Angela Meyer Reviews Judith Rodriguez and Niall Lucy, John Kinsella

6 June 2013

The lyrics at the end are the highlight of the book: playful, sarcastic and dramatic. They feature different characters and situations that we have been introduced to in the ballad and prose. You can sing the lyrics aloud or in your head, in a broad Australian accent or in some Sweeney Todd-like voice. From ‘Look at it This Way’:

We’ve run out of matches
We owe for the candles
The butcher is getting impatient
The landlady’s wise
The Church gives – advice –
And we’re short of rich friends and relations –

Though The Ballad of Moondyne Joe does not contain any verse titled as a ballad, there are several ballad-like sections in ‘The Rime of Moondyne Joe’ (rime being an archaic spelling of rhyme). The first ‘Rime’ tells a five-part story in quatrains with the second and last lines in rhyme, with commentary in italics alongside the verse. It is a centrepiece of the book, blending many of its distemporal elements. In its first part an author at a function – ‘something literary, local’ – is accosted after her talk by the ‘Ghost of a man in a roo-skin cape,/ ‘I have a tale to tell you won’t read/ in the papers…’ Silence, mouth agape.’ This is a literal instance in the book of the past and its stories being ever-present, creating echoes.

The second part of ‘The Rime of Moondyne Joe’ invokes everything from the destruction of the natural environment in the wake of ‘progress’ to Australian mythmaking (‘lest / We forget’), and disconnection from one’s ancestors. Part four invokes the ordinariness of everyday life among the echoing dramas of history and of country: ‘Tracy has made her way / Into town to check the mail, do some shopping’, while there is ‘a rush / Of emerald parrots. Crossing the bloodstream’ – an effective image. Part five presents the incident of inmates rioting in Fremantle prison in 1988. As often happens in this book, we do not know whether the authors are referring to 1988 or to the time of Joe’s incarceration. In fact, the two times are overtly blended:

You store that up in your escape-
Proof cell, and I remember those afraid
For sons and boyfriends during the riot,
And have never toured inside

Those walls.

The authors’ memories are present in this poem, connecting the horrors of the isolated, escape-proof cell that Joe endured with recent conditions for prisoners. Throughout the book the authors acknowledge, in this way, that a text is created through a lens of experience and then interpreted in multiple ways by readers, just as previous Moondyne Joe texts have been. The authors claim no ownership over him.

I think, then, that I am entitled to divulge one of the conditions of reading this text, from which you will take what you will. Reading about the significance of Joe’s escape from the prison yard in terms of shaping his myth and popular sentiment about him in Kinsella’s ‘Living with Moondyne Joe’, I asked my father, with whom I was staying, what that strange noise was I kept hearing outside. He said it was a gecko. ‘What does it look like?’ I asked. He said he didn’t know, he’d never seen it, but it moved around the house depending on where the light was. He said that one night he heard a commotion at the front window and pulled the curtains to see a large owl fluttering at the window, before flying off. The gecko was quiet and Dad assumed, sadly, that the owl had taken the gecko for a tasty meal. Later that night the gecko started up again and Dad was relieved. The gecko had become heroic. It had escaped the owl’s clutches. And a small-scale myth was born in my parent’s lounge room.

After Joe’s escape from the prison yard in 1867 he was out of sight for some time. As Lucy and Kinsella mention, Joe was also ‘spotted’ after he was supposed to have died.

The fact that we can never have all the details of a historical figure makes the creation of ballad, myth, song and story understandable. Where there are question marks, there can be rhyme, there can be descriptions of places and people that are like what could have been. But these two works wonder while refusing to neatly smooth over the gaps. At the same time, texts of history, and existing myths, in both these poetic works are (both respectfully and playfully) broken open, blended and bended, to stimulating effect.

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About Angela Meyer

Angela Meyer is the author of a collection of flash fiction (Captives, Inkerman & Blunt), and has published stories in Best Australian Stories 2014, Island, Wet Ink, The Lifted Brow and other publications. She is currently working on a novel.


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