Reviews, written a few, but then again …. 😸
(It’s been a long time between drinks with reviewing, but I am still interested in it. I haven’t kept them all, but will post here any that I find. Most of those below were published between 2006-2008. I no longer review ‘just for the exposure’ though.)
The following reviews of poetry books by Michelle Cahill, Joel Deane, Kerry Scuffins. Max Ryan, and MTC Cronin, S K Kelen. All originally published at Thylazine (ed Coral Hull) circa 2007.
‘The Accidental Cage’ by Michelle Cahill
Interactive Press, Brisbane, Queensland, 2006, 64 pages, ISBN 9781876819392, RRP $24.00
Michelle Cahill’s collection, The Accidental Cage, was the winner of the IP Picks Best First Book Award for 2006, and has subsequently been published as part of Interactive Press’ Emerging Author Series. These are very mature and well-realised poems for a first book; on first reading some of them seemed to me almost too subtle, too imagistic, losing their punch along the way. But, like a lot of good poetry, on subsequent readings many of them seemed to unfold, revealing depths and meanings that at first were not readily apparent.
Cahill has a sure voice when evoking nature, but the nature poems almost always contain a further layer in which the described comes to represent not just itself but also the describer (the poet). This quality is particularly evident in ‘Liberty at Box Head’ (p.4): the poet observes the sea and its creatures – swallows, finches, banksias, and seagulls, all described with enough colour and detail to transport the reader to the shore. But the final lines reveal that this is more than a mere nature poem. These lines: ‘… I think of those seagulls / in salmon rich waters. One may lose a leg / through sheer play – the price of liberty’ imply that those of the human species who seek freedom also run the risk of injury, changing a descriptive piece about nature to a rumination on the nature of being human. This is a deft and subtle display of craft, making larger themes and issues emerge from the small and particular. A similar effect is achieved in ‘Platinum after Shining’ (p.37), a meditation on the drowning of a loved pet dog, and the poet’s own sense of waning youth, ‘waiting … for the runaway puppy of childhood to return’. This poem contains an intense sense of place in its descriptions of the sea, plants, relationships, and the slow decay that accompanies living. Similarly, also, ‘Black Bamboo’ (p.12) personifies a misplaced plant that has thrived despite the crush of development.
‘Biodiversity in the Colony’ (p.52) describes the loss of species and habitat to mining. There is tremendous irony in the final lines, ‘The island, once densely forested, moth-eaten with the best of intentions. / Enough silver was discovered to make it a worthwhile venture.’ when it is clear from the earlier descriptions of forest and animal species that much has been sacrificed in pursuit of these riches.
The title poem, ‘The Accidental Cage’ (p.5) is also lovingly evocative of nature – a description of ‘the beauty of panic’ observed when two birds become trapped in a barn’s loft, its long rhythmic lines imitating the rhythm of flight. I did not, however, fully understand the intent of the line ‘Here the mosquitoes had been bred by dentists’. This kind of ambiguity occurs in several otherwise fine poems, creating a slippery nebulousness that leaves the reader with a vague impression rather than the solid pictures Cahill is capable of producing. ‘Chimera’ (p.14), an account of a dream, and ‘The Fourth Veil’, an account of a dawn, are also guilty of this vagueness. The overall meaning of ‘Mantra’ (p.16) is also open to interpretation, but it does contain the striking line, ‘laundry is the wind’s xylophone’.
Other pieces are concerned with social justice, in particular as it applies to refugees, and survivors of war or torture. It seems implicit that some of this portraits are of people encountered in Cahill’s professional life as a General Practitioner. ‘Survival (in subtitles)’ (p.3) is a powerful paean to a ‘soft-mouthed girl’, a survivor of a recent war. Its three line stanzas demonstrate craft, control of both the language and the tone, and a facility for striking and original metaphor: ‘children / were floating tariff for an overcrowded junk’. In ‘Pacific Solution’ (p.7) we encounter a father and son separated by razor wire, one ‘scurry[ing] past the perimeter’ in a vain attempt to achieve release with wire cutters. It’s a spare, pathos-laden poem that expounds on the political from a humanistic rather than ideological perspective. ‘Valediction’ (p.36), a description of an afternoon spent with a woman whose son has suicided, also drips with pathos and empathy.
Many of the poems are set in exotic or faraway places – Harlem, Manhattan, Thailand, Nepal, Laos, and India, as well as the poet’s native Sydney, which acquires its own exoticism in such company. ‘Ice’ (p.8) is about an encounter with a Nepalese glacier; in ‘The Garden of Understanding’ the poet experiences difference via the lives of relatives in Bombay. This geographical eclecticism paints Cahill as a citizen of the world, but these poems do not quite achieve the depth and strong evocation of place contained in the Sydney poems, instead appearing to at times skate across the surfaces of the visual experience.
There are four lovely domestic poems (pp 18-21) on pregnancy, marriage and the early days of motherhood; these are loving but also realistic and unsentimental – the adored child leaves ‘puddles of wee’ and a ‘warm, sudden piss in my lap over dinner’. On another tack, ‘Writing Eva: a fantasy’ (p.53) is an ambitious and unusual poem that examines the relationship between the writer and her invented character. Eva’s voice seems completely apposite to the author’s, leading her to draw the conclusion, ‘I write to invent myself / as someone else / and forget what I am’.
Regrettably, a few grammatical and typographical errors have slipped through the net. In ‘Riding the Tube’ (p.51), for example, the opening words, ‘A gunfire’ clearly should be either ‘Gunfire’ or ‘A gunshot’; later, in the same poem, ‘The natives, / tied (tired?) of bureaucracy’ has slipped by the editor’s eye. ‘Narcolepsy’ (p.43) contains the following oddity: ‘Here there’re no factories’ in a piece that nowhere else relies on colloquialism, and ‘Songkhan’ (p46) refers to ‘bucketfuls of water’, which probably should read less clumsily as ‘buckets full’. But these are minor criticisms. Overall, The Accidental Cage is an accomplished debut from a poet with an eagle eye, a keen ear, and an empathetic heart. I have no doubt this is just the beginning of a poetic career that promises further pleasures and surprises.
Subterranean Radio Songs by Joel Deane
Interactive Press, Brisbane. Queensland, Australia, 2005, 80 pages,
ISBN 1 876819 31 6, RRP $23.00
Joel Deane’s free verse is direct and seemingly simple. What layers it possesses are of the emotional type. He doesn’t hit us over the head with grim reality; rather he insinuates it into the reader’s psyche in a way so artful that it appears artless. Deane is no clever-clever writer, obfuscating meaning behind obscure metaphors in a vain attempt to appear more erudite than the floundering reader. His goal is to communicate the things that matter to him, and this he does well.
The collection is described on the cover blurb as a ‘travelogue – following him around the world, from Australia to the Americas to the Himalayas, and into the great interior of human frailty’, and this seems an apt description. Divided into two sections ‘South’ and ‘North’ (as in southern and northern hemispheres), the poems begin by hearking back to the author’s Irish ancestry. He describes himself as a ‘boy’ who sets sail for the past, trawling through memories of his grandfather (gruff in ‘brown-suede brogues’), his father (who ‘speaks a foreign language’), and his mother (always working in the family shop, while the boy wishes he could take her away somewhere where she could ‘sit down for lunch’). The early childhood is spent on the Goulburn River, with its fruit pickers and pubs, before the family relocates to Coburg in Melbourne.
The poem ‘Good Friday’ (p.14), in four parts, introduces the nub of the collection, a child that is stillborn, whose ghost haunts the text, even the travel poems. Its second section, ‘Residua’, describes the pathos of packing up the waiting cot and putting it in the garage; in the third section, ‘Postmortem’, the poet and his partner debate the ‘whys’ of the situation. The poem ends abruptly with the devastating ‘In Utero’, a cremation scene, in which the fire becomes the welcoming womb for the stillborn baby: ‘The womb of the incinerator / now holds you / at nine-hundred degrees / centigrade’. But this is not the end of the story. On page 20, the poem ‘I build a little house where our hearts once lived’ describes Deane’s attempts to reassemble his life, to ‘remake rooms I cannot find’. As an evocation of grief, it’s hard to go past these heartfelt pieces.
The remainder of the first section is comprised of largely descriptive pieces about seaside holidays in Victoria (Portsea, Rosebud), rock climbing at Hall’s Gap, and driving at night on Old Melbourne Road with no headlights. The final piece evokes the continuance of grief: ‘Under Westgate’ is ostensibly about driving from Footscray to St Kilda along the Beach road, via Port Melbourne. But the subtext is that this is a young man driving too fast, taking risks, trying to block out ‘the terrible nothing’ in his head.
The second section, ‘North’ begins with a series of impressionistic poems about place: a Mississippi Highway, Massachusetts, remembering a first visit to New York with a girl with ‘heroin eyes’ with whom he stayed in the Cole Porter Suite at the Waldorf (she locks herself in the bathroom while he plays Chop Sticks on Porter’s baby grand piano – p.39). ‘Summer Storm, Las Vegas’ (p.40) reflects on gambling and its addictive qualities, on how ‘the afterglow of that first Vegas win / has long since begun to sting’. ‘Left-hand drive’ (p.44-45) describes the terror for Australian travelers hitting the American freeway system (‘Try to indicate, but on flick the wipers’). Having myself quite recently reexperienced this very same terror, this poem made me laugh out loud – only to be swiftly brought back by ‘Tectonic domestic’, about an argument over a ‘hot-pink raincoat … / I said it looked bloody stupid’, followed by the familiar fear that occurs when a loved one leaves in a temper – the fear that they may not return safely.
A collection of poems that deals with American culture wouldn’t be complete without reference to the Beats, which Deane does in ‘Luger pistol’, describing a night on tequila and methamphetamine, playing ‘William Tell … to mark Burroughs’ passing’. The partner in this poem, waiting for the candle on her head to be shot at, was doubtless less blase about this than was Burroughs’ unfortunate wife, who was killed playing just such a game.
In ‘First daughter’ (p.62) the poet again reflects on his grief and evokes Whitman: ‘I excavate the sorrow / … / My America, my first daughter / who, tenfold times, tried to be born / might yet resurrect the father / from the strata that has formed’ and we know that the poet is struggling to break through the hard shell he’s developed to protect his psyche from the pain of what appears to be another miscarriage. ‘Ad Nauseum’ (p.64) continues in this vein, but also includes his partner, powerfully portraying pathos, poignancy, a palpable sadness, and disappointment, in few words: ‘The house was a room short, / we thought / … / But the house has our measure, / … / Pack away the plans / and maternity jeans’.
From here, the collection takes us to London, Glasgow, Mexico, and, finally, Cuba (an image of whose streets provide the marvelous cover image). In ‘Romeo y Julieta’ (p.72) the poet is traveling with his ‘kid sister’: ‘Both of us in remission / from births, deaths / and marriages’. Watching fisherman struggling with a catch prompts him to muse that ‘The promise of capitalism thrashes about’ but the huge fish is eventually brought in by ‘the centipede of Communism’ as the fishermen work in rotation to land the fish ‘with a torso as thick / as a man’s thigh’. The final poem, ‘Arrival’ (p.80) describes the coming home to Port Melbourne, and the poet’s sense that he has lost something of himself on his journey. This he compares to a man’s memory being lost after he has had a brain tumour excised; in the same way, the poet feels he ‘never quite arrive[s]’.
There are many fine poems in Subterranean Radio Songs, but they work best together as a collection, allowing us insight into the thoughts and feelings of a grief-stricken man seeking healing and understanding by jumping feet-first out into the world.
‘Litmus’ by Kerry Scuffins
Five Islands Press, University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 2006, 80 pages, ISBN 0734036523, RRP $19.95
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
This is Kerry Scuffins’ sixth collection since the late 1980s; more playful than her previous, often dark, poetic visions, this poetry recalls joy, camaraderie, family affection, a country town childhood, and the joys of motherhood. Scuffins has never been afraid to unflinchingly represent the real world of Australia’s bars and streets, and her astute eye provides honest portraits of flawed humanity – its chaos, its pathos, and its irony.
I laughed out loud at ‘The Aussie Nicknames Poem’ (p.22), which hilariously lists dozens of barroom nicknames, (all real people), creating a rhythmic tribute to characters called ‘Squiggles’, ‘Wombat’ and ‘Tugger’. While she notes that there are few women in this exclusive nickname club, the poem bears the hallmarks of great amusement, and also great affection, for this type of Aussie bloke who, while appearing tough, happily takes on ironic, childish monikers. ‘Two Reds and a Blue with Cheryl’ (p.20) is in the vernacular of a country boy who ‘shot me girlfriend in the leg on me eighteenth birthday’. ‘Lost our Marbles’ (p.15) honours a friend who was killed by a train, and imagines Marbles’ amusement at his grieving friends’ deification of him in the pub as a ‘philosopher and a prophet’, when the poet knows that ‘if you did walk in the door now / and asked for twenty bucks / to buy some beer / then we would hear / a minute’s / silence’. In ‘Jilly Mack’ (p.13), Scuffins unflinchingly describes the life and speech rhythms of a woman destined to die young, her life a maze of drugs, booze and domestic violence. But Scuffins’ Jilly is no victim; she has chosen her life (‘… why cry / when you can laugh and get blind?’) and the poet’s compassion is mixed with wry amusement at this woman who survives and thrives amid chaos. In ‘Tony’s Test’ (p.46), a psychotic friend admits to lying on his Rorschach test, telling the doctors the ‘Archangels in Hell’ he really saw in the ink blot was really just ‘a small marsupial crossing a river’. It is the poet who hears the truth in the pub later, not the doctor who holds power over his out-of-control patient’s future.
‘Period’ (p.27), in eighteen short parts, would have to be the funniest menstruation poem ever written, mixing adolescent memories of visits from ‘Fred’ with barroom jokes (‘Why can you never trust a women? / Who else bleeds for five days and doesn’t die?’), and remarking on the odd menstrual synchronicity that exists between sisters, even though they’re separated by thousands of miles. Similarly, most poet’s cat poems are forgettable and verging on the sentimental, but not so in Scuffins’ ‘The Green Dream (Kizzy’s Poem)’ (p.59), describing the effects of the loss of a seventeen year old cat on each member of the grieving family. One would have to have a heart of stone not to relate to the stark realism of the final lines: ‘Tracked grave dirt all over the house / in our big boots, bawling and / drinking beer. Bye, Kizzy, / bye old dear’.
Of her immediate family, Scuffins draws unforgettable portraits: of a head nurse mother who is devastated at the loss of an Aboriginal patient who had caused her nothing but grief while alive (‘Charlie Long and my mum’ – p.17); of a brother whose commitment to wildlife conservation sees him building a tepee, rehabilitating raptors, and playing ‘the nicest [pantomime] Big Bad Wolf / in the world’ in an effort to teach children that ‘Wolves are much maligned!’ (‘My brother’s tepee’, p.18); of falling in love with a new sister-in-law’s ‘shining aura’ on her wedding day (‘Talia shone’, p.19).
Those familiar with the poet’s previous work would remember ‘The Second Month of Spring’, an award-winning poem that has appeared in several collections and is one of the most heartbreaking descriptions of the loss of a full-term baby ever penned. This knowledge of the poet’s previous poems about childbirth adds to the joy of the poems that appear here, which deal with the pregnancy, birth, and early years of the poet’s adored young son, Tom. ‘Babyland’ (p.50), with its babies’ words and scattered food, has much in common with Sylvia Plath’s word-thick babylove poem ‘You’re’. Where it differs is that in Scuffins’ poem the child’s perspective is equally as important as the mother’s, and his voice is as present as the poet’s, while the poet’s voice contains the same wonder as the child’s: ‘That’s me in the mirror, hi. / There I am Tommy. / There’s Tommy. / There’s Mummy. Bye now, bye’, and ‘Games and delights / for me! His wonder as he learns / to run, to sing, that a leaf / can shake a tree’. This is uninhibited poetry that celebrates life’s beauty, and the wonder and unpredictability a child’s perspective can add to a life.
There’s nothing overly clever about this work; Scuffins seeks to communicate, not to impress, and the poems jump off the page with the power of their vernacular. This makes them excellent candidates for oral presentation. Scuffins has in the past been labelled a ‘performance poet’, a label that these days is frequently used perjoratively, but it is no small task to produce work that suits both methods of transmission equally, and the poems’ orality in no way detracts from their power on the page. Bruce Dawe, who rarely reviews other people’s poetry, similarly represents Australian speech and rhythms in his own work, and he was much taken with this collection, describing Scuffins as ‘a true poet of the people’, whose poems ‘beg to be read aloud’ and ‘enrich our seeing, and our hearing, and feeling’. In this reader’s opinion, the best poetry engages emotion as well as intellect, leaving in its wake a reflective and vivid insight, enlivened by its crafted rhythms. By this criteria, Kerry Scuffins’ ‘Litmus’ is a terrific book, and its author deserves to be credited as one of Australia’s best living poets.
Rainswayed Night by Max Ryan
Dangerously Poetic Press, Byron Bay, NSW, Australia, 2005, 56 pages,
ISBN 0-9581314-4-9, RRP 23.00
I first met Max Ryan while running a Council of Adult Education poetry workshop in Mullumbimby in the early 1990s, and was immediately struck by the easy lyricism of his early poems. I recall thinking at the time, ‘This man truly has the heart of a poet’. Rainswayed Night, Ryan’s long-awaited first collection is solid evidence of over a decade’s work crafting those first heartfelt lines into strong poems that are arresting in their imagery, moving in their emotional honesty, and crafted to the point where not a single word seems out of place. It’s heartening to know that others have shared my admiration for Ryan’s work – this collection was a deserving winner of the 2005 Anne Elder Award for a first collection.
Ryan has not, however, been idle in this interim period. As well as being a regular fixture at northern New South Wales poetry events, in 2002 Ryan and musician Cleis Pearce (ex-Mackenzie’s Theory) collaborated on aural versions of some of these poems on the CD White Cow, a project that went on to win several music industry awards. For those who enjoy Rainswayed Night, I’d recommend they track down this audio recording for the sheer pleasure of hearing the gentle and modulated tones of the poet’s voice enhanced by Pearce’s sensitive violin, viola, drum and vocal backing.
This collection contains all the poems from White Cow, and a selection of newer pieces. The opening poem, ‘Eagle’, set in India, describes a moment when the poet, separated from his partner while hiking in the mountains, sees and chases after an eagle, ‘a hard clear pulse on a wavering rock face’, and runs after it along a ridgeline. It seems as if this poem serves as a metaphor for the poet’s wanderings through life, chasing after the unobtainable, seduced by its beauty.
The remainder of the text is divided into six sections. The first, ‘Rainswayed Night’ is a series of sparse but moving pieces describing life-changing events from the poet’s youth: a car accident, a period in an emergency ward, a long, slow recovery from head and spinal injuries, and the frustration of being immobilised. The second section, ‘paper boy’, takes us back further, to a childhood in Newcastle and an evocation of a child’s impressions of life in that town in the 1950s. In ‘The Hexham Flood’, the child catches pneumonia and feels the river pulling him towards death in a first realisation of life’s terror and unpredictability: ‘… the river was older than anything, / I knew it wanted me back. / At night a bubble grew inside, I felt the water rise.’ (p.15-16). He remembers gypsies visiting his parents’ shop, seeing them dancing on Ash Island, and this fires the child’s imagination with a desire to join them in their freedom: ‘ … I remembered / how their voices stoked the tall flames. / I stirred that sound around my room / till fire shook and sparks roared up, / flew off and never stopped.’ (‘Gypsies’, P.17-18). In the prose poem, ‘Kenny’ (p.19) we meet a misfit boy and see the child poet’s sense of guilt as, unable to help him and driven by fear of difference, he escapes to the ‘bright-lit doorway’ where the safety of his mother and home await him. As the child grows he becomes a ‘rainy day paper boy’ (p.20).
The third section, ‘black-crane kimono’ examines man-woman relationships, periods of togetherness and separation, of longing and reunion. Particularly moving is ‘outlaws’ (p.28-29), a sad and poignant story of young love, telling of a girlfriend who embraced drugs (‘the dealer came around, you took / the gifts he gave you till barbed hunger / took you by the arm’, who went to ‘a place i can’t follow, / a trail fading down to the sea, / the flash of a cold rushing star’). The final piece in this section, ‘all night the sea’ contains five short stanzas describing being alone, waiting for news of an absent lover, and ending with this striking description of the need for human companionship: ‘first light / a fisherman casts / into white wash / this urge / to stand beside him’.
Next, ‘a ragged procession’ describes aspects of the author’s travels in Asia, with descriptions of sights and people. Ryan’s blind singer says: ‘I think you must pity me / … ‘ if I could show you, / this garden whose ground is me! / … / I still see / the colours made when darkness burns’ (p.35), turning on its head notions of ‘disability’. A white cow in Rajasthan appears disembodied against the fading evening light: ‘… the white cow holds / the day’s last glow / against the darkening yard. / For a moment it floats / out there in the dusk / the only thing there is.’ And with this vision, the poet traveller loses ‘the need for bearings, the weight of miles’ (p.38). In ‘Dancer, Burning Ghat, Varanasi’, the poet gives voice to a widowed man watching the flames take his wife’s body as ‘a ragged procession of sailboats roll in – / more wood for Yama’s fires’ (p.41). ‘Coffee House, Janpath, New Delhi’ describes an encounter with a Sikh fortune teller who predicts ‘love soon to arrive’, and the poet wryly notes ‘… a million sari princesses drift beyond my reach. / I have gazed at all the holy pools in India, seen only / my sad reflection. Once I shared a seat … / with Krishna. He said he was tired of having to live forever; / his flute lay buried under three days’ dirty washing.’
The collection ends with a trio of poems about father hood. In ‘Merry-go-round’, a weekend father watches his child riding a wooden horse. Mis-timing his wave, the child is disappointed. In the second stanza, the child rides on a carousel and the father waves ‘right on time’. In the third, the adult child drives off in his P-plated car, and the poet writes ‘You don’t look back but I’m waving’. In this short poem, Ryan uses a small gesture, the act of waving, to compress all the joy and pain of watching children reach maturity, as well as pointing to the cyclical and ephemeral nature of life and growth (p.49). ‘leaving newcastle’ (p.50) echoes this poem, only this time the subject is the poet’s ageing father and the memory of his gentleness, and how hard it is to be the adult driving away from a parent who is now himself childlike. The collection concludes with ‘Somewhere on the Mount’, where the poet returns to visit a widowed father who has become older and more eccentric, speaking in ‘a high-pitched cackle’. The combined effect of these three pieces is a wide-ranging examination of father-son relationships that is poignant with both joy and loss.
Ryan’s poems are spare but laden with meaning, highly polished and deeply felt. This collection touches on the big questions – life, death, love, loss, parenthood – but provides no easy answers, just an evocation of the ambiguities and pleasures encountered on life’s journey. If you buy only one poetry book this year, make it Rainswayed Night.
‘The Flower, The Thing’ by MTC Cronin
UQP, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, 2006, 122 pages, ISBN 0702235563, RRP $22.95
MTC Cronin’s ‘The Flower, The Thing’ is subtitled ‘a book of flowers and dedications’. It’s an elegant idea – a series of 121 poems dedicated to friends and family, as well as to literary, academic and artistic figures that have inspired or otherwise influenced the poet, with each poem named after a type of flower. This idea appealed to the publisher, whose PR states: ‘Becasue everyone loves flowers, The Flower, The Thing is the perfect gift book to indulge not only those special people in your life but also yourself’. Cronin has a marvellous gift for both subtlety and original metaphor, and the layers of meaning in many of these poems unfold tantalisingly, in much the same way as an unopened rosebud does. She is also prolific; she has published twelve collections since the early 1990s, many of which have been awarded or shortlisted in major prizes. Her individual poems have appeared so consistently in both national and international journals over this period that she has become one of Australia’s best-known poets in a relatively short time.
As humble appreciations for the dedicatees, some pieces are more effective than others. It’s clearly easier to appreciate references to well-known individuals (Vincent Van Gogh, Judith Wright, Walt Whitman) than those known only to the poet and her inner circle, and sometimes there’s not enough detail in the latter to let a reader into this world of personal relationships. If the detail sometimes doesn’t translate, though, the emotion invariably does, and some of these poems left me with more of a ‘sense’ than a ‘meaning’.
It seems to be de rigeur in much contemporary poetry these days to heark back to the work of others in a reverent and oblique fashion, as though there are only a certain number of ideas or writing styles in the world, and these are endlessly rehashed and editorialised upon. To a lay reader with little knowledge of contemporary poetry and its various ‘star’ proponents, there’d be little evidence of what path to take through the verbiage to find something approximating meaning – and little encouragement to try to create any totally new or innovative ways of saying something. Though it’s a truism that there’s nothing new under the sun, and I’m not averse to obscurity, or writing that appeals only to an initiated elite, I can’t help longing for simple, honest, pithy words that stand for something concrete and (in the memorable words of Melbourne poet Lauren Williams) ‘call a chop a chop’.
When Cronin does this, the results are powerful and memorable. ‘Sweet Violet’ (p.100), a poem for one of the poet’s daughters, was one I found particularly affecting, with its beautiful images describing the blueness of the child’s eyes and recalling the facts of her birth: ‘Her blue eyes are the tiniest whales / ever to displace a sea. / She looks through everything I own / and takes what makes her smile. / … / Sometimes I think of the purple cord that joined us / the plant cut at the hour of your birth / and wonder if you would like to gather / in a bucket all my broken waters’. ‘Veronica’ (p.106) contains strong descriptions of a woman (the poet’s mother?) on her deathbed. Direct and unambiguous, these few short lines manage to encapsulate an entire personality. ‘Wisteria (sic)’ is also direct and impactful, describing an effort to create a private bower in a garden, an act that both satisfies and thwarts a sense of aesthetics (‘… I now have a life there / that no one knows about. / … / I move the furniture – / a table and two chairs – / around to face the sun / and then break my heart over the arrangment.’ ). ‘Flannel Flowers’ (p.27) recounts a conversation between a tree and a stream (‘ … said the stream I spoke / with a fountain about sunlight and stone’), and contrasts this appreciation of the reality of nature’s perfection with the people in the council chambers, tossing around ‘ideas about the countryside’. In ‘Slipper Flowers’ (p.93) appears this arresting imagery: ‘ … my spine / made a circle as if remembering / the inside of my mother’s body: / I don’t know who she is but she folds / her ovaries over my skull like a secret pillow’ (though I had some problems with ‘I don’t know who she is’ naysaying the truth of the descriptor ‘my mother’). I was also taken with ‘Poppies’ (p.85), a poem about the aftermath of war, in which appears the clever but unexpected description of the ‘hard corners / of the square we are in when we hate’.
Other poems are concerned with the search for meaning, both linguistically and poetically, as well as in life and inevitable death. When these work, the reader is led down a philosophical path strewn with arresting imagery and ‘big questions’. The title poem (p.121) asks the reader: ‘Do you recall the world? Place your hand / on the place where it was cut from you and you / will know what pushes us to leave meaning’. ‘Everlasting Daisy’ (p.25) states: ‘… it is as if I want / to out-death death / but still our bodies are haunting / space , trying / to invest with meaning all that is meaningless.’ The poet aspires to humility (‘I work on my ego / which is blocking the view / my mind strains to see.’ – ‘Giant Asphodel’, p.39), but also to commune with the meanings created by others (‘… Poems / have shadows too. Falling across / bridges of words, leaving thoughts / coloured by another’s shape and / size. Sweeping up doesn’t help / with this sort of thing.’ – ‘Leaves, p.53).
Rodney Hall describes Cronin’s book as ‘beautiful, contemplative poems … questions asked at the brink of the abyss’ – which leaves me wondering exactly which abyss we’re talking about. Is it the abyss of death and annihilation? Or an intellectual abyss, in which the collection in its totality appears to be important and meaningful, but individual poems, when viewed singly, seem to be mere exercises in thrall to an idea? Although I was much taken by the spirit of the governing notion in this collection, (and there are individual moments of great power within many of the poems), I’m not convinced that the idea’s execution is completely effective. This kind of writing can be alienating, as readers grapple with what the intended meaning is at the expense of those delicious moments when reader and writer actually communicate across time and space via the medium of the page, and converge in their understanding – as in some of the pieces discussed earlier.
When ambiguity creeps in I was left feeling that I was merely witnessing a series of word games. It’s hard to make sense of passages such as these: ‘What is night? Where is night? / But do not search for what this story / is about for what it is about, for those / thoughts that slip cleanly and smoothly / from one to the next are for stories / themselves.’ (‘Impatiens’, p.46 ). In ‘Seed’ (p.91) the poet states: ‘I give it meaning / therefore I take it away’ and searches for ‘words that are more than echoes’. In ‘Sun-Jewel’ (p.98) the author contemplates a ‘split pine twinning itself for the sky / of day / because the day needs two trees / and the night none’ – though why this would be so is not explained. There’s more incongruity in ‘Three Pear Trees’ (p.103), which opens with the line: ‘The dead pear tree is in flower’ and, later, opines ‘Once in a lifetime distance watches what is near’. These inconsistencies of fact (How can a dead tree flower? How can ‘distance’ watch the near?) create a feeling of nebulousness, of fence-sitting and saying neither one thing or another, as if the point of the poem is to state: ‘I say something but I say nothing – but I say it very cleverly’. For me, this takes the work into the dangerous territory of ‘poetry for poets’ that is inaccessible to a general reader. When Cronin avoids hindering her meaning with such ruses her raw words are more than capable of conjuring beauty and profundity in equal measure.
‘Earthly Delights’ by S.K.Kelen
Pandanus Books, ANU, Canberra, Australia, 2006, 108 pages, ISBN 174076191X, RRP $19.80
This is a beautifully presented book, an observation made poignant by the knowledge that the publisher Pandanus Books has had to close down as a result of mounting debt and a withdrawal of support from the Australian National University. Academic publisher Pandanus, launched in 2001, specialised in books relating to Asia and the Pacific, but in an eclectic fashion that saw works of fiction, poetry and memoir produced as well as ‘scholarly texts relating to the region’.
Pandanus’s founder, Ian Templeman, has been reported as claiming that the university’s financial argument for the closure, while it may be true, masks an deeper ideological motive. ‘The closure, he says, has more to do with a corporatist ethos than with Pandanus’s debts. … “I think all university presses are cultural publishers. They are not trade publishers. No university press I know of runs at a profit.” … the ACT government has been thinking about co-subsidising Pandanus but the university wasn’t interested’ (Rosemary Neill, ‘Review’, The Weekend Australian’, Dec.9-10, 2006, pp 12-13).
This demise of small specialist presses that operate from imperatives other than the financial is worrying for the increasing number of established poets unable to find publishers for their collections – so we can be grateful that Kelen’s latest managed to be launched into the world.
Kelen is a mature poet, a fact that can be recognised through his directness and lack of obfuscation. He eschews overt cleverness in favour of actually communicating, and is unafraid to call a spade a spade. Though the poems are often descriptive, it is visual detail that’s communicated rather than the nebulous vagueness and lack of a real point that blights so much contemporary (often university-sponsored) poetry. Kelen’s linguistic ability, while evident, does not overshadow his message. He has a direct line of attack, but is not didactic. Rather, he shows through metaphor and description what he really thinks about the world, particularly in the more political poems, where he rails against the violence and injustice in both the present and the recent past.
Of the poems set in Asia, particularly affecting was ‘Hanoi Girls’ (p.7), where the poet describes the new world inhabited by the young women born long after the war, who wear miniskirts and talk to each other on their mobile phones, ‘…by magic, motorscooter and miniskirt / … [they] make the city truly powerful’. But he is not judgmental, quipping ‘As grandma said, / ‘when no bombs fall on the polity / it’s fine to indulge frivolity.’ In ‘Letting Go’ (p.11), the poet considers the grey areas of travel in third world countries through the eyes of a naive female traveler in India. Described as ‘the woman from prosperity’s suburbs’, the traveler notices a ‘woman doing starvation yoga … [who] tugged the strings a good heart / holds in abundance’ and she responds by giving away all her money, her camera, her clothes, and her jewelery to street beggars. She is rescued by a penniless sadhu, a ‘ragged King Neptune’, who leads her away before she leaves herself completely destitute and unprotected. Westerners would recognise the situation, but what lifts the poem to another level is the description of the sadhu, a saviour whose ‘eyes burned like suttee pyres / … / In another life he’d have been a star or a psychopath / … / He bowed nobly and hailed a taxi’.
The death of a natural ocean ecosystem by human polluters is the subject of ‘System Arrest’ (p. 38). This bleak (but probably realistic) view of our environmental future pays homage to what little is left: the rocks which ‘survive all species’. ‘The First Circle’ (p.39) reveals the poet’s vision of hell, where ‘Stockbrokers snort fake coke and the markets melt / while commuters wait for a train forever’. In ‘al-Qaeda Bushfire’ (p. 47), terrorism is compared with the destructiveness of fire. Less successful of these contemporary ‘issues’ poems is ‘Flowers – for Schapelle’ (p.42-5), a discussion of dope culture’s ‘happy combustions’. It was hard to know if this piece was intended as satire or sympathy. In referring to Schapelle Corby as ‘compadre’ he reveals sympathy for her plight (languishing in an Indonesian prison for dope smuggling), but do the statements ‘good ganja saves’ and ‘what’s great is great dope’ signify approval of marijuana use, just point to its all-pervasiveness and essential ‘normality’ in youth culture, or poke fun at its proponents?
Other pieces are more domestic, providing a balance to some of the heavier subject matter. ‘Bon Voyage’ (p.2), is a heartfelt poem of farewell to his deceased father, (‘A man who never / said never, made life look like an exercise / in style’) whom he admonishes, without sentimentality: ‘don’t forget / to write & charm the clouds, the stars’. Later, we enter the realm of parenthood as Kelen reflects with good humour on parenting teenagers: ‘The poet said, ‘they fuck you up your mum and dad …’ / but forgot to mention what kids do to you’ (‘Teenagers’, p.16-18). In ‘Sick Kids’ (p.19), he observes: ‘they are pleasant / as sweet as lemon cordial / until they get better’. But in ‘The One Song Wonders’ (p.21) Kelen shows his age by coming across as a typical middle-aged father (‘We had good times though wow / and went deaf in the process / creating sheer noise …’), indicating that he cares little for the culture of the moshpit. He does, however, wax lyrical on cars (‘Personality, p.22), and this reader assumes Kelen’s offspring wouldn’t be allowed to drive this particular treasure. Humour is also present in ‘Old-Fashioned Blues Cliche’ (p.38) which describes missing an absent lover in the ‘melodramatic’ and ‘pathetic’ language of a blues song. The title poem, ‘Earthly delights’ (p.60-62) is a love poem to the joy of gardening and the pleasures of creating beauty in the world.
This is S.K.Kelen’s sixth collection of verse over some thirty years. On the evidence of ‘Earthly Delights’, he is yet to run out of either opinions or inspiration.
The following reviews were published online at thecompulsivereader.com.
Many thanks to Magdalena Ball for the experience, and the books!
Reviews are of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and biography by (in this order): Emma Lew, Lorraine McGuigan, Patricia and Alexander Lee, Sheila Weller (on Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell and Carole King), Jen Craig, Ali Alizadeh, Anita Shreve, Anita Amirrezvani, Cynthia Clampett, Paul Dobbyn, Rosemary Mahoney, Arabella Edge, Kathleen Turner, Barry Levy, Libby Hart, Eric Maisel, Robert K Oerman (on The Grand Ole Opry), Carol Goodman, Gillespie & Tannay (Eds) (on Grief), The Clash (by The Clash), Ken Waldman, Joe Nick Patoski (on Willie Nelson), and Kennedy & Cummins (Eds.) (on the Writing Life).
Emma Lew: Anything the landlord touches, Giramondo, NSW, 2002, 92 pps, ISBN 0 9578311 6 1
Emma Lew’s first collection of poetry, The Wild Reply, was a joint winner of the 1997 Age Poetry Book of the Year Award. This, her second collection, published in 2002, contains more of her well-crafted, outward-looking poetry that uses often astonishing, unusual metaphors to great effect. Emma Lew’s work is suggestive rather than specific; the poet does not over-explain her material but leaves it up to the reader to uncover the layers of meaning contained within the words. Mostly, this approach is startlingly effective, although it did sometimes leaves this reader feeling like an eavesdropper on some conversation not quite fully understood. However this is not necessarily a criticism, as such ambiguity allows the poems to ‘unfold’ on subsequent readings, and also allows the reader room to engage imaginatively with the work and to impose their own interpretations on it.
Evocative descriptions of marshes and mountains give way to stories of individuals: a falconer, travellers, riders and embroiderers, each of whom interpret life in the light of their own individual actions. Striking descriptions abound: (‘Birds have moved into my arms / and are flourishing’ – Falconer’s Dawn; ‘He turned and there were eyes in the sage / and juniper’ – The Rider; ‘The sea has made a mouth of itself, like a huge man capable of the most delicate phrases’ – Bounty; ‘… the moon wishes to dissipate, / and earth groans under its weight of mice, / and God has given us everything, / everything’ – Sinking Song). Lew’s characters speak from their inner worlds, giving the impression of thoughts, rather than words, being communicated in an intimate, and highly visual, way.
One of Lew’s strengths is her ability to enter into the minds of her characters. Thus, we encounter the voices of an unnamed crew member of the famous ‘Bounty’ (Bounty), and of committed Communists looking back on times of revolution and war (Red). In Pocket Constellations we hear the voice of a soldier of resistance, and within his voice, his justification for killing: ‘I am avenging, but at night / I tunnel, burying more mines in the soft soil / of the pass. // All our lives we have hated white moonlight. / All our lives we have been hating …’ With ‘hearts full of vicious light’, Lew’s soldiers scarred by war can do nothing but perpetuate the carnage.
Praise Report examines faith, confession, prayer and sin; in Cornfield School a supporter of lynchings and burnings in the Mississippi Delta expresses his hatred of ‘uppitty’ blacks; and in My Illusion of the Tycoon, a photographer speaks of an ‘elaborately courteous’ lover whom she tries to capture on emulsion: ‘Dangerousness of the man, it is quite beautiful / … / What haunts is the absence the eye collects’. A murderer describes his own lack of remorse at the death he considers a ‘beginning’ and ‘beautiful’(Prey). These pieces are quite powerful in their unexpectedness.
Some others, however, seem to hide behind their cleverness, and it becomes difficult to glean (more than vaguely) what the author intends to tell us. Fugue of the Deal, The End of Debonair, Rice, Man coming back as a Bird, and Fine Weather of the Seige – though all filled with ‘poetic’ descriptions – all fall into this category, making reading them a frustrating and unrewarding exercise. The title poem, and the one following (Pali) play with repeating lines, some of which are quite striking in their imagery (‘I found these beautiful machines abandoned here’; ‘Flourish the little flower in the lemon-coloured hands’) but the overall meaning of the poems remains, to this reader, a mystery. There’s no doubt that Emma Lew is an original and innovative poet; I only wish she’d ditch the habitual ambiguity and communicate more openly what she really means to say.
Lorraine McGuigan, What the Body Remembers, Five Islands Press, Wollongong, 2003, 88 pps. ISBN 0 86418 748 3
I enjoyed this poetry collection immensely, and read it in one sitting. Lorraine McGuigan possesses all the qualities I like and respect in a contemporary poet – honesty, clarity, emotional engagement, technical adeptness, and the maturity to work – without hysteria or bitterness – some of the more difficult experiences of her early life into a narrative that, while not shirking from the horror of child abuse and neglect, is awash with compassion and acceptance for a mother who was clearly suffering from a mental illness. The end result, for this reader, is a sense of wonder at how someone from such a background was able to overcome her sad childhood and go on to create successful, loving, spousal and family relationships.
The poems about Louise, the poet’s mother, are harrowing. Dotted throughout the collection, they collectively build a picture of a narcissistic, neglectful woman who blithely chases her own rainbows, in the process exposing her little daughter to sexual and physical abuse. Born early in the last century, Louise is shown as unable to sustain relationships, instead moving from one man to another, amassing children as she goes. We see her as a young girl in the 1920s, already hearing voices and feeling earthquakes, sleeping in a cemetery, being picked up by police, and, finally, being sent to a ‘Home for Uncontrollable Girls’. But her good looks attract men and, as an adult, she seems unable to resist their attentions, even though by now she has a husband, Tom, stepfather to the young Lorraine. This relationship is portrayed as sometimes happy, at other times tainted by domestic violence, witnessed by the child.
Even in Louise’s old age there is little wisdom or regret, but rather, a degeneration into eccentricity, loneliness and senility, and a continuing refusal to acknowledge her daughter (‘I have no daughter you tell me … I do not know you. / … / In time you drew a circle containing / yourself, six fowls and an old dog. / You kept a diary each day blank / except for a date and a question mark’ Silence, p.11).
The child Lorraine longed to know her absent father (‘I who have no father must fashion him / nightly, willing him into my life, my arms’ Dreaming the Father, p.9) but the mother lies about who he was, providing various explanations at different times (a ‘law student’, a rapist policeman, and – the ‘gospel truth’ – someone she had sex with on a grave at Box Hill cemetery, aged seventeen. The child’s desire to know is thwarted by the mother’s need for colourful – and frightening – lies. Further, the child must endure being strapped and sexually molested by her mother’s new lover while Tom is away at war, as well as by the ‘godly’ church organist ostensibly giving her banjo lessons. Later, she is beaten by her mother for the sin of turning thirteen. In the final poem, Another Country, the poet marks the tenth anniversary of Louise’s death, and describes the irreconcilable pain of having endured for a lifetime her mother’s rejection (‘Wish you were / here you’d say on family postcards, except / mine. I would practice the art of forgetting / but there are no lessons, no guides’ p.88). What has been done to the child can never be undone.
Within these bookending ‘Louise’ poems, however, are others describing moments of beauty, love, sadness, and personal fulfilment in the wider world, and these often vivid pieces provide a counterbalance to the collection. One can’t help but feel that the poet’s early life experiences has provided her with a clarity of vision, a compassion for other people and animals, and a love for what is beautiful in the natural world. Whether she is describing an octopus trying to free itself from a hook, an echidna digging into sand in an effort to hide itself from humans, young women enduring domestic violence or miscarriage, unexpected and tragic drownings on an Italian beach, or a wife lovingly tending to an ill husband, McGuigan’s poems express a deep compassion and clear-eyed vision of the beauty and pain of life. This is a courageous and life-affirming first collection, well worth a second, or even third, reading. Highly recommended.
Patricia & Alexander Lee: Speak to the Moon, Rivendale Publications, NSW, 2003, 32 pps, ISBN 0-9751408-0-9
This is a spare but delightful little chapbook, a collaboration between a poet wife and her photographer husband from regional New South Wales. In the introduction Patricia Lee writes ‘I believe poetry should communicate and I make no apologies for most of them being accessible’. ‘Accessible’, however, does not mean ‘lacking in poetic ability or intensity’, but the overall effect is of a gentle conversation with friends, ranging over discussions of world events, descriptions of people and places, and observing nature and art.. These poems do not scream ‘look at me’; rather, they whisper ‘look at the beauty and terror of the world’, a natural world we are encouraged to see anew through the poet’s eyes. Thus, in A Walk through Winter she writes: ‘Everything that hungers is fed / and fed again / even the earth / with an old ewe / the cold night has kept for itself’. In Exposed to Everything she pities the driver who ‘ … does not see / Ned Kelly cut into / a dead tree or / hear fragments / of pine cones / flutter down / from the beaks / of black cockatoos’. And in Custom-made Drawers Lee ponders the man who made a roomful of drawers in his marble-lined penthouse on Sydney Harbour for his wife tostore her possessions and asks, ‘If you built a / room like this for / me / where would I / put your love / and the children’s / joy when they / see a blue-tongue / lizard soaking up / the sun / at the back of / our house?’ Individual encounters with wildlife and nature’s cycles are painted as the essence of life, far more important than amassing possessions or status, and it is this quiet conservationism that enchants and convinces the reader that these are, in fact, things of great value.
Other poems look at events such as the first Bali bombings (‘Kuta becomes Flanders / in one night / … / Some return heroes, / stunned like Anzacs.’ – Bali), the Iraq War (‘People without faces / soldier the armies / as they have always done’ – War as Entertainment), or ponder what it must have been like to be a convict at in the early days of settlement (Port Arthur). The poem Know When is like a personal version of that old classic, Desiderata, a ‘what I have learned’ for future generations, and contains such gems of advice as ‘Curl up in the leaves of a forest and / let your skin listen’ and ‘Seek truth not in flattery like the media’s lens lickers / But in something slowly done and beautiful / Only to yourself’. These are the lessons of maturity, and the lines are both reverent and psalm-like.
The photographs of trees, leaves, creeks, the ocean, and sunsets are a quite beautiful complement to the poems. It’s a shame the authors didn’t print them in a larger format, as the small size they are reproduced in detracts quite a bit from their obvious quality.
There’s a lovely moment of wry humour in the poem Unseated when, after describing the usual domestic chaos of her lounge room, she notes how a visitor ‘in our perfect clean lounge room’ lifts a couch cushion and sees ‘the detritus captured there’. Lee describes the mortification in being discovered as a less than perfect housekeeper in the lines, ‘I would rather / she had seen me naked’. This reader, for one, is glad Patricia Lee has chosen to eschew some of the more prosaic activities such as house cleaning in favour of producing this well-crafted poetry that speaks from, and to, the heart.
Sheila Weller, “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon and the journey of a generation”, Atria/Simon & Schuster, NY, 2008. Hardcover, 583 pages. ISBN-13:978-0-7434-9147-1
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
I wasn’t convinced at the outset that putting three lives in the one biographical volume was a fair approach (especially when dealing with lives as influential ones as these three artists, all of whom have created seminal bodies of work worthy of close examination and analysis). But Weller has managed to meld together a fascinating and coherent narrative to show how the social changes of the 1960s and 70s manifested in the lives and careers of Mitchell, King and Simon. At the same time, she’s been able to include all the personal information one would expect from a more conventional biography, a task that can only be the result of very careful planning, tight editing, and endless hours of sifting through piles of information.
There’s no doubt that men had the upper hand during the hippie era, and that women’s reproductive liberation ushered in an era when ‘nice girls did’ – and then were often left literally holding the babies while their boyfriends moved on to further ‘liberating’ relationships. For female creative artists in the music industry, these boyfriends were, more often than not, also rock stars with sex, drug and rock’n’roll habits. These were politically and socially turbulent times, and the lifestyles many baby boomers pursued in these years only served to increase the interpersonal turbulence.
For women who were young and avidly consuming popular music in these years, these three women provided role models and points of discussion on how one might navigate the new social reality. Carole King’s “Tapestry” album spawned a generation of hand-knitting, organic vegetable-growing Earth Mothers; Carly Simon’s sexuality blazed proud from her album covers as she sang lustily about sex and desire; and Joni Mitchell’s early folk-inspired records not only traced the interior processes of the new relationship freedom but took its measure and charted its emotional fallout. All were courageous, forthright, and pushing against a still male-dominated industry that felt no shame in its casting couch methods. All produced polished, memorable songs, many of which became instant classics.
Brooklyn-born King, already a part of the successful songwriting partnership with first husband Gerry Goffin out of New York’s famous Brill Building, reached a pinnacle with “Tapesty”, one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. In the madness of the ‘fame’ that followed, King managed to raise her kids and keep her sanity while residing in LA’s infamous Laurel Canyon, but her success came at a high price and she weathered more than her fair share of drama via abusive, controlling, addicted or simply insane partners before finally reaching some kind of happy equilibrium in middle age. Simon and Mitchell’s love lives often overlapped – they both had relationships with James Taylor – and Simon was hotly pursued by the likes of Mick Jagger and other rock stars who fancied the idea of ‘passing her around’. All the gossip on who slept with who is both delicious and salacious.
Mitchell’s story – like her songs – is a far more complicated account of a woman trying to live the life of art, while simultaneously seeking romantic and personal fulfillment. Her first half dozen albums garnered her a huge following, but the public’s expectations of her were too narrow to contain her artistic ambitions, as a musician, a singer, a songwriter, and a painter. The youthful relinquishment of her only child in an atmosphere of shame and secrecy became a nagging and continual pain that impacted negatively on her subsequent life. Weller follows Mitchell’s astonishing musical and aesthetic development alongside an account of her romantic and creative entanglements in a manner that is, overall, respectful and deeply compassionate, and her account of Mitchell’s eventual reunion with her daughter is honest and unsentimental.
As a longtime admirer of all three of these artists, I was rivetted by Weller’s narrative and impressed by her analysis of their lives and legacies. But this is not just a book strictly for the fans of the music – anyone who is interested in womens’ role in society and the period that saw the rise of feminism and the ‘gender wars’ will find much to mull over here.
Jen Craig, ‘Since the Accident’, Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide, South Australia, Paperback, 195 pages, ISBN 9791740275632
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
Jen Craig’s first novel causes the reader to contemplate a number of questions. These questions include: ‘What is art?’ and ‘What makes someone an artist?; ‘How significant is family structure and the relationships within families in influencing a person’s journey to find the ‘self’?’; ‘Is it necessary to leave all that one is familiar with to work out who we really are?’; ‘What is the role of narcissism within families?’; and ‘What is a reasonable amount of control and influence for a parent to exert over a child’s life choices?’
The narrator of ‘Since the Accident’ is a young woman in her 30s who has lived for many years in Paris. We never learn her name, but we know she is part of a large, Sydney-based family of girls, and that her older sister, Trude, has recently had a serious car accident and is undergoing a long and painful rehabilitation. The narrator has returned to Australia and tells us of her conversations with Trude and her mother, as well as discussing her life in Paris, her reasons for leaving, and her reasons for returning.
The narrator visits Trude in the room she has rented in an inner-city pub. Trude has recently had a relationship with a man named Murray, who was the first person on the scene after the accident. Murray visits Trude in hospital, sends her flowers, and ingratiates himself with Trude and the narrator’s mother, and when Trude is discharged from hospital she moves in with Murray for a time. But Trude has never trusted her mother’s advice and reacts against her subtle manipulation to continue the relationship. The mother is painted as somewhat grandiose; her husband has died and she plays the ‘hard-done-by’ card, even though the girls’ father appears to have been a good husband and provider. She wants more for her daughters, and, in what is described as a ‘Jane Austen scenario’, wants them to marry well, or at least undertake university studies in areas that will enable them to meet the type of eligible men who can provide well for them in later life.
Trude’s interest in art and drawing has lain dormant for many years but, after the accident, the mother encourages Murray to help Trude rediscover her art. So Murray gives Trude a gift – a free trip to a northern New South Wales artists’ retreat, the ‘Getaway Art Workshop’. A large part of the narrative centres on Trude’s conversation with her sister during one afternoon on her pub hotel room balcony, where she discusses the workshop, it’s participants, and the effect it has had on her attitude to both her art and her life. On her return to Sydney she decides to leave Murray and moves into the pub, which, given some aspects of the family’s history (in particular an alcoholic uncle whose illness colours their childhood perceptions), can be interpreted as rebelliousness against the mother’s expecftations. Trude feels comfortable living in a smelly, working-class pub, but her mother is distressed and horrified and cannot understand why Trude would choose to leave the supportive, but pedestrian, Murray. Trude’s changing understanding of the early family dynamics (p.96) helps her to realise that much of her parents’ behaviours were based on fear – fear of difficulty and confusion: “They never once thought of refraining from telling us what we should do, and instead used all the means available to frighten and coerce us into doing as they said”. The problem for the children of this family is that the parents seemed unable to honour their specific desires and dreams for their lives and futures, instead insisting that they, the parents, knew best. The sisters are therefore torn, from a young age, between what they want for themselves and what their mother insists are the right paths for them.
Trude’s account to her sister includes an incident where she is unable to follow her fellow workshop cronies into the pub’s bottle shop because she physically can’t get through the door before it closes. This door incident becomes a symbol of Trude’s new, creative life (p.140), and she comes to believe that she ‘needed’ to have the accident and that this was the catalyst in bringing her back to her art practice. On the urging of another workshop member Trude embarks upon a solo exhibition, but we learn in the end that her ambitions have been sabotaged by her mother, despite good sales on opening night.
As in quite a lot of literary fiction, this novel contains no dialogue. Instead we are given reportage of what is said and felt and thought. Craig writes in a very composed literary fashion; sentences are carefully constructed and weighted. For this reason this reader had some difficulty engaging with the early section of the novel, mainly because the prose had a pedestrian quality and the narrator was such an unknown quantity. It is not until page 68 that the narrator tells us much about herself, and until this happens it is difficult to accept what we are being told on face value, as we do not know enough about her to suspend our disbelief and trust her version of events. It was, however, worth perservering. The second section picks up the pace, and the novel turns out to be much more accomplished and with a much deeper subtext than first impressions had led initially me to believe, and the final denouement is quite shocking in it’s psychological impact.
However the lack of specificity continues to distance the reader from the characters. For instance, on Pages 111-112, Trude discusses a ‘west coast song’ that Murray likes and puts onto her iPod, but never tells us what this song is. There is much detail about these rather self-obsessed characters’ thoughts and feelings, but the lack of specificity of real-world detail, such as this song, has the effect of distancing the reader rather than drawing us into the world they inhabit. Some characterisation is also difficult to swallow – for example, William and Dave, the two brothers who run the pub that the art workshop participants stay in, frequently use French phrases in their conversation. Yet they are painted as country guys and it seems that the only character who would in reality speak like this is the narrator, newly returned from Paris.
‘After the Accident’ is a complex story masquerading as a ‘what happened then’ narrative, as it minutely examines the psychological fallout of being raised by a narcissistic mother. These women find it difficult to trust their own desires and perceptions, and are not allowed to truly be themselves, instead being undermined by the very people who are supposed to love them. This sense of entrapment pervades the novel, and the reader is in the end left wondering if true self-actualisation will ever be possible for these characters. A worthy, well-written first effort, one hopes Jen Craig will build on this promising debut.
Ali Alizadeh, “The New Angel”, Transit Lounge Publishing, Victoria, Australia, 2008, Softcover, 255 pages, AU $27.95. ISBN 9780980461619
Ali Alizadeh’s debut novel is classified as Fiction, but, like many first novels, it clearly draws on the author’s own autobiography. Alizadeh lived in Iran until the age of 14, when he emigrated to Australia, and is thus able to give us the perspective of a young adolescent trying to negotiate not only the usual dizzying array of adolescent issues, but also the effects of the Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, and the rise of fundamentalism on his family and community.
A schoolboy is chastised for drawing heroic pictures of ‘Ancient Persians defending Iran against Alexander the Great’ (p.74). His teacher tells him: ‘Ancient Persians were not Muslims. They were Zoroastrian infidels. We can’t have this. And why is your Alexander naked? Depictions of nude bodies are absolutely forbidden … You must draw pictures of our Revolutionary War …’ In his sports class he is humiliated by his teacher for being ‘middle class sissy shit!’ because he’s asthmatic and unathletic while ‘Our boys are dying for God’ (p.77). Disgusted, the schoolboy leaves the schoolyard and meets a young woman on the bus stop who admires his picture of Alexander. The subsequent sweet but quite innocent relationship between Alizadeh’s protagonist, Bahram, and his beautiful friend Fereshteh is a story that would under normal circumstances be about the gentle awakening of young love, but in this social context becomes a story of loss, injustice, death and revenge.
The portrait of Bahram’s cousin in Iran, Abbas, is an unforgettable depiction of a young man drunk on the power bestowed on him by a ruling elite. Bahram witnesses Abbas’ sexual abuse of his mother, Abbas’ aunt, in her own home. Under the guise of enforcing sharia law on a ‘shameless’ (ie. unveiled) woman, Abbas throws his weight around and Bahram’s mother has no choice but to submit, or risk being reported to the authorities as a ‘whore’. This abuse of power needs little commentary from the narrator; the horror of the events he witnesses both within his family and in his wider community is self-evident. What is unexpected is that Abbas also ends up in Australia, and the adult Bahram’s final confrontation with his cousin forms the novel’s denouement.
Interspersed with this narrative is the older Bahram, now living on the Gold Coast-Brisbane stetch of Australia’s east coast. As a high school student he experiences racism, bullying, and labels of ‘terrorist’. As a young adult he undertakes the typical rite-of-passage long road trip across Australia, but his appearance prompts patrons in an outback pub to suspect him of being an escapee from a refugee detention centre, and they treat him appallingly. These incidents underline the difficulties immigrants face on a daily basis as they attempt to ‘assimililate’ into a culture that doens’t appear to want them.
Bahram’s is the voice of the newly-arrived immigrant, misunderstood and always alien, at home neither in the country he has come from nor the one he now inhabits. Such people are becoming increasingly common in our globalised society, and their outsider voices need to be heard and heeded if the notion of a ‘global village’ is to ever become a reality.
Transit Lounge, though a small publisher, has done a lovely job with this book, which is aesthetically pleasing and well-edited. Some of Alizadeh’s earlier poetry publications let him down in this respect, but ‘The New Angel’ showcases his talent for lyrical prose and is hopefully just the beginning of his prose output.
‘A Wedding In December’ by Anita Shreve
Abacus, London, UK, 2005, 328 pages, ISBN 13:978-0-349-11799-7, RRP $24.95 Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
This is American author Anita Shreve’s twelfth novel, and it’s plot centres around a wedding between cancer sufferer, Bridget, and her old high school sweetheart, Bill. The wedding acts as a catalyst, bringing together a group of seven now middle-aged protagonists who all attended school together at the Kidd Academy some twenty-six years earlier. The wedding is hosted by Nora, at an inn she has set up since the death of her famous, and much older, poet husband, Avery.
The married Harrison recalls his youthful desire for Nora, who at the time chose instead Harrison’s friend Steven, and as the weekend progresses we learn that something happened to Steven, causing his death, and that these events irrevocably changed the relationships and lives of the friends he left behind. Also present is Agnes, now a history teacher at Kidd Academy and still single, and Rob, who has found love and career success in the arts since coming out as gay.
As the weekend progresses, the past comes back into the consciousnesses of the characters and they are forced to reflect on the directions their lives have taken. Agnes longs to tell her old school chums about her long-standing relationship with the married teacher they were all so impressed with. This affair, which has continued for the entire interim, is eventually revealed by Agnes in an effort to counteract the impression that she is a sexless spinster. But Agnes knows that confessing to the relationship will certainly bring about its end and casue her to rethink her life’s direction. Part of Agnes’ inner dialogue – and an interesting diversion – is in the form of a work of fiction she is writing while staying at Nora’s inn.
Harrison is forced to examine his own marriage in the face of renewed contact with Nora, and to explain to his old friend what actually happened to Steven that night. Nora thinks back over her relationship with Avery, and realises she has not had the marriage she really wanted, but has instead been something of a protege, or handmaiden, to the ‘great man’ while he pursued other romantic entanglements. There is a sense that all the characters feel a sense of dissatisfaction with their choices, and the way their lives have worked out. Only Rob, and his partner Josh, seem satisfied with their current situation.
Shreve, author of the bestselling ‘The Pilot’s Wife’, (which was also made into a movie), is adept at producing page turners, with tight writing and plotting that keeps the reader guessing. Her characters are believable and visually imaginable, while the use of internal dialogue fleshes out their concerns and unspoken worries. But this reader couldn’t help but feel somewhat dissatisfied. The novel sets up a mystery to be solved, in much the same way as Donna Tarrt did in The Secret History, but the denouement turns out to be quite pedestrian. The facts of Stephen’s demise, when revealed, rely on Harrison’s youthful feelings of embarrassment rather than a pithy murder plot replete with twists and turns, so that what we are left with is a portrait of dissatisfied baby boomers facing middle age with varying degrees of trepidation.
The happy couple wed, the guests leave the inn, and the reader is left wondering how the marriage between Bridget and Bill, conducted under the shadow of death and the disbelief of their old friends, will fare. But unfortunately we never find out. A Wedding in December is an immensely readable book, but it is not a memorable one.
‘The Blood of Flowers’ by Anita Amirrezvani, Headline Review, Sydney, 2007, 377 pp, RRP $32.95,
ISBN 97807553 34209
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
Anita Amirrezvani’s novel is a colorful and beautifully told story set in seventeenth century Isfahan (Iran). The author, of Iranian descent but raised in San Francisco, spent nine years researching and writing this novel, which was won by Headline in a ‘hotly contested auction’ and is released in Australia in May 2007.
The story is narrated by a young village girl who, on the approach of marriageable age, finds her destiny altered when, first, a comet (perceived as a bad omen) blazes across the sky, and, soon after, her beloved father dies. The narrator and her mother are forced to move to the city and beg support from the girls’ uncle, Gostaham, a famous carpet designer, and his rather cruel wife. The protagonist shows talent as a designer and weaver of carpets and convinces her uncle to instruct her, even though she is female and this is not the usual practice. However, an impetuous act (cutting an unfinished carpet off the loom, thus wasting expensive materials and angering her benefactors), sees her forced into a sigheh, or temporary marriage, with a rich man. Essentially, this means that, having no dowry, her virginity is traded and she is tied to a marriage contract that is remade at three month intervals. Should she fail to please this man, he can dissolve the contract at any time, and she would then be considered tainted and unmarriageable. (Apparently sigheh‘s have been practised for centuries, and are still common in Iran today.)
But the protagonist is clever and seeks a better life than that she is offered. Although she manages to learn how to please her ‘husband’, the situation becomes intolerable when he takes her wealthy friend as a ‘proper’ wife and, rather than sacrifice a long-standing friendship, she decided to walk away from the relationship. Banished from the uncle’s home, she and her mother fall further and further into poverty, and eventually create a new ‘family’ with supportive friends in an impoverished part of the town. The narrator expends great effort to develop into the artisan she believes she can become, in the belief that she will then be able to assure a decent life for herself and her mother.
When her uncle Gostaham comes to visit and sees the conditions the young woman and her mother are forced to endure, he is ashamed and agrees to help with the purchase of materials to produce carpets for sale. He realises his niece has talent, and tells her that ‘neither earthquakes nor plagues or misery will ever stop you from making carpets that delight the eyes’ (p.346). Eventually the narrator manages to obtain commissions from members of the Shah’s harem, where her gender is an advantage as she is able to bargain directly with the buyers. But in the process of learning how to successfully trade in carpets she also learns how to be shrewd and businesslike. When one member of the harem, Maryam, admires the quality of one of her carpets, she tells the reader:
‘I did not reveal that I was the carpet’s designer and knotter. I thought if she saw my callused fingers or looked closely at my tired red eyes – if she understood the fearsome work that a carpet demanded – its beauties would be forever tarnished in her eyes. Better for her to imagine it being made by a carefree young girl, who skipped across hillsides plucking flowers for dyes before settling down to tie a few relaxing knots in between sips of pomegranate juice … I knew otherwise: my back ached, my limbs were stiff, and I had not slept enough for a month. I thought about all the labour and suffering that were hidden beneath a carpet, starting with the materials. Vast fields of flowers had to be murdered for their dye, innocent worms boiled alive for their silk – and what about knotters? Must we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of rugs? … I had heard stories about women who became deformed by long hours of sitting at the loom …’ (p.350-351).
Although this is a young woman’s story, it would be wrong to paint it as a ‘feminist narrative’. The strictures of life for women of strict Muslim cultures are well-known, but the author’s goal does not seem so much to point out the unfairness of the culture as to paint a portrait of a memorable and believable individual who learns how to prosper within these strictures – in other words this is an example of, in Joseph Campbell’s words, ‘a hero’s journey’. Along the way, we are treated to the sights, sounds, smells and experiences of life of the period, and exposed to the cultural mores that create and define the society. Instructive stories, some traditional, some invented by the author, occur throughout the text, always preceded by the opening line, ‘First there wasn’t and then there was. Before God, no one was’, an equivalent to the Western ‘Once upon a time’, and these stories contain wise teaching as well as entertainment. We never learn the narrator’s name, something the author writes was a conscious act of homage to the many unknown artisans of old Iran, but we come to know her intimately and share in her getting of wisdom and growing facility to forgive those who have treated her unfairly. By the novel’s conclusion, she has become independent but, more importantly, has learned that: ‘Even her suffering had not been in vain, for her heart had grown large enough to forgive those who had wronged her’ (p.344). It is this spiritual journey that lies at the heart of this fascinating and beautifully modulated narrative.
‘Waltzing Australia’ by Cynthia Clampitt, self-published via BookSurge, Chicago, USA, 2007, 497 pages, ISBN 1-4196-6306-2
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
‘Waltzing Australia’ is an account of a six month period the author spent exploring Australia. A Chicagoan more accustomed to a lifestyle defined by a well-paid corporate job, attendance at theatres, and fine restaurants and fine wine, in her thirties Clampitt decided there was something missing in her life and that she wanted to experience the ‘outback life’ she’d read about in the works of writers such as D. H. Lawrence, Miles Franklin and Banjo Patterson, and seen depicted in Australian movies such as ‘Breaker Morant’ and ‘The Man From Snowy River’.
Written in diary-style, we accompany the author as she travels – mainly in organised tour groups – around the continent, on a journey that covers some 20,000 miles. Clampitt’s travels took in most of the east and west coasts, the ‘red centre’, Tasmania and large sections of Victoria. Cape York and the Nullabor Plain are the only coastal areas she didn’t see by road, making her arguably more familiar with the country than many Australians who have lived here all their lives.
‘Waltzing Australia’ is a thick tome, and I confess to being somewhat daunted at attacking almost 500 pages of ‘what I did on my holidays’, but Clampitt’s warm, evocative and open-hearted writing soon won me over. She has a particular gift for describing the natural world and her accounts of rainforests, deserts, waterfalls, natural features such as Uluru in the Northern Territory and Wave Rock in Western Australia, and the myriad plants and animals she encounters are woven together into a rich tapestry. Her interest in botany particularly stands out and her descriptions of native plants, though not quite as effective as photographs, are so detailed as to make them seem almost as good. In every place she visits she is careful to discover and document the history and these accounts of Australia’s past are woven seamlessly into the narrative.
She’s no slouch either, taking in her stride new and challenging experiences such as camping out under the stars, sleeping on the ground in a swag, staying in cheap and cheerful hotels the like of which she would previously have avoided, and a week-long camping trek on horseback through the Victorian Alps. This latter adventure leaves her somewhat bruised and injured but, as always, she still expresses unbounded joy at the landscapes she encounters and the people she meets along her journey. Fearless and intrepid, she wanders on foot around Australia’s cities, trying to cram as much sighteeing and learning into her time here as is humanly possible.
This is a marvellous introduction to the continent for any American considering the arduous journey to the other side of the world, and would certainly be useful for trip planning. For Australian readers, there’s little to quibble with, though I was struck by the glossing over of some things – such as the bloody history of Aboriginal disenfranchisement – by tour operators, to make the place more appealing to tourists. Clampitt is told that many remote Aboriginal communities have banned alcohol because of the social problems it causes, but was clearly not told that much of this ‘banning’ has been a the behest of paternalistic governments rather than the communities themselves. Likewise, in her two visits to ‘Ayers Rock’ (which she seems unaware has been commonly known to all as ‘Uluru’ since being handed back to the traditional owners some two decades ago), her tour group makes the climb to the top of the rock, seemingly unaware that Aboriginal people prefer that tourists forgo climbing it, as they regard it as disrespectful to their beliefs in the rock’s spiritual significance. But a tourist can only report what they see and are told, so this is more a criticism of the Australian tourist industry than the author.
Clampitt would have to be the first American I’ve ever encountered (and that includes my American expat partner) that actually likes Vegemite! Often she employs some joyously laugh-out-loud descriptive prose, revealing a unique way of seeing the world around her. Here, for example, is an encounter with wombats: “These delightful, funny little animals have short, thick muscular necks, which makes it impossible for them to look up, so when they beg for food, they simply trot up and stare at your ankles … They don’t look quite real – sort of a cross between a woodchuck, a bear cub, and a footstool” (p.277-8). I’d never thought of wombats quite in this way before, but the footstool analogy is both apt and hilarious! By the end of the narrative, I felt I knew the author very well. Unafraid to honestly respond to her own emotions, and her surroundings, reading this book is as much about witnessing a person’s transformation through close contact with the natural world as it is about the places she visited in Australia.
Clampitt has returned to Australia several times since the journey described here, and has also subsequently travelled extensively in Asia, China, South America and many other places since taking the decision to ‘never again let expectations and security eclipse the dream’ of being a full-time writer and opening herself up to the world (p.463). This is an inspiring book, by an inspiring woman, whose appreciative writing made me want to invite her to my place on her next visit so I can show her the beauties of ‘my’ little pocket of Australian paradise.
Paul Dobbyn, “Soul Healing Afoot / Dead Dad Bye”, Designed & typeset by Gemma O’Brien, Self-published, Brisbane, Australia, 2008, Softcover, 80 pages, AUS $20, No ISBN.
Available from: email@example.com, or (in Australia) 0409872635
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
This elegant little poetry book has two front covers, that is, with two separate collections contained within it. It’s been some years since Paul Dobbyn published his last collection, ‘War Spoils’, a chapbook detailing his father’s military service and the effects of these experiences on his subsequent personal and family life. ‘War Spoils’ (1994) was a clear-eyed but compassionate book about a son seeking to understand a father, however this didn’t stop the local press in northern New South Wales’ Tweed Shire from interpreting the work as some kind of anti-war protest without even sighting the work. The subsequent Daily News banner, ‘POET PLANS PROTEST’ was set on fire outside the launch, possibly by a disgruntled digger, and the poet lived to tell the tale. The banner survives too, on the poet’s wall, as a rare instance of the word ‘Poet’ making headline news.
Unlike the ranting, raving, populist, (and frequently facile), performance poetry that seems to be springing up everywhere lately, Dobbyn’s work is much slower in the fermentation, and deals with some of life’s big questions. These are deeply felt, considered, highly-crafted poems about the challenges of middle age, about weathering divorce and rebuilding a life from its ashes, and about facing the death of an elderly parent – but they are not devoid of humour and, often, clever word play. Gemma O’Brien’s lovely linocuts relate subtly to the poetry and, combined with the unusual font and off-white paper, the overall effect is of an ‘artist’s book’.
‘Soul Healing Afoot’ is the longer sequence, and deals with personal transformation: the poet drives into the desert while contemplating his unknown future; an encounter with a snake’s shed skin prompts the lines: ‘… I knew how he felt, / that snake: / shiny and fresh – slicing through the grass: / chuckling at life’s best trick – and gift – of all’ (p.5); a sunset provokes lamentation for his ‘fragmented family’; a crushed beetle mirror’s the poet’s weariness at the seeming ruthlessness of life: ‘Take me. / I am pale and / drained, and / ready for a / kinder planet’ (p.20). The landscape of the Tweed Valley, and in particular Murwillumbah, watched over by the mysterious Mount Warning, represents the poet’s past, married life and, as he heals, he looks to the future, for ‘someone shining to rest my eyes on’ (p.31). A visit to ‘Eric the Bonecracker’ (p.37 ) ‘mine[s] a / motherlode of love / over 30 / long years’, freeing him from his memories and bringing the joy of ‘Resurrection’ in the form of new love (p.41). And in ‘Warning Winter Blue’ (p.43) the poet’s new circumstances (now ‘alive in peace’) prompt him to forgive the brooding mountain that for so long had cast its long shadow over his marriage.
‘Dead Dad Bye’ is an altogether different type of sequence, focusing on the death of the poet’s father and what he calls in the preface the ‘truly strange experience’ of a visitation at the moment of death – an experience that helps him to come to terms with a relationship that was flawed and can now never be repaired. ‘Lt Denis Dobbyn AIF’ (p.7) provides some insight into a father whose war expereince changed him irrevocably, and in ‘My Father’s Operation’ (p.12) a series of puns – which the senior Dobbyn loved – adds levity to the picture of sickness and suffering. It is at this point that father reconciles with son: ‘Your bright eyes / held mine and / it was as though / at last you’d let / your love for me / shine through’ (p.16, ‘At Last’), and the son is finally able to release the anger and sense of abandonment he’d felt since being sent away as a child to a home for crippled children.
‘Six Steps in a Father’s Death’ (p.18) looks unflinchingly at both the anticipation and the actual experience of grief and loss. The poet rushes to his dying father’s bedside, and, on entering the hospital room, says, ‘I thought you’d die / before I came!’ Then comes honest response and, from others, equally honest embarrassment: ‘The sobs that came were / loud and free / as I fell and hugged / your body – longing / to hear your voice once more. / / Well the rellies shooshed / and looked quite shocked, / but to hell with hospitals! / This was my dad, a / good old bloke, / not just some dying dog. / We went back forty / funny years … ‘ This sequence is as good an explanation as any as to why the world would be infinitely poorer without the emotive voices of poets.
Though the subject matter is sometimes heavy, Dobbyn has a light touch that uses irony, wordplay, rhyme, and ample space between the words to make palatable these musings on some of life’s most difficult, if universal, experiences. The knowledge that the visitation the poet experienced was his father’s last goodbye brings solace and closure to both poet and reader. Paul Dobbyn had some success as a poet in the 1970s, being twice commended for the FAW (WA) Tom Collins Poetry Prize, but the pressures of earning a living and supporting a family hijacked his time and energy and stymied his output for many years. As the old adage goes, age has not wearied him; his work is better than ever, and it’s good to have him back.
Liz Hall-Downs confesses to being a friend of the poet; but she also confesses to being a ruthless reviewer who only gives credit where it’s due!
‘Down the Nile – Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff’ by Rosemary Mahoney, Little, Brown and Company (Hachette USA), New York, 2007 ISBN 978-0-316-10745-7, RRP $23.99 USD
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
I so enjoyed this glorious little book that I wanted to start again at the beginning as soon as I’d finished it. Rosemary Mahoney’s humor and sense of adventure is only surpassed by her beautiful, evocative writing, as she describes a brave (some would say foolhardy) attempt to row the Nile alone. An experienced oarswoman and author of several previous travel narratives, Mahoney has lived in Florida and, latterly, on Rhode Island, where she regularly indulges her passion for rowing, not only for its physical benefits but also for the aesthetic pleasures of being alone in nature, floating on a wide expanse of water. She writes that she had visited Egypt before and had had the usual tourist experiences, such as taking a barge from Aswan, and that this germinated her dream to row the Nile alone.
The logistics of such an undertaking are phenomenal. Mahoney is dealing with an Islamic culture where women’s lives are circumscribed, confined to the home and family, and her greatest challenge is to find someone who will sell her a boat in which to undertake her journey. With the help of her American friend, Madeleine Stein (who speaks fluent Arabic and teaches at Cairo University, and to whom the book is dedicated) Mahoney devises an elaborate story about a fictional husband asleep in a hotel room whom she wishes to surprise with the gift of a rowboat. Even with this story, she struggles to find someone amongst the felucca captains along the river who will even allow her to take a boat out for an hour, so amazed are they that a woman would want to do such a thing. She is eventually befriended by a Nubian man, Amr, who allows her to use his rather worse-for-wear rowboat for some of the journey but insists on following her, with Madeleine in tow, in his felucca to ensure her safety. After this leg of the journey, Mahoney and Stein finally manage to purchase a skiff for Mahoney so she can at last be alone on the great river to experience it in the way she desires.
This is the bones of the story, but there is so much more of interest in this narrative. Mahoney has a marvelous eye for both landscape and people, giving the reader a sense of really seeing through her eyes. She also has a wicked sense of humor and narrates the many astonishing conversations she has with various (mostly male) acquaintances, who simply cannot fathom the ways of western women. After relating a conversation with Amr, she remarks that in this world she is: ‘Not Nubian, not Muslim, not Egyptian – these facts conspired to disqualify me entirely from the female category. What mattered for a Muslim woman could never really matter for me. In Egypt, a western woman would never truly be a woman, nor did she quite approach the status of a man; instead, her identity was more like that of a pleasant or irrelevant animal like, say, a peahen or a manatee’. Amr is adamant that ‘Nubian woman would not be doing nothing. Nothing. They should only be staying home and minding the house’ but tells Mahoney that ‘it doesn’t matter for you’. (p 113-114)
Everywhere she goes, Mahoney is accosted by Egyptian men who tell her ‘You look like an Argentine; you look like an English, a cat, a bird’, who want to accost her for money or talk about sex in a way they would never consider doing with their own countrywomen. She is told that all European women are prostitutes – by a male prostitute who sells himself to these same women and who becomes disturbed when she points out that the European women have paid sex with him because they want to, and that he, being the party who is paid, is actually the one who is the prostitute. Mahoney dresses herself in a white shirt and loose white pants, wraps a shirt turban-style around her head, and forgoes sunglasses in an attempt to look like ‘just another Egyptian man’ (p 238), and in this disguise manages to complete her journey to the point of the river beyond which safety cannot be assured – an amazing feat, given the obstacles she has to overcome. Ye, still, in the final analysis, Mahoney has to face up to the reality of her own fears and preconceptions that simply cannot be considered independently of Islamic gender roles and gender politics.
Another aspect of Down the Nile that adds to its pleasures is that Mahoney has done extensive research into the writings of earlier Nile travelers, so that, as well as receiving her impressions of the ‘creamy, coffee-colored’ Nile, we are also treated to journal extracts from previous travellers to Egypt: Winston Churchill and William Golding, nineteenth century figures such as Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale, and even earlier writers such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles Sonnini (1790s), all the way back to The Histories of Herodotus. Thus Mahoney’s individual adventure story becomes part of a much bigger narrative, that of an ancient and revered river, rich in history and culture, that never fails to captivate.
‘The God of Spring’ by Arabella Edge, Picador, Sydney, 2005. 344 pp. RRP $32.95
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
Based on the few known facts of the life of the French painter Theodore Gericault, Arabella Edge’s wonderful novel is a telling of the imagined events leading to the painting of the famous ‘Raft of the Medusa’, which hangs in the Louvre. The novel begins in Montmartre in June 1818, not long after the days of ‘The Terror’ of the French Revolution, and takes us through to April 1819, when the painting is finally exhibited in London and Dublin, with a short final chapter set in 1823 when we encounter the painter, spent and weakened by cancer, facing his imminent death.
Hailed as promising from his early work as a twenty-one year old, (he was awarded a Gold Medal at the prestigious Salon), now at twenty-seven the artist is seeking a subject with which to unequivocally prove his talent. Supported financially by his unimpressed father, who would prefer his artistic son to join the family tobacco business, and his Uncle Caruel, Theodore has fallen in love with his uncle’s young wife, Alexandrine, six years his senior. Under the pretext of executing a commissioned portrait of Alexandrine, the pair conduct an affair while Gericault begins and abandons various studies of his lover.
Gericault learns that in 1916, the French frigate the Medusa, on its way to Senegal on the West African coast, was wrecked in shallow waters. The shipwreck was caused by arrogant but inexperienced fops who, with their families and social equals, commandeer the life vessels, having no regard for other passengers and crew. The masts were taken down and a carpenter ordered to construct a raft, which it was said would be towed behind the rowboats with its cargo of 150 men. But the raft, unseaworthy and makeshift, was cut adrift by the Captain and what followed was a terrible ordeal that led to madness, murder, suicide, and cannibalism – an ordeal which only fifteen of the 150 men survived. This is a story which at the time fascinated the French public and, in the hands of Arabella Edge, is in equal parts fascinating and repellent to the modern reader.
Two survivors, the ship’s surgeon, Sauvigny, and the seaman, Correard, are tracked down living in squalid conditions by a young newspaper office lackey, who, for a fee, introduces them to Gericault. The artist takes them to his home and lavishes them with food and wine while trying to wheedle out of them the details of what actually happened on the raft. Outraged at their treatment by those who would cover up the events that happened on the Medusa, Sauvigny and Correard tell of their betrayal and abandonment by the ship’s Captain. But they are reluctant to reveal much more and, seduced by the party lifestyle of Gericault’s neighbour, Horace Vernet – a painter who is much admired and frequently commissioned by the aristocracy of the day – they begin to spend all their time carousing with Vernet and his bohemian friends. Gericault, meanwhile, has become both inspired and obsessed with the story and is irritated by his successful neighbour’s interference with his house guests and, by extension, with his creative work.
Eventually Gericault meets another survivor, Thomas the Helmsman. Now scarred and dissolute by what he has seen and endured, Thomas tells Gericault the truth of what actually occurred on the raft – the cannibalism and murder Gericault’s house guests are loath to admit being party to. This knowledge gives the painter the impetus and perspective he needs to approach what will be his master work.
Meanwhile, Gericault’s lover, Alexandrine, becomes pregnant to him, and the artist is tormented by guilt over his abandonment of Alexandrine as well as his original betrayal his uncle’s trust. Cut off by his father, who has agreed to support both mother and child, Alexandrine retires to a convent, her child is given up, and Gericault is forbidden contact with either of them under pain of their financial support being withdrawn by his father.
The vagaries of intense love, infidelity and moral turpitude are examined in this storyline of the lovers’ relationship and its dissolution. But the bulk of the narrative concerns the actual painting.
There is much of interest in the depiction of the actual method of executing this painting – the difficulties of finding and storing pigments, of mortuary visits to obtain cadavers that can be used for preliminary sketches, of choosing which precise moment in the story to single out for depiction, and of the making of a tableau featuring a raft and models (including a very young Delacroix) for the artist to work from. In the subtext exists an examination of the nature of contemporary ‘fame’, as we witness the vastly talented Gericault’s struggles in devotion to his art and compare it with Horace Vernet’s easy life as he gives the aristocracy what they want – portraits that show them in a positive, but untruthful, light. Gericault’s life ends in sickness and despair, and on his deathbed he ruminates that ‘Not even so much as five good paintings justified his life’ (p.341). It is the reader’s privilege to know that it is Gericault’s work that will survive the test of time, while the ‘famous’ but unscrupulous (and secretly jealous) Vernet will vanish into the annals of history, but this does not make the central character’s despair any less poignant.
The morality of trying to force the shipwreck’s survivors to reveal the horrible events they lived through in the service of Gericault’s art is also examined: (‘ … he realised they were all burdened with their own eyewitness accounts, burning to tell the truth yet shamed by the outcome. Heroes or villains, survivors or victims – in which category, he asked himself, did he belong?’ – P.217), and this is a crux of the narrative. The artist puts much store in the literal truth, and is shocked when, in Dublin, he witnesses a vulgar theatrical depiction of the events following the shipwreck and ‘fought an impulse to jump onto the stage … explain his motives, the months of effort to transform catastrophe into art. He wanted to make them understand the true nature of what had happened on the raft’ (p.332).
My review copy of The God of Spring was accompanied by a colour reproduction of the actual painting, which I found myself referring to often while engrossed in the narrative. I felt it a shame it wasn’t included within the covers of the novel, (though a detail from it graces the cover), as contemplation of the actual painting whose genesis is depicted added much to my enjoyment of the novel. But this minor criticism is the only misgiving I had; overall I thoroughly enjoyed and was totally swept up in the world of this marvellous story and can’t wait to see what Edge produces next. Highly recommended to all who love art, are engaged in art-making, or who have an interest in moral and philosophical issues to do with the exploitation of life in art’s service.
‘Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love and Leading Roles’ by Kathleen Turner in collaboration with Gloria Feldt, Springboard Press, New York, 2008
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
It’s fair enough to expect that someone known for their acting ability may not be as equally talented when called upon to write an account of their life. But can Kathleen Turner make this excuse? Given that this book was written in collaboration with a writer, one would expect more attention would have been paid to producing a text that contained competent writing as well as Hollywood gossip. Unfortunately, this memoir reads exactly as it was produced – with Turner verbally holding forth on various subjects and the coauthor simply editing the transcribed conversation, complete with the usual colloqualisms that may well be effective in speech but caused this reader to cringe in my chair. (I’m afraid I don’t warm to being addressed as ‘Baby’ and the liberal sprinkling of the ‘f-word’ throughout the text simply convinced me that Turner lacks an effective vocabulary to draw upon.)
It’s important to remember that in the case of celebrity memoirs the bar has been significantly lifted since the release of Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’ and the recent Eric Clapton memoir, both of which were highly literate, thoughtful and well-written. ‘Send Yourself Roses’ is not at all like these recent memoirs, but more like the kind of celebrity hagiography produced as a movie tie-in or short-term career booster. This represents a lost opportunity for Turner, one of whose purposes in releasing this memoir seems to be to garner more of the respect she has worked so hard for. (Remember her groundbreaking work on the sexually explicit and, for its time, radical, Body Heat, the swashbuckling fun of Romancing the Stone, and her unforgettable depiction of the manic divorcing wife in The War of the Roses?)
The most powerful part of the memoir is Turner’s description of her rapid deterioration into invalidism as a result of the severe rheumatoid arthritis, and her struggles to maintain her career, relationships and physical function in the face of a rampaging inflammatory disease. Telling the world about her illness would have been career suicide, and this, along with endless media speculation on her medication-induced weight gain, served to exacerbate her distress. Her account of the physical and emotional toll of this experience is extremely moving and, as a fellow RA sufferer, I can say it’s one of the most honest accounts I’ve read about the impact of RA on an individual.
Turner has some interesting insights to share on acting, and the Hollywood system, and some quite colourful accounts of what it was like to work with iconic figures such as Jack Nicholson, Steve Martin, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Douglas, William Hurt, John Waters, John Huston and Edward Albee. However, her stated desire to avoid writing a ‘gossip memoir’ leaves the reader with more questions than answers about the various directors, authors and leading men she’s worked with, and few new insights, so that the text reads like a simple ‘Guess how many important people I’ve known and worked with’ kind of narrative. This kind of thing may have sold well in the past and, given Turner’s status and recognisability, probably will in this case. But it seems to me that someone as insightful and witty as Turner has lost an opportunity here by not writing her memoir herself, in actual words on a page, and over a period of time that allows for rereading and reflection before allowing her story to be released in book form. Putting her name to this conversation posing as memoir has done both Turner and her talent a disservice . One strictly for the fans.
Barry Levy, “As If!”, Interactive Press, Carindale, Queensland, Australia, 2008, Paperback, 243 pages. ISBN-9781876819804
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
As befits a small, regional publisher, this novel is set in Ipswich, the satellite town situated west of Brisbane on the banks of the Bremer River. Levy writes pithily and well about his characters, and we are drawn unwillingly into the horrors of their adolescent world – a world of alcohol, drugs and vandalism, where disenchanted youth congregate under bridges, avoid attending school, and become involved in random destruction for its own sake. The parents of Gray and Gordon Morrow, and the brittle Dusty Jones, are neglectful, self-obsessed, ill-educated, and physically and/or sexually abusive towards the young people in their care. The teenagers respond with alienated behaviour that threatens to ruin their young lives before they’ve even begun.
The character of Gray Morrow provides a window into this world. The teenager has been crippled from an unwarranted and vicious beating by his biological father, who has then abandoned his family. Gray suffers from severe asthma. He is frail and frightened, but also astute, perceptive and deeply feeling – a memorable character with a unique way of seeing the world around him. He looks up to his older brother, Gordon, an out-of-control thug, who frequently takes Gray out on his motorbike to Mount Moon, the only place they have to escape from their chaotic home life and find any kind of short-lived peace. Their mother’s new boyfriend, Mick, treats the youths with contempt, turfing them out of their rooms for visitors, and generally behaving in a hostile, aggressive manner. Alcohol is a catalyst for family violence. Most of the adults in this novel are as childish and irresponsible as the teenagers.
Levy paints a realistic picture of what life is like for this generation of neglected youngsters, and it’s a bleak picture indeed. Bored, promiscuous, and frequently high on drugs and booze, they break into houses in groups to steal and vandalise. They are so disconnected from society that they feel no empathy for their victims, or shame over their actions. They act with a sense of entitlement made poignant by the fact that they have few rights, even within their own families, and little to look forward to.
One ray of hope is Ruth Hannah, an older woman who operates a shelter for wayward and homeless youth. Ruth is the only solid parental figure in their world, but her efforts to provide solace and sanctuary are brought down by a bureaucracy that demands qualifications she does not possess, leading to a public shaming that horrifies the loyal young people she has been trying to help. Detective Constable Watno Thornes from the Juvenile Aid Bureau makes some attempts to influence the Morrow boys to change their ways and create a worthwhile life, but this early portrait of police kindness proves to be false. Thornes turns out to be an opportunistic bully, and the feisty young girl Dusty becomes his victim when she refuses to provide him with sexual favours and is beaten to death in a back alley. Gray witnesses this horrendous act of violence, and this destroys whatever respect he and Gordon may have had left for authority and leads to further violence.
“As If!” presents a sad and all-too-common scenario for which there are no easy answers. It is memorable, disturbing, frightening and certainly not pleasant to read, but its realism cannot be denied. I was disappointed, however, that more care wasn’t taken in its editing. Inconsistencies, spelling errors and laboured metaphors mar an otherwise accomplished pice of writing. The Bremer River is sometimes ‘brown’, sometimes ‘red’, sometimes ‘black’. Dusty’s mother, Jean (p.111) is described as having an Elvis haircut with ‘sideburns’ (a bearded lady, perhaps?). Ruth is painted as devoutly religious; she makes the young people in her care pray before meals and chides them for swearing, but this doesn’t sit comfortably with other passages where she talks about ‘karma’ (p.228) or uses swear words such as ‘goddamn’ herself. Copy-editing-wise, Gray Morrow is ‘Gray’ in the early pages; the word ‘shier’ is used for ‘shyer’, ‘passed’ for ‘past’, ‘complementary’ for ‘complimentary’, and there’s a strange reference to a ‘General Paton’, all things that really should have been picked up and rectified before going to press. Some laboured descriptions that don’t quite come off also detract from the strength of the narrative: a television is oxymoronically ‘blaring something inaudible’ (p.112); when Thornes visits Ruth’s house he leans against the desk, ‘the back of the computer sticking into his spine like a large misshapen toothpick’ (p.136); Gray ‘feel[s] the relief of [Thornes’] passing gaze rifle through [him] like a sharp wind down [his] ribcage’ (p.138); Gray’s mother ‘pulls [him] onto her lap like [he] is a carpet or something’ (p.160). On the three occasions when groups of youths break into and trash houses, their modus operandi is identical each time, which lessens the impact of these scenes and makes the reader feel that these passages are ‘writing by numbers’ designed purely to shock and dismay the reader.
The presentation is also somewhat weird – the cover photo shows three shiny, quite well-dressed and attractive young people posing before a wall of graffiti, bearing little resemblance to the characters depicted inside. A contents page providing page numbers for untitled chapters seems like a waste of space and simply looks odd. The back cover blurb declares that the novel ‘mov[es] between the fringe town of Ipswich and affluent Brisbane’, a statement that really can’t go unchallenged, given that Ipswich City is now host to million-dollar penthouses and ‘affluent Brisbane’ contains legions of young homeless who can be seen on any given night in the city. A recommendation is not written by any writer of note, but by an Associate Professor in Psychology who compares Levy’s writing to ‘early Henry Miller’ and declares that ‘This book is a good read for those sensible enough to buy it’.
All of these production issues detract from what is an otherwise courageous, honest and unflinching portrayal of youthful disenfranchisement and despair, with strongly drawn characters and instantly recognisable dialogue and settings. The world Levy describes is not pleasant and there are no happy endings, but its truth is undeniable.
Fresh News from the Arctic by Libby Hart
Interactive Press, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, 2006, 56 pages, ISBN 9781876819347, $24.00
Libby Hart’s poems possess a contemplative stillness and subtlety, giving them the impression of an ‘unfolding’ of meaning as the work is read and reread. Hart is not a ‘wordy’ poet; rather, the lines are sparse and considered, each word weighty and carefully chosen. This is her first collection, and it is a worthy one.
The title poem, ‘Fresh News from the Arctic’, is essentially a love poem to nature, in this case Antarctica. But it is also a meditation on life. The poet has ‘an apparition at my shoulder’ (p.3); she is ‘listening to the slow shattering of my life’. She is ‘waiting for inner resolution’ that ‘must come like a mast, like a sail; / with an almighty north wind, / prodigious and impressive’ (p.4). Thus the poem juxtaposes an impressive, overwhelming and concrete natural world against the poet’s inner, unresolved emotional world, creating a kind of tension that speaks to human uncertainty. This nine part title sequence won the Somerset National Poetry Prize in 2005; it’s easy to see why it would have appealed to the judges, as its concerns are both personal and universal.
Appealing also – especially to the Australian audience – is the long poem ‘Nicolas Baudin’ (pp.39-44), which recounts an attempt by Baudin to transport seven kangaroos (‘as quiet as folded hands’) to Paris for the Empress Josephine to add to her menagerie, her ‘collection of pure pleasure‘. It seems a reckless undertaking; in the event only two kangaroos survive the journey and Baudin, after witnessing the death of one of his charges, himself dies at sea (‘… his body is placed / in a hasty coffin, and / dug deep / inside a snug anchor / of forgetfulness’ (p.42). But what seems to intrigue the author is that these two kangaroos became accustomed to their new environment, became ‘the very embodiment of relaxation’, and ‘lazed on their sides / like misshapen and ancient stones’ (p.43). They reproduced to the extent that wild kangaroos – ‘generations of escapees’ – apparently now inhabit Rambouillet Forest, near the town of Emance. The poem ends on this nicely rounded note: ‘Josephine / would’ve been pleased / to have a legacy / so close to Paris / but, more importantly, / Baudin would be delighted / the edges of his mouth / curling into a small boat / at the very thought of it; and / at the obstinate nature / of the peaceful creatures / that don’t complain (p.44).’ In both these long poems, the imagery of a boat reinforces the notion of gloabl travel through bth the world and the senses.
The other substantial, long poem in the collection, ‘The Anatomy of Clouds’ (pp 9-12)
uses the language of meteorology to describe the subtleties of the spoken and unspoken things in a relationship as a man and a woman become a couple. The different types of cloud and cloud activity are evoked to capture particular emotions (‘the nimbus / that holds us together / … / The softest kind of rain / that lasts all through the day … p.10) later becomes ‘ … you grew overcast / shadows blooming to great height, / your cold front meeting my warm like a hailstorm’. As their baby is born, the narrator makes the commitment (perhaps to the partner, perhaps to the child): ‘ … here are my pearls of breath / here are my hands / Even in the harshest storm / I will shelter you’.
‘Between’ is a striking rumination on the methods of death employed or encountered by a cast of famous writers (‘Henry James writes invisible words over a bedspread / Keats undergoes his long final night / Eugene O’Neill waits to die in a Boston hotel room / … / … Hemingway places the gun to his head / while the Brontes drop away / like pearls from a broken necklace’ (p.38). Some pieces verge towards the surreal: ‘The Dream Jar’, ‘heavy with cloud’, seems to resemble Plath’s ‘Bell Jar’ as a vehicle of restriction (‘a tight lid holds conversation well’), and is a repository for a dream of ‘snails inside each drop of rain’ that ‘ride my toes as hills’ (p.29) – a beautiful and unexpected ending to a meditation on emotion. ‘Room of Angels’ is simply descriptive of its title, introducing a roomful of angels in a room ‘so small … / our wings are clipped. / Pushed back against spine. / Restless, we ruffle easily’ (p.33). This highly visual poem is pure invention, with strangely memorable visual imagery that put this reader in mind of the independent film Northfork’.
Other poems deal with a variety of themes, both large and small: science and the rise and fall of theories (‘Darwin’s Walk’), odd newspaper stories (‘The Memory Suite’), observation of the way people on trains handle their briefcases (‘The Briefcase Phenomenon’), a descriptive piece on a well-known face (‘Samuel Becket’s Wrinkles’), and an imaginary account of what is going through the mind of an acrobat performing for a crowd (‘Tightrope Walker’). Libby Hart’s ‘Fresh News From The Arctic’ is a small but significant collection of poetry that is engaging, thought-provoking, sometimes wryly humorous, and that demands reading and rereading to uncover the delicate nuances hidden so artfully within its language.
‘A Writer’s San Francisco: A Guided Journey for the Creative Soul’ by Eric Maisel, with drawings by Paul Madonna, New World Library, Novato, California, 2006, hardcover,144 pages, ISBN 1-57731-546-4 Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
Eric Maisel, described by his publisher as ‘America’s foremost creativity coach’ has written this delightful little book with, it seems, two types of readers in mind. The first is the person who knows and loves the city of San Francisco, and the second is the writer – or would-be writer – seeking to access their innate creativity and conquer writers’ block. The thirty individual short essays profile ‘inspiring writing locations’ in the San Francisco area, a smattering of literary history, and tips and strategies to ‘inspire writers to write’. I confess that the notion of a ‘creativity coach’ did inspire some ‘only in America’ musings in this reader, but I was quickly won over by the author’s warm, friendly tone and his truisms about the creative process that permeate the entire text.
In fact, I haven’t enjoyed a book on writing this much since encountering Stephen King’s On Writing some years ago. When I got to the end of A Writer’s San Francisco, I actually felt compelled to go back to the beginning and reread it immediately, such is its charm and inspirational qualities. Along with the author’s own musings on the literary (and his own personal) history with various sites around the city – including the Golden Gate Bridge, the famed City Lights Bookstore and the Bernal Heights area – the text is laden with helpful aphorisms for the creative soul who feels ‘stuck’. Quotable passages abound. This, for example: ‘Nature gives us thirty years or a hundred, a quill pen or its equivalent, and odd thoughts that need to settle on paper or else turn to dust’ (p.4). In discussing the city’s demographics, Maisel writes that San Francisco – like Paris – ‘is an important, well-marked stop on the bohemian international highway’, and cites the city’s rich history, from the bohemian enclaves of the 1890s, to the rise of the Beat poets, to the Summer of Love, as proof of his claim that San Francisco is home to more intelligent, thoughtful, creative and non-conformist people than just about any other city in the US, a fact made all the more remarkable given the small size of the city (46.7 square miles), compared with, for example, Los Angeles (469 square miles) or Houston (579 square miles). The effect of this is that ‘smart people with ideas are crammed together and stand in line at the same cafes, go to the same outdoor film festivals, … shop at the same farmers’ markets, and frequent the same bars’ (p.46). Essentially, Maisel’s advice to the writer is that this city is a true ‘home’ for the creative soul, and that its bohemian qualities create inspiration and a sense of continuity with the family of creative humanity.
Maisel also gets down to the nitty gritty of looking at the kinds of people that become writers. He gives the reader permission to embrace their writerly self, with all its bizarre appetites and creeping paranoias. Some more quotable quotes: ‘There are reasons why writers who write a lot, as Rudyard (Kipling) did, have big appetites. They are dancing bundles of desire. Writers who write crave sex, peanuts, and Nobel Prizes. They crave; they itch; they lust; they are alive. Whether they manage this melange of desires well is a separate matter. But without this dancing, pressing desire they would sit quietly like old folks lined up in the corridor of a nursing home. Honor your goal to create a world by burning with desire. Be incandescent – or nothing will happen’ (p.88). Maisel even has practical advice for the stay-at-home parent writer about how to find the time to write while keeping the kids supervised and occupied. He points out that the writer who has no time to write will be miserable, and this in turn will make his or her family miserable. ‘Writing is a writer’s prime parenting skill. If you don’t write, you get sad, angry, unhinged, gloomy, pessimistic, and morose. By writing first thing in the morning, as your children play or toddle off to school, you put yourself in the mood to smile at them when next you see them. Writing is a tonic, an elixir, even if it goes badly, because even if it goes badly at least you have been writing’ (p.92).
All writers instinctually know these things, but it’s terrific to see it all laid out in black and white by a ‘successful’ writer, who openly confesses to the same difficulties and anxieties as the novice. Maisel’s text makes one want to write, and to write better, more consistently, more religiously. In acknowledging the free, nonconformist nature of the creative soul, Maisel helps the reader give themselves permission to create, and to create abundantly.
Each chapter of the book is prefaced by one of Paul Madonna’s lovely drawings of various aspects of the city, covering not only architecture, but also odd views of back alleys, old cars, artist’s studios, roof gables, and webs of electrical and trolley car wires, all of which communicate the city’s unique charm. I’ve never been to San Francisco – although, like msot western writers I’ve always been aware of it as a kind of ShangriLa – but after reading this I feel I know the city better and, more importantly, can find ways to harness the type of energy Maisel claims San Francisco emanates for my own creative purposes.
Robert K. Oermann, “Behind the Grand Ole Opry Curtain: Tales of Romance and Tragedy”, Center Street/Hachette, NY, USA, 2008, Hardcover, 403 pages, US $23.99. ISBN – 13: 978 1 931722 89 6
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
For country music lovers, the Grand Ole Opry is an institution, and membership of the ‘Opry Family’ a sure sign that a musician has arrived. This book focuses on the stories worth repeating – love affairs, murders, fallings-out, and tragedies – amongst some of the most well-known musicians in the world. Being Australian, and more familiar with ‘old time’ country, this reader particularly enjoyed the accounts of the Opry in it’s ‘old days’, when people like the Carter Family, David ‘Stringbean’ Akeman, and comedienne Minnie Pearl trod the boards of its stage.
‘Stringbean’ is largely forgotten by all but the older fans, but the story of two men breaking into his house and waiting for him and his wife to return home in 1973 so they could rob him still elicits horror. Oerman claims many old-time country performers were known to stash their money at home, but the thieves never found Stringbean’s money. Instead, he fought back with his gun, and was killed by the intruders, who then shot his wife, execution-style. The killers were caught, and in 1997 ‘a reported $20,000 was discovered behind the mantel in Stringbean’s chimney’ (p.21). Now rotten and mouse-eaten, it was of no use to anyone.
There’s not much new in the chapter on Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, but it’s still fun to revisit one of country music’s most famous love stories. The same goes for the love story between Loretta and Oliver Doolittle (‘Doo’) Lynn began when Loretta was just thirteen years old and lasted until Doo’s death in 1996; it produced a gaggle of babies, a string of hits (Lynn credits Doo’s honest criticism with helping to advance her career) and, finally, great sadness on his death from complications of diabetes. An old-fashioned kind of relationship, one can’t help being moved by Loretta’s remarks reported here:
“Doo could always stand up to me, and stand beside me too. And I always loved that in him. He was always there. And I would do what he said 99 percent of the time. I may not like his criticism and I would get mad. But I would weigh it out when I’d get to myself and think about it. And Doo would always have the right decision for me. I think a woman oughtta listen to that. Because a man usually does have the right decision for his woman, because that’s his woman, and he loves her … We fought like cats and dogs and everything else. Doo and I fought, and we loved. We fought, and we loved. We fought, and we loved. But I think both of us loved each other. That’s what kept us together. That’s what love is” (p.99).
There’s a chapter on the Opry ‘Curse’, that begins with the airplane crash in 1963 that killed Patsy Cline, along with Hankshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas and Randy Hughes, the pilot and manager. Oermann gives a potted history of the careers of each of these artists, interspersed with comments from people who knew them, then goes on to discuss other untimely, seemingly related, deaths. Jack Anglin, from the duo Johnny and Jack, was killed in a car accident on the way to Cline’s memorial service. Three weeks later, Texas Ruby died in a trailer fire while her fiddler husband, Curly Fox, was playing onstage at the Opry. Hawkins’ wife, Jean Shepard, remarked that she wanted to quit after her husband’s death, but was convinced to get back onstage without her sidekick by members of the Opry ‘family’ who came to her house begging her to return, such was the support and closeness of the various artists. But talk of the ‘jinx’ or ‘curse’ has swirled around ever since those days.
There are many other short histories in this collection, canvassing the lives and careers of Jim Reeves, Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Porter Wagoner, Marty Stuart, Ricky Scaggs, Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Trace Adkins, Reba McEntire, and many others. The most affecting chapter, by far, is the last, which discusses the life and death of the great Hank Williams in 1953. A teenage drunk who started his love affair with the bottle at age eleven, Williams’ debut at the Opry following the success of ‘Move It On Over’ in 1949 was, according to Oermann, ‘the most spectacular Grand Ole Opry debut in history’ (p.344). Over the next three years Williams had twenty-seven smash hits, including ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ and ‘Jambalaya’. A former Opry bass player, Buddy Killen, is quoted discussing the time Williams encored eight times in a row, prompting Bob Hope to tell the manager, ‘I will not go on after that hillbilly again. You put me on first’ (p.345). But, like so many ‘stars’ that came after him, Williams’ drinking brought him down in the end. Coupled with prescription pills and the morphine given to him by a doctor in a hotel room in Knoxville, Tennessee, (despite Williams already being virtually comatose), it’s thought that Williams’ driver, Charles Carr, drove around for quite some time, unaware that his passenger in the back seat was, in fact, dead. Hank Williams was only twenty-nine years old when he died, a death that was sad, preventable and wasteful, but his influence on the culture of country music is undeniable.
‘The Sonnet Lover’ by Carol Goodman, Piatkus, UK, 2007, 344 pp, RRP $32.95,
ISBN 97807 49938314
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
The Sonnet Lover is described by its publishers as a ‘tense and seductive literary thriller’, and the cover quote from the Daily Express describes it as ‘Miss Jean Brodie meets Donna Tartt’. This latter description is true only to the extent that the protagonist is a teacher (though, unlike Miss Jean Brodie, at a university, not a secondary school), and the storyline concerns the death of a student, which may or may not be a suicide. But this is where such resemblances end. This novel, to my mind, actually has more in common with A.S. Byatt’s Possession, with its overriding theme of uncovering previously unknown facts about the lives of famous writers, in this case, William Shakespeare. Carol Goodman is no Byatt, though she certainly knows how to produce a page-turner, but the similarities in theme to these works I’ve mentioned does somewhat water down the novel’s impact – which is a shame, given that this is quality writing, with well-drawn characters, convincing dialogue, and a labyrinthine plot.
The main protagonist is Dr Rose Asher, a lecturer in Renaissance poetry at a prestigious American College who, as an undergraduate, had spent a year in Tuscany where she embarked upon an affair with her married tutor – an affair which ended badly. After a gifted student of Rose’s falls (or is pushed) off a balcony, Rose returns to the Tuscan villa, La Civetta, because her deceased student, Robin Weiss, had written a screenplay based on a theory he had developed while also studying at La Civetta. Weiss’s research suggested that the identity of the ‘dark lady’ of the Shakespearean sonnets was a sixteenth century poet, Ginevra de Laura, who had lived at the villa at the time. Because Robin’s death occurred amid accusations of plagiarism, and with Hollywood knocking on the door for the rights to the story, Rose seeks to uncover his sources and discover the truth about his theory and his death – a death in which her former lover’s son, Orlando, is implicated
As significant as the human characters are La Civetta‘s traditional mosaic floors. These feature semi-precious stones and contain a design of ‘rose petals’ that, in certain lights, appear as blood. These floor designs, along with the paintings in the villa’s bridal chamber and a series of de Laura’s poems Rose finds concealed in the room, provide clues that help Rose to decipher and uncover the details of de Laura’s rape by the villa’s brutal owner in the 1500s. It appears that the rose petals/blood are de Laura’s and her father’s (the artisan’s) code for the loss of de Laura’s virginity in violent circumstances.
The narrative moves along nicely, and is coloured with evocative descriptions of Italian lifestyle, architecture and landscape. My main qualm is that it all ends rather too neatly – the protagonist’s boyfriend, a university Vice Chancellor, turns out to be mercenary and devious in his quest to obtain La Civetta for the university; Rose’s lover of twenty years past is still interested in pursuing the relationship, as those who had previously stood in the way of the union (his wife and son), are revealed as evil, unethical, or stupid. The love object, Bruno, is, of course, blameless (even though he’d had an illicit affair with Rose when he was married and she was just nineteen and decidedly naive – a challenge to any reader’s sense of what is ethical behaviour for a middle-aged educator). But these are criticisms of characterisation, not of plot or execution.
The Sonnet Lover is tightly plotted and skilfully executed, and would appeal particularly to lovers of literary sleuthing and academic intrigue, courtly poetry, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Venice and Florence, and readers familiar with the political wranglings that go on behind closed doors in universities. It’s a shame the author resorted to a Mills and Boon-ish ending for a story that raises a great number of much more interesting questions than just whether the heroine ‘gets her man’. Regardless, this is still one of the more intriguing novels I’ve read this year.
Spike Gillespie & Katherine Tanney (Eds), “Stricken: The 5,000 Stages of Grief”, Dalton Publishing, Austin, Texas, 2009, Softcover, 208 pages, RRP $14.95 USD, ISBN 13:978-0-9817443-6-0
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
When my partner noticed me reading this book, he remarked ‘Boy, that sounds cheerful!’ But, surprisingly, I found the whole thing very moving and hard to put down. Grief is a very difficult subject to write about in any engaging and meaningful way, and sentimentality and vapid, hollow cliches are often the norm as people search for the right words of comfort. But the editors and writers of the essays in ‘Stricken: The 5,000 Stages of Grief’ have succeeded admirably. What makes this collection so moving and useful is the generosity of all the writers in revealing their deepest sorrows and fears with the reader. Anyone who has lost a close loved one, or been through a process of grieving for lost relationships, health, jobs or houses, will recognise and empathise with the many responses to loss conveyed here.
Katherine Tanney writes: ‘how grief weighs like a physical burden on you. You have to drag the sadness and anxiety and depression around with you. Your life is just as it was … but all the joy has gone out of it. You go through the motions with the friends considerate enough to extend invitations. You dress up, show up, bathed and smelling good, as if all is just dandy. But inside the pain is sharp and will not be put off. (P. 13-14)’ Laura House writes of losing her mother, of the uncontrollable crying that came upon her and how it slowly began to dissipate over time until the crying jags became fewer and life began to again seem brighter. A friend tells her that she has a ‘special year’ to use in whatever way is meaningful to her – the year it takes for the grief to begin to become bearable. Rachel Resnick’s essay, ‘Touch Me’ is ostensibly about receiving a massage in Mexico, but the nub of the narrative is her grief and sense of abandonment over her mother’s suicide, feelings that one can easily hold onto for years. As the masseur works on her neck, she physically recalls her mother’s method of death, by hanging, and weeps uncontrollably: ‘This year it will be 30 years since her death. Sometimes that feels like an eternity. Sometimes it feels like today. (P.33)’. We share with Resnick both the grief and the release.
Owen Egerton writes sensitively of his grandfather’s death, of the gathering of family around the loved one’s deathbed and the sense that ‘normal’ life cannot possibly be allowed to go on in the face of loss. From David Zuniga comes an interfaith chaplain’s Buddhist approach to death and dying, pointing out that ‘Death is the ultimate teacher. It teaches us gratitude and illuminates the interconnection with all sentient beings. When we deny our mortality we are truly dead. When we face our death directly, we learn to live fully in every moment of our precious existence. (P.48)’ Jim Krusoe writes of roadside crosses and considers where, if not here, the bereaved should go to grieve for loved ones lost in car accidents. Marie Wilson writes of losing her beloved son, Clifford, just before his nineteenth birthday, and how participating in the annual five kilometre race he liked to run helped her to move on. Her essay concludes with a list of the truths her grief has revealed to her: ‘I know that this empty space in my heart will always be here … I will carry on. (P.61-62)’ And so it goes on.
Donnalyn Watt, in ‘I Cannot Think What To Do’, discusses the grief of the empty nester, as children become independent and leave home, and it becomes clear to the reader that the ‘symptoms’ are pretty similar, whether we are grieving a person or a way of life. Other writers discuss the various stages of grief, either Kubler-Ross’ list or Dr Phil McGraw’s, and relate their own circumstances to these. Holly Whittaker’s essay traces the process for a family in accepting that a loved member is never coming back. Editor, Spike Gillespie, looks at another kind of grief – brought on by the ending of her marriage – and muses on the irony of her work as a marriage celebrant in the face of the feeling of failure the breakup engendered. Buffy Cram’s essay, ‘Still Life With Loss’ looks at the generational nature of grief, and how earlier losses can continue to impact on a family for many years, particularly if sudden or violent.
I’ve mentioned here only a brief survey of some of the essays in this this book, but rest assured it’s definitely one of the best things I’ve ever read on this subject. ‘Stricken’ is filled with honest and heartfelt stories from a collection of very good, mostly Texas-based writers who possess the life experience and courage to share their stories with others. The next time someone I care about is in need of comfort and solace in the face of loss, I’ll be certain to pass on this worthy and life-affirming book. And I’m sure that in the future I’ll have occasion to reread it for myself.
Strummer, Joe; Jones, Mick; Simonon, Paul; Headon, Topper, ‘The Clash’, Grand Central Publishing/Hachette, NY, USA, 2008, Hardcover, 384 pages, $45 USD, ISBN 978044539739
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
At long last comes this definitive book about The Clash, by The Clash. This impressive, bright pink (!) book contains many previously unpublished photographs of the band, both on and off stage, as well as interviews, set lists, tour schedules, details of lineup changes, copies of backstage passes, personal notebooks and record cover art, and a definitive listing of all Clash releases worldwide.
The death of Joe Strummer several years ago prompted a reevaluation of The Clash’s ouvre, and a recent documentary on Strummer’s life and times. But for those of us who came of age in the late 1970s, this music was the soundtrack to our lives, especially the memorable ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’, ‘London Calling’, and ‘Rock The Casbah’. If the Sex Pistols were the working class punk protest band, The Clash came from a more intellectual standpoint and were never afraid of being political. This was the time of Thatcherism in Britain, with the infamous poll tax and rioting in Brixton and Notting Hill, a time when politics and music once again became inextricably linked as economic conditions for the little people created a radicalised working class with some very big axes to grind.
The book’s narrative is provided by all four original members and is a warts-and-all account of what happened between the years 1976 and the band’s eventual breakup in 1982. In 1976 the fledgling Clash were playing shows in Britain with the Sex Pistols and The Damned when they witnessed the Notting Hill Carnival Riots, in which scores of mostly poor blacks took over the streets. This event prompted Strummer to pen the early hit, ‘White Riot’, a call for greater activism and anarchy amongst the largely passive white population.
“Black men gotta lotta problems but they don’t mind throwin’ a brick … white people go to school where they teach you how to be thick … White riot, wanna riot of my own …”
When the Sex Pistols swore on prime-time British television it created uproar and ‘Punk’ – until then a small London-based scene of around two hundred people – exploded into the national, and later the international, consciousness. The fallout was that The Clash only played seven of the twenty-five dates booked for the ‘Anarchy in the UK’ tour as reactive venue managers cancelled punk shows. But the critics who saw them on this first tour announced them as the next big thing of 1977.
The Clash embraced the do-it-yourself punk ethos wholeheartedly, down to their hand-painted shirts, but soon became fashion mavens.
“That they looked cool also helped – as a review in ‘Sounds’ magazine of a March 1977 gig at the Harlesdon Coliseum by Vivien Goldman confirmed. ‘The Clash’s visuals (couture bezippered ensembles) are so hot that I can’t make out which is the bigger plus, the music, the words or the image (dare I say)’. The same day that ‘Sounds’ made the band their cover stars and pick for the year, The Clash headlined at the opening of a new, punk-only venue in London’s Covent Garden, The Roxy” (p.108).
Once they were signed by the major labels the punk fanzines derided the move as the ‘death of Punk Rock’. But, though born of a grassroots movement, The Clash had the dream and the chops to go global. Proud supporters of the Anti-Nazi League, the band thumbed their noses as racist, National Front bovver boys and played at the first Rock Against racism gig in London in 1978.
But a long line of successful records, and five years of non-stop writing, recording and touring eventually took its toll on the band members individually, and on their personal relationships. Jones and Strummer both remarked that, had the band taken a break in 1982, they might have stayed together. But the pressures of life on the road, coupled with drummer Headon’s raging heroin habit and, after his reluctant sacking, a sense that The Clash’s glory days were behind them, ultimately led to the band’s demise. Says Headon, ‘I lost it, really, on the tour of the Far East. I was standing in a lift with Joe and he’s saying, “How can I sing all these anti-drug songs with you stoned out of your head behind me?” There was a lot of friction building up’ (p.330)’, and, ‘I don’t hold any grudges, you know, because I was out of control. I was a liability to the band’ (p.360). So, sadly, on the release of what was arguably their best album, ‘Combat Rock’, the band was already falling apart. Despite Topper’s behaviour, the other band members recognised his value as a drummer and realised he was impossible to replace. Says Strummer, ‘It was the end of it when Topper got sacked, it was never any good after that. We messed with the original four, it was limping to its death from the minute Topper got sacked. Hopeless.’ (p.360).
For Australian readers, the following incident from the band’s last big tour provides some extra interest, if not exactly national pride. While in Sydney in 1982 the band stayed at the Sheraton in Kings Cross, where Paul says there were ‘cockroaches everywhere … I was woken up by a knock at the door. Three aborigines were standing there wanting a chat. They asked if they could come up on our stage to talk about their situation. So I got Joe and we had a meeting and of course said yes. We realised the power we had ‘cos we could let these guys talk to people who wouldn’t normally pay any attention to them. But when we played New South Wales, while one of the guys was on stage giving his talk, the police were at his house, beating up his wife. I didn’t really enjoy Australia, probably because of that’ (p.335).
The punk years were heady times indeed. Punk rockers believed they could change the world. For those who were there, this is a great stroll down memory lane; for those who weren’t, it’s too important a part of rock history to be ignored.
Liz Hall-Downs proudly sported a mohawk in the 1980s and vividly recalls many nights dancing wildly to ‘Rock the Casbah’.
Are You Famous? Touring America With Alaska’s Fiddling Poet by Ken Waldman
Catalyst Book Press, San Bruno, California, USA, 225 pages, $15.00 USD, publication date August 2008, paperback, ISBN: 978-0-980-20810-8
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
Ken Waldman has previously released six poetry collections and seven music CDs. This new book is a departure into non-fiction writing. It is part memoir, part rumination on Waldman’s self-identification as Alaskan, and part road trip journal. Waldman has travelled around America for many years, delivering his hybrid poetry and Appalachian fiddle shows at any venue that will have him and pay adequately. For anyone who believes the career performer’s life is a glamorous one, this book is a sometimes shocking antidote.
Despite critical acclaim for both his poetry and music releases, this is a story of endless hardship. Waldman cuts corners at every turn in an effort to remain solvent, from sleeping in his car at truck stops, to couch surfing at friends’ houses. He takes any work he can find, from teaching at universities and schools, to doing poetry readings and musical performances. All the while he continues to write, compose and perform, using his mounting credit card debt to finance his publications and CDs and to get from one gig to the next. The administrative load of organising an endless tour without an agent is phenomenal and Waldman doesn’t skimp on the details; the lack of money to pay for health or dental care is a continual concern. Old cars are driven into the ground as Waldman pursues his art; old friends are relied upon to smooth the performer’s passage through America’s cities and towns. That there are so many of the latter in the author’s life testifies to his personal qualities and the artistic value of his work.
The reader can’t help liking the author for his honesty. He is unashamed to admit to occasional physical or mental breakdowns, and his efforts to maintain a positive attitude in the face of an indifferent public and the even more indifferent (and occasionally vicious) publishing and music industries is laudable. He also has a sense of humour about it all. Chapter 6 is titled ‘The Dark Side: Show-Biz’; Chapter 7, ‘The Darker Side: Publishing’. Having had some experience of national and international touring as an Australian performance poet and, latterly, singer and musician, it was easy for this reader to recognise the essential truth of Waldman’s characterisation of the artist’s life, and it is not a pretty picture. Only the most serious and committed need apply for this lifestyle that offers little security, an unreliable income, and, oftentimes, minimal to no respect.
I enjoyed this book, but was left with a deep sense of sadness and unease that an artist as accomplished as Waldman has been forced to live like this in order to continue on his artistic journey. Certainly most artists here in Australia would be unable to imagine doing what they do without the generous welfare safety net that supports so many of us between jobs. Mid-level American artists receive no such largesse; to continue requires massive commitment, often at the expense of their health and relationships.
If I have one criticism of ‘Are You Famous’, it is the lack of interesting anecdotes. The chapter ‘Bedrooms I Have Known’ is a case in point. The author lists people he has stayed with, who they are, what they do, what they offered in terms of support and accommodation, but somehow we never really get to know these people, the result being that the chapter reads like a verbal listing along the lines of ‘I went here, then I went there, I stayed with Mary, I stayed with Sally’. The problem is that without dialogue, descriptive detail about all these people, or reference to specific incidents the reader is forced to plough through pages and pages of relatively uninteresting facts and petty details, when what she’s really wanting to read is the fun stuff – the backstage banter, the gigs that worked or didn’t and why, the happy coincidences and musical highs, the spontaneous incidents that make life on the road interesting to both other artists and those who’ve never lived it. What she didn’t want to read was the mundane details – ‘I made a phone call, I applied for a credit card’. It is this barely relevant minutiae that detracted from the story and made the process of reading it somewhat laboursome.
I did very much enjoy most of the poem excerpts that opened each chapter, and now that I know the details of how Waldman lives feel inspired to track down his books and recordings. Now that I know about the life, I’m wanting to experience more of the art. In this sense ‘Are You Famous’ was successful in piquing my interest. It’s to be hoped that Waldman finds the success he’s been chasing for so many years and has clearly worked so very hard to attain; it’s also to be hoped that he finds someone to spend the remainder of his life with who can appreciate his sensitive and artistic soul.
Willie Nelson – An Epic Life by Joe Nick Patoski
Little, Brown and Co, NY, 2008.
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
Herewith the gospel according to Willie – according to fellow Austinite Patoski, with ample assistance from friends, family and good ol’ boys near and far. Willie himself is quoted only sparingly, with the author relying instead on a huge coterie of associates in what appears to be a well-researched and career-spanning account of a musician’s life.
And what a life it has been! Born to farming folk in rural Arkansas, Willie Hugh Nelson spernt his early life in Abbot, Texas, where music was ever-present. His initial breakthrough as a songwriter came in the 1950s with classics such as ‘Crazy’ and ‘Always on My Mind’ while he continued to perform solo as cowboy-suited ‘Texas Willie Nelson’.
But his strong nonconformist streak rose to the surface of his public persona by the 1970s, when he toured and recorded with the decidely unpleasant Waylon Jennings as a couple of long-haired hippie cowboys. The ‘Two W’s’ later collaborated with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson as the Highwaymen. Through all this, Willie goes through several marriages, spawns a posse of kids, and conducts most of his life from the nook of his road train and its assortment of family and band members, roadies, reprobates and hangers-on. When famously asked why he tolerates being ripped off by the people around him, Willie is reported as saying that at least he knows these folks, which is better than being ripped off by strangers. Overall the impression is given of a man driven by music, who avoids conflict, preferring to absorb the people he cares about into a rollicking, good-time ‘family’.
The annual Willie Nelson 4th of July picnic has become something of a Texas institution, and Willie Nelson a living treasure, the ‘Texasmost Texan’. It’s easy to forget how recent the Wild West era really was, but these stories of life on the road, where thugs carting guns are needed to ensure publicans pay the band, and where copious amounts of drinking, drug taking, hellraising, and guitar picking until dawn are the stuff of midwestern American life quickly dispel any notion that being a working musician for a lifetime is either glamourous or easy – though it is certainly by turns fun, sexy, dramatic, boring, a grind, and the only way to live for the likes of Willy and his kin .
In the early seventies, Nelson recorded the album ‘Stardust’, a collection of mostly old standards dating back to Hoagy Carmichael that turned on a whole new generation to the riches of that nebulous entity known as the Great American Songbook. By this stage already a seasoned performer and recording artist, ‘Stardust’ elevated him to American Superstar status, spreading the influence of both his politics and his music. The 80s saw Willie developing the ‘Farm Aid’ series of concerts in support of American farmers, while continuing to unrepentantly party hard. Stoushes with the IRS over unpaid taxes, busts for marijuana possession, and a motza of interesting stories involving other celebrities of stage and screen make for addictive reading. Made me get out the old cassette tape of ‘Nightlife’ to savour that clever brand of songwriting and jazz phrasing that makes Willie such a unique and timeless commodity in country music.
Now in his 70s, Nelson’s legacy is still being added to and its impact and influence has barely begun to be surveyed, but you can bet your cowboy boots this genuine folk hero still has a few good miles on his hide and, like Johnny Cash and so many others before him, Willie will no doubt continue to produce great music till the day he drops, hopefully with his battered old guitar ‘Trigger’ in one hand and a fat joint of good weed in the other.
Writers on the Job, Tales of the Non-Writing Life
Edited by Thomas E. Kennedy and Walter Cummins
Hopewell Publications, New Jersey, USA, 244 pages, $15.95 USD, publication date July 2008
Twenty story writers, novelists, poets and essayists have written these sometimes amusing, sometimes shocking, accounts of the jobs they’ve had to take in order to keep body and soul together while pursuing their writing dream. It’s a sad fact that for every best-selling author, there are hundreds who achieve publication only to attract a minuscule audience, and thousands more who aspire simply to be published. This book serves as a reality check for anyone who perceives the writing life as glamorous, lucrative, or fun. In fact, after finishing this book, a reader would be inclined to ask , ‘Why the hell would they bother?’ And that’s the rub. They bother because they are writers, because they must write, because words are the currency they employ to explain, understand, and enhance their lives.
Writers on the Job documents such unwriterly jobs as delivering blood samples, flipping burgers (in one case on LSD, with predictable results), waitressing, dressing up in a bunny suit and handing out candy, practicing law, joining the military and entering a war zone, process serving, babysitting, contract editing and teaching, dish washing, pet sitting, taking court transcripts, stenography, secretarial work, trainee hotel manager, and working as a gas station attendant. Robert Gover’s contribution, ‘On the Way to a Fortunate Misunderstanding’, documents how his 1960s novel (dealing with an interracial sexual relationship) was passed from agent to agent, publisher to publisher, with all demanding changes based on their own prejudices and limited understanding of the work. Further, ‘Northern reviewers tended to assume the story was set in the South; Southern reviewers assumed it was set in the North’ (p.92). The lack of a jacket photograph on the book led to him becoming ‘accustomed to the greeting, “Oh, we thought you were Knee Grow!”‘ and he had to produce ID to attend his own book signing – which would be funny if what he’d already been through to get the novel this far wasn’t so tragic.
Susan Tekulve describes the various ruses she employed with her family in order to continue taking English subjects at college rather than Psychology in order to indulge her obsession with writing and literature. Meanwhile she takes a variety of jobs, in a factory, as a psychologist’s file clerk, until, unemployed, she moves back to the family home. Her grandfather remarks, “She’s outta control … What’s she gonna do with another degree in poetry?”, before resignedly writing a cheque to ensure she has a warm coat for the coming winter (p.176). This seems to be a recurring theme for these American writers. In a culture obsessed with money, that judges people’s worth, and even godliness, on their income and possessions, how can a serious writer survive psychologically and continue to produce while knowing those around them often perceive them to be layabouts and losers who should get ‘a proper job’? This is familiar territory for almost all serious artists, and there is no one answer. But perhaps reading books such as this one can help.
As David Memmott writes, (and I concur), ‘The idea of working myself to death for a bigger house or a newer car did not sustain me nearly as much as art, music and poetry. I didn’t care so much if I left behind an inheritance so much as a legacy … It was more important to me for my grandchildren … to be able to glimpse something of my living heart and mind and spirit than to pass onto them a stash of silver and gold’ (p.155). But this is a writerly stance, and one wonders if Memmott’s descendants would ultimately rather have the cash, or if they will look back with pride on his literary achievements. I guess it depends on whether they also are foolish enough to pursue a career in the arts.
The final essay, “What can Mailer – and Dickinson, Rousseau, Conrad and Geisel – tell us about how to earn a living as a writer? – An Afterword” by William Warner, discusses the personal and financial circumstances of the listed writers to demonstrate how even the most successful or revered authors have suffered the demoralisation of trying to live and work in a society that values money more than art, and have often had to compromise. He believes that in America, ‘the current mood is demoralizing’, and counsels writers and artists to make decisions about other non-writing work with their eyes wide open to the consequences for their art. He also points out that ‘for economic reasons, well more than half the US population is for all intents and purposes excluded from literature, philosophy, MFA programs’ (p.242) – a point that helps place this text squarely in the ‘interested, wannabe writer advice’ category rather than one for a general readership. But this so-far ‘failed, layabout Australian writer’ loved it.
My only real criticism was with the standard of copy-editing, which, sadly, seems these days to be universally poor. But particularly in a book by and about writers, I wouldn’t expect to find ‘you’re’ confused with ‘your’ (p.181), ‘quite’ with ‘quiet’ (p.235), and question marks used in sentences that aren’t questions (pp.203-4). If only the rest of the world still believed these things mattered as much as we writers feel it matters, this ‘layabout’ might be more employable as an editor!