Wakefield Press

‘Ern Malley’ – a great literary creation and the occasion of a famous literary hoax – has continued to attract fascinated attention ever since he burst upon the Australian poetry scene more than seventy years ago. But his sister Ethel has attracted little notice, she who set off the whole saga by writing to Max Harris, the young editor of Angry Penguins, asking whether the poems left by her late brother were any good, and signing herself ‘sincerely, Ethel Malley’.

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Precise observation is considered a prerequisite for poetry, but there are limits as to what a surfeit of detail can bring to a poem, or even to an entire volume. Three new poetry collections, each different in tone and subject matter, deploy close observation to varying degrees of success across poems that scrutinise domestic tension, interspecies dynamics, landscape, and everyday grace.

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More Than Mere Words edited by Paul Monaghan and Michael Walsh & Ethnographer and Contrarian edited by Julie D. Finlayson and Frances Morphy

by
December 2020, no. 427

Anthropology, in my experience, is commonly confused in the popular imagination with archaeology. ‘We study live people, whereas archaeologists study dead people,’ I have sometimes explained half-jokingly to the perplexed. Although public understanding of anthropology’s engagement with living human societies and cultures is at times sketchy, Australian anthropologists have in fact made significant contributions since the 1970s to the recognition of prior Aboriginal land ownership over vast tracts of the Australian continent. The essays in this two-volume Festschrift celebrate the multifaceted life and legacy of anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton, perhaps the most significant exemplar of this ‘applied’ branch of Australian anthropology.

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Geoff Goodfellow is best known as a poet. Out of Copley Street, his first non-verse publication, chronicles his working-class coming of age in Adelaide’s inner-northern suburbs during the 1950s and 1960s.

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A short story collection can have much in common with a collection of poetry, where each story pivots on attention to something particular and arresting – an image, a memory, the encounters with strangeness or beauty that can occur in a life. Individual stories build delicately towards such a moment, then fall away quickly, willing a reader to engage with feeling and suggestion rather than the comprehensiveness of narrative.

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Mount Parnassus remains a proscribed destination for the moment, but Aidan Coleman’s Mount Sumptuous (Wakefield Press, $22.95 pb, 56 pp) provides an attractive local alternative. Following on from the poems of love and recovery in Asymmetry (2012), this collection marks the poet’s reawakened appetite for the sublimities and subterfuges of suburban Australia, from cricket pitches ‘lit like billiard tables’ and Blue Light Discos to the flammable wares of Best & Less and the implacable red brick of ‘all-meat / towns’. As these poems and their pseudo-pedagogical endnotes show, Coleman is a keen philologist of the language of commerce. The title’s ‘sumptuous’ (from the Latin sumptus for ‘expense’) keys us in to the vital ambivalence of a poetry, which on the one hand honours the rituals of everyday consumption (‘lounging / book in hand, Tim Tams / … tea a given’), and on the other speaks to the exploitative logic of consumer capitalism (‘Take the juiceless fruits / of day labour and a white / goods salesman’s leaden chicanery’).

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First encounters between Indigenous Australians and European voyagers, sealers, and missionaries often unfolded on the beach, a contact zone where meaning and misunderstanding sparked from colliding worldviews. This sandy theatre also serves as one of the enduring metaphors of ethnographic history, a discipline that reads through the accounts of European explorers, diarists, and administrators to reconsider historical accounts of the gestures of Indigenous people from within their own cultural frameworks.

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The career of Marjorie Lawrence is one of the great might-have-beens of operatic history. The saga of a young Australian woman who, in an astonishingly short period of time, became a leading singer first at the Paris Opéra and then at New York’s Metropolitan and who was poised to become the Met’s prima donna assoluta in the Wagnerian repertory when disaster struck, sounds like a script for the Hollywood weepie it eventually became. Although her career was spectacular and her talent indisputable – the renowned British critic Neville Cardus described her as ‘the finest musical artist ever to be born in Australia’ – her name seems to have faded from view. Now, in his comprehensive biography, Richard Davis redresses the balance.

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Dance is an ephemeral art. This is just one reason, among many, why Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon’s beautifully designed and presented Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance 1945–1965 is an important contribution to the light industry of dance historiography. Its eye-catching cover, with a Walter Stringer photograph of dancer William Harvey in a soaring leap above an Australian landscape, will attract bookshop browsers. A perusal of its contents will encourage purchase, as a special gift or for one’s personal library.

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Behind Philip Jones’s Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and encounters on Australian frontiers are many books about the interaction of settlers and indigenes. Writers relevant to this book include the museum curator Aldo Massola (writing in the 1960s and 1970s) and retired archaeologist John Mulvaney (writing in the 1980s and 1990s). Massola brought out objects and archival material from the Museum of Victoria, writing their stories for a tourist or localhistory readership. He was a pioneer whose work is no less valuable for presenting an undifferentiated mix of hearsay, intuition, document, object, science and human observation. Although he rarely named his sources, they exist for most, if not all, of what he said so lightly.

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