Mark Seton reviews Text Messages from the Universe by Richard James Allen

Text Messages from the Universe

by Richard James Allen

Flying Islands Press

Reviewed by MARK SETON


It’s 2023, and our world flounders under an encroaching deluge of Artificial Intelligence apps, especially ChatGPT, that might enable anyone to ‘generate’ poetry, so why bother! The good news, I believe, is that the poetry that touches us, moves us and connects us still emerges from a living, breathing, feeling, embodied poet. That’s what Richard James Allen generously offers the reader in his latest work Text Messages from the Universe. And it’s fun too!

This is the fourth work of Allen’s that I have reviewed over the years and he never ceases to delight and surprise with new modes and constructions of words and images that overlap and bounce off each other. The initial treats of this new work are the physical size (the book of poetry fits in the shape of one’s hand) and, accompanying the text, one encounters colourful pages of photographic images, many incorporating dancers in bright, flowing strips of cloth, intermingled with textures and ambiguous light sources. It’s all an invitation to enter into the flow of sensation before making any attempt at meaning-making.

In a past life (or maybe it’s just an ongoing present life?) I’m sure Allen was/is a detective, a Philip Marlow of the 21st century. Through an omnipresent framing of address, in second person, he asks you, the reader, numerous investigative questions. He proffers multiple, possible meanings. He knows he sometimes makes miscalculations. He acknowledges that life can be messy. And he asserts that life is worth living no matter how short it is. I suspect there is a clue to the puzzle of this text, proffered in his dedication – “for my Virgils” – a reference, perhaps, to the ancient Roman poet, Virgil, a master poet of antiquity, who structured his most famous poetic epic Aeneid into several ‘books’. Likewise, Allen crafts a textual container of two parts, collectively containing three chapters.

Part One consists of two counter-pointed chapters, ‘An Introduction to Dying and An Odd Way to be Born.’ Two confronting themes, yet Allen seduces the reader to keep reading by means of playful, image-triggering phrases about the reader’s mind and body that strangely convey an everyday normality within the fantastical – “Your head feels like it is under attack from a swarm of alien starships, trying to blast their way through your mind core” (p.9) followed shortly by “The vehicle [body] is so tremendously powerful. It’s the Holy Grail for floating spirits, waiting aeons for the chance to act again in the world” (p.15). The second theme invokes a ritual-like multiplicity of ways to be ‘born’. Almost every page insists that you “wake up!” and offers you various narratives that you might choose to bring you into some new state of being and becoming. This section of texts is most powerfully counter-pointed by the photographic images of dancers in various modes and moods of movement – sometimes their eyes address the reader, sometimes their eyes indicate where the reader might go. But it is the dynamism in their frozen moments of ‘the dance’ that is most striking in how it shapes one’s feeling and/or interpretation of these different story offers. This second theme wanes, at a critical transition, where the message of the Universe observes, “You’ve got it all wrong, strange things happen to everybody – it’s just that mostly they don’t pay attention to them, or if they do, they don’t tell anyone about them, they just keep them a secret” (p.47).

This launches the reader into a wilder ride through Part Two of this collection of messages, entitled ‘The Book of Bad Dreams’, that are far more scattered between pages of dancers and textured lighting, creating a sense of acceleration towards some kind of finality or paradoxical crisis/opportunity. It’s almost like a textual version of the psychedelic ‘stargate sequence’ in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the textual messages seem more urgent and demanding of a readerly response, it’s in these latter pages that the very words begin to blur into a stream of consciousness:

If you were to speak the perfect words, what would they be? The onlythingyourememberisthatthebodyyou entered, or thought you entered, was walking across, a street talking on their phone. You can’t remember to whom. The conversation was interrupted by a text message.(p46)

This becomes the point of no return – or unending return – where texts finally subside and lift the reader to a place where there is no place or need for text messages. Only bold colours, dynamic dancers and sensual textures remain to fill in the last few pages of this playful, provocative and in-sight-ful work. Another sensual, innovative and rewarding accomplishment from the embodied exploration and expression of the poet who is Richard James Allen.


Dr Mark Seton (PhD) is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, at The University of Sydney. He is an Educator and Consultant for Sense Connexion, which he established to teach empowering vulnerability to actors and other professionals, such as lawyers and health practitioners, whose capacity for empathy and sensitivity is crucial to their effectiveness and success. Alongside membership of the Editorial Board of the “Journal of Applied Arts and Health”, Mark is Chair of the Human Research Ethics Committee for the Australian College of Theology and is a founding member of the Australian Society for Performing Arts Healthcare.

Kavita Nandan reviews Once a Stranger by Zoya Patel

Once a Stranger

by Zoya Patel


ISBN 9780733647079

A significant part of the success of a story is the degree to which we are moved by it in some way. Once a Stranger, a novel about the search for acceptance, is written with heart and an awareness of loss in the negotiation of relationships with family, history and home. At first glance, the novel’s structure and conceit seem too straightforward – the past and present are navigated by the sub-headings ‘before’ and ‘now’ and feelings are conveyed quite simply: ‘Ayat felt the loss as deep as a punch to her stomach’ (48). However, while the language may sometimes be humble, more so in Part One than in Part Two in which the metaphors of belonging and alienation deepen, the message is not.

This novel is told from three points of view, those of two sisters, Ayat and Laila, and their mother, Khadija. It is about their relationships with each other and to the new home, Australia. The central narrative is Ayat’s, the younger sister and daughter, who is separated from her family in Canberra as a result of the mother’s ultimatum that she choose between them and that other life: Melbourne and her white Australian boyfriend, Harry. Ayat is wounded by her mother putting Islam and its traditions above her. She is also hurt by her sister, Laila, who sacrifices their sisterly relationship to win the approval of her mother. Laila pursues the life of a “a good Muslim girl”. As a school girl she spends her time studying, accepting that there will be no sleep overs and no boyfriends. Afterwards she responsibly gets a job and enters an arranged marriage to a Muslim. At moments in the story, this binary is questioned – is Khadija really that blind? Is Laila really that one dimensional? Even her mother, at some point, wonders if her older daughter is supressing her real self.

The novel interweaves between the past and the present to show that the present can make sense in the light of the past. We learn that the girls’ father and Khadija’s husband, Ahmed, dies in a tragic accident, leaving their mother as the sole protector of her family and even more vulnerable in the new country. Both Ayat and the reader begin to understand to a greater extent, the mother’s strict choices. Would she have behaved as stubbornly with Ayat if Ahmad were still by her side? Khadija’s rigidity is also offered as being characteristic of the behaviour of a first generation migrant who persists in maintaining the culture and values of a previous homeland in the new country. The catalyst for reconciliation is a stark email from Laila to Ayat, telling her that their mother is very sick.

Once a Stranger is an inter-generational story of migration. On her first day of school when she feels rejected by the other kids, Ayat wraps her hands around her waist to make herself smaller, mimicking her mother who does this intuitively when she feels rejected by Australians. This gesture is a motif carried through the novel by mother and daughter. When Ayat experiences a lack of reflection of herself in others, it brought me back to my first days at primary school in Canberra, being one, out of the only three, non-white kids in the entire school. The distance between Melbourne and Canberra is eight hours but the gulf between Ayat and her mother and sister is far deeper. The micro narrative of the family’s rejection of Ayat is paralleled with the macro narrative of the rejection of this Muslim family by white Australians.

Part Two is more sorrowful and hopeful at the same time. For Khadija, Australia is still a foreign country: “Decades in Australia hadn’t changed Khadija’s allegiance. India was not just a country, it was an entire world that she had lost, one she wasn’t able to let go of.” (134)
This point of view is written with sympathy: “this was the place where her mother made sense, where her history became real” (167). When Ayat travels with her mother and sister to India, she has a greater understanding of her mother’s perspective. This helps Ayat to begin to forgive her mother and ultimately herself while at the same time realising that some differences are irreconcilable.

The novel suggests that migrants live with uneasy contradictions and not in a state of happy hybridity. They survive psychically by aligning themselves to one kind of cultural illusion or the other, whether it’s feeling at one with the crowd in India or, as Khadija does, wanting the solidity of Islam for Ayat, knowing that she didn’t wholly fit in, but with an edge of awareness. For all her stubbornness, Khadija knows that life is dynamic:

Children were always leaving, from the moment they were born. They exited her womb, and kept going, stepping further away from her with each act of independence until, eventually, she became to them what her own mother had been to her – the past. (233)

The experience of migration involves both loss and acceptance. This novel gives an important voice to young migrant people in an accessible and palpable way. It ends with the past and the future coalescing. Laila is able to acknowledge both the loss of all those years without her sister and the joy of her child. The novel ends positively with the hint that the youngest clan member, Aysha, may not have the same struggles, unlike her grandparents who found it the hardest to adjust, and her parents who are still negotiating their mixed identities. This is a story about the love between mothers and daughters. If Khadija can’t let go of her own feelings of not-belonging, she can accept that Australia is the way forward for her daughters.

Ayat’s boyfriend, Harry, while not being one of the major characters in the novel is worth mentioning here because of his symbolic weight: he represents the Other for the migrant or what the migrant is travelling towards – a new country and a new life. Both a feeling of homesickness and home are attached to him. Living with him reminds Ayat of the family she is separated from and being away from him when she goes to Canberra and India makes her feel like a part of her is missing.

It was a clever narrative choice to make Harry join Ayat in India, as his courage in making himself visible to her family is a trigger for Ayat’s acceptance of the different parts of herself. There are barriers between Harry and Ayat; Ayat for example is portrayed as being uncomfortable with Harry’s affections – people from an Indian culture are often brought up in a way that traps them between their own desires and their parents’ approval. But this dis-ease is what the novel is about. Harry is both her anchor in the new world and the difference she battles with:

But something in her was too fragile now. It was as though there was only space in her for Harry or her family. They had never existed alongside each other, and Ayat still didn’t know how to surpass the discomfort she felt at her dual identities mingling. She hadn’t had time to learn how. (195)

While the Rushdian sense of a happy mongrelisation and ‘contaminated’ migrant identity is helpful in contending the idea of mythic purity, living with disharmony is not easy. Ayat finds herself caught between the diverse worlds of family bonds, loyalty, past identities and the challenge of integrating into a new world. Canberra becomes as important a place as India in this journey of reconciling with family and country. Although, the specifics of my background maybe different, I felt many moments of recognition when reading this book and I believe that other migrants will feel something similar. A significant achievement of the novel is giving voice to the non-Anglo migrant experience. Once a Stranger’s narrative engagement with familial relations is a vital expression of the female experience of the effects of migration.
KAVITA IVY NANDAN was born in New Delhi, grew up in Suva and migrated to Australia in 1987 after the Fiji military coups. She completed a PhD in Literature at the Australian National University. She taught at both the ANU and the University of Canberra before moving from Canberra to Sydney in 2017. Besides being a writer, Kavita teaches Creative Writing at Macquarie University. She is the author of a book of poems, Return to what Remains (2022) and a novel, Home after Dark(2014). She is currently working on a novel, The Smallest Hands. Kavita has edited a book of memoirs, Stolen Worlds: Fiji-Indian Fragments and co-edited of a book of essays, Unfinished Journeys: India File From Canberra and an anthology of poetry and short fiction, Writing the Pacific. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction are published in ABR, Adda Magazine, Asiatic, Island Review, Landfall, LiteLitOne, Mascara Literary Magazine, Meniscus Literary Journal, Mindfood, Not Very Quiet, Poetry D’Amour Anthology, Ross Spencer Anthology and Transnational Literature.

joanne burns

joanne burns writes poetry, prose poems, short fictions and monologues. She has been active in the Australian Poetry scene since the early 1970s. Her most recent poetry collection is apparently, Giramondo 2019. She is currently assembling a new collection rummage.




the aperitivo antipasto
hour slidels into view
there’s something in the air
verando     aperolicks
proseccutions     muebles wickeramas —
organic or synthet     why not just

raj meets gatsby in the lumen
of a hubble bubble     no unnecessary
toil or trouble     a wicca wonka
spelling bee pollinates in the furnished
suburbs of the blest



her white as rice gown
just fitted     not the best
choice for an elongated
heatwave     her white as rice
hem grazing her diffident toes
where was her hair brush     the audience
was waiting somewhere out there     stranded
commuters in a summer delirium     larks hidden
in the crimson braid that ran down the sides of
her costume like vascular complacency were
refusing to sing she couldn’t locate the lyrics
to any of her songs, just petite hums     where was
janis when you needed her     or florence her long dead
godmother who looked nothing like a fairy     that sprawl
of teryiaki tofu squares on the floor of the train should
have been a warning in that lingering afternoon     & all those
enigmatic tattoos on the arms and shoulders of the texting
harpy opposite no point wearing those snazzy new shades
if you can’t read the tracks




Jo Langdon

Jo Langdon lives and writes on unceded Wadawurrung land. She is the author of two poetry collections, Snowline (Whitmore Press, 2012) and Glass Life (Five Islands Press, 2018), and was a 2018 Elizabeth Kostova Foundation Fiction Writing Fellow. Her recent writing is also published and forthcoming in journals including CorditeGriffith Review, Island, Overland and Westerly.




Sure—there were flowers then
petals where they’d trembled
their own lovely heads loose. I wrote

in thanks & the reply came, ‘Is that it?’
I guess it was—an ending signalled
well before the roses’ demise.

We offered each other nothing
of consolation—the flowers & I
at odds, though they might have told

that they wanted no part
in this production, that it all came down
to hyperbole and waste, whatever  

there was left to feel rotten about.
The flowers were worn out
like similes—contrived

in the roles ascribed to them, parts
I confect for them even now, long gone
though they are. I am sorry 

only that I neglected
their certain beauty, neither exchanging
their fetid water nor giving 

much mind to their final
dignity—how they towered even as
they came undone.


Eman Elhelw reviews Bitter & Sweet by Amal Awad

Bitter & Sweet

by Amal Awad

Pantera Press

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 Awads 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 books, Bitter & Sweet is 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. 

Awads 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.

Judith Huang reviews Who Comes Calling? by Miriam Wei Wei Lo

Who Comes Calling

by Miriam Wei Wei Lo

WA Poets

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 @ 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).

Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn reviews Why We Are Here by Briohny Doyle

Why We Are Here

by Briohny Doyle



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.

Issue 29


         Cape Barren Island, 2016, charcoal & mixed media
         by Barbie Kjar

CB Mako

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. 

Two individuals
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
– hyperawareness

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,

to survive,


and advocate,

against racism, ageism, ableism.

Because whiteness is structural
Because #DisabilitySoWhite.

You shout into the void.
Hoping someone out there will listen.



Nina Culley reviews The Jaguar by Sarah Holland-Batt

The Jaguar

Sarah Holland-Batt


ISBN 9780702265501

Reviewed by NINA CULLEY

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.