Bitter & Sweet
by Amal Awad
Reviewed by EMAN ELHELW
Kicking off in a flooding kitchen, Amal Awad’s Bitter & Sweet, as the title suggests, is a story of the highs-and-lows of life. The life of Zeina, Palestinian-Australian chef, unfolds in Sydney’s inner-city restaurant scene with its fusion of cuisines, fine dining, and familiar casual eats. Through Zeina’s eyes, we experience the fresh wounds of a marriage breakdown, the struggles of keeping her father’s restaurant dreams alive in the decaying restaurant Casablanca, and the relationship dynamics of one’s forties. Bitter & Sweet sits amongst the many acclaimed restaurant-based novels of recent years, yet stands apart as a story where food is a main character. Casablanca is not only the setting through which Bitter & Sweet’s story takes place but operates as a metaphor for Zeina’s journey to happiness.
It is Awad’s gift of creating familiar characters experiencing familiar situations, which makes Bitter & Sweet an immersive read. Awad centers universal human experiences – the loss of loved ones, a marriage breakdown, job changes – to create charmingly relatable characters. As with most of Awad’s eight published novels, Bitter & Sweet was a soulful comfort read that warmed my Australian-Egyptian heart. I initially found Zeina to be a guarded character that I struggled to relate to, but the countless elements of the novel which mirrored my own experiences slowly provided glimpses into our connection.
I became more invested with each thread I uncovered connecting Zeina and myself. I recognised the delicious traditional dishes of felafel, and kafta, served against the rundown interiors Casablanca in the many dinners I’ve devoured in Inner-Sydney’s oldest middle eastern institutions. The late afternoon icy swims at Bondi beach reminded me of my own frosty East coast dips. And Awad adds an extra unexpected thread when flashes from the past uncover a younger and impressionable Zeina’s time in Southern Spain working in the experimental kitchen of Isabella.
With Zeina, I revisit Alhambra in all its Andalusian castle grandeur. As Zeina takes in the Arabic scripture carved into the castle’s walls, I recall my own awe at the remnants of the Middle Eastern presence on Southern Spain. Zeina’s reflection that ‘she felt like she had returned to a place she had known once,’ stole the words I uttered to my Spanish host family in my exchange to Southern Spain from my own mouth.
Awad’s quietly confident storytelling creeps up on you slowly to leave you hungry for more. I realised early on that Awad had me hooked, when reading the novel feverishly one morning on the train and nearly missing my own stop. Through the non-linear novel structure, the layers are slowly peeled off our guarded Zeina. I couldn’t help but to be whisked up in the electrifying beginnings of her romance with the charming Ray while knowing of their impending separation. Awad cleverly paces the two timelines to avoid any premature sense of closure and keep you hoping for a happily ever after.
Awad maintains a calm tone throughout the novel to handhold the reader through its bitter twists and sweet turns. If there is one thing Awad has mastered, it is frustratingly hyperreal depictions of relationships that pull on the heartstrings of readers. As to be expected with any book that begins with Oscar Wilde’s famous De Profundis quote, ‘hearts are made to be broken,’ Awad shows us that love – familial, romantic, or friendly – hurts sometimes more than it heals. Nothing comes easy for Zeina, and no matter how much the reader is fingers-crossed-praying for Zeina’s upturn, it is a slow burn to success for our main character. Just when it appears that Zeina is on the precipice of relief, another bitter blow pushes her further down.
Awad’s treats each of her flawed characters with such tenderness that there is no space for villains – not even the heartbreaker, Ray. We are introduced to a cold and stoic Ray who appears to have as little love for Zeina as he does words. Yet, as the novel time jumps between the highs and lows of Ray and Zeina’s love story, we discover that Ray’s icy stature hides a deeply hurt man. And even when we think we will end the novel cursing Ray for his behaviour (see: the motel room mid-way through the motorcycle Blue Mountains road trip), his redemption is buried deep into the last half of the novel.
No character is left two-dimensional – though Nasser, Zeina’s father, remains stubborn through to his very end. The man proves to be many things – a poor business mind, a stubbornly-ill Arab man, and a hoarder – of both household furniture and secrets. Nasser is a man guided by a need for the bare necessity, with everything else being considered faff. A man who prides himself on delicious dishes yet doesn’t have the patience for renovations. Nasser who raised his daughter on his lonesome yet doesn’t stop to consider the weight of a thirty-year secret. Though he leaves Zeina with more than a flooding restaurant in his wake, we still love Nasser, in all his messiness.
The time jumps throughout the novel leads to the illusion that the reader has a false sense of the amount of time spent with the characters. I learned to love even the novel’s messiest character like a dear friend – Zeina herself. A novel that belongs on every bookshelf, Bitter & Sweet is a novel that captivates readers with its raw depiction of love, friendship, family, and most importantly, food.
EMAN ELHELW is an Egyptian-Australian woman who grew up on the lands of the Kaurna people (known as Adelaide). She currently works and creates on the lands of the Gadigal people in Sydney’s inner-west. Eman holds a Bachelor of Law/Arts from the University of Adelaide. Her works exploring growing up in diaspora have been published in Egyptian Streets. As a senior engagement consultant, Eman advocates for equitable access for culturally and linguistically diverse audiences.
Who Comes Calling
by Miriam Wei Wei Lo
Reviewed by JUDITH HUANG
Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s Who Comes Calling? begins with an open hand of a poem, its structure mimicking five uncurling fingers numbering off the things which Australia means to the persona, as a girl growing up in Singapore with family in Australia.
As the words step down across the page in five paragraphs, we are treated to a vivid picture of “a crowd of parrots/for a doorbell/squawking up like fireworks” (3), “dogs tearing up/to lick my face” (3), “the rasping smell of wheat/and the light, lemon tang of eucalyptus”(3), “Grandma and Grandpa/standing at the doorway”(3), a place immediately conjured in just a few spare lines.
The poem is called “Opening Australia” and it immediately situates the poet as a person of two places grappling with the contradictions that that brings for identity. This Australia of intimate familial love and outback wildness is contrasted with the Australia the persona is expected to know by her Singaporean classmates – “as the Pinnacles, the Gold Coast/Ayers Rock, Melbourne/and the Sydney Opera House”, a tourist brochure Australia which she has, ironically, not encountered.
The poem finally moves into a more interior space, the persona standing at home in front of the mirror, “stretching out my palm/before my face,/watching my eyes,/shuttered by my fingers…watching my own eyes,/burnt sienna brown,/watching my own eyes, blinking.” (5) The hand which had been stretched out to encompass the entire land of Australia, and which had been spread out too in the form of the poem, now overlays the far more domestic, far more intimate space of the persona’s face, in which her mixed heritage is also inscribed.
Throughout the collection, this movement towards the internal and the domestic is performed again and again, as the poet interrogates grand questions of multiple identity – of being a mixed-race person with a life spanning Singapore and Australia, of being a poet and a Christian, of being a pastor’s wife and an artist in her own right. These roughly map onto the four sections of the book, Crossing Over, Juggling, Rearview Mirror and Hanging Around.
As someone whose life also spans between Singapore and Australia and who has had to grapple with this multiple identity in my own poetry, I found an immediate intimacy to the poems in the first section describing many small but relatable moments of my own existence – from the despair of having a mooncake cut open by customs officials in Australia “armed with fresh gloves” (17) in “Mooncake”, to the fear and paranoia of being labelled a political troublemaker for having dissident views in tightly-controlled Singapore, where the persona overhears discussions of “who was most likely to be/the spy among the scholars” (15) as described in “Smoke”.
Symbolically, Lo places these two places side by side as two rivers of words in a play on form again in the poem “A Few Thoughts on Multiple Identity”. After the initial “family joke” of multiple identity is laid out in a prosepoem-like paragraph, two separate rivers, one in Asia, one in Australia, are described in two columns that may be read one after another or simultaneously. One is “like smooth liquid mud/lolloping,loll-lolloping” (6), the other “a river with water/wide choppy blue”. The two rivers run side by side on the page like two separate veins in two separate arms, perhaps following on from the previous poem’s form of an open hand.
The figure that haunts the middle portion of the book, appearing again and again in various guises, is the woman at the kitchen sink – a picture of almost retro domesticity which Lo nevertheless imbues with great creative power and dignity. In her Ars Poetica, she is given a centrality in the bold statement
Without the woman at the kitchen sink,
nothing is possible. (24)
Lo reminds her readers that “without the toilet-cleaning, clothes-washing, food-cooking, child-minding/kitchen-sink woman – nothing” is achieved in poetry. She becomes both a muse and an artist in her humble act of washing dishes, and Lo insists that this act in itself is poetic if the close attention is paid to it:
The sluice of water over cups and glasses,
the light thwack of plastic, the thud of good china. (25)
the accuracy of these words, the beauty of them, gives the “housewife” dignity (although there is a curiously unexamined retrograde assumption that this figure has to be female– what if men too were washing dishes?).
She appears again as the grieving pastor’s wife receiving news about child abuse in the church in “A Pastor’s Wife Listens to Stories from the Royal Commission”. Here the dishes are imbued with cosmic significance
O my people the lambs
left to the ravening wolves what payment
could ever been enough how I wish
I could give lives back all of them
rinsed stacked on the draining board clean
where Lo “juggles” the roles of “singing her song” as the woman at the kitchen sink while contemplating the sins of those professing her own religion. As the dishes become a metaphor for the lives affected by abuse, the washing of them also becomes a kind of small, penitentiary act, a longing for absolution.
Finally, in the title poem of the book, Who Comes Calling? the woman at the sink is given a ferocious interiority, refusing the insistent calls of the poem that “came home to work on/me” (51) with the bellows of “I am a housewife!…leave me alone!”(51) In this powerful poem, two parallel narratives form two side by side columns again, one of the poet working on the poem and one of the poem working on the poet. The poem behaves like a mischievous child, multiplying domestic tasks for the poet by making a mess of the house and crockery, “sprink(ling) five-spice and cumin on the kitchen floor” (51), “carefully paint(ing) shark fins on the wall with black vinegar and maple syrup” (51). Its rage is also that of the poet’s rage for an identity both vital and essential and too-often denied, but surprisingly compatible with the rest of her life, and also her faith, once admitted to its rightful place – around the kitchen table.
This second section is full of quietly moving poems about other women the poet encounters in her role as pastor’s wife, confronting the messy thick of things that make up a life – infertility, childbirth, abortion, with sensitivity and an unerring sense of compassion. “Friend” moved me to tears with its depiction of both the unfairness of God in blessing one woman with multiple children while another remained barren, as well as the unadulterated happiness of the former when the latter finally sends a photo of her daughter to her friend, having moved across the country and finally conceived. It is in these gifts of tiny glimpses of lives touched in the unpaid labour of being a pastor’s wife that meaning is wrought.
It is against this backdrop of tiny triumphs and heartbreaks that the stand-out poem of the collection, “In Memory of Katrina Miles”, makes its appearance. Rightfully warranting a section to itself, it is a tour de force of grief, memory, horror and redemption in the face of an unspeakable act of domestic violence that resulted in the murder of a woman by her husband and the poet’s budding friendship with the victim, cut cruelly short by her death.
Bookended by the simple act of a book (“The gifts of imperfection”) borrowed by the persona from her friend, and the same book borrowed again by the dead friend in an imaginary afterlife, the question “Friends?” echoes down the poem, unanswered until the very end, but not in this life. The weight of life unlived, a kindness reciprocated only after death, haunts the poem. It is a work of art that clearly cost the poet much to produce, a feat that anchors the collection.
The final section of the book, Hanging Around, has a slightly less cohesive quality to it in that its first half tends to feel a bit like a miscellany of things that didn’t quite fit in the previous sections, notably a few ekphrastic poems inspired by artworks by Jenny Potts Barr which feel a little out of place.
However, there are still delights to be sampled in this section, particularly the incredibly moving “Still Searching”, which so sincerely depicts the love between a mother and son as a “primal dance” (86) of familiarity and unfamiliarity, a “wrestling match” (86) that the poet likens to the wrestling between Jacob and God “all night on the banks of the river: awake with longing and pain but fighting until he knows what he wants: the blessing” (86). It is bittersweet, as the mother senses the son’s imminent “departure”, but also names it a “gift”.
It is such glimpses of these different kinds of love, familial, divine, transcendent, love of art and love of community that ultimately give this collection its otherworldly glow. These tiny moments of domesticity, collected, to quote the poet, like “tiny and large, smoth and spiked, dull and iridescent… So many delicate skeletons” (71), and displayed for us with exquisite craft and care. It is a hand offered in friendship, arms open for an embrace.
JUDITH HUANG is an Australian-based Singaporean author, poet, literary and science fiction translator, composer, musician, serial-arts-collective-founder, Web 1.0 entrepreneur and VR creator @ www.judithhuang.com. Her first novel, Sofia and the Utopia Machine, was shortlisted for the EBFP 2017 and Singapore Book Awards 2019. A three-time winner of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award, Judith graduated from Harvard University with an A.B. in English and American Literature and Language and taught creative and academic writing at the Harvard Writing Center and Yale-NUS College. She has published original work in Prairie Schooner, Asia Literary Review, Portside Review, Creatrix, The South China Morning Post, The Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao, QLRS and Cha as well as being a founding member of the Spittoon Collective and magazine in China, which currently has branches in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Xi’an, Dali, Tucson (AZ, USA) and Gothenburg (Sweden).
Why We Are Here
by Briohny Doyle
Reviewed by ZOWIE DOUGLAS-KINGHORN
Clairaudience, says the Macquarie dictionary, is the alleged power of hearing voices of ‘spirits’, or sounds inaudible to normal ears. The protagonist of Why We Are Here is not a psychic, but she is an aspiring dog-whisperer, and her landscape is punctuated with muted strains of grief as she mourns the loss of her father and partner during the pandemic. In the absence of others, she ‘hears’ the voices of her loved ones. Her partner is deified in biblical pronouns, with ‘He’ and ‘His’ capitalised. ‘I never met Him then, but I love, love, love that child,’ she writes of her partner’s young self. Her father, also, has a distinct voice and character that weaves into BB’s narration. With her dog, a subtle inversion takes place. The name BB derives from the Spanish ‘Bebe’, which also means ‘baby’. BB’s voice is acerbic and tender, wryly observant, unmistakeably human. Baby the dog’s voice comes in staccato spurts of commands, evocative of the dialogue from The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay. The exception to this is a surprisingly affecting monologue by Baby at the conclusion of Why We Are Here. ‘I know that I was not always like this,’ the dog telegraphs.
The chorus of voices tell us that there’s no going back from what has changed, and we soon realise there is to be no clean break or end point to crisis, individual or collective. ‘We have all lost a lot and we are going to lose so much more,’ BB reflects. As the world goes into lockdown, the rituals that would accompany the process of mourning are attenuated, while the private business of grieving is prolonged and intensified by solitude. According to the Australian Funeral Directors Association, the pandemic has driven a dramatic shift in the way we mourn, with funeral directors reporting higher rates of cremation over burial and fewer public gatherings. At the same time, between 2021 and 2022, around 44 per cent of all funerals in Australia were live-streamed. The pandemic has changed everything from the way we work to the way we grieve. And yet despite its ongoing impact, the rate of infection no longer makes the news. It’s over, we’re told; we’re supposed to move on.
In her essay on aftermath for The Griffith Review, Doyle writes: ‘A voice-over might declare the time of after in which there is mourning but also simple happiness.’ At first, this seems to be what the move to Balboa Bay with Baby might represent for BB. A literal voice-over arrives from a loudspeaker at a nearby prison, reciting quotes from Simone Weil and Rainer Maria Rilke. Meanwhile, BB communes with dogs, consumes edibles, theorises with friends, has sexcapades with strangers, and sequesters herself in the faded glamour of the apartment. But it’s a short-term lease. BB is at sea in the midst of a pandemic and the bereavement of a parent and partner, and the block is primed for demolition, possibly subdivision into a grid of apartments.
Why We Are Here rails against uniformity, whether it be arbitrarily-drawn lockdown boundaries, golf courses, or the ‘grid of squares that used to be a university’ that is BB’s place of work. She cuts through the persistent ennui with wry humour. ‘The computer keeps the score,’ she writes, while noting her laptop has not been shut down for almost a year. Feedback with students, questions from her literary agent, news items including drug busts beside ‘a picture of titties’, the minutiae and ridiculousness of daily life brings a sense of levity to the novel’s ever-pressing conundrum: how to keep on going when the world has stopped. ‘I felt as though someone had put me in storage,’ BB reflects. Meanwhile, she explores bureaucracy’s attempts to contain bereavement, brushing up against the coldness of procedure. A friend’s call centre job results in a ‘canned’ direction for someone to call Lifeline, preceding an uncomfortable scene where a police officer takes BB’s statement about her partner. She examines the stilted formulas of catch-all crisis handling with humour: ‘In crisis? reads the sign at the really very good suicide spot by the ocean.’
Crisis is at the heart of Why We Are Here, where life as normal is no longer a possibility. Doyle’s wider body of work is concerned with turning points, from climate change to the changing rituals of adulthood, reading between the lines interrogating the unsaid in these collective experiences. In this novel, she looks at the impulse to cordon off intersecting emergencies. ‘Aftermath is a golf course laid over the site of a crisis,’ says the final passage, a scene which repeats the novel’s beginning, where BB is accosted for walking by the edge of the golf course. ‘The next few times, I defend myself with facts scavenged from the internet: the golf course is state land designated for public use. It’s stolen land on which we’re all trespassing.’ Here, the fictional inlet south of Silver City is evocative of Botany Bay, where the landing of Captain Cook and subsequently Governor Phillip was cataclysmic for the land’s owners. ‘The invasion had begun and the lives of the people from the Kamegal and Gwegal clans were never the same as violence and smallpox took its toll,’ writes scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson in the chapter ‘Bodies That Matter on the Beach’ in her book The White Possessive. ‘Despite the apparent promise of open access and use, public spaces are predicated upon the assumption of objectivity and rationality, which values but no longer explicitly marks or names whiteness or maleness.’
Such possessive logics are repeatedly challenged in Why We Are Here, which is concerned not only with the imploding spheres of public and private life, but also public and private land. In Doyle’s Meanjin essay ‘Money Shot: Golf and Public Land’, she writes: ‘A golf course reveals itself partially as a liminal space between the urban and the natural, the public and the private’, noting that almost half of Sydney’s 81 golf courses are on Crown land. An 18-hole course requires hundreds of millions of litres of water each year, and yet some privately owned golf clubs are a ‘green lung’, operating as nature reserves at the same time as playgrounds for the wealthy.
This tricky plurality persists in Why We Are Here, which navigates the shifting territory of the climate, biodiversity and health emergencies through a deeply funny, frank and multifaceted lens. At the heart of the novel is a dogged sense of commitment to hold on to what has been lost without the illusion of stasis. In an interview for The Garrett, Doyle says: ‘I had the voices of my father and my partner in my head all the time and I didn’t want to exorcise them. I wanted to keep them with me.’ These voices echo through Why We Are Here, creating a lyrical record of time.
ZOWIE DOUGLAS-KINGHORN lives in Tasmania. Her work has appeared recently in Overland, Island, Meanjin, The Age and others, and her essays and short stories have been awarded the Scribe Nonfiction Prize and the Ultimo Prize for Young Writers. She is the previous editor of Voiceworks.
CB Mako is a non-fiction, fiction, and fan-fiction writer. Winner of the Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Competition, shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Prize, and longlisted for the inaugural Liminal Fiction Prize, Cubbie has been published in The Suburban Review, Mascara Literary Review, The Victorian Writer, Peril Magazine, Djed Press, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Liminal Fiction Prize Anthology (Pantera Press, November 2020), Growing Up Disabled in Australia (Black Inc Books, February 2021) and Resilience Anthology (Ultimo Press, November 2022).
An Existential Age
An existential age, a particular number, felt like levelling up, achievement unlocked.
Thanks to modern medicine, you outlived your maternal grandmother, who passed the inherited hypertension to you.
Thus, at this existential age, you want to celebrate. You made it the halfway mark, despite the invisible complications and myriad of medications.
You even make all the preparations for food and feast – but still end up washing the dishes and cleaning up after the mess from your household.
The Household eats and devours but refuses to sing ‘Happy Birthday!’ or even allow you the pleasure to blow the candle on your tiny birthday gluten-free cake.
All this because your natal day is also the anniversary of your father-in-law’s death.
Your household’s patriarch refuses to give you the satisfaction of celebrating.
Instead, you go out to the city for the first time since the pandemic.
You saved up a lot, to tick a bucket-list: your first ever Afternoon High Tea in the city with fellow disabled, queer femme parent. You never had the opportunity to dress up and experience until your existential age – all this while constantly reminding your household via sms how to care for your disabled child.
And at this milestone age, you are now expected – required even – to travel overseas to the land of your birth, because ‘Pandemic is Over’ – while ableist relatives ignore and not acknowledge the immunocompromised, Disabled child is among your household members,
That you have #LongCOVID, too. Their denial is strong, ‘It’s just like a flu’, refusing to give you agency.
Instead, they chide and diminish your bucket-list experience with ‘And I have had many high teas with my friends,’
and then she travels overseas to watch a K-pop concert on the very same week
you barely had capacity to feed the hangry household.
of such different worlds,
from two different cities,
yet shared the same womb.
Remember that time when you told your relatives at a recent reunion that you’re autistic? Everyone burst out laughing and you don’t even know why.
You take a casual Work From Home (WFH) role to feed the household, to meet rental payments.
Poverty plunges you deeper into debt to keep the hangry household fed.
The additional income was to append the meagre carer payment and low-income earnings of the patriarch.
And yet, you are penalised by Services Australia. They reduce your carer payment.
You’re not eligible for NDIS because your autism (even with a co-morbidity), under the DSM-5 is only level one. You are not qualified for DSP despite having multiple underlying conditions, and Hard-of-Hearing.
Meanwhile, the man-child buys fake Lego sets to build the Star Wars Razor Crest; In the patriarch’s inner world, there is no such thing as financial abuse.
Meanwhile, ableists don’t know the extent of the damage of #LongCOVID, D Dimer test showed that you have blood clots. Your family GP recommended that you go to the hospital for tests. But who will care for your immunocompromised child?
‘You will die,’ the doctor says. And your mobile phone line goes dead.
But you forge on, as life goes on.
The FVIO respondent continues the circular abusive pattern:
– passive aggressive
– walking on eggshells
You prepare for the next arts gig via Zoom [to pay for incurred debt of BNPLs],
to feed & clothe growing teenagers,
while you carry the weight of unpaid labour,
of unsupported, non-NDIS level one autism, of multiple underlying conditions,
of diminished carer payment
of deteriorating organ functions due to #LongCOVID,
You put your mask on – autistic masking is deeply embedded.
You live another day,
against racism, ageism, ableism.
Because whiteness is structural
You shout into the void.
Hoping someone out there will listen.
Reviewed by NINA CULLEN
Sarah Holland-Batt’s Stella Prize-winning poetry collection, The Jaguar (2022), is entirely absorbing and accessible. It does not work to evade or obscure, rather its precise language and imagery culminates in a narrative that is incisive and moving. The collection is structured into four distinct parts with each section comprising profoundly visceral and poignant poems and elegies that unify and harken back to the traditional elegy form, in the commemoration and celebration of painful relationships.
Admittedly, poetry has often felt alien to me, a sentiment that resonates with many reviews of the collection. This might be attributed to poetry’s niche within the broader literary landscape. Despite poetry’s smaller readership compared to other genres, as perceived by the publishing industry, it maintains a dedicated and passionate movement, with authors like Holland-Batt leading the charge.
The Jaguar is Holland-Batt’s third book of poetry, following on from The Hazards (2015) and Aria (2008). Her first book Aria won a number of national prizes, the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and the Anne Elder Award. The Hazards won the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Award and her latest novel, The Jaguar, took out the 2023 Stella Prize and The Australian Book of the Year 2022, and was either shortlisted or longlisted for a sleuth of other accolades. Interestingly, Holland-Batt marks the second consecutive poet to claim the Stella Prize, after Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear, following poetry’s inclusion in 2022. In addition to her poetry, Holland-Batt published Fishing for Lightning (2021), a collection of essays on how to read, understand, and love poetry. This publication is an informative read alongside The Jaguar, offering technical knowledge as well as context and shape to Holland-Batt’s own works.
Holland-Batt commences The Jaguar with a couple of lines from the ancient Greek poet and songwriter Sappho. It goes:
‘yet to sing love,
love must first shatter us.’
This feels like the perfect prelude to the collection, a work that emerges as a deeply personal memoir. Rarely has a poetry collection made me teary, but this one managed it on the first page. Truly, Holland-Batt doesn’t mess around with the poem titled “My Father as a Giant Koi”; it’s a devastating and affecting poem and for me, the most memorable from the collection. Holland-Batt suspends readers in underwater quiet whilst metaphorically depicting her father during his most vulnerable state.
‘He has been down there for years –
ancient god of the dark, keepers of the single koan,
moving in currents only he can sense,’ (p3).
Following this initial impact, subsequent poems follow a similar tonal and visual current, centring on Holland-Batt’s father and his battle against an unspecified illness, which is later revealed as Parkinson’s disease in the poem “In My Father’s Country.” Despite the challenging subject matter and the hints of possible neglect he may have experienced during care, the author handles his deterioration with touching dignity. In her Stella Prize interview, Holland-Batt stated that her interest lies in exploring the difficult aspects of life. She’s “interested in contemplating the things that are difficult to look at: decline, death, violence, grief, sadness, and ageing. Holding the gaze when the gaze is hard seems to me to be the essential task of a poet.”
Fittingly, the collection’s second section tackles grief and loss, flitting breathlessly between fond memories of her father and his enduring battle with Parkinson’s disease. These poems combine the pedestrian details of hospitals – chemotherapy drips, buzzers, and the white sneakers of nurses – with colourful imagery of the natural world. This juxtaposition is most powerful when the language converges, notably ‘injections of nectar’ and David Attenborough’s whispers under the fluorescent lighting of hospital wards. Still, the devastation lies in the duality of author and father, both of whose stubbornness and strength persisted despite the odds. It’s best expressed in the poem “The Midpoint” the closing lines read:
‘Still I want
What I want –
Which is to endure,” (p37).
In part three, the lyricism takes on a folkloric quality, roving and delicious, thanks to Holland-Batt’s controlled use of metaphors, similes, and parables. Moments of absolute ferociousness punctuate the narrative, as the author paints exotic getaways, transitioning from hospital visits to French lingerie, super yachts in the wind, and magnums of Pol Rodger in gold tubs. Hyperbolically named “Mansions” and “Ode to Cartier”, these poems depict the allure and hollowness of the tumultuous relationship that anchors the narrative. The poem “Instructions for a Lover” highlights the glittery highs and lasting lows of this relationship: ‘pull me closer, push me away’ (p59) and is followed by “Epithalamium” – a type of poem for a bride on her way to marriage. “Epithalamium” employs several poetic devices including the repetition of ‘to believe’ and a clever fourth wall break, both of which create a sudden intimacy with the reader.
‘… to love a narcissist you have to believe, and reader, I did…’ (p60).
Satirical humour adds another layer to the narrative, capturing undercurrents of anger, chaos, and escapism. The narrative wraps up in satisfying conclusion with the author in “Serious Moonlight” wistfully stating that I will go alone,’ (p81).
Here and throughout the collection, Holland-Batt engages the first-person perspective, creating further intimacy between the reader and the text, and raising questions about who is speaking and what is meant by the use of “I.” The incorporation of first-personal perspective becomes more intriguing when considered alongside her employment of “lyric apostrophe,” a term rooted in Greek literature denoting the act of “turning away” – issuing both directives and admonitions to simultaneously come closer and turn away.
The final section serves as a roadmap of Holland-Batt’s time abroad in Egypt, Morocco, and Andalusia, and is bookended by her relationship with her father. Holland-Batt’s skill in depicting the natural world here is effortless. Her brush strokes craft loaves of limestone, lilac mist, and cinder blocked hills. Settings unfold like passing clouds, seamless and gentle, until sharp, frenetic language snaps you back to reality. It’s a feeling like whiplash and there’s no reprieve until the concluding poem, “In My Father’s Country”, which sprawls across fourteen pages to capture the ‘creeping lisp of Parkinson’s’ …
‘…I hate that you’ve stayed. You took your mind first…’ (p112).
The collection’s title and bold cover – The Jaguar – appears consistently, taking the form of a drug dealer’s pet, a toast with jaguar’s blood, and a jaguar’s breath. At one point, the jaguar transmogrifies into a forest-green vintage 1980 XJ; ‘a rebellion against his tremor,’ (p42). The symbolic nature of the jaguar varies across cultures, but largely it’s celebrated for its power and strength, both of which are compelling motifs throughout the collection. The jaguar isn’t the only animal that makes an appearance, in fact various animals – farm animals and sea creatures – are used to symbolically explore the gentle equilibrium between life and death, human and animal.
The Jaguar is a compelling introspection into what it means to be human. It accomplishes precisely what Holland-Batt advocates as the power of poetry in Fishing for Lightning, namely, the ability to evoke emotions; “bringing chills and solace, beauty and devastation” This collection fearlessly delves into themes of heartbreak, grief, regret, and, above all, love, and the powerful ways these experiences intersect. It’s emboldened by the ferocity and complexity of love and its inevitable decline, particularly in the context of neurodegenerative disease, and the ways that we as humans, as animals, suffer but also the ways in which we endure.
NINA CULLEY is a writer, reviewer and educator based in Naarm. She’s the Studio Manager and Director of Melbourne Young Writers’ Studio where she teaches creative writing. Her works have appeared in numerous publications including Kill Your Darlings, Aniko Press and Eureka Street.
by Tamryn Bennett
Reviewed by JENNY HEDLEY
The use of medicinal plants or herbs originates from Indigenous knowledge systems which predate colonisation by thousands, or in the case of Aboriginal pharmacopeia, tens of thousands of years. Phytotherapy, a science-based medical practice first described by French physician Henri Leclerc in 1913, uses plant-derived medicines for prevention and treatment of ailments. Today, industrial pharma hacks plants’ intrinsic biotechnologies for maximum profit, producing pills and potions engineered to ease mental and physical maladies. What has been overlooked by the dollars that be (aka extractive capitalism) is the use of traditional plant medicines for diseases of spirit.
Tamryn Bennett’s Icaros sings into that supernatural vegetal space of mystification, ritual and holistic therapy. ‘Icaro’ comes from the Quichua verb ikaray: ‘to blow smoke for healing’. Icaros are traditionally sung by curanderx or shamans during plant ceremonies which originated in the Amazon basin.
ancient as jungle
we’re passengers of the plant,
the dying, deaf and addicted. (32)
Not to be approached lightly, ayahuasca ceremonies demand discipline, respect, and abstinence from sex, drugs, alcohol, salt, sugar and some animal products. Set, setting and intention must be considered.
Wrapped in net
Ayanmanan asks your intention
holds a fuming stone
and a basket of shadow.
chhhh chhhhh chhhh
chhhh chhhhh chhhh
Follow the chakapa
rattle of ritual
Drink the vines to know
the pattern of all things. (32)
During ceremony, the Banisteriopsis caapi vine interacts with the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub to produce beta-carbolines that restrict the ability of a person’s monoamine oxidase enzyme to degrade the N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) present in the sacred vine. The DMT acts on the central nervous system, allowing people to access a state of nonduality or oneness.
This is where amnesia and healing
begin, along the worn path
a wreath of hedera helix. (22)
Bennett’s spirit songs carry us into this alternate reality, performing a pas de trois between English, Spanish and verdant language where plants speak and we listen. In Covert Plants, Baylee Brits and Prudence Gibson define ‘plant writing’ as being receptive ‘to sentience, sapience, and forms of life that are distinctly botanical’ .
This Is Your Mind On Plants author Michael Pollan writes, ‘Psychedelic compounds can promote experiences of awe and mystical connection that nurture the spiritual impulse of human beings’ . Clifford Pickover, who received his PhD from the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale, hypothesises that ‘DMT in the pineal glands of biblical prophets gave God to humanity and let ordinary humans perceive parallel universes’ .
If philosopher Simone Weil were inspired by herbaceous delights and ‘[f]our billion years of infinite / combinations’ (21), rather than the Christian God, perhaps these are the aphorisms that would flow:
How do you want to die?
That’s how you must live.
What are the seeds in your heart?
That’s the tree you will become. (17)
She might channel this ‘voice from the other world’ that ‘tells us to taste / the deities of dirt’ (45), to ‘remember where you hid the key’ (79):
when the world gets too heavy
lay yourself down
be still a hundred years
let go of the paper lives,
what could you carry
all these seasons anyway?
breath, sun, rain…
none are ours to keep
leaves are lessons of release (29)
Illuminated by artist Jacqueline Cavallaro’s otherworldly paper-based collage, compressed from three dimensions into two, Icaros extends the collaboration between poet and visual artist as exhibited in Bennett’s debut phosphene, published via Rabbit Poetry Journal’s Rabbit Poet Series in 2016. In both volumes, the visual amalgamation of figurative fine art with zoological and botanical sketches decentres the human, imbuing the vegetal with eyes that see. These uncanny, surrealist compositions of art and text, whose title-page glyphs suggest a relationship between story and stardust, or perhaps the origin of language, invite the reader to open themselves to ancient ways of knowing. Bennett presents a reality where everything living derives from the cellular—a ‘fistful of galaxy reassembled on shore’ (19): it is all a matter of scale or time.
In the introduction to phosphene, Bennett describes her poems as ‘fragmented elegies’ and ‘prayers for the wind, for buried cities, for the invisible and the sacrifice’ . She takes us with her as ‘at the temple of letters’ (4) she ascends ‘two thousand stone steps / into cloud’ (6). Where her debut poetry collection invites a collaboration with her ‘plant symphony’ project co-artist Guillermo Batiz, whose Spanish translations precede, follow or are interwoven with Bennett’s, Spanish seeps seamlessly into her sophomore collection. Each method lends a sonorous quality to the text: in phosphene it presentiments, echoes or proffers a call and response; in Icaros, bi-linguistics perform alongside onomatopoeia, the hissing of fire, the incantation of song, a rattle’s percussive hiss.
In Icaros, Red Room Poetry’s artistic director, Bennett, who received her PhD in literature from the University of New South Wales, remembers the women who were burned at the stake, for those whose ‘Plant knowledge comes with a price, / hide it or be set ablaze’ (40). She acknowledges the creep of colonisation, ‘Languages leaving, / little extinctions in the dunes’ (68). She walks us through preparations for ceremony—‘we pick sage by barbed wires / weed plastic bags from prickly pear’ (48)—and into ritual itself:
Palo santo on the abdomen
to cut the cords of attachments,
for the ones that left
and children who were not.
Collect kindling to reawaken. (49)
I am a little bit obsessed with the form of Icaros. Where phosphene presents four poems which sing, reverberate and refrain across a number of pages, Icaros divides a series of poems into four sections: Marrow, Ritual, Remember and Matter. While each section’s ten to seventeen poems are titled in the contents, the titles emerge directly from the text and are indicated in each poem’s body by bolded font. This integrated technique permits an uninterrupted reading of each section as if listening to a chant or Benedictine chorus, creating a sensation of ongoingness evocative of oral storytelling, where shadow and light play tricks of perception around flickering fire.
In Art Objects, Jeanette Winterson argues that artful writing demands that the writer’s breath be evident in the cadences of lines; in rhythms, breaks and beats shaped together as if sung; in a pulse echoing that of the writer’s body . Slow down, is Bennett’s injunction. Breathe. Bennett’s phosphene and Icaros withdraw me from the hurried vacuum of life, an act of self-care.
Bennett’s writing arrests me, disinters the salty banks memories, transposing me to the late 1980s (I am lying on the grass at recess, staring up at light dazzled through spring’s lush foliage as my friend traces her hand along the undulating groves of a tree’s trunk, thanking it for shade). To the ensuing Women Who Run with the Wolves era that inspired our mothers’ escape to Esalen for wild women dances and shamanic healing, leaving us to our SARK workbooks. A temporal dislocation where sage lingers post-smudge, where bears and rattlesnakes portend, where butterflies are saved and named only to be surrendered to earth.
Lie on trunks of drowned forest
sharing how the heart trips and flies open.
What we leave of ourselves
for the raptors (27)
Winterson assigns to the poet the job of healing the breakdown between language and the unlanguageable. She notes that art as an ‘imaginative experience happens at a deeper level than our affirmation of our daily world’, challenging our notion of self (15). We construct our own versions of reality every day, turning to faster news cycles and social media echo chambers, becoming stuck in the mire of unquestioned feedback loops. Bennett, who believes that ‘poetry enables us to shape sounds and symbols that tie us together in the uncertainty [of] our shared existence’ cautions against trading ancient wisdom for extractive capitalism :
and rivers damned
to sew the desert
in straight lines
and milk it for lattes
For the mountains
to make toilet paper,
and pizza coupons
For ancestors, animals,
panacea and songs…
Here Bennett returns us to our roots—‘in every culture a cosmic tree’ (71) — to our stellar origins — ‘Past the waves we are particle, equations of universe’ (81)—to our interconnectedness—‘if we could remember how / we’d bow our heads, trace cords / to the mothers we were cut from’ (56)—and asks, ‘How many symbols will we need / before we trust the currents?’ (87). Icaros and its predecessor phosphene are an injunction to the cycles of nature, the alchemy of ritual and the rhythms of remembering along an axis of deep time.
Brits, Baylee, and Prudence Gibson. Covert Plants: Vegetal Consciousness and Agency in an Anthropocentric World, Punctum Books, 2018.
Pollan, Michael. This is Your Mind On Plants: Opium—Caffiene—Mescaline. Allen Lane, 2021.
Brown, David Jay. Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Bennett, Tamryn. phosphene. Rabbit Poetry Journal as part of the Rabbit Poets Series, 2016.
Winterson, Jeanette. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. Vintage International, 1997.
Bennett, Tamryn. ‘Outside the Lines’. Sydney Review of Books, 10 May 2021. https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/essay/outside-the-lines/
JENNY HEDLEY is a neurodivergent writer, PhD student and Writeability mentor whose work appears in Archer, Cordite, Crawlspace, Diagram, Mascara, Overland, Rabbit, TEXT, The Suburban Review, Verity La, Westerly, and the anthologies Admissions: Voices in Mental Health and Verge. She lives on unceded Boon Wurrung land with her son. Website: jennyhedley.github.io/
by Evelyn Juers
Reviewed by GURMEET KAUR
The Dancer is an unusual biography. Dedicated to the subject, it is written ‘for’ rather than about Phillipa Cullen. The author’s close relationship with Cullen determines the biographer’s intentions — Juers and Cullen were university friends and remained in touch until she unexpectedly died at the age of 25. The book is a memorial, an extended eulogy and an archival object that solidifies Cullen’s legacy in Australian experimental dance history. It is also a poetic narrative that documents the events, ideas and people orbiting around Cullen in 1960s and 1970s Australia.
On biography, Hermione Lee writes that it’s ‘like lives…made up of contested objects – relics, testimonies, versions, correspondences, the unverifiable’. Juers spends years researching Cullen’s life, starting with a single folder of letters that extended into an archive taking up ‘a whole filing cabinet, large storage containers, much of my computer desktop and the top of my desk (7)’. The result is an extensive narrative totalling 550 pages, made up of first-person accounts detailing Cullen’s life through letters, interviews, reviews and diary entries. These ‘relics’ help Juers to animate Cullen’s voice and ‘let her speak for herself as much as possible (6)’, while the author’s research places Cullen in a broader history of colonialisation and global travel. Juers balances this tension between letting ‘contested objects’ speak for themselves and using historical research to contextualise and problematise the subject. However, in some places, the writing also reproduces the inequities of the time.
Born in Melbourne in 1950, Cullen enrolled in dance school at an early age, before moving to Sydney as a young child where she remained. She attended University of Sydney, studied Anthropology, English, Italian and Philosophy and taught dance on the lawn of the university quadrangle. Cullen experimented with dance and electronics in this early digital era with theremins, an electronic instrument that played music by controlling the electromagnetic field around the instrument rather than any direct contact. Cullen choreographed performances with theremins controlled by the dancers’ movement to generate music. She applied for funding from the newly formed Australia Council in 1973 and travelled to UK, Germany, Netherlands, Ghana, Nepal and India to refine her practice. On her return to Australia in 1974, she was invited by cultural institutions across Australia to perform but felt ‘frustrated by Australia’s cultural cringe and lack of responsiveness to her own work’ (478). In April 1975, Cullen returned to India but quickly became sick and died within months of being in Kodiakanal, India.
Divided into four sections, The Dancer begins with Cullen’s ancestral history. Spanning as far back as 14th century, Juers maps Cullen’s origins in Leicestershire, London and Cornwall in England and Kilkenny in Ireland, threading tenuous connections to ancestors who moved with the British empire to India, Tobago, Jamaica, and more. In Australia, they arrived as ‘free settlers’, playing an active part in the colonial project:
By the early twentieth century the Aboriginal population south of Sydney had diminished to thirty survivors. Their descendants preserve their culture, tell their stories and mourn those who were killed, who died of disease, or who were dispossessed in the frontier wars between the Indigenous people and the newcomers (29).
Decades before Cullen is born, this is the horrific history of slavery, genocide and dispossession on lands her ancestors ‘settled and this was the history – Aboriginal and colonial – in which they and others of their family played a part (34)’. This truth-telling however raises more questions than it answers, particularly in the use of colonial language. Examples like above are counteracted by pages of colonial history written from the oppressor’s view:
Some have argued that in his plan to civilise Aboriginal people, Macquarie is well intentioned. He had a scheme. Ceremoniously he presented tribal chiefs with engraved breastplates. At Parramatta he established a Native School. Some children came voluntarily while others were abducted and forcibly taken there. People started hiding their children for fear of having them stolen. He held a series of Native Conferences, where he served roast beef and ale and let the chiefs sit on chairs. When Aboriginal people visited him, he was a genial host. To those who were most friendly and useful, he gave gifts, including land, livestock and boats (33).
Perhaps Juers’s preference here is to present a historical account authenticated by voices of its time, leading her to borrow language from primary archival materials. But placed against colonial brutality, such summaries are jarring to read, especially when the minimising, bureaucratic and colonial language is not sufficiently contextualised, simply taken from the past and placed into the present. For instance, could the word ‘civilised’ and ‘native’ have been in quotation marks so that it is clear it belongs in the past? Could the idea of ‘gifts’ have been further analysed through the explanation of terra nullius, knowing that the land Macquarie ‘gifted’ was stolen? Could the ‘friendly and useful’ behaviour have been further explained, perhaps as a protective mechanism against a belligerent colonial campaign of genocide? There are repeated uses of words like ‘explorer’, ‘expedition’, and land ‘grants’ across this section, all of which centre the perspective of the coloniser without additional interrogation.
This reproduces colonial violence, recentering the colonial narrative, and the absence of Aboriginal voices (historical and contemporary) relegates First Nations people to a mythic past. Even though Juers later writes that ‘we now regard those settlers’ histories through a different lens, in which the colonists’ gains were the Aboriginal people’s tragic losses (53)’, it does not negate for the surprising amount of space given to colonial voices through which First Nations history is mediated. The link between Cullen’s story as a dancer and her ancestral past feels arbitrary at times; Juers’s desire to include this genealogical research is possibly weighted here with the responsibility to write ‘for’ Cullen rather than the contemporary reader.
Pre-empting this critique, Juers states in the prologue that her aim is to take ‘a larger perspective, which allows intrinsic and extrinsic material, the wondrous and the mundane, the directions and the digressions, to determine the shape of this biographical narrative (8).’ This expansive approach does lead to some interesting research which places Cullen in the wider post-colonial context. Cullen ‘felt a strong affinity with Eastern forms of dance (235)’ and was drawn to learn about ancient practices, to ground the development of her new ideas. In an era of New Age spiritualism, the hippie trail, and the founding of self-determining nations, Cullen travelled to the township of Auroville in Tamil Nadu, India. Established in 1968 by the French spiritualist Mirra Alfassa, Auroville is dedicated to the teachings of the Indian spiritual guru Sri Aurobindo and was founded as a place to practice his philosophy, quickly becoming a ‘colony of foreigners. A postcolonial extension of the age-old colonial civilising mission (423)’. Juers’s historical research in this part holds westerners to account, highlighting their role in perpetuating colonial structures as even today as Auroville ‘relies largely on Tamil labour and still adheres to colonial hierarchies (424)’. Devoid of local cultural practices, the Auroville project participated historical and political amnesia, its early promotional material offering it as ‘a physical space wherein individuals could leave both the past and the present behind (423)’ at a time when the Indian Civil Rights movement was successful in ejecting Britain and the nation was coming to terms with its political self-determination.
This setting situates the reader in understanding why Cullen and her contemporaries like Viidikas, Leves and others gravitated to India in places like Auroville and later Kodaikanal (‘a small town created in the 1840s by American missionaries (514)’) in South India, rather than other places in the subcontinent. This was a politically conscious time around the world and especially in India in the aftermath of Partition and the Bangladesh Liberation War. It makes sense that westerners seeking spiritual guidance in post-colonial India ended up in sheltered ashrams (often designed with them in mind like the one in Auroville) and perhaps also why Cullen wanted to return to Auroville to better understand ‘an enlightened movement groping for holistic reality (344)’.
While Juers’s primary materials raises questions about discriminatory attitudes of the time, the writer attempts to balance this mostly with historical research to frame the past. But in sections when Juers strips way both archives and research and leans into memoir, the writing becomes most moving. Towards the end of The Dancer, Juers describes Phillipa Cullen’s life as ‘a scattering. A gathering. A ballet. Pain. Body twists, leg extensions, pulling by arms, slow rolls, improvisations, hip socket rotation, inhale and exhale, rise and fall (532).’
In this final section, Juers’s grief for her lost friend is palpable as she asks ‘at dusk, before she lost consciousness, what came to the fore? A summoning of strength? A parade? (532)’, her syntax becoming fragmented, arranged in a heavy block, before drifting again on white page. Although The Dancer provoked discomfort in its complicated portrayal of colonial and post-colonial histories, Juers’s biography is most successful when it explores her personal response to the tragic death of Phillipa Cullen.
GURMEET KAUR is a critic and poet living on Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung Country. Her work has appeared in Ambit, Cordite, Sydney Review of Books, Peril, Kill Your Darlings, The Victorian Writer, and elsewhere. She is currently one of KYD‘s 2023 New Critics.
Rayan Chakrabarti is a writer from Kolkata, India. His poems have been published in Mulberry Literary, Monograph Magazine and Indian Ruminations. He likes to travel to the hills and play the piano.
Now I become Shadow,
Accept me, Mother
now I shed teeth and penis,
accept this haunting.
There is that time, vast oceans of heave, that exists before the discovery. And though the house in the nerves has shifted, and corrugated tin has started to take measure of the tea, the lack of the discovery means that everything is yet equilibrium. In fact, the ants are bubbling away in the sauna of rice, and deep sparrows have risen from the colouring book. A long family of the day will be upon the silverware, polishing off the sun in reflection.
I have left my body to become a spectator to its contours. Just around my hip, I’ve discovered a new mole to gnaw into, bread it into knead, make it palatable. I’ve locked the door to immerse myself in its expanse. Still, a night has to travel before the morning breaks it open. A half-brewed tearcan melts from ice-cool on the bedpost.
Midnight has brought with them a new audience. Grains of metal, flying in from a faraway galaxy latch onto my armpit. Some of the blood has found a station there. In the moonlight, when their arrival announces a river, you can only hear the softness of the steel bed.
But who are they, hunting for new territory at this part of the night? Known customers trudge along the margins of my vision, travellers to a fasting star.
The Almirah, bank of dreams, kneels around my childhood. Monsoon wells in the hippocampus, stinging of death. Mother burned at the stake, for whose sake do we go on living? Perhaps, a summer of longing, last summer with toffee and younging.
The Crow, measurer of blight, gossips around my neck, pecking veins, counting on the quick shine and gloss. For him, it is a step out of routine, but he’s been out for vengeance since I stopped feeding their offspring last year. Feeding them goat’s brain and koyel tails, so they can prey and wring. I too shall become nest and birthing.
Tree of sorrow, Tree of light, become creeper around me, take my fingers as yours, make me disappear before they break the door down, before the final shock of parenthood, let me become leafvein and telephone pole charging electric through the city.
In some stills, the morning is.
Fear not, trees of sheath surround you,
bark of wire and calm.
by Alexis Wright
Reviewed by THEODORA GALANIS
‘Listen!’ cries an oracle. ‘Look proper way. Carefully. See detail, if you want to see properly.’ (p.368).
This instruction arrives almost halfway through Alexis Wright’s Praiseworthy, opening the chapter titled, ‘Goddess of Scales’.
Before I had reached this page, I was having doubts about writing this review. Praiseworthy is a text that rightfully challenges the plucky critic who thinks they can take it on in a thousand words. One of the novel’s narrators pre-empts my concern: why risk sounding like ‘a little academic who thought he knew it all’? (p.368).
The call to ‘listen’ and ‘see detail’, however, felt like a generous invitation. It prompted to me think about how I had been reading this novel – or rather, how the novel had been asking to be read.
Following the oracle’s imperative, this review is in part a reflection on what Praiseworthy has to tell us about a slow reading practice and why it matters.
Praiseworthy is set in a fictional town of the same name somewhere in dust storm smothered country up in the north of Australia. This story begins ‘once upon a’ good for some and bad for others time: the dreaded present of the Anthropocene, of global warming and global pandemic, of hate speech and social media, of Intervention violence and Closing the Gap talk.
Here, under the ‘sulky’ orange haze, we meet the Steel family. The father, Cause Man, is a pain in the ‘ass’ entrepreneur who is terrified about global warming. He dreams up a plan to make an international fossil-fuel-free transport conglomerate fuelled off the backs of feral donkeys. His wife, Dance, thinks this is a load of bulldust. She’s a sensible woman who is better off spending her time flitter fluttering with the moths and butterflies than tidying up after his mess. They have two children, the aspiring boxer and in-love eldest son, Aboriginal Sovereignty, and his younger ratbag brother, Tommyhawk.
Praiseworthy stages the interconnected journeys of these characters as they each embark on a quest of sorts: Cause is looking for the perfect platinum donkey to be the ‘mask-head’ of his company, Dance traces her ancestral links to China, Tommyhawk begs for a one-way ticket to Canberra, and Aboriginal Sovereignty looks for, well, maybe somewhere to offer up his love.
Across the breadth of her oeuvre, including titles like Plains of Promise (1997) and The Swan Book (2014), Wright demonstrates a commitment to exploring what it is to write an ‘Aboriginal sovereignty of the imagination’. In her essay ‘On Writing Carpentaria’, she describes this as:
Just such a story as we might tell in our story place. Something to grow the land perhaps. Or, to visit the future.
In Praiseworthy, questions surrounding sovereignty of the imagination are focalised through the Steel family’s eldest son. We learn early on that he commits suicide by walking into the sea. This event embroils the people of Praiseworthy in a search of their own. Variously motivated, all kinds of folk from ghostly-looking fishermen to pandanus-fanning power ladies to fanatical church goers sift through the sand in search of his life. Even the anthropologist-cum-copper called Maximum Security combs the beach for evidence.
Aboriginal Sovereignty’s haunted presence is the ‘mystery death thing’ that percolates through the novel(p.368). Held in the arms of the ‘giant sea lady’, his story is always filtered through her tidal movements which wash in and out of narrative focus. Each time I felt myself sucked away from the drought-stricken dust country and pulled into the lap of the sea, I returned to the question of his absence a little differently. Why did he die? Or, did he really die?
The epic size of Praiseworthy poses a direct challenge to the tik-tocking attention spans of iPhone-loving brains like Tommyhawk’s. The writing demands sustained focus on a sentence as it sprawls over four, five, six lines. The reader is asked to consider a single image or colour for minutes on end, like the meditation on the colour grey that spans some seventeen pages.
As is characteristic of Wright’s rhythm, such wondrously long passages are often punctuated with an exclamation. My favourites include, ‘So!’, ‘Well!’, ‘But!’, ‘Sovereignty!’, ‘Bang!’ ‘Yep!’, ‘Whatever!’, ‘Sea!’(pp.290, 301, 307, 317, 334). These percussive beats interrupt the hypnotic effect of the sounds that preceded it, offering a moment to pause and reflect. Or to switch gears and wake up a bit. It almost feels like a little clip around the ears: Hey! You still listening?
Oracles are called to ‘speak up’ at the beginning of each chapter, marking the oral storytelling traditions which have been fused into Wright’s earlier takes on the epic form (p.164). The multiple narrators each shape the story with their own inflections and points of emphasis. There is no universalising voice in Praiseworthy. But, how could there be? These oracles are attempting to fathom ‘real quests of importance’ about ‘the interconnectedness of survival simultaneously occurring throughout the cherished lands of traditional country’(p.96). In a story of this size, a single perspective will simply not suffice. A narrator remarks:
“How could one person become so worthy of being – the epic? Of being that special? Were the storytellers too lazy these days to look further into the human abyss, or too unimaginative to be bothered to create a more diverse catalogue of stories?”(p.25)
It is this ambition – to tune in to the several overlapping, and sometimes contradictory, stories of country – that Praiseworthy strives towards. Cause Man Steel obsessively concerns himself with problems on a planetary scale (so much so that he picks up the nicknames ‘Planet’ and ‘Global Warming’). In contrast, it is Dance who often brings the focus back to the smaller details. As moth woman, the ‘moth-er’, she has gift for tuning into the inaudible frequencies of insect life. She listens to ‘two ants arguing for hours over a crumb of bread’ and a ‘far-off moth or butterfly splashing into the ocean’. Elsewhere, she is described ‘reading the unfathomable or innumerable messages held in the billions of microscopic scales stacked like sets of roof tiles on the wings of the moth’. The use of the word ‘scale’ here is most intriguing, for its relation to ideas of measurement, weight, size, shifts, balance, proportion, and too of skin, reptilian, insect and piscine.
The sliding movement between scales of stories is something Wright deftly handles in Praiseworthy. The locus of the narrative continually shifts from the inaudible and invisible stories, the hidden-beneath-your-shoe stories or the hiding-at-the-bottom-of-the-sea stories, to the grand master stories, the atmospheric stories, the old as time stories. Take this sentence, for example, as a small instantiation of the kind of scaling effect that characterises the broader narrative form:
Country always tells its people that there are endless ways of reading its world, depending on whether you are a moth, a butterfly, a dragonfly, a mountain chain, the sea, a river, moon, or stars, or the atmosphere itself.(p535)
From the tiny to the cosmic, the elements are held together in mutual significance to the epic story of country.
The interplay between local and planetary forces is a source of great energy in the text. There is an emphasis on the importance of the local, and yet an attention to what occurs elsewhere. Epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter reflect this planetary focus, with quotes drawn from the Waayni Dictionary to Jorge Luis Borges to former Hong Kong politician, Alvin Yeung. These wide-reaching references, alongside others scattered throughout the prose, place Wright’s work within global circuits and planetary frames.
Against the scarcity logic defining so much talk about the Anthropocene, in Praiseworthy Wright offers stylistic abundance in such a way that could be characterised as, quoting the novel, ‘over-imagined and overgrown’(p.316). The sheer poetic density is a defiant protest against a contemporary compulsion toward speed, minimalism, and efficiency.
Praiseworthy swirls over itself again and again. In the first chapter, we are introduced to many of the narrative strands that Wright picks up on at later stages – albeit with a different voice, from a different vantage point. As if whirling through an oceanic gyre or a cyclonic wind current, readers are repeatedly drawn back into almost-familiar scenes to re-witness characters in the ongoing negotiation of life in and beyond the hazy town.
Despite its energetic rhythms, in moments it can feel as if you’re moving slowly through Praiseworthy. It really did take me quite some time to read this book. That’s not just because it’s big – though, mind you, everyone who’s seen me carrying it around has commented on its size (Bloody hell! That’s a doorstopper, said the bus driver yesterday).
I think the effect of moving slowly is kind of the point. The wise ‘extinction-less’ elders explain the significance of this:
With old-world thinking, you have to reach down into the depths of time to raise it to the surface and compete with the faster-than-thought new world twaddle dazzle skimming across the skin of the spirit. Well!(p.291)
Old-world thinking doesn’t happen in a jiffy. And in Praiseworthy this is not simply advocated through certain voices but materialised at the level of form: the long sentences, the swirling structure, the dense imagery and the number of pages all ask readers to slow down. To go back and look properly. To see detail. When moving carefully through Praiseworthy, we notice things that may otherwise pass us by in a blink.
In paying attention to the formal qualities of Praiseworthy, I have not intended to sidestep the politics of the novel. Rather, I posit slow reading as a practice that further attunes us to the complexities and violences of the colonial condition. Slow reading leaves space and time to do the deep, hard work of listening. Slow reading is a politics. Praiseworthy calls readers to take part.
Wright, Alexis. Praiseworthy. Giramondo, 2023.
—. ‘On Writing Carpentaria’, Indigenous Transnationalism: Essays on Carpentaria, edited by Lynda Ng, Giramondo Publishing Company, 2018, pp.217-232.
THEODORA GALANIS is a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide. She researches oceanic imaginaries in contemporary Australian literature. Her project forms part of the Australian Research Council Special Research Initiative, ‘Between Indian and Pacific Oceans: Reframing Australian Literatures’.
by Petra White
Reviewed by PHYLLIS PERLSTONE
Each time I have read Cities, I have felt more of the affect of the poetical language. Yet there is a way of looking at it as a whole. Given Petra White’s themes, I can’t help alluding to Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck, also Sylvia Plath’s last book Ariel. White dives into the myths to find past definitions for past and present human roles : “Tell me what a mother is”.
The book begins with “Demeter’s Song”. Trying to define a mother within the ancient Greek myth of Hades – the god of the underworld who carries off Persephone, Demeter’s daughter to marry her. This suggests many sorts of darkness:
“Sing to me daughter
Upwards through the darkness”
White uses Persephone’s abduction to be perceived by her simply as growing away from the mother to adulthood. The grief of a human persona over a death (later in the poems) who is now a mother herself, links knowing death with the source of love. This is within the perception of a human mother. The early poems use the myth to personify similar human emotions.
In the second poem, “Demeter”, portraying someone who loves and loses, we are sent straight into the myth of Persephone, lost to Demeter in Hades. By casting the world into the ‘darkness’ of winter, when no crops grow and a depression then overcomes the world, White mirrors Demeter’s own loss.
Whether the words evoking this depression suggest Demeter’s loss and provocation to revenge, or whether they suggest the response of grieving where she can neither act nor provide anything – as in the poem “Corn”– is not certain. Adrienne Rich.in her early work, Of Woman Born, argues that the “un-mothered mother” is neither able to guide nor, in the worst cases, avoid being destructive. Demeter’s cry implies that she hears her inaction as criticised in a troll-like outburst. White incorporates contemporary nuances, as in the words, “I could hear them, / She lives through her daughter! / She is depressed! A monster !”
Demeter calls out, “Oh hideous love / that a mortal knows –/what you love you must lose./ But accept it? / Impossible as breath/under water”. White’s Demeter holds an ambivalent tone here. Her usual work can’t be done, it is just “Impossible as breath/ under water.” But that recognition of being like humans in their mortality, holds up the state of human imagination – the acceptance or not of death.
These early poems are not broken into stanzas. They beautifully sustain short lines in one whole –give recognition to mythical personifications – of human perceptions of their feelings. But the words in “Demeter” describing birth are heavy too – “they heaved her on to my stomach/ like an anchor”, mirroring a mortal’s bodily awareness both physically and metaphorically. This is about being stopped in her singularity, taking the mother to a standstill – unable to be part of the rushing world around her. The lines are tempered though, and made ambivalent in tone again by the words about the baby : “When I held her I diminished/and grew all at once”.
White’s Persephone has her definition of her mother – “My mother is not human, cannot keep / her soul in quiet perspective” – implying that a human can. But here, Persephone is complaining of this wildness – its effect on her. The affect of the lines is also of hearing a protest that resists fate – echoes of Dylan Thomas’ “Rage against the dying of the light”, or the mocking poetry of Sylvia Plath whose persona cannot relinquish what the poems satirise. In “The Applicant” and “Lady Lazarus”; a persona mocks herself in her suicide attempts – “I do it exceptionally well”.
Persephone tries to describe how she now thinks of this as a realisation that she is growing into adulthood. What that means. She is drawing away from her mother, but there is a conundrum in going into Hades to become a ‘shade’. “I had met myself as a shade. But how/ thrillingly alive I felt.” The poem ends with a surrender to her fate. Yet, she considers her new role as an honour: “Oh my dead, I will be your queen.” The next poem “Persephone at 40” tells of her still struggling with her and her mother’s goddess immortality. She has a deceptive disdain for Eurydice who dies after all. Also, she yearns to understand love, which she believes can only come with knowing death.
“I could love her more if I knew she would die.” Here the tone is of dramatic cynicism: “if I could hold / like flesh the empty air / and pray and cry and do all that”. The evocative language of knowing death is countered by “.. but in that other world /of streets and running children, / anonymous trees and painted cottages, / rivers that slump along ungrandly.” Persephone is caught between the status of ruling over the dead – and life in all its ordinary forms. There is, also, a compassion for the dead, their “faces folded up from animal sleep”. The lines beautifully contrast and balance the imagery. To this point White has drawn attention to the theme of mothering – its effect. “My mother tells me I am wild / but I am not motherless” attributes her behaviour to learning by example.
In the second section the theme of growing away from the mother is intensified. It deals with men and what to know about them – a satirical list alluding to traditional ways of deferring to men. There is also a poem, “Motherless”, and then poems about the death of the speaker’s mother – a human one now but now addressed as if she were a human ghost: “You knock like an accidental noise, and you / staring all through me / with curious half frightened eyes. / Now I have a daughter, I see how you loved me.” Here is another allusion to love and mothers and mothering.
In Section III, what seems at first a bifurcation of theme, signalled by the book’s title, Cities, suggests ‘reality’ supplanting myth. The theme of reality becomes part of the second poem, “Marriage”. This section begins with “To London”. No longer diving into myth it starts with a real plane journey to a city; it concerns the new life separating her from her country and her mother. The mortal daughter, a mother herself, talks of mutual support between bread-winner husband and stay-at-home wife/mother. Fear of failure of the couple, as against the tiny baby’s happy responses, “waking to beam at the stewards/as if joy is default”.
Then, in “Journal in November”, in the light of what was reflected upon about myth in Section I, we read “Mortal love in the hands of lovers”. This is a telling insight of affective language : “a raucous mortgage, a ticking foetus”. The half-rhymes and onomatopoeia signal the sounds to beware of – the harsh sound of money’s need and the warning of time’s heart-beat of life. Finally, “We turn our heads to the most fantastic gods,/and pray, like lovers, for the small and large of our lives.” This suggests mortal love as only a romance, echoing Demeter’s “Oh hideous love that a mortal knows”.
This leads to “And I tell the psychoanalyst / I live in two worlds” – a swift, pared-down way to give a new character to what is introduced as mental ill-health. It evokes and echoes Persephone’s and Demeter’s worlds apart and the sense of an isolated mother’s life. Through this poetry the emotions easily dismissed as invisible or belittled are enlarged upon with great economy.
Within “Cities”, in the present as against the agrarian world of the ancient Greek myth, we begin to see other contrasts. “The homeless man’s camp is gone / hoovered up with the efficiency it lacked. / Night flutters around me in scraps? Car after car scrapes past.” “Journal in November” in numbered stanzas, brings up in a nuanced way a pared, precise account of the urban world, apologising for the narrator’s observations – the reasons for feeling the unmanageable view of “two- worlds”. The treatment here concerns another consequence – a quite ‘dark’ account of the mental sickness felt by the “traditional’ wife/mother in managing the “two worlds”. In stanza 5, Petra White’s narrator observes a wintry and un-mothered world: “In every head a piece of maniacal war, / a new shard of melting ice, / a bear cub climbing to its mother / up a perpendicular slope / pursued by a desperate drone / treefuls of images / we try to unstitch ourselves from”.
The lyrical disillusion and sometimes optimism of the rest of the poems (until the final “Home”) are laid out first in “Autumn Leaves” which recalls, in fantastical imagery, the beginning of love and the attempt to repair it. Finally, “a leaf caressed me/shyly as a hand turning away.” The softness of sad or dystopian observations is an effective part of Petra White’s beautiful word-managing.
The final poem “Home” turns to a different myth, Odysseus and Penelope, falling back on another patriarchal theme. This time, a woman’s power is compromised; the power of the wife is subservient to that of her wandering husband.
Here we find the question of ‘home’ – what it is. Mother, father, child? What poetry does – what Petra White does – is far-ranging. In calling upon myth and reality, or present-day tropes of fears or contentment, lyricism is uppermost; it rescues the ‘dark’ things as well as portraying the better, simply by evoking them – lassoing them while they are moving in front of her, and capturing them in words to be seen and heard and read.
PHYLLIS PERLSTONE first an artist and experimental filmmaker, turning to poetry in 1992, studied poetry at the New School for Social Research, New York. Awards include the NSW Women Writers Poetry Prize 2004; second in the National Women Writers Poetry Prize 2005. She has published in many journals and anthologies. Her books are: You Chase After Your Likeness (2002), The Edge of Everything (2007), shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize, the Premier’s Award NSW in 2008; Thick and Thin Lines (2012), The Bruise of Knowing(2014). But Now is published this year.