Sunday, September 17, 2017

Review of A Door in the Forest, by Yve Louis

By Tara Walker

At the beginning of A Door in the Forest, Yve Louis includes an abbreviated definition of forest from renowned philologist Walter William Skeat’s An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language:

Forest. (F.- L) O.F. forest. -  Late L. forestis, free space of hunting ground; foresta, a wood […] – L. foris, out of doors; adv. Allied to L. fores, doors.

This dictionary definition provides a kind of map though the book: the evolution of the forest from hunting ground to a wood, then to out-of-doors … and then to doors themselves. In A Door in the Forest, the woods are both hunting ground and refuge: the forest is out-of-doors, within doors, and through doors. The conceptual locus of the forest is ripe with fairy and folk tale allusions, and Louis maneuvers deftly through this rich history. 

Not unlike the evolving definition of the word forest, Louis’ collection morphs and changes; meanings build upon meanings, as layers on/of the forest floor. Throughout this journey travels the thread of both story and poem—each is a character in the book’s developing world. The opening poem Story describes a mischievous narrative, running wild through the woods, leading “the player” on an unrestrained chase. The poem is formatted in italics, except for the one central line: “Which path? Which path is the story of me!” Presumably this voice is the player herself, trying to navigate the “maze of riddler trees.” Louis peppers her poems with these lines in italics, picking up the thread of the voice that calls “Catch-me-catch-me-if-you-can.”

The final poem, and book’s namesake, A Door in the Forest, caps this chase that sustains itself throughout the work. In this final poem, the reader—the searcher—is told that there is no retreat from the chase because “the way closes behind in tangles/of detour and cul-de-sac.” The voice of the first and last poems seems to come from the forest itself, a sage-like being possessing an omniscient perspective of human narrative.

Throughout the collection, the reader is lead into the stories of both mythological and historical figures—Louis involves everyone, from Hansel and Gretel, to Nietzsche. By telling these stories, Louis brings the struggles of these characters to life, however she also brings the writer’s struggle to life—the battle to keep creating in a world that keeps pressing the act of creation into small, restrained spaces. In Lost, the Brothers Grimm are confronted by Hansel and Gretel, who thank the men for writing them out “of that old witch’s place back there!” The Brothers, conversely,  bemoan this confrontation with their characters:

Jakob grieves: What have we created here?
What innocence destroyed?

The poet seems to grieve along with them, and in the final line she notes the loneliness of the writer’s endeavor: “For those who write a world, never to find a home.”

Louis offers a moving but delicate empathy for writers, artists and thinkers who feel left behind, misunderstood or under-represented. In Euripides Among the Athenians, Louis describes the playwright as an unappreciated visionary:

with solemn wit
you contest
their theatre sports

thin coins of applause spatter
/no one relishes
your thrusts to the heart

The poem also characterizes Euripides as having the last laugh, showing his toughness by walking away. He is described as a kind of ancient Greek rebel-without-a-cause:

/the rip in your jeans
a braggadocio

the hip.

Chaim Gantar Abandons the Song of Himself, is another poem which pulls metaphors and characters out of their familiar and original contexts and places them in new, semi-disturbing ones. The poem references Whitman’s Song of Myself, but as Louis writes in her notes, it “answers Whitman in the negative of totally different circumstances.” Gantar struggles with his identity, his self, his soul:

 soul? here soul
aspires to nothing but its own
danse macabre,
jigging in time
sans hair, sans teeth, sans everything
but the burden of memory:

Louis pulls in the famous Shakespeare quote from As You Like It, (a play set primarily in the forest) as homage to canonic literary tradition, but also as a way of creating stark contrast. In Shakespeare’s play, the monologue from “Melancholy Jacques” is a cynical shadow amid a playful comedy. Gantar, on the other hand, is not a foil to other, happier characters, but is completely alone. While the new context Louis gives Song of Myself is not completely clear, references to the Jewish Holocaust ripple throughout the poem, and remark specifically on loss of identity. Despite this loss, the subject in the poem continues to survive, stripped of self, but not necessarily hope:

Yet, even here, a leaf will unfold
sudden, and green…

even now the heart will knock,
air still push from lungs, ribs, throat

to tear an old truth
rom silence:

stone’s shocked quickening -  
I live, I wrestle with meaning.

In A Door to the Forest, to live is to wrestle with meaning—to follow an evolving and convoluted narrative that serves up, intermittently, moments of both terror and joy.

Underwater Flying, gives us a close-up on the “plateau years” of Henry Lawson, one of Australia’s best known early writers. The poem shows us the underbelly of Lawson’s fame his “crumbling reefs of a marriage,” his doomed attempt at giving up alcohol, the “verses he must flog for grub,” trying to escape “blunt-edged poverty.” Two of the important women in Lawson’s life—Bertha, his wife who separated from him in 1903, and Isabel, his landlady and benefactor—are given prominent roles in the poem; once again demonstrating Louis’ talent for giving voice to those history has rendered voiceless. By providing a close-up of a less than glamorous time in the writer’s life (for example, writing of Lawson slumped into poverty and depression in his later years despite his fame) Louis also gifts him a deep and relatable humanity and sympathy, and even the reader who knows nothing of Australian history can appreciate the shards of hope scattered at the end of the poem:

-then with a flourish for the grand finale-
sells the latest sketch.
                                                      And decides to live.

A Door in the Forest is a poetic and layered path through the thick, dense wood of folklore, fable and history. Sometimes playful and sometimes grindingly painful, Louis shows us the underside of the forest—the hidden places under leaves and brush, in the hollow trunks of trees and untold stories of human loss.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Stepping down as Antipodes editor after final issue of 2018

Dear all, as most of you know, for eighteen years I have edited ANTIPODES, a US-based journal of Australian and New Zealand literature. Indeed, my history with the journal goes back to 1993, when I first became Associate Book Review Editor.
When I first began working with the journal, Bill Clinton was the new President of the US, John Major was PM of the UK, François Mitterrand President of France, Boris Yeltsin was President of a still-hopeful Russia. LeBron James was nine years old, Clayton Kershaw five. More pertinently, Paul Keating was Prime Minister of Australia, the Mabo decision just handed down, and Patrick White had only recently passed away.
It's been twenty-four years for me with the journal overall, and with my marriage and job changes, and my wish to concentrate on my own writing, it is time for a transition. I have told the Board of our sponsoring group, the American Association for Australasian Literary Studies, that I am leaving the journal as of the last issue of 2018. The Board is right now voting on a highly qualified successor and I hope to announce that name shortly.
I have most of the next few issues ready--there have been publication delays recently, and a lot of stuff is in the pipeline--but still need seven or eight literary-critical articles for the last issue. So if you want to be part of my final issue please send work my way!
It has been a great privilege and joy working with so many of you in a field that a generation ago was still seeking academic legitimacy, but that now, though hardly without issues, has a flourishing infrastructure of journals and institutional support, a talented cohort of younger scholars, and is making more and more fascinating global and textual connections within and beyond the merely 'national.' I will continue to be active in the field as a writer, even if no longer as an editor. But it is time for me to step down from ANTIPODES, and to let a new hand take over.
"All is still.
I lean on my axe. A cloud of fragrant leaves
hangs over me moveless, pierced everywhere by sky."
--Les Murray

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Grief, Renewal and Rain: a review of "Between a Wolf and a Dog" by Georgia Blain

Between a Wolf and a Dog, Georgia Blain, Scribe, 2016
 ISBN (13):9781925321111

To read Blain’s final novel (The Museum of Words, a memoir, will soon released by Scribe in August, 2017), is a strange, moving and emotional experience; and not only due to the exquisite, contained language and diligent, compelling depiction of interior lives, each at a point of quiet crisis. It is also because you know that the author was in the midst of editing the work in 2015 when she received her diagnosis of a virulent brain cancer that would claim her life the following year. This real-life context makes the connection with the older woman in the novel, Hilary, and her journey towards the decision of ending her own life when her own cancer spreads to her brain, charged on a level that brings the work deeply into the here and now. It is a sort of prophetic rendering of the author’s own fate, and it makes reading Between a Wolf and a Dog all the more profound. 

The novel’s timeline takes place largely over one day in Sydney. We meet the aging filmmaker and widow Hilary, and her two warring daughters: Ester, a family therapist and once-famous singer/songwriter April. Ester’s ex-husband, Lawrence is facing crises of his own; the stories, and histories of each character intertwine in intimate, devastating ways that have seemingly reached an impasse—an impasse that will shift as Hilary makes a decision that will change all their lives.

The opening of the novel is termed “now,” and Blain positions us in medias res, with an urgent immediacy. The opening words tell us, however: “This is the dream: Lawrence is alone.” The now is, therefore, also a dream: a landscape that hovers “between a wolf and a dog,” between night and dawn—a time of wandering spirits and insight, of portals to other, myth-like realms. If it is a dream, then the idea of “now” is something porous and fluid, shifting and working on a logic that defies rationality. This dream “now” is also a time of confusion and darkness, a place where monsters stir. The entwined stories within the small world depicted in the book each possess a degree of other-worldliness, a myth-like quality—each character wrestles and navigates their way through this terrain, of both the possibility for transformation, and also defeat at the hands of inner demons. 

The stories are framed with this: a dream where a man is alone. This alone-ness is the position of 
Hero; he finds himself separated from others and embarking on a journey that at first he cannot understand. It is ultimately a journey—so quest literature and myth tells us—that will end in some sort of subjugation of self in order to release the existence of a truer, higher sense of self, a nobler self, one that is truly heroic. Lawrence is given this chance when he is asked—demanded, in fact—to “discover” Hilary’s suicide from a heroin overdose, and be the intermediary between her gesture and April and Ester, Hilary’s grown daughters. “‘I need your help,’ she tells him. ‘And I figure if there is anyone in the world who owes a debt to me and my daughters, it’s you.” (208) The hero is also an anti-hero—someone who is not becoming great, but atoning for his abject failure to connect with and nurture others. There is a celebration of ordinary, street-version humility in this: the heroic act is executed quietly, behind doors, and occurs when we rise privately to the challenge of paying our debts.

Although the context is mythic in scope, creating a vast and dream-like interior life wherein each character needs to find their way, the stories stay contained within clear parameters of an external casing of mostly interior rooms (a shack, a therapist office, a bedroom, a car). These interior rooms are where order is sought, strategies unveiled or discussed. The wildness happens in the cold river, the rain, in water. And throughout the novel, it is always raining. This choice is rich with profound symbolic resonances: purging, a flood, baptism, new life, drowning and death, fertility and also renewal. This feels important in a novel that unravels itself slowly and surely towards a death, that within the strictures that fate lays out for us, there is—even in the darkest moments—the possibility of some kind of agency, some kind of heroism. This seems to be what Ester holds out to her clients, her daughters, and that April pursues when, towards the end of the book, she decides to “‘… go round there [to Ester's]. Maybe tomorrow. I will stay at the door until she talks to me. I’ll camp there,’ she laughs. ‘Maybe even take placards and a tent.’” (251)

Blain’s writing is both surgical and compassionate, lyrical without sentimentality. She deftly and quickly establishes characters with depth, and a compelling way of pulling us with each one of them on their different journeys. I read this book quickly—without meaning to, because it was in-between many books needed to be read, articles to be written. I did not want to put it down. So I didn’t, and then even at the end I re-read the final two chapters another three times before I could finally close the cover. I commenced Blain’s novel feeling jaded by reading, and ended refreshed and inspired. These sound like grand words, but I have to say that I would have said them anyhow, were Georgia Blain still alive and working on her next novel. And I know I echo the feelings of many when I say I wish writing her next novel was exactly what she was doing. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Nicholas Reid's review of Stephen Oliver's GONE

GONE: Satirical Poems: New & Selected by Stephen Oliver
(Canberra: Greywacke Press, 2016), 102 pp., $NZ21.95 / $Aust19.95
ISBN 978-0-473-36004-7

The ballad is a demotic form, either celebrated for its expression of working class energy and protest or condemned for its casual misogyny. Some readers of Stephen Oliver’s new collection, Gone: Satirical Poems, New & Selected, will rush to the latter conclusion, finding a kind of sexism in its tales of fallen women, debauchery and hypocrites. But I think that they would be wrong to do so, partly because the collection is also full of tales of men behaving badly, from poets throwing up in taxis to professors lusting after students to French presidents, destroying the ecosphere. And I also think they’d be wrong because these are not casual celebrations of misogyny. Far from it, they come from a darkly satiric place, a place where all the actors are corrupt and no light emerges. Satire, as Frye argued, is the mythos of winter, a world without hope where even the poet is complicit. And for all the diversion and wit, I come away from this collection in part with a sense of the dark side of humanity.

The first poem, *‘Miss Goodbar’, is a case in point, for it features the sexually over-enthusiastic protagonist whose cries of passion keep the neighbours awake, a lady of the night who ‘did bondage to the two-backed beast’ and who is raped and murdered by Jock, the janitor. But if the satire is thus far predictable, the unsettling detail comes later in the poem, when we are told that:

They took Jock away and gave him a trial
then tied him to a chair and fried him for a while
yet no-one could account for that wayward smile
              Frozen on his face forever.

This is a world in which no-one holds the moral high ground, from the delinquent councilor to the cartoonish policeman or priest. And if the trial (apparently perfunctory) is undercut by the grotesque punishment, there is the even more disturbing suggestion that Jock, far from learning his lesson, thinks it was all worthwhile.

Nor is it clear where the poet stands, for on one level he has offered us a moralizing tale of female sexuality rewarded with death, the kind of tale calculated to make any right thinking feminist groan, and on another level he has undercut any possible standpoint for moral judgement both in Jock’s smile and in the characterization of the neighbours with their ill-thought out views:

we’ve all got a particular stock and trade
              who believe love lasts forever.

It’s worth thinking of morality in the light of Oliver’s models here, for (besides the film ‘Looking for Mr Goodbar’) the ballad is surely influenced by Auden’s ‘Miss Gee’ (as William Oxley suggests)[1] as well as Lawrence Durrell’s ‘The Good Lord Nelson’ and Baxter’s ‘Lament for Barny Flanagan’. If Auden’s poem is a satire on the unrecognised urges of the prim spinster, it is presumably motivated by Auden’s sense that his own sexuality was rejected by such people. And Durrell uses a low form, the bawdy ballad, to critique the repressed sexuality of his time.  In Baxter’s ‘Flanagan’ on the other hand one searches with more difficulty for a moral perspective on the death of the eponymous protagonist, a man who is ‘brandy rotten’, mourned if at all by fellow drunks in a world of dishonest barmen and lawyers. And yet it is tempting to read Baxter’s poem as a portrait of fallen man, and a suggestion of our need for grace—neither being features of Oliver’s world. I’m not for a minute suggesting that Oliver approves of the fate of his protagonist, for in every cynic is a disappointed idealist, but the view of humanity here is Swiftian.

More whimsical is the tale of ‘Miss Lily,’ a purely fictional character who grows a set of antlers on her head and who rescues Mount Wellington’s electrical grid (in Hobart). Like Sydney’s Beatrice Miles, who caught taxis and insisted on paying with extempore sonnets, Miss Lily’s fame:

… grew increasingly
you might say by public pranks—
she’d take off to the oddest spots
via bus stops and taxi ranks

In the Hilton Hotel foyer
she’d often pose as a hatstand
freaking out the maître d’hôtel,
next to the baby white grand.

Similarly whimsical is ‘Tupícya’, again a set of Belloc-like quatrains about the quest to find an exotic and entirely mythic bird, a quest:

to catch a Tupícya bird
who lays one egg twice a year,
round and black as a cannon ball
which many claim is square.

But underneath the whimsy, there is still a lacerating critique. In ‘Ballad of a Yobbo’ (illustrated as a number of the poems are, by the award winning artist Matt Ottley), the hyper-masculinist stockman, who drinks hard and views women as easy game, in a sense a kind of flesh, metamorphoses into his own signifier. He turns into meat, and is canned as dog food. In such a world, poems have become mere products, as ‘Blockbuster Ode’ and, in particular, ‘Poetry Day Blues’ suggest:

Poems on pavements, poems on walls
poems at bus stops, poems in halls
The true (a few) the old, the fake
a posse of poets—make or break.

But if Oliver laments a world without cultural memory, as he does in the title poem of the collection, ‘Gone’, he does at times show that supreme gift for image which makes him for me one of our major poets:

The sun rolls westward on its rusty rim.
Dusk dulls into pewter. Streetlights come on.

The most substantial poem in the collection is the ‘Letter to James K. Baxter,’ a piece Oliver first drafted at about the age of 23 and which is here republished in a much redacted form. As no one reading this review will need telling, Baxter was an iconic figure in New Zealand poetry in the post war period of Oliver’s youth, a long-haired hippie prophet who turned to Catholicism and ran his own commune.  The poem is addressed to Baxter’s ‘shade’ or ghost, and might loosely be called an exorcism, for in it Oliver seeks to work out his own, conflicted relationship with the master.

The poem is notable for its use of hippie language (‘man,’ ‘groovy,’ ‘dig,’ ‘gas’) which of course now seems affected and dated. And that, no doubt, is the point, for Oliver is satirizing the influences which formed him.  The poem caused me some difficulties when I first read it, for it is written in formal, seven line stanzas, with an ababbcc rhyming scheme—though many of the endings are half rhymes and some are closer to consonance. The poem’s form derives from Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, which also used the seven-line stanza (as opposed to Byron’s eight-line stanza in ‘Don Juan,’ the famous ottava rima). But where Auden adopts something of Byron’s voice, with its light, precisely pointed wit, and delight in bad puns, Oliver does not. For though some lines look at first blush Byronic (‘to find an emotional Plimsoll line’), the rhythms quickly frustrate an attempt to read the lines with a Byronic lightness of touch. What does work is the New Zealand vernacular voice, slower, with a flattening of the vowels, the wit dry rather than dandyish. This is something I’ve often found in Oliver: that one needs to see the rhythms, and that the poems only begin to work once one has found the voice.

Not that the rhythms are all difficult. A particularly strong stanza describes Oliver’s move from Wellington to the far south, to Dunedin, though if it’s in pursuit of his hero Baxter, it’s a conflicted move for unlike Baxter, Oliver is a Wellington boy:

Wellington: ‘city of the soulless’
or so you reckoned, too bad, I think of
buildings high as wheat on those husky hills
as a stamping ground, as my home city…
a scene you knocked about as a postie.
I packed up my books and pots, greased the car
and one bleak hour split on the Aramoana.

Oliver rejects Baxter’s spiritualism (and incidentally Curnow’s), sensing that New Zealanders are a ‘DIY’ people for whom ‘love is practical’ rather than mystical. And if he finds anything in Dunedin, it is how, unhappily, to follow Baxter out of a marriage. The poem ends with hippie language, the language of 1960s cliché, but also with a postscript in which the poet heads north again, back to his real heart land and accompanied only by his books: Hardy, Chaucer, the Bible and Shakespeare but, perhaps significantly, not Baxter.

For me, one of the discoveries in this collection is ‘Bad Aussee’, a poem about the town in the region of Styria in Austria. The point of the poem will be evident to anyone who reads the first stanza:

Yes, I remember Bad Aussee—
the name, because around midday,
mild and warm, the train shuffled in,
unhurriedly. It was mid-May

The immitation of Edward Thomas’s ‘Adelstrop’ is perfectly executed, a poem rafted with memories of (in this case) the ghosts of great artists, who:

… hung in the air
over mountains white as ice cream,
where I pined, there in Styria.

It is a poem which lightens the tone, a confection as sweet as icecream (and one accompanied, incidentally, by a translation into German by Heinz L. Kretzenbacher).

Gone: Satirical poems: New & Selected brings together a diverse range of metrical constructions including villanelles, sonnets, raunchy ballads and whimsical ballades. There is an invigorating, sardonic edge to Oliver’s poetic, driven by an often oblique and dark humour and at times with the bleak undersong of winter. This is not a collection which will please every reader, for satire is unfashionable and some will be attached to our age’s preference for the perfectly turned lyric, with its mixture of high seriousness, image and language.  Auden lamented the fate of light verse:

Light verse, poor girl, is under a sad weather;
    Except by Milne and persons of that kind
She’s treated as démodé altogether. (‘Letter to Lord Byron’)

But there ought to be a place in our aesthetics for satire—and also for the ballad, for the poet on holiday. It takes a particular skill (one Oliver owns to a high degree) to write with the kind of verve which enlivens rhythms which are comically rough, and to create characters with mythic reverberence. If this collection (which I must confess to having played some part in publishing) doesn’t display Oliver’s art in its highest form (though in places his unrivalled gift for image does burst through), it nonetheless represents a significant part of his oevre, and deserves our consideration.

Dr Nicholas Reid was a senior lecturer in English at the University of Otago, where he taught from 1990 to 2003.  He now resides in Canberra, where he sometimes works as a public servant at the Treasury. His academic passion is Coleridgean metaphysics and poetry. This review first appeared in Landfall Review Online:

[1] William Oxley, ‘Diversions and Divisions’, Stride Magazine, 2003.  Oxley talks well about the decline in the status of satire in current poetics.  John O’connor (JAAM 22, November 2004), and Jefferson Gaskin (Antipodes, December 2005).