There is a mesmerising scene in Carpentaria when Joseph Midnight is asked if he has seen the fugitive Will Phantom, a young local Aboriginal man who is single-handedly waging a guerrilla war against a large lead ore mining company. He eyes the questioner and astutely spots him as a ‘Southern blackfella … a real smart one, educated, acting as a guide. He got on a tie, clean white shirt and a nice suit.’ His response is several pages long, a vivid, vernacular stream of detail about the essence of Will: his relationship with his father and his country, his difference to other men and women, his ability to control his own fate. ‘Oh! Poor me – What a history. This lad was writing memory with a firestick that made lightning look dull. So if you want to know what Will Phantom looked like – he looked like that.’ Midnight’s reverent delivery has lacerating wit; he plays his listener for the outsider he is, yet he does it with a tone of sincerity. Whether it is the charismatic voice of her omniscient narrator or the everyday dialogue spoken by her characters, Wright recognises the strength of the oral tradition as a satirical and ironic tool. The combination of storytelling on a mythic scale with the guile of the knowing look generates the energy required to drive this genius epic.

Carpentaria is set in the small town of Desperance. It is a place with a stratified population. The deeply insecure white community occupies ‘Uptown’ with its neat, clean houses and its unquestioning sense of entitlement. The Aboriginal population, represented by the ‘Pricklebush’ mob and divided into two feuding camps, clings to the eastern and western fringes of the town. Much of the dramatic action of the novel is derived from local politics and from the intensity of the surrounding landscape and the extremes of the tropical climate. The narrator guides the reader through the ancient gulf terrain with a tone that can switch from reverence to cackling derision in a flash. The feeling that you are an outsider, an interloper, never leaves you – one minute you are being confided in, whether it is about local gossip or the movements of ancestral spirits – the next you are left stranded and completely lost.

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  • Custom Article Title Kate McFadyen reviews Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
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    There is a mesmerising scene in Carpentaria when Joseph Midnight is asked if he has seen the fugitive Will Phantom, a young local Aboriginal man who is single-handedly waging a guerrilla war against a large lead ore mining company. He eyes the questioner and astutely spots him as a ‘Southern blackfella …

  • Book Title Carpentaria
  • Book Author Alexis Wright
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Giramondo, $29.95 pb, 519 pp, 1920882170
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When John Tranter reviewed Jennifer Maiden’s first collection, Tactics (1974), he noted its ‘brilliant yet difficult imagery’ and a style ‘so idiosyncratic and forceful in a sense it becomes the subject of her work’. Tranter prophesied: ‘If she can resist her strongest verbal compulsions enough to keep the clarity of her early work in her more demanding exercises, she will certainly develop into an important writer.’

Friendly Fire, Maiden’s fourteenth book of poetry, is a long way from Tactics. In it, Maiden’s imagery, though still brilliant, is more forthcoming. Her style, though still more idiosyncratic, accommodates, to a striking degree, subjects: the war in Iraq, television news, Elvis Presley, Condoleezza Rice, Princess Diana, conversations with her daughter; all juxtaposed to equal the way we live now.

Reading the poetry, you might doubt whether ‘important’ is the word Maiden would choose for what she has achieved. Her poems jump from large public events to small happenings: from George W. Bush to the sight of clouds in the Monaro. In this way, they suggest how what we habitually call important finds its place alongside the haphazard, provisional, small. Still, the meaning of Tranter’s prophecy holds good: there aren’t many writers who can mix poetry’s lyric, confessional, and satirical modes as deftly as Maiden. With characteristic self-awareness, she describes herself ‘trying / to construct, in my endless quest, / the perfect lyric and involve Abu Ghraib’.

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  • Custom Article Title Lisa Gorton reviews 'Friendly Fire' by Jennifer Maiden
  • Contents Category Poetry
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    When John Tranter reviewed Jennifer Maiden’s first collection, Tactics (1974), he noted its ‘brilliant yet difficult imagery’ and a style ‘so idiosyncratic and forceful in a sense it becomes the subject of her work’... 

  • Book Title Friendly Fire
  • Book Author Jennifer Maiden
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Giramondo, $21.95 pb, 100 pp, 192088212X

Original voices are always slippery to describe. The familiar weighing mechanisms don’t work very well when the body of work floats a little above the weighing pan, or darts around in it. As in dreams, a disturbing familiarity may envelop the work with an elusive scent. It is no different for poetry than for any other art: the mercurial alloy, or unforeseen offspring, astonish and perturb. They divide opinion. The reception to date of Emma Lew’s poetry, gathered for the first time in her New and Selected Poems, demonstrates this effect.

Crow College takes an uneven number of poems from Lew’s two full-sized collections, The Wild Reply (1997) and Anything the Landlord Touches (2002). A number of the new poems previously appeared in a Vagabond Press Rare Objects chapbook, Luminous Alias (2013). While these new poems are as strong as the earlier ones, they contain a larger proportion of pantoums. Unlike other critics, I regard most of these as less successful than the more organically organised poems. The constraint is often too apparent, and the content made to fit.

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    Original voices are always slippery to describe. The familiar weighing mechanisms don’t work very well when the body of work floats a little above the weighing pan, or darts around in it. As in dreams, a disturbing familiarity may envelop the work with an elusive scent. It is no different for poetry than for ...

  • Book Title Crow College: New and selected poems
  • Book Author Emma Lew
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Giramondo, $26.95 pb, 144 pp, 9781925818055
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There has been a long and often troubled history of poets writing novels and novelists writing poetry. The skills needed are very different and equally hard to learn. Few writers have made equal careers in both. If they do, it’s usually the novels that receive most attention. (Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje spring to mind.) Many major novelists, however, had some poetry among their early work. F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner started penning Keats imitations. Some novelists, like David Foster, have put out a book of poetry, had it negatively reviewed, and have then returned, with some chagrin, to prose. Similarly, some poets’ novels are dismissed for their ‘poetic prose’. There is a strong tendency among poets and novelists (even among their reviewers) to ‘protect their own turf’, as it were.

The ‘turf’ image may also be apposite for the novelist Gerald Murnane, given his lifelong obsession with horseracing. Now, in his eightieth year, Murnane has declared that he has written all the fiction he intends to write and has issued Green Shadows and Other Poems as a kind of valediction.

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  • Custom Article Title Geoff Page reviews Green Shadows and Other Poems by Gerald Murnane
  • Contents Category Poetry
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    There has been a long and often troubled history of poets writing novels and novelists writing poetry. The skills needed are very different and equally hard to learn. Few writers have made equal careers in both. If they do, it’s usually the novels that receive most attention ...

  • Book Title Green Shadows and Other Poems
  • Book Author Gerald Murnane
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Giramondo, $24 pb, 104 pp, 9781925336986

‘I didn’t realise I was becoming untranslatable,’ Marcelo Cohen confessed after the publication of his eleventh novel, in an interview with Argentine newspaper Clarín. ‘And when I did realise, it was already too late.’ Given that Cohen is himself a renowned translator – the list of authors he has translated into Spanish reads like an index of literary influences: J.G. Ballard, T.S. Eliot, William S. Burroughs, Clarice Lispector – the fact that his writing is considered ‘untranslatable’ seems, in the words of his interviewer, like something of a ‘Karmic paradox’. And the badge of untranslatability casts a powerful spell: Cohen boasts a decades-long career and more than a dozen critically acclaimed works of fiction, yet Melodrome is the first of his novels to be published in English.

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  • Custom Article Title Alice Whitmore reviews 'Melodrome' by Marcelo Cohen
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    ‘I didn’t realise I was becoming untranslatable,’ Marcelo Cohen confessed after the publication of his eleventh novel, in an interview with Argentine newspaper Clarín. ‘And when I did realise, it was already too late.’ Given that Cohen is himself a renowned translator – the list of authors he has translated into Spanish ...

  • Book Title Melodrome
  • Book Author Marcelo Cohen, translated by Chris Andrews
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Giramondo, $24.95 pb, 142 pp, 9781925336771

‘As if cuffed by the ear, the Colorado river pulled me onward.’ The current that seized Kate Middleton can be felt throughout Ephemeral Waters, as she takes us from the headwaters of the Colorado, through the Grand Canyon, over the Hoover Dam, until the great river, all its water plundered along the way, expires a hundred miles from the sea. The fate that the ‘mighty Murray’ has barely avoided is accepted for the Colorado, with a few crocodile tears, because all the water stays in the United States, while the dried up ex-river is in Mexico.

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  • Custom Article Title Peter Kenneally reviews 'Ephemeral Waters' by Kate Middleton
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    ‘As if cuffed by the ear, the Colorado river pulled me onward.’ The current that seized Kate Middleton can be felt throughout Ephemeral Waters, as she takes us from the headwaters of the Colorado, through the Grand Canyon, over the Hoover Dam, until the great river, all its water plundered along ...

  • Book Title Ephemeral Waters
  • Book Author Kate Middleton
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Giramondo, $24 pb, 130 pp, 9781922146489

‘Without an indigenous literature, people can remain alien in their own soil,’ wrote Miles Franklin, initiator of an Australian literary prize that has been awarded to just two Aboriginal writers: Kim Scott for Benang in 2000 and That Deadman Dance in 2011; and Alexis Wright for Carpentaria in 2007. Franklin, of course, didn’t mean Indigenous as such; but Wright has shown her capacity to produce both ‘an indigenous’ and ‘an Indigenous’ literature. In her second major work of fiction, the extraordinary Carpentaria, she infuses Australian literature with a genuinely Indigenous point of view, bringing an Indigenous set of values and understandings to the ‘indigenous’ narrative of a small town deep in the Gulf country. Here the white residents reject the Aboriginal community as ‘not really part of the town at all’, while the Aboriginals, living in ‘a human dumping ground’, struggle with the whites and among one another in local battles that mirror the larger problems: desecration of the country, for example, or rejection of Indigenous epistemologies, land rights, and traditional law. An epic, even mythopoetic, narrative, it changes the scope of Australian and of Indigenous writing.

Wright explains, in her essay ‘On writing Carpentaria’ (HEAT 13 [2006]), that she wrote the novel to develop ‘some understanding of two principal questions: firstly, how to understand the idea of Indigenous people living with the stories of all the times of this country, and secondly, how to write from this perspective’. This demands the exploration of language, voice, and narrative style; and the appropriation of elements of oral narration, translated into written form. What she wanted, she writes, is for ‘the novel to question the idea of boundaries through exploring how ancient beliefs sit in the modern world, while at the same time exposing the fragility of the boundaries of Indigenous home places of the mind’. The interweaving of ancient beliefs and modern worlds, and the fragility of the mind, are constantly on stage also in her new work, The Swan Book, as are many of the themes found in Carpentaria: environmental degradation, deracination, poverty, violence, and lack of empathy.

The Swan Book transposes these issues into the future – and what a future it is. ‘When the world changed,’ the narrator says, ‘people were different’, but not in a good way. Whole swathes of humanity remain alien not only in their own soil, but everywhere they go across the world. It is a future where, following almost a century of the Intervention – the deployment of the army ‘to intervene and control the will, mind and soul of the Aboriginal people’ – Indigenous Australian communities are rendered alien, denied any rights, secured in internment camps, named as terrorists, and otherwise forgotten.

Alexis-Wright-author-photoAlexis Wright.

I read this bruising, beautiful, brutal narrative during a long flight, but it is decidedly not an airport novel. The language twists and flows and folds back on itself in convoluted sentences and paragraphs, in a complex interweaving of demotic and hieratic English. Time stretches, lurches, halts; narrative takes a backseat to allegory; and characters operate more as tropes than as people. In Carpentaria, Wright showed her capacity to play with language, to write a ‘difficult’ novel; but the use of language and the structure of story in that novel are considerably more straightforward, and less allegorical, than in The Swan Book. This later novel works much like the narrative approach favoured by one of its characters, Bella Donna, who tells stories ‘the way swans fly’: it soars above the swamp, crashes to the ground, takes flight again, cracks a joke, sings its dying song.

Despite the snatches of humour, it is a story of almost unrelieved tragedy, recounting a world where no one has a place any more, where thanks to climate change ‘probably millions of white people were drifting among the other countless stateless millions of sea gypsies looking for somewhere to live’. Among them is ‘the maddest person on Earth’, Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, a refugee from the disaster of Europe. She is the only survivor of a group of tens of thousands of people – ‘the uncharted floating countries of condemned humanity’ – led by a white swan to the northern shores of Australia, a swan for which she yearns, but which never returns to her.

Bella Donna rescues the main protagonist, Oblivia, a lost/disowned/damaged ‘little Aboriginal kid’, found after a decade of sleeping, Rip van Winkle-fashion, in ‘the bowels of an old eucalyptus tree’ where she had fallen/fled/escaped, or anyway been lost to her family for long enough to have been all but forgotten. (There are no certainties in the world of this novel.) Oblivia is a living wound in that community, mute as a mythical swan, survivor of a gang rape, presumed dead by her own people. They leave her to be raised by the old white woman, who infuses her with the poems and stories and songs of Europe and, most particularly, of European swans.

Swans are, of course, the motive power of the book – always black swans, except in Bella Donna’s stories. Sometimes fat and lovely, often damaged and dying, they travel throughout the story, bonded to Oblivia, filling her world. During her adolescence, they give her a reason to be, a something to do. Later, she is (effectively) abducted by Warren Finch, the first Indigenous president of Australia, to become his trophy wife, and it is the image of swans filling the wedding hall that enables her to contain her distress. Finch leaves her locked away in an apartment tower in a degraded southern city, where only the ghosts of Bella Donna and Oblivia’s enemy, the Harbour Master, provide company, until the swans find her there too. It is finally the danger to the swans that gives her the impetus to leave her tower, possibly to murder her husband (she isn’t sure), and to join yet another refugee march, back north, back to emptiness, in search of safety for the swans. The narrator sums it up:

There is a really big story of that ghost place: a really deadly love story about a girl who has a virus lover living in her brain – that made the world seem too large and jittery for her, and it stuffed up her relationships with her own people, and made her unsociable, but they say that she loved swans all the same. Poor old swanee.

But the virus in her brain produces clarity as well as jittering; she knows what is going on. Her swans are metaphor, but are also real birds, shedding feathers, making a racket, dying mute. Her ghosts are real voices, criticising and directing her action. If she is mad, she is also entirely sane, understanding what we have done to turn the world into a vast environmental and social disaster. It is a bitter, lovely, and tragic book; and not only the author but also the publisher should be commended. Giramondo consistently provides a space for that ‘indigenous literature’ Miles Franklin wanted to see, publishing impossible, difficult, extraordinary, uncomfortable, fascinating books to circulate in the agora that is Australian literature, that offer a different way of seeing and knowing.

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  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title The Swan Book
  • Book Author Alexis Wright
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  • Biblio Giramondo, $29.95 pb, 338 pp, 9781922146410

The camera ottica in the epigraph to Hotel Hyperion alludes to Lisa Gorton’s artful play with shifting perspectives in this luminescent collection of poetry. The reader is invited to put her eye to the lines of poetry as if to a Galilean telescope or ‘perspective tube’. By looking at the poems through the peephole as an optic chamber, the reader brings the larger concerns of time and space in this collection into sharper focus.

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  • Custom Article Title Cassandra Atherton reviews 'Hotel Hyperion' by Lisa Gorton
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    The camera ottica in the epigraph to Hotel Hyperion alludes to Lisa Gorton’s artful play with shifting perspectives in this luminescent collection of poetry. The reader is invited to put her eye to the lines of poetry as if to a Galilean telescope or ‘perspective tube’. By looking at the poems through the peephole as ...

  • Book Title Hotel Hyperion
  • Book Author Lisa Gorton
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Giramondo, $24 pb, 64 pp, 9781922146274

Jennifer Maiden has for a long time been one of Australia’s most politically engaged poets, a commentator on the local scene and the international set alike. With her new volume, Liquid Nitrogen, Maiden continues on from her previous books Friendly Fire (2005) and Pirate Rain (2010), with more poems centred on the journalist George Jeffreys, and further poetic conversations between Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as new partnerships between Kevin Rudd and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Julia Gillard and Aneurin Bevan. These poems fold into a volume that also includes more of Maiden’s ‘diary poems’ and a number of smaller, non-sequential poems that nonetheless match the volume’s tone and may well contain the seeds of Maiden’s next book. The liquid nitrogen of the title appears first in George Jeffreys’s waking, and later in the poem ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Liquid Nitrogen’. Such echoes recur as Liquid Nitrogen conducts conversations not just within its probing poems, but also across the collection as a whole. The book is at once political and intimate, full of the real world and marked by the oneiric tone of conversations that cross the threshold of death.

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  • Custom Article Title Kate Middleton reviews 'Liquid Nitrogen' by Jennifer Maiden
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    Jennifer Maiden has for a long time been one of Australia’s most politically engaged poets, a commentator on the local scene and the international set alike. With her new volume, Liquid Nitrogen, Maiden continues on from her previous books Friendly Fire (2005) and Pirate Rain (2010), with more poems ...

  • Book Title Liquid Nitrogen
  • Book Author Jennifer Maiden
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Giramondo, $24 pb, 86 pp, 9781920882990

In Alan Wearne’s new collection, his not-quite-self-appointed role as chronicler of Australian mora et tempores continues, more overtly than before. Prepare the Cabin for Landing pays homage to the Roman satirist Juvenal and his eighteenth-century heir, Samuel Johnson. Both shared what Wearne describes as ‘that combination of bemusement, annoyance, anger and despair to which your country (let alone the country of mankind) can drive you’.

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  • Custom Article Title Peter Kenneally reviews 'Prepare the Cabin for Landing' by Alan Wearne
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    In Alan Wearne’s new collection, his not-quite-self-appointed role as chronicler of Australian mora et tempores continues, more overtly than before. Prepare the Cabin for Landing pays homage to the Roman satirist Juvenal and his eighteenth-century heir, Samuel Johnson ...

  • Book Title Prepare the Cabin for Landing
  • Book Author Alan Wearne
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Giramondo, $24 pb, 106 pp, 9781920882945
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