UWA Publishing

Dorothy Hewett is a vivid presence in all her poetry. This selection from her life’s work opens with a poem written in her last year at school.

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Palestine Betrayed by Efraim Karsh & Gaza edited by Raimond Gaita

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October 2010, no. 325

It is a great pity that Efraim Karsh could not have read Raimond Gaita’s new collection of essays before completing his own. The essays might have prompted him to reflect that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is not nearly as straightforward as he would have us believe.

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Emily Ballou’s first book of poems opens with a quotation from Coleridge’s Definitions of Poetry: ‘Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose but to science. Poetry is opposed to science.’ A book of poems on the life of Charles Darwin must be a refutation of this idea, though I had expected a more direct return to the comment which, two hundred years after Coleridge wrote it, has accrued greater meaning. In Coleridge’s time, the dazzling and potentially alienating specialisation of the sciences had not occurred, and C.P. Snow had never hailed the ‘two cultures’. Anti-intellectualism had not yet colluded with postmodern suspicion of reason to decry the malign, hegemonic nature of Western science. Coleridge, like many educated men of his time, was conversant with the latest advances in most branches of the sciences. He enjoyed a close friendship with Humphry Davy, the foremost scientist of the day, who also wrote poetry.

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Look Who’s Morphing by Tom Cho & Why She Loves Him by Wendy James

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June 2009, no. 312

Self-evidently, the short story demands precision. The term ‘short story’ more than likely brings to mind the magazine-length sprint or the rapidly delivered epiphany. John Updike was a master of this demanding form. In his Olinger and Tarbox tales, characters are assembled quickly and sent to their fate with little delay. Never cursory, this was writing performed under haiku-like restraint. In the short stories of Wendy James and Tom Cho, we are presented with similarly brief and precise tales of two different Australian landscapes: one as small as a kitchen, the other as capacious as an arena. Why She Loves Him is James’s first story collection after two well-received novels. For the most part, the stories are quiet and domestic affairs. Her characters are frequently repressed and restrained, filled with rage that is rarely given voice. If the short fiction of some novelists feels too constrained, James’s evocation of despair is perfectly suited to these short bursts.

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Susan Varga’s latest novel, Headlong, is set in Australia in the opening years of the twenty-first century, with the Tampa episode and detention camps as background. This setting reflects Varga’s own work with refugees and the Nazi camps of her family’s Hungarian past. Headlong relates the downward spiral that the previously indomitable Julia undergoes after the death of her husband. Her two children – the narrator, Kati, and her brother – try everything to restore their mother to physical and mental health, but Julia is adamant: life is hell. The fact that she escaped the Holocaust with her daughter and survived the horror of those years makes the story all the more poignant and distinct from similar stories of grief. Why has this loss defeated her, when she has met every other challenge in life? Has it unlocked the hidden pain of earlier years? This question, and Kati’s ensuing grief and sense of guilt, sustain the novel.

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At the time that I was asked to review Rosemary Lancaster’s Je Suis Australienne: Remarkable Women in France, 1880–1945, I was reading American writer Helen Barolini’s Their Other Side: Six American Women and the Lure of Italy (2006). The books are similar: five of Lancaster’s six chapters are devoted to individual women whose lives and experience, like those in Barolini, cover the period from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth. Both books are very much of the transnational moment, with its preoccupations with movement, connections and experience across borders, and premises that the identities of individuals and nations are formed abroad in contact and collision with others, as well as at home. The number of studies of overseas lives continues to grow but is surpassed by transcultural life writing, including Australian, in what has been described as ‘villa/ge’ books, travel writing that is about the destination not the voyaging, about living abroad rather than touring, about subject in situ rather than ‘situ’.

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These are parallel careers, and Antonio Buti’s biography of Ronald Wilson (1922–2005) is much concerned with the connections and contradictions between them. The book blazes into life whenever it touches on Aborigines: its framing device is the 1997 Reconciliation Conference in Melbourne, when delegates turned their backs on John Howard and what the Herald Sun called his ‘hectoring rant’. Wilson regretted their incivility, yet wondered whether Howard’s behaviour gave it justification. In 1969 a speech by ‘Nugget’ Coombs inspired Wilson to join the New Era Aboriginal Fellowship, and later to help establish the WA Aboriginal Legal Service. In 1985 he worked for three weeks as a builder’s labourer on an Aboriginal community centre. Four years later, he visited communities in Arnhem Land. Then there are the apology stories: Wilson’s ‘pilgrimage to Mapoon’ in 1990, to apologise for church acquiescence when the settlement was dispersed in 1963 to make way for bauxite mining, and his joinder with Dorothy McMahon in apologising for her momentary brusqueness towards Aborigines at a World Council of Churches assembly in 1991.

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The Shrine of Remembrance is such a familiar object in the landscape of Melbourne that we can easily be unaware of its singularity. This is, as far as I can tell, the largest purely monumental structure in the world commemorating the war of 1914–18, a great memorial to participants in the Great War. The duke of Gloucester inaugurated the Shrine before a crowd of more than three hundred thousand people – almost three times the largest number ever to attend a sporting event at the Melbourne Cricket Ground – on 11 November 1934, Armistice Day, as it used to be called. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the duke placed a wreath from his father, George V, on the Stone of Remembrance in the Sanctuary at the centre of the Shrine, and at that moment, as planned by architect and engineer, a ray of light fell on the black granite of the Stone, lighting up the word ‘Love’ in the carved inscription ‘Greater love hath no man’. In 1934 more people than in 2007 knew those words and the words that followed them in the Bible: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’

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This is both an exciting and a sad collection. Kenneth Mackenzie, like those later Western Australian writers Randolph Stow and Tim Winton (and, I might add, Griffith Watkins), first appeared in print with work composed at a remarkably young age and which was extraordinary in its poetic intensity and command of language. And like Stow and Watkins (but not, fortunately, like Winton) the early achievement was matched only in fits and starts by the later work. Griffith Watkins committed suicide in his thirties, Randolph Stow has been beset by long periods of silence, and Kenneth Mackenzie drowned in a river near Goulburn, aged forty-one. He had become an alcoholic.

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