Alice Allan reviews Ten Years of Things That Didn’t Kill Us

4 May 2009

Ten Years of Things That Didn't Kill Us edited by Daniel Watson et al
Paroxysm Press, 2008

When Paroxysm Press sent out their call for submissions in March last year for an anthology titled Ten Years of Things That Didn't Kill Us, they had just one piece of advice for writers: 'we want it to be as Paroxysm as hell'. The result – a collection of poetry and prose from writers well-known to Paroxysm followers along with a number of new contributors – isn't intended to please everyone. This is a challenging collection of stinging truths and shocking moments, along with occasional touches of beauty.

Ten Years of Things That Didn't Kill Us marks a decade of Paroxysm Press, a publisher that describes itself as 'too stubborn to die.' Their catalogue includes poetry and short fiction anthologies such as Waste, Shotgun and Fingers & Tongues as well as a number of spoken word poetry CDs. Paroxysm says it aims for poetry that 'can hold the stage and keep an audience on their toes even in front of hundreds of drunken music fans'. Ten Years has obviously been created with that aim in mind. This is not writing that nestles quietly into the pages, waiting patiently for readers to notice its loveliness. Instead, it grabs you by the collar, screams out its message, then flicks a cigarette into the gutter as it stalks away.

The first question that arises with writing such as this, so appropriate for holding the attention of an audience from the stage, is whether it needs to be confined to a page at all. In some cases, the creators' voices seem almost audible through their printed lines, as in this section from 'Sunday Morning' by Kami:

those days where you 
are your own worst enemy
and your head hurts
and your wallet is empty
and you can't even remember
her name
but you get up and make coffee
for both of you
and sit on the end of the bed
sipping the coffee
black
because there's no milk
and she doesn't look so hot
in the daylight
but then neither do you

Without a shred of embellishment, the world and characters Kami creates here are almost uncomfortably real. Even on the page, his poetry speaks loudly and without hesitation.

Along with this strong sense of voice, Ten Years' theme of survival has brought together some brutally honest pieces of poetry and prose. The writers cover subjects as diverse as suicide, addiction, love and abuse, but one thing common to all their work is an unwavering determination to express something real, no matter how painful. Because these works are so raw, it's tempting to stand back and try to pretend they come from another world. As the pages turn, however, more and more common ground between writer and reader becomes exposed.

One startling example of this openness comes from a short piece of prose by Hop Dac titled 'The Spectre'. In less than a page, Hop Dac manages to articulate the jealousy and resentment that arises when he re-acquaints himself with a friend who has transformed from destructive and wasteful to optimistic and healthy. 'I could not forgive him for the progress he had made, as I could not forgive myself for having made barely any progress at all', Hop Dac writes to end the piece. There's no denying the starkness of the statement, nor how effortlessly it articulates emotions that are so often left untouched.

Kelly-lee Hickey creates a similar sense of blunt beauty with her short poem 'Jesus Was Wrong'. The simplicity of the language and short, almost defiant stanzas ensure her message connects immediately:

We are not
bread and wine

we are whiskey
and places to sleep

we are hangovers
with broken egos

throwing punches
so we can be touched

While this unambiguousness certainly brings us into close contact with Paroxysm's authors, there are times when they take us to places that are darker than many would visit voluntarily. This is the challenge the anthology presents: are we willing to follow these writers into realms where things are no longer pretty or satisfying, where at times the only thing to be found is a blank sense of meaninglessness?

Kristy Love's 'Heading into Sunshine', for example, is a short story that takes us, along with its unwilling protagonist, on a strange and uncomfortable journey with a failing father and his fractured family. The tale ends almost haphazardly, with no trace of resolution to be found. As with many of the writers in this anthology, Love's aim has nothing to do with offering any neat sense of completion, only with telling her story without flinching.

A slight contrast comes from American poet Kaplowitz, who is showcased with four pieces that mix confronting subject matter with black-as-night humour. Even an infection becomes fodder for wry creativity in his poem 'sick':

stuck on the couch
dogshit sick
amazed at the world
outside my window
going on without me.
i started with 2
64 oz. apple juices
drained the first
and it became my bathroom.

Despite all this darkness, there are still a few moments of light to be found in Ten Years. Yasemin Sumner's 'super 8 memories' gives us a quick glimpse into a bright world where love is in full bloom, but again, the tale ends before we can create any moral or message within it. Other diversions include Michael Winkler's poem 'Bon Lives', in which he boasts his connection to the dead AC/DC frontman through a chain of kisses and fellatio. This is followed by a poem simply titled 'cleavage' by Indigo – a short musing on the objects her cleavage is prone to swallowing up. These relatively cheerful moments stand out against the surrounding works, acting as a welcome respite and reminder that, no matter how bad things might get, there's still room for occasional laughter.

Ten Years of Things That Didn't Kill Us provides one of those rare platforms for writing that is experimental, unapologetic, jarring and at times just plain disturbing. There are times when the intention of all this brutal honesty becomes unclear, and any sense of meaning seems completely lost. Yet this is where the main strength of Ten Years lies. Through their fearless approach to the subject matter and appreciation for the darker side of things, these writers force us to face up to meaninglessness, rather than grasping for meaning where, sometimes, there is simply none to be found.

Alice Allan is a writer working at the Canberra office of Halstead Press.

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