UWA Publishing

Ladylike by Kate Lilley

by
June 2012, no. 342

Like all good titles, Kate Lilley’s Ladylike offers the reader a coded and evocative entrée into her new collection. These poems are concerned with exposing and critiquing some of the expectations of femininity, of being ladylike, as found in the past and the present, in contemporary cultures such as the cinema and in the discourses of the academy. The idea of ‘liking ladies’ is also central to these poems, as a current of desires that cuts across more conventional notions of the lady. The title also suggests a motif of mirroring, even doubling, where a self is similar to, perhaps even indistinguishable from an ‘other’, and yet is also simultaneously different, a simulacra or sign that can never be the thing in question. It is within this point of slippage – this petticoat slide between an embodiment of femininity and its repetitions or likenesses – that Lilley’s poetry operates, generating a reading experience which can be both vertiginous and full of the rigour of possibilities.

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Medievalism – the inspiration of the Middle Ages and their Gothic-Romantic and Aesthetic descendants for modern writing – is one of the more fascinating historical discourses to have emerged in Western criticism in recent decades. In Australia, this criticism has been led by Stephanie Trigg, Andrew Lynch, and Louise D’Arcens, who has written perceptively (among other topics) of the architectural culture demonstrated by The Mediaeval Court, showpiece of the 1866 Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition. Civic and ecclesiastical architecture – the Gothic cathedrals and university buildings designed by Wardell and Blacket, for example – offer, because of their solid visual presence, an obvious entry point to the colonial medievalising imagination, but in the present book D’Arcens has chosen an equally fruitful but rather more challenging subject, medievalist literature, which, in many cases, is more characteristic of Shakespeare’s ‘unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time’ than of his ‘gilded monuments’.

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Solitude is a wonderful enabler of art, but as we learn from Stephen Scourfield’s stories, it can engulf us in the absence of external balancing forces and can become dangerous in the process. Each of the characters in Stephen Scourfield’s three novellas (a craftsman, a novelist, and a student of nature) is a solitary, with the possible exception of Bea, the septuagenarian companion of Matthew Rossi in the second novella, Like Water, who is slightly more inclined towards relationships than Matthew, who says of his ‘fistful’of girlfriends, ‘In terms of human relationships, the only thing I enjoy more than their company is not having their company.’ When practised by Dr Bartholomew Milner, naturalist and Ethical Man, solitude’s dangers become obvious.

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Best known for her poetry and plays, Dorothy Hewett was also the author of novels, short stories and numerous reviews, articles and lectures. An excellent Collected Poems (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1995), edited by William Grono, has been complemented by Selected Poems of Dorothy Hewett (2010). The highlight of Hewett’s prose writings as a whole is her brilliant autobiography, Wild Card (1990), in which she presents aspects of her tumultuous life story from 1923 to 1958. UWA Publishing will reissue this work in May 2012, a decade after her death. Hewett’s life and work cry out for a full-scale biography. Fiona Morrison’s Selected Prose of Dorothy Hewett fills some of the gaps in Hewett’s published record of articles, reviews, lectures, and journalism.

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‘A MISSIONARY ARRESTED! A LONDON MISSIONARY ARRESTED!!’ These alarming words were trumpeted in the Sydney Gazette in 1828, and they shout from the back cover of Anna Johnston’s The Paper War. Readers might be forgiven for assuming that this book is about scandals in early colonial Australia – all the more entertaining for involving clergymen. And in a way it is, for the man arrested, Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld, is the book’s central character. His endless battles with his peers and superiors via the printed, written, and spoken word are a major focus of this book.

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A cluttered portrait inevitably diminishes its subject. I am thinking, in particular, of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his gallery in Brussels, by David Teniers the Younger, in which the Habsburg aristocrat is like an ant among his scores of pictures. This happens with biographies, too. A satisfying example is far more than an expansion of the subject’s curriculum vitae or a thorough examination of his appointment diary. When the author has strong feelings (as a widow inevitably does), the problem is aggravated. This new biography – of an extraordinary musician who might, in different circumstances, have contributed far more to Australia than he was allowed to do – is both partisan and prolix, and is as littered with quotidian details as the Teniers painting is with canvases. In both cases, these objects and details are too small to engage our attention usefully or thoroughly.

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For historian Katie Holmes, researching and writing Between the Leaves was a journey of discovery and interpretation. In her examination of the records left by nine women – through their words and the signatures they left on the land – the author discovered some of the meanings that writing and gardening held for them. Holmes was also drawn to ways an individual’s story can illuminate a larger picture. Sites of women’s stories are also places where the nation’s stories can be found: ‘Within this book, women’s home and garden belong in history, rather than as a mere adjunct to it.’

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The painter and outdoor draughtsman John Wolseley is utterly unusual among artists in this country. Marvellously accomplished yet old-fashioned, he could be seen as an artist who cheekily leapt from  traditional to postmodern without passing through any of the intermediate stages. His deeply natural pictures can’t be categorised easily, for all that they are entrancing. In Lines for Birds, they are reproduced side by side with the comparably responsive poems of Barry Hill.

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A few months after the 2010 federal election, Geoff Gallop delivered the annual Hawke Lecture at the University of South Australia. In an address focused upon political engagement, he canvassed some possible reforms to the Australian political system. Among a number of other proposals ...

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The deeply troubled Francis Webb, a magician with language, is still one of the two or three most remarkable poets Australia has produced, if nation-states can be said to produce creative artists. His life proved dark and painful, wherever he was located, but he worshipped language, in parallel with his worship of the Christian trinity ...

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