University of Queensland Press

The Sydney poet Bruce Beaver died in February 2004 after a long struggle with kidney failure that kept him on dialysis for more than a decade. He was seventy-six years old. Beaver was seen as a sympathetic older figure by many poets of my generation, born a dozen years later. I met him when I was in my twenties, and found him to be a generous friend. When the poet Michael Dransfield, younger still, called on him in the early 1970s, it was a natural meeting of minds. In one poem in The Long Game and Other Poems, Beaver says that ‘poor Dransfield draped / me with a necklet of dandelions / once and kissed my forehead / in what must have been / a satirical salute’. I have a feeling that the salute was heartfelt, but Bruce was painfully modest.

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There is burgeoning interest in the history of psychiatric institutions and services in Australia. Catharine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon’s ‘Madness’ in Australia now sits alongside Stephen Garton’s Medicine and Madness (1998), Milton Lewis’s Managing Madness (1988) and numerous articles on the subject that have been published in recent years in local journals of medicine and psychiatry. Perhaps this interest represents the desire to record for posterity the role of the asylum and older-style treatments in the care of the mentally ill in the wake of new, cutting-edge national mental health policies and agendas. Possibly, the fascination represents an unconscious, necessarily forlorn attempt to undo, through revisiting, some of the abuses of psychiatric methods in the past. Whatever the reason, one of the problems faced by a slim tome such as this is that mental health services in Australia, since their inception, have been characterised by an extraordinary level of complexity and diversity. To capture their essence in a small, multi-author volume, and to provide a coherent, integrated synopsis, as the editors might have hoped, is probably not achievable. If, however, we are to view ‘Madness’ in Australia with less aspiration – as a collection of essays devoted to different, often novel, aspects of asylums and institutions – then it becomes an absorbing and welcome addition to the literature and furthers our understanding of these grand edifices.

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Rain May and Captain Daniel by Catherine Bateson & Too Flash by Melissa Lucashenko

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April 2003, no. 250

In the list of life’s most stressful events, family breakups and moving home are way up there in the top ten, and one often follows the other, compounding the trauma. This is the situation for eleven-year-old Rain in Catherine Bateson’s Rain May and Captain Daniel, when her mother, Maggie, sells their inner-city house in the aftermath of divorce. They head for the country to turn Grandma’s deceased estate into a dream home. Maggie’s hopes are higher than her daughter’s: she foresees serenity, harmony, and self-sufficiency; Rain expects ‘Boringsville’.

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Mangroves by Laurie Duggan

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April 2003, no. 250

Poems are like mangroves. They lodge and grow in the mind, becoming part of us, just as these plants take root in estuarine silt. Even on the page, there is sometimes a resemblance. As its title suggests, Laurie Duggan’s first volume since New and Selected Poems (1996) is substantially a product of his recent move to Brisbane, containing a large section of poems coloured by references to the city’s subtropical conditions. However, Mangroves also brings together varied material that dates from 1988 to 1994, some of which – notably the ‘Blue Hills’ sequences – has been published elsewhere.

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W.H. Auden, following Samuel Butler, thought that ‘the true test of imagination is the ability to name a cat’, and plenty of people, poets, and others have believed this: to recast a dictum of Christ’s, if you can’t be trusted with the cats, why should we trust you with the tigers? Gwen Harwood could be trusted with the cats, and with yet more domestic things; here, for example, is her fairly late poem ‘Cups’

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Bearded Ladies/Dreamhouse by Kate Grenville & Joan Makes History by Kate Grenville

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December 2002-January 2003, no. 247

Being out of print is like moving back in with your parents – it’s not usually a sign that things are on the up. But fortune’s wheel turns with scant regard for merit or effort, so it must be a relief for writers when their publishers decide to ‘celebrate their continuing contribution to Australian literature’ with a re-release of their back catalogue.

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To the Islands by Randolph Stow & Tourmaline by Randolph Stow

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December 2002-January 2003, no. 247

Before the age of thirty, Randolph Stow had published five novels and a prize-winning collection of poetry. In Australia, only Kenneth Mackenzie, another Sandgroper, had made a similar youthful impact. Mackenzie’s first book, The Young Desire It, was published in 1937, though I believe drafted some time before that. Stow’s The Haunted Land (1956) was written when he was only seventeen. When another precocious young Western Australian, Tim Winton, published his first novel, he was painfully conscious of these precursors. This was crucial for Winton, because both Mackenzie and Stow were to have troubled creative lives: Mackenzie died relatively young, his later novels disadvantaged by the youthful brilliance of his first. Randolph Stow, after his three initial successes, has published only five further novels, two collections of poems and a book for children. It has been a career with long silences.

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You might expect a book of eighty-eight new poems by Les Murray to be sizeable (most of his recent single volumes run to about sixty poems each). But Poems the Size of Photographs is literally a small book, composed of short poems (‘though some are longer’, says the back cover) ...

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These four titles are reissues of well-known texts, or of the work of well-known writers, from four different publishers. A good sign perhaps, very welcome at a time when publishing seems ever more ephemeral and when many works, even from the recent past, are unavailable.

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From a small island, messages in a bottle floating out to sea. That was Gwen Harwood’s image for the poems she sent out during her early years in Tasmania, long before she had due recognition. Her letters, by contrast, knew their destination; they were treasured for decades by her friends, and they now make up the remarkable collection A Steady Storm of Correspondence ... ... (read more)