Bonny Cassidy Reviews Contemporary Australian Literature: A World Not Yet Dead

By | 22 February 2016

Kinsella’s rancour towards neoliberal types of authority, particularly land ownership and ongoing destructive farming practices, is also well-known. His brand of critical, creative and personal international regionalism grounds this view. As with Yu’s work, it is also important to hear the notes of contentment in Kinsella’s poetry − not of complacent comfort in privilege, but rather, in the satisfaction of observation, learning and creating something on one’s own terms. Kinsella’s brand of rancour is shaped by his project of ‘auto-historicis[m]’, in which his participation in global corporate publishing and education ‘is one of implication as much as severance, and his polemical fervour is sharpened by his self-questioning’. The relevance of gender to such a decentered speaking position is unavoidable, yet Birns asserts that the literary voice of rancour has traditionally been held by male prophets and satirists. I’m not entirely convinced by this point, considering the relation of female ‘winners’ in the Anglophone literary canon – Austen, Eliot, Stein, Rhys, Plath, Sexton, Rich – as well as Australians outside of this status – Harwood, Giles, Viidikas, Ryan, Burns – to the voicing of rancour, specifically against patriarchal norms. Rancour doesn’t only belong to the contemporary moment, after all; indeed, it may be one of the defining affects of feminism’s impact on modernist literature. Furthermore, if now ‘[a]ll that is left is the individual voice, and this is the characteristic operation of rancour’, then rancour may be closely identified with the legacy of second wave feminist poetics. In the current moment, perhaps, a tradition of feminist rancour ‘retrieves’ agency from the free market, and defines it otherwise.

Fiona Hile is briefly quoted in the book’s preface, but Birns chooses to look more closely at Pam Brown and Jennifer Maiden within his chapter on rancour. He describes how Brown toys with nostalgia as an object but does not see it as an avenue of individual empowerment. Maiden, on the other hand, toys with the speculative mode in the same way, and finds it a welcome escape or relief from single-channel news. While Birns insists that rancour is ‘still associated with a male-gendered posture that seeks rhetorical strength through heroic, solitary dissent’, his discussion of Brown highlights how her poetry’s voice creates an individualism lacking any heroics whatsoever. In her guest introduction to issue 53 of Cordite Poetry Review THE END’, Brown lists ‘semio-capital’s rampant venality, land grabs, financial and social injustices’ as the furniture of ‘a broken world’; however, she asks, ‘who am I to tackle a grand theme? It would sound pretty precious. In my own poetry I’m more likely to zero in on symptoms and effects.’ The ‘micro’ dimensions of Brown’s poetry, then, are the medium of its rancour and the expression of a ‘retrieved’ individuality. Maiden’s dissent, too, is hardly solitary; her invocation of her daughter as a secondary persona in her poems, and her construction of satirical dramatic scenarios complicate the illusion of a single voice ‘speaking out’ through the medium of poetry. In one amusing anecdote Birns recounts how a young, left-leaning man in a New York audience objected to the ‘rhetorical excess’ in Maiden’s poem ‘Costume Jewelry’, suggesting that perhaps the poem was racist in its wordplay on the name of Condoleezza Rice. As Birns responds: ‘The excess that made even a young hipster man who was politically unsympathetic to Rice object to the ferocity of the poem was precisely the point. The unabated nastiness is what gives Maiden’s voice the appalling, unpalatable vigour to burst a desiccated consensus.’ This is powerful writing about powerful poetry, but Birns seems less confident with these two voices. That may be testament to the excellence of their rancour, or to their being an afterthought to the male writers that lead this section of the book − Brown and Maiden are treated together in the space afforded each to Kinsella and Yu.

Disappointingly, this is where Birns’s extensive analysis of poetry ends. It is not, however, for want of acute relevance to his discussion. From rancour, he moves on to the affect of concern − ‘implicated acknowledgement’ and ‘political altruism ramified by … interpersonal feeling’. This affect is profoundly present in the surging movement of Australian ecopoetics; and, separately, in the Australian poems of Mateer, which personify a tone of concern and have to a degree suffered the ethical difficulties of this position. Instead, Birns looks to the novel, comparing Thomas Keneally, Gail Jones and Alex Miller alongside Alexis Wright. These novelists, despite my poetic bias for the purposes of this review, are fine and informative choices within Birns’s study. Their approach to the subject of political inequality raises crucial questions for contemporary Australian writing: ‘What are the ethics of writers caring about people of different origins and backgrounds? Is this a manifestation of altruism or liberal guilt? … Is even a hypocritical or self-deluding concern better than callous indifference? … Or is concern a solution, albeit a piecemeal one, to problems that emanate from neoliberalism itself?’ Birns pursues the latter point of view, because concern ‘is about what cannot be fulfilled at present in legal or formal terms’. One such unfulfilled condition is the recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, which gives a particularly local significance to concern in Australian writing. In the novels addressed by Birns, concern is ‘inevitably bound up with specifically Australian territory, because it is there that the injustices perpetrated by settlement have to be addressed.’ This observation is interesting, he notes, because it pulls Australian literature away from transnational identity and towards the geographically local.

In this sense the book’s section on the affect of concern becomes ostensibly a discussion of whiteness. Birns briefly cites Martin Harrison and Toby Davidson, gesturing not necessarily to ecopoetics but to the ongoing tradition of settler poetry that has been sunk into experiences of Australian place and its cultural histories. The recent work of Michael Farrell, Stuart Cooke and PiO calls out to be acknowledged here. The texts Birns alludes to in this section, both in poetry and prose, are by settler writers making ‘an attempt to braid awareness of indigeneity into a heightened understanding’. Theirs is an awareness and understanding lacking from state leadership and policy. It is also coloured, because it ‘largely stems from liberal guilt, which in turn comes from white privilege’. While Birns’s analysis of the novel of concern invokes many secondary references, including to David Ireland, Colleen McCulloch, David Malouf, it gives proper thought to how an analysis of concern is expanded by Indigenous writers. How is concern expressed when white privilege – ‘leverage to care for others – is not the authorial position? Protest writing and the bildungsroman, explains Birns, have occupied a more urgent place in Indigenous writing than has the reflective mode of concern. Instead of care for others, foremost in recent Indigenous writing such as novels by Wright, Kim Scott and Tara June Winch, is the affect of care or custodianship for oneself – as a member of kin, language and country – against ‘the reality of death’. In Wright’s most recent work, particularly The Swan Book, the speculative mode is a formal realisation of the hopeful or imaginative nature of concern.

Birns’s final section on the affective response to neoliberalism is an investigation of idealism through the prose of Frank Moorhouse, Gerald Murnane and Brian Castro. Sydney poet Lachlan Brown is usefully quoted here, too, to illustrate a description of settlement that lacks ‘hyper-capitalist urban sheen’. In Brown’s representations of Western Sydney, ‘cultural hybridity’ exists but not as the multicultural dream – it is a fractured experience where no edges quite meet. This kind of space does not ‘fit the neoliberal script’ because it appears provincial and unfinished; indeed, this would describe the various suburban manifestations of life fringing Australia’s capital cities. In a recent essay for Plumwood Mountain Robert Wood ventures into the poetics of that suburban space, demonstrating that the poetics of in-between Australia – neither corporate metropolis nor pastoral illusion – is vast and hardly yet analysed. Jill Jones, Liam Ferney, Tim Wright, Sam Wagan Watson, Fiona Wright and Michael Aiken are some poets whose recent works celebrate the anti-idealism of suburban settlement. Birns’s final chapter, however, continues his focus on long-form prose, concerning Peter Carey, Eleanor Catton and Hannah Kent. Birns upholds Carey’s oeuvre as exemplary of an Australian writer addressing neoliberalism on both Australian and American fronts. Similarly, Catton’s and Kent’s novels show the wide-ranging possibilities of setting and narrative in new Australian fiction. Birns makes a bold and decisive inclusion of the New Zealander Catton as the final stop in his analysis. Not only, he argues, has Catton ‘lashed out’ at neoliberalism in a way not paralleled by an Australian writer, but by considering her writing in this book’s context her work encourages a criticism of Australian literature in conversation with Asia-Pacific literatures. Across Birns’s exploration of the three affects one becomes aware of an increasing turn towards suspension from reality, that is, from the quasi-satiric nature of rancour, to the imaginative altruism of concern, into the artificial structures of idealism.

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