Alan Wearne’s work over the past thirty years or so – dense, demanding, unique, rewarding – is like the oeuvre of a cinematic auteur: one that never quite got onto the syllabus, or brought out the crowds at Cinémathèque. Technique above all, most of the time, but allied with real if unfamiliar emotion, even if the narrative needed the reader to have the right stuff in the first place before it unfolded itself.

More recently, the scope has lessened, the rhyme schemes become less ornate, the characters more constrained. One wouldn’t have noticed in his previous book, Prepare The Cabin For Landing (2012), with its overt Juvenalian satire woven through the personal narratives. But in These Things Are Real the two things have largely separated. The verse narratives in the first half of the book are more sanguine than we are used to from Wearne, with the antiqueness of the scenarios a kind of enabling constraint rather than a period set.

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  • Custom Article Title Peter Kenneally reviews 'These Things Are Real' by Alan Wearne
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    Alan Wearne’s work over the past thirty years or so – dense, demanding, unique, rewarding – is like the oeuvre of a cinematic auteur: one that never quite got onto the syllabus, or brought out the crowds at Cinémathèque. Technique above all, most of the time, but allied with real if unfamiliar emotion, even if the narrative needed the reader to have the right ...

  • Book Title These Things Are Real
  • Book Author Alan Wearne
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Giramondo, $24 pb, 144 pp, 9781925336320

A book called Our Lady of the Fence Post (UWA Publishing, $22.99 pb, 105 pp, 9781742589121) by a poet called J.H. Crone is an irresistible proposition, simply as a notion. Luckily for readers, neither is at all fanciful. This verse narrative explores the events around the appearance in 2003 of a likeness of the Virgin Mary on a fence post at Coogee, near the site of a memorial for five local rugby players killed in the Bali bombings. Crowds of fervent worshippers flocked to the scene.

The elements of the real story are fantastical enough without any poetic embellishment: faith, anti-faith, nationalism, sensationalism, online abuse, grief whirled through the media at the time, all largely forgotten now. This heady mix, fading into the fog of vague recall, is a perfect ground for the narrative and allusive skills J.H. Crone has in abundance.

Female characters bear names with a Marian tinge: Mae the television reporter; Mari the bakery owner; a Muslim woman, Maryam; even an expert on religion called Maire: but this seems only fitting. J.H. Crone has come lately to poetry after a career as a documentary maker and editor, and though she has a documentarist’s skills with history, she also spins religion though everything, in the bakery, say: ‘Mari offers a slab of soft, air-filled / bread to Jesus, but she can’t eat. Perhaps / a caramelised cardamom brulee / tart? Jesus swallows a flake. Her dolour / pours out into the throng.’

There is conflict everywhere, between genders and faiths, and strange exaltations, as Mae falls/rises into a Catholic netherworld, and everything comes to an inevitable Cronullan climax – or rather, a set of blessed anti-climaxes. Ranging wide, with compassion and compression, Our Lady of the Fence Post might just be the first verse novel that is actually a novel.

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  • Custom Article Title Peter Kenneally reviews 'Our Lady of the Fence Post' J.H. Crone, 'Border Security' by Bruce Dawe, 'Melbourne Journal' by Alan Loney, and 'Star Struck' by David McCooey
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    A book called Our Lady of the Fence Post (UWA Publishing, $22.99 pb, 105 pp, 9781742589121) by a poet called J.H. Crone is an irresistible proposition, simply as a notion ...

  • Book Title Our Lady of the Fence Post
  • Book Author J.H. Crone
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio UWA Publishing, $22.99 pb, 105 pp, 9781742589121

Reading these three books in April, it was impossible not to see in them flashes of what Ross McMullin has described in war artist Will Dyson's drawings from World War I: 'He sketched Australians waiting, resting and sleeping. He captured them stumbling out of the line, drained and dazed. He drew weariness, perseverance, fatalism.' Ordinary and terrible: in poetry, as in war, whichever side the coin lands on, the other is always beneath it.

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  • Custom Article Title Peter Kenneally reviews '101 Poems' by John Foulcher, 'Small Town Soundtrack' by Brendan Ryan, and 'Ahead of Us' by Dennis Haskell
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    Reading these three books in April, it was impossible not to see in them flashes of what Ross McMullin has described in war artist Will Dyson's drawings from World War I ...

From the cover of Jennifer Maiden's latest book (The Fox Petition, Giramondo, $24 pb, 96 pp, 9781922146946), a wood-cut fox stares the reader down. This foreign, seditious animal is the perfect emblem for Maiden's examination of the xenophobia, conformity, and general moral diminution that she sees around her. Giramondo have given Maiden the liberty of an annual collection; as she says, this prospect 'encourages urgency wonderfully'.

The catalyst for urgency in this book was the NSW Biosecurity Unit's proscription, Border Force-style, of foxes, even as pets. Her poetry here has the freedom of improvisation, spiralling freely around any facts or notions in more or less the key of 'foxness'. When the poet comes across a real fox, for example, 'it stood its ground and looked so patrician', summoning both Charles Fox, that radical petitioner for liberty, and Nye Bevan, with 'the patrician tone of his Welsh miner's voice'. 'If I spoke to the fox without / killing it, I would be charged, but / we once had much in common. A quality / spare and wild with desperation / in its streetlamp eyes, its old headlight / eyes could still suggest a city / in shifting shapes, its identity / aristocratic in lost deceptions.'

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  • Custom Article Title Peter Kenneally reviews 'The Fox Petition' by Jennifer Maiden, 'Breaking the Days' by Jill Jones and 'Exhumed' by Cassandra Atherton
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In her introduction to Australian Love Poems (2013), Donna Ward wrote that poems 'are the prayers of a secular world'. Now, aided by editors Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy, she brings us a collection that tests this notion. The introduction by David Tacey states its case fervently, with, in this case, a bit too much determination that 'the sacred is ineradicable'. The poems, as poems this good always do, simply shrug off external premises.

Albiston and Brophy, neither of them a stranger to immanence, have come up with an outstanding selection, one that carries a sense of 'prayer' as interrogation. The feel is more of magic than of prayer, as the poems incant, describe, and name what there is and dismiss what is not, in a very pre-Socratic way, with all the imagination and terrible beauty that implies.

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  • Custom Article Title Peter Kenneally reviews 'Prayers of a Secular World' edited by Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy
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  • Book Title Prayers of a Secular World
  • Book Author Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy
  • Author Type Editor
  • Biblio Inkerman & Blunt, $24.99 pb, 160 pp, 9780987540195

With her first book, Zoetrope, in 1995, MTC Cronin announced herself as a very particular force in Australian poetry. It was not just that her début was so much more immediately arresting than most poets' first outings, but also that it had real authority. This authority, coming from force of intellect and a kind of absolutist, almost inscribed imagination, has marked her work through the years, along with an appreciation for the enabling constraint and for critical rigour. Coming from a legal background through academia, she has arrived, with The Law of Poetry (Puncher & Wattmann, $29.95, 255 pp, 9781922186614) at an effortlessly monumental assemblage of poetic 'laws'.

MTC Cronin The Law of Poetry - colourThe Law of Poetry by MTC Cronin (Puncher and Wattman)

Cronin hands down laws for every conceivable instance where poetry attempts to accommodate the world. 'The Law of Balance', for instance, says that 'In poetry, evening and twilight balance perfectly. / Mystery balances with any word you choose to weigh it against. / Poetry, however, puts the whole world out of whack. / When you read it you drift up or down / while everything goes in the opposite direction.' Elsewhere, there are more abstract formulations, or poems that summon up Brecht's 'Radio Poem' ('Little Law without redemption / Taking a loan to start a new civilization'), among other European ghosts, and generally refuse the great Australian incertitude. It is more an annotation of possible laws that we might adhere to if we knew them, than a corpus of law, and bears the same relation to law that Philip Salom's Alterworld bears to reality, with the same brio. This is poetry as cattle prod, and a welcome shock it is.

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  • Custom Article Title Peter Kenneally reviews 'The Law of Poetry' by MTC Cronin, 'The Ladder' by Simon West, 'Jam Sticky Vision' by Luke Beesley, 'Immune Systems' by Andy Jackson, and 'The Hour of Silvered Mullet' by Jean Kent
  • Contents Category Poetry
Monday, 23 November 2015 15:04

Books of the Year 2015

Robert Adamson

The Hazards - colour OE

Jennifer Maiden's The Fox Petition: New Poems (Giramondo) conjures foxes 'whose eyes were ghosts with pity' and foxes of language that transform the world's headlines into fierce yet darkly witty poetry. This is a book that takes corrupt law, peels away sentiment, and uncovers possible truths. It is a surprisingly fresh volume drawn from Maiden's obsessive themes – she is our great poet of humanity. In Sarah Holland-Batt's The Hazards (University of Queensland Press, reviewed in ABR, 10/15), from 'the promise of Berlin' to the 'mosquito net latitudes' there is style and fashion to relish, but under the skin of these poems we experience metaphors of the world's suffering. It is an exciting second book. Martin Harrison's posthumous Happiness (UWA Publishing, 12/15) is a triumph. Classical and romantic simultaneously, this is a book of love poetry and more by a philosopher of language, with 'a new vowelled, strict vocabulary drawn from air'. Harrison has enriched our world with this gift of a book.

Patrick Allington

black rock white city 1500 wide OE

Partly because of my interest in the high-level supporters of political leaders, but mostly because it is so well researched and written, I was fascinated by historian Sheila Fitzpatrick's On Stalin's Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics (Melbourne University Press). In a solid year for Australian fiction, the novel that most endures for me – at this early stage – is Amanda Lohrey's subtle and funny A Short History of Richard Kline (Black Inc., 3/15), with a nod to A.S. Patrić's Black Rock White City (Transit Lounge). Amongst a strengthening field of Australian literary magazines (strengthening, at least, in terms of quality), I most enjoyed the illustrated short story magazine The Canary Press (edited by Robert Skinner). Issue 7 was symptomatic of the magazine's qualities, featuring writers living and dead, Australian and foreign – with Lally Katz's witty and disturbing script, 'The Apocalypse Bear – Part 1', a standout.

Cassandra Atherton

The Guardians - colour OE

It has been a brilliant year for Australian poets. Sarah Holland-Batt's 'O California', first published in the New Yorker, was a glistering introduction to her second book, The Hazards. This dark rhapsody on the menace of future threat is an exhilarating read. Lucy Dougan's creation of a female sublime in her exploration of the matrilineal line in The Guardians (Giramondo, 10/15) is a powerful poetic narrative of survival. 'Tiles', a poem read by Peter Rose at his book launch in July, was a profound and haunting way into his book The Subject of Feeling (UWAP). It is an extraordinary book, juxtaposing gorgeous elegies with poems of biting wit. Finally, poet and scholar Lisa Gorton's first novel, The Life of Houses (Giramondo, 6/15), is one of the most finely crafted Australian novels of the last decade. Its sumptuous descriptions, and the imposing mother–daughter dyad at the centre of the narrative, take your breath away.

Tony Birch

The visiting privilege OE

Per Petterson, the Norwegian writer, is one of my favourites. His novels, gently paced and spare on plot, never fail to satisfy. This year I was rewarded with his latest book, I Refuse (Vintage). The story engages with themes common to Petterson's work; family, intergenerational tensions, flawed memory, and a yearning for love. The ending of the novel, delivered with subtlety, is remarkable and haunting. The Visiting Privilege, the new and collected stories of Joy Williams is my book of the year. Williams for too long hovered in the shadows of her contemporaries of the North American 'dirty realism' school of the 1980s. The first story, 'Taking Care', was enough to remind me that she is a great storyteller. Jedediah Purdy's After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard) presents an intelligent and active discussion as to how we must deal with climate change.

James Bradley

The World without Us - colour OE

Although I am deep in their midst as I write, it is safe to say that Elena Ferrante's astonishing Neapolitan Quartet will end up being one of my most remarkable reading experiences this year, distinguished not just by their uncompromising moral intelligence and psychological sophistication but by their sheer ferocity and almost eidetic recall of the textures of the world they depict. Marlon James's Man Booker Prize-winning A Short History of Seven Killings (Oneworld) is similarly astonishing, a bravura feat of technical daring and historical reimagination of remarkable virtuosity and ambition. Closer to home, I was enormously impressed by Mireille Juchau's haunting exploration of an ecologically fraying world, The World Without Us (Bloomsbury, 9/15), and by Tegan Bennett Daylight's finely wrought scenes from the world of late adolescence and early adulthood, in Six Bedrooms (Vintage, 12/15).

Shannon Burns

The Natural Way of Things - colour OE

The most captivating and impactful novels I have read this year are Eka Kurniawan's Beauty is a Wound (Text Publishing) and Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin, 11/15). The first is a ghost-filled, vastly populated, and rollicking contemporary mythic tale, in the spirit of Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, but funnier, and a touch less lyrical. The latter is provocative, formally impressive, brutally precise, and topical. Wood's bleak portrayal of gender relations is limiting in some ways, but a nightmare has its own logic, and this makes for gripping reading. On the non-fiction front, Jonathan Bate's comprehensive and even-handed biography Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life (HarperCollins) is outstanding, and I admired The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy (Harvill Secker), in which Arabella Kurtz and J.M. Coetzee address diverse but connected subjects – including memory construction, the psychological underpinnings of Australian politics, and literature – with purposeful intelligence.

Jo Case

Six Bedrooms - colour OE

I loved Katherine Heiny's Single, Carefree, Mellow (Fourth Estate), a brilliantly observed, dry-witted début short story collection that echoes Lorrie Moore and Nora Ephron, with its intimate accounts of relationships under threat. Hanya Yanagihara took the oft-used 'New York college friendship through the decades' story into new territory in A Little Life (Picador), a tale of horrific abuse and extraordinary friendship that is both life-affirming and devastating. Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us is one of those novels that does everything right, all at once: gorgeous writing about people, place, grief, loss, and our changing environment. Juchau balances all these elements perfectly, raising questions rather than proposing answers to the big themes she explores. I have long been a fan of Tegan Bennett Daylight's short stories, and her spiky, perceptive, engrossing new collection, Six Bedrooms, was a book I wanted to reread immediately.

Miriam Cosic

The Invention of Nature OE

Illuminating non-fiction in 2015 included Klaus Neumann's essential Across the Seas: Australia's Response to Refugees (Black Inc.), an overdue history which explodes many myths, including amnesiac assumptions about left–right attitudes to migrant intake, which run insistently through the most contentious topic of political debate today. David Graeber's The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House) is both fascinatingly discursive and very lively, a survey of the past which contains lessons for government and citizens now and implicit warnings for the future. Andrea Wulf's The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (John Murray) is not only a wonderful read, beautifully written in a finely produced book that's a delight to handle, but brings to life a hugely influential explorer and naturalist who is inexplicably little known in the Anglophone world.

Sophie Cunningham

Nora Webster OE

Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things is a novel of mythological force with the heat of a Grimm's fairy tale. A group of ten women is chosen, it seems, for no other reason than that their sexual power, or sexual abuse, threatens to bring 'important' men down: the football groupie, the politician's mistress, other iconic 'sluts', thrown into a rural camp run by men enduring conditions barely better than those of the women they are brutalising. Do the women save themselves or wait to be saved? Do they work together or turn on one another? There are echoes of Lord of the Flies and also of the Australian film Journey Among Women. Colm Tóibín's new novel, Nora Webster (Picador), set in Ireland in the late 1960s, is a profound study of a woman struggling to maintain her sense of self and keep her family going after the unexpected death of her husband. The backdrop to Nora's struggles is inevitably political, but she remains the novel's gentle star.

Luke Davies

Small Acts

'When I was travelling in this state, so many days felt strangely brittle, saturated, super-real,' writes poet Fiona Wright in her first book of prose. In the ten exquisite essays that make up Small Acts of Disappearance (Giramondo), Wright investigates the 'states' – psychic, physical, emotional, existential – that underpin her perilous decade-long entanglement with an eating disorder. The writing is anything but brittle, though the depth of Wright's insights into the pathology of her compulsions makes the book feel saturated, super-real, and at times hallucinatory. Small Acts overflows with quiet self-compassion. It is, in a rare literal sense, a diamond of a book – each essay being a surface capable of reflecting back to us our own complex relations with the fragility of self-identity. None of this would work well in the hands of a less assured writer; Wright feels like a direct heir of Kathleen Norris (Dakota: a Spiritual Geography) and Annie Dillard.

Glyn Davis

Young Eliot OE

Emily Bitto's The Strays (Affirm Press, 5/14) is a confident and engaging début novel, trading in the ambiguities of a self-conscious artistic world. The Strays richly merits its 2015 Stella Prize. A great literary biography should be celebrated, and Robert Crawford's Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land (Jonathan Cape, 12/15) is superb – detailed but always driving forward, incisive about the poems but equally interested in the life informing the art. Matthew Condon's All Fall Down (UQP, 11/15) completes an important trilogy on recent Queensland history. Condon's prose conveys the urgency of journalism, if now distilled by distance. Despite the years, the magnitude of corruption, and its reach across police and politics, continues to astonish.

Ian Donaldson

The story of the lost child - colour OE

Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child (Text, 11/15) – was for me, as evidently for many, the outstanding literary event of the year: a powerful story of female friendship rooted in the poverty of postwar Naples, and subtly overshadowed, as the years pass, by loss, mystery, and moral ambiguity. Tony Judt's When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995–2010 (Penguin Press), a superb collection of late essays brought together by Judt's widow, Jennifer Homans, is a further reminder of the courage and humanity of this lucid thinker, who died, far too young, in 2010. Admirers of Kevin Hart's latest impressive collection of new and selected poems, Wild Track (University of Notre Dame Press, 9/15), may also enjoy Alan Gould's The Poets' Stairwell (Black Pepper, 6/15), a witty and lightly fictionalised account of the two poets in their youth at large in Europe.

Stephen Edgar

Happiness - colour OE

It has been another strong year in Australian poetry and several new books have impressed and delighted me. I shall mention only two. First, The Hazards by Sarah Holland-Batt, a charged and effortlessly imaginative evocation and intermingling of the world around us and the world within. The other is the, sadly, posthumous collection by Martin Harrison, Happiness, in which he displays again his astonishing capacity to see into landscape from the widest panorama to the most minute detail, coloured now by love and grief. A book that has enthralled me is Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, 6/15) by Robert Macfarlane, 'about the power of language to shape our sense of place', indeed to help us to see it. Each chapter is followed by a wonderful glossary of words for features of landscape in regional varieties of English, Gaelic, Welsh, and others.

Jackie French

Were All OE

During World War II, Banjo Paterson wrote a poem of sentiment and fresh nationalism as the new nation's soldiers sailed to war. In We're all Australians Now (HarperCollins) author and artist Mark Wilson has given those words not just pages of almost unbearable beauty, but a counterpoint to Patterson's simplistic viewpoint. I cry each time I read this book, but then I read it, slowly, once again. In The Peony Lantern by Frances Watts (Angus and Robertson), a nineteenth-century Japanese village girl becomes a lady-in-waiting at a samurai mansion. Her life, and Japan itself, are on the brink of change. Lyrical, fascinating and compelling.

Kerryn Goldsworthy

Life of Houses - colour OE

Memorable books for me this year have included poet Lisa Gorton's subtle and disquieting novel, The Life of Houses, and actor Magda Szubanski's memoir (or, as she calls it, 'family saga'), Reckoning (Text), which is thought-provoking, intelligent, beautifully written, and at once heartbreaking and very funny. But my vote for the book of the year would have to go to Charlotte Wood's brilliant and terrifying novel The Natural Way of Things: fuelled by rage and resistance, the novel is a study in power, a tale of misogyny, a meditation on survival, an only semi-abstract portrait of contemporary Australian life, and a reminder of what fiction at its best can do and be.

Lisa Gorton

Journey

Three books with a transformative sense of the past have filled my thoughts this year: Tracy Ryan's eighth poetry collection, Hoard (Whitmore Press), T.G.H. Strehlow's 1969 memoir Journey to Horseshoe Bend (republished by Giramondo), and Verso's selection of Walter Benjamin's jottings, drafts, and collected curios in Walter Benjamin's Archive (edited by Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz, and Erdmut Wizisla; translated by Esther Leslie). Ryan's poems about Ireland's peat bogs and hoards are spare, sensuous, and haunting, touchstones for writing about place and language. Journey to Horseshoe Bend remembers the author's father, Pastor Carl Strehlow, who ran the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg. It records his last journey, desperately ill, tied to a chair and dragged by donkey wagon along the dry bed of the Finke River, in forlorn hope of reaching medical help in time. But this is also an account of the desert and its sacred places, colonial outposts, massacres, battles, and negotiations. Strehlow leaves a complicated legacy, and this book enriches it. Verso's selection from Benjamin's archive includes photographs of the children's toys he collected, postcards, and records of his son's sayings; it offers a domestic and intimate perspective on his essays and Arcades project.

Tom Griffiths

Atmosphere of Hope OE

Any new book by Barry Hill is an event, and Peacemongers (UQP) is especially intriguing: a meditative, playful, and profound prose poem about war and peace, a long book that rewards immersion. As an El Niño summer approaches, I returned to Robert Kenny's moving tragi-comedy about his experience of Black Saturday, Gardens of Fire: An Investigative Memoir (UWAP, 12/13). Noel Pearson's A Rightful Place (Black Inc.) is a significant statement from a great Australian, as is Tim Flannery's Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis (Text, 10/15). I found Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant (Faber, 4/15) a wonderfully mysterious novel and an unusual love story. And don't miss Robert Seethaler's elegiac A Whole Life (Picador) for its lean, powerful prose, and elemental portrait of one man's life in the Austrian Alps.

Michael Hofmann

First Light

Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus (1980) was perhaps the novel I enjoyed most this year. Why can't all novels be like this, I remember thinking, a brisker Virginia Woolf: so prismatically clever about the two sisters, London and New York, the passing of time and the passing of life, marriage and spinsterhood, living in sin and attempted adultery, middle-class security and hand-to-mouth, children and none. In poetry, I'm glad that a selection of Philip Hodgins's poems, First Light, has appeared in the United States (George Braziller): never sweet, but sustaining in their harshness. 'The farmer knows that it was useless to call the vet. / So does the vet. / But there are some rituals / that must be carried through.'

Sarah Holland-Batt

Net Needle - colour OE

Reading Merritt Tierce's bold, scorchingly powerful début, Love Me Back (Anchor Books), I was reminded of Muriel Rukeyser's claim that the world would split open if a woman told the truth about her life. Set in the world of Dallas steakhouses and hospitality workers, Love Me Back's disaffected protagonist Marie is laceratingly candid about womanhood, sexuality, and the dark side of desire. Similarly poised on the sharp edge between adolescence and adulthood, Colin Barrett's stylish stories in Young Skins (Vintage) navigate the rough and tumble troubles of early adulthood in small town Ireland; Barrett's prose is electrifying. In poetry, Sujata Bhatt's Poppies in Translation (Carcanet) is stunning; her bright, saturated poems are a wide-ranging compendium of language, history, place, and politics. Closer to home, I loved David Brooks's Open House (UQP); a tough intellect resides in Brooks's deceptively clean, airy lines. And Robert Adamson's Net Needle (Black Inc., 12/15) is masterful: rereading it is a pleasure 'sweet / as torn basil'.

Peter Kenneally

Immune System - colour

Andy Jackson goes from strength to strength, and Immune Systems (Transit Lounge, 12/15) displayed once again his ability to see clearly and to write poetry with compassion and rigour about the world around him, in this case India, and as always his own physical universe, making each line count. Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things, its young women snatched from 'moral' danger into physical captivity and degradation, never falls into the dystopic trap of fetishing horror. She balances the beauty of language and construction with the horror of what they describe, leaving at the end a caught breath that takes a long time to let out. Jon Ronson, in So You've Been Publicly Shamed (Picador), writes with humour and compassion of internet shaming and public disgrace, does the victims (and even perpetrators) justice, and, that vanishingly rare thing, can actually carry an argument through a whole book.

John Kinsella

The Guardians - colour OE

There have been many fine volumes of poetry in English over the last twelve months, and the three mentioned here are part of a long list. Each collection is starkly different from the others, and each collection challenges the mode of its own writing, which is for me important – that is, there is an awareness of the conditions of writing and presentation. Ouyang Yu's work continues to astonish me with its shifts and range, and Fainting with Freedom (Five Islands Press) is among his finest work. Lucy Dougan's The Guardians reaches deep into the fragility of being and comes out with verve and strength, without ever wavering from a tough and taut literary sensibility, and Paul Muldoon's One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (Faber), opening with a stunning elegy for Seamus Heaney, continues his undoing of what English language is. The most intelligent novel I have read in a long time is Lisa Gorton's The Life of Houses, which configures and reconfigures its own spatiality over and over.

Bronwyn Lea

les-murray

Les Murray's latest collection, Waiting for the Past (Black Inc., 5/15) continues his linguistic and anthropological study of Australian life. This year, I also was taken with Sarah Holland-Batt's dazzling new collection of poems, The Hazards, in which she continues her project to ransack the OED, Peter Rose's smart and happily gin-soaked The Subject of Feeling, and Robert Adamson's Net Needle, which casts a numinous light on his childhood growing up on the Hawkesbury River. Further afield, and following up on his sensational bestseller Eunoia, avant-garde Canadian poet Christian Bök has come up with The Xenotext: Book I (Coach House Books), an 'infernal grimoire' that offers a primer in genetics as it visits the orphic idylls of Virgil: 'Come with me' ends his apocalyptic poem 'The Late Heavy Bombardment'; 'Let me show you how to break my heart.'

Jacinta Le Plastrier

the subject of feeling cover grande

In a standout year for the publishing of contemporary Australian poetry, Martin Harrison's Happiness does the most a book of poems can do: it helps us to live. In Harrison's hierarchy, that means to love, deeply, self, other, world. These poems, also elegiac, glow with light and breath. Magus, and poems of a late master practising, virtually faultlessly, his mastery. It is a poise which also sweeps across Alan Loney's Crankhandle (Cordite, 8/15). The book is really a single sustained poem, learned, vanguardist, the senses also bent, caringly, to philosophy and the natural world. How difficult it is to make poems hilarious, but that is the punch, acerbic, of the Catullus suite in Peter Rose's The Subject of Feeling – LOL. Preceding this suite, in haute relief, are deeply moving poems, also masterful, in poems about loss, memory, intimacy, and love, also familial.

James Ley

Australias Second Chance OE

The great fiction discovery for me this year was the German author Jenny Erpenbeck, whose novel The End of Days (New Directions) is simply extraordinary. There were, however, two local non-fiction works that I believe are not only timely and significant, but might also be read fruitfully in tandem. The first is Australia's Second Chance (Hamish Hamilton) by George Megalogenis. Beginning with the First Fleet, Megalogenis considers the different waves of immigration that have shaped Australia and, with characteristic lucidity, analyses the connection between the nation's prosperity and its tendency at different times either to embrace or resist migrants. Megalogenis's briskly argued book is well complemented by Klaus Neumann's Across the Seas: Australia's Response to Refugees. Neumann's soberly written history, which extends from Federation through to the 1970s, examines the ways in which Australian governments have reacted to the global issues created by those fleeing war and persecution, and in doing so it provides an invaluable perspective on the divisive politics of the present.

David McCooey

how to be both

Andrew Ford's meditation on 'the primitive' in music, Earth Dances (Black Inc.), moves brilliantly across centuries and styles with Ford's characteristic wit, flair, and authority. His single paragraph on Chet Baker's singing is a miniature masterpiece. Ford is also an exceptional composer and broadcaster; what have we done to deserve him? Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf) is an original account of racism in contemporary America. Mixing prose poetry, images, and the essay form, Rankine ranges from Serena Williams to the Jena Six in her powerful critique of American racial politics. In the year Adam Goodes was shamefully hounded out of Australian Rules football, there is much Australian readers can take from Citizen. Meanwhile, Ali Smith's How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton) demonstrates that formally experimental fiction can encapsulate great joy, empathy, and imaginative seriousness. When will Smith win the Booker?

Mark McKenna

Inventing Her Own Weather OE

The book that has drawn me back again and again this year is US novelist James Salter's memoir Burning the Days: Recollection (1997). Salter, who died in June, aged ninety, only gained widespread recognition towards the end of his life. His prose is so finely wrought and the architecture of his storytelling so intricately constructed that I constantly found myself rereading the book in awe of his skill. There is not a sentence out of place. Closer to home, two biographies – Brenda Niall's Mannix (Text, 4/15) and Karen Lamb's Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather (UQP, 9/15) – stood out for their ability to wear exhaustive research lightly and bring their elusive subjects to life. Finally, I was won over by John Blay's rare and beautifully crafted On Track (NewSouth, 10/15) which tells the story of his search for the Bundian Way, the traditional Aboriginal pathway from the Kosciuszko high country to Twofold Bay on the far south coast of New South Wales.

James McNamara

Ted Hughes OE

My bedside table is stacked with old comedy – Alan Coren, P.G. Wodehouse – but my three favourites of 2015 are much to do with loss. Clive James's Latest Readings (Yale) is a witty, wide-ranging, and poignant series of essays on the books he is enjoying. James is candid about his mortality, and his great passion for literature flames the harder for it. Murray Middleton's When There's Nowhere Else to Run (Allen & Unwin, 8/15), the Vogel's Award-winning collection of short stories, conveys raw and broken characters in tight, smooth prose. And Jonathan Bate's masterful biography Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life argues convincingly that Hughes was defined, both personally and poetically, by his love and grief for Sylvia Plath. Bertie Wooster, on the other hand, was defined more by purple socks and flung bread-rolls. So it's to him that I return.

Alberto Manguel

 

BetweenMy favorite three novels all explore the intertwined identities of society and the individual: the Bulgarian Georgi Gospodinov's The Physics of Sorrow (Open Letter, translated by Angela Rodel) tells of a boy suffering from universal empathy and feeling the sorrow of the world in himself. The Mexican Guadalupe Nettel's The Body Where I Was Born (Seven Stories Press, translated by J.T. Lichtenstein) is the fictional memoir of a woman who refuses to submit to what the world sees as her infirmity. Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us was a revelation, a masterly story involving the refuge of silence, the fate of bees, and the shadows of old sins. The most important non-fiction book was by the American Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau), a fierce denunciation of racism arguing that prejudice creates the concept of race, and not the other way round.

Brian Matthews

Island Home download OE

Never Mind about the Bourgeoisie: The Correspondence between Iris Murdoch and Brian Medlin 1976–1995 (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 5/14) is a fascinating, endearing meeting of two brilliant, maverick minds. Medlin's wit and Furphy-like evocations of the Australian bush and Murdoch's loving encounter with Australian vernacular ('Dearest Brian, dear mate') mixed with her philosophical digressions are a sublime, offbeat treat. Vincent O'Sullivan's Being Here: Selected Poems (Victoria University Press) traces his poetic growth through works that simply get better and better. Whether it is the easy demotic of 'The Butcher Papers' or the delicacy of 'Secular Thoughts' – 'the fire / leaps on itself, the shaded / lamp brims its chaste corner' – O'Sullivan's intellectual range, inventiveness, and command of tone and register are superb. Tim Winton's Island Home: A Landscape Memoir (Hamish Hamilton, 11/15) is a terrific book – technically, a daring experiment with the genre; artistically, a passionate, Wordsworthian engagement with Nature, indigeneity, and the nature of things.

Brenda Niall

Golden

Two recent novels I want to read again. In Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín tests the limits of understatement. The death of her husband doesn't ennoble Nora Webster, nor does it destroy her. The effects of grief are traced with self-effacing candour by a writer at the height of his powers. Like the provincial Ireland of Tóibín's novel, the setting and the viewpoint of Joan London's The Golden Age (Vintage, 9/14) sound limiting. In a Perth hospital, Frank (Ferenc), an adolescent who is recovering from polio, falls in love with another patient, Elsa. Events conspire to separate the two, who are destined to lead quite different lives. London's artistic triumph is to suggest the shaping force of time and place on Frank and Elsa. In this unsentimental coming-of-age novel, postwar displacements cast shadows on two families without extinguishing the light.

Paddy O'Reilly

The CorpseThis year's reading has been thrilling, disturbing, and deeply reassuring. Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things knocked me sideways with its fury and gradual revelation of beauty and transformation. Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić showed me a different Melbourne of Balkan refugees and working class life. I wept at the end of Marilynne Robinson's Lila (12/14), another of her luminous, wise, compelling studies of the human condition. At the other end of the spectrum The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim (Penguin, translated by Jonathan Wright) exposes the destruction of both Iraq and the psyche of its people in surreal, violent, terrifying stories that read like lucid nightmares.

Felicity Plunkett

Second Half First colour OEWhile Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith's memoir Ordinary Light (Knopf) explores 'collisions with the world's solid fist', its lyrical chapters are as much about creativity and grace as about the violence they defy. And while Smith captures awakenings – of social awareness and creativity – in the first four decades of her life, Drusilla Modjeska's Second Half First (Knopf, 11/15) begins with her fortieth birthday and explores the decades since, with memory's dynamics, questions of art, form, and women's lives at its lucent centre. Like Smith, Lisa Gorton is an acclaimed poet with a remarkable new work of prose. The Life of Houses is dazzling and distinctive, phrase by phrase. And (my friend) Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us is a resonant, wise and achingly beautiful novel about loss, continuance, and the imagination.

Kevin Rabalais

on brunswick ground 1500 wide-600x913In On Brunswick Ground (Transit Lounge), Catherine de Saint Phalle writes with a grace of style and searing authority about the way Melbournians live now. Here, steeped in the intimacies and desires of a community, she proves herself an engaged and engaging novelist we can't afford to ignore. Bob Shacochis's massive literary spy thriller The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (Grove Press) stalks the murkiest realms of the twentieth century. With its deserved comparisons to the work of Graham Greene and John le Carré, Shacochis's novel provides great challenges and endless rewards and stands in stark contrast to Kent Haruf's spare Our Souls at Night (Picador). A warm and sincere examination of the sanctuary of friendship, it's one of the most beautiful novels this reader has ever encountered. And don't forget to place the inimitable Rebecca Solnit's essay collection Men Explain Things to Me (Granta) in the stocking of every man for a better tomorrow.

Nicolas Rothwell

Buried CountryIt is a sign of these murky times for books and the written word that my book of the year is a work of loving enthusiasm and selfless devotion, rather than a knowing, self-conscious product by some member of the knowledge class. Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, by Clinton Walker (Verse Chorus Press) is a re-edition of a masterwork first published fifteen years ago, but expanded and reconceived so thoroughly as to be something new: an account of vernacular Aboriginal creativity in mid-century Australia, the influences it soaked up and the impact it made – a back channel history worth more than a thousand academic sociologies. Roger Knox, Bobby McLeod, Vic Simms: these are the heroes of its pages: 'Where the crows flies backwards' is its central song, an anthem that defines both an era and a state of mind. What more can a book do than bring you back the past and make it real – especially a past you never knew?

Susan Sheridan

mothers grimmAustralian publishers increasingly take on short story collections these days, and among recent volumes I especially admired Danielle Wood's Mothers Grimm (Allen & Unwin), a brilliant and coruscating set of stories on motherhood, where magic works with malice – no happy endings here. On a related theme, Ali Smith's novel How to Be Both is an extraordinary double narrative of a contemporary teenage girl mourning her mother's death and the invented biography of an Italian Renaissance painter: it bends genre and gender, and blends past and present.

 

Ruth Starke

BinnyIf there were an award for Best Family Book, Binny in Secret by Hilary McKay (Hodder) would surely win. The Cornwallis family relocating to a small Cornish town take on disasters and mysteries, school bullies and even a chicken-stealing 'jagular' in a story rich in love and laughter, including a poignant subplot about a trio of cousins who lived in the house a hundred years ago. Twelve-year-old Binny is an endearing heroine. I adored this book. For older readers, Vikki Wakefield in Inbetween Days (Text) proves again that she's the mistress of YA twisted relationships and disturbed characters, all memorable, all sketched with compassion, wit and insight, the adults as well as teens. One of the best of the 'Gallipoli' books is One Minute's Silence (Allen & Unwin) by David Metzenthen and Michael Camilleri: a classroom of bored Year Twelve students catapulted into the action on those hellish slopes in 1915.

Jane Sullivan

The Other Side of the World - colour OEIt's become quite the thing to write about mothers of yesteryear, whether in fiction or memoir: to tease out notions of good and bad mothering, the almost unbelievable constraints and pressures those mothers were often subjected to, the lingering effects on later generations, and the role that fathers did or didn't play. It can be a hard subject to write about without descending into sentimentality, indignation, melodrama, or utter gloom. Three Australian books hit the right nuanced note for me: Rod Jones's novel The Mothers (Text, 6/15), a wrenching saga of four generations of women and what they were denied; Kate Grenville's story of her mother, One Life (Text, 4/15), an inspiring tale of making the best of very limited opportunities, whether professional or personal; and Stephanie Bishop's quietly devastating novel The Other Side of the World (Hachette, 9/15), which gave me the most exquisite sense of slow suffocation. Lest we forget.

Martin Thomas

remembering the futureBritish historian Peter H. Hansen spoke to my weakness for expeditionary adventure. Ever alert to the cultural meanings of our relationship with mountains, The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment (Harvard) roves the great ranges, from Mont Blanc to Everest. If Hansen led me upwards, anthropologist Melinda Hinkson took me outwards to the Tanami Desert. Remembering the Future: Warlpiri Life through the Prism of Drawing (Aboriginal Studies Press) is both a beautiful art book and a personal, highly perceptive account of Warlpiri culture, where pencil and crayon drawings, commissioned by anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt in the 1950s, become mnemonic stimuli for Aboriginal people today. A 'huge sunlit series / of changing moods' is evoked by the final poems of Martin Harrison who died in 2014. An elegiac record of the love and loss that coloured the poet's last years, Happiness is another stimulus to memory, majestic in its capacity to listen and observe.

Brenda Walker

Those who leaveTwo books I read this year seem like unexpected companion pieces: the Italian Elena Ferrante's novel Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; and Drusilla Modjeska's memoir Second Half First. Ferrante's novel is the third in a series about a compulsive and uneasy friendship between two poor and clever women. One is a publicly acknowledged writer, the other is her critic, her inspiration, her adversary and her guide. Modjeska's memoir charts the politics and friendships, the writing and thinking, of the later part of her life. Both books register the great exchanges that are possible between life and literature. Both are intense and accomplished explorations of writing, politics, sexuality, friendship, and cities.

Jen Webb

Stone Grown Cold - One of four Cordite titles - colourWalking: New and Selected Poems (John Leonard Press, 5/14) contains old favourites and adds to them new poems in Kevin Brophy's signature voice: gentle, slightly mournful, threaded through with humour. I thought I had read every 'take' on the Holocaust, but Ramona Koval adds something fresh with Bloodhound: Searching for My Father (Text, 5/15): the drive to find a more appealing lineage; a rebuilding after the disaster, perhaps. Ross Gibson's poetry is marked by the numinous, then undercut by the quotidian, the earthy. Stone Grown Cold (Cordite, 8/15), a mix of prose poems, lyrics, lists, and fragmentary images, reflects a different way of seeing. A companion piece to the disturbing and engaging Life after Life, Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins (Penguin) has a more elegiac note, and is a lovely essay on grace in the face of disappointment, damage, and death.

Geordie Williamson

VisitantsIrish author Paul Murray received mixed reviews for his most recent novel, The Mark and the Void (Hamish Hamilton). Yet the man is clearly a genius – smart, funny, profound, ludicrously modest – and the flaws in his story about the Irish experience of the GFC and its fallout are par for the course when you're venturing to wring human drama from investment banking. It made me laugh, ponder, and despair.

It should be taken as no commentary on contemporary Oz Lit that I choose Text's fistful of Randolph Stow reissues for my local favourite(s) during 2015. Their appearance reminds us that a gentle, wise, wounded, and immensely talented poet in prose once lived among us. If you haven't read Visitants, do so: it is the dark heart of Stow's oeuvre. But make sure you read The Girl Green as Elderflower alongside – that pendant work has a bucolic sweetness to balance against the former's bitter taste.

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    Jennifer Maiden's The Fox Petition: New Poems (Giramondo) conjures foxes 'whose eyes were ghosts with pity' and foxes of language that transform the world's headlines

Wednesday, 28 October 2015 16:51

Peter Kenneally reviews 'The Dressmaker'

I'm back, you bastards.' Jocelyn Moorhouse announces her return to the screen after eighteen years as vehemently as does her lead character, Tilly Dunnage, when she arrives in the one-horse outback town of Dungatar. The bus moves through a brown sea of wheat beautifully and cinematically, and when Tilly (Kate Winslet) steps down from the bus, she may carry a sewing machine instead of a six-shooter, but the intent is clear: she has brought Hollywood with her.

'Unforgiven with a sewing machine' is how Moorhouse sums up her adaptation of Rosalie Ham's novel (2000), and she has given us a version of it that mostly conveys this notion (it is really High Plains Drifter, but that is a small quibble). The set-up is simple. Tilly, exiled as a child from the town for murky reasons involving the death of a classmate, has spent years in Paris becoming an haute couture dressmaker and is now back to seek truth and justice, and to make irresistible outfits for the townswomen as a way of unravelling the town's secrets. The secrets don't end up being all that interesting, but that hardly matters.

As played with considerable panache by Winslet, Tilly is a stylish and irresistible Amazon, clad in one gorgeous outfit after another, cigarette always in hand, and brooking no opposition. She immediately begins to set the town to rights, starting with her mother (Judy Davis). Tilly is two parts Clint Eastwood, and eight parts Flora Poste; for all the spaghetti western overlay in the set design, music, and photography, Cold Comfort Farm constantly peeks through. There are dozens of woodsheds, and they all have something nasty in them.

The town, rendered with blinding artificiality, is an amalgam: the house on the hill, the dusty main street, the hillbilly hovel, all bathed in a glowering gold. It is more Ealing Studios than Australian Gothic (instead of the local policeman being a terrifying Chips Rafferty, we have a whimsical and cross-dressing Hugo Weaving), but it is full of unbridled insanity. The scene where a rival gunslinger/seamstress played by Sacha Horler arrives, spurs jingling, to find the main street full of women wearing haute couture frocks, is one of many delightfully surreal moments.

The Dressmaker smaller photograph by Ben KingJudy Davis, Sarah Snook, and Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker (photograph by Ben King)

'Much of the energy in the film comes from the fact that most of the Australian actors in it are mugging with passionate intensity'

Much of the energy in the film comes from the fact that most of the Australian actors in it are mugging with passionate intensity. In some cases, this is merely a matter of ramping up their standard performance a notch or two, but some go several extra miles, most notably Barry Otto as the hunchbacked, malevolent chemist. He plays the role like an enthusiastic drama student who has been asked to imagine himself as a Galapagos turtle, and at one point seems actually about to explode.

Tilly's first order of business is to rehabilitate, and reconcile with, her mother, a wheelchair-bound, alcoholic, slovenly harridan who affects not to remember who Tilly is, or the terrible event that led to her expulsion. It is hard to imagine anyone enjoying themselves more in a role than Judy Davis does here. She goes from demented harpy to mischievous old lady to loving mother without ever crashing the gears, in contrast to Winslet, who moves through the film calmly Acting, as if it were a normal drama. There is one revelatory moment where the two exchange a glance, with Judy Davis's eyes saying 'Look, we're the class in this movie, let's face it, so let's show them how it's done!' Sarah Snook gives them a run for their money, transforming from downtrodden skivvy to weird matron, but there is no other real competition.

The Dressmaker smaller Liam Hemsworth and Kate Winslet photograph by Ben KingLiam Hemsworth and Kate Winslet (photograph by Ben King)

'The secrets don't end up being all that interesting, but that hardly matters'

There is mystery, revelation, and reconciliation: oh, and romance, but these elements are really just mannequins to hang the acting and photography on. The love interest (Liam Hemsworth) lives in a shotgun shack nearby (imagine a Ma and Pa Kettle movie in which their son was Victor Mature), and is also, for a supposed schoolmate of Winslet, suspiciously young. Moorhouse isn't bothered by such trifling inconsistencies, and even makes a joke of it by taking them off to the cinema to watch Gloria Swanson and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, and taking Judy Davis along, who promptly enjoys herself all over again in a scene that is worth the price of admission on its own.

The love scenes are surprisingly dull: Hemsworth's character is hardly there, and really serves a Mr Exposition function, helping to solve the 'mystery', such as it is. Moorhouse is obviously quite bored with the whole narrative premise, and brutally unsentimental too: once characters have served their purpose they get the chop (in variously lurid ways), leaving our heroine emotionally unattached for the fabulous finale.

Like the film as a whole, it looks stunning, it is shamelessly appropriated, it finishes with a laconic one-liner, and, if you just look and don't think, it works perfectly.

The Dressmaker (M), directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, based on the novel by Rosalie Ham, distributed in Australia by Universal Pictures. In cinemas from 29 October 2015.

Arts Update is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.

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Friday, 21 August 2015 12:21

Peter Kenneally reviews 'Holding the Man'

Timothy Conigrave would surely have been delighted that Neil Armfield’s film of his much-loved book Holding the Man (1995) is being released at exactly the moment that Tony Abbott is conducting his farcical elephant waltz around the issue of same-sex marriage. Tommy Murphy’s play of the book in 2006 resolved Conigrave’s matter-of-fact but poignant text into its essential elements: love, humour, pain, religion, and acting. His screenplay for this film, with Neil Armfield’s direction, takes a further step and adds the cinematic dimension of simply being.

The story is simplicity itself: Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo fall in love as teenagers at school in 1976, are parted and rejoined more than once, both eventually falling ill with Aids. This has terrible consequences, but their love is undying. Armfield has said that in directing film, as with theatre, his aim is to hold a space for the actors to do the work, in this case to show what it was like to be these people at these times. He and cinematographer Germain McMicking have fulfilled this aim in almost every scene of Holding the Man.

A great example of this is Luke Mullins’s electrifying portrayal, in one short scene, of a dying Aids sufferer, fading into dementia. The Kurtzian nature of his delusions, and the naked terror on Tim’s face as he interviews him, echo through the film. Ryan Corr, as Conigrave, is in almost every scene of the film, and holds the space steadily, demonstratively, so that by the end, just as the book does, he has shown what there is to show, holding nothing back, making no excuses.

The film’s episodes leapfrog and double back on each other, from decade to decade, enabling a degree of revelation and tension in a film with, essentially, no plot. The skill and attention to detail shown at all levels in doing this is admirable: the ‘period’ aspects, from 1976 to 1990, are meticulously rendered, without being kitsch, the soundtrack perfectly judged. There is some suspension of disbelief required in the early scenes, when the boys seem squeezed into their school uniforms, but this is soon forgotten. Each episode, set in its particular time, has its own arc, merging with and as complete as the next, and for a film of over two hours there are very few slack or unnecessary scenes. It can also turn from tragedy to comedy on a sixpence.

Ryan Corr as Tim Conigrave and Craig Stott as John Caleo in Holding the ManRyan Corr as Timothy Conigrave and Craig Stott as John Caleo in Holding the Man

Armfield and Murphy also know when to build on the raw material. The star-crossed lovers atmosphere of the boys’ first meeting and falling in love is overtly framed by their Catholic school’s (actual) production of Romeo and Juliet, in which Timothy plays Paris, while after parental discovery and separation, their (fictional) kiss through the fly-screen window of John’s bedroom conjures up both Pyramus and Thisbe and the confessional. Holding the Man is a long long way from being an art film, but it contains enough artifice to reward every impulse to contemplation.

‘Armfield and Murphy also know when to build on the raw material’

John’s father (Anthony LaPaglia), helplessly loving his son but unable to accept John’s sexuality, sets the tone for the emotional axis of the film, along which he and Timothy seem locked in a struggle for John’s soul: the characters, to the end, exist within the Catholic universe that has formed them. LaPaglia’s performance is quite astonishing: however wrong this father’s actions, the purity of his feelings almost makes them comprehensible. He sometimes seems to be drawing the whole film into himself, to be able to continue in a world he can no longer fathom. The acceptance shown John and Tim by their friends, Tim’s parents, and even Mrs Caleo, only seems to increase his pain.

Anthony LaPagalia as Bob CaleoAnthony LaPagalia as Bob Caleo

Guy Pearce, as Tim’s father, pales rather by comparison, and Pearce has the discomfited air of someone who has not quite been given enough to do. Timothy’s mother (Kerry Fox) is in the same boat, except for one scene where she and Tim prepare vol au vents for a wedding while he tells her he has Aids. The minutely observed physical actions in this scene are exquisite, building to one heart stilling gesture. From this point on, Craig Stott, as John Caleo, seems to become more and more luminous as he becomes sicker and sicker, his passivity a kind of apotheosis. The film moves onto a heightened plane, rather like a classic Hollywood weepy, except that there is no absurd plot, no saccharine. Still, Stott occupies the screen like Joan Fontaine might, or, when his hair is shaved off, like a less tormented version of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. He exists, very simply, as a focus and a source of love, while around him the story is told, directly, painfully, and always with humour: a romance, a documentary, a prayer.

Holding the Man, directed by Neil Armfield, scripted by Tommy Murphy, from the memoir by Timothy Conigrave, is in cinemas from 27 August 2015.

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Poetry books as artefacts in their own right, regardless of commercial viability or relevance to the click-bait Zeitgeist, are currently showing sturdy signs of life, so it is a welcome development to have the online Cordite Review sensibility fixed in print, in a palpable way and on a graspable scale. These are fine-looking books: Zoë Sadokierski’s cover design template allows for each book to have a distinctive colour scheme and for the images within the design to reflect the verse within, in its particulars and its atmosphere.

Crankhandle - four of four Cordite titles colour

Crankhandle ($20 pb, 56 pp, 9780994259608), continues Alan Loney’s long-standing interest in capturing fragmented or passing thoughts and utterances. It reasserts his belief that these are not fragmented in the sense of being unfinished or worn away, but because, as he says, ‘fragments are all we have, and will ever have. If some are very long and some very short, then that is simply how things are.’ This book is a succession, or assemblage, of these fragments, but not in such a way that they are in order, or stuck together at any point. There are Oulipo-esque chunks of dictionary-mining, reflections on the body, and on language, and the death and decay of each: ‘hands unable / the skill leaving him / his dream of beginning / dissolved / prospect of becoming a poet / broken / the printing press / cranking out / the crack’d word.’ It is, as Michael Farrell aptly says in his introduction, a book of ‘thinks’. Loney, with the calm concentration acquired from years as a letterpress printer, rolls them out without trying to disguise the constant whisper of the type, rearranging and redisposing itself beneath the paper at every turn of the crankhandle. The book has a kind of coda, a concentration of thought coming after the expanse of thinks, that extracts the world-weariness one senses beneath the carpet of thoughts, and asks ‘do I / merely copy words down, another / Bartleby, who’d prefer to do / nothing else with his time / with his body’. That is an unanswerable question – there is not even a question mark – but it will be interesting to see what Loney cranks out next.

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