Cassandra Atherton

Prose Poetry: An introduction by Paul Hetherington and Cassandra Atherton

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May 2021, no. 431

It speaks volumes that almost a century and a half after Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen announced the modern prose poem, James Longenbach influentially defined poetry as ‘the sound of language organized in lines’. An otherness, bordering on illegitimacy, pervades what Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington argue is ‘the most important new poetic form to emerge in English-language poetry since the advent of free verse’. The book vindicates this claim. No less compelling, however, is the way the prose poem, long defined in negative terms, here becomes the whetstone over which old assumptions – about the prosaic, the poetic, and the daylight between the two – are run to a fresh sharpness.

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‘Shall I scrub your back for you?” the monkey asked ... He had the clear, alluring voice of a doo-wop baritone. Not at all what you would expect.’ The eight short stories in First Person Singular are exactly what a reader has come to expect from Haruki Murakami, a writer with a penchant for neo-surrealism. The parabolic tales in this collection explore the familiar tropes and motifs of his oeuvre, including loneliness, outsiderness, chance encounters, music (classical, jazz and the Beatles), and memories. While Murakami might not be breaking new ground here, it is still a magical experience to return to his whimsical, eccentric, and enigmatic reimagining of Japan.

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A series of beautifully controlled fictional voices and an exquisite sense of literary craft contribute to the dark magnificence of Chloe Wilson’s début collection of short stories, Hold Your Fire. This volume explores the strange and sometimes surprising abject horror that characterises the quotidian and the ordinary. The stories both examine and revel in the classically Kristevan abject realities of the body’s expulsions and the disgust that is often characteristic of social marginality. For example, the ‘poo phantom’ writes a ‘message in shit on the walls’; tampons wrapped in toilet paper are described as ‘bodies that needed to be shrouded for burial’; a character feels a ‘quiver down to the bowels, the rush that is equal parts excitement and dread’; another tries ‘to pass a kidney stone’; and two sisters try an ‘Expulsion Cure’, where the doctor asks how much they expel: ‘And how often? And what is the colour? The texture? … When you eat something – poppy seeds, say, or the skin on a plum – how long does it take to reappear?’

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The Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry edited by Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington

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December 2020, no. 427

What is it about English language poetry that has proved so resistant to the lure of the prose poem? The French, it appears, held no such qualms, finding themselves besotted with the form ever since Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire began dispensing with line breaks and stanzas. Of course, the very existence of English-language works like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) or William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell (1920) could be used to argue otherwise, but such endeavours were considered too eccentric at the time to impart a lasting legacy. Perhaps if T.S. Eliot, whose antipathy towards the prose poem is well known, had given us a major cycle along the lines of Saint-John Perse’s Anabasis (1924), a work he admired and translated, things might have turned out differently.

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Belated recognition of Australian prose poetry

by Paul Hetherington and Cassandra Atherton
October 2020, no. 425

Until recently, Australian prose poetry hasn’t attracted much attention – we’re not sure why. Having written prose poetry for years, we’re both fascinated by the form, which can be loosely defined as poems written in paragraphs and sentences rather than in stanzas and lines.

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In his description of the verse novel as ‘the awkward child of successful parents, destined to disappoint both of them’, Michael Symmons Roberts emphasises the form’s sometimes disjunctive use of literary techniques commonly associated with poetry and prose fiction. While the verse novel has gained popularity since the 1980s, many of its features may be traced to epic poems such The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s The Iliad, and the long narrative poems of the Romantic and Victorian periods. The form was established by Alexander Pushkin’s nineteenth-century verse novel Eugene Onegin, which was divided into stanzas; however, the definition and key features of the verse novel are still hotly debated.

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The Hypermarket by Gabriel García Ochoa

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April 2020, no. 420

The Hypermarket, an enigmatic and deeply uncanny novel, explores ‘mistranslation’ against the backdrop of Nietzsche’s philosophy of Eternal Return. Gabriel García Ochoa’s début novel transforms the Houghton Library at Harvard University into a Borgesian space. As the narrator is undertaking his research, he comes across an excerpt from a letter copied into an old diary. It details the lives of people living in a supernatural Hypermarket, ‘where the linoleum floor gives way to moss and a young, tender turf’. In a highly significant moment, the narrator rips out the pages and stores them in volume six of The Arabian Nights.

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Lucky Ticket is a brave and haunting début collection of short stories by Vietnamese-Australian writer Joey Bui. In erudite stories of the displaced and dislocated, Bui’s characters are glistering survivors. Many of their voices ring out against the bleak political backdrop of Saigon, making the reader aware of the tyrannical government control and the lack of basic civil and political rights. Bui’s memorable characters are a testament to the deft way she crafts dialogue and to the interviews she undertook with a range of Vietnamese people from refugee backgrounds to better understand the intricacies of their existence.

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Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

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October 2018, no. 405

There is a running joke in Japan that autumn doesn’t start each year until Haruki Murakami has lost the Nobel Prize for Literature. Most recently, in 2017, he lost to Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Japan but is now a British citizen. To date, two Japanese writers have been awarded the prize ...

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Invoking the Rubik’s Cube – a puzzle where twenty-six ‘cubelets’ rotate around a core crosspiece – Rubik is less a novel and more a book of interconnected short stories exploring narcissism, neoliberalism, and consumerism. At the book’s core is Elena Rubik, who dies in the first chapter with a Homestyle Country Pie in ...

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