Thomas Shapcott

Underneath everything we touch is the smell
Of something too obvious to express
And yet we say there is nothing, nothing at all.

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What is it about laughter that makes us lift
As if the burden might be gone or the weight
Be somehow alleviated? Laughter is just noise.

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Parts of Us by Thomas Shapcott

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April 2010, no 320

This is Tom Shapcott’s thirteenth individual collection of poetry (two Selected Poems have appeared, in 1978 and 1989) in a writing life that – at least for his readers – began with the publication of Time on Fire in 1961. It continues something of a late poetic flowering, which, to my critical mind, began with The City of Home in 1995. All in all, Parts of Us is no disgrace to its twelve predecessors.

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These are the final lines of a poem entitled ‘Endings 111’ in Tom Shapcott’s recently published collection of poetry, The City of Empty Rooms. The poem is included in the final two sections of the book devoted to memories of a Queensland childhood, more particularly recollections of growing up in the inland town of Ipswich. As David Malouf suggests in the blurb, ‘this is a late book that sometimes sharply, sometimes forgivingly looks back, but always with the freshness of things felt and seen anew in a living present’.

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Spirit Wrestlers takes its title from ‘Doukhobors’, the name adopted by a strict religious sect that originated in Russia and that was harshly repressed both by the tsarist state and the church. The Society of Friends, attracted by the Doukhobors’ pacifist beliefs and by their prayer meetings, which reject liturgy ...

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To the Islands by Randolph Stow & Tourmaline by Randolph Stow

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December 2002-January 2003, no. 247

Before the age of thirty, Randolph Stow had published five novels and a prize-winning collection of poetry. In Australia, only Kenneth Mackenzie, another Sandgroper, had made a similar youthful impact. Mackenzie’s first book, The Young Desire It, was published in 1937, though I believe drafted some time before that. Stow’s The Haunted Land (1956) was written when he was only seventeen. When another precocious young Western Australian, Tim Winton, published his first novel, he was painfully conscious of these precursors. This was crucial for Winton, because both Mackenzie and Stow were to have troubled creative lives: Mackenzie died relatively young, his later novels disadvantaged by the youthful brilliance of his first. Randolph Stow, after his three initial successes, has published only five further novels, two collections of poems and a book for children. It has been a career with long silences.

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Attending a poetry festival is not normally considered a life-threatening event (not even if you are prone to deep vein thrombosis from constant sitting) but when I told my family I was going to Struga, I was greeted by worried looks and expressions of deep concern. Struga is in the Republic of Macedonia. Just days before, Macedonian hotheads had set fire to a mosque in Prilip (not that far from Struga) in revenge for the death of a Prilip policeman in a road-mine explosion planted by Albanian terrorists. The hair-trigger tensions in that country were clearly dangerous, and possibly escalating.

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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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Geoff Dutton was a man-of-letters who for many years made (with Max Harris) Adelaide seem one of the lively centres of Australian literary culture. One thinks of him in association with the magazines Angry Penguins, Australian Letters, and the original Australian Book Review, not to mention the inauguration of an Australian publication list for Penguin Books, and then, when that soured, the setting up of Sun Books, one of the most innovative of Australian publishing ventures at that time – which was in the difficult slough period of the 1950s and 1960s and into the 1970s.

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I approached this collection of essays with some sense of anticipation, thinking ‘Do David Williamson, Beatrice Faust, Jamie Grant, Frank Moorhouse, Les Murray, and Christopher Pearson have something in common? If so, what?'

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