Angus and Robertson

What is more common than the indicative mood, and what is more uncommon than the way Les Murray uses it? His Christian finger ‘scratches the other cheek’ (‘The Quality of Sprawl’) but more often points out tracks seen from the air, but invisible on the ground: a hibiscus becomes ‘the kleenex flower’ (‘A Retrospect of Humidity’); the shower an ‘inverse bidet,/ sleek vertical coruscating ghost of your inner river’ (‘Shower’); a north-coast punt ‘just a length of country road / afloat between two shores’ (‘Machine Portraits with Pendant Spaceman’). You see it in his use of the demonstrative pronoun – ‘this blast of trance’ (‘Shower’); the definite article – The man imposing spring here swats with his branch controlling it’(‘The Grassfire Stanzas’)’; the deictic use of ‘I’ and ‘we’ to get his readers looking in the same direction as he points out where we are and where we’ve come from – ‘So we’re sitting over our sick beloved engine / atop a great building of the double century / on the summit that exhilarates cars, the concrete vault on its thousands / of tonnes of height, far above the tidal turnaround’ (‘Fuel Stoppage on Gladesville Road Bridge in the Year 1980’).

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It is 116 years since Charles Harpur, Australia’s first poet of real eminence, died with his own collection of his works unpublished. Except for a couple of small selections – the most recent of which, made by Adrian Mitchell in 1973 and containing only about 120 pages of the poetry, was the most comprehensive – and the infamously corrupt 1883 ‘collection’, it has remained so. This has been a blot on the reputation of Australian critical and academic workers and a loss not only to Australian literature but to Australian history. Now Elizabeth Perkins, of the English Department of James Cook University, has handsomely remedied a long injustice.

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This is a first novel from Alexander Buzo, the playwright of the 1960s and 1970s who gave vitriol a new status in the Australian vernacular and who, through characters like Coralie Landsdowne (Coralie Landsdowne Says No) and Edward Martello (Martello Towers), raised pretentious speech to new levels of social acceptability. In a published comment on audience reception to Martello Towers, Buzo describes Edward Martello as ‘an educated ‘rake’, who is, in keeping with the style of the play, articulate beyond the grounds of naturalism’ and concludes, ‘Still, as long as they’re enjoying themselves’. Defensive disclaimers from writers hint at a nervousness which must, eventually, find its way into the writing usually in the form of overkill. The worst recent example of this is the introduction to Clive James’s Brilliant Creatures in which a rather affected statement of pre-emptive failure is intended to head the critics off at the pass if they were to do anything as unkind as suggest that the work was any more frivolous than intended by its author, who, of course, intended it to be.

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Bev Roberts reviews 'Selected Poems' by Gwen Harwood

Bev Roberts
Wednesday, 03 June 2020

One afternoon at the recent Melbourne Writers’ Festival I noticed that, while adulatory throngs surrounded Elizabeth Jolley and Thea Astley, another notable member of our literary matriarchy, Gwen Harwood, sat quietly outside in the sun, deep in philosophical discussion with a younger poet. This is a comment on the differential status accorded to fiction writers and poets, but also on the relatively self-effacing Gwen and her presence or place in the literary world.

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Astrid Di Carlo reviews 'What You Own' by Thomas Shapcott

Astrid Di Carlo
Wednesday, 03 June 2020

Come on in. Do you like mango chutney? I myself have never had mango chutney, not liking mangos, but Phil’s an expert on making the stuff. It never lasts, but make sure you use green mangos because the old ones are too stringy.

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Comedy and violence co-exist happily in this delightful first novel about a group of weekend bird watchers who themselves become the objects of scrutiny.

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Michael Costigan reviews 'New Selected Poems' by Vivian Smith

Michael Costigan
Wednesday, 08 April 2020

In his 155-page essay on Australian poetry in The Oxford History of Australian Literature, Vivian Smith modestly makes only one passing reference to his own work, noting that he, with a number of other modern poets, had been influenced by university education.

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John Hanrahan reviews 'Madness' by Morris Lurie

John Hanrahan
Wednesday, 08 April 2020

We meet Tannenbaum in his ‘cosy Anne Frankish semi-hidden nook’. These writerly Jewish recluses have very little else in common; Tannenbaum is separated from his wife and two children. His friend/lover Anise is trying to drink her way out of a nervous breakdown. For further solace he resorts to ‘horizontal unravelling’ or ‘psychiatric horizontality’.

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Evan Jones reviews 'Antechinus' by A.D. Hope

Evan Jones
Wednesday, 08 April 2020

The acknowledgements included in the Preface to this collection name some of the most common places for poetry to be published in Australia, but by chance few of these poems seem to me familiar. That of course makes it more interesting to see them individually; and also makes the whole thing easier to see at large.

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I would not lightly mention any writer of fiction in the same breath as John Cheever, who was one of the most remarkable and enjoyable storytellers of our times. I can’t better this short comment which says it all: ‘The Cheever corpus is magical – a mood, a vision, a tingle, all quite unexplainably achieved.’ That is from Newsweek and graces the front cover of The Stories of John Cheever (King Penguin).

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