November Rhyme # 11

I’m having to produce a 14-line stanza a day if I’m to meet my quota. This is a true story:

Rhyme #11: Intimations
Between the ATM and Woollies,
death brushed my shoulder, had a word.
The voice was not a schoolyard bully’s,
but soft, you’d almost say it purred:
‘You’ll lose all this, perhaps not tomorrow,
but time runs out – beg, steal or borrow
makes no difference, you’ll be gone
as silent as a babe unborn.’
A baby sucked juice from a bottle.
A tricep showed a red-inked rose.
The checkout chaps had wispy moes.
The air outside was drenched in wattle.
The dog snapped at a passing fly.
One day all this will say goodbye.

November Rhyme #10

This weekend the United Nations Climate Summit begins in Paris. The huge march through the rues and boulevards that had been planned has been cancelled because of the risk of mass murder, but all over the rest of the world people will gather in a massive display of concern about climate change. The Sydney event starts at 1 o’clock, in the Domain.

The ‘People’s Climate March team’ emailed me suggesting I share a post of theirs on social media. The post was fine, but I realised that my real challenge is to say something from my own brain. So, at the risk of seeming to trivialise the issue, Sunday’s March is the subject of today’s little rhyme. It turns out that my own brain is full of fragments of other people’s wisdom.

Rhyme #10: Three days before the People’s Climate March
There’s no such thing as a human being,
there’s only humans and everything else:
stars that pull from beyond our seeing,
myriads living in our cells.
The human race has disunited,
Earth’s love for us gone unrequited,
who favour empire, comfort, gain,
and make the whole world our domain.
Saint Francis called the fire his brother,
water his sister. Was he wrong,
or was there muscle in his song?
This time we have is like no other:
last week is gone, next year’s too late,
what we do now decides our fate.

November Rhyme # 9

A versified excerpt from a conversation (I use the term loosely, as it was a bit hard to get a word in at the time). The title is not a misprint. No prize but much admiration for the first to decipher it:

Rhyme #9: Memento Moro
‘The kids today have no idea.
You must know, you’re about my age.
They think it was all Germaine Greer,
fat Elvis, punk, glam rock – no beige.
The seventies, in these confected
histories were cool, protected
from the darkness of our times:
all showbiz, glitz and fashion crimes.
I tell them of Brigate Rosse,
Baader-Meinhoff, Patty Hearst,
the Shining Path: there was a thirst
for violence then. It wasn’t glossy.
Look, where the light of memory dims,
at Lord Mountbatten’s scattered limbs.’

November Rhyme #8

Not everything that happened at Gleebooks yesterday morning would fit into fourteen lines:

Rhyme #8: Selling books.
I hauled some books – one case, two boxes,
unloved, unread, or loved but old –
bright-eyed, tail bushy like a fox’s
to where they said, ‘Books bought and sold.’
Alas! The man said, ‘Wilfred Owen?
No poems unless by Leonard Cohen!
Though your books may be a cut above
Dan Brown, Dan Steele or Eat, Pray, Love,
they mostly fail to pass my muster.’
The reject pile grew mighty high.
‘You don’t want this one. Nor do I.
Rooster once, now feather duster.’
He shot them down, my flock of ducks
and bought four books for twenty bucks.

November Rhyme #7

Friday was Sydney’s second hottest November day on record. I went for a walk with two friends from my teenage and young adult years that I’ve recently renewed contact with.

Rhyme # 7: 
Three old men in shorts went walking
out in November’s hottest day –
walking, talking, and some gawking
as we passed by Lady Bay
where brave souls bared all to the weather,
bodies turning slow to leather.
We reached South Head, its ocean breeze,
the Gap, and ancient friendship’s ease.
The times we shared, the years we’ve travelled
different paths, loves won and lost,
lessons learned, and bridges crossed,
the histories that we’ve unravelled:
we talked, and round our old men’s noise
we felt warm ghosts of teenage boys.

Overland 220 and my November rhyme #6

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 220 (Winter 2015)


Almost a third of this Overland is given over to the winners of the inaugural Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize: two essays, two short stories, a poem and a cartoon.

The prize encourages artists and writers to engage with questions like: How does insecure, casual, precarious work affect a person and their community? What do you think a fair Australia looks like? How can we change Australia together? It’s not surprising, then, that there’s a certain sameness about the winners, but also a refreshingly straightforward sense that capitalism is a) brutal and b) not here forever. These 37 pages are a timely counterpoint to the recent publicity the NUW has been receiving from a Royal Commission.

As for the journal proper: Jacinda Woodhead’s editorial cites Slavoj Žižek (a Slovenian cultural critic – I had to look him up) as naming the four horsemen of the ‘apocalyptic zero-point’ of global capitalism as climate change, biogenetics, system imbalances and ever-increasing social divisions. The first and last of these figure prominently in the  rest of the journal.

The non-fiction sections put attention to a shopping list of pressing issues: misogyny and violence against women, the unsettled state of Europe, climate change, plus the politics of the science fiction ‘community’. It’s all worth reading, though some of it tends to be reporting on what has been written by someone else, and it sometimes feels that it might be better to just read the original. Three pieces stood out for me:

  • Anwen Crawford puts shoe leather into ‘No Place Like Home‘, an excellent piece of journalism about the destruction of the public housing community in the Rocks in Sydney
  • Jennifer Mills takes her fiction-writer’s skill to the abandoned buildings of a once great US city in Detroit, I do mind
  • In A person of very little interest David Lockwood adds his personal story to the growing body of funny but unsettling literature about ASIO’s activities back in the day.

Alison Croggon’s regular column is always a pleasure. This time she riffs on reading as a dangerous drug.

In the fiction section (and yes, Overland still presents its fiction and its poetry in two colour-coded clumps), it’s interesting to see Omar Musa – rapper, spoken word performer and author of the novel Here Come the Dogs – move away from the milieu of disaffected youth in an elliptic story, No breaks.

There’s some really interesting poetry. Two John Tranter ‘terminals‘ (a form that I believe he invented, in which he uses the end-words of other poems) are masterly, but create for me a nagging sense that the poem’s relationship to its ‘original’ is more important than the poem itself. I also enjoyed, and am in awe of, poems by Kate Lilley, Michael Farrell and Fiona Wright.

And now, because it’s November, I need to write a little verse. I went looking for the names of past editors (not as easy as you’d expect), and on the way I found a fabulous recent piece of invective against Overland that managed to include blatant sour grapes, sleazy innuendo, dubious history, straw-man arguments, weird illogicality, and one lovely typo. I won’t link to the invective (a search for ‘Overland’ and ‘cesspit’ will find it), but I’ve included the typo:

Rhyme # 6: On reading Overland No 220
Since 1954, when Stephen
Murray-Smith first sought to avoid
dread humourlessness, dogma, even
orthodoxy, we’ve enjoyed
two-twenty Overlands. The Party,
then the Green Left Literarti
gave the helm to Barrett Reid,
McLaren, Syson, then – new breed –
to Hollier–Wilson, Sparrow, Woodhead:
eight editors in sixty years,
provoke our thinking, laughter, tears
and even action. Here a good Red
is alive and well read. Long
may this voice sing its rebel song.

Bathurst Regional Art Gallery and Rhyme #5

On Saturday we drove to Bathurst to see an exhibition John McDonald had reviewed in the previous weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald. The exhibition’s full name is guwiinyguliya yirgabiyi ngay gulbalangidyal ngunhi (they made a solitude and called it peace) by Jonathan Jones, in collaboration with the Bathurst Wiradyuri and Aboriginal Community Elders, commissioned  as part of the Bathurst Bicentenary.

Musket_and_spearIt’s  not a vast exhibition, but its powerful. There are stunning video works – a giant screen on which the camera glides endlessly through beautiful bush, and a room with six portraits of Wiradyuri elders looking out at us from significant locations in the Bathurst area. The main room has a musket and a spear on the wall (though the image above, lifted from the BRAG website, is missing the musket’s lethal bayonet), and in front of them on the floor a circular arrangement of flint fragments and grevillea flowers: the catalogue explains that the stone is waste from a Wiradyuri and Aboriginal community stone-tool making workshop. In a second room an elegant shape on the floor, made up of mussel shells cast in bronze mixed with lead musket balls, points at a pile of dusty potatoes – again, the catalogue adds to what’s already a strong image by telling us that the Bathurst wars of the 1820s began when a Wiradyuri family was massacred over some potatoes. There’s a room with surveyors’ maps and traditional parrying shields around the wall, and another with the cadavers of six small trees painted gold. All of it is very beautiful, and all invites the viewer to find out more about the history of the Wiradyuri wars, and to meditate on that history.

If you’re interested you can download a PDF of the catalogue from the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery web site, but I recommend taking the trip to walk through the six small rooms of the exhibition in person. Apart from anything else, it’s a stunning example of work created by a very fine artist collaborating humbly with a community. In the catalogue, the Bathurst Wiradyuri and Aboriginal Community Elders say they have been working with Jonathan, ‘directing him, teaching him and supporting him’. The drive from Sydney isn’t so long. We stayed overnight because the weather was threatening, but we could have done it as a day trip.

There is one room we didn’t see. It features two possumskin cloaks, made by members of the local community and evoking a moment when Windradyne, the great warrior leader, presented a similar cloak to Governor Macquarie. It was our good fortune to visit the gallery while a weaving workshop was happening in that room, so we stayed out. (We did see the gorgeous cloaks in a room that isn’t part of the exhibition but which, on Saturday, was temporarily home to them and an array of objects woven by local people.) This was good fortune for two reasons: first because during our visit the gallery was filled with the sounds of Aboriginal people enjoying each other’s company, in effect proclaiming their resilience; and second because two elders generously absented themselves from the workshop to chat to us whitefellas about the cloaks and the woven objects, about the Wiradyuri dictionary app, about the uses of some woven objects (‘Good for carrying babies, but not much good for water. That’s why we have bottles for beer.’).

And it’s November, so here’s an attempt to say in verse what I can’t figure out how to say in prose:

Rhyme #5: An exhibition in Bathurst, November 2015
Steel v hardwood, stone and blossom,
mussel shells v musket balls,
prim English maps, cloaks of possum.
Unsmiling elders on the walls
Look out from Country. Devastation
here finds mute  commemoration.
The Romans made their solitudes
and called them peace. Such platitudes
prevail now too, the past obscuring.
But lively voices here resound,
Wiradyuri are still around. 
They greet us, chat with us, ensuring
that we whitefellas will own
that solitude, but not alone.

Rhyme #4 and Southerly 75/1

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 75 No 1 2015: Elemental (The Journal of the English Association, Sydney, Brandl & Schlesinger)

Rhyme #4: What’s in a title (with anagrams)?
Blow the wind southerly, Southerly, southerly,
rattle our windows and slam dunny doors,
blow off the same old stuff, bring on the Otherly,
bust up the torpor that stifles these shores.
The name holds promise that the journal
challenges what seems eternal –
our bow to all that’s from the North,
our faith in all it issues forth.
The title tells us what’s been hidden:
a home-made tool that truly hoes
this soil, as surely hot it grows.
Shout, lyre! Play something that’s forbidden.
The RSL you knew is now
A rusty hole, a sacred cow.

s152I have a love-hate, or at least an affection-irritation relationship with Southerly.

As one who was educated before what someone in this issue calls ‘the cultural turn’, which I guess refers to the rise of Theory and cultural studies in the academy, I am often left whimpering uncomprehendingly in the dust of the more scholarly work – of which there’s a fair bit in this issue, including at least five examples of reviewers indulging in clever exegesis of a book or other work’s title (hence my rhyme above). On the other hand, there is always something that more than justifies the price of admission.

In this issue, two essays – ‘Oi Kaymeni (“The Burnt Ones”)’ by George Kouvaros and ‘Angry Waves’ by Dael Allison – are wonderful.

Kouvaros’ essay begins with his mother’s reluctance to watch the 1950s movie A Place in the Sun on TV, and fans out to tell the story of her emigration from Cyprus, then to reflect on the role played by Hollywood movies in the lives of people in peasant cultures facing rapid modernisation and sometimes massive dislocation. An excerpt:

Recounting this history helps me to understand the events that shaped my mother’s personality. It also provides an opportunity to clarify two interrelated propositions. The first is that migration is not just about a dispersal of individuals  across continents; it is also about a dispersal of the narrative details that we use to understand the people close to us.

His second proposition, which has to do with a movie’s unchangingness as opposed to that of living people, leads to the realisation that for his mother ’embedded in the film’s story was her own history as  a sixteen or seventeen year old cinemagoer’.

What he writes is specific to his mother’s life, and to the history of Cyprus, but it will resonate richly for anyone of a certain age who loves the movies.

Dael Allison writes about the impact of climate change on Kiribati (pronounced Kiribass – Kiritimati is the Kiribati spelling of Christmas) from the point of view of a westerner who has lived, worked and had friendships there for some years. As you’d expect, the picture is alarming – the brunt of climate change is and will be felt by those who have done least to cause it. Allison’s wealth of detail and observation and quotation brings the situation home sharply. For instance, the recent damage done on Kitibati, unlike that on, say, Vanuatu, is not the result of cyclones, but of tidal events which bring the angry waves of the essay’s title; unlike the damage on Vanuatu it cannot be quickly healed because coral reefs do not regenerate as forests do. There’s no cause for total panic:

Unless there is a massive global catastrophe like a melting Antarctic ice shelf sliding into the sea, Kiribati will not all become unliveable at once. But the process of relocating villages because of inundation,coastal erosion or salt contamination due to wave over-topping of the fragile freshwater lens, has already begun. Projections suggest entire atolls may become uninhabitable in the next generation. Some islanders say they will stay on their land despite that outcome.

There are other treasures: ‘Wyenondable Ashes’, Alice Bishop’s memoir of losing  her family home on Black Saturday 2009; ‘St Thomas’ Churchyard’, in which Roslyn Jolly takes a closer look at the gravestones that dot her local park, formerly a colonial cemetery; ‘A Richer Dust’, where John Stephenson finds resonance between a passage from the Aeneid he happens to be reading and a ‘sentimental conversation’ from a week earlier, and arrives at a sweet elegiac moment.

The poems that stand out for me are Dugald Williamson, ‘Caprice’; Pam Brown, ‘Twelve noon’; Stuart Cooke, ‘Old World’; Laurie Duggan, ‘After a storm, Brisbane’; David Brooks, ‘Choosing to Stay’ and ‘Silver’ (which only a vegan could have written); and Brett Dionysius, ‘American Love Poem’ (not a sonnet, not set in Queensland, but terrific).

Of the short fictions, Moreno Giovannoni’s ‘The Bones of Genesius’ make one look forward to Tales from San Ginese, the book he is writing about his birthplace; and Claire Corbett’s ‘The Trillion Pearl Choker’ is a weird tale of the forces of nature fighting back on the climate change front.

As a rule, I don’t read Southerly‘s reviews of books I haven’t read, of which there are many here. But I did dip this time. Felicity Plunkett introduces her review of a book of criticism with a selection of trenchant quotes from writers ‘writing back’ to the critics; Nicolette Stasko makes me want to read Peter Boyle’s Towns in the Great Desert; Vivian Smith and Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s grey hairs lend distinction to the review pages; Kate Livett draws attention to a timely new edition of Judith Wright’s 1971 account of a battle to save the Barrier reef, The Coral Battleground:

Weirdly, although this battle for the Reef took place from 1969 to 1975, Wright’s text initially reads as if it could be taking place today, with the ridiculous ‘postmodern’ political moves made by Bjelke-Petersen’s government, such as employing an American geologist with no knowledge of biology, let alone marine biology, to do a three-week survey on the Reef.

And now for a little grumpiness. Some of the writers here would do well to read Joseph M Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. One essay in particular  veered from banal to incoherent to impenetrably technical. I persevered for a while, but threw in the towel when principle appeared as an adjective – just a typo perhaps, but in that context very dispiriting. And what’s with the US spellings throughout – harbor, jewelrymeter (as a measure of distance)? In the absence of a statement that this is policy, it creates the impression that the English Association, Sydney is made up of people who don’t care much about the language.

Rhyme #3

A rough tribute to the fabulous humans associated with Penzance Prince, winner of this year’s Melbourne Cup

#3: A hundred to one shot
Michelle Payne won one for the bookies,
said the chauvies could get stuffed
and spoke up for all women jockeys.
Latham et al huffed and puffed
and found her lacking in decorum.
Language Latham! Ipse lorem!
Like Cathy Freeman wrapped in flag
she’d won the race – not theirs to bag.
No one huffed at her big brother,
Down syndrome and cheerful as,
a strapper good enough for jazz.
Great to see them love each other:
horse, woman, man. The racing gods
gave each a win against the odds

Doris Lessing’s Ben, in the World and Sonnet #2

Doris Lessing, Ben, in the World (Flamingo 2000)


I read quite a lot of Doris Lessing in my late twenties and early 30s. I guess I was reading what Wikipedia calls her Communist phase (the Martha Quest books), with maybe a bit of her psychological phase in The Golden Notebook (of which my main memory is a long passage where the main character mediates on the meaning of tears). I haven’t read any of her science fictional writing – until now.

Ben, in the World defies categorisation. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t even matter that it’s a sequel to another book (The Fifth Child, 1988). It starts from a ‘what if?’ premise: what if a genetic throwback to an earlier species of human was to arrive in our times? how would we cope with this person? and how would the person cope with us?

What Doris Lessing does with these questions is brilliant. Ben, the main character, is physically powerful and capable of inflicting great harm. He is eighteen years old, estranged from his family of origin, and has learned to control his violent impulses, but his weird appearance and different thought processes make him dreadfully vulnerable. When he can earn money he is cheated or robbed. His sexuality makes him simultaneously a subject of pity and terror, and I’m weirdly grateful to feminist Doris Lessing for giving him one woman who understands and doesn’t drive him away.

Ben makes a kind of life for himself thanks to the kindness of people on society’s fringes, people who can understand to some extent his profound difference. But there’s never any doubt that he’s heading for disaster. It’s a miracle of story-telling that when the inevitable happens it’s deeply satisfying, and preceded by an unexpected moment of exhilaration. What might sound from my synopsis like a cerebral exercise becomes a rich tangential celebration of what it is to be human.

And now, because it’s November:

Sonnet 2: After reading Doris Lessing’s
Ben, in the World
‘Just a little bit of finger
bone,’ he said, ‘ can tell the whole
of what a person’s been.’ Let’s linger
on that thought: it’s not the soul,
a spirit that outlives the body
it ignores. No, what that shoddy
view of science cannot own
is: no one can exist alone.
That finger bone stripped by the condors
touched when alive what cheeks, what lips,
or pointed, waggled at what quips,
or painted on a wall what wonders?
The finger’s owner wept what tears
and heard the music of what spheres?