Tag Archives: Australian Literature

God and Landscapes: Andrew Lansdown: Between Glances & Rhyll McMaster: On My Empty Feet

20 Mar

Between Glances by Andrew Lansdown, William Heinemann Australia 1993 and On My Empty Feet by Rhyll McMaster, William Heinemann Australia. First published in Overland 135, Winter 1994.

                                                 

There is a simple delicacy to many of the poems in Andrew Lansdown’s sixth col­lection of poetry, Between Glances. Lans­down moves slowly through the landscape bringing a spiritual intensity to bear on the objects of everyday life. Many of his best poems grow out of a single image. In ‘Tea Chest’, for example, a robin drinking water out of a dis­carded tea chest is captured in the centre of the poem:

The late afternoon light

duplicates the bird’s shape darkly

.

in the still water as it stoops

to drink.

The poem is, in fact, almost a fable. Lansdown is suggesting that nature can transform a func­tional object which is perceived to have outlived its usefulness to an object of beauty and of a different functionality:

Truly, this moment, that tea chest

bears a cargo more precious than any

.

it carried long ago from India or Ceylon.

The title poem of the collection, ‘Between Glances’, operates on a similar level. The poet has been watching a single autumn leaf on a liquidambar tree all day:

I glance

down at my work then out

.

again, only to find it gone.

Gone between glances. If only

I had known that last wave

was a goodbye, a farewell,

.

I would not have looked away.

While the transient nature of beauty obviously lies at the heart of this poem, ‘Between Glances’ can also be read as a fable where the falling leaf represents human mortality. Above all else Lansdown is a religious poet and, in the context of the rest of the collection, these ‘fables’ take on a distinct spiritual dimension.

Between Glances contains a number of more obviously religious poems. There is an uneven-ness to these poems which I feel is probably almost inevitable. Religious poetry is difficult to write and like many poets Lansdown does occa­sionally fall into cliche. However, Between Glances contains some of the best religious poetry I have read for some time.

For most of the collection Lansdown is content to write about his children and the natural land­scape, but in the last section there are a number of poems which grew out of a trip to Sydney. These poems lack some of the spiritual intensity which runs through the rest of the book, but I feel that they actually balance the more overtly religious nature poems.

After the softness of Lansdown’s poetry Rhyll McMaster’s third collection, On My Empty Feet, seems positively hard-edged. In the opening poem, ‘Figure in the Landscape’, we have a view of the landscape very different from Lansdown’s images of transient beauty:

Sheep lie down in the wind,

trees tremble their roots

in underground runnels.

Cattle pour milkily across

a world of occurrence.

Whereas Lansdown was content to sit back and watch the robin drink out of the old tea chest, McMaster places herself very firmly in the poem:

I am the figure in the landscape

which does not live

unless I move.

On My Empty Feet is divided into three sec­tions. The tone of the first section is set by ‘Figure in the Landscape’, which is one of the strongest poems in the collection. Many of the poems in this section explore the relationship of  the poet to both her external physical environment and her internal mental state.

The second section revolves around a sequence of poems called ‘My Mother and I Become Victims of a Stroke’. In ‘Residues’ McMaster records the way her mother was affected by a stroke:

Her brain is stripped

to its inessentials.

She’s disposed of the gears.

Her mind is full of old shoes

.

that don’t fit.

In ‘The Mirror’, the mother’s illness forces the daughter to confront their relationship:

I look into the mirror of my life

and see my mother

.

She glares back at me

warningly.

She says, “I’m bitterly disappointed.”

In the final section McMaster recalls her childhood, effectively going back to a time before her mother’s stroke. Balancing the pain in the poems in the second section, the poems here are nostalgic and safe, as in ‘Our Street’:

There I am, aged six, striking home from

school.

I stop to gloat at the crack that grows the

ferns.

At silent number eight the privet hedge

rampages down the side.

On My Empty Feet is a powerful collection. Its strength lies not only in the individual poems but also in the careful way the collection is structured. My one complaint with McMaster is the length of time between collections. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another seven years for her fourth.

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Two Anthologies: EDGE CITY ON TWO DIFFERENT PLANS Inversions 1983 & NETWORK/EXILES IN PARADISE Fringe Network 1983

29 Feb

Two Anthologies: EDGE CITY ON TWO DIFFERENT PLANS, edited by Margaret Bradstock, Gary Dunne, Dave Sargent and Louise Wakeling, Inversions 1983 &   NETWORK/EXILES IN PARADISE   Fringe Network 1983. Published in P76 Issue 2 1984.

In a recent interview (Image Vol.6 No.3), John Tranter talks of the progression of contemporary Australian poetry in terms of a “pendulum swing reaction” against what is seen as the ‘accepted’ or ‘established’ mode of expression. Such a comment, of course, refers back to the “generation of ’68” and the break that many writers felt they were making from the established, conservative forms of writing which had predominated during the fifties and sixties, but it also implies a conservative backlash which, Tranter suggests, will “swing” the writing scene back to something resembling the pre-’68 situation. On a similar note, Kris Hemensley, reviewing Ania Walwicz, Dimitris Tsaloumas and Mary Fallon (Syllable No.1), talks of the “rut” in which contemporary Australian writing “had become stuck” by the beginning of the eighties. One possible explanation for this is that the writers who saw themselves as the poetic revolutionaries of 1968 now feel quite comfortable with the way Australian writing has developed during the seventies and no longer feel it necessary to question or challenge the prevailing mood of the literary establishment.

There are, however, many writers who aren’t satisfied with the ideology which underlies much contemporary Australian writing. The strength of Women’s Writing at the moment (as witnessed by the, No Regrets anthologies, Frictions, the large number of Women’s Writing Groups and the Faceless Woman Readings in Melbourne) can be seen, in part, as a reaction against the subtle, and often not so subtle, repression of women writers throughout Australia’s history, and which is still prevalent in the post ’68 writing scene.

Two recent anthologies, Edge City on Two Different Plans (a collection of Lesbian and Gay writing from Australia) and Network/ Exiles in Paradise (An anthology of new writing from the Melbourne Fringe Arts Festival 1983), highlight further problems with the Tranter pendulum. Both anthologies can be seen as jerking Australian writing, out of its rut, though in quite different ways. Edge City confronts the masculine tone inherent in much Australian writing which was left virtually untouched, and in some cases actually strengthened, by the “generation of ’68”, while Network/Exiles in Paradisehas combined an ‘open access anthology’, a fringe arts festival and collective production so that the writers become responsible for, and learn the skills necessary to compile and produce the anthology.

In other ways Edge City and Network/Exiles in Paradise are very-different anthologies. The editors of Edge City, in a lively forward, discuss the history of the anthology and attempt to place it in an historical context. They make it clear, for example, that they are in debt to the women’s writing movement:

“We also thought, like the editors of earlier anthol­ogies of women’s writing which explored areas of specifically female experience, that it was necessary to counterbalance the heterosexist and masculinist literature which still predominates in Australian culture.”

But they point out that the aim of the anthology was not to set up an ideological framework but to present us with “an important expression of the diversity of the lives….. of homosexual women and men.” Over-all, the Introduction and Forward compliments the work of the 43 writers in the anthology and it seems that Dennis Altman is correct when he claims that Edge City’s importance lies not only in the creative work it contains, but equally “as the foundations for what is the long overdue emergence of a literary voice of lesbian and gay men in Australia.”

Edge City attempts to highlight what it sees as the diversity of lesbian and gay writing by collecting work by 43 different writers (25 men and 18 women), ranging from fairly traditional short stories and poetry, to more experimental prose and poetry and a number of song lyrics. Although there are a few well known names among the 43 contributors, one of the most refreshing aspects of the anthology is the amount of interesting and exciting work by writers who have had little or nothing published in the mainstream literary magazines.

A number of prose pieces deal directly with aspects of a lesbian lifestyle. Jane Eliot’s ‘Holiday at the Parm’, for example, examines a woman’s reaction when she returns to the country town where she grew up. Her friends are married and living conservative country lives, while she has returned from the city a feminist and a lesbian. Eliot effectively combines a slight feeling of nostalgia with the underlying political conflict which affects the way the woman reacts to people in her past. Geraldine Mecredy’s piece ‘Journey’, like ‘Holiday at the Farm’, uses a central theme of a woman analysing her past. She has recently ended a heterosexual relationship and she reflects upon aspects of it – how it started, conflicts, sexuality and so on. Runn­ing throughout the pieces are the fragments of a dream, of being in s waiting room waiting for a train. The heterosexual relationship becomes the world outside the waiting room, the train a method of escape and a means of personal transformation.

The songs tend to be more obviously political than either the poetry or prose. Phillip Stevenson’s ‘Thank you Lord for Gay Liber­ation’  (which has been performed widely around Sydney by the Gay Liberation Quire) satirizes the church’s approach to homosexuality while, at the same time, asserting the strength of the gay movement.  Alison Lyssa’s songs also approach important issues with humour. ‘There are lights sweeping over the city’, for example, sees the nuclear threat as a part of patriarchal society:

“My brain can’t believe how they got there

‘Those billions of dollars of toys;

Do they fire them in circles like marbles

To keep up with the rest of the boys?”

Other pieces which I felt stood out were the poems of Margaret Bradstock, Mary Fallon, Tony Page and Elaine Byrant. Gary Dunne’s story ‘The Tyranny of Distance’ and Nicholas Thomas’ prose piece ‘Contradictions and Peripheries’ and Judy Small’s song ‘The Festival of light’,

The importance of Edge City is that it has focused attention on lesbian and gay writing in Australia and has been responsible for stimulating quite a lively discussion. On a purely literary level, Edge City introduces a number of exciting writers whose work may have never been accepted by the mainstream literary scene but who, it is hoped, now have the confidence to continue writing without having to compromise in an effort to be published.

Compared with Edge city, Network/Exiles in Paradise appears quite uneven. Among some exciting pieces of writing there are some almost total failures. Network/Exiles in Paradise lacks a unifying theme and is without Edge City’s encompassing introduction. Network/ Exiles in Paradise is, in fact, two different anthologies, separated not by theme, but in the way each was produced. We are told simply “the editing, compilation and lay out of ‘Exiles in Paradise’ was performed by the writers themselves;.  ‘Network’ drew on writers within the book and Fringe Network for its production.” So Network/Exiles in Paradise has taken the idea of an open access anthology a step further to collective production. One of the stated aims of the anthology is to “encourage writers to be responsible for their work beyond its actual creation.”

Overall I found the poetry, with the exception of Cliff Smyth, Pete Spense and John Anderson, quite disappointing. Daniel Keene’s piece, ‘Echoes of Ruby Dark’, was for a while interesting, but because of its length, rapidly lost much of its impact. I found the length of many of the poems irritating. It is extremely difficult to maintain a poem through four hundred or so lines, and unfortunately I don’t believe any of the poets who attempt such a task in Network/Exiles in Paradise quite succeed.

On the other hand, prose is definitely Network/Exiles in Paradise’s strength. Ania Walwicz’s work is already fairly well known and her four prose pieces highlight the conservative approach some of the other contributors adopt towards the language. Raphael Pomian’s prose has, at times, a feeling similar to Walwicz’s. Both use uncluttered language but manage to create an overall richness. For Walwicz it’s predominately sound patterns and rhythms, while Pomian’s prose is extremely descriptive, at times almost to the point of being languid. Moya Costello’s ‘The Usherette’ is a realistic portrayal of working as an usherette at a concert hall. Periods of boredom, flustered activities and flights of fantasies are undercut by a sarcastic humour directed mainly at the patrons who she directs to their seats. Berni Jassen’s untitled prose piece, which is the account of the beginning of a relationship, is perhaps, the most powerful in the anthology. Her skilful use of short sentences and clear language gives an intensity and urgency to her theme.

The contrasts in Network/Exiles in Paradise are, in themselves, quite illuminating. The successful pieces tend to be fairly short,or at least concise and uncluttered, while some of the longer poems and stories I found extremely difficult to get through, Fringe Network apparently intends to publish more anthologies and “self-devised books by groups of writers”, the results promise to be interesting.

I found little evidence in Edge City and Network/Exiles in Paradise to suggest a movement towards a more conservative writing in Australia. Tranter’s pendulum is, of course, a gross over simplific­ation. Seeing writing as a movement back and forth between two points is extremely limiting and excludes the possibility of development in other directions. It suggests a ‘establishment’ view of literature operating ‘like clockwork’ to predetermined rules. Projects like Edge City and Network/Exiles in Paradise disrupt the equilibrium by quest­ioning the dominant ideology of Australian literature and suggest new directions in which it could move.

EDGE CITY ON TWO DIFFERENT PLANS inversions (Sydney Gay Writers Collective) P.O. Box 158 Leichhardt N.S.W. 2040. NETWORK/EXILES IN PARADISE Fringe Network 201 Brunswick Street Pitzroy Victoria 3065

– Mark Roberts

The Alphabet of Pain – Two books by Jenny Boult

18 Feb

“i” is a versatile character WAV Publications, 1986. Flight 39, Abalone Press. 1986.. Both by Jenny Boult. Reviewed by Mark Roberts. First published in Tribune  23 July 1986.

Jenny Boult’s sixth book.”I” is a versatile character, is also her first book of prose. It follows her play, Can’t Help Dreaming, which was performed by the All Out Ensemble in Adelaide, and four books of poetry. The stories in this collection vary greatly in form and content, but they share a particular “poetic” style of writing which is rare among contemporary Australian prose writers. Although Boult is by no means the first Australian poet to publish fiction, she has been more successful than most in bringing to her prose many of the skills she has developed writing poetry.

The narrative structure of the stories also relies on a poetic model. Boult builds her stories around a series of images which eventually build into an extensive over-view encapsulating the whole story. The most successful example of this can be found in the title piece ‘”i is a versatile character”, and the impressive longer piece, “no room at the top”.

After this sense of freedom it comes as something of a shock to realise that many of the stories are. structurally, fairly disciplined. In “no room at the top”, for example, it is not until the final section that we realise that the piece has been loosely structured around the alphabet, “this is the last letter in the alphabet of pain, the final broken rung on the ladder, the damaged knee and the whiplash of intention.” It is not an easy alphabet, nor is it a heavy handed one. But it firmly anchors the story and allows the 26 sections to fall into place.

In “TWENTY QUESTIONS”. Boult uses a similar device, only this time the anchor is the title. We expect twenty questions, and. in a way, that is what we get. The only direct question, however, comes in the final section. In the preceding 19, the questions rise from the images, the pieces of the collage which Boult presents us with. We try to piece them together, looking for the answer as we go. But. Eventually, like Estragon and Vladimir Waiting for Godot, we are returned to the beginning: “The audience asks, “who is she?” The woman invites them to look again.

In contrast to the fantasy and experimentation in “I” is a versatile character. Boult has returned to her ‘roots’ as a performance poet in Flight 39. Boult has performed many of the poems in this collection to audiences around Australia over the last few years. Most of the poems are clearly meant to be read aloud, indeed, many of them sit somewhat uncomfortably as words printed on a page.

The song-like quality of much of Flight 39 gives the collection an accessibility which is rare among contemporary poets. Boult’s accessibility, however, is never patronising. Her appeal comes from her lyric style, the experiences she writes about and her wonderful black sense of humor.

There are poems about love (of course), housework, shopping trolleys, poetry and the British miners’ strike. In a series of “3 poems for mary kathleen”,  Boult looks at nuclear war from a child’s point of view. One poem begins,

the cat’s going bald mum

the puppies are dead & dad’s called the vet for the old dog

there aren’t many birds.

This innocence disappears in the final poem when the child passes judgment on the post-holocaust society:

the grown ups are going to

patch things up &

pull the pieces together

but i don’t want to live

in a Frankenstein world.

But perhaps the strongest poems in this collection are the two poems grouped together under the title, “in solidarity with the british mine workers 1984-5”. In the first poem. “September 1984”  Boult, who grew up in a British mining town, describes how she felt as she watched the attacks on the picket lines on television in Adelaide.

The second poem. “4th march 1985” is written on the day that the strike collapsed. One can sense the fury which is only just below the surface, but there  is also the grief that this story will be repeated again and again:

I cried for the end of one struggle & the beginning

of the next.

You may have a little trouble getting these books from your local bookseller, but it is well worth the effort. You can also order the books directly from the publishers: WAV Publications. Box 545 Norwood South Australia 5067. and Abalone Press PO Box 2(12 Cheltenham Victoria 3192.

Mark Roberts

Aside

‘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