Monday, August 15, 2016

Women of the Bush: Equanimity under Threat -- Barrie Smillie on the short stories of Julia Osborne

Australian writer Julia Osborne spent many years in outback parts of rural Australia. These three stories, "Maitland's Cow", "Hard Grain" and "Always, Never" have cried out to me to be analyzed side by side, because they have something in common: a female central character facing and overcoming challenges to her equanimity. To the remoteness and the harshness of the setting are added problems of human relationships—with a brother and a friend (in the case of "Hard Grain") and with an unsympathetic male partner (in "Maitland's Cow" and "Always, Never").

Like Henry Lawson's "The Drover's Wife", these stories by Julia Osborne concern outback women coping with the threat to their equanimity, but her narrative is more drame intérieur than a mere linear sequencing of events. There is a strong feminist message. Julia Osborne, once an artist in pen and water colour, reveals in these stories her discerning eye and with great economy she carries forward each story to a fine dramatic climax.

In all three cases, too, dramatic irony arises from discrepancies between what the reader sees and how the central character sees the world—for at least some of the time. The woman with the baby is unaware that she has set her loving man at arm's length, the farmer girl unwittingly invests her female visitor with the evil garb of a spider, and in "Always, Never" the woman lives in the nostalgia of their romantic past, while her partner abuses her psychologically and physically before she finally succeeds in escaping this torment.

André Gide's work is redolent with the aveuglement of such self-deceiving personalities—Alyssa and Jérôme in "La Porte étroite", and the pastor in the well-known "Symphonie Pastorale" being just two of them. The depictions by Osborne, while perhaps exhibiting less permanent afflictions, are arguably keeping with that great Gidean tradition.

In "Maitland's Cow", a sex-starved partner finds solace in drink. The mother's first loyalty is to her baby. Unaware of terrible events, she is pleased to be freed from her man’s importuning behavior. The visual, auditory and tactile images are rich. A cold morning in the country: "mist and the bark of a fox as the stars vanish. The early sun touches dew on the grass [....] a horse snorts, blowing misty clouds." The man's feet feel cold on the veranda while inside "a dark, warm cave" mother and baby are snug, the mother not unsympathetic to her man's needs: "he has already gone. Peace [...] He needs me too much." Maitland, her man, reflects, "Why is she like this? It isn't me. It's her. Selfish bitch."

In "Hard Grain" Jenny narrates. She and her brother form a superb work team. Girlfriend Noma from the city stays with them, annoying Jenny by flouting certain canons of rural life. Jenny is also suspicious of Noma's flirting. "Did she slide closer beside him as they drove squishing across the field? [....] I wonder if he reached to hold her as she folded her pale arms around his neck, waiting for his kiss.” To Jenny, Noma takes on spider-like attributes: with "a domed look" she likes to walk in the garden at night. Her dress "hangs from such thin straps" and in the rain, Noma "steps onto the lawn, points one foot in front, her arms over her head.” More luscious word pictures abound: a "vast field, shimmering in summer haze." Moths "sketch their erratic geometry around each globe." As a storm develops, "indigo clouds are piling, lit within by sporadic stabs of lightning." Dinner is a veritable feast of visual, auditory and olfactory images: "the room smells comfortingly of roast meat and the wine glimmers in our glasses, casting circles of colour on the tablecloth." In the water tanks, "frogs boom.” Unaware of her effect on Jenny's equanimity, Noma heads home. The sibling relationship is intact. Sound rural practice prevails. But spider-like Noma makes our flesh creep.

The narrator of "Always, Never" flings at us her anger and desperation: "If I don't get out of this house I think I'll smash something." Her wretchedness results from physical isolation and a male partner's mental and physical violence against her. The opening paragraphs amply demonstrate Julia Osborne's expository skill. In a series of time slides, she devotes three paragraphs to the present moment, then three paragraphs that recall Matt's story, their early relationship and her girlfriends' adulation for this man. Back in present time, Matt embraces her. Significantly, her fellow prisoner drags its chain outside. Alone all day, she is "spinning time into unnatural skeins” and reflects, "Did I imagine once I'd be a teacher?" She is now "Matt's extension, stunned by circumstances into a sort of accepting limbo [...] The women covertly watch my silhouette for signs of pregnancy, [...] try to be friendly [...] but we are flying on different thermals. I am higher, higher, unreachable. They wave their fingers at me, their recipes, their childcare books."

Loneliness places her very persona under threat. Her partner ridicules her reading. She'd happily help in the yard but he won't have that. Marriage has taken her to a magical place. The rising sun fills her with girlish wonder: "the giant fiery sphere like I'd never seen before. Never awake so early. Never lived out so far. It carried with it all power and poetry, fixing my feet to the boards. "Look at the sun!" I called. Matt's view is prosaic: "he came, hauling on trousers. "It's going to be bloody hot!" he said, dismissing it."

Her life with Matt has failed. She still loves him. He has been everything to her—childhood sweetheart, lover, tutor on bush lore, but is often away. Agonizingly, she exclaims, "Matt, oh Matt, where is the man who showed me the colours of new crops, the emu's egg, the fires of sandalwood in a room lit with candles?” We sense heat, dryness, remoteness. "Mid-morning sun is already sucking up moisture [...] eyes glitter beneath wide brimmed hats; [...] women will stand in darkened rooms cracking ice in their mouths.” Our woman says to herself, "You don't have to put up with this shit, kid!" Her initial bid to escape provides the pretext to try again. The conclusion carries the explosive drama of a Hedda Gabler final curtain.

These stories are engrossing reading and are highly recommended. Julia Osborne's women of the bush are resilient, they are tough—like Henry Lawson's drover's wife. And in subtlety and the emotional strength of their loyalties, these three leave their male counterparts behind.

These stories can all be read on Julia Osborne's website

Maitland's Cow - Regime Magazine, Vol 1/01, 2012
Hard Grain - Meanjin 1/1992; Families: Modern Australian Short Stories, Five Mile Press, 2008 - broadcast by ABC RN 2005, 2006, 2009
Always, Never - Antipodes 17 (USA) 1991; Panurge (UK) 1992- broadcast by ABC RN 2006, 2007

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

New fiction editor of Antipodes

We are pleased to announce that Niki Tulk is becoming the fiction editor of Antipodes, replacing Jack Bennett. Jack has decided to step down after ten years of valorous service. He brought many new authors to our pages and selected and edited with discernment, inclusiveness and good cheer. I am confident that Niki, like Jack originally a native of Australia, will continue on in this tradition while giving the journal the advantage of her wide experience as novelist (Shadows and Wings), theatre-maker (here is a clip from her adaptation of Gertrude Stein's "Tender Buttons" which I was privileged to see in NYC a few years back), teacher, and editor. Niki is currently in a PhD program at the University of Colorado in theatre. She is available for correspondence at, although we would prefer you would use our submission site at Digital Commons to formally submit fiction. As always, only Australians or New Zealanders by birth or residence (including expats) can submit fiction to the journal. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Between Two Dreamings

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey, by Alex Miller
Allen & Unwin, November 2015

According to the Acknowledgments at the close of this newest publication by Alex Miller, the collection is curated by Alex Miller’s wife Stephanie, and as such this is a compelling reflection on what parts of Miller’s writing have particularly resonated with others over the many years he has been publishing his work. I wonder, however, what alternative inclusions or exclusions may have occurred had the task been taken on, for example, by Col McLennan or Dr Anita Heiss—or others whose own lives and stories have fueled and inspired Miller’s writing. Indeed, questions of representation are foundational in Miller’s books, and he wrestles with the moral and artistic concerns at the heart of whose stories are told, and who is privileged to tell them. It is Miller’s humility in the face of this tension, and his willingness to acknowledge and investigate it, that makes his writing both generous and provocative—and always compelling. The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is a good introduction for those new to Miller’s writing, and also a reminder of both the breadth of his work and its recurring motifs of the friction—and connections—between art-making and colonization.

Perhaps as well known for his novels as for his ruminations regarding the act of novel writing itself, Alex Miller is an author who seems in constant praxis with the making, the reflection, and his placing of these reflections and writings in a broader historical-sociological context. He does this last, not so much to position his work in some sort of theoretical setting, but more to question its relevance to the world in which he lives; and to parse out the ways that a novelist, the zeitgeist and the landscape in which he/she is located speak with and to one another. Miller explores the possibilities and the limits given to a white, European-born writer attempting to traverse a place in which there exists a powerful, deeply embedded dichotomous culture—a country pushing its way awkwardly towards some sort of reconciliation, through the mire of (post)colonialism. In Miller’s own words:

“…no simple line can be drawn between Indigenous and non-Indigenous interests in this conflict, [which] is emblematic of where Australian culture has shifted in its struggle to move beyond a colonial mindset of exploitation and ownership. In this conflict it is not a question simply of reconciliation, important as that is, but is the far more difficult question of the acknowledgment of difference: difference between cultures, between two dreamings, the European dreaming discarding the past and struggling to possess the future, the Indigenous dreaming the struggle of remaining morally true to the ongoing ancestral project that is inseparable from the sacred moral duty to care for the land.”  (289-290)

Sometimes Miller’s discussion is a sort of didactic, meta-meditation, as above, while at other times this path he carves out “between two dreamings” is nested inside his discussion of writing itself, and here the political (if you like) merges with the deeply personal; his writing has led him into the beating heart of real story, which is not the oxymoron that it sounds, but a holding together of two realities that each express their own kind of truth. His exploration of the wanderings of white Australians trying to map their sense of this ancient place on both real and psychic levels bleeds into Miller’s own wanderings through his writerly craft and imagination, as in the following excerpt: 

“The human species is also a migrant species. We have always travelled. In our wanderings we are forever coming across our old tracks and speculating on the perplexing nature of the creature who must have made them. In the strange place we are stilled by the presentiment of familiarity and we know that we have been there before. Home, indeed, may be for many of us no more than this fleeing intuition. A singular truth … is that there is no place left that has not been visited by us and that there is nothing to be done that has not already been done by us. Round and round the mulberry bush, that’s where the novelist is going. Chasing his tail … as ever.” (166)

Miller’s conclusions—if conclusions they may be called, perhaps they could be better termed evocative signposts—lead him repeatedly to the questions raised by the First Nations people of Australia, whose ancient, dynamic and ongoing relationship with land and storytelling Miller foregrounds again and again in his work, allowing it to challenge both himself as a writer and his readership:

“And I began to understand that the European had never truly dispossessed this Jangga of his land, and that culturally, historically and spiritually he was still richly in possession of it. A thousand years, after all, is a long time in the wandering steps of European history, but is little more than a flicker in the vast hinterland of the Australian Indigenous reality.” (273)

In some ways Miller connects his vocation as a writer implicitly with Indigenous time, when he writes that “It is here that art deals with us. With us, here now. Art doesn’t predict. Art isn’t going anywhere. There is nowhere for it to go … Now is timeless.” (168) Miller seems compelled by this timelessness, and appears to view it not a place of absence or lack of time, but a rich space not bound by linear structures that erase the past, look to the future, and use the present as merely a place to pass through. His work challenges us to step outside white European time, with its paradigm of set outlines and defining-in-order-to-control, and to allow ourselves to step into a space and place where we are not in control, and where we allow the story to guide and influence us.

Throughout this collection that spans fiction, memoir, commentary and lectures, Miller asks: how does a novel help us ask the questions of ourselves that might enable curiosity, an end to fearing or attempting to master the “other”, and perhaps engender the possibilities of healing? And how are all our stories deeply, inexplicably connected? But for all his searching, he expresses the need to pull back from allowing the drive to know (which he equates with European colonial/imperialist expansion): “I believe there are profound moral and spiritual consequences for us in pursuing knowledge at all costs. One enormous impoverishment that European culture has suffered because of the unbridled passion to know is a loss of the idea of the sacred.” (288-289) In doing this, a motif in Miller’s writing in this collection is the acknowledgement that even the act of questioning holds its own risk: “The poets tell us we are a language species, but in the dignity of his silence Arner defies that perception. English has not colonised him.” (276) Miller suggests that the act of writing a story is potentially an act of colonization, a need to confine the unnameable into a set of signs and possibly reductive linguistic symbols. Writing, he warns, should remain at the service of the story, and in doing this be held back from driving forward the need to know, to control:  

“In writing my novels I have learned that the writer is not the master of the story but that the story is the master of the writer. I have learned that it is the writer who serves the story, not the other way around … Story obeys mysterious laws embedded in the human unconscious and is made available to us only through the prompts of our imagination.” (195)

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is perhaps a frame for each of these parts of Alex Miller— the artist and thinker—to meet and wander beside one another in contemplative conversation. And it is a conversation, in the view of this reader, that is well worth taking the time to savor. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Gabriel Don: on women, voice, and finding a room of one's own

As an Australian writer and theater-maker, I am fascinated by the work other Australian female artists particularly are making: their process and praxis. To that end I wanted to interview someone who makes trans-disciplinary art, and someone who is making work from the context of straddling some sort of cultural bridge. In short, I sought out an artist whose work and interests might be part of the conversation into which my own research and practice is steering me. This lead me to Gabriel Don, a writer/performance artist working out of New York City. 

Gabriel Don and I share several similarities, which was fascinating to me: she is also an expat Australian, also completed her M.F.A. in creative writing at The New School, and creates work across fiction, poetry, non-fiction, photography and performance—most often working in several media simultaneously. She is also a committed facilitator of others’ art, by starting several reading-soiree series, and also working as the Reading Series and Chapbook Competition Coordinator during her time at The New School. She now teaches Writing at CUNY, where she continues to all her students to discover and celebrate their own agency.

Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Brooklyn RailThe Sydney Morning HeraldThe Understanding Between Foxes and LightA MinorWesterlyMascara Literary ReviewThe Legendary, Transtierros (translated into Spanish), Gargoyle 62LiveMag! 12 and Three Rooms Press MAINTENANT 9. Don also interviews people at Gainsayer. She has appeared in visual poems such as Woman Without Umbrella and Unbound, worked as an editor on publications such as LIT and has received press for her writing work including Quiet Lunch, Let Them Talk, Art Loves Her, Yes Poetry! and Great Weather for Media.   

When I reached out to Don, she was enthusiastic about sharing her work and thoughts on being a performing woman with a unique and innovative, lyrical voice.  I began the interview by asking Don how she might you describe her work in terms of being female, negotiating or manifesting female space or identity.

GD:  I feel fiercely about negotiating space for myself and as a woman I notice it can make people very uncomfortable, even if a woman is not being outrageous in her demands to be heard, seen, understood and left alone in solitude. I am currently working on a book about women, writing and space for which I interviewed female authors from various genres and backgrounds including Gayatri Spivak, Tara Moss, Maxine Swann, Hettie Jones, Honor Moore, Kate Fagan, Eileen Chong, Lynne Tillman, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Tiphanie Yanique, Sharon Dolin, Judith Beveridge, Deanne Stillman, Coral Carter, Maya Pindyck, Terese Svoboda, Ana Marie Hong, Joi Sanchez, Julie Powell, Christine Chia, Maitha Al Khayat, Sahar Naja, Zeina Hashem Beck, Fadwa Al Qasem, Monica De La Torre, Penny Arcade, Reem AlGurg, Noura Khoori and Diala Arslan Talhouk. 

The impulse to gather wisdom from these women began when I saw Lynne Tillman on a panel for women writers and she highlighted the Catch 22 nature of such a panel: that it was inherently sexist and making women the ‘other.’ Why be classified as a ‘female writer’ not just simply a writer? However because of the gender imbalance in the writing industry i.e. men to women ratio on panels, men’s books getting reviewed more and so forth (lots of statistics available on VIDA) there is a need for such panels. There is a need to create spaces that reset the equilibrium. 

For my book I asked all the women if they had a room of their own, inspired of course by Ms Woolf, and I photographed them in the space in which they write. These are issues that concern me, yet on the other hand I do not believe in gender binaries. I don’t believe men or women innately think differently, though often we are socialised to believe so. In my fiction I have written in the male voice first person, for instance in Cesspools and Treasure Chests published in Gargoyle 62. A fiction writer should be able to give voice to a whole range of experiences. While I value being a female, I also value men. I also love mermaids, witches, unicorns, Kali, Saraswati and fairies.

NT: Does being Australian inform or affect your work, or process?

GD: Being Australian informs and affects my work. Although I live in New York City, I still use Australian spelling. I could never spell mum with an o! I need my u’s in neighbours. I believe ‘whilst’ is not archaic. I have written stories completely in the Australian vernacular for example The Chicken Coop in Australian literary journal Mascara Literary Review. Somewhere Else in Perth based Literary magazine Westerly tells the story of an expatriate Australian family living in Singapore. My identity and my writing is very tied to my connection to the land and to food and to my family so being Australian is a formative part of my work. 

In terms of process, my final years at high school in Sydney (Gleneaon Rudolf Steiner School) only involved subjects that were humanities and creative and all required the completion of an individual project. The Higher School Certificate in New South Wales when I undertook it was very geared towards postmodern considerations and individual thinking and I am sure that influences my process in all my artistic endeavours. 

NT: How do you discover that “I” existing between two countries and cultures?

GD: I was born in Australia, then moved to Singapore and then Dubai before moving back to Singapore and then Australia, though my parents remained in Dubai since our initial move there in 1991 so I am straddling more than two countries and cultures. I am a multiplicity of countries and cultures. I have lived in New York City for six years now and before that I spent a little while in Amsterdam cleaning toilets and making beds at a hostel called The Flying Pig. My father is a pilot so I am blessed with free and cheap travel and have been to over 40 countries, though I have let my roots grow into the Lower East Side of Manhattan for the time being. Maybe this longing for my family in Australia can drive my work as I let myself dwell in images of the past.  Food and land tend to ground my stories in place and experience but I have never had one home. Wherever I am, I am always missing something or someone whether that is a culture or a family member and friend. This multiplicity, though at sometimes feels fractured, also means I have a have a deep well of memories that my mind flickers between, which is useful in an artist’s tool box.

NT: How does the idea of voice play out in your work and process? What are important issues that arise for you in the making?

GD: I often wonder where some of my characters come from, especially when writing in the voice of someone so far removed from myself. I am Your Mother is in the voice of an elderly Southern woman and that voice arose from trying to tell a story with only one person talking, similar to a monologue the plot moves along with no second voice. It makes me think, writers encourage hearing voices. I had to edit ‘pokies’ to ‘slot machines’ to remove the Australian anachronism. So consistency is important when creating voices. I studied acting so it is interesting to me how writing acts for itself on the page in terms of punctuation for example. Also the voice could influence the sentence length, movement of time and so forth. Even when using third person, voice is very significant. I enjoy playing with language. I am very drawn to whimsy and a lyrical voice. When writing, voice and tone are the equivalent of colour for a painter. The same image can be drastically different in the meaning it conveys when painted in grey versus yellow.

 NT: Do you think there is such a thing as women's voice? Can you explain? 

GD: I think this is a very interesting question and one of the questions I am asking of all the women writers I interview but I have no answer, only grey areas and a multitude of different arguments. Recently I read Ethel Florence Lindsey Richardson who wrote under the male pseudonym Henry Handel Richardson motivated by “the ease with which women’s work could be distinguished from a man’s and I wanted to try out the truth of the assertion.”

NT: What is a piece of work you have made that you feel came the most directly from you, was perhaps the most vulnerable or frightening to do? What was the work? How did you navigate that territory in terms of artistic choices that you made? 

GD: I find it easier to find truth and things that are more directly from me, vulnerable and frightening, in my poetry and fiction, things that in my nonfiction can sometimes elude me unconsciously. I have been trying to do a poem a day since March 2015 and an example of navigating that territory was writing about the day I went to my friend’s service. The artistic choice I made was inspired by a lecture I went to at Tin House this summer in Portland called When The Action is Hot: Write Cool by Debra Gwartney which discussed ways to allow the reader to feel for themselves, when the subject is so traumatic write as coldly and distantly as you can and allow the emotion to rise out of your reader, not directed by you and your emotional investment. 

Gabriel Don uses multiple voices in her work — from broad Australian vernacular to a lyrical, poetic syntax. She uses her own body as her voice in her work too, whether that is in film such as her work in Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ Unbound or her own performance art. Hearing her talk as both woman and performer/poet reminds me of how grateful I am to be in a place and time where women can share words and images in ways that speak to and from our experiences and, possibly, widen the aperture we imagine when considering women’s voice.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia — Don Watson’s Challenge to a National Myth.

Watson, Don. "The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia." Hamish Hamilton, Melbourne (2014).

“The legend insists the national character was moulded by the land’s embrace, yet it is just as true that the bush did not so much embrace its denizens as license their eccentricities and instincts. In the bush they could be lord or wanderer or miserable wretch, or many other things to which their souls were suited, including both creator and destroyer.” (147)

In this vein, Watson—bravely, in this reviewer’s opinion—takes on the foundational, pervasive myth of the Australian bush. This “land’s embrace” is symbolic of the Australian character, the crucible through which our national identity has been presumably formed. The archetypal nature of this real-and-imagined landscape continues to speak into who we are—it shapes and re-shapes our understanding of what it is to be Australian. The majority of Australian art made across genres explores and imaginatively inhabits the bush, but does not perhaps fully contest its assumptions and associated images/“truths”; we swallow wholeheartedly and unquestioningly the psychic, created and geographical space that Watson argues in his epic work is myth—and not an innocent or palatable one. 

Watson works like a literary/philosophical surgeon of sorts to dissect this myth in many different ways: environmental, scientific, linguistic, ethical, sociological and with approaches that assist us to more fully understand and contest those values, many of which are deeply at odds with the Australia that many of us have constructed for ourselves. Our idea of mateship, for example, the “fair go,” and a no-nonsense rooted connection with the land, free from the elitism and caste system of Britain, are all essentially, Watson suggests, fantasies. What really has happened in the bush? How has it been a site for desecration and destruction, and in what ways has this violence to the land and her people been the true foundation of Australia? The land, he argues, has not had a fair go, the indigenous peoples have not had a fair go, and in reality there is a deeply disturbing, cognitive dissonance between the Australia we have imagined for ourselves and the actual Australia whose sinister ramifications and impacts continue to fester at the base of our society. In this way Watson’s work is deeply challenging, as much as for the diligent and convincing research as well as the ideas that he foregrounds—and compels us to face, especially in passages such as the following, where Watson discusses mass tree-clearing:

There is, as well, a sense in which these clearings concealed as much as they revealed. Any new culture will soon take up myth and denial. It becomes a matter of manners to pretend not to know that something uncivilised has happened; it’s likely one of the first skills of any civilization. In the bush it was and remains a defining one … The light the settlers let in shone on the virtue of their own necessitous lives, but blinded them to the ruin on which they were built. (208)

The Bush possesses many musical/thematic strands that are symphonic when woven together, and often Watson chooses one story, one event, or one specific geographic location in order to extrapolate and investigate his themes. In this way he contributes to the conversation on colonialism and the ways Europeans have visited a deep and ongoing violence upon the land and its indigenous peoples. Language specifically is one way that Watson attempts to parse out this aggression. He goes so far as to argue that linguistic domination is the foundation of modern Australia, that abusive treatment of the bush and its original inhabitants has been the fundamental building block on which our national character has been formed—our society, Watson argues, is built upon violence, appropriation and militant misunderstanding of those with whom we should have listened to and respected. He tackles specifically the names European patriarchy gave the land, and explores the power of naming to erase culture:

The Mallee and countless other places got their names from Aboriginal words misheard, from Aboriginal beliefs and relationships misunderstood or carelessly recorded, from vocabularies compiled with the assistance of Aboriginal intermediaries who lacked local knowledge, Names were given to places without connection either to their meaning or to the Aboriginal people who had once been there. (160)

Watson grounds the book in his own experience growing up in rural Gippsland and refers to this often, especially in the first half of the book. This establishes his credibility as critic, to ensure that Watson is not, in his turn, using language and ideas to colonize a discussion—he writes from within the lived experience of growing up in this brutally transformed landscape, and he is as much examining his own relationship with the land and his past as he is pointing the finger at anybody else. And his account is not unbalanced, even as it is searingly critical at times; Watson is also quick to provide examples of moral character, the very real difficulties that settlers faced, the poverty and social marginalization within their own cultures that informed and affected the way these people “settled” the land and the changes they wrought to it. In other words, The Bush is not a simple tale of good and evil, but of multiple layers of discontent and injustice that meant Australia inherited—and saw played out—the inter-class warfare, gender disparities and racial oppression: injurious elements of Imperialism that migrated along with the convicts to the Great South Land. Language, he argues throughout the book, has been and continues to be a deeply embedded part of this (ongoing) colonial experience:

The relationship was colonial, and the presumptions were colonial. To rename Aboriginal places (or to rename Aboriginal people), to proceed without a care for their language and beliefs, was not murder, but murder proceeded from the same convictions, as did the seizure of lands and all measures considered necessary to retain them. Felony murder might cover it, or reckless indifference. And in the Aborigines’ decline into mendicancy and humiliation, alcoholism and disease, this same absence of any will to understand was an accessory. (162)

True to the symphonic nature of this work, Watson takes on the religious nature of this colonialism—another brave maneuver as the separation of church and state has always been a strong part of the Australian psyche and society, and we might be loathe to consider that we have been as much a force for oppressive evangelism as anywhere else in the world. According to Watson religion and faith were a key part of the reasons people used the bush as remorselessly as they did. Watson links religious and moral motivation to the settlers’ determination to subdue the bush; he reads biblical metaphors into the early white Australians’ struggle with the elements, the bushman’s profound distrust of city dwellers, artists, and academics and all things intellectual. He writes that:

Christians never wanted for ways to justify or forgive themselves the crimes done to the Indigenous population. Hypocrisy greased the wheels of dispossession. In the Old Testament they found divine authorization for their work of conquest, and from the New the made the calculation that by being Christians in a pagan land, taking hold of it, they were spreading the message of grace and salvation. That was another thing the bush became—a church. (168)

But Watson carefully refrains from moralizing, even as he dissects morality and actions that definitely come up wanting. He acknowledges the disturbing truth that the deeper one looks, the less one is able to draw absolute judgments on the people who lived out their lives in the bush, many of whom were the degenerates and desperately marginalized people, as well as those who struck out on their own and were not so much oppressed by the dominant culture but had marginalized themselves. There is a liminoid aspect of this landscape, and Watson deals always with this real-and-imagined space, confessing:

But what becomes of the goldmines if the trees are not felled and burned? Good human lives were lived where the forest had been, enterprise was rewarded, the fellowship of men and women flourished, history was recorded. The bush we know would not exist if we had not cut it down. (190)

Watson writes that the story of the bush “is a story of heroic labour and sacrifice, and at the same time one of human beings granting themselves and option over all creation, to be exercised at will and in accordance with any whim or impulse, vanity far from least among them. If the history of the bush appalls us, it is not for the destruction alone, but also the willfulness” (214). Watson is clearly appalled, and wants us to be too—but not to stop us moving forwards. Rather, his is a call to forge an Australian identity in which we can truly take pride; to do this, he suggests, we must grapple with our past and its legacy. 

The Bush is an intense, scrupulously researched and challenging exposition of the fundamental way we see ourselves as Australians. Watson issues a radical challenge: to probe into the past with all its tragedy and violence and then take responsibility for it. And in this he challenges us to also take up the positive parts of the myth—as we have struggled against adversity, carved out our place against the elements, been tough and strategic and determined, then let us be so in the way we carve out our future in Australia. And we cannot learn to do this well if we do not take an honest, thorough look at the crimes hidden inside our national identity.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

On Reading "The Best 100 Poems of Gwen Harwood"

Harwood, Gwen. The Best 100 Poems of Gwen Harwood. Black Inc. November, 2014. Print.
ISBN: 9781863956987, RRP: AUD $24.99 

What is there to besiege
but an old woman lying
alone, past hope or caring,
with voices in her head
“Not all of us shall die
My love, come to my bed,
and I will give you children. (Reed Voices)

Articulating the poignant power and tension of the female experience—particularly the fraught and rich journey of having children—is perhaps Gwen Harwood's most treasured and brave legacy in this collection of poems. Gwen Harwood, "the outstanding Australian poet of the twentieth century" according to Peter Porter was, alongside Judith Wright, a motherpoet—Harwood wrote in the midst of, and often in spite of raising four children at a time when to be a married mother was to navigate the social norms of burying oneself in the domestic sphere; and certainly it was neither expected nor encouraged that such a woman would write poetry. Harwood, however, not only wrote a vast volume of poetry, librettos and lectures but garnered multiple prestigious awards, including the Officer of Australia, the Victorian Premier's Literary Award, and the Patrick White Award, before her death in 1995, aged 75. In this collection, as in so much of her poetry, Harwood plunged deeply into the tangled, often unspoken/hidden and powerful world of being simultaneously female artist and mother in a culture and time that was arguably unsupportive of both roles—let alone taken on together.

Harwood trained as a professional musician, becoming an organist and music teacher while in her twenties. In realizing that she would never be a “great” musician, however, she turned to writing poetry professionally—an art her grandmother had introduced her to as a child and that she had been quietly developing for several years. Throughout her life Harwood would publish over 430 poems, 100 of which have been selected in this volume by her son (and writer) John Harwood. Many of the poems feature several motifs that layer upon and revisit one another throughout the collection; this symphonic aspect strengthens their intensity, allowing for a fugal effect as the elements of water, sky, exile, motherhood, death and yearning coalesce, separate, then return in different keys and moods.

Despite Harwood's “giving up” of music as a profession, music runs strongly through this collection: in the explicit references of the several poems about the defeated and alcoholic piano teacher and performer Kröte, who “is drunk, but still can play” (At the Arts Club), references to Beethoven, Mozart and Liszt. There are also the many subtler references—the way her images of sky, landscape and death appear and return in rhythms, the compositional quality of many of her line break patterns, the way the syllables are strung together almost like song lyrics. In a sense it seems as if poetry has taken Harwood beyond the limits what her own music could express, indeed she writes that her “heart leapt beyond music, past the span/ of human hands and human skill/ to affirm what is." (Littoral)

The style changes across the work, and this may reflect her choice to publish under several different names at different times (including masculine noms de plume). There certainly seems a playfulness in the exploration of different voices; some of her poems are lyrical, the phrasing full and redolent, as in Dust to Dust where she writes:

I dream I stand once more
in Ann Street by the old
fire station. The palms
like feather dusters move
idly in stifling air.
The sky’s dusted with gold.
A footfall; someone comes.

Frequently, however that same playfulness possesses a jagged thematic edge that snatches at us, testing the emotional and linguistic boundaries of her voice. In Night Thoughts: Baby and Demon there emerges an ironic tonal shift and a more aggressive rhythm:

Baby I’m sick. I need
nursing. Give me your
My orifices bleed


Demon, we’re old, old
Born under the same sign
after some classic rape.

Harwood’s relationship with her own motherhood is fraught and complex—it is at once a joy and a means of immortality and also a prison sentence, a site of anguish in which the motherpoet ages, turning into a body from which her artist soul feels disconnected. It is, at times, as if a hidden life of Harwood as poet continues, watching her mother body with acerbic eyes, punishing this mother part for giving herself so completely to domestic life and children. Sometimes the language courses from a deep, almost primeval cry (think Whitman's barbaric Yawp) in Oyster Cove where we feel an urgent creative passion that laments and rages against the unresolved, violent always-rendering between mother and poet:

watch the sun prise
their life apart: flesh, memory, language all
split open, featureless, to feed the wild
hunger of history. A woman lies
coughing her life out. There’s still blood to fall,
but all blood’s spilt that could have made a child.

We see this also in her poem In the Park, where her “clothes are out of date. Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt” yet two stanzas later “it’s so sweet to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive.” The female speaker converses in tense repartee with “someone she loved once” who passes her in the park, someone from 

From his neat head unquestionably rises
a small balloon … “but for the grace of God …”

In the speaker's final words: “to the wind she says, “they have eaten me alive.” Again, mother and poet inhabit the same body, alternately—and simultaneously—yearning, regretting and grounding those same urges to fly and dream in the concrete tasks (and pleasures) of raising other lives. There is both consumption and life, a strange duality existing within the female body, where no one outcome is certain or ever achieved; the site of/in the motherpoet body is one of constant, artistically fruitful struggle. 

Sometimes this conflict is explored through a male voice, oftentimes through Harwood's creation Kröte, as he struggles with his feelings of mediocrity and being undervalued as a musician and the battle between this and his artistic drive. Release, or comfort, takes the face of an imagined child in Monday, where Kröte

dreams himself a 
with smoky hair, whose
spirit’s wild
as wind, whose inmost 

mirrors his love.

This character desires a child who is, in reality, himself, and who can lift up his own music and self, joining and supporting his dedication to art. This child, however, is a phantom only, and Harwood dispels Kröte’s dream with an image of disdain and violence when a real child comes up to him and “with her metal spade/ she bangs / sharply on Kröte's shin.” That same child, when Kröte grabs the spade from her, becomes instantly “a vicious child [who] lets loose a / torrent of lies.” 

This dichotomy infuses so much of Harwood’s work—but perhaps it is less a binary than a courageous and unflinching exploration of the complexities, nuances and dangers of motherhood. Harwood wrestles repeatedly with the question as to whether repulsion and intense love can actually inhabit the same heart, the same body—and that it is particularly the motherpoet’s psyche that is tormented but also fed by the act of birthing and nurturing. This liminal, sometimes tortured space (at this point the word ravishing comes to mind, in the way we use it to describe both being made captive and submissive by inordinate beauty but also as a synonym for rape) is a catalyst for Harwood's art, where

Some old, lost self strikes from time’s shallows, crying
“Beyond habit, household, children, I am I.
Who knows my original estate, my name?
Give me my atmosphere, or let me die.” (Iris)

This collection is no one-sided, simplistic rant against children and domesticity, simply seeing them as millstones or a sort of artistic curse, but the poetry in this edition provides us with a textured, sonic journey into a place where there are always the two forces of mother and poet meeting, fighting, seducing, soothing, creating—these juxtapositions are captured in the following lines from An impromptu for Ann Jennings:

think of it, woman: each of
us gave birth to
four children, our new
lords whose beautiful 
tyrannic kingdom might 
restore the earth to
that fullness we
thought lost beyond
when, in the midst of life,
we could not name to,
when spirit cried in
darkness, “I will have 
but what? have what?
There was no word to
frame it,
though spirit beat at
flesh as in a grave.

In Littoral, as well as many other of her poems, this space is given a name and a landscape, so that we are kept grounded in a visceral, body-based experience of moving through her ideas—they are real, felt emotions and actual paths traveled, not simply ethereal abstractions. For Harwood, her 

children call
across the wind for me to 
come; the tide streams through a honeycomb
of rock and air. This littoral margin of land and water
vibrates with life, where
life began” (Littoral)

If Harwood’s pains and ecstasies are the air in this excerpt, then children and home are for Harwood perhaps the rock; she traverses this borderland where the two meet, and although painful, it is the place where "life"—and artistic life—is both birthed and sustained. 

Throughout this moving and powerful collection Harwood traces—map would be too certain a verb for this exploration that reveals no absolutes, no certainties—a humane, authentic, but piercing journey for us along this margin of land and water, whereby we might feel with her the “fractured rock, where / water had its birth,/ and stood in silence, at the / roots of dreams.” 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Note Regarding Reviews

One of the important and treasured parts of Antipodes is opening up conversations around new and vital literary works created in Australia and New Zealand, and reviews are a key part of this global interaction.

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