My sister died seventeen years ago and there aren’t many days I don’t miss her. I’d like us to be walking together beside the Murray River near our place in Merbein, hearing her laugh, and being renewed by the sunshine through the river red gums.
The Language in My Tongue: An anthology of Australian and New Zealand poetry edited by Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington
There’s an old Irish saying: ‘If you want praise, die. If you want blame, marry.’ I could add from personal experience, ‘If you really want blame, edit a poetry anthology.’ While poetry is relatively popular, it often seems that more people write it than read it. As a result, poets can be desperate for affirmation and recognition, managing their careers more jealously than investment bankers. What too often gets lost in all the log-rolling and back-scratching is the poetry. We turn to anthologies for help, hoping to find in small, palatable doses good poets we can choose to read in depth. We find anthologies representing nations or geographical regions, literary periods, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations, forms, categories like postmodernism, post-colonialism, eco-poetry, and themes like love or madness.
‘Such is life’ is a common phrase in Australian popular culture – it has even been tattooed on bodies – but Joseph Furphy’s novel of the same name, published in 1903, is often forgotten. Ned Kelly mythology suggests that he uttered this phrase just before being hanged in 1880, though some historians argue that what he actually said was, ‘Ah well, I suppose’. Long before Furphy (1843–1912) wrote his magnum opus, the stoic phrase was perhaps wrongly associated with a cult hero’s execution.
The Coast by Eleanor Limprecht
A child of nine is taken to Sydney for the first time to visit her mother, a patient at the Coast Hospital lazaret. Upon arrival, she learns that she, like her mother, has leprosy. Her fate is fixed from that day; she will live the remainder of her life in the lazaret. She takes the new name of ‘Alice’ to hide her former self, and the world closes in upon her. There will be no more school, no playing with her younger brothers and sisters, no friends of her own age, no prospect of romance, no hope of freedom.
Bad Art Mother by Edwina Preston
In 1961, Gwen Harwood submitted a sonnet to the Bulletin under the name of Walter Lehmann. Her poem, ‘Abelard to Eloisa’, held a shocking acrostic secret that many people considered very bad art. Nobody discovered the secret until after it was published. But despite her transgression, as Wikipedia puts it, ‘she found much greater acceptance’ – to the point that she is today considered one of Australia’s greatest poets.
The Letters of Thom Gunn by Michael Nott, August Kleinzahler, and Clive Wilmer
Of the major Anglo-American poets of the previous century, none was more transformed, at least on the surface, by the journey across the Atlantic than Thom Gunn (1929–2004). Travelling in the opposite direction, T.S. Eliot found echoes of his mid-Western emotional repression and discreet anti-Semitism in the England of his era, while W.H. Auden, who carried his world with him, was only mildly affected by his time in America.
It was in the wake of the landslide re-election of Daniel Andrews’s Labor government in November 2018 that the former Coalition prime minister, John Howard, christened Victoria ‘the Massachusetts of Australia’. Coming from Howard, this characterisation of Victoria was not meant as a compliment. Rather, it seemed designed as a consolation message for the local Liberal Party. He was providing them with an alibi for their lengthening record of under-performance in the state. Victoria, Howard seemed to be saying, was simply impervious to the party’s conservative values.
Waypoints by Adam Ouston
In 1908, on 11 September (an ominous day for the changing nature of planes in our dreams), Franz Kafka and Max Brod travelled to Brescia in Italy to watch Louis Blériot fly a plane. For Kafka, and probably most in the crowd, this was the first opportunity to witness a human crawl into a machine and, like something out of Greek Myth, fly towards the Mediterranean sun. Kafka and Brod decided to record their observations. Brod saw the pilot draw inspiration from the adoring crowd. Blériot ‘was being lifted on high by the mounting murmur of the thousands’. Kafka, sensing the crowd’s devoted gaze, had a different impression, ‘twenty meters above the earth a person is trapped in a wooden construction, fighting a voluntary and invisible danger. And we are down here, crowded and insubstantial, watching.’
Pyre by Maureen Alsop
‘Every sacred language,’ writes Octavio Paz, ‘is secret. And conversely: every secret language … borders on the sacred.’ In the liminal Pyre, poet Maureen Alsop traverses – and erodes – this secret/sacred border, which is also the border of life and death, ‘the valley between our language’ (‘North Channel’). Each of the book’s section titles is a variation on ‘Selenomancy’, defined on the contents page as ‘a divination by the observation of the phases and appearances of the moon’. That Alsop titles multiple poems ‘Sky An Oar’, moreover, betrays the purpose of these divinations: to reach the other side, the ‘village across the waters’ that ‘burned all night’ (‘Witness’). The collection’s challenge, which it mostly meets successfully, is to remain on the compelling side of hermeticism.
Basin: A novel by Scott McCulloch
On the surface, Scott McCulloch’s début novel, Basin, takes place in a brutal and degenerated landscape; the edge of a former empire in a state of violent flux. Rebels, separatists, terrorists, paramilitary groups, and the remnants of imperial forces clash over borders and interzones in the wake of the ‘Collapse’, an undefined geopolitical and ecological disaster. Print and broadcast media warn of inter-ethnic conflict and Rebel advances. Bazaars, brothels, and a chain of Poseidon Hotels all operate amid industrial waste and military checkpoints, servicing the region’s fishermen, soldiers, smugglers, and drifters. There is a multiplicity of language and religion (Abrahamic denominations mingle with archaic, pagan beliefs). Alcohol consumption and illicit drug use are rife. The climate is oppressively humid.
The Jaguar by Sarah Holland-Batt
I first encountered Sarah Holland-Batt’s poem ‘The Gift’ in The New Yorker. It begins, ‘In the garden my father sits in his wheelchair / garlanded by summer hibiscus / like a saint in a seventeenth-century cartouche’ – an unremarkable opening, I thought, to a poem of personal anecdote, a genre too ubiquitous among our contemporaries. Rereading the poem in the context of her third collection, The Jaguar, I became acclimated to her style and manner, and admired the alertness of its verbal performance. If the new book remains a personal memoir, narrating the devastating illness and death of her father, it is also charged throughout with a strong writer’s intelligence and vulnerability. ‘I will carry the gift of his death endlessly,’ she writes, ‘every day I will know it opening in me.’
When Ann-Marie Priest wrote to me in 2015 asking whether she might talk to me about her proposed biography of my mother, and requesting my permission to examine some correspondence in the Fryer Library, which I, as Gwen Harwood’s literary executor, had placed on restricted access, I replied with a terse refusal to cooperate. Since my mother’s death in December 1995, I had kept tight control of her vast correspondence, nearly all of which she had donated to various research libraries over the last two decades of her life, and I saw no reason to change my ways.
Ten Steps to Nanette by Hannah Gadsby
Hannah Gadsby’s show Nanette (2017–18) starts out funny but then shifts to long, angry monologues that refuse its audience the release of laughter. By breaking the conventional contract between a comedian and her audience, Gadsby rejected her own former practice of turning her traumatic experiences into jokes. Nanette’s international run and subsequent release as a Netflix special spanned the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, which gauged public support for marriage equality, as well as the international #MeToo movement against sexual assault.
Australia in 50 Plays by Julian Meyrick
For at least the first half of the twentieth century, Australian playwrights were not held in high regard by their compatriots. Popular opinion was summed up by fictional theatre manager M.J. Field in Frank A. Russell’s novel The Ashes of Achievement (1920).