Archive | November, 2011

POETRY REVIEW. Scarp 23 October 1993. Craig Powell, Gary Catalano, Jill Jones and Martin Harrison.

22 Nov


Minga Street: New and Selected Poems, Craig Powell. Hale & Iremonger 1993.

Selected Poems: 1973-1992, Gary Catalano UQP. 1993.

Flagging Down Time, Jill Jones, Five Islands Press 1993.

The Distribution of Voice, Martin Harrison, UQP 1993.

(As these books are out of print I have provide links back to the Australia Poetry Library were the books reviewed are now online).

In the closing scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are battling the forces of evil on top of the Mount Rushmore monument. Saint falls and Grant scrambles down to save her. He is holding her with one hand while the other hand grips the cliff top. Just as the bad guy is about to crush Grant’s fingers under his boot, a shot rings out the bad guy falls dead. The camera then zooms onto Grant’s arm as he strains to pull Saint to safety. As the camera tracks back the scene has suddenly changed to the interior of a railway sleeping car. Rather than pulling Saint to safety, Grant is helping her up to the top bunk. Suddenly the scene changes again and we see the last shot of the film which shows an express train plunging into a tunnel.

Such symbolism, while very obvious and heavy handed, works because Hitchcock had his tongue very firmly in his check. In Craig Powell’s poetry very similar symbolism appears again and again, but there is no undercurrent of humour to relieve the ever thickening emotions. In fact the very image of a train plunging into a tunnel appears in one of the newer poems in Minga Street: New and Selected Poems, a volume which combines a number of new poems with a selection from his previous four collections of poetry:

miners or fetlers

With calcium grins and sooty jowls

A child knows they are cheering for him

Coalcliff now the deepest tunnel starts

And, just in case the symbolism of the tunnel escapes you, the poem concludes

And a cello sings in his throat

Of the shadow immense womb of rock

Where he sleeps with his eyes white and wide

‘In the Presence of Paul Tortielier’

Powell’s professional background as a psychoanalyst has obviously been one of the major influences on his writing. In ‘Visitors’, another recent poem, he writes of the fragile nature of a family’s perceived history:

whose mother’s lover fumbled at her at nine?

She is easily wiped out you being her only

witness and I don’t always want to hear you

And your mother’s friend plucks another scone and simpers

‘You must be very proud of your mother’

You smile you ask politely ‘How long have you known her?’


Throughout his work Powell continually attempts to break through the mental barriers to explore what David Brooks has called ‘the psychic depths’. Unfortunately, far too often, these depths are populated by the overused imagery of Freudian psychology. This is not to say that Powell has not written some very fine poetry. Rereading some of the Canadian poems which were written during the mid to late seventies, I was impressed by the intense lyricism of the best of Powell’s poetry. In ‘Canada Geese’, for example, Powell uses the image of geese flying south to suggest absence and renewal:

Some evening      when we are

Unaware      they will beat southward

invisible by the windy

stars      and frost will affect

our teeth

‘Canada Geese’

As a record of Powell’s work over the last twenty-five years Minga Street is, in the final instance, a frustrating collection. I was continually drawn towards Powell’s gentle lyricism which creates some memorable images. At the same time I found it difficult to accept the overuse of psychoanalytic imagery where, for example, old mens bodies “glimmer with the sperm/of sorrows” (‘Spoken to Women’), and where

the pure horses           half-sleeping rise

from the earth           so high

and so quiet           their eyes gentle

upon us            searching towards

a distance emptied of images

where they sway our seed in their thighs

‘in Spruce Woods’

or where trees are:

like women

sheathed in bark to their navels but

their eyes and breasts fervent and lovely

‘Lessons at Collaroy Plateau’

Gary Catalano’s Selected Poems 1972-1992, like Powell’s collection, also contains some previously uncollected poems. But while Powell delights in a poetry dense with imagery, Catalano, for the most part, is a far more subtle poet. At times, particularly in his early work, the simplicity of his imagery suggest the influence of haiku, Poems such as ‘Tree’, ‘The Blizzard’, ‘Against the Thunder’ and ‘The Exploration of a Continent’ from the 1973 collection ‘Remembering the Rural Life’, are short, simple poems whose impact is much greater than one would expect at first glance:

A horse

Shaking the dust

From his coat


Noon heat.

In the clear

blue sky

no cloud to

expunge our defeat.

‘The Exploration of a Continent’

Complementing these short poems in the selection from his from his earliest work is a long poem ‘Remembering the Rural Life’. In this impressive poem Catalano recreates the landscape of his youth, a landscape lost to him both by time and the spread of suburbia. In the Parramatta of the late fifties and early sixties Catalano draws together the threads of his background – his family’s Italian heritage, his adolescent bravado and the growing conflict between a father’s vision of his son’s future and the son’s interest in art and poetry. The strength of the this poem is that it avoids slipping into sentimentality; instead Catalano has utilised an economy of image which is apparent in his shorter poems to create a narrative about memory and growth which effectively sets the tone for much of the other work in the collection.

Catalano is one of the few Australian poets to work extensively with the prose poem. Selected Poems brings together a handful of prose poems from Heaven of Rags (1982) ( and a selection from his book of prose poems Fresh Linen (1988) ( Catalano’s style is ideally suited to the prose poem as he is easily able to avoid the poetry being subsumed by the structure of the prose. In one of his best prose poems ‘At the Source’, Catalano uses water flowing from the source of a creek to the ocean as a metaphor for speech:

It is here that we find our clearest

image of speech. They taste so clean,

these syllables of the dark, and they

make us realise that all our words

should be pitched at a whisper.

But, once speech, “these shy waters’ flow into the ocean, their nature changes:

Here it bends

itself on the ear like a sheet of fresh,

unscored linen…and here it offers an

escape from the inchoate music of

the world.

‘At the Source’

There are also a number of prose poems among his new work including the very brief poem ‘Silver and Gold’ which once again highlights the beautiful simplicity which Catalano can achieve at his best:

The waves look like silver-foil. But

when they break on the shore, I hear

the sound of a hand sifting through a

bag of grain.

‘Silver and Gold’

While Jill Jones has not yet reached that point in her career which would justify the publication of a volume of selected poems, at her current rate of production she could very soon reach the milestone which Powell and Catalano have just achieved. In fact, the success of her first book, The Mask and the Jagged Star (1992) has ensured that her second collection, Flagging Down Time, will attract more than its share of critical attention.

As the title would suggest, Jones’ book is concerned with the concepts of time and change. For Jones, time represents the potential for both growth and decay, and among the images that recur throughout the book is that of the garden. Grass seeds in the desert, for example, lie dormant until rain falls:

She’s like plants at ground level

surviving as seeds through dry periods –

tough outside while inside

she’ll grow the grasslands of dreams.

This poem concludes with one of the most striking images in the book:

that road where past and future meet

only at the horizon

and there’s all that walking between

‘The Desert’

The idea of time running from the past through the present to the future is reflected in the title poem where time is a taxi that can be flagged down:

the meter is silent now

but just as inexorable

as the ticking of my plastic watch

‘Flagging Down Time’

Flagging Down Time concludes with the impressive longer poem ‘Eleven fifteen’. While time can be a road which runs from horizon to horizon, one has to remember that the horizon also runs in an arc which joins the two ends of the road. This sense of the cyclic nature of time is picked up in ‘Eleven Fifteen’ where the final line of each stanza becomes the first line of the next. Such a structure reflects the repeated rituals which seem to merge days together while, in fact, weeks, months and years may pass:


which take on a stranger syntax as I travel

through the midnight hour that has always stood

like a dark faery nought, round zero of change

‘Eleven fifteen’

Flagging Down Time should confirm Jones’ reputation as a major new voice in Australian poetry. It will be interesting to see how much longer we have to wait for her third collection.

Martin Harrison’s poetry can appear difficult to come to terms with on a first reading. It is a dense poetry with rich images overlapping and merging, driven by an often sensuous use of language which at times seems almost ready to rebel being restricted to the page. Indeed, to appreciate Harrison’s work, the reader must realise that often the sound of the language is as important as the meaning of the word.

As well as being a poet, Harrison has a background in sound/text performance and is a teacher of sound composition. While his poetry may not be performance pieces in the way Amanda Stewart’s work is, the influence of sound and film in his work is obvious. At times, for example, Harrison’s descriptions are so intense they are almost filmic:

You want it all to come back –

April’s sharper lights,

Light-grids, networks, windows off

A shady green

‘Beauty Line’

But it is a film with a distinctive sound track. The best poems in this book seem to invoke an image which is aural as well as visual. In ‘Meeting’, a poem within the long sequence of poems called ‘Films’, Harrison captures the sound of the wind rustling through the grass:

Wind jiggles the shell-grass

Making itself visible

Like someone brushing a mobile

‘4. Meeting (from Films)’

In another poem, ‘Marriage and Soundscape’, Harrison takes great care in describing a sound:

Then a shag took off from these waters, making an interval, a year,

My wife has just seen it – calling it ‘hair on a lens’ and ‘shadow noise’.

(There is green, there is a clapping-Sound, there is wind.)

‘Marriage and Soundscape’

Harrison’s imagery often flows together in the same way that a sound can gradually be transformed into a completely different sound without a casual listener being aware of the change. In ‘Then and Now’, for example, a description of the wind blowing leaves in a tree becomes, within the space of four lines, a lion and the entire poem moves off in a completely different direction:

Late wind arrives, shakes the leaves

in a porridge of shimmers, like a mane-

A lion gets up, wlks about

Caged. foetid, in a fitful mind

‘7. Then and Now (from Films)’

Mark Roberts 1993

(Note: the layout of the quoted in poems in this review in Scarp was a little problematic. We possible I have gone back to originals poems to try and ensure the layout is correct in this version. From memory I also beliee there was a final paragraph to this review. But as I no longer have the original copy I have left the last section as it appeared in SCARP)

Peter Carey’s First Novel

17 Nov

Review of Bliss, By Peter Carey, University of Queensland Press, 1981. Going Down Swinging Issue 5 Spring 1982.

Peter Carey’s first novel, Bliss, must have been one of the most eagerly awaited books of last year. Its publication was preceded bu profiles of Carey in both The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, both of which later gave the book good reviews. But even before the literary establishment began its fanfare I was suspicious of Carey’s novel. I have never been able to fully reconcile his role in advertising with his reputation as one of Australia’s leading younger writers. Despite this I enjoyed his first two books of short stories, though at times I doubted his motives. As a result I approached Bliss in a critical frame of mind. It lasted twenty pages. Once again Carey won me over in spite of myself.

The novel is basically the story of Harry Joy who, like Carey, is in is late thirties and involved in the running of a moderately successful advertising company. Harry, however, suffers a heart attack and lies in his backyard, clinically dead for nine minutes. During his ‘first death’ he discovers:

“That there were many worlds, layer upon layer, as thin as filo pastry.”

For a time he is completely at peace, but the possibility that a corresponding world of terror may exist sends him fleeing back to his body as it is being carried out the front gate. The rest of the novel is concerned, min the main, with Harry’s response to his new found insights into the evil and hypocrisy which everyone else takes for granted. To add to his confusion Harry actually believes that he has died and the new world which he is discovering is, in reality, hell.

Bliss adopts a far more rigid moral and political stance than any of the earlier stories. Of course Carey’s work has always been political in a sense, one only has to look at the title stories from The fat man in History and War Crimes for evidence of this. What I am suggesting, however, is that in Bliss Carey  is being more directly political than before, and, particularly in his portrayal of the advertising industry, manages to make quite strong moral judgments.

One of Harry’s most disturbing discoveries in Hell is the fact that many of the products he has been involved in advertising are strongly carcinogenic. Worse still, he realizes that he was perhaps the only person who wasn’t aware of it. Carey also hints at a cancer epidemic which, we are told, will sweep through the West and most of the industrialised East within a few years.

It is interesting, while still on the political aspects of Bliss, to look at a comment Carey made in an interview with Kate Ahearne, Stephen Williams and Kevin Brophy (Going Down Swinging No. 1 1980). When questioned about Craig Munro’s doubts about his role in advertising, Carey answered that it had given him a chance to work with other people, and also that it had given him a solid political education. It is possible to apply this statement to Harry Joy, though perhaps his ‘political education’ is a little sudden. For most of the novel Harry has to struggle with his political consciousness, his desire to produce a ‘good ad’. The conflict is only finally resolved when Bettina, his wife, finally gets the chance to fulfill a lifelong ambition of designing and producing her own ads. She is blind to everything but the beauty of her ads and her desire to break into the big New York ad houses. Her dreams though, are shattered by her discovery that she is suffering from incurable cancer, probably as a result of long term exposure to petrol vapours. Bettina turns against the petrol company for which she has been designing ads, destroying both herself, and the entire Board of the company with a petrol bomb.

Despite the ‘political realism’ of Bliss it is, in the final instance, far more optimistic than most of the stories. Carey himself admits (GDS, No1, 1980, p.46) that his early stories are, essentially, fatalistic. In the second collection, War Crimes, stories such as “He Found Her in Summer”, and “The Puzzling Nature of Blue”, are at least moving towards a position where the possibility of optimism is admitted. Bliss, however, concludes on a note of ecstasy. Carey refers to the unqualified happy ending to Bliss in the interview by commenting on Harry’s development from total innocence to a point where he confronts “the shit out of the world and comes to some real positive conclusions about it.” I agree with Carey when he says that this represents a big development (movement is probably a better word) on his earlier work.

Bliss, both in its language and content, is a very crafted novel. Although primarily the story of Harry Joy, all the other major characters dominate sections of the novel. This I had a feeling that hidden within the novel were a number of individual stories, cut up and distributed carefully throughout the book. Or perhaps this is coincidental, a result of the method of narration that Carey has employed. We learn, in the last lines, that the narrator’s voice in fact belongs to Harry and Honey’s children, who have obviously grown in a up in a tradition of storytelling, a profession that Harry adopted after his arrival at Bog Onion Road. So finally the novel turns a complete circle. Harry finds that the Bliss that was suggested in his ‘first’ death finally in his third death, after he has returned to the childhood memories of a guru-like father. The ending maybe, as some critics have noted, simplistic and contrived; nevertheless it still managed to move me on the two occasions I read it.

Of the many diverse influences on the novel, perhaps the most surprising, as far as I was concerned, was the apparent debt Carey owed to Tom Robbins of Another Roadside Attraction and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues fame. The major areas where this becomes obvious is in the method and style of narration and the character of Honey Barbara. In both of Robbins’ early books one of the minor characters later identifies himself as the narrator, explaining both the insights and the asides which characterize the narrative style. In Bliss, the revelation of Harry and Harry’s children as narrators can perhaps help to explain a similarity between Carey’s and Robbins’ narrative voice. The character of Honey Barbara also appears to owe much to Robbins. The similarity between Honey and many of Robbins’ female characters is particularly noticeable in small details such as the way she walks and her often impulsive, but enlightened dialogue. This became for me the weakest aspect of the novel, perhaps because the flaw was so unexpected and because Honey Barbara is the bridge between the cancerous city world and peace of the alternative life-style at Bog Onion Road. This Honey, who eventually becomes the most important character after Harry Joy, becomes, at times, almost contrived, and disrupts the smoothness which characterizes the rest of the novel.

The publication of Bliss came at a time when Carey’s earlier stories were being published overseas in a variety of different forms. It remains to be seen how many readers in America and England will react to the Carey novel. For me, despite a few flaws, the hype that surrounded its publication and my own doubts about Carey’s 9decreasing) role in advertising, Bliss was one of the more impressive novels I read during 1981.

Mark Roberts 1982


‘A Plethora of Women’. David Ireland – City of Women Allen Lane 1981.

15 Nov

A Plethora of Women’.  David Ireland – City of Women Allen Lane 1981. Originally published in Issue 8 Island Magazine November 1981

David Ireland’s recent obsessions, women and leopards, appear once again as central themes in his latest novel City of Women. Though very much a self contained novel, there are a number of features which are directly related to his previous novel, A Woman of the Future, the most obvious being his thematic concentration on women. In A Woman of the Future he traced, in the first person, the life of a girl, Alethea Hunt, from her earliest recollections, until she finishes high school and begins a transformation into a leopard. Ireland attempted to withdraw from the novel by claiming that his role was that of an editor, organising notebooks, papers and diaries into publishable form. City of Women, on the other hand, focuses on the life of a retired woman, Bille Shockley, who appears to live in a Sydney from which all men have been banned.

Another apparently important connection between the two novels is the presence of a leopard. Alethena Hunt eventually flees to the country to seek freedom as a leopard, Billie Shockley has a pet leopard, Bobbie, who she takes for walks through East Sydney, the Domain and the Botanical Gardens, Billie sees in her leopard a possible replacement for her “first Bobbie”, who appears at first to have been her lover, but who, we eventually realise, was her daughter.
City of Women even more than A Woman of the Future , is a novel by a man about women. The life Billie leads in the ‘City of Women’ is a very masculine one. Her life revolves around a hotel, ‘The Lover’s Arms’, where the woman are presented in what would otherwise be stereotypical male roles. Society, in fact, seems to be same as when it was dominated by men. There are still football teams, pub brawls, stag nights (now called ‘doe nights’), pack rape and so on. The only difference is that now women drink in the pubs, play football and rape the male hitchhiker and leave him in a coma at the side of the road on their way to the races at Newcastle.

On at least one occasion the narrative is disrupted by an inconsistency in the text. We are told, early in the novel, that Sydney is now a city completely (or almost completely) free of men. But on page 19 Billie relates a story about a woman called Victoria, who steals a large white timber packing case from the tractor warehouse where she works as a guardperson. It seems strange that in a city where the only men are captured or hired to perform in orgies, or who sneak in to symbolically ‘rape’ a lone female by cutting her open and masturbating into the wound, that the yard manager of Victoria’s warehouse should be male. Perhaps it is an oversight on Ireland’s part which somehow managed to sneak past the proof readers. Or perhaps the warehouse is supposed to be outside the city where men are still in control. If so, it is the only occasion in the novel when the fact that a woman is able to seek employment outside the city is not emphasised. Although such an incident may seem minor, it is one of the ways in which the reader is always aware of the male writer behind his female characters.

The novel’s main strength lies in it’s portrayal of Sydney. Billie spends most of the book walking her leopard through the Domain, the Gardens, and to her favourite pub in Cathedral street. Sydney is used as a foundation for Billie’s despair at being “Sixty two and afraid of solitude. Deathly afraid.” To those readers familiar with Sydney, the streets Billie wanders are crisp and real; and for those who aren’t. a detailed map of the area appears on the inside cover. Although it maybe going too far to compare Ireland’s Sydney with Joyce’s Dublin, Ireland creates his Sydney with an instance on realistic detail approaching the Joycian ideal.
City of Women, like most of Ireland’s previous novels, can be seen to operate on three levels of reality. The first level is the ‘absolute’ reality of the physical city of Sydney; the second is the ‘constructed’ reality of the City of Women; and the third is the obviously surrealist world, such as the valley of leopards, which takes place in Billie’s dreams. The problem with this novel is that each level of realism is in conflict with the others. The successfully evoked image of Sydney is in conflict with the male dominated view of female society, while the surrealism is so typical Ireland that it has become predictable. This has the result of making the entire novel appear uneven, the successful aspects being destroyed by its weaknesses.

City of Women concludes with an attempt to place the novel in a conventional framework. Billie’s daughter arrives outside her flat with her new husband, trying to get her mother to open the door. Billie hears their pleading, and the explanations of the landlord, but does not associate them with herself. We realise, however, that the ‘City of Women’ exists only in Billy’s head, and learn that her pet leopard was, in reality, a large yellow cat. Since the death of the cat she has not left her flat, relying on her landlord to buy her food and post her letters to her daughter who she believes to be living on the North Coast. Billie has created a fantasy world for herself and her daughter, and when her daughter rebels against it and leaves her to get married, she refuses to recognise reality and becomes overwhelmed by her fantasy.
While such an ending was obviously designed to conclude the novel with a strong dose of pathos, it has the effect of leaving the reader with an uneasy feeling of having been ‘let down’. In the context of the novel, the ending can be likened to a primary school composition, where, when the bell goes and the story has to be finished quickly, the student writes: “and then I woke up.”

It is easy to understand the reasons why the majority of critics have approached City or Women with caution, for, while in parts the novel is enjoyable, overall there are too many problems for a reader to be left in any state other than frustration. In the final instance, City of Women appears to be a powerful argument for leaving the writing of women’s books to women, whole we can only hope that in this novel Ireland has worked out the obsessions which has dominated his last two books.

Mark Roberts 1981