Perhaps only John Shaw Neilson and Judith Wright have brought an equal sense of place to Australian poetry: the sense of place as a fact of consciousness with geographic truth. But in his latest collection, Biplane Houses, Les Murray considers more airy habitations – flights, cliff roads and weather – and the collection has a matching airiness that is only sometimes lightness. Take his sequence, ‘Nostril Songs’, a set of poems about smells and their messages: playful, fluid with small shocks of precision. It is the longest sequence in this collection. That is to say, Biplane Houses has no sequence with the weight of Murray’s 1972 sequence, ‘Walking to the Cattle Place’ or ‘The Idyll Wheel: Cycle of a Year at Bunyah, New South Wales, April 1986–April 1987’; nothing with the reach of his 1992 sequence, ‘Presence: Translations from the Natural World’. All the same, there are poems here to equal any he has written. ‘The Welter’, for instance, which begins:

How deep is the weatherfront of time

that advances, roaring and calm

unendingly between was and will be?

A millisecond? A few hours? All secular life

worldwide, all consequences of past life

travel in it. It’s weird to move ahead of ¼

Here that word ‘weird’ helps define the character of this collection: its light touch and quizzical kind of seriousness; its sprezzatura.

It is an airiness to equal the idea of air in this collection: crowded with smells and weather and all that endures, like the past, out of reach or out of ken but, in effect, momentous:

Tropopause, stratopause, Van Allen –

high floors of the world tower

which spores and points of charge

too minute to age climb off the planet.


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    Perhaps only John Shaw Neilson and Judith Wright have brought an equal sense of place to Australian poetry: the sense of place as a fact of consciousness with geographic truth. But in his latest collection, Biplane Houses, Les Murray considers more airy habitations – flights, cliff roads and weather – and the collection has a matching airiness that is only sometimes lightness ...

  • Book Title Biplane Houses
  • Book Author Les Murray
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Black Inc., $24.95 pb, 93 pp, 1863952144
  • Book Title 2 Collected Poems
  • Book Author 2 Les Murray
  • Biblio 2 Black Inc., $45 pb, 577 pp, 1863952225
  • Book Cover 2 Small Book Cover 2 Small
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  • Book Cover 2 Book Cover 2
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If you are regretting the passage of another summer and feeling nostalgic about the lost freedoms of youth, Sonya Hartnett’s latest novel, Surrender, may serve as a useful tonic. In Hartnett’s world, children possess little and control less, dependent as they are on adults and on their own capacity to manipulate, or charm. Hartnett characteristically writes about lonely children in cruel or careless families, in places that offer no relief. Perhaps it is the conflict that Hartnett marks out between children and adults that makes the distinction between her children’s and adult fiction hard to draw; for it seems we can identify at any age with a sense that the world belongs to someone else. Besides, Hartnett’s novels deal with terrors that last.

If they ever cull the optimists, Hartnett will survive. Her novels tell of abducted children, alcoholism, incest, murder, and depression. She is probably best known for her novel Of a Boy (2002), which won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and The Age Book of the Year Award. She also won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize with Thursday’s Child (2000), the story of an isolated family struggling to survive the Depression. Surrender is not as hauntingly sad as Of a Boy, and it does not have the grittiness of Thursday’s Child. Still, it may be her most curious and compelling novel yet.

Surrender, set in an isolated country town called Mulyan, ‘ringed by shark-tooth mountains … far, far away’, tells of the town’s pariah family. The son, who calls himself Gabriel, starts the story on his deathbed: ‘I am dying: it’s a beautiful word. Like the long slow sigh of a cello: dying. But the sound of it is the only beautiful thing about it.’ In this way, Surrender starts where it ends and spends its time circling around one gruesome fact: Gabriel has found bones in a shallow grave in the woods. As a result, the whole forward movement of the story is suspense, fearful curiosity, and delay.

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    If you are regretting the passage of another summer and feeling nostalgic about the lost freedoms of youth, Sonya Hartnett’s latest novel, Surrender, may serve as a useful tonic. In Hartnett’s world, children possess little and control less, dependent as they are on adults and on their own capacity to manipulate, or charm ...

  • Book Title Surrender
  • Book Author Sonya Hartnett
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  • Biblio Viking, $29.95 hb, 245 pp, 0 670 02871 1
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Wednesday, 24 July 2019 11:49

A Room of One's Own (fortyfivedownstairs)

In this intelligent and unusual play, director Peta Hanrahan arranges Virginia Woolf’s great essay A Room of One’s Own into an hour-long play for four voices. Curiously, perhaps, it works so well as a play because of how well Hanrahan has read the essay. The play derives its drama from the essay’s dramatic elements. Like the essay, the play has what might be called an inward dramatic form: its imaginative backdrop is not the living room or the moor, but the mind. It is a play of thought, as Woolf so singularly knew how to invent them: many-voiced, self-questioning, stark, and sensuously wordy.

The essay originated in two lectures which Woolf (denied a formal education herself because of her gender) gave in Cambridge in 1928 on the topic of ‘Women and Fiction’. She opened the topic out through a sequence of radical questions, and tested these against daily experience. Her essay had, from the first, the dramatic form that its pronouns set out in its first paragraph: ‘one’ and ‘I’ and ‘you’. It set up a conflict between her stark questions and all the various accidental often humorous encounters and shocks of her experience over a few days in Cambridge and London. And her ‘I’, in the essay, was not single. ‘Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please …).’ Mary Beton, Mary Seton, and Mary Carmichael were ladies-in-waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots. The ‘I’ in Woolf’s essay, then, was from the first many-charactered. ‘One has only to read, to look, to listen, to remember …’

Hanrahan has discovered, in reading Woolf’s essay, an interplay of four voices. She has cast these as four characters, named in the program as the Actor I – the Questioner, Actor II – the Diplomat, Actor III – the Sceptic, Actor IV – the World. They are played, respectively, by Anthea Davis, Marissa O’Reilly, Anna Kennedy, and Jackson Trickett. Marissa O’Reilly, rightly, plays the Diplomat as something more than a diplomat. Her actor is the voice in Woolf’s essay of joy in the world. From all four actors the play demands a prodigious feat of memory. It holds to the various glories of Woolf’s prose – its shining anecdotes, quips, stops, and sudden turns. Against the bareness of its set, on its traverse stage, the language of the play creates vivid scenes.  

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  • Custom Article Title 'A Room of One's Own' (fortyfivedownstairs) ★★★★
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    In this intelligent and unusual play, director Peta Hanrahan arranges Virginia Woolf’s great essay A Room of One’s Own into an hour-long play for four voices. Curiously, perhaps, it works so well as a play because of how well Hanrahan has read the essay.

  • Review Rating 4.0

When John Tranter reviewed Jennifer Maiden’s first collection, Tactics (1974), he noted its ‘brilliant yet difficult imagery’ and a style ‘so idiosyncratic and forceful in a sense it becomes the subject of her work’. Tranter prophesied: ‘If she can resist her strongest verbal compulsions enough to keep the clarity of her early work in her more demanding exercises, she will certainly develop into an important writer.’

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

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

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

  • Book Title Friendly Fire
  • Book Author Jennifer Maiden
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Giramondo, $21.95 pb, 100 pp, 192088212X
Monday, 26 November 2018 15:49

Books of the Year 2018

Michelle de Kretser

Man out of Time by Stephanie BishopMan out of Time by Stephanie BishopStephanie Bishop’s remarkable novel Man Out of Time (Hachette, reviewed in ABR 9/18) explores a man’s breakdown and its effects on his family. It’s shimmering and sorrowful, and the writing is extraordinary. Too Much Lip (UQP, 10/18) by Melissa Lucashenko is a strong, unflinching novel about homecoming and history. With trademark wit and lucidity, Lucashenko connects the lives of her sharply drawn characters to a dysfunctional national story. Enza Gandolfo’s The Bridge (Scribe, 5/18), set among working-class lives, considers the collapse of the Westgate Bridge alongside a contemporary tragedy. It’s a moving, unsentimental novel about ethical complexities. Ghachar Ghochar (Faber, 2015) is a disturbing novella by Vivek Shanbhag (translated by Srinath Perur) about an Indian family that becomes wealthy – a gem.

Fiona Wright

Axiomatic by Maria TumarkinAxiomatic by Maria TumarkinI was most excited by two ambitious and wild books of non-fiction, Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic (Brow Books, 9/18) and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and its aftermath (Granta, 8/18). Tumarkin’s book is breathtaking in its audacity, its deep empathy, and its intellectual rigour. It’s unlike anything I have ever read. The Recovering is a deeply affecting and complex blend of biography and autobiography, drawing intimate and affirming portraits of what it might mean to come back from addiction and illness. My favourite work of fiction was Ceridwen Dovey’s taut and thrilling In the Garden of the Fugitives (Hamish Hamilton, 3/18), which is about trauma and legacy and how we understand the past. It is full of images of tragic beauty.


Judith Beveridge

Her Mothers Daughter: A memoir by Nadia Wheatley]Her Mothers Daughter: A memoir by Nadia WheatleySarah Day’s eighth collection of poetry, Towards Light and Other Poems (Puncher & Wattmann, 11/18), achieves a sustained and generous weaving of lyrical intensity with moral engagement. Balanced, focused, elegantly executed, this book shows Day at her best. Simeon Kronenberg’s Distance (Pitt Street Poets), is an impressive first volume. The intimate shaping of the language and the stunning reach into the imagination in a series of historical dramatic monologues makes this book shine. On quite a different emotional register is Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets, (Giramondo). Hip, suave, pert, pinpointing, and penetrating, these poems engage with locale in most enterprising ways. Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter: A memoir (Text Publishing, 9/18) is a book to weep over for the tragic lives it skilfully explores.

Andrea Goldsmith

Sun Music: New and selected poems by Judith BeveridgeSun Music: New and selected poems by Judith BeveridgeJudith Beveridge’s Sun Music: New and selected poems (Giramondo, 9/18) is a feast. I happily indulged in the old poems, but I gorged on the new. Filled with a plethora of living things – people, insects, animals, birds – these poems are vivid, insightful, and gorgeously poetic. I am a long-time fan of the English novelist Simon Mawer. His latest, Prague Spring (Little, Brown), plunges into the heady days of 1968: the pleasures of new freedoms, the hopes that were brutally crushed, and the politics, both behind the scenes and in the streets. All that you would want from a novel. Jacqueline Kent’s 2001 biography, A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis: A literary life, has been republished by NewSouth (9/18). It’s a terrific history of the Australian book industry, with the narrative pull of a plot-driven novel. Given current trends in publishing, this is a timely and welcome book.

AK Brand ABR 600x200 12 2018

Glyn Davis

Half the Perfect WorldHalf the Perfect World: Writers, dreamers and drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964 by Paul Genoni and Tanya DalziellIn The Silence of the Girls (Hamish Hamilton, 2018), Pat Barker reworks a strand from The Iliad. Briseis is a prize for invading Greek men. Her story becomes a meditation on the fate of women in war. Barker evokes a world entire from a few lines in Homer and invites us to rethink the original. David Malouf embraces this approach in his last novel, Ransom (Penguin, 2009). In 2018 Malouf returns to his original craft, poetry, with An Open Book (UQP, 12/18). This broadly chronological reflection on language and experience gives us the familiar observer, watching endlessly for meaning, expressing his findings through direct and sparse lines. For a different reflection on artists and writing, Half the Perfect World: Writers, dreamers and drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964 (Monash University Publishing, 11/18) by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell recalls the exile of Charmian Clift and George Johnston. Newly recovered photos from James Burke, destined originally for Life, see a Greek idyll marred by jealousy, frustrated ambit-ion, and the world outside. Lovingly researched, carefully constructed, compelling.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

What the Light Reveals by Mick McCoyWhat the Light Reveals by Mick McCoyI loved Dunera Lives: A Visual History (Monash University Publishing, 9/18), by the late, lamented Ken Inglis with Seumas Spark and Jay Winter. It presents a wealth of images of and by the German, mainly Jewish, ‘Dunera Boys’ who were sent from Britain to internment here in 1940. In What the Light Reveals (Transit Lounge), a fictionalised version of the lives of Australian communists David and Bernice Morris, Mick McCoy offers an intriguing Moscow Cold War story (though I’m not sure what I think about finding myself as a character). For another remarkable, non-fiction Cold War story, read Secrets and Truths (CEU Press, 2013), American anthropologist Katherine Verdery’s account of her reactions to the huge surveillance dossier Romanian Securitate kept on her over thirty years, complete with confrontations with informers (most of her Romanian friends) and even former spymasters (who turn out rather likeable, with a methodology resembling that of anthropologists).

Marilyn Lake

The Arsonist: A mind on fire by Chloe HooperThe Arsonist: A mind on fire by Chloe HooperChloe Hooper’s writing is animated by a profoundly humanist impulse and a desire to understand what happened. Just as The Tall Man: Death and life on Palm Island (2008, 10/18) charts the destructive legacies of colonialism with attention to evidence and historical context, so The Arsonist: A mind on fire (Hamish Hamilton, 10/18) documents the tragedy of the ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires in the La Trobe Valley. Like the best historians, Hooper recognises her complex responsibilities to past and present, to her historical subjects and contemporary readers. The Arsonist is a brilliant and moving book about ecological devastation and social desolation. Samia Khatun’s account of early encounters between Indigenous and Indian peoples in the Australian interior, Australianama: The South Asian odyssey in Australia, (Hurst) is post-colonial history at its best. Opening with the discovery of a Bengali songbook in an outback mosque, Khatun’s book eschews the conventional migrant narrative in favour of a strikingly original perspective on settler colonialism and multiculturalism.

Paul Giles

Love and Lament by Margaret PlantLove and Lament by Margaret PlantThe most surprising and engaging academic book I read this year was published in December 2017: Jason R. Rudy’s Imagined Homelands: British poetry in the colonies (Johns Hopkins University Press), which describes how canonical English poets were reverentially parodied by nostalgic settlers in Australia, South Africa, and other colonies during the Victorian era. Equally impressive in a scholarly sense is Carrie Hyde’s Civic Longing: The speculative origins of U.S. citizenship (Harvard University Press), which traces the retroactive and fluctuating ways in which citizenship has been defined in the United States since the days of the Founding Fathers. And Margaret Plant’s Love and Lament: An essay on the arts in Australia in the twentieth century (Thames & Hudson, 5/18) offers an eclectic overview of how high arts intersected with low arts, one that highlights the heterodox, often highly innovative nature of Australian culture over this period.

John Hawke

A Stolen Season by Rodney HallA Stolen Season by Rodney HallFor its empathetic portrayal of the outer-suburban underclass, refugees, Aborigines, and all those excluded by mainstream nationalism, the most pertinent book for 2018 would be Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot. In a similar vein, Rodney Hall offers a convincing portrait of the political realities of contemporary Australia, where military spending has spiralled while extremes of income inequality remain unaddressed: A Stolen Season (Picador, 4/18) confronts these issues with savage candour and a virtuosic attention to style that directly recalls White’s example. Clive Faust, another octogenarian, has provided a masterfully crafted collection of his life’s work in poetry, Past Futures: Collected poems (Shearsman, 2017). Faust’s writings appear only fugitively in local publications, but they have featured in leading international imprints over many decades. This example of his exquisitely sculpted work demonstrates that success in poetry has little do with conventional notions of a literary career, but is measured by sincere and objective technique.

Susan Wyndham

Shell by Kristina OlssonShell by Kristina OlssonI fell more deeply in love with Sydney’s architectural diva while reading two complementary books. Helen Pitt’s The House: The dramatic story of the Sydney Opera House and the people who made it (Allen & Unwin) is a thoroughly researched, colourful, and often shocking narrative history. Kristina Olsson’s shimmering novel Shell (Scribner, 11/18) uses the half-built Opera House and the Vietnam War as backdrop to a human drama about love, family, commitment, and loss. Two other novels stood out. Gail Jones’s The Death of Noah Glass (Text Publishing, 4/18) wraps a richly layered family story in an art theft mystery that travels from Western Australia to Sydney and Sicily. Sally Rooney’s Normal People (Faber) is an on-again, off-again not-quite love story set in contemporary Ireland. Behind the humorously deadpan millennial voice lies astute commentary on class, sexual violence, and other pressing issues.

David McCooey

Kudos by Rachel KuskKudos by Rachel KuskThis year, Rachel Cusk’s ‘The Outline Trilogy’ came to a suitably brilliant end with Kudos (Faber, 8/18). I am, months later, still bereft at the series’ completion. Will Eaves’s Murmur (CB Editions), while not part of a trilogy, is also one of a hat-trick of superb books. Murmur, which is partly inspired by the life of Alan Turing, ambitiously and brilliantly illustrates the relationships between fiction, consciousness, and artificial intelligence. The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions) – Alison L. Strayer’s compelling translation of Annie Ernaux’s Les Années (2008) – shows why Ernaux has such a high reputation for life writing in France. Lastly, there have been an extraordinary number of terrific collections by Australian poets, but I must mention Jordie Albiston’s Warlines (Hybrid, 11/18). A collection of found poems based on the correspondence of World War I soldiers, Warlines is a masterwork of documentary poetry that is both profoundly moving and intensely crafted.

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Lisa Gorton

Click here for what we do by Pam BrownClick here for what we do by Pam BrownPam Brown’s new poetry collection, Click here for what we do (Vagabond, 8/18) is made of four long poems that, taking a walk through the everyday, assemble its weird onrush of habit, newness, news, advertising, commentary, forgetfulness, and changes in weather. They are quick, spare, alert, and companionable. It was fun to discover Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women, first printed in 1965, reissued this year with an introduction from Ali Smith (Silver Press). In this, Nell Dunn talks honestly with nine friends – writers, artists, factory workers – about work and sex and love and freedom. Black Inc. this year ended its long-running series Best Australian Poems. But, led by Jacinta Le Plastrier, Australian Poetry has been publishing an impressive, and impressively various, sequence of guest-edited journals and anthologies.

Dennis Altman

Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia by Billy GriffithsDeep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia by Billy GriffithsIs it a reflection of the times that the books that most impressed me this year are non-fiction? Understandably there has been an outpouring of books about US politics. Of those I read, Ben Rhodes’s The World as It Is: Inside the Obama White House (Bodley Head, 12/18) stands out. Rhodes was speechwriter and foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama; this book is a stark reminder of how the world has changed since Donald Trump’s election. Billy Griffiths’s Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (Black Inc., 4/18) is a wonderful account of the discovery of Australia’s Indigenous history, blending archaeology, politics, and landscape. Most powerful of all is Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (Picador, 10/18), written from the detention centre on Manus. It should be compulsory reading for every federal politician.

Mark Edele

The Long Hangover: Putin's new Russia and the ghosts of the past by Shaun WalkerThe Long Hangover: Putin's new Russia and the ghosts of the past by Shaun WalkerMy highlights of the year are all first books. Shaun Walker is a reporter with a history degree. His The Long Hangover: Putin’s new Russia and the ghosts of the past (OUP, 4/18) is the best recent book about contemporary Russia. Johannes Due Enstad’s rigorously researched Soviet Russians under Nazi Occupation: Fragile loyalties in World War II (CUP) brings a new complexity to the study of the USSR’s World War II; and Iva Glisic’s The Futurist Files: Avant-garde, politics, and ideology in Russia, 1905–1930 (Northern Illinois University Press) combines the sensibilities of the art historian with the rigour of archive-based political history. It invents a new genre: the political history of radical art. This achievement is all the more impressive, as the author is among the growing number of talented Australian scholars forced to make a living at the margins of an under-funded university sector.

Brenda Niall

The Shepherds Hut by Tim WintonThe Shepherds Hut by Tim Winton‘Human beings can be awful cruel to one another,’ remarked Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I was reminded of laconic, unshockable Huck when I read Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut (Hamish Hamilton, 3/18). Winton tells the story in the first-person voice of fifteen-year-old Jaxie, who is on the run as a suspect for the murder of his abusive father. When he finds a protector in dubious circumstances, Jaxie’s capacity to trust is tested to the limit, as is the physical strength needed to survive in a harsh West Australian landscape. A powerful, haunting story. In 2018 it was time to say goodbye to the irreplaceable William Trevor with Last Stories (Viking, 6/18). In a fictional world that is peopled with eccentrics, misfits, and failures, Trevor’s quiet comic sense and his compassion are held in a unique balance. These final stories are elegantly crafted, finely observed, and inventive as always.

Geoff Page

An Open Book by David MaloufAn Open Book by David MaloufThis has been a year of summations and farewells in Australian poetry. Four books may be mentioned, the heaviest of which is Les Murray’s new Collected Poems (Black Inc., 12/18). As you might predict, its 736 pages contain some of the best poetry written in this country. A work of comparable interest, if smaller scale, is David Malouf’s collection An Open Book, which maintains an almost airy, late-life suspension throughout. Another likely valediction is Clive James’s The River in the Sky (Picador, 11/18). It’s a phantasmagoric verse memoir, less strictly controlled than his other books produced since a life-threatening diagnosis six years ago. Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music is the summation of an exemplary Australian career. Her poems are constructed from finely described details, most of which are tapped into place with simile or metaphor. The most memorable of them involve a rejection of cruelty, whether to humans or animals.

Beejay Silcox

No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz BoochaniNo Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz BoochaniAs an undergrad – full of pith and vinegar – I dismissed Australian literature as tedious, irrelevant tosh. In my defence, I’d been introduced to Aussie writers at school with all the enthusiasm of a vaccination, a literary inoculation. Rest assured, I’ve since been proved thoroughly and delightfully wrong. 2018 has been a magnificent year for Australian letters. For me, the year’s quiet marvel was Robert Lukins’s The Everlasting Sunday (UQP, 4/18) a gorgeously restrained début, in which a house of unwanted boys must survive more than winter’s cruelties. A novel of ice, with a heart of fire. But the year’s clarion call was No Friend But the Mountains, Behrouz Boochani’s inconsolably human account of his inhuman detention on Manus Island – a plea, a poem, and a mighty indictment. As Richard Flanagan insists in his foreword: this is an Australian story, its author ‘A great Australian writer’.

John Kinsella

Aboriginal Country by Jen Jewel Brown Aboriginal Country by Jen Jewel Brown Lisa Bellear once wrote to me in an email, ‘Let’s get busy’ – a call for living life, in conjunction with action, in so many ways. Jen Jewel Brown has done an excellent job compiling much of Bellear’s uncollected poetry in the vital collection Aboriginal Country (UWAP). The emphatic, committed voice of this remarkable Goernpil woman, feminist, poet, photographer, and activist shines through. Other remarkable collections of Australian poetry this year include Kent MacCarter’s postmodern tour de force, California Sweet (Five Islands Press), Sarah Day’s striking book of seeing Towards Light and Other Poems, Philip Mead’s intensely honed and intelligent late-modernist re-engagement with the world as experienced in Zanzibar Light (Vagabond Press, 5/18), and the poised tension and verbal control of Misbah Khokhar’s prose poems in Rooftops in Karachi (Vagabond Press).

Astrid Edwards

Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives In the Garden of the Fugitives by Ceridwen DoveyIn the Garden of the Fugitives by Ceridwen Doveyis intense and provocative, an artful exploration of love and power. It is fiction to devour over the summer break. The Tall Man was always going to be a hard act to follow, but Chloe Hooper has done it with The Arsonist. Hooper creates emotion from fact and recounts the Black Saturday fires with empathy and intelligence. Rachael Brown achieved an Australian first: turning a number one true-crime podcast into a Walkley-shortlisted book. Trace: Who killed Maria James? (Scribe) is a gripping read. And finally, imagine if Harry Potter had been written with a female protagonist? Jessica Townsend has done just that with Wundersmith: The calling of Morrigan Crow (Hachette) The series is a reading gateway drug for the next generation.

Frank Bongiorno

The Battle Within: POWs in postwar AustraliaThe Battle Within: POWs in postwar Australia by Chrstina TwomeyIt has been a year dominated by history and non-fiction, even more than is usually the case for me. I enjoyed several, but two stood out. Billy Griffiths’s Deep Time Dreaming is a beautifully written account of how the archaeological profession came to learn what Indigenous people had long known: that they had lived in this country for aeons. Christina Twomey’s The Battle Within: POWs in postwar Australia (NewSouth, 8/18) manages to be quietly moving without ever descending into mawkishness. In a highly readable and superbly researched book, Twomey shows how Australian POWs in Japan moved from being an embarrassment on the periphery of Australian consciousness to finding a place near the centre of our collective memory of war.

Gregory Day

Blakwork by Alison Whittaker Blakwork by Alison Whittaker Richard Powers’ The Overstory (Norton) was my 2018 fiction highlight. I lost myself in the branches of this big book, in the ideas, the imagery, the eloquence, and the melodrama. I already think of it as a Moby-Dick of trees and, like Moby-Dick, it redeploys a bristling field of natural science for the purposes of an emotionally charged human narrative. Not to mention an environmentally urgent one. Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music: New and selected poems was also a highlight. Like Powers, Beveridge has a gift for finding ways to match the natural world in words. I also very much enjoyed Alison Whittaker’s virtuosic collection, Blakwork (Magabala). The way Gomeroi words are always bursting through the English in Blakwork feels more like the future than the past. It’s surely one of the key books in our current Aboriginal literary and linguistic renaissance.


Brenda Walker

Milkman by Anna BurnsMilkman by Anna BurnsAnna Burns’s Milkman (Faber) – winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize – is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Political idealism has rotted into lethal small-scale totalitarianism, coldly observed by a funny, sensible, and relentlessly literary eighteen-year-old girl who is sexually menaced by a senior paramilitary figure. Milkman is fabulously digressive, a brilliant survey of cruelty and coercion. Alice Nelson’s The Children’s House (Vintage, 10/18) is an exceptional Australian novel about exile, also witnessed by a young and thoughtful woman. Marina’s New York is haunted by the loss of countries – Rwanda, Israel, Ireland, El Salvador. It documents both the brutal severance and the unexpected reconfiguration of community, families, and ideals.

Anthony Lynch

White Houses by Amy BloomWhite Houses by Amy BloomIn White Houses (Granta), American novelist Amy Bloom inhabits the voice and spikey character of Depression-era journalist Lorena Hickok. Through archival research and vivid reimagining, Bloom offers a remarkable portrait of the not-so-secret love between ‘Hick’ and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Closer to home, David Sornig in Blue Lake (Scribe) also mines the archive, as well as extensive interviews and his own first-hand knowledge, to reconsider the zone west of Melbourne’s CBD that was once fertile wetland and lagoon. Imaginatively constructed and with erudite first-person guidance, this is the kind of riveting non-fiction that deserves the term ‘creative’. Poet Kevin Brophy sensitively explores another geography and body of water in Look at the Lake (Puncher and Wattmann, 9/18). Brophy spent two years at Mulan, home of the Walmajarri people in the Kimberley, and his wry, beautifully weighted poems quietly diarise an outsider’s observations of community life.

Suzy Freeman-Greene

Eggshell Skull by Bri LeeEggshell Skull by Bri LeeI read Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull (Allen & Unwin) in one furious day. This dark, sparkling memoir of a young judge’s associate tells how she gradually finds the nerve to report the man who molested her as a child. Lee’s voice is warm and surprising; her writing fizzes with energy, ideas, and great sentences. I also devoured the edition of Freeman’s literary journal (Text Publishing) that is devoted to the theme of power. Exceptional essays include Josephine Rowe’s charged account of her time as a life model, Aminatta Forna on street harassment, and Nicole Im’s exquisite meditation on suicide. The funniest book I read this year was Andrew Sean Greer’s Less (Abacus, 2017). It’s rare to laugh out loud while reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Greer’s tale of an almost washed-up novelist nudging fifty is hilarious, touching, and deceptively profound.

Tom Griffiths

Tracker by Alexis WrightTracker by Alexis WrightAlexis Wright’s Tracker (Giramondo, 1/18) offers rich and complex storytelling, a kaleidoscope of voices that illuminates the remarkable Aboriginal leader Tracker Tilmouth and advances a new model of life writing. Mark McKenna’s Quarterly Essay Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s future (Black Inc.) is a product of decades of deep thinking and a passionate and timely call for a ‘reconciled republic’. Two novels that have impressed me with their radical ecological consciousness are Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (Fourth Estate, 2017) and Richard Powers’ The Overstory. And I enjoyed the late meditations of two great writers: Ursula K. Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking about what matters (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) and Jan Morris’s In My Mind’s Eye: A thought diary (Faber).

Felicity Plunkett

Writers on Writers: Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. CoetzeeWriters on Writers: Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. CoetzeeThroughout Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water (Penguin), the pain of chains ‘someone was made to drag’ is replaced by the ache when ‘love let them be / Unclasped’. Whether her subject is the fight against chemical pollution, slaves’ liberation, or a sorrowful woman visited by angels, Smith’s poems insist on love as cure, solution, and light, as into a room ‘where the drapes / Have been swept back’. The fragmentary revelations and vivid slivers of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight (Jonathan Cape, 9/18) collect in the dim lights of memory and secrecy as his protagonist traces ‘the obscure rigging of our mother’s life’. Robin Robertson’s The Long Take (Picador) is a marvellous book-length poem mapping a young veteran’s postwar journey in an exhilarating poetics shaped by film noir and jazz. Ceridwen Dovey’s Writers on Writers: On J.M. Coetzee (Black Inc., 11/18) limns desire, abandonment, connection, reading, and writing in an exquisite, layered essay.

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Gideon Haigh

The Lost Boys by Gina PerryThe Lost Boys by Gina PerryWith the best book I read in 2018, I was catching up. Peter Pomerantsev’s travelogue of Russia under Putin, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (2014), came out in paperback last year. It covers events from 2006 and 2014, during which the London-based journalist was mostly working as a television producer for Russian entertainment television. It’s like Stasiland adapted in the style of Black Mirror, bleakly hilarious when not downright chilling. An ideal historical companion volume was Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 2017), a saga of domestic life in a Soviet apartment block before, during, and after the Terror. Gina Perry’s The Lost Boys (Scribe, 5/18), an engrossing expose of the Robbers Cave experiment, a classic study in social psychology, was also a fine historical recreation.

Judith Bishop

Rainforest by Eileen ChongRainforest by Eileen ChongWhat a strong year for poetry. I loved the resonant, perceptive lyrics in David Malouf’s An Open Book and Eileen Chong’s Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry). Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s Rondo (Carcanet) rollicks through time and space in the green fields of his joyous imagination. Here, the first Homo sapiens baby is eyed by bemused hominids, who ponder ‘Was this bod something to do with a future?’ Thirty years ago in I’m Deadly Serious (1988), Wallace-Crabbe pictured cars ‘with hearts in their mouths / as though they had something big to offer knowledge’. Yuval Noah Harari certainly does. His own epic imagination of the human journey through evolutionary time ended on a note of high alarm in Homo Deus (Vintage, 2017). His latest, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Cape), brings his winged vision to subjects ranging from fake news to freedom to humanity’s uncertain future.

James Ley

Trigger Warnings by Jeff SparrowTrigger Warnings by Jeff SparrowFrom the avalanche of books trying to make sense of our present moment, I would like to single out two for special mention: Jeff Sparrow’s Trigger Warnings: Political correctness and the rise of the Right (Scribe) and Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (Pantheon). Sparrow’s book is a provocative reading of the culture wars that develops a distinction between ‘direct’ and ‘delegated’ politics. Jacoby’s book takes a longer historical view: it attempts to trace the irrationality of contemporary US culture back to its origins. Along the way, Jacoby develops a stimulating and wide-ranging thesis about why certain forms of unreason should have found such rich soil in the secular democratic republic of the United States. I would also recommend the latest novel by Richard Powers. The Overstory, written with characteristic intelligence, is a rich and satisfying novel that addresses the environmental catastrophe we are creating and challenges us to rethink our place within the natural world.

Kerryn Goldsworthy

Less by Sean GreerLess by Sean GreerPhillipa McGuinness’s The Year Everything Changed: 2001 (Vintage, 6/18) is full of exploding memory-bombs for those who were paying attention to the news back then. McGuinness takes that watershed year and interrogates the tripes out of it, her lively intellect playing across the 2001 news calendar like a beam of light. It also reflects the way we all live, with one eye on current affairs and the other on our own intimate and daily experience. At first, the reader may wonder why Andrew Sean Greer’s novel Less won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. While it’s witty and warm and full of delightful characters, it seems a little lightweight. But it gathers heft as it goes, with its tale of a lonely gay novelist looking down the double barrels of his fiftieth birthday and his ex-lover’s approaching wedding.

Clare Corbould

An American Marriage by Tayari JonesAn American Marriage by Tayari JonesThe most important book I read this year was Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains. Part philosophy, part reportage, part memoir, Boochani’s account of Manus Island lingers in the mind. That it was composed by SMS and WhatsApp messages makes the book, and its author, all the more impressive. Recent policy changes in Canberra suggest the book has even had its intended impact. In the long term, it should also find a lasting place in the canon of prison literature. Novelist Tayari Jones probes the effects of the carceral state on intimate relationships in An American Marriage (Vintage). It’s a stunning portrait of the pressures under which even middle-class African Americans live.

Geordie Williamson

Collected Poems by Les MurrayCollected Poems by Les MurrayThere was no competition. Les Murray’s Collected Poems squats on my desk like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a handsome volume and a substantial one whose contents are by turns grotesque, elegant, abstruse, innovative in form, conservative in spirit, and often achingly felt. Murray is a difficult poet in many respects, but this grand summa demands awe and admiration. Barry Hill’s Reason and Lovelessness: Essays, encounters, reviews 1980–2017 (Monash University Publishing, 5/18), is a compendium of life-work by another commanding figure in Australian literary culture. It reveals the sheer range of Hill’s passions and concerns over time, and it reminds us of the commitment, curiosity, and care he has brought to bear upon each of them. No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani may or may not be the best book of the year; it is certainly the most important.

Morag Fraser

No Place like Home: Repairing Australia's housing crisis by Peter MaresNo Place like Home: Repairing Australia's housing crisis by Peter MaresPeter Mares has been pricking Australian consciences in his informed, dispassionate way for decades. No Place Like Home: Repairing Australia’s housing crisis (Text Publishing) is yet another instance of his salutary ability to take a highly politicised issue, examine its details, and provide both a lucid and ethical response and a context that informs, rather than inflames, his general audience – journalism at its very best. Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut is a tour de force. Winton is one of the few writers I know who could carry off such a sustained vernacular performance. The voice of Jaxie Clackton is utterly authentic (sounds like the Tim Winton I heard twenty-five years ago), and his helter-skelter Bildungsroman is searing and morally confronting. Unforgettable fiction for exactly this moment.

Susan Sheridan

The Death of Noah Glass by Gail JonesThe Death of Noah Glass by Gail JonesAmong this year’s Australian publications, Gail Jones’s mesmerising prose and intricate structuring made The Death of Noah Glass my top novel-reading experience. Also from Text, Nadia Wheatley’s memoir Her Mother’s Daughter: A memoir moved me deeply, recounting the life of a strong woman who found the constraints of domestic life in the postwar years unbearable. To complete a trio of genres, I choose David Malouf’s poetry collection An Open Book. UQP has made a beautiful book to house poems of limpid grace and wise insight.

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    To celebrate the best books of 2018, Australian Book Review invited nearly forty contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors include Michelle de Kretser

‘You’ve seen the hands of statues that men have set by gateways.’


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  • Custom Article Title 'Landscape with Magic Lantern Slides' by Lisa Gorton
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    ‘You’ve seen the hands of statues that men have set by gateways.’


– if that indeed can be called composition –
wrote Coleridge –
in which the images rose up before him as things –

‘In the summer of the year – the Author, then in ill health, had
retired to a lonely farmhouse – ’
where, seated in his illeism by a window, the Author passed
into the background of his imagery –
                                           woods, clouds hanging over the sea
                                           in deeps of glass – ‘sole eye of all that world’, or
                                           vanishing point it
                                           floods back through – ‘huge fragments vaulted’ –

‘You must know that it is the greatest palace that ever was’ –
                                                                                                its rooms like clouds
following one another in an order hard to memorise –         ‘all gilt & painted
with figures of men & beasts & birds’ –                               its hall of statues –
                                                                         stopped machines –
leading away and back into that first astonishment –            its green smell
                                                                                   like the cry of a bird

A city at first light, long-shadowed streets –
An open plain of rubbish behind rails –
A sky afloat inside its landscape – clouds in the river,
wind in the dry mouths of the grass –
                                                                                               beating images
                                                                                               from their dark wings
quick shadows brightening –

‘So twice five miles’ – ‘So twice six miles of fertile ground
with Walls and Towers were compass’d round’ – ‘were girdled’ –

‘In Xamdu did Cublai Can’
ride out on his white horse
with a jaguar on its pommel, loosed
to hunt the animals stored
in the wide cage of his pleasure –
‘a stag, or goat, or fallow deer’ –
carcasses for his gyrfalcons in their mews –

A is for Alph – sacred river of
converging perspectival lines –
Momently it rises – momently
sinks back – into that lifeless ocean
the letter’s two struts stand
afloat on, raising its tower again –
– A woman crying in her wilderness
– A woman singing
– A ‘palace so devised that it can be taken down
and put up again
wheresoever the Emperor may command – ’

From far off, the Emperor hears his dead
in panoply of ice
speaking war through their long smiles –

‘And now once more / The pool becomes a mirror’ –

His poem is a mirror made of metal –
its one face the engraving of a landscape –
the other, polished to brightness,
keeps taking things into itself
and letting them go – A palace of images
that the Emperor walks about in –
its dome of air, its caves of ice,
in the flashing eye of a mirror, his floating hair –

‘The author continued about three hours in his chair’ –

The Author walked in
through the iron gate of its palace – Only
his shadow moved among the shadows –
He was in its hall of statues
when a sound of rain
opened like a door into that room where he slept as a child
and all night it rained, all night dark
poured onto its glass like rain –

‘Irrecoverable – ’ meaning, it couldn’t be finished –
Circumstantial as a preface, things rising up
out of their images before him –
                                            or ‘sunless sea’ –
Midway, the shadow floats – long-dead Emperor
with a voice of water, looking out
from mirrors with a face of false calm –

The Author watched his Person of Business
walking in from Porlock
among deep fields of grass – His hat like a stone
skimmed the tips of the seedheads, late-
summer pale, scattering
from the wind like light on water – and
elderflowers, poppies, speedwell, hyacinths –
                                     ‘I have annexed a fragment – ’

Lisa Gorton

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                                       – is made of windows
side by side and repeating the way two mirrors
face to face cut halls of light
back through their emptiness – Its façade,
like that version of desire which
feeds on absence, endlessly draws in sky –
Clouds sunk in glass advance
across its fret of cast-iron columns, incorporating it
in pale brightness till at its edge
they pour off vanishing – An hallucination
industry caught up with – plate-glass set
facet by facet into its vault of light –

‘It is, above everything, the science
of beauty’, wrote Mr Paxton, copying out in
upright iron the radiating rib and
cross-rib growth-pattern of veins
underpinning the leaf of that astonishing water lily
original to the bays and still waters
of the Amazon and its tributaries –
a leaf and flower of which, preserved in spirits,
John Company’s unworldly botanist Mr Spruce,
under contract to steal the means
of producing quinine – six-hundred plants,
a hundred-thousand seeds of the Chincona forests
of Western Chimborazo – sent back, remarking
how its leaf, ‘turned up, suggests some strange
fabric of cast iron’ – brought to flower at last
in an alien season inside a glass-house
replicating in large the infrastructure of its veins –
They named it Victoria Regia, whose ‘dearly beloved consort’
commanded this inventory of an Empire
or hoard of wreckage closed in glass –

Uncovered ground, bare-iron pillars,
a confused pile of scaffoldings – At its centre
the skeleton of its great transept arch –
then columns, then girders spanned across
its naked distances and hanging bays of glass
inventing aisles with staircases
to second-storey galleries inclosing even
its elms, as still as reproductions,
and sparrows nesting in their leaves –
Its crystal fountain is glass and elaborates itself
up through complications of fluted column
and lily-flower-shaped cup to where water
pours back from the idea of water –
Mr Paxton thought to set the floorboards
an half-inch apart so the women’s skirts
could sweep the floor clean as they passed –

Overhead clouds, like images
in the mind of a reader, replace themselves
time and again against its glass –
A steam engine dragged in by sixteen horses,
a column of coal from Newcastle,
sixteen-tonne weight, the crane that raised
the suspension bridge at Bangor, the iron ore
and the Sheffield blades, the elephant’s tusk
and Indian carvings in ivory, classic marbles of Paros
and Hiram Power’s Greek Slave, the cotton mills
and cloths of finest texture, tail of a wolf
and soft fine fur of the badger, plumes
of the ostrich and raiments of the camel’s hair,
antique silks as heavy as armour, armour
of close-worked chain, a battle-axe finely
inlaid with silver, Winchester’s patented revolving
turret rifles, an ormolu clock that runs for a year,
the Koh-i-noor or ‘mountain of light’
inside an iron cage, and Bontem’s prize-winning
automaton humming-birds that in their glass-
shades flit from branch to branch, opening
their wings and beaks of gold, and sing –

The Iron Duke had his answer to the question of the nesting sparrows.
                                                         ‘Sparrow-hawks, Ma’am.’

Lisa Gorton

This poems ‘The Crystal Palace’ and ‘Mirror, Palace’ include phrases and descriptions from John Tallis, Tallis’s History and Description of the Crystal Palace and the Exhibition of the World’s Industry in 1851 illustrated with beautiful Steel Engravings from Original Drawings and Daguerreotypes by Beard, Myall, etc. etc. (John Tallis and Co., New York and London); from John Fisk Allen, Victoria Regia, or the Great Water Lily of America with a Brief Account of its Discovery and Introduction into Cultivation: with Illustrations by William Sharp from Specimens Grown at Salem, Massachusetts, U.S.A (Dutton and Wentworth, 1854); from Leigh Hunt’s Journal: A Miscellany for the Cultivation of the Memorable, the Progressive and the Beautiful, No 1. December 7, 1850 (no 17, March 29, 1851); from the Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, translated and edited by Col. Sir Henry Yule (London: John Murray, 1903); and phrases adapted from the Ivory Tablets of the Crow in the Art of the Ninzuwu (online); as well as from Coleridge’s Kubla Khan; Or, A Vision in a Dream, A Fragment.

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Stone eidolon at the end of a walled-in colonnade –
               She was born from the sea, light
               off the foam of the sea –

               [Alex]andros son of [M]enides
               citizen of [Ant]ioch at Meander
               made [this] –
Her body rises over the crowd – She looks aside
as though at something about to happen –
               Stone in the flesh, her blank eyes
               invent distances – Stone comb marks in her hair –
               Her hair, unloosed,
               enters into the heraldry of women’s gestures –
Under her right breast a hole
where the metal strut held up her arm –
               In her left hand she held an apple –

Light sinks an inch deep into Parian marble –
The sculptor of marble is a sculptor of shadows –
               Nude upper body and base of drapery –
two blocks of Parian marble joined under its first fold –
               Drapery falls from her thighs
               like folds in water –
               like dense-packed snow
the quarry on Paros where slaves cut blocks out of the mountain,
dragged them on a road lined with marble down to the ships –

A farmer found the torso buried in a wall –
               A wall of cut stone
               floored with rubble,
the torso lying on its side half-sunk in dirt –
               The robes she dressed in to seduce Anchises
               outshone fire – shining necklaces on her soft throat,
               golden earrings in the shape of flowers –
Her arms are buried under the landslide –
               Where her arms are broken the surface is like torn paper –
A path steep downhill clutching at branches, grey-green olive trees,
grey leaves whitening from the whipped-back branch –
A soldier paid the man to keep on digging –
               They stood her in a field –
Stone heaps and broken columns, salt-pale grass –

They broke her arms off when they dragged her out –
               In her left hand she held a mirror –
They smashed her earlobes to get the earrings off –
The ambassador arrived to find men loading her onto a ship –
               The marble is scratched
               where they dragged her over the rocks –
They have searched the sea there for her broken arms –
The dragoman had the men whipped
who sold her to the ambassador – After the war broke out
the dragoman’s body hanging three days in the street –
The ambassador gave the statue to his king –

Her arms lie in a heap of broken marble in a warehouse,
hands holding out the things that tell her name –
               The mirror she holds is a polished shield –
               On the side she turns towards us, painted gold,
               a warrior runs from the burning city,
               his father clinging to his back, son crying behind –
               the sky, though made of gold, looks dark with smoke –
               The statue looks into its other side
in which there is not one thing more real than another –
rank after rank of light between the mirror and its eyes –

Lisa Gorton

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  • Custom Article Title 'Aphrodite of Milos' by Lisa Gorton
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Storm water piped under the cutting comes out here,
unfolding down under the surface of itself, bluish oil-haze
clotted with seeds and insects – where down the gully
dank onion weed tracks the secret paths of water – Late winter,
black cockatoos scrap and cry in the Monterey pines
which bank the gully’s side – The water flows to a standing pool
out the back of the CSL where a metal trap stops leaf-litter and bottles
and the massed reeds are that washed-out grey
which shines at dusk – From the wetlands water is pumped
up to the golf course or sometimes floods the creek, now a concrete drain
beside the motorway into the city – Across the gully
the factory generator begins itself repeatedly – Behind the cyclone fencing
its rooves stack the horizon – Smoke from its furnaces, widening out
through shadow like scratching on a lens glass, is suddenly there,
lit coils across the brick wall of the factory, blank updraft swarming
in and out of light that whitening shiver out the back
of magic lantern slides, invented depths giving its close scenes place –
The rain is first a screen that folds in on itself its
infinity of repetitions, nerve-end flares, and then the leafless furze,
its each thorn strung with unrefracted rain, is the infrastructure of a cloud
stopped on the gully’s side and at each step vacancy
scatters out of the pale tops of the grasses, untellable, singular, immune –

Lisa Gorton

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