Lyn Jacobs reviews 'Excavation' by Gig Ryan

Lyn Jacobs
Thursday, 03 September 2020

This is a distinctive and unsettling voice, one that doesn’t have time for overly polite concessions to our finer feelings. You either keep pace (and it’s compelling) or stand aside as the spadework gets done. Reading this poetry, we are involved in an unearthing of past events and made witness to the laying bare of personal response. But there’s nothing self-indulgent or hollow about Gig Ryan’s disinterment. The poetry has a sometimes shocking immediacy, a curious mixture of fierceness and vulnerability that conveys feeling with integrity.

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In the early nineteenth century, Sequoyah, a Cherokee man living in Alabama, developed a fundamentally new system of writing Cherokee, which had until then not been a written language. Sequoyah’s system – properly a syllabary rather than an alphabet, in that it represents the eighty-five syllables used in Cherokee – is fascinating, innovative, and remains in use today. But in what order did those fabulous syllables go? Sequoyah provided a chart, but the missionary Samuel Worcester quickly rearranged it to suit English alphabetic order. Language was power, and ‘alphabetic order’ proved not to be neutral.

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When the book arrived for review, a paperback of 656 pages, my heart sank. Americans are the world’s greatest researchers. Reading it would be like drinking from a fire hose. But it began incisively, with a turning point in the 2008 presidential campaign that established Obama’s audacity as a ‘complex, cautious, intelligent, shrewd, young African-American man’ who would project his ambitions and hopes as the aspirations of the United States of America itself. Soon we were in Kenya, with Tom Mboya, Jomo Kenyatta, the Mau Mau uprising, and Barack Hussein Obama Sr, a promising young economist with a rich, musical voice and a confident manner on his way to the University of Hawaii. We also meet the most compelling character in the book, perhaps in Obama’s life: his mother, a seventeen-year-old from Kansas, intrepid and idealistic, who takes up with the dasher from Kenya, becomes pregnant and marries him.

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Lyn Jacobs reviews 'Blue Notes' by Laurie Duggan

Lyn Jacobs
Friday, 12 June 2020

This collection of poetry is similarly accommodating. It is shaped by four quite different tonal movements: ‘All Blues’ (eight lyrics closely observing the ‘still life’ within season, art-work, society and self), ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (a travelogue of past times and places where conscious reflection momentarily counters the movement and cross-currents of historical process), ‘Dogs’ (where Diogenes’ cynicism is invoked to ‘lower the tone’, reminding me of the blues singer’s injunction to ‘laugh just to keep from crying’) and ‘More Blues’ (where episodic vistas of ‘blue hills’ unfold from Tailem Bend to Mount Segur). The collection ends with a nine-part retrospective called ‘The Front’ which is partly about the art of making poetry or music in the face of ‘prevailing imagery’. Here a littoral between performance and reputation is reached as today’s determined play with a language is set against inherited ‘fixed ideas’.

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Gillian Dooley reviews 'Bright Planet' by Peter Mews

Gillian Dooley
Friday, 05 June 2020

Matthew Flinders, arriving in Sydney in 1803 after circumnavigating Australia, wrote to his wife bemoaning ‘the dreadful havock that death is making all around’. The sailors in Peter Mews’s Bright Planet have a more phlegmatic attitude. At least twelve of the ship’s complement of sixteen fail to survive the expedition. There may be more, but death becomes an everyday occurrence hardly worth mentioning. By the end, we are not entirely sure whether the remaining characters are alive or dead.

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Simon Patton reviews 'Translation' by John A. Scott

John A. Scott
Friday, 24 April 2020

This collection is an eclectic one. John A. Scott includes translations from Apollinaire, Ovid, John Clare (a translation from prose) and a little-known contemporary French poet by the name of Emmanuel Hocquard, together with a selection of his own work. This at first dauntingly disparate group appears to be united by the myth of Apollo’s son Orpheus in which creativity and the absence of the beloved are inextricably entwined (‘I come here for Eurydice, whose absence / filled my life – and more – could not contain’). Another aspect of this myth important to Scott is represented by Rimbaud’s A Season In Hell, in which spiritual suffering and occult experience are vital elements of artistic creation.

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Alison Broinowski reviews 'Amnesty' by Aravind Adiga

Alison Broinowski
Friday, 20 March 2020

Much political mileage has been made in Australia from the turning back of ‘boat people’. Travel by boat is the cheapest means of getting to this island continent, and the most dangerous. Boat travellers are the poorest and the most likely to be caught and deported or sent to an offshore camp. But their number is less than half of those who arrive by air as tourists and apply for refugee protection: some 100,000 have done so during the seven years of this Coalition government.

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On 15 March 2019, the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s history took place at the Al-Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch. Fifty-one people were killed and forty-nine injured as they gathered for Friday prayers. Sickeningly, the gunman, Brenton Tarrant, live-streamed the event on Facebook. A manifesto written by Tarrant quickly surfaced, full of coded language and references best understood by the alt-right community on online platforms such as Reddit, 4Chan, and 8Chan. In court, as he waited for charges to be read out, Tarrant flashed the ‘okay’ signal, once an innocuous hand gesture, now transformed by the culture of the alt-right into a symbol of white supremacy.

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How different can two books be? Peter Rose’s first book, The House of Vitriol, is one of the first off the rank for the new Picador poetry series – and a sign of things to come. It is mercurial where Lehmann is mild. Rose’s style is very distinct: gaudy and revved up from the start.

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Cassandra Pybus reviews 'The First Stone' by Helen Garner

Cassandra Pybus
Wednesday, 04 March 2020

We meet in one of the ubiquitous coffee shops in Brunswick Street. I order a cappuccino, all milky froth. Hers is a short black; bitter and strong. Over the past decade our relationship has been desultory, unevenly balanced: we live in different states and she is a famous novelist. I have always been in a supplicant role. We have something approaching a friendship, maybe. Today she defers to me. She has just reviewed my book on the Orr case for the Times Literary Supplement. And liked it, she says. She wants my help.

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