University of Queensland Press

Ambiguity, done well, has a bifurcating momentum that can floor you. The late Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar, a master of unsettling short stories shot through with ambiguity, knew this and used it to pugilistic advantage, declaring that ‘the novel wins by points, the short story by knockout’. Ambiguity is likewise central to S.J. Norman’s début collection, Permafrost, seven eerily affecting stories that traverse and update gothic and romantic literary traditions, incorporating horror, queer, and folk elements to hair-raising effect. No matter how often you read these spectral tales, they simply refuse to resolve themselves definitively. It could be that things have gone spectacularly wrong and that, simultaneously, everything is okay – a see-saw in constant motion, made all the creepier by the fact nobody is sitting on either side.

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Sarah Holland-Batt’s Fishing for Lightning is a book about Australian poetry. As such, it is a rare, and welcome, bird in the literary ecology of our country. It is welcome because poetry, like any other art form, requires a supportive culture that educates and promulgates. Not that Holland-Batt, herself one of our leading poets, is ‘merely’ didactic, or a shill for the muses. Holland-Batt, who is also an academic, writes with great authority and insight, and she is a fine stylist, penning essays that are packed with humour and playfulness. These essays cater for all kinds of audiences, from newcomers to poetry experts, which is no small feat.

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Halfway through Lucy Neave’s new novel Believe in Me, there is an astonishing scene in which an orphaned foal is dressed in the skin of a newly dead foal, the skewbald coat threaded with baling twine and the strings knotted under the throat and chest. Disguised in this fleshy coat, strands of bloody muscle still clinging to it, the foal is presented hopefully to its foster mother. The novel’s main protagonist, Bet, is sceptical: ‘It’s condescending: as if a mare could be fooled by putting her dead foal’s skin on another foal.’ Sure enough, the grieving mare rejects the starving foal, stamping her hooves and moving around uneasily in the stable. Later that night, when Bet goes to check on the animals, she finds them nestled together: ‘Dark shapes, they moved together, away from me, as though they’d been startled from a dream.’ Stunned at this unexpected communion, Bet retreats into her own solitude: ‘I turned off the light, bolted the door and walked back through dew-soaked grass to bed, seeing again the mare and foal, nose to tail. They had no need of me.’

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Maria Takolander’s fourth book of poetry, Trigger Warning (University of Queensland Press, $24.99 pb, 100 pp), is a sharp and arresting collection, fierce in its emotions and determination to make language do the hard work of speaking that which hovers at the edge of articulation. This is a poetics that traces everywhere the lurking presence of the disruptive – in domestic life, in global crises, even in our most intimate experiences. Takolander’s courageous poetry becomes both a landscape in which to inscribe what is unbearable and a sphere in which it might be, at least partially, managed.

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‘And what is wrong with sad stories? The world is always sad.’ So advises Little Red, the aged, marginalised, knowing female character in the title story of Tony Birch’s latest short fiction collection. As in Birch’s previous works, Dark as Last Night contains an abundance of sad stories, but with grief and trauma ameliorated by the main protagonist’s affection for at least one other character, be it a family member or neighbour.

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Where We Swim takes the broad view on each component of its title: the ‘where’, the ‘we’, the ‘swim’. Wellington-based author Ingrid Horrocks explains that her original idea – to record a series of solo swims – was transformed when she realised such deliberate solitary excursions were ‘bracketed moments held deep within lives’ and that their contrivance ‘felt too close to the act of an explorer, or an old-school nature writer’.

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In The First Time I Thought I Was Dying, the photographer–artist Sarah Walker brings into focus ideas about anxiety, control, bodily functions, and the uses of breached boundaries. The essays of this book are personal, and readers of confessional non-fiction will delight in their tone: equal parts jocose and sincere.

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Coralie Clarke Rees and Leslie Rees are not remembered among the glamour couples of twentieth-century Australian literary life. Unlike George Johnston and Charmian Clift, Vance and Nettie Palmer, or their friends Darcy Niland and Ruth Park, neither of them wrote novels and they both spread their work across a range of genres. Critics, journalists, travel writers, children’s writers, playwrights, they devoted themselves to supporting the broad artistic culture of Australia rather than claiming its attention. Their lives were spent in juggling their literary interests with the need to make a living at a time when Australian society was even less supportive of writers than it is now. They made compromises to suburban life and the need to care for their two daughters, without ever abandoning their determination to live by the pen.


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After Story by Larissa Behrendt

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July 2021, no. 433

In the latter half of this novel, one of its protagonists is viewing a collection of butterflies at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. This forms part of Jasmine’s holiday with her mother, Della, a tour of famous literary and other notable cultural sites in the United Kingdom. By this stage they have visited Stratford-upon-Avon, Brontë country in Haworth, and Jane Austen’s Bath and Southampton, and have been duly impressed or, in Della’s case, underwhelmed. But now Jasmine can only feel sadness: ‘We take the life of a living thing, hold it to display, because we feel entitled to the knowledge, entitled to the owning, the possessing.’

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A Thousand Crimson Blooms by Eileen Chong & Turbulence by Thuy On

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July 2021, no. 433

The biographical note to A Thousand Crimson Blooms observes that Eileen Chong’s first book, Burning Rice (2012), is ‘the first single-author collection of poetry by an Asian-Australian to be studied as part of the NSW HSC English syllabus’. Having run many writing workshops for students and adults over the years, Chong takes her pedagogy as seriously as her poetry. It’s no surprise, then, that A Thousand Crimson Blooms, Chong’s fifth collection, is replete with scenes of instruction. In ‘Teacher’, the poet corrects her mother’s pronunciation (‘I say TEAcher, then, I say teacher.  / … I feel like an arsehole’) only to stand corrected by memories of her mother’s gentler tutelage. The collection’s dedicatee, Chong’s grandmother, metes out corporal punishment in ‘Hunger’, but has her own body disciplined in ‘Float’. The poet learns the meaning of ‘thole’ (Scottish for ‘to endure / what is barely bearable’) and after surgery discloses the origins of her nurse’s name. If there is pathos evoked by these anecdotes, much of it has to do with the way knowledge – how to care for the body, where to look for the roots of words – helps the poet overcome the inertia occasioned by violence, whether racial, sexual, or medical.

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