Book Reviews


Review Short: Poems of Hiromi Itō, Toshiko Hirata & Takako Arai

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

In the winter of Pokémon Go, I read quite a few new books of poetry. The collection Poems of Hiromi Itō, Toshiko Hirata & Takako Arai was the most cogent. These three Japanese poets are taboo-breaking women who write without reservation about ‘female experience’ in the political context of contemporary transnational capitalism.

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Review Short: Joel Deane’s Year of the Wasp

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

Year of the Wasp by Joel Dean
Hunter Publishers, 2016

As a literary work, Year of the Wasp reads as a volume of rare, terrifying beauty; beguiling as it guides the reader through an ordinary series of events in an ordinary series of settings. Reading Joel Deane’s third volume of poetry with the biographical insight that the author recently suffered a stroke provides additional complexity, and a kind of lucidity.
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Lucy Van Reviews Little Windows 1 with Jill Jones, Andy Jackson, Alison Flett and John Glenday

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

the leaves are my sisters by Jill Jones
Little Windows, 2016

that knocking by Andy Jackson
Little Windows, 2016

semiosphere by Alison Flett
Little Windows, 2016

empire of lights by John Glenday
Little Windows, 2016

Reading Jill Jones’s poetry I am struck by its skilful take on classicism: Greek for its entangled beauty, immortality and power; Roman for its urbane wit, its insouciant dealings with discourse and desire. For example, her poem, ‘they are about love’ recalls rapid Sapphic shifts: ‘Today begins colder, amid magpie scurf, bird mind’. In ‘the end of may’, the speaker’s colloquial quip echoes Ovidian word play:

                  Then the bloke in the truck
gets down and has words with another bloke.
I have words too, checking them on pages
as if getting past each line or sentence is something
achieved, or, that’s right, important.

These poems appear in Jones’ 2016 chapbook, the leaves are my sisters, one of four that form Little Windows 1 (LW1), an impeccably presented first series from Adelaide-based Little Windows Press. The rationale for Little Windows is to provide the reader ‘a “little window” into the oeuvre of each poet,’ pairing two Australians with two international poets. The line-up of this inaugural series features Andy Jackson (Victoria), John Glenday (Scotland), and Alison Flett (South Australia, via Scotland), alongside Jones.

The full set of LW1 arrives in the post like a present, a gift-wrapped bundle of square, slate-coloured books. It came to me looking so perfect, that a couple of days passed before I had the heart to a prise a chapbook from under the clear binding ribbon. This situation gave shape to a thought about the necessity of obstruction in order for words to seduce. Some form of this theory of desire continued to occur to me as I read the books’ divergent visions. ‘Little window’ is a deceptively modest turn of phrase. The idea of a window is flashy, slippery, multiple. It lets light in; it frames a view; yet it also obstructs. To compose this view, it selects and rejects by contingency, including and excluding what may be shown. It might be thought of as a technology of presencing – a way of making a present moment visible. At the same time, there is a wishfulness about windows, which frame an ‘out there’ inexorably out of reach to the viewer: once entered, the view of the window disappears.

Poetry shares these frustrations of representation: in the poem, discourse and the object of desire can only nearly coincide. That the representations made by the poem cannot but mediate and obstruct reality is the basis of the perversion necessary to the production of poetry itself. Jones’s ‘having’ of words, ‘as if getting past each line or sentence is something / achieved,’ alerts us to a fundamental fetish of poetry. Her seeking of the productive stimulus for the writing of poetry echoes Ovid’s Amores, whose speaker demands the existence of obstacles in order that the lover-poet may be always thwarted, and thus be given the opportunity to deceive, outwit, seduce (in other words, to use words). These three terms are translated from Ovid’s original verba darem, which literally means ‘I give words.’

In the final stanza of Jones’ ‘the end of may’, the speaker catalogues:

That the leaves are also shining today.
That there’s still a golden sense in greying stonework
of the early twentieth century building
in one corner of the courtyard.
That there’s still dust on the plate glass windows opposite
and they never seem to change in any light.
That birds in all this time will sing longer than
the courtyard and the desk, the buildings and the squares.
That this doesn’t matter, that it does.

The coy equivocation in the final line highlights that the more the speaker talks (‘I have words too’), the less is achieved. Jones’ giving of words eroticises a world at once close and remote, caught in present-tense nostalgia: greying stonework is ‘golden’, the light on the dust unchanging. Nothing happens, and there is everything to say about it – the profusion of beautiful lines affirms logophilia as a brilliant perversion through which to try, and fail to touch the world.

With an authorial intensity to match Jones, Andy Jackson’s that knocking delivers the most knockout opening of a poem I’ve read this year:

you are disabled
                 whether you admit it or not
                                     did you know that? (‘unfinished’)

The muscular use of the second person is arresting, stunning. Staccato lines crack, cajole and wound the textual body back into the physical: ‘can’t speak / your mind without your body // being twisted into some other / locked-in meaning.’. Poetry of such a brutal order might nearly be up to facing the ‘truth’:

but don’t get carried

            away – your failure is not
                        at all the same as mine
each map of scars
            leads back to the world

            no words can hold
what has been done to us

Like Jones, Jackson boldly addresses the failure of words to signify, work, make happen, or ‘hold/ what has been done.’ But only by means of the ironic proliferation of words against failure – broken, breathless, twisted lines – could such a point be expressed. The relationship between the speaker and the addressed anatomised body brings to mind the disturbed, yet unpredictably empathic vision of Patrick White’s artist in The Vivisector. By comparison, Jackson’s that knocking’s abstract renderings of Australian spaces might also be seen to chime with White’s oeuvre. In ‘blue mountains line’, body and machine collide at high velocity: ‘the carriage is the colour / of tendon and bone.’ Familiar landscapes glide by in a green menace, drawing violence and tenderness by equal measure into the poem. The poem wobbles and knocks – and openly fails to signify – with the motion of the train. As the speaker of ‘circling home’ says, ‘the ways me miss our lives / are life’: cynicism is discarded at the outset, giving way to bittersweet fragments of life-debris.

Alison Flett’s semiosphere follows a similar principal to yield, in this case to a post- (or para-) anthropocentric world populated by foxes. Flett’s book is structured around a series of deft, elegant perspectival shifts, charting a sequence of experiences that oscillate between encounter and symbiosis. Language is playfully de-civilised, perhaps with the intention for rehabilitation to the wild. The opening ‘votives’ is a graceful prose poem of long, solemn lines, with a final stanza that invites the reader to:

Look deeper into the forest’s dark heart and you’ll see the tapetum lucidem
of many creatures looking back, amongst them one who has been waiting there
for you.

The following poem, ‘fox 1: umvelt’, immediately surprises with its short stanzas stepping across the turned page. The lines have diffused and spread out, like a pack of wild animals on the run, their wildness hiding in the city’s plain sight:

I have seen a fox move
in silence through the city
and this I know

                                                                                                              the trees breathe the fox
                                                                                                              and the wet black pavements
                                                                                                              shine for him

‘fox 2: corporeal’ shadows this stylistic direction, the stanzas’ typographical separation emphasised by their thematic organisation according to synecdoche (eyes, tail, heart, feet). But another wild shift arrives in ‘fox 3: liminoid’, thick with hectic prose. The run-on lines perform the panting, unpunctuated swagger of partying twenty-somethings loose on a wild city night of their own:

with the music of the club still beating in our blood and the thought of the
party pumping in our veins and the freedom of walking along the middle of the
road because it was early morning and there wasn’t any traffic yet and it was one
of the streets that if it had been daylight

The speaker is the only member of the group to see a fox crossing the road, and a hitherto quotidian memory gives way to another order of experience, belonging to an ungraspable, deep ecological memory. Can such a deep memory survive its retrieval by words? Through its insistent animal presences, semiosphere speaks of a world haunted by speechless living. Flett’s tightly structured, experimental text is impressive beyond her facility for stylistic variety. Woven through her tropes of encounter is the question: how can humans remember they are animals? And subsequently: can language be made to speak this fact? Can language be wild?

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Jennifer Mackenzie Reviews Lưu Diệu Vân

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

M of December by Lưu Diệu Vân
Vagabond Press, 2016

Reading M of December is rather like going to a spectacular exhibition at a gallery where images of all kind swirl, proclaim, collide and re-form – the viewer takes the opportunity of a brief leave to attempt to come up with a coherent response. Having gone into this gallery, and exited on a number of occasions, what I have come up with is a response to the formed fragmentation of its individual poems, travelling through discordancy via the robust vigour of forceful lines and sharp elisions.

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Alice Allan Reviews Lisa Brockwell and Tamryn Bennett

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

Earth Girls by Lisa Brockwell
Pitt Street Poetry, 2016

phosphene by Tamryn Bennett
Rabbit Poets, 2016

Lisa Brockwell’s Earth Girls and Tamryn Bennett’s phosphene are both compelling first collections in their own right. Reading them side-by-side, however, an equally compelling contrast emerges. Where Brockwell looks for clarity and direct engagement with her audience, Bennett invites interpretation, offering many clues and few concrete answers. This contrast reveals something else: the strengths of one approach do not threaten, or cancel out, those of the other.

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Jennifer Mackenzie Reviews John Mateer

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

The Quiet Slave: A History in Eight Episodes by John Mateer
spaced 2, 2015

A defining scene in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s historical novel, Arus Balik (Cross-currents), portrays the moment in 1511 when colonial power came to the Southeast Asian archipelago. In the following passage about the fall of Malacca, Pramoedya presents a society unaware (or ‘becalmed’ as Pramoedya puts it) of what is about to confront it:
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Alexis Lateef Reviews Paul Hetherington

Monday, September 5th, 2016

Burnt Umber by Paul Hetherington
UWA Press, 2016

Artistically, burnt umber is an earthy shade intensified by heat. It is a colour synonymous with this country – familiar to anyone who has trekked through Western Australia, from where Paul Hetherington originally hails. In this collection, it is also a metaphor for memory, which, through the heat of feelings in the present, attains an intensity that overwhelms the original events.
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Lucy Dougan Reviews Louise Nicholas

Monday, September 5th, 2016

The List of Last Remaining by Louise Nicholas
Five Islands Press, 2016

Louise Nicholas’s The List of Last Remaining very satisfyingly brings together a substantial body of her work. Its five, intelligently ordered sections each rise up to enact their shimmering, persuasive world and then fade out to make way for the next. As the author herself notes in the poem ‘Picture’, there is ‘something filmic’ afoot here.
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Review Short: Timothy Yu’s 100 Chinese Silences

Monday, August 29th, 2016

100 Chinese Silences by Timothy Yu
Les Figues Press, 2016

Recently I watched a program on the resurgence of Pauline Hanson. In one scene Hanson stands in her old fish and chip shop in Ipswich, Queensland, a business she sold to a Vietnamese Australian lady named Mrs Thanh. Hanson boasts of her hard work, and takes over the frying. Hanson proceeds to advise Mrs Thanh on how to make potato scallops fluffier.
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Bonny Cassidy Reviews The Hatred of Poetry

Monday, August 29th, 2016

The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
Text Publishing, 2016

Reflecting Ben Lerner’s considerable reputation as a novelist and poet, this essay speaks in a voice both sure and self-deprecating. At this level it has already fulfilled a conventional definition of its genre – the effort of rhetoric to explore an idea or problem. The problem that Lerner considers – why is poetry a subject of hatred? – is hardly urgent, and he is quick to admit this. After all, the essay’s topic is an inverted defence of poetry, a tradition with a long history. The pleasures of this contribution, therefore, are Lerner’s unashamed and confident belief in poetic form, and the sympathetic truth to be found in his conclusions.

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Caitlin Maling Reviews Ellen van Neerven

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

Comfort Food by Ellen van Neerven
UQP, 2016

Poems about food, such as those comprising Ellen van Neerven’s first collection Comfort Food, are often framed in terms of ideas of connection, community, and commonality. Van Neerven engages directly with these ideas, but emphasises their fault lines as much as their strengths. The poem I keep returning to appears early in the second of the book’s six loose sections.
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Phillip Hall Reviews Maggie Walsh

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

Sunset by Maggie Walsh
Vagabond Press, 2016

Maggie Walsh is a Bwcolgamon woman from the First Nations community of Palm Island, a tropical paradise located in the Great Barrier Reef only sixty-four kilometres northwest of Townsville. But this is a paradise with a troubled history since European settlement – with a lack of jobs and housing, and a tragic reputation for violence and disadvantage. In 1999, for example, the Guinness Book of Records named Palm Island as the most violent place on earth outside of a combat zone.

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