Monthly Archives: September 2010

Imara Savage directs Sam Shepard

Full disclosure: I was thrilled to attend this preview night of Imara Savage’s production of Fool for Love Downstairs at Belvoir Street, not because I’m passionate about the play – I was underwhelmed by the London production in 2006 , and before that by the video of Robert Altman’s 1985 film – but because I’ve known Imara all her life and nearly half mine, and have always appreciated her fine sense of the theatrical.

The production uses the tiny space downstairs at the Belvoir to great effect: a man and a woman in a seedy motel room, with another not-quite-real older man sitting up at the edge of the audience with a guitar. It’s claustrophobic and intimate. All four actors are brilliantly cast and perform brilliantly. Instead of the rockstar glamour of Juliette Lewis or the Hollywood iconicism of Sam Shepard and Kim Basinger, the main actors, Emma Jackson and Justin Stewart Cotta, give us a May and Eddie who are worn down by life, can’t live with each other, can’t do without each other, struggle with their compulsive need for each other: there’s no celebrity charisma to confuse the issue. Terry Serio as the older man with the guitar is spot on, and Alan Flower, innocent bystander, is a perfect foil for the destructive passions of the rest.

I’ve seen Sam Shepard done badly, without a feel for the music of his language, and it just grinds on incomprehensibly. This Fool for Love isn’t one of those occasions: there’s a point where Eddie delivers a very long monologue that could bring the play to a crumbling halt, like the verbal equivalent of an explanatory flashback. As performed by John Stewart Cotta, with Alan Flower a captive audience, it’s mesmerising. I wasn’t surprised to read in the program notes that Justin Stewart Cotta is an accomplished musician.

You know how when an Australian cast does a US play, there’s often a dreadful unease about teh accents,as if you can feel the gears grinding to keep them in place? There wasn’t a hint of that here, at least not to my ears.

It was a preview, and there was a technical hitch that involve the theatre filling with smoke and the smell of cordite. We had an unscheduled interval. It’s a sign of the strength of the performances that the spell wasn’t broken. This is a magnificent hour and a half of theatre.

Coming soon to ABC on the web

An exciting bookmark: Re-enchantment, coming soon to abc.net.au/re-enchantment (the link isn’t dead, it’s just not live yet). It’s an interactive documentary about the hidden world of fairytales by Sarah Gibson. If you haven’t heard about it before, you heard about it first here.

Heat 23, Overland 200 and Asia LR 17

The ‘dead white male’ critique of Western Civ [...] did not lead, as many of us had hoped, to a new internationalism, but rather to a new form of nationalism that emphasised hyphenated Americans. Chinese-Americans and Chicanos were now part of  the intellectual universe, which was fine as far as it went, but Chinese and Mexicans were still excluded. Multiculturalism was, and is, not very multicultural at all.
(Eliot Weinberger, ‘The Post-National Writer’ in Oranges and Peanuts for Sale)

I’ve just read three literary journals whose roots lie respectively in a rejection of Australian xenophobia, in Communism with its commitment to internationalism and in a mission to publish Asian writing in English. Although we don’t do hyphens in quite the same way as the US, it seems reasonable to see how these journals stack up against Weinberger’s complaint.
***

Ivor Indyk (editor), Heat 23: Two to Go (September 2010)

This issue of Heat is atypical in not including any work in translation. Multicultural themes are addressed, but very little attention is paid to the world beyond our shores. There’s not even any travel writing, unless you count Vanessa Berry’s ‘Dark Tourism: Three Graveyard Tales’, in which the author visits two graves and strolls in a London cemetery (in a piece that might have been more accurately titled ‘Mildly Crepuscular Travels with my Mum’).

Turkish born, ethnically Greek Melburnian Dmetri Kakmi’s ‘Salam Cafe and the Great Burqa Debate’ might seem to fit Weinberger’s description of Clayton’s multiculturalism pretty well – a non-Muslim man joins the argument about what Muslim women should or shouldn’t be allowed or made to wear. But he puts the lie to that pigeonholing by acting as a conduit for Muslim points of view, drawing on his childhood memories of Turkey and his time as a student in Istanbul, and discussing burqa-related artworks by Muslims Shadi Ghadirian (a woman) and Kader Attia (a man, whose ‘Kasbah’ was shown in this year’s Sydney Biennale).

Weinberger’s aspersions might also seem to apply to Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s story, ‘The Hat Dance’, the piece that comes closest to the kind of hyphenation he dislikes. But this account of a dust-up in an extended family living in Western Sydney is so gloriously exuberant only some kind of Diversity Bean-counter could fail to relish it.

Of course, Heat doesn’t claim to fill a hypothetical Diversity Quota in every issue, and there’s no reason it should. Its characteristic approach to fostering diversity is by presenting crosscultural encounters, an approach I’m fairly sure Weinberger would approve of. Kakmi’s piece is an example of that approach. So is Michael Atherton’s portrait of Harry (christened Charalambos) Vatiliotis, who lives in the Sydney suburb of Croydon and makes classical violins in the manner of Stradivere, each one a unique work of art. Cassi Plate quotes from letters of Costas Tachtis, Greek novelist who lived for some years in Australia, and his friend Carl Plate, an Australian artist: ‘The letters,’ she writes, ‘take us into a cosmopolitan world within the heart of what is often assumed to be parochial 1950s Sydney.’ Maybe cosmopolitanism is a better word than diversity for the thing that Heat does so well.

Cosmopolitanism can incorporate voices from elsewhere, and also bring a sharp eye to bear on the local, as Peter Doyle’s fascinating ‘Bashful City: Sydney’s Covert Criminality‘ does to photographs from the archives of Sydney’s Justice and Police Museum.  It can also include intensely place-specific writing like  Mark Tredinnick’s review of  Judith Beveridge’s most recent book of poetry, in which, incidentally, he compares her to a shark and a Philip Marlowe thug, and convincingly means both as compliments.

I do worry about Heat‘s copy editing and proof reading. There’s curiousity, practicing (though correct Australian usage practises elsewhere), an umbilical chord. Someone is heard cluttering in his garage. In Robert Adamson’s delicately poised ‘The Coriander Fields of Long Bay Penitentiary’, a with is repeated over a line break – I know it’s poetry, but that’s just a mistake. One article has this near the beginning: ‘It is one of the great dividers between the civilised among us: those of impeccable taste.’ I wasn’t interested enough in the article’s subject – taxidermy – to endure whatever came after that.
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Jeff* Sparrow (editor), Overland 200 (Spring 2010)

The first issues of Overland, published in 1954, carried the slogan ‘Temper democratic; Bias, Australian’, hardly a promise of cultural diversity or cosmopolitanism. But as a project of the mainly Communist Realist Writers’ Group, the journal had a commitment to internationalism. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of that in this anniversary issue, unless you count a deference to Europe and the US. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that: for instance, Alison Croggon’s ‘How Australian Is It?‘ talks with her characteristic clarity and generosity about the way much of our theatre has opened out to the world, freed from constricting preoccupations with national identity but distinctively Australian all the same. On the other hand, when Clive Hamilton characterises the Australian as an agent of ‘the Republicans’ war on climate science’, he implies – perhaps intentionally – that in this matter Australia is humiliatingly no more than an arena in which US battles are being fought. There’s a fair whack of ‘theory’**, enough to create a gnawing sense of Australia as a site for the application of theory developed elsewhere – no sign of Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory here. (The most theory-rich piece, Alwyn Crawford’s ‘Permanent Daylight‘, which deals with the intimate connection between capitalism and anorexia, is nevertheless compelling reading because of a ballast of passionate personal testimony.) Christos Tsiolkas is the Literary Big Gun of this issue, with a short story about the market in European art, but I found it unreadable (that is to say, I couldn’t tell what the story was trying to do, whether it was a spoof or something else very dull). There’s no non-European voice, and little interest in non-European culture: one piece, by a non-Muslim, quoting no Muslim voices, uses the Western burqa debate as a springboard for theoretical reflections on the visibility or otherwise of women in the West; Jacinda Woodhead gives us an attractive profile of Melbourne rapper-comedians Fear of a Brown Planet (there’s a wonderful YouTube clip of one of them here); Kabul is mentioned in one article, but it’s in a quote from an organisation aimed at creating a market for US cosmetics there.

So Weinberger’s kind of internationalism isn’t overwhelmingly evident in Overland. The three outstanding pieces, in fact, aren’t even particularly multicultural. Chris Graham does a demolition job on Noel Pearson in ‘Telling whites what they want to hear‘. Graphic novelist Bruce Mutard re-tells a story from Overland 1: the story is ‘Nine O’clock Finish’ by John Morrison, a marvellous socialist realist writer, and the resulting 8-page comic is to weep. Janette Turner Hospital’s short story ‘Weird People’ is a tour de force centred on the captain of a tourist boat that takes mainly US tourists out to look at humpback whales off the coast of New South Wales – I suppose it could be read as a protest against our cultural client-state identity.

In Overland, though less so than in Heat, proofreading is a worry: ‘haute bourgeois’, the Communications Minster, and at least one article written in an academic style that apparently defeated all attempts to wrangle it into English.

* In a classic example of Mruphy’s law, when I first put this up, I misspelled Mr Sparrow’s first name – immediately after whingeing about someone else’s poor copy editing. I’ve fixed it now
**  Writers referred to include Ariel Levy (North American liberal feminist), Nina Power (British philosopher and feminist), Mark Fisher (British cultural theorist), Guy Debord (French theorist), Sheila Rowbotham (British feminist historian), Edward Said (the exception that tests the rule and finds that it holds up), Naomi Baron (US linguistics professor).

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Stephen McCarty(editor), Asia Literary Review 17 ([Northern] Autumn 2010)

It’s a telling confirmation of Weinberger’s generalisation that the ALR’s web page header reads ‘Asia Literary Review – Asian American writing’, apparently promising US-ers that they can read it without danger of encountering anything genuinely foreign. Happily, it’s a false promise.

From the beginning, there’s no doubt that we’ve left the leisurely contemplation of anti-grand abstractions far behind. US-expat journalist Robbie Corey Boulet kicks off with a report on the first case tried – in 2009! –  by the tribunal set up to deal with ‘those most responsible’ for the crimes of the Pol Pot regime. Itself a fine combination of court-reporting, historical background and interviews with people still looking for answers about their murdered relatives, it is followed a few items later by a suite of poems by Peauladd Huy whose parents were murdered by that regime and who now lives in the USA. And it finds a grim echo at the end of the journal, in an excerpt from Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, which draws on archival sources to explore the terror and violence of the Great Leap Forward (‘at least 45 million people worked, starved or beaten to death’). There are other pairings, including a story and a photo essay about floods in the Philippines. A good bit of the ALR probably amounts to armchair dark tourism – much stronger medicine than the piece wearing that label in Heat.  The one actual piece of travel writing – about Mount Merapi, a Javan volcano –  has enough disastrous loss of life for the darkest tourist sensibilities.

There aren’t many laughs, but there’s plenty of wit and imagination: ‘Youth-in-Asia‘,  a story set in Korea by Canadian Ron Schafrick, delivers on its punning title; Priya Basil’s ‘Losing Their Religion‘ is a quietly entertaining memoir of religious conversion and un-conversion that spans three continents; GB Prabhat’s ‘The Silencer‘ gives us a clever inversion of  celebrity stalking.

There is no Australian presence, apart from two full-page ads, for the Melbourne Writers Festival (featuring a Hokusai wave) and Heat (‘Australia’s only international literary journal’) respectively.  Insert your own ironic comment.

One sentence leaps out to meet my eye.  Jonathan Watts, an English journalist, moved from Korea to Beijing in 2003. His interviewer James Kidd tells us:

The signs of conspicuous pollution made an immediate impression: a keen runner, Watts found himself wheezing after a short jog; a father, he was alarmed when his two daughters were not allowed outside during breaks at their Beijing school. It was China that taught him to fear for the future of the planet.

I’m not sure I can afford to keep up my subscriptions to all three of these journals. I was thinking of letting my subscription to Asia Literary Review lapse – but it’s teaching me to think in terms of the whole planet

Quack at the Griffin

I love the theatre in Nimrod Street, Darlinghurst, now known as the SBW Stables – it gave us Flash Jim Vaux and Hamlet on Ice, Gloria Dawn in  A Hard God and Reg Livermore in The Tooth of Crime, John Bell’s productions of Measure for Measure and The Removalists. It’s the kind of intimate theatre where Jane Harders as a loose woman from early colonial Sydney could proposition a nerdy young man in the front row and have that young man fall in love with her forever. When the Nimrod moved out, I followed them to Belvoir Street, though I have seen any number of good things at the Stables in the intervening years. I didn’t see Holding the Man there, but I wish I had because it was obviously intended for a more intimate space than the Drama Theatre in the Opera House

We expected to be the oldest people in the audience for Griffin Theatre’s Quack last night. The publicity mentioned zombies, and surely zombies are for the young. But no, the 22-person audience was as silver-haired as Belvoir Street on a Sunday afternoon.

There were signs in the recently refurbished foyer, warning of strong language and ‘DEPICITONS OF ILLNESS’. Just before the curtain at the foot of the stairs was pulled aside for us to ascend, a young man invited us to sit as close to the front as we wanted, but to be aware that during the graphic depictions (not depicitons after all) of illness, bodily fluids would be sailing around the space … all water soluble so nothing really to worry about. We sat two rows from the front; some less brave souls sat in the very back row.

Aimee Horne as Fanny, complete with creepy contact lens

The show itself? I don’t think I can do better than the description on the Griffin web site: ‘a romantic historical western drama noir exploitation comedy. With zombies.’ I would add, though, that there are musical interludes, beautifully sung by Aimee Horne, and a strong satiric thread. As everybody knows, zombies must never be read as symbolic. A zombie is a zombie is a zombie. But when you have the old doctor in a town saying he just wants everyone to be relaxed and comfortable, and the young doctor who seeks to replace him singing the praises of hard work and then delivering enraged diatribes involving copulating rats, you begin to realise that the non-undead characters have intentional similarities to actual politicians.

Most of the actual zombie action happens offstage (hard to do the Zombie Apocalypse with just four actors), and though there was much that was gruesome, most of it was described rather than enacted, and what was enacted was mostly comical. I confess there were a couple of non-zombie scenes when I had to close my eyes and control my gag reflex. But the couple of splashes of fluid that landed in my hair didn’t worry me at all.

This show could have been a disaster. Instead, as far as my companion and I are concerned it was a great success. And neither of us is particularly drawn to zombie movies (though we did both love Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead on DVD). It felt like a chaotic romp, but playwright Ian Wilding, twice winner of the Patrick White Prize, clearly knew what he was doing. Director Chris Mead and the cast – Jeanette Cronin, Charlie Garber, Chris Haywood, Aimee Horne –  get the silly-OTT mode just right. The set – red velvet curtains and a dangerously sloping wooden floor – and the howling sound design are brilliant.

It’s only on for another week. It deserves more than 22 bums on the seats each night. More than 22 people a night deserve to have this much fun . If you’re in town, go!

I’ve been published in Turkish

Well, only by Google. But I did enjoy this:

A Puppet Show for George Street

Wednesday night, Yuendemu at Gleebooks. Last night Java on George Street. Or close enough to justify the alliteration.

It’s Art and About time in Sydney, and among other things our civic sculptures are dressed for the occasion. Here’s Queen Victoria near the QVB, taken on my iPhone and then manipulated out of almost total blackness on iPhoto. She’s wearing a bright red quilted skirt, a white fuzzy bonnet, and, among other things, a huge cameo brooch with a dog on it slung round her neck.

Queen Victoria

Around the corner from the Queen, a number of exhibitions opened in the artist-run Gaffa Gallery last night. The one that had drawn us, and turned out to be the most interesting, was a solo exhibition by our young friend and neighbour Jesse Cox. (All but one of the others were photographic shows, with a lot of photoshopping, and about equal amounts of restrained elegance and garishly exuberant montage.)

Jesse’s exhibition, A Puppet Show for George Street, is two rooms full of shadow puppets made from used oil drums scavenged from nearby restaurants. There are bicyclists, figures carrying briefcases, umbrellas, mobile phones, walking dogs, riding skateboards, wheeling shopping trolleys – two-dimensional figures cut from old tin with rivets at the joints. There’s some appealing verbal wit – the fat man walking a dog has ‘Cholesterol” printed all over him; one of the kissing lovers has a Heart Foundation tick on his chest. But the main charm is the way it refers to Javan Wayang Kulit.

As someone said, as we watched the video loop of the puppets in action, we half expected that at any moment a dragon would appear.

The other non-photographic exhibition is ‘PARK/PARK‘, a record of an event on Park(ing) Day earlier this year. According to the Park(ing) Day web site, it is ‘an annual, worldwide event that inspires city dwellers everywhere to transform metered parking spots into temporary parks for the public good’. This particular transformation involved a cardboard cut-out car and similar tree – the artists sat in the car until the meter expired, sipping tea.

All four exhibitions are open until 5 October. Art and About is all over town until 24 October.

Dog Ear Cafe Launch

Last night we went to another brilliant launch at Gleebooks: Rachel Perkins doing her first book launch,  of Andrew Stojanovski’s first and he says only book, Dog Ear Cafe. It was a surprisingly intimate affair. Many members of the author’s family were there, including a couple of charming twin nieces who were just tall enough to reach the snack foods, and relaxed enough about the surroundings to keep up a sweet background noise during proceedings.

Stojanovski lived at Yuendemu in Central Australia for 11 years, and was part of the Warlpiri community’s successful campaign to wipe out petrol sniffing there. As he said, all through his time in the Centre Aboriginal elders would say, ‘Don’t write a book about this.’ They were sick of whitefellas blowing in, spending a bit of time there, and then going away and making a quid or getting jobs by writing anthropological or other treatises about them. But then, toward the end of this time there, one friend said to him, ‘You should write a book about this.’ The idea was that he should write a history or a manual to show other whitefellas how they could be useful. When he told a young friend – a former sniffer and active participant in the regeneration of the community – about the idea, the young friend said no one would read a history/manual, he should write it like an adventure with all the funny and dramatic incidents left in.

Rachel Perkins did a lovely job as launcher. She was there as an Aboriginal Big Name who could give the book her blessing, of course,  but she let us know from the start that she had a friendship with the author dating back decades – she communicated her pleasure (and relief) in the excellence of the book, he affection for Andrew, and her own deep appreciation of the creativity, resourcefulness and above all compassion of the people of Yuendemu. Given that it’s been in the news recently as a place of violence and lawlessness, this was a refreshing perspective from one who has strong connections there.

So much of this launch was heartening. Andrew Stojanovsky told poignant stories (he cradled a glass of red wine under his nose, to illustrate the habitual posture of a petrol sniffer). He explained the benefits for Aboriginal communities in having white people there to perform functions that would be rendered extremely difficult if not impossible by the complex demands of avoidance and can’t-say-no kinship obligations. He relayed many conversations with friends young and old at Yuendemu. In one of these he was talking to a Warlpiri man about the challenge of making friendships between whitefellas and Warlpiri. He said that sometimes it felt as if there was a Grand Canyon between the two. The old man said, ‘Yes, but I see tightropes across the canyon.’

Inevitably, I thought of Seven Seasons in Aurukun, my niece Paula Shaw’s account of a much shorter time in a remote Aboriginal community. Rachel Perkins spoke of the importance of books by whites that move beyond the anthropological or ethnographic perspectives to portraying individual people – Paula’s book does that. And Andrew Stojanovsky described the conditions endured by school teachers when the community was still home to petrol sniffers – as Aurukun was during Paula’s time there – and commented that it was no surprise that few teachers managed to stay more than two years.

Dog Ear Cafe has already been reviewed by Will Owen in North Carolina. He would have enjoyed the launch. We bought a copy.

More about the plaque

Someone got back to me from both councils yesterday.

There’s no mystery about the plaque down by Johnston’s Creek. ‘Oh, you mean the one honouring Jack Mundey,’ the man from Leichhardt Council said.

I gleaned a little more background by searching for ‘Jack Mundey’ on the Council’s web site. A local resident Joe Mannix proposed more than 12 months ago that a plaque be erected and its unveiling be a way to honour Mundey on his 80th birthday in October last year. The proposal was approved, but evidently there was a delay, as the actual unveiling happened earlier this month, eleven months behind schedule. In a Council handout dated Thursday 16 September, Mayor Jamie Parker wrote:

Last Saturday, Council officially unveiled a plaque to remember the 1972 Builders Labourers Federation Green Ban which joined with resident action groups to stop approved expressways carving up Glebe, Annandale and Lilyfield.
ooooThese actions demonstrated the combined power of union and resident actions in effectively defending local communities. The ill fated freeway project was as much about ‘slum clearance’ as it was about building a network for container movements from the port.
ooooA national treasure, Jack Mundey is 81 years old, and we were delighted to have him attend the function at Smith & Spindlers Park on Saturday.

There was a photo:

Jamie Parker, Verity Firth, Jack Mundey and Joe Mannix officially unveil the plaque

The man on the phone mentioned, as the Mayoral message didn’t, that there were plans to screen Fig Street Fiasco, a community video about the struggle made by Tom Zubrycki. I don’t know if the screening took place, but there’s a dramatic clip at the link that makes my friends’ dreams of violence seem less bizarrely unrealistic.

The caller from the City of Sydney said they hadn’t heard of the plaque in ‘what we call the Cardigan Street Park’ until they received my email. So that leaves us with the vandalism  scenario. The City of Sydney doesn’t have a register of plaques, though it is on a To Do List somewhere. He recommended that I write to the Lord Mayor asking that the plaque be restored, and said that would lead to action of some sort. I’ll do that, and hope to report back in a while.

History acknowledged

In a little strip of green not far from Harold Park Raceway, near where a bridge crosses Johnson’s Creek, a new object appeared the other day: a squat, squarish thing beside the path,  looking more than anything like a cardboard carton fallen off a passing truck – or given its distance from any road, perhaps from a helicopter. On approach, it turned out to be a block of sandstone with a plaque on top.

Over the logo of Leichhardt Municipal Council, the plaque explains itself:

In the early 1970s resident groups,
including the Glebe Society, joined with the
Builders Labourers Federation,
led by Jack Mundey,
to impose a Green Ban on expressways
planned to carve through
Glebe, Annandale and Lilyfield.
This plaque commemorates all the men and women who fought this battle.

Well, I’m chuffed to be commemorated, and so I’m sure are the rest of the raggedy coalition of anarchists, Maoists (who created a poster showing a US flag as highway ploughing through tiny houses, because of course the expressway was a product of US capitalism’s relentless pursuit of profit), students fresh from the Vietnam Moratorium demos, out of work actors, etc, who joined the ‘battle’ with the starchy Glebe Society and the fabulous BLF. In those heady days I remember overhearing a conversation between a Philosophy Lecturer and an Eng Lit Honours student deciding not to blow up the beginning stages of the expressway because although they had it in their hearts to do it, they lacked the practical knowledge of high explosives. Inspired by something someone had read about successful protests in San Francisco, we built an adventure playground in a little park in Darling Street, Glebe, though as far as I know very few children actually availed themselves of our crude constructions. perhaps these are the kinds of reasons why we are being commemorated rather than honoured.

But why in this park? And why now? Isn’t there already a site-appropriate plaque in Glebe that gives more detail? This morning I took the dog to visit that pleasant little park, between 77a and 79 Darling Street.

and found this:

Yes, a pale patch of rock where once a plaque had been. Was this was the work of vandals or the result of Glebe being taken over by the City of Sydney? Did the Councils talk to each other? Is the new plaque some kind of replacement for the stolen/removed one? I’ve phoned Leichhardt Council and emailed the City of Sydney Council. The latter’s web site promises a reply within 14 days.

To be continued …

Eliot Weinberger, list virtuoso

Eliot Weinberger, Oranges & Peanuts for Sale (New Directions 2009)

Eliot Weinberger is a poet, translator (most eminently of Octavio Paz from Spanish and Bei Dao from Chinese), literary critic (though he denies it), essayist (one of his essays – perhaps more accurately classified as a prose poem – was published in Heat Nº 5), anthologist (his 1993 anthology American Poetry Since 1950 was a bestseller in Mexico), editor. This book collects 28 pieces written on commission and first published between 2001 and 2009: introductions to other people’s books and to his own poetry translations and anthologies, reviews, magazine articles, contributions to anthologies and talks given at conferences. He ranges far and wide, and is always interesting, often illuminating, sometimes funny. Topics include EB White, Emily Dickinson, Susan Sontag, the changing face of Chinese poetry in the US since Ezra Pound, China in 2005, the failure of US literati, poets in particular, to engage politically under Reagan, the relationship of photography and anthropology (they’re siblings), a number of poets I’ve not heard of who are now high on my To be Read list, translation (I will never trot out the phrase traduttore traditore again), George Bush, the Iraq War, Barack Obama. And there are a couple of pieces – one on the colour blue, another on peanuts and oranges – that approach an abstract condition.

Weinberger is a great list maker. Often when I come upon a list in a piece of prose, I’m tempted to skip, feeling that it’s enough to know that many and various things were packed into the car, or growing in the garden, without having to read the name of every one of them. Weinberger’s lists don’t tempt in this way: he’s a list virtuoso, delighting in what he calls ‘strange conjunctions’. The longest piece in this book, ‘Things I Heard about Iraq in 2005′, delivers literally on the title, listing news reports, rumours, quotes and statistics, a paragraph (mostly beginning ‘I heard’) per item, and few paragraphs longer than 10 lines, without analysis, commentary or argument. The effect – partly a result of sheer accumulation, partly of masterful juxtaposition – is devastating.

Most of the lists in this book are integrated into more conventional essays. Take, from many possible examples, this list of biographical detail on David Rafael Wang, scholarly collaborator of William Carlos Williams:

Wang, also known as David Happell Hsin-fu Wand, was born in China – a direct descendent, he claimed, of Wang Wei – escaped to the US after the revolution, and became surely the only Chinese-American who was both a neo-Nazi white supremacist (and a member of the seedier circles around Pound in St Elizabeths) and a Black Panther (in Oakland in the 1960s). Among other things, he was also a stodgy professor, active in the academic bureaucracy; a bisexual boxing and martial arts fanatic who had long talks about poetry with Muhammad Ali; a poet (‘in the Greco-Sino-Samurai-African tradition’) and friend of many of the Beat and Black Mountain poets; a translator of Hawaiian and Samoan oral poetries, included in the Rothenberg Technicians of the Sacred anthology; and a possible suicide (at a MLA convention) who some people believe was murdered.

Let me try for a list of my own.

In ‘Postcard from China’, describing the familiar types found at poetry festivals, surely with himself in mind: ‘the polymath, equally at home discussing the latest American poetry or Shang Dynasty numismatics.’

In ‘Where Was New York’, a trenchant criticism of E B White’s version of that city: ‘New York is a city of outsiders where no one is a foreigner because everyone is a foreigner.’

In ‘Kenneth Cox’, quoting Cox describing Allen Upward, but could easily be describing his own effect on the reader: ‘an almost continuous sense of intellectual elation.’

In ‘Susan Sontag’ – a non-hagiographical tribute written after her death: ‘A famous writer with numerous friends and varied interests, she became, as is often the case, bogged down in ephemera and favours: speeches, statements, responses; program notes for performances of dance, theatre and opera; short texts for art catalogues; something on grottoes for House and Garden; something on Don Quixote for the Spanish Tourist Board.’

In ‘Anonymous Sources (A Talk on Translators & Translation)’: ‘cultures that do not translate stagnate, and end up repeating the same things to themselves.’ And later in the same essay, after explaining that the verses of the Quran known in English as the Satanic Verses, are known as gharaniq (the birds) in Arabic, so that when the title of Rushdie’s book was translated literally into Arabic it was generally read as meaning that some or even all of the Quran was written by Satan, which would be blasphemy enough, whatever was in the novel itself:

[T]he Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, an Islamic scholar, was stabbed to death in his office at Tsukuba Unversity in Tokyo. As far as I know, Rushdie has never made an extended comment on Hitoshi Igarashi. It would take another kind of novelist – Dostoevsky perhaps – to untangle the psychological, moral and spiritual meanings and effects of the story of these two: the man who became the most famous writer in the world at the price of what seemed, for some years, to be life imprisonment, and the anonymous man who died for a faithful translation of an old mistranslation, paying for the writer’s mistake.

He talks about ‘identity politics and its nerd brother, theory, who thought he was a Marxist but never allowed any actual governments to interrupt his train of thought’. He describes The New Yorker as having a style whose sentences are pathologically rewritten ‘until every article, whether a report from Rwanda or a portrait of a professional dog-walker, sounds exactly alike, driven by domestic similes and clever turns of phrase that mix colloquial speech with unexpected similes.’ I could go on, but you get the idea.

Not every piece in the collection is brilliant – one or two struck me as clever-dicky or obscure. On the whole, though: Best. Birthday Present. Ever.

WordPress automatically generates a list of possibly related posts, but so much in this book touches on things I’ve blogged about recently, I thought I’d compile a small list of my own. I’ll write his essay title, then my blog post title:

• ‘The United States of Obama’ – The Book Group’s Race of a Lifetime
• ‘Inventing China’ and ‘The T’ang’ – Shambhala Chinese Poetry
• ‘Postcard from China’ (‘in China, the US is Little Brother’) – Quarterly Essay 39: China Powers On
• ‘Poetry Is News’ – Narkiness and Trouble (both Jennings and Weinberger decry ‘theory’ – one of them is more entertaining than the other)