a piercing aphorism entitled “Ex nihilo”: Dieu a tout fait de rien. Mais le rien perce [“God made everything out of nothing. But the nothing comes through”]. It is no wonder that Edgar is attracted to this line of Valéry’s — it forms the epigraph to the splendid conceptual lyric “The Menger Sponge” (148) — for the Australian and the French poets inhabit overlapping worlds. In this imbrication, poetry, music, science and a cool skepticism about religion live in rich harmony. Unlike Valéry, however, Edgar has no temptation to be all mind (as with Monsieur Teste), and he has no abiding interest in theorizing about the creative process. Only very obliquely does he offer us an ars poetica in “Feather Weight” (44). Nor is there anything like Mon Faust in his work: he is one of our most discreet poets. Not that one should thereby think, as some people do, that Edgar has little blood passion. The excepts from Eldershaw (2013) testify otherwise. Nonetheless, to read Edgar well is to learn to let the feeling in the verse display itself in its own good time; it will not overwhelm the reader on a first or second reading, neither by way of intense metaphors (which Edgar avoids) nor by way of ardent declarations (which he would most likely think to be in bad taste). 

Consider “Nocturnal” from History of the Day (2002). The opening stanza shows Edgar’s confidence handling a difficult stanza, nine lines, ranging from trimeter to pentameter, rhyming abbacccdd. Quite by chance, the speaker discovers an old cassette with a recording of his distressed partner talking years ago:

It’s midnight now and sounds like midnight then,
The words like distant stars that faintly grace
    The all-pervading dark of space,
    But not meant for the world of men.
It’s not what we forget
But what was never known we most regret
Discovery of. Checking one last cassette
Among my old unlabelled discards, few
Of which reward the playing, I find you. (202)

Many of Edgar’s qualities are tightly coiled in these lines: elegance and lightness of touch, to be sure, but also plain speech, and, more, the relish of drawing an apt distinction. Notice the timing of the lines, how the drama of hearing the lover’s voice, now she is long dead, in the final word of the stanza, is embodied in the rhyme “few” – “you.” It is characteristic of Edgar that the discovery does not lead to confession or a registration of immediate grief but that a contemplation begins, one that leads us first to that wonderful poet Gwen Harwood (1920-95). Long ago, the lovers were jolted by hearing their friend’s voice on the radio reading “Suburban Sonnet.” Technology exhumes the dead with ease, and with them it brings our loss immediately before us. 

Again, characteristic of Edgar, the contemplation continues, passing now to the North Head Quarantine Station, near Manly, where people who were feared to harbor contagious diseases were kept until they were considered safe to enter Sydney. Many died there, and stories abound that the place is haunted: “equipment there records / The voices in the dormitories and wards, / Although it’s years abandoned. Undeleted, / What happened is embedded and repeated, // Or so they say” (202). The skeptical reflection, delayed until the beginning of the new stanza, is nicely placed. Edgar’s former lover was not mistrustful of the dead’s power to cling to the world, however: “You said you heard the presence which oppugned / Your trespass on its lasting sole occasion / In your lost house.” (“Oppugned”? Yes, Edgar has an extensive vocabulary and is not afraid to use it.) But the poet himself can accommodate the belief only by way of technology. The final stanza runs:

            Here in the dark
I listen, tensing in distress, to each
    Uncertain fragment of your speech,
    Each desolate, half-drunk remark
        You uttered unaware
That this cassette was running and would share
Far in the useless future your despair
With one who can do nothing but avow
You spoke from midnight, and it’s midnight now. (203)

The word “midnight” in the last line is no longer the simple temporal marker that we encountered in the first line of the poem; it is also a dark emotional state shared across decades by the two lovers, though not in the same way or for the same reasons. Among the many things to admire in this stanza, not the least is the careful choice of the almost retiring adjective “useless.” What was to be the future for the woman can have no effect on her now, and the speaker’s present gives him no way of comforting either her or himself.  

Stephen Edgar, now seventy years of age, has assembled a body of work that is as durable as any poetry written in his generation. If we read it steadily from Queuing for the Mudd Clubb (1985) to Background Noise (2020), we encounter a poet who apparently knew from the beginning what he wanted to do. His gifts were already fully apparent, and the decades have only helped him to refine and extend them. The Strangest Place is a book to read and re-read; it invites us to choose the poems that most pierce us and to get them by heart. Robert Schumann famously reviewed Chopin’s “Variations on Mozart’s ‘Là ci darem la mano’” in 1831. In that piece, he imagined his character Eusebius entering his room where he was sitting at the piano with his friend Florestan. Pointing to Chopin’s score in his hand, Eusebius declared, Hut ab, ihr Herren, ein Genie [“Hats off, gentlemen, a Genius”]. We don’t say such things these days, not wearing hats, not being so dramatic, and having rather exalted ideas of genius, but had he been around today Eusebius might have been just as enthusiastic had he brought into a room a copy of Edgar’s new book. 


KEVIN HART is internationally recognised as a poet, critic, philosopher and theologian. Born in England, he grew up in Brisbane, and taught Philosophy and English at the University of Melbourne. He has recently taken up a position at the University of Virginia. 


Donnalyn Xu reviews Take Care by Eunice Andrada

Take Care

by Eunice Andrada


ISBN 9781925818796

Reviewed by DONNALYN XU

How do we give shape to what resists language? How do words move against the body, in dialogue with its silence, its noise? These tangled questions emerge from my reading of Eunice Andrada’s second collection of poems,
TAKE CARE, and the writing of this review, which has taken weeks of slow thinking. Like many others, I have found both comfort and discomfort in poetry during a time of immeasurable loss. I leave most things unread, I seek a return to what is comfortable and familiar. In my own work, I attempt poems about windows or flowers; always in the eyeline of where it hurts, but slightly out-of-focus. Yet, TAKE CARE is piercing in a way that cuts through the haze with a deliberate sharpness. Connected through the theme of rape culture as it exists in everyday and institutional scales, these poems do not flirt around the intensity of their subject matter—they demand your recognition, as well as your unease. As Andrada writes in her author’s statement with Giramondo Press, in TAKE CARE she has “attempted to get as close as possible to the hurting bone”. 

The plurality of meaning layered in the phrase ‘TAKE CARE’ is magnified by loud and insistent capital letters. It is what I say to women instead of saying goodbye, always on my mind in the process of leaving: take care, which also means be careful. Take and care can also be read separately as verbs in their own right, though they might seem contradictory if we consider care as giving, or care as sacrifice. Structured into four parts—take, comfort, revenge, and care—Andrada weaves a tapestry that embraces multitudinous and non-linear paths towards healing.

The body is at the centre of Andrada’s poetry, though not always enfleshed by language—these are the bodies of our ancestors, our mothers, our sisters; the bodies of those who can only be remembered for having been dismembered. In the opening poem “Echolalia”, the collapse is imminent, as a disruption that is also an entry point. Tracing the violence of history in the space “[b]eyond a dilated island”, the rhythmic and rocking imagery of rising water culminates into bullet-like fractured sentences in the present—“Then the hands. Not mine.” The poem ends with a sombre reflection on the constraints of writing about the body through poetry as a medium; the traditions it must wade through, and inevitably carry: “For my human body to be seen as the centre / of a poem, it must be buoyant”. 

‘Buoyant’ evokes a range of images that reverberate throughout the entirety of the collection, as the last word of the first poem. A buoyant body is lifeless, deceased, or maybe even light and at peace, having given in to the currents. Water is a recurring feature in Andrada’s poetry, not only as a symbol, but also structurally, through lines that float in and around empty space, and feelings that simmer. As an ecopoet, Andrada explores environmental and cultural imperialism through the connection between bodies, both human and non-human. The speaker does not simply observe nature, but actively participates in its ecosystems. Or rather, the act of observing is also a form of participation, much like our reading of these poems. In “Kundiman” (a genre of Filipino lovesongs), a Filipino senator orders radio stations broadcasted overseas to play music in the Tagalog language to ward off invaders. The speaker’s tone is cynical about this tactic, but ultimately closes with a sincere desire:

I want to be there with a love song
not to wield as a weapon,
but as a comfort to the water.

A love song is not enough to “thwart a battalion”, but it serves a different purpose, and it requires an approach to softness that extends beyond either weakness or strength. Softness as comfort, not only for each other, but for the pain the land and its waters have suffered, which we carry with us even as we leave its shores. 

So much of the strength in TAKE CARE lies in its varied yet interconnected moments, like ripples on the surface of water. One of the longer poems, “Vengeance Sequence”, is spread across six pages. Divided into sections by a single colon, it follows the same structure as the earlier “Comfort Sequence”. While “Comfort Sequence” uses archival and documentary fragments of text to situate the act of rape in a history of imperial violence, “Vengeance Sequence” considers various scenarios in seemingly speculative and atemporal worlds:


The most dignified rape scene on TV
is where the rape doesn’t happen.

He attempts to do it but can’t get hard,
stroking his cock, pliant as shore-washed

seagrass. She can’t stop laughing.
The bliss surges from her throat,

a carafe unfractured, her cackles
erupting and erupting. 

I am drawn to the simplicity of a bolded colon that speaks as loudly as the enormous silence it encompasses. It is a connector symbol, but standing alone, it draws a vertical line. It leads us into sentences that require the immediacy of present-tense to close the distance between the dots, the reader, the persona, and the words themselves. I love the description of bliss as “unfractured”, and the movement of cackles that are “erupting and erupting”. I laugh with the speaker as she laughs. 

The delight that infiltrates Andrada’s writing does not outweigh the necessary ruminations of violence, but allows the reader to gain insight into alternative ways of being that do not replicate the simplistic narratives of grieving that have been assigned to us. I want to read closely into the deeper meaning of the poem as a series of disconnected but interwoven scenes, but perhaps a close reading also entails my fixation on this sudden and unexpected joy. It is the feeling of reading alongside, rather than watching from a distance. The speaker imagines an anti-rape device that comes with a KILL button, and I think, yes, yes. The speaker “take[s] naps to undo the myth that [she is] hardworking”, and I think, well, me too. Relationality is essential to the construction of these poems, and in every personal testimony that both is and isn’t an address to an audience, the speaker appears to ask—where are you standing? How are you reading?

One of my favourite poems in TAKE CARE, “The Chismis on Warhol”, begins with an epigraph from a poem by Alfred A. Yuson entitled “Andy Warhol speaks to his two Filipino maids”. Written from the perspective of American pop artist and filmmaker Warhol, Yuson’s poem offers a poignant and humorous meditation on the meaning of art and American imperialism. Andrada’s poem responds to Yuson (and to the speaker of Yuson’s poem, Warhol himself), not by ‘speaking back’ to the man, but by speaking behind his back; speaking in a language that is entirely our own. I cannot faithfully translate the meaning of the gossip that is ‘chismis’, except to note that my family often calls me chismosa, which has a girlish inflection to it that I revel in, which this poem revels in too. A poem full of chismis and rhetorical questions (“Did you hear the canned sopas / was a hit at the galleries? / How they ate that shit up.”) ends with a question that answers itself: “Did you hear / he calls them ‘girls’? Just girls alone / a few moments, all theirs.”

When I read that line, I feel like I am in the room with them. He calls them girls, but their loneliness is theirs. Andrada is attentive to the colonial narratives that strip Filipino women of their agency, and in writing about these women as more than bodies of service in the imperial machine, she has ascribed them with possibility. There are only questions, only imagined scenes of intimacy. However, the significance lies in the asking, which orients the poem away from what has been lost, towards what we can hope for and wonder.

Of course, I am cautious of intrinsically leaning towards expressions of joy and comfort in a collection that is also a necessary punch to the gut. There were some moments in TAKE CARE that I found so graphic and painful, I had to close my eyes. I was tentative to write about this feeling, but I have come to learn that hesitation and uncertainty are critical tools we must engage with meaningfully. In Curating Difficult Knowledge, Erica Lehrer, Cynthia E. Milton, and Monica Eileen Patternson ask: “what is our responsibility to stories of suffering that we inherit?” I don’t think that poetry can offer a suitable answer to this question; it can only ask it again, in a different language, with a repetition that is comforting, and unsettling.

I often find that the most difficult feeling to draw into poetry is anger. “I’m not an angry person, but I have to be one” is a phrase that I have used many times. It sounds too much like an excuse, like saying “in my defence”, but what am I defending myself from? Anger, or the way I feel it has been unfairly given to me? In “Uninhabitable”, the speaker’s anger does not transform or serve a purpose.

Rage is the whale I must dwell in
when I move through the cities my body
cannot inhabit.

This is no hero’s journey.
The objective of my wrath is not
to save.

The sense of surety in the speaker’s position is echoed in the use of enjambment that cuts like a blade. It reminds me of a passage in Audre Lorde’s 1981 essay “The Uses of Anger”, in which she states, “the angers between women will not kill us if we can articulate them with precision, if we listen to the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of saying. When we turn from anger we turn from insight, saying we will accept only the designs already known, deadly and safely familiar.” In reading TAKE CARE, I felt invited to sit with resistance—against oppressive power structures, and against my own unease. There is movement in resistance, because resistance is also mobilisation. Significantly, the final poem “Echolocation” ends as a call-to-action, much like how Lorde writes about anger as growth:

Our song maps the terrain
of past to future labour.
We trust the others hear us.
They are gathering.

It is also significant that Andrada refers to struggle and survival as a song, which is to say, musicality. There are echoes and resonances that lift off the page. I hear them, I feel compelled to respond. I feel that the loneliness of writing as a Filipina poet living on unceded land—the specificity of that loneliness—is shared by a choir.

A final note on music for a collection that truly sings—the first time I read TAKE CARE in one sun-filled afternoon, I listened to Andrada’s eponymously named Spotify playlist on shuffle. As Rina Sawayama’s “Chosen Family” faded into Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money”, I was reminded of the varying and often conflicting shades that exist in the act of ‘care’, whether that be anger at the exploitation of caregivers, care for one another, care as a weapon, or care as the most vulnerable and necessary act of survival. What TAKE CARE teaches us is that care is not the antithesis to pain. Sometimes it is joyful, at other times, blinding with red. An anger rises and cools within us. It continues this way, but it does not settle.



Andrada, Eunice. “Eunice Andrada: a note on TAKE CARE.” Giramondo Publishing. 31 August, 2021,

Lehrer, Erica, Cynthia E. Milton, and Monica Eileen Patternson (eds). Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of Anger: Responding to Racism.” In Your Silence Will Not Protect You, 107–118. London: Silver Press, 2017 [1981].


DONNALYN XU is a Filipino-Chinese writer, poet, and artsworker living on Darug land. Her work has appeared in PerilVoiceworksOverland, and elsewhere. She is currently completing her Honours year in Art History and English at the University of Sydney, and writing her thesis on the poetics and materiality of Filipino national dress.


Lesley Lebkowicz reviews While I am drawing breath by Rose Ausländer (trans)

While I am drawing breath

By Rose Ausländer,

translated by Anthony Vivis and Jean Boase-Beier

ISBN 978 1906570 30 9

Arc Publications


Black milk: the poetry of Rose Ausländer

Many poetry readers, asked about the poetry of the Holocaust, will think of Paul Celan’s Todesfuge and its powerful opening image:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink . . .

Fewer readers will know that the image of black milk is from an early poem by Rose Ausländer. She was Celan’s senior by some 19 years. They both lived in the predominantly Jewish town of Czernowicz (now Cernauti) and became friends.  She was something of a mentor to him. When he used her profoundly paradoxical image of black milk, she generously said he was the greater poet and that she was happy he had used her image.

Celan’s suffering after the Holocaust was great: he committed suicide by throwing himself in the Seine in 1946. Ausländer, however, went on, and went on writing. She was prolific, with 24 books to her name, two published after her death in 1988. Writing was fundamental to her survival, and though she had already begun to write and publish before the Holocaust, her writing, her poetry, was the breath which sustained her life through and after the many dislocations and losses the Holocaust imposed on her.

Ausländer was born Rose Scherzer; her husband’s name was Ausländer. The name means ‘foreigner’; literally, someone from another country. Their marriage didn’t last. Ausländer’s use of the name did. It fitted her life, her frequent re-locations; it suited the way she felt about these dislocations. The subject of her work, most often spoken of indirectly, largely through imagery, is the Holocaust and the way it shaped her life. One of her recurrent images is of ash:

In the rain of ashes
is the trace of your name

It was
a perfect word

consumed it
‘Ashes’ (91)

Ash and language are again conjoined in ‘Your House’:

choking on the words

And so powerfully in ‘Ark’:

On the sea
an ark
of stars

for the
that survive
the flood of fire

In one respect ash is the literal outcome of the cremation of the bodies of the camp prisoners. The literal embodies the metaphor of the worthless residue of precious people destroyed. Ausländer rarely speaks of individual people; her voice is not explicit about the personal or even about the historical.

Hard truths are hard to speak; and hard to avoid: they seep into, and colour experience and writing which alludes to the experiences. Ausländer shares this impulse with W.G. Sebald whose prose was deeply informed by the same Gargantuan and subterranean subject.

Instead of the personal and the historical, Ausländer speaks in the language of fundamental elements: snow, fire, house, air, water, so that while her writing is born of historical specifics, it transcends those conditions and speaks to the elements which underlie the horrible capacity of humans to destroy each other.

In Your House:
The sun says
sleep yourself awake
my child
I will light your way

The rain
I am weeping for the
children . . .

And ‘Shut Out Their Love’ is almost entirely made up of elemental imagery:

They came
with guns and jagged banners
shot down the moon and all the stars
and shut out their light
and shut out their love

That day we buried the sun
And there was eternal night

Ausländer rarely capitalises anything other than the initial letter of a stanza. The additional capitalisation of the ‘And’ beginning the last line heralds the significance of the final statement.

Ausländer’s preference for working in these univeral elements means that not only does she transcend the specifics of history, she also transcends (or bypasses?) the specifics of individuality, of personality. While the piles of shoes or clothing displayed in Holocaust museums and memorials inevitably carry the imprint of the person who once owned and wore them, she does not give us this.

What she gives us instead is the power of language as a way of surviving what is too harsh to be specified, to be spoken of. Again and again she refers to language. Language has the power to give life; in Hunger:

Secretively I plant
the word in this cell
exhorting the apple to grow. . .

In a poem the title of which is translated as Words (though it is Sprache in German, which means Language), she begins:

Keep me in your service
my whole life long
let me breathe in you

I thirst for you
drink you word for word
my source

Even when Ausländer writes of despair, it is expressed through an image about language. From ‘The Net’:

I want to say something
one word
which says it all

I am who I am

/ . . ./

The word
fails me now
My words
fall silent in me

That Ausländer goes on to write of the failure of language is of course paradoxical. While I am Drawing Breath is seeded with paradox.

Dust that joins is a series of paradoxical images which Ausländer piles one on the other to both create and annihilate the universe she inhabits:

weavers of words

heretics who believe
we fly to the stars
in love
with the earth
which we burn to ashes
in cleansing fire

Paradox is the stuff of much spiritual discourse. To take logically opposed notions and unite them is to defy reason and drive the conscious mind beyond reason’s limitations into a spiritual reality. This is how Ausländer’s poetics works. The reality of the war, its racism and violence, drives us either to insanity or to spiritual reality. Paradox allows Ausländer to speak the unspeakable.


While I am Drawing Breath was published in 2014, a republication from 1995 of the collection then named Mother Tongue. The translation, by Jean Boase-Beier and Anthony Vivis, is presented as a parallel text: German on the left, English facing on the right-hand page. There is an integrity, an honouring of the text and the reader, in publishing a parallel text. While I respect this integrity, it sometimes made my reading a vexed thing.

I came to this review by virtue of my experience as a poet and reviewer, not as a native German speaker, nor with any academic qualifications in German language and literature. But my parents were native German speakers and I heard the language and learnt its cadences as a child. Some years ago I worked on the translation of an early Buddhist verse cycle with two Pali scholars, Pali being the language of the verse cycle. In the course of this I learned about the three-fold pattern of translation where a teams of translators collaborate: one fluent only in the first language, one bilingual and the third fluent only in the language of the translation, a system which makes both for accuracy and ease in the final version.

This fluency and fidelity is not always present in the book under review. For example, ‘verbrannte Kinder’ in Your House is translated as ‘children who played in the fire’. ‘Verbrannte’ means ‘burnt, burnt up, incinerated’. There’s no playing in Ausländer’s text. Some of these deviations from Ausländer’s uncompromising voice might better have been described as being ‘after Ausländer’. Though these glitches are unfortunate, it’s good that Ausländer’s poetry is available in English. The brilliance of her writing documents the possibility of transcending the worst of which we are capable.


LESLEY LEBKOWICZ lives in Canberra on Ngunnawal land. She has published five books, including the award-winning The Petrov Poems (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013), a collaborative translation of Book IV of the Sutta Nipata (the oldest Buddhist verse cycle) and most recently, Mountain Lion (Pitt Street Poetry, 2019).

Amy Walters reviews The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins

The Everlasting Sunday

by Robert Lukins



Reviewed by AMY WALTERS

Robert Lukins’ debut novel follows seventeen-year-old Radford as he commences at Goodwin Manor, “a place for boys who had been found by trouble” (19). The Manor is a dilapidated institution of reform in the Shropshire countryside, which the Queensland-raised Lukins has said was inspired by an old house he encountered while working as a postman in Shropshire. In the tradition of the British boarding school, the students are referred to by surname. To call it a school, however, is a bit of a stretch; as the narrator notes with characteristic obliqueness: “There was no schooling, but things like lessons” (42). The Manor is overseen by Teddy, whose good intentions are undercut by his tendency towards depression and alcoholism. While Government inspectors nose around from time to time, this intrusion of authority only serves to highlight the boys’ marginalised position relative to society at large. 

This sense of isolation is heightened due to the novel’s backdrop of the Big Freeze: the winter of 1962-63, when snow started falling on Boxing Day and continued for ten weeks. In her recent book Frostquake, Juliet Nicolson argued that during this period Britain underwent “a process of incubation” whereby “society was preparing for the moment when a different landscape would emerge. This was a winter in which despair and hardship both personal and political contrasted with a burgeoning sense of liberation and opportunity. It was a winter in which the structural pillars of class and entitlement … were starting to fragment and crumble.” (#)

The tension in the novel largely derives from this sense of liminality: as the outside world re-emerges, will the boys be rehabilitated, or will they enter adulthood in their current state of iniquity? If the atmosphere is anything to go by, the odds do seem stacked against them. Inanimate objects are imbued with a menacing quality: the piano delivers “a clap of untuned thunder” (26) and, as Radford is driven to the Manor by his uncle, he sees the city “effecting a cowardly retreat” (3) through the car’s rear window. Snuffy, a former Goodwin resident who returns for a visit after being released from prison, is a sad portent of a life that may be to come. Winter, similarly, is a character, and the boys its plaything: “From high above, where fates were decided, these boys appeared as helpless as they truly were. Winter’s show was so great and rare it too could only wonder at what it was getting away with. These lonely humans here, these children, were like currants to be pressed into the cake’s surface.” (53)

For a novel set on the cusp of the counter-culture revolution, the prose style is reminiscent of a nineteenth century novel. Granted, the newsreaders still wore suits to read the news in 1962, but some of Lukins’ narration is more suited to a Victorian novel than one set just over half a century ago. Ian McEwan’s 2007 novella On Chesil Beach was set in the summer of 1962, just before the Big Freeze, and manages to capture the sense of a bygone era without resorting to florid description. “This was still the era,” McEwan writes, “… when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure.” (6) There is a sense in which the two protagonists, Florence and Edward, are sandwiched between those who fought in the war, and a more liberated generation to come. Florence gleans worrying details of what she can expect on her wedding night from a “modern, forward-looking handbook” (7) while Edward feels obliged to accept a job in her father’s business. As they receive their dinner in their hotel room, they are conscious of the old men downstairs who are “filling their pipes for one last time that day” and waiting for the main bulletin on the wireless, “a wartime habit they would never break.” (24) 

Whereas McEwan’s prose is crisp and sophisticated, The Everlasting Sunday is full of convoluted passages, which often read as overwrought and artificial. This passage is indicative of some of the contortions Lukins devises:

“… Radford tried to remember the last time his hand had been held. Now the man added a second palm to the act such that he held both of Radford’s. Having completed this ligature he resumed motionlessness.” (12)

It becomes apparent, however, that Lukins is genuinely taking his cue from Victorian literature. Upon arriving at Goodwin Manor, Radford muses to himself that the place is “[a]ll too Tom Brown and the neat perils of boarding school. Perhaps Foster would play the thick-necked bully and there would be a dastardly teacher to make unstuck. All too cute.” (34) This is a reference to Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the 1857 novel by Thomas Hughes which gave a semi-autobiographical account of life at Rugby Public School, and spawned an entire genre of fiction for boarding boys. Unlike Rugby, Goodwin Manor is not a bastion of privilege, but it fulfils a similar function to the public school: the making or breaking of adolescent boys. Although on the surface they are capable of scraping along together in relative peace, sharing beer, cigarettes and unauthorised visits to a nearby cemetery, the threat of violence is never far away. Radford is instantly attuned to the taught atmosphere of his new home, making a “commitment [to] expose nothing of himself to this house.” Dilapidated and foreboding, Goodwin Manor is also a nod to the Gothic, with the plot haunted mainly by the mystery of Radford’s crime, which is cleverly revealed in the final pages. 

The Everlasting Sunday is a layered and complex debut. While at times the floridity of the prose can be an impediment, reading the novel with the Gothic in mind helps to put its melodramatic overtones in context. The subject matter, already curiously old-fashioned, is oddly devoid of contemporary resonance, but Lukins’ sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of the plight of vulnerable boys against whom the odds have always been stacked transcends its archaic posturing. Though the thaw comes for the nation, the reader suspects Radford’s emotional life may always be frozen.



Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Oxford University Press, 1989 [1857].
Ian McEwan, 2008, On Chesil Beach, Vintage, London.
Juliet Nicolson, Frostquake. Vintage Publishing, 2021. 


Dženana Vucic reviews Admit the Joyous Passion of Revolt by Elena Gomez

Admit the Joyous Passion of Revolt

by Elena Gomez

Puncher and Wattmann

ISBN 9781925780741

Reviewed by Dženana Vucic
To read Admit the Joyous Passion of Revolt (2020), Elena Gomez’s second full-length poetry collection, is to be propelled headlong through the dizzy intersect of postmodernity and Marxist-feminist critique, to be flooded with possibilities for distraction, and for engagement. It is a work that not only demands rereading but requires it. Which is not to say that it cannot be drunk down along with your breakfast coffee (it’s slim enough that this is possible), but it is to say that the work is best enjoyed over a series of re-readings, with time for the ideas to settle into your insides, digest. 

In the first instance, one can let the references wash over them, become background to the compulsion forward and through. The writing is pacey, and the direct, sometimes conversational tone—so removed from the intellectual posturing that marks much academia-adjacent work—allows readers to slip easily into the pages without getting hung up on their theoretical or historical underpinnings. The critique is there, underscoring everything, but the first reading can be one of pure pleasure. Slowing down, or (as in my case) re-reading, leads to uncovering. 

Gomez peppers her work with references to revolution, to Marxist-feminist theory, to pop culture and to our contemporary and each reading unfolds possibilities, invites further study and collaboration in meaning making. Names and dates appear with little preamble or explanation and re-readings lead to google searches and rabbit-hole Wikipedia binges, the collection sitting at the centre of a web of connections from which the reader is pushed to questioning what it means to exist in postmodernity. Objects, in particular, are everywhere in the work, cast into affective relation to one another, to world structures and to readers. There are batteries, bobby pins, snap back caps, calico rugs, silk scarfs, black patterned shawls, bloodstained bedsheets, mulberry lipstick, cowskin purses, pools, headphones, babydoll dresses (Courtney Love’s, in peach), ungainly frocks, pianos, lavender mist pillows, and more. The excesses of capitalism fill the pages, are turned and refracted across vectors of desire, need and obligation. For example, of a ‘ribbed cream short sleeve maxi’, Gomez writes: 

Her judgement takes into account the labour involved
in anger vs the labour involved in disappointment.
She is to be worn by someone who withstands rotating
modules for productivity

Readers are gently oriented through Gomez’ experiences as a cis Woman of Colour and arts worker, and through this prism Gomez explores legacies and realities of labour, care, gender and bodies under neoliberal capitalism. The collection is a snapshot in time, but one which is careful to capture the generational nature of the project—the past and the present are in intimate communication, inextricable in a Marxist-feminist poetics that captures the Russian Revolution, the early Soviet era, the mid-to-late-20th century and our post-GFC moment. 

The collection is at once an epic poem and a series of poems, each page offering both a discrete moment and a continuous slippage into past and future. This is evident from the first page where Gomez seems to draw the poem to a close only to throw it wide open again upon the turn:

          ready 2 enable

like how you enable
me to be

demanding of pleasure

Gomez’ writing makes clear that history is open-ended and incomplete, ongoing. So too is the revolution. 

The future is evoked too, through Gomez attention to intertextual clues and the paths she is sending readers on, and in her use of frequent rhetorical questions, calling the reader to attention: ‘Am I too far inwards? Is this a way to conduct a mob?’; ‘What does aesthetics even do these days’; ‘What kinds of poetry are you making? Why is this so hard to contemplate?’; ‘Could you shout more or are we sufficient’. 

Alexandra Kollontai, revolutionary, politician, Marxist theorist and writer, is a central and recurring figure, one who allows Gomez to explore the gendered nature of precarious and unwaged labour, particularly in literary and/or artistic communities. Gomez calls to her, an apostrophic address that, through its invocation of one who cannot respond, implicates the reader in the search for answers: 

dear Alexandra please where are the new women were the
old women somewhere is the un-born woman anywhere or
does work also abolish the rest

dear Alexandra how many lovers does it take to bring
down an empire

Kollontai, an oft-forgotten figure who experienced something of a revival in the seventies, was especially interested in parsing love, desire, gender and family under communism, weaving her lived experience with her theories of communist futures and often using literature to elaborate her ideas (for example in her novel Red Love (1927)). Her interests have been taken up by Gomez and reframed through our contemporary, and through poetry. 

There’s a delicious irony in critiquing capitalism through poetry, a form which has little to offer in terms of ‘market value’ and a form which traditionally skews away from the type of ‘rationality’ underscoring capitalism as an economic system. Despite its low ‘profit margins’ and understanding the privilege inherent in having time to write, poetry allows a certain freedom to make this critique since poets know very well that they are mostly exempt from the limitations imposed by market pressures. Gomez nods to this, writing: 

There is a question surrounding us i.e. how may poems
will recuperate the surplus value produced by a worker
who must read in order to produce the company’s

There is a curious balance, too, between surreal elements (I climbed away/ A mountain goat/ found me weeping / and I refused its offer’) and riffs on the language of work-place (A keyboard shortcut; you could’ve said something. / I watched for a bit before we packed up the office./ Whatever else was going on/ You were still supreme at note-taking / When pamphlet distribution was at an all-time low’). At moments these disparate threads meet:

After a boss leaked the surplus
labour all over your standing desk

we divided the chips from my
snack pockets. I was too girly

and it showed.

All through the collection, Gomez nods to the un/reality of our situation and to that which distracts us from this, in particular to objects and pop culture, offering us possibilities for reframing. For example, drawing on Kim Stanley’s utopian Mars trilogy she writes: ‘I am meant to be thinking about revolution RIGHT NOW/ but all I can think of is outer space.’ This, I think, neatly summarises the focus of the collection: the way that we are distracted (by neoliberalism, by the realities of waged and unwaged labour, by our many objects, and indeed, by love and desire) from our revolutionary goals and how we can reframe those distractions for revolutionary ends. 

Dženana Vucic is a Bosnian-Australian writer, poet and critic. She has received the 2021 Kat Muscat Fellowship and a 2020-21 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship to work on an autotheoretical book about her experience as a refugee, the Bosnian war, identity, memory and un/belonging. Her writing has appeared in Cordite, Overland, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Australian Poetry Journal, the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, Rabbit, and others. She tweets at @dzenanabanana.