Commentary

A few years ago I found myself grouped with some other poets and given a label: ‘Generation of ‘68’. Like most tags it became after a while more a source of irritation than anything else. The description had been given by John Tranter to the inmates of his 1979 anthology, The New Australian Poetry, but before long had become a term of collective abuse as such labels tend to. One of the identified failings of this group of writers was their propensity for ‘game-playing’. So when Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray included poems by one of the ‘sixty-eighters’ in their anthology, The Younger Australian Poets, they prefaced Tranter’s pieces saying they had chosen things which, unlike most of his work, were not purely ‘language-game’ poems.

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In the allegory of the cave, Plato hypothesised the birth of the philosopher as one who emerged from the darkness of illusion into the light of truth. In the dark days of the Covid-19 pandemic, philosophers are finding a platform, mostly in the press, indicative perhaps that we need an interpretation of what is happening around us beyond that offered by the media and daily conferences. As with Plato’s philosopher, what they have brought back is not necessarily what we wanted to hear, and some have been threatened with pariah-like status for views that sometimes run counter to the prescribed consensus. This was certainly the case with Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

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Because my background is academic (and in English studies), certain disciplinary conventions still find their way into my review writing. In fact, it’s hard for me to think of my reviewing as reviewing rather than as criticism in that more university-bound sense: that is, as having something to do with the art of interpretation. It may help that most of the books I review – works of contemporary poetry and literary criticism – are considered ‘hard’ or at least esoteric, and thus in need of a little explaining. The persona I hear most recognisably in my journalistic prose is that of my former lecturer-self (a good lecture, like a good review, strikes the right balance between granular analysis and makeshift generalisation). I suppose I still think of the primary goal of my reviewing as teaching something about how to read.

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In early September, the High Court of Australia handed down its decision in Fairfax Media Publications v Voller. The case attracted significant public attention in Australia due to the high profile of the plaintiff. It also attracted not only national but international attention, due to the nature of the central issue: are media outlets liable for the comments posted on their public Facebook pages by third parties?

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Surely it wasn’t meant to be like this. In early September, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was set to attend a lavish ceremony in Washington to mark the seventieth anniversary of the signing of the ANZUS Treaty. On the same trip, he was due to sit down in person for the first time with his US, Indian, and Japanese counterparts, fellow members of the ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’, or ‘Quad’, a gathering primed to be a regional counterweight to China.

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‘We’ve given Ayers Rock back to the Aborigines!’ Perhaps I remember those words so clearly because a friend spoke them to me over the telephone when I was in England, surprised almost daily at the reforms of the Whitlam government and at the international interest they excited. Years later I reflected on the meaning of that ‘we’. Had he said the same words to an English person, the meaning of it would have been different. Addressed to me, that ‘we’ wasn’t so much a classification that included or excluded me: it was an invitation to be part of a community whose identity was partly formed by its relation to Australia and its past and by its preparedness to accept responsibilities for what head been done to the Aborigines – at that time (before we knew about the stolen children), the taking of their lands and desecration of their sacred places. Had I thought about it, that would partly have answered the question I did ask him. ‘What does giving it back mean?’ He couldn’t say. In fact no one I asked could. No one was interested. Everyone was heartened by the generosity expressed in the gesture and enthusiastic in their hopes for a new era.

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The real estate agent told me not to bother cleaning the house. All the serious buyers would be developers, he said: they’d only knock it down. They’d cut down the row of feijoas and the Japanese maple and build all the way to the fence on three sides. And they’d go up, of course, to take advantage of the views. A corner block on the highest hill in the inner east? Tell your dad he’s laughing.

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In her 1976 essay ‘The Space Crone’, Ursula K. Le Guin imagines the highly advanced aliens of Altair landing on Earth. Politely, they seek a human being to accompany them on their long journey home so that they may ‘learn from an exemplary person the nature of the race’. As a palliative care doctor, I often ponder what constitutes an exemplary life, so my choice of Space Crone may not be a conventional one.

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I receive my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in May, in the small town of Meaux, mostly notable for producing a luxurious variety of brie. I travel forty minutes from Paris by regional train, watching the city become the banlieue and the banlieue become the countryside, speeding towards something that for five months had felt like an impossibility. Friends in Europe had flown to New York and Kentucky to get their shots while France fumbled its way through the first months of its vaccination campaign. It would probably be quicker for me to fly back to Australia, go through hotel quarantine and get vaccinated there, I thought at the start of the year. I was very wrong.

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In the conference room the conversation is, like the clothes, ‘business casual’. For my benefit, everyone has switched from Arabic to English. Despite the linguistic shift, my new colleagues converse as fluently as before. I have arrived in Eastern Turkey with an aid organisation to support the humanitarian response in north-west Syria.

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