Archive

Primitive accumulation was a brutal process often performed by gentlemen. Not all pastoralists were brutes – unless they had to be. Not all Aboriginals were murdered – unless they had to be. Facades of normality were hurriedly erected to confound Karl Marx. For a moment the Australian pastoralists could build oases of sophistication on the Australian landscape. For a generation or so they managed to impose a uniquely Australian gentility around the waterholes and rivers. That the phenomenon was a passing one is symbolised by the life and death of James Bourke in the Riverina. A secondary pioneer, he died at the age of twenty-four. His brother Thomas, ‘a fine athletic man’ died of the booze aged twenty-six. The body of his step-uncle, James Peter, was found in the river a few days later: he had been in ‘a severe fit of the horrors’. All sorts of disasters of a man-made kind – from fatal flaws to death duties – combined with the elements to wash away the billabong dynasties.

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Along with regular features, this bumper edition of the Poets’ Union journal, Five Bells, includes the proceedings of festival discussions in Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth: sixteen strongly argued, well-crafted papers by some of Australia’s best poets, variously considering the state of Australian poetry now. For all the individual interest of these papers, this collection’s strength lies in the way they set up parallels and contradictions, working together like a long, amiable argument.

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If any volume of Selected Poems must be in part the autobiography of an imagination, it is subject to the vicissitudes and ironies which attend all autobiography. One gazes at it and finds familiar lineaments, but one also finds mobilities and stands made more evident than a more partial acquaintance can show. The very title is a warning that the whole story –whatever that might be – is not to be found here: a ‘Selected Poems’ is the outcome of recurrent options.

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The prolific David Malouf, another of our poets turned novelist, just had two short prose works published within a few months of one another. Although Child’s Play (which also includes two short stories) is set in Italy, where Malouf now resides, and Fly Away Peter in Brisbane where he grew up, the two books are thematically related, not only to each other but to the author’s earlier work.

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Graeme Turner reviews 'An Open Swimmer' by Tim Winton

Graeme Turner
Friday, 16 October 2020

A sympathetic reader might feel that Tim Winton, winner of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, is a victim of one of the unkindest tricks Fate can play on a writer, with the publication of his first novel, An Open Swimmer, at the age of twenty-one. A first novel from a writer of this age is typically seen as, a ‘young man’s book’, full of the gaucheries and immaturities of the precocious, and even if a success, it is an albatross around his neck for the rest of his career. The best one can hope for is a moderate success, substantial enough to start a career, but not either brilliant enough or bad enough to determine its direction from then on. Fortunately, Tim Winton’s first novel does not neatly fit this stereotype.

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At seventy-one Judah Waten is not just another old soldier who refuses to fade away. Nor is he a man who keeps writing books out of habit. He is a born storyteller who writes when he has something to tell us. And the more he writes, the more powerful and persuasive his fictions become.

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The concept behind this book is unusual and ambitious. In twelve essays centred on charismatic birds of Australia’s inland, the authors attempt to provide a deeper understanding of the ecology of arid Australia. They also hope that their writings will provide insights and inspiration about how humans might live there in a more sustainable way. Birds were selected as the linking theme of these essays because their ecology is comparatively well known, because their mobility increases the options available for surviving in the harsh and unpredictable desert environment, and because birds, to many readers, are the most familiar group of animals.

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Martin Duwell reviews 'Unanimous Night' by Michael Brennan

Martin Duwell
Friday, 16 October 2020

This book follows Michael Brennan’s brilliant début collection, The Imageless World (2003). I do not make this connection lightly; Unanimous Night shares almost everything with its predecessor: themes, methods and tone of voice. They even share the same structure: groups of shorter poems (‘Letters Home’) are punctuated by some tightly organised extended sequences.

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Despite its faults, this book has the merit of being the first biography on the legendary Australian batsman, Victor Trumper (1877–1915). Young cricket lovers of today may well ask what feats of batsmanship Trumper performed to deserve this handsomely produced volume about him. After all, his test average was only 39.04, not to be spoken of in the same breath as Don Bradman’s 99.96.

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J.F. Staples reviews 'The Ivanov Trail' by David Marr

J.F. Staples
Friday, 16 October 2020

I sometimes wonder whether David Combe’s detractors have ever read the legend of his sins – the transcript (even as officially bowdlerised) – of his conversation with Ivanov on 4 March 1983. It is upon the fact of this event (but certainly not upon the record of its substance) that Combe is widely charged, not with treachery, but with greed, intolerable ambition, and amazing indiscretion.

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