Thursday, 28 September 2017 13:24

A survey of environmental writing

Kim Scott

The biggest estate on Earth ABR Online October 2017Bill Gammage, in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia (2011), shows fire being deployed across the continent with a complexity and skill ‘greater than anything modern Australia has imagined’. He explains why colonists spoke of a land like ‘a gentleman’s park, an inhabited and improved country’. Controlled fire created a ‘mosaic of grass and tree’, of ‘springs, soaks, caches and wetlands’ that channelled, persuaded, and lured prey in predictable ways. Thus Indigenous cultures enabled abundance, and ‘voluminous and intricate’ spiritual and creative practice.

Kim Mahood

My nominated book is The Night Country (1971), by American anthropologist Loren Eiseley. I first encountered Eiseley’s essays in the early 1980s and was transfixed by his capacity to combine the personal, the psychological, the metaphoric, the poetic, and the scientific in prose of imaginative reach and literary beauty. His essay ‘The Creature from the Marsh’, in which he ponders the footprint of a transitional form of human, only to realise that it belongs to him, locates our flawed and aspirational species at the heart of the natural world.

Philip Jones

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie ABR Online October 2017Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918), written and illustrated by May Gibbs, helped form my childhood notions of the environment. Perhaps there are two reasons. First, Gibbs proposed a connected, self-sustaining world of plants and animals in which humans played a rare but destructive role. Secondly, the book conveyed the idea that the bush harbours wonderful secrets, often on a minute level; one should tread lightly and listen.


Andrea Gaynor

The Death of a Wombat (1972), Ivan Smith’s genre-defying work, emerged from an award-winning 1959 ABC radio program by Smith; Wren Books approached Clifton Pugh to provide illustrations for the book. My great-grandmother gave me a copy for Christmas when I was six years old. I was enthralled by the vulnerable beauty of its outback, and distressed at the human carelessness behind the cataclysmic bushfire that inevitably, agonisingly, claimed so many animals’ lives.

Martin Thomas

Walt Whitman Brady Handy restoredWalt Whitman (photograph by Mathew Handy, Wikimedia Commons)‘Now I am terrified at the earth!’ wrote Walt Whitman. ‘It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions.’ These lines, dear to gardeners everywhere, appear in ‘This Compost’, a homily to nature’s capacity for regeneration. Whitman’s attentiveness to the cycles and rhythms of the natural world is a constant inspiration. The cities, as much as the forests and prairies, fuelled his environmental curiosity. ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ is a poem that grows inside you, rocking gently to the tidal flows that underlie the daily commute.

Danielle Clode

It was certainly the books of childhood that germinated my interest in the natural world. But one book stands out: W.J. Dakin’s Australian Seashores, posthumously published in 1952, updated by Isobel Bennett and Elizabeth Pope. For forty years this book has directed my steps along Australia’s coasts, encouraged my first forays into biology, shaped my studies, and inspired my writing every page remains a fascinating dip into a world that lies beneath our feet.

James Bradley

Arctic Dreams ABR Online October 2017There aren’t many books that I can honestly say have changed my life, but Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams (1986) is one of them. Its luminous prose and hushed reverence for the landscape embody an understanding not just that there are other ways of imagining a landscape and our relationship to it, but of the fact that attentiveness to the particular is an ethical act in itself. It’s an extraordinary, beautiful, transformative book and one I continue to value immensely.


Alan Atkinson

Lately, there has been a wonderful rush of books connecting the old concerns of the Green movement with everything else important to humanity, from Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the climate (2014) to Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable (2017). But note especially Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ (2015), where questions of environmental damage and social justice are stitched together with geniune awe and, I think, perfect economy.

Ashley Hay

My tipping point was This Overheating World, an edition of Granta edited by Bill McKibben in 2003. Published fourteen years after ‘The End of Nature’, McKibben’s own first mighty global warming article, it embedded this issue in my sense of the world particularly pieces by Philip Marsden and Matthew Hart, and McKibben’s introduction. Fourteen years later again, the sorrow and frustration in that introduction remain shockingly germane. ‘Hardly anyone has fear in their guts,’ McKibben wrote. In some places that’s so, even now, as the planet gets hotter and hotter.

Grace Karskens

hunters and collectorsA lightbulb moment of discovery came with Tom Griffiths’s Hunters and Collectors: The antiquarian imagination in Australia (1996). It’s a brilliant, labyrinthine, landmark book about how Australians imagined and created their histories both human and environmental. Chapter Twelve takes readers into wilderness landscapes and reveals them to be peopled, and storied, after all. Why do conservation campaigns so often deny the intimate relationships between humans and the non-human world? Tom’s phrase ‘bleeding sepia into green’ has stayed with me.

Michael Adams

In Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy (2009), the wild child story pivots around questions of what it means to accept and be accepted by strange others. It navigates the collapse of human care and being, and its replacement by a different, more-than-human, culture and ecology of care and identity, deep in the heart of a heartless city. Dog Boy is an inspirational compass for relocating ourselves in a world of social and environmental unknown unknowns.

Rebe Taylor

Patsy Cameron’s Grease and Ochre: The blending of two cultures at the colonial sea frontier (2011) changed how I saw the Bass Strait islands and how I wrote my last book. Her work taught me that the islands were not just a place where her Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestors ‘survived’ due to the early nineteenth-century sealing trade. The environment’s ‘remoteness and wild beauty’, its seasons and resources, shaped the coming together of European and Aboriginal cultures to create a ‘new lifeworld and a new people’.

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth

Between Wodjil and Tor ABR Online October 2017Barbara York Main’s Between Wodjil and Tor (1967) is a natural history of a small section of remnant bushland in the Western Australian wheatbelt. An eminent zoologist, known for her ground-breaking work on trapdoor spiders, York Main is also a gifted prose stylist possibly the one who comes closest in Australia to the belletristic tradition of American nature writing (Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard).


Sarah Holland-Batt

‘Somehow it seems sufficient,’ A.R. Ammons once wrote, ‘to see and hear whatever coming and going is losing the self to the victory of stones and trees.’ I think of those lines when I read Judith Beveridge’s inimitable poetry. Beveridge shows us that finding a precise, unflinching language for the natural world and the human place within it can be a profound, reverential, and philosophical act. I especially love her pelagic volume Storm and Honey (2009).

Sophie Cunningham

Reading the CountryWhen I first read Stephen Muecke, Paddy Roe, and Krim Benterrak’s Reading the Country: Introduction to nomadology in 1984, the year of publication, it was a revelation, introducing me to the idea that landscape could speak. What you had to do was learn to listen to it.

John Kinsella

When my brother, an intense naturalist from the age of six, received Vincent Serventy’s book Dryandra: The story of an Australian forest (1970) for his birthday, I couldn’t wait to read it. It made an impression on me, and its passion for place and the natural world stayed with me. In my late twenties, for three years, I lived on and off next to Dryandra Forest with my brother. His knowledge of the forest was broad. We often walked through its south-eastern outskirts, talking of the Serventy book. I couldn’t engage with the many birds, echidnas, kangaroos, and even numbats without being aware of the book’s knowledge. The book that stopped a bauxite mine activist environmental literature at its best!

Tom Griffiths

A Million Wild Acres ABR Online October 2017I read Eric Rolls’s A Million Wild Acres (1981) soon after I returned from my first trip to Europe. It seemed to encapsulate all that is wonderful, earthy, feral, and unruly about my country. Animals, plants, and insects share the stage with humans in this democratic, ecological, cross-cultural saga of life in the Pilliga forest of northern New South Wales. Rolls was a farmer, poet, fisherman, and historian with a lust for life and a deep sense of wonder about the land he farmed. He enchants the landscape and its creatures with exact, spellbinding stories. It is nature writing with a distinctive, compelling Australian accent.

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  • Custom Article Title A survey of environmental writing
  • Contents Category Environment
  • Custom Highlight Text

    To complement our coverage of new books on the subject, we invited a number of writers, scholars, and environmentalists to nominate the books that have had the greatest effect on them from an environmental point of view.

The need for this book is self-evident in a way that a similarly historical anthology for New South Wales or Victorian poetry would not be. From many perspectives, Perth is one of the most remote cities in the world and there is no doubt that the state’s uniqueness is captured in this extensive, though tightly edited, selection. Despite its comparable treatment of Aboriginal people, Western Australia’s nineteenth-century history (with its brief experience of convictism and its relatively late gold rush in the 1890s) is different from that of the eastern colonies, about which Western Australians continue to feel a mild, justified paranoia.

Of course, Western Australia occupies about half the Australian continent, so there is also considerable regionality (likewise reflected in the selections here). John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan’s introduction to all this is suitably comprehensive and informative (if, occasionally, a little dramatic in its claims for the international status of some its poets).

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  • Custom Article Title Geoff Page reviews 'The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry' by John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan (eds)
  • Contents Category Poetry
  • Book Title The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry
  • Book Author John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan
  • Author Type Editor
  • Biblio Fremantle Press $34.99 pb, 376 pp, 9781925162202 ­­

John Kinsella’s short stories are the closest thing Australians have to Ron Rash’s tales of washed-out rural America, where weakened and solitary men stand guard over their sad patch of compromised integrity in a world of inescapable poverty, trailer homes, uninsured sickness, and amphetamine wastage. Poe’s adventure stories and internally collapsing characters lightly haunt the short fiction of Rash and Kinsella. Like Rash, Kinsella can write acute and unforgettable stories about threatened masculinity. Kinsella’s latest collection, Old Growth, closely follows his 2016 work Crow’s Breath in subject and design. Although he is best known as a fine poet, these stories add considerably to his stature as a prose writer.

Old Growth is concerned with environmental degradation, small-town contempt for outsiders, and indigenous people, children who need protection from adults and one another, lives lost to compromise, terrible miscalculations of the motives of others, and isolation, particularly the geographical and emotional isolation of women. These stories are not overly concerned with exquisite observation of the natural world; the emphasis falls on the need for environmental protection and the exposure of rural social destructiveness, but when Kinsella turns his attention to nature the results are remarkable:

The jewel beetle rainbowed in the sun and he was, momentarily, caught in its colours, part of its exoskeleton. This is what God is, he said aloud, full of joy. I don’t really get depressed, he told the doctor his mother took him to. I am really quite happy, he insisted. The jewel beetle went to the edge of the leaf like a rhino, clumping across a sponge world, and then amazingly and beautifully angled itself around the leaf’s furry and serrated edge, and was walking upside down in defiance of all, the sun shining through the leaf like skin and lighting the inner life, the shadow upside-down world, the jewel beetle soul.

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  • Custom Article Title Brenda Walker reviews 'Old Growth' by John Kinsella
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title Old Growth
  • Book Author John Kinsella
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Transit Lounge $29.95 pb, 254 pp, 9780994395788

John Kinsella, who lives mostly in Australia, is a transnational literary powerhouse. Poet, fiction writer, playwright, librettist, critic, academic, collaborator, editor, publisher, activist; his activities and accomplishments are manifold. He is best known as a poet, and the publication of Graphology Poems 1995–2015 – a mammoth (and ongoing) discontinuous series of poems published in three volumes – brings together two decades of work.

The collection has ‘a tentative beginning and no possible closure’, as Kinsella writes in his prefatory note. The poems are numbered sequentially, though there are numerical gaps and leaps. There are thematic sections (such as the ‘Faith’ and ‘Forgery’ poems), and the final volume includes a number of appendices and ‘Mutations’. Like the landscapes Kinsella so often writes about, Graphology Poems is sprawling, sometimes messy, often imposing, and always compelling.

The pseudoscience of graphology is the study of handwriting, especially as a tool to analyse character, attribute authorship, or determine an author’s state of mind. For Kinsella, it is a beautifully ambiguous and generative master trope, putting in train numerous characteristic concerns: identity, authenticity, memory, place, representation, power, and textuality itself.

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  • Custom Article Title David McCooey reviews 'Graphology Poems 1995–2015, Vols I-III' by John Kinsella
  • Contents Category Poetry
  • Book Title Graphology Poems 1995–2015, vols I-III
  • Book Author John Kinsella
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Volume I, 268 pp, 9780734051639 Volume II, 281 pp, 9780734051646 Volume III, 246 pp, 9780734051653

A horizontal twister, but none of the dramatic life
and drop of hellraiser rides. Sedate, but vertiginous
enough to rearrange conceptions, open perceptions
to a very different York – those eucalypt canopies
a blur of recognition shifting the boundaries

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  • Custom Article Title 'The Sizzler at the York Agricultural Show, 2016' by John Kinsella
  • Contents Category Poem

In this episode of 'Poem of the Week' John Kinsella reads 'A Spiral, After Blake's "Roughly sketched figures ascend the stairways of Paradise." (Paradise, Canto 10, lines 72-87)’. ABR's Poetry Editor, Lisa Gorton, introduces John who then reads and discusses his poem.



A Spiral, After Blake's 'Roughly sketched figures ascend the stairways of Paradise.' (Paradise, Canto 10, lines 72-87)

Corellas over the crossed towers
make the dry a whirlpool sent
down to take the patient higher.

There's light in perfectly bent
wings and the catch of the beaks
is litany, all husks shed and spent

as reflections, refraction, dispersal
over the dry, the brittle, the aromatics
of olive leaves and eucalyptus and stubble.

As pilgrims hope to catch the wave
of a spiral, to elevate with its sweep
across faint sketches in the dirt, save

memories and prayers, the leaps
of faith they've held their lives
together with, the glimmers, the steep

learning curves of birth and loss,
they can't hear themselves speak
as the corellas call out the gloss,

the glare, the substance of light.
Some say it is a noise but they
miss the translation, peace of night.

John Kinsella

The quote in the title is taken from the summary for the illustration by Blake of relevant canto as found in William Blake's Divine Comedy Illustrations (Dover publications, New York: 2008)


John Kinsella's most recent book of poetry is Firebreaks (Wiley, 2016). He is a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia and a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. He edited the Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (2009).

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  • Custom Article Title Poem of the Week - John Kinsella reads ‘A Spiral, After Blake's 'Roughly sketched figures ascend the stairways of Paradise’
  • Contents Category Poem
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    In this episode of 'Poem of the Week' John Kinsella reads ‘A Spiral, After Blake's 'Roughly sketched figures ascend the stairways of Paradise.' (Paradise, Canto 10, lines 72-87)’.

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


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'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


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

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Recently I drove east from Perth through wheat belt country to the Helena and Aurora Ranges, past Cunderin, Kellerberrin, and Koolyanobbing, towns whose names echo the rhythms of the landscape; past the shimmering salt pan that was once Lake Deborah East; down rutted tracks which changed abruptly from red earth to yellow sand; past the ravages of iron ore mines to the sacred Aboriginal ochre quarries of Bungalbin Hill. This is the wheat belt region of Western Australia to which John Kinsella appears to lay claim as surely as Tim Winton claims the coast.

Kinsella is a prolific and laurelled poet, essayist, author, and editor. His poetry, in particular, has been variously praised for its sparse realism, attention to detail, lyricism, and metaphoric resonance.

The twenty-seven stories in this latest collection are seldom longer than a few pages. Themes and images – white imperialism and bone-white silos, red earth and the damage humans wreak on a fragile ecology – are recognisable from Kinsella’s poetry. The intensity and precision of the poetry is, however, rarely matched by the prose of Crow’s Breath. The scrupulous narrator of the poems is replaced by a number of not entirely successful voices, almost as if Kinsella has challenged himself to reproduce overheard conversations, or to elaborate on snippets gleaned from a newspaper’s ‘OddSpot’.

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  • Biblio Transit Lounge, $25.95 pb, 208 pp, 9781921924811
Thursday, 26 February 2015 10:55

David McCooey reviews 'Sack' by John Kinsella

The eponymous poem in John Kinsella’s latest book recounts a group of teenagers witnessing a sack being flung from a speeding car. The sack, they discover, is filled with tortured kittens. This shocking poem of human cruelty begins a collection concerned with Kinsella’s great themes: the degradation of the environment, human violence (particularly towards animals), and the potential for language – especially poetry – to represent, and intervene in, those things. Despite the extraordinary variety and output of Kinsella’s career so far, his works (poetry, novels, translations, plays, short stories, autobiographies, works of criticism) share a single, ambitious project: to imagine a relationship between political action and literary speech.

The first part of Sack contains anti-pastoral episodes, such as ‘The Fable of the Great Sow’, in which human interaction with the non-human is presented in both intensely sensate and hyper-rational terms. The great sow, for instance, is both a recollection from the poet’s childhood of ‘total pig’, and imaginatively linked to the poet’s future viewing of a late-eighteenth-century painting of pigs in the Fitzwilliam Museum by James Ward. The distances inhabited in ‘The Fable of the Great Sow’ – in time and space – are typical of Kinsella’s imaginative and intellectual leaps.

Distance and closeness are central to Kinsella’s poetry. This is seen in Sack through the motifs of breath and breathing, which are often associated with damage and danger: the kittens’ last breaths in ‘Sack’; the poet breathing in asbestos in ‘Blue Asbestos on my Bedhead’; the airborne toxins in ‘Yellowcake’. In breathing, distance becomes profoundly, disquietingly, intimate.

While Kinsella is best known for his anti-pastoral aesthetic, his poetry is not simplistically anti-lyrical. Rather, Kinsella revises and struggles with the lyric mode, always attuned to its traditional musicality and intense subjectivity. This is apparent throughout Sack, as in this description of a sheep’s skull from ‘On Contemplating a Sheep’s Skull’:

Neither herbivore nor carnivore,
earth and sky-eater, fire in its shout
or whisper, racing through to leave a bed
of ash on which the mind might rest,
drinking sun and light and smoke,
choked up with experience.

Such lines show how much Kinsella can be a poet of sound, attending to language’s sonic, as well as semantic, potential.

Kinsella’s interest in the lyric mode is seen especially in the second section of Sack, a sequence of poems that use the improvisatory Welsh song form of the penillion. This is something of a departure for Kinsella, whose poems are usually loose-limbed, longish, and free of end-stopped rhyme. Here he employs rhyming iambic dimeter quatrains. To use such a stanza is a risky venture, and Kinsella shows his inventiveness and technical prowess in both his surprising use of rhyme and half-rhyme (‘Tim’/ ‘storm’; ‘skin’ / ‘scansion’; ‘Laugh loud at us / Fashionistas!’), and in his artful use of enjambment, seen in the opening of his poem on the River Granta in England, ‘Granta Penillion: Mid-Autumn’: ‘Skein of light, fuel / or skin of pol- / yphonous sun: / surface tension’. These poems show that Kinsella’s poetry, for all its seriousness, is deeply playful. This playfulness is also seen in the poems’ range, from ancient history to the contemporary moment, from ‘Penillion of Winter Flowers’ to ‘Penillion for Pussy Riot’.

If Kinsella’s project is indeed to imagine a relationship between political action and literary speech, his poetry is too often dismissed in this country for facile reasons. In part, no doubt, this is a reaction from a section of an Australian literary culture that views politics with suspicion. Attempts at dismissal are partly, too, a condition of the masculinist agon for cultural authority that remains tediously present in our literary culture. (It is notable that only men seem to be programmatically averse to Kinsella and his work.)

‘Only men seem to be programmatically averse to Kinsella and his work’

There is also the issue of clashing personalities and complex interpersonal histories. For instance, one of Australia’s leading poets, Anthony Lawrence, who gave a bluntly negative review of Kinsella’s recent book of ‘activist poems’, The Vision of Error (2013), has had a long-running dispute with Kinsella, which makes it rather surprising that he should offer his views under the terms of a book review, and that Text – the journal in which it was published – should agree to run the review.

Whatever one thinks of his work, Kinsella has few equals when it comes to supporting poetry in this country, and placing it in a transnational context. In his editorial roles, in co-founding Salt Publishing, in publishing and materially encouraging scores of Australian poets, in keeping the work of important poets (such as Randolph Stow) in print, and in his inclusive and excellent anthologising (the inclusivity of Kinsella’s most recent anthology being dismissed with a shrug in a recent issue of ABR), Kinsella is an extraordinary advocate for Australian poets and poetry.

That is not to say that Kinsella’s support of poetry makes his own work off-limits with regard to criticism. ‘Liking’ anyone’s work is not, of course, obligatory, and one may recognise Kinsella’s support of Australian poetry without appreciating his writing. But so often dismissing one comes at the cost of ignoring the other. Dismissing Kinsella’s poetry often seems a disquietingly personal act, the personal investment masked by an intense appeal to the ‘self-evident’ and ‘objectivity’. (Little in literary criticism is either, I find.) For me, Kinsella’s latest collection of poetry is a compelling addition to an extraordinary body of work. Kinsella is not a stylist in the usual sense of the word, but his style is powerfully original. His poetry, while denouncing the problems of modernity, is also astonishingly inclusive, an inclusivity consistent with Kinsella’s extra-poetic work. Kinsella’s poetry is deeply humane, and entirely in touch with the traditions in which it works.

‘Dismissing Kinsella’s poetry often seems a disquietingly personal act’

The last part of Sack, an elegiac verse letter to a fellow poet, brings together, among other things, youthful reminiscences, Bon Scott (the late singer of AC/DC), and Nauru, that key site in the Australian government’s inhuman, and often-enough illegal, asylum seeker policy. Having been told that Scott, like Kinsella, worked at a fertiliser factory, Kinsella uses his own fertile imagination to muse upon the superphosphate that he and Scott, in their menial jobs, must have both swept up: ‘Phosphate burning never passes / and pickles us in its grave. It doesn’t / make you grow. Ah guano, ah, fertile Nauru: / you will echo in this country down the track: / Pacific Solution. Makes phosphate bones / creak. And rock phosphate from the island / where the unwanted are now incarcerated.’ Bringing together jokiness, an impressive use of internal rhyme, and politically directed anger in the space of a few lines is typical of Kinsella’s synthesising poetic skills.

Can poetry change the world? Perhaps; perhaps not. But poets and their readers are citizens like anyone else. To write, read, and think about a poem with openness can, as Sack eloquently demonstrates, be the beginning of a radical, and radically non-violent, act.

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