‘When I was three days old, a nurse … stole me from the obstetrics ward … and raised me as her own,’ the voice of Nella Gilbert Pine tells us in the compelling opening of Joyce Kornblatt’s fifth novel, Mother Tongue. This is a moving contemplation on core elements of human experience: the complex connections between mothers and daughters, what it means to love and be loved. It is also an exploration of the ripple effects of trauma, those shocking events that ‘explode’ in the unsuspecting hand, leaving trails of harm far into the future.
Grandmothers are not what they used to be, as Elizabeth Jolley once said of custard tarts. It’s a point made by several contributors to Helen Elliott’s lively and thoughtfully curated collection of essays on the subject, Grandmothers, and it partly explains why these two books are not as similar as you might expect.
From the Man’s horse ‘blood[ied] from hip to shoulder’ in Banjo Paterson’s ‘The Man from Snowy River’ (1890) to the kangaroos drunkenly slaughtered in Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright (1961), non-human animals have not fared well in Australian literature. Even when, as in Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals (2014), the author’s imagination is fully brought to bear on the inner lives of animals, their fate tends towards the Hobbesian – ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ – reflecting back to us our own often unexamined cruelty. The rare exceptions, such as J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003), incorporating a fictionalised series of animal-rights lectures, serve only to point up the rule.
The last words of the endnotes to John A. Scott’s most recent novel – earlier ones have won the Victorian Premier’s prize for fiction and been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award – and thus the last words of this book, if we exclude back-cover plaudits, read: ‘An additional narrative strand, chronicling the history of Surrealist André Breton in Melbourne, 1952, omitted from this version of N for reasons of overall length [emphasis added], appears in Southerly,Vol. 73, No 3, 2013 (“The Naked Writer”).’ As these words appear on page 599 of N,a sesquipedalian opus if ever there was one, it can only be observed, echoing Francisco in the first scene of Hamlet, ‘for this relief much thanks’, for N is already over-long, over-plotted, over-the-top, making excessive demands upon the reader’s generosity and her stamina.
The critical essays collected in this current issue of Australia’s oldest literary journal make for frustrating reading. The theme is true crime, with a focus on the relationship between the sensational and the literary. Topics range from Underbelly Razor to the Jerilderie Letter to Schapelle Corby’s autobiography. Fascinating material, no doubt, but most of the contributions fail to engage and feel more like mutilated book chapters or hurriedly swept-together research notes, characterised by erratic analyses and flabby prose.
In July 2007, at the age of thirty-one, Aidan Coleman suffered a stroke as a result of a brain tumour. Asymmetry is a book in two parts. The first details the poet’s survival after this near-death experience, his struggle to regain full use of his body and to speak and write again. The second part is a group of love poems for his wife, Leana ...
Broadly speaking, there are two types of epitaphs: those formulated by loved ones to describe the living qualities of the interred; and those that would presume to speak from the grave. Writers, ever reluctant to pass up a blank page – even if it is a tombstone – are disproportionate constituents of the latter ...
‘Dark satanic mills won the day’, S.K. Kelen tells us in one of his strongest poems, ‘Slouching’. ‘Cold modernity followed, a brooding European / monochrome hinted at worlds passing (the good old days).’ What many critics take to be William Blake’s damning of the Industrial Revolution – ‘And was Jerusalem builded here, / Among these dark Satanic Mills?’ (from ‘And did those feet in ancient time’, c.1804) – could easily have served as an epigraph for Kelen’s Island Earth. The industrial age, its intrusion upon great swathes of the ‘emerald world’, has been variously and often compellingly dissected by Kelen throughout his poetic career, which spans more than three decades and is represented in this New and Selected. Also scrutinised is industrialism’s accomplice and enabler: the increasingly global economy that, for Kelen, has made a hostile takeover of human activity at almost every level.
Special issues are difficult and delicate, given the burden of representation. Editor David Brooks confesses to providing only a glimpse of the rich field that might constitute Indian–Australian literary relations. He offers ‘that very Australian thing – a showbag, a sampler, full of enticements to explore further’. Given the slow but steady realisation in Australia that India should be a focus of attention for its scholars and students, this is a timely attempt.
In a 1995 interview for the Paris Review, Ted Hughes was asked if the 1960s boom in translated poetry in the United Kingdom, particularly with series such as the Penguin Modern European Poets, had had an effect on poetry written in English. ‘Has it modified the British tradition!’ he replied. ‘Everything is now completely open, every approach, with infinite possibilities. Obviously the British tradition still exists as a staple of certain historically hard-earned qualities if anybody is still there who knows how to inherit them. Raleigh’s qualities haven’t become irrelevant. When I read Primo Levi’s verse I am reminded of Raleigh. But for young British poets, it’s no longer the only tradition, no longer a tradition closed in on itself and defensive.’