Tag Archives: Mark Roberts

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

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The Ultimate Commitment – Michael Dransfield: Collected Poems

22 Dec

Michael Dransfield Collected Poems Edited by Rodney Hall. University of Queensland Press 1987.  Southerly Volume 48. No 4. 1988.

When Michael Dransfiled died on Good Friday, 1973 at the age of 24 he had already published three collections of poetry and established a reputation as one of the most successful and popular of the new wave of young Australian poets who had emerged in the late 1960s. Since his death a further four collections have appeared, culminating in the Collected Poems (UQP 1987). When one considers Dransfield’s rapid rise to prominence, together with the attention focused on his lifestyle and the tragedy of his early death, it was almost inevitable that, to some extent, his life would come to overshadow his poetry. In fact, in the fifteen years since his death, the ‘Dransfield myth’, together with the decline in fashionably of the romanticism at the heart of much of his poetic imagery, has meant that his reputation as a poet has been attacked by a number of critics. In such a context, the publication in one volume of all of Dransfield’s published work, provides us with the opportunity to review his overall achievement and, hopefully, to reach a more realistic assessment of his work.

One cannot begin to examine Dransfield’s career, however, without noting the important role Rodney Hall has played over the last twenty years in bringing Dransfield’s work to the poetry reading public. It was Hall, then poetry editor of The Australian, who first ‘discovered’ Dransfield’ in 1967. It was Hall who passed Dransfield’s work onto Tom Shapcott who was then putting together an anthology of contemporary Australian poetry for Sun Books which would eventually become Australian Poetry Now.  Shapcott and Hall also helped Dransfield prepare his first two published collections, Streets of the Long Voyage (UQP 1970) and Inspector of Tides (UQP, 1972). While Hall encouraged Dransfield during his life, Dransfield’s death revealed the extent of Hall’s devotion to the younger poet. Hall took on the task of collecting all of Dransfield’s unpublished poems and prepared a selection for publication. The result were the two posthumous collections, Voyage into Solitude (UQP 1978) and The Second Month of Spring (UQP, 1980).

Hall has organised the Collected Poems so that the volumes in which the poems first appeared are mostly kept intact. As a result the poems appear in rough chronological order beginning with Streets of the Long Voyage (containing poems written between  1964 and 1969), The Inspector of  Tides (1968 to 1971), Drug Poems (1967 to 1971), Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal (poems from mid 1971), Voyage into Solitude (a posthumous collection of unpublished poems from 1967 to 1971) and The Second Month of Spring (poems from 1972). Not all these volumes, however, have been left intact. In the introduction Hall argues that where a poem has been published in more than one collection, he has chosen to leave it in the ‘large book’. As Hall believes that Drug Poems was an anthology of  “pieces addressing a particular subject”,  a number of poems that had previously appeared in Streets of the Long Voyage and Inspector of Tides,  and others that would later appear in Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, have been left out of the Drug Poems section in the Collect Poems. While Hall’s argument for this exclusion is, of course, perfectly reasonable, it means that the overall effect of the Drug Poems section in the Collected Poems  is reduced.

Reading through the poems from streets of the Long Voyage  and The Inspector of  Tides I was once again struck by the balance Dransfield is able to find between the apparent simplicity of his individual images and the overall complexity of his most successful poems. This can be clearly seen in one of his best known poems, ‘Pas de deux for lovers’, which begins

Morning ought not

to be complex

The sun is a seed

cast at dawn into the long

furrow of history

A seed is, of course, a simple object. But it contains the potential to be something far more complex. So Dransfield’s morning sun becomes a planted seed and, as it sprouts, the day suddenly becomes far more complicated until we reach the final line:

…………Day

is so deep already with involvement

This overall richness of imagery, achieved by selective use of language and a careful juxtaposition of individual images, is one of Dransfield’s great strength in these first two books. One can recall numerous poems where he achieves it – ‘Chris’, “Surreptitious as Desdemona’, ‘Linear B’, ‘Death of Salvatore Quasimodo’, ‘Bum’s Rush’, ‘Ground Zero’, ‘Geography’, ‘Loft’ and ‘Inspector of Tides’ among others. While Dransfield, of course, was not the only one of his contemporaries to achieve this, the ease with which he achieved it again and again in these first two books, both of which were published before he was 22, is an indication of just how early he matured as a poet.

Dransfield was a self-declared romantic and the richness and delicacy of his imagery was an important part of his romanticism. The poems in his first two books are filled with what might be called clichéd romantic symbols – magic carpets, crystal wine glasses, Greek mythology, Vincent van Gough, ruined mansions , fallen aristocrats, candles and dukes. But Dransfield’s romanticism was not confined to his poetry. He increasingly attempted to live the romantic image of the ‘suffering’ artist cut off from mainstream society because of his/her sensitivity. This can, perhaps, be best seen in his drug poetry. Streets of the Long Voyage, The Inspector of Tides and Drug Poems contain some very powerful and moving drug poetry. ‘Bum’s Rush’, for example, is one of Dransfield’s best poems. But as his addiction deepened, drug related imagery began to dominate his poetry more and more.

In his earlier poetry drugs became a vehicle for his romanticism:

                                                 Becalmed now

on Coleridge’s painted sea in Rimbaud’s

drunken boat. High like de Quincey or Vasco

I set a course

for the Pillars of Hercules, meaning to sail

over the edge of the world

                                                          ‘Overdose’

Even death, if it was surrounded by drug imagery, took its place in Dransfield’s iconography of romanticism:

last week,  I think on Tuesday,

she died

just gave up breathing

toppled over

a big smashed doll

with the needle still in her arm

I made a funeral of leaves

and sang the Book of Questions

to her face as white as hailstones

to her eyes as closed as heaven

                                   ‘For Ann so still and dreamy’

Dransfield, in fact, clothed the life of the poet and the junkie in the same romantic imagery;

Once you have become a drug addict

you never want to be anything else

                                        ‘Fix’

to be a poet in Australia

is the ultimate commitment

                                    ‘Like this for years’

The inference here is clear, poets and junkies are really two sides of the same coin. This sense of the suffering individual artist/drug user, while clearly growing out of the milieu of the late 1960’s, has come, in time, to represent the less successful aspects of Dransfield’s romanticism.

On the acknowledgement page of the original Sun Books edition of Drug Poems, Dransfield states that a number of the poems “will appear in Memories of a Velvet Urinal to be published in the USA in 1972.” This was an overly optimistic note. According to Hall, Geoffrey Dutton had promised to take the manuscript with him to the US but, as it turned out, it was not accepted for publication.  Memories of a Velvet Urinal was, in fact, to remain in a number of different manuscript forms until Maximus Books in a Adelaide published a version in 1975.

Shortly before his death, Dransfield gave Hall one of the manuscripts of Memories of a Velvet Urinal which Hall then sent to a British publisher. As this was clearly a later version of the manuscript than the one eventually published by Maximus Books, Hall has used it in the Collected Poems. The differences between the two versions are quite important. Dransfield had actually discarded a number of poems which appeared in the Maximus edition – “madness systems parts one, two, three, four and the last”,  “Making it legal 1 &2”, “Flametree” and “To the great presidents” appear only as appendices to the Collected Poems. The situation is complicated by the appearance in the Collected Poems  of  another poem with the title “To the great presidents”. In the Maximus edition this poem appeared under the title

were                  no

           mar

no   more   war

Hall argues, and the evidence would appear to support him, that this actually represents a separate concrete poem and not a title. At this point I would have appreciated a further note of explanation from Hall concerning the transfer of the title “To the great presidents” from one poem to another.

The Collected Poems version also rearranges the order of the poems so that the book is now divided into four sections. This is, in fact, the most important change as it brings Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal into line with both Streets of the Long Voyage and The Inspector of Tides, both of which were divided into sections. The Maximus edition has the feeling of almost being thrown together. It begins with ‘Epitaph with two quotations’, a poem which is physically difficult to read and one of the weaker poems in the book. The Collected Poems  version, on the other hand, opens with the title poem, ‘Memoirs of a velvet urinal’, a striking poem about a homosexual encounter. Dransfield, by regrouping the collection, and rejecting a number of poems, has tightened the book considerably. Whereas it was quite easy to believe after reading the Maximus edition that all the poems had been written in the four-month period between May and August 1971 (which, in fact they had), the Collected Poems version has a much more crafted and professional feel to it.

There is also a tendency in Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal for Dransfield to move away from the heady romanticism of his earlier work. In a poem like ‘Play something Spanish’, lines like:

planes of light.  yes.  they were effective.  yes.  you

are lost in them,  their obvious coast

led you away to a place you cannot identify.  spain?

never.  play something metaphysical…..

suggest that contemporary American poetry was beginning to have a greater influence on his work. Unfortunately, there are also poem, such as ‘Poem started in a bus’, which depends upon a heavily clichéd, moralist ending:

                                                              …..Its easy

to forget violence while violence

forgets you

It’s difficult to escape the feeling that Dransfield  could still have done more to the manuscript of Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal. The evidence suggests that, in the face of a number of publishers’ rejections, this editorial process was well underway at the time of his death. If he had lived, Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, in time, may have been shaped into a volume which surpassed the achievement of his first two books.

Voyage into Solitude is the first of two collections of unpublished work which Rodney Hall edited after Dransfield’s death. In this first collection Hall assembled his selection from the period 1967 to 1971. In effect this represents the material that Dransfield, and those who helped him, rejected when editing material for those books he did publish during his life.

Overall it is probably fair to say that Voyage into Solitude is a tribute to the editorial process which went into the first four books. There are only a few poems in this collection which I would have been prepared to argue for. These would include ‘Sonnet’, ‘The sun but not our children’ and the wonderfully descriptive ‘Pioneer Lane’. For the most part, however, it is easy to see why these poems were left out. Many seem incomplete, an image doesn’t work properly or, as is more common, is too clichéd to be effective. Though it was obviously important for Hall to collect and publish these “rejected” poems, in the context of the Collected Poems, Voyage into Solitude remains a book primarily for the Dransfield scholar or enthusiast.

While Dransfield seemed to be developing, almost organically, away from the lush romanticism of his earlier work in Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, the poems in Hall’s second posthumous collection, The Second Month of Spring (UQP 1980), marks a dramatic change in both style and content. All the poems in this collection were written during the last year of Dransfield’s life. In April 1972 Dransfiield, while riding his motorcycle, was run off the road south of Sydney by an off-duty policeman. Besides some serious injuries to his head and leg, the pethadine he was given in hospital undid months of effort put into overcoming his addiction. As might be expected, the accident figures prominently in these last poems:

used   to get  through

three  five  six

books  a  day

now  can’t  read

much  more  than

one  short  poem

or  an  article

blame  it  on

medication

happens  to  all who  happen  here

it  was  the  same

in  darlo

months  ago

since  my  last

accident

april

in  fact

i  write

cannot  revise

they  also  serve

                                 ‘October elegy for Litt’

Dransfield stopped referring to his work as poems during this final period, preferring to call them raves. In effect the work in The Second Month of Spring can be likened to the final explosion of light a star gives off as it starts to collapse in upon itself. These last poems are, in fact, intensely personal, almost to the point of being a diary in verse.

As far as style goes they are poems cut back to the bare essentials:

even an

ugly joint

will get you high

as afghan

hills

                                ‘imports’

Word plays often become an end in themselves, and even his earlier work is not safe:

look ahead

straits of the long

voyeur

                          ‘cadlike’

While this is not great poetry, it is difficult not to be moved by the extremes of emotion – anger, hope, resignation – and, at times, the intense physical pain, which these poems highlight.

Rodney Hall, in his introduction to Voyage into Solitude, made the point that Dransfield is one of the few Australian poets to ever have “a genuine popular following….among people who do not otherwise read poetry”. The sheer size and scope of the Collected Poems, I believe, illustrates why Dransfield was able to build up this following.

Dransfield may have felt that being a poet in Australia was “the ultimate committment”, but there is no doubt that the late 60s were an exciting time to be a young poet in Australia.  While most of his contemporaries saw themselves as “modern” poets, breaking the hold of the conservatives on Australian poetry, Dransfield was reading the romantics as well as contemporary American and European poetry. Though critics may disapprove of  Dransfield’s romanticism, there is little doubt that, during the late 60s, it tapped a feeling among young people and, as a result, can be said to lie behind much of Dransfield’s initial popularity.

Perhaps, in the final instance, Dransfield’s greatest strength can be seen in the development we can trace in the Collected Poems from the early, richly romantic poems, through to the more hard-edged poems of Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal. Sadly, his tragic death in 1973 cut short this development. We should be grateful to Rodney Hall for editing this collection because, if nothing else, it has helped focus attention back towards the poems and away from the “Dransfield myth” which has come to dominate his reputation since his death.

Breaking Through the Silence: NO REGRETS 3

14 Dec

No Regrets 3: An Anthology of the Sydney Women Writing Workshop. Published by the No Regrets Group. 1985. Review Published in Tribune – Summer Reading Issue (no 2406) 11 December 1985.

“Literary history and the past are dark with silences”, declared Tillie Olsen in Silences. These silences, she argues, were due to a number of factors ‘including class, colour, sex and the times and climate into which one is born.”

Over the last decade, women writers in Australia have been attempting to make themselves heard above that silence. A measure of their success has been the number of contemporary women writers being published and the growth of women’s publishing ventures such as Sybylla, Sea Cruise Books and Redress Press.

Another result of the revival of women’s writing has been the ‘rescuing’ of women’s writing from literary oblivion. The republishing of works  by authors such as M. Barnard Eldershaw, Eleanor Dark and Christina Stead among others, has created an alternative to the conservative, male dominated, traditional literary history of Australia.

The creation of an alternative structure to the existing literary hierarchy has been one of the most important long-term results of the women’s writing movement. It is probably this aspect that the literary establishment finds the most threatening.

There are many reasons behind the growth of women’s’ writing which, of course, parallels the growth of the women’s movement in general. However, in part it can also be seen as a reaction against the writers of the so-called ‘generation of ’68’.

The generation of ’68 is a term used loosely to describe a number of young writers who first came to prominence in the late sixties. They saw themselves as ‘poetic revolutionaries’ attacking the bastions of traditional Australian literature. With a few exceptions, however, they were male. The vast majority of women in ‘the scene’ were there as girlfriends or wives.

In time, a number of women only writing  workshops were formed, one of which was the Sydney Women Writers Workshop (also known as the No Regrets Group) in 1978. For over seven years the No Regrets Group has met at member’s houses to read and discuss their work, as well as discussing practical and theoretical issues. Their influence, however, has extended beyond the actual group members through the compilation of three anthologies. Their most recent publication, No Regrets 3,  was recently launched at the Performance Space in Sydney. It contains work by sixteen women from the group, together with statements by each on their writing.

Although it is an often repeated assertion that all writing is political, it remains a concept which the literary establishment has difficulty coming to terms with. The women in No Regrets 3, however, repeat this assertion with a convincing directness  which comes from personal experience. Barbara Brooks, for example, says “You can hardly put pen to paper, or even open your mouth, as a woman writer, before you have to confront your experience as a woman, your power, or lack of it.” Anne Lawrence is a little more positive: “being a writer is just my way and I know that there are more women finding and owning their voices, power and creativity with honesty , integrity and great responsibility.” Uyen Loewald sees her writing in terms of her position as a migrant in a society where people refuse to try and understand her: “I began writing….when I realised that there was no other way to establish justice for myself and other people like me.”

The writing itself is varied and refreshing in its scope. It is particularly exciting to come across work by writers I hadn’t heard of before, such as Chitra Fernando, Marion Consandine, Coren Caplan, Anna Valerio, Loretta Re and Jo Garolis.

The influence of the first two No Regrets  anthologies has extended beyond the women’s writing movement. As the Adelaide based writer, Moya Costello, pointed out on a recent Crystal Set program (2SER-FM Sydney), a number of male writers have obviously been influenced, not just by the way women write, but by the supportive networks set up by women writers and the concerns which motivate many women to write.

No Regrets 3, together with the first two anthologies, provide useful models, not only for women writers, but all writers who feel surrounded by ‘silences’.

Lines of Flight – Marion Campbell

5 Dec

Lines of Flight, Marion Campbell. Freemantle Arts Centre Press 1985. From The Good Reading: 100 Critics Review Contemporary Fiction compiled by Helen Daniel McPhee Gribble 1989.

An intellectually playful novel which follows the career of Rita Finnerty, an Australian  artist struggling to create a career for herself in France. Campbell’s impressive use of language skillfully followers her narrative so that, as the novel opens, Rita’s artistic and emotional freedom is echoed in the expansiveness of the language which draws in elements of art, literature and contemporary French theory. As Rita finds herself increasingly drawn into a small social circle headed by Raymond, a gay French semiotician, and his two students, Sebastien and Gerard, the novel’s language begins to close in on itself. Pressure builds up until Rita finally attempts to crash through the domestic barriers that have been gradually imposed upon her. At the same time as this narrative explosion, Campbell’s language also explodes violently, creating an unnerving and subtly unsettling conclusion.

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