BOOK REVIEW: MELISSA ASHLEY’S ‘THE BIRDMAN’S WIFE’

Too often I hear (usually from men) that women never did anything in history to write about. What they are generally referring to are those ‘great deeds’ of men who were able to dedicate their lives to and sustain an uninterrupted focus on their area of specialisation. Women’s yearnings were sidelined and their lives circumscribed by multiple childbirth.

A.H. Chisholm wrote a ‘complete’ biography of Elizabeth Gould in 1944. In contrast, Melissa Ashley has written a fictional biography, or biographical fiction, of her in The Birdman’s Wife, which revitalises Elizabeth, colouring in her passions, her struggles, her continual negotiation of the demands of being a working artist and a mother.

This beautifully written novel presents a ‘complete’ picture of a family unit—that one man’s crowning achievements were in fact a family enterprise. John Gould may have been able to strut about like a peacock, but his ‘story’ his more complete when put in context alongside the female of his species, their young, and the materials from which he made his nest.

(From Kali Napier’s blog at Kali Napier)

DISNEY’S POETICS OF INHABITED IMPERMANENCE

Dan Disney is a rare pyro-technician who dazzles with his poetic acumen and depth of reflection. He matches the complexity and uncertainty of the twenty-first century with a poetic project that is enthrallingly uncertain, yet nevertheless vibrant and generative in its wit, wisdom and ongoing effort to find meanings in the world. His poetry suggests that language is only a means of uncovering the grain of things because it uncovers the chaos of structures that actually permeate Western capitalism and its associated ideologies. It lays bare processes of perception, thinking and feeling, and yet paradoxically shows that language negates its own assertions by making unexpected connections across ‘syntaxing surfaces’.

(Book review by Dominique Hecq; more at TEXT, Vol 20 No 1 April 2016)

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Further reading:

Dan Disney’s and then when the – (reviewed by Kevin Brophy)
Interview with Dan Disney (foam:e)
A conversation with Dan Disney (Communion)
Poet meets poet [Youtube]
Sogang University page

BOOK REVIEW: ‘AHEAD OF US’, BY DENNIS HASKELL

Dennis Haskell’s eighth poetry collection Ahead of Us is a tender chronicle of illness and bereavement. The heart of the book is its second section, That Other Country, a series of 23 poems about his wife Rhonda’s long battle with ovarian cancer, her death, and his adjustment to life without her. All royalties from the book are to be donated to the Cancer Council of Western Australia for cancer research.

(By Linda Louise Smith; read more at The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 April 2016)

Aileen Palmer

Thoughtful review by Drusilla Modjeska of Sylvia Martin’s biography Ink in Her Veins: The Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald.

When Aileen looked back on her life, her years in Spain with the International Brigade remained the high point. Even in London as the bombs fell and she lifted casualties from the wreckage of the East End into her ambulance, the life she lived was hers: intense and real.

It was in the ambulance service that she met “B”, the woman with whom, in her own words, she was deeply in love. Yet she never writes her name, at least not in the letters and diaries Martin has tracked down for Ink in her Veins. Nettie’s sacrifice didn’t work; Aileen saw herself as a poet, as a writer, but she was little published and died without obituary or recognition.

Unmarried, without an income, with worried parents and Europe in ruins, she was persuaded by Vance and Nettie to return to Melbourne. It was in the gloomy house in Kew that the decline started, and once she was admitted to hospital in 1948, there was little chance of her finding a way towards a satisfying life.

Caught between resentment and obligation to Vance and Nettie, their sacrifice, their respectability and their self-enclosing mythology, she became, as Martin puts it, snared in the tangled web of the family’s emotional dysfunction. She could not escape Nettie, and part of her didn’t want to see her elderly mother further hurt or shamed. She reined herself in.

Her friends from university “who’d given her the courage to believe in herself and her love for women, had becomes wives and mothers”. “Alas, for the pretty women/Who marry plain men/They settle down in the suburbs/And never come out again.”

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/ink-in-her-veins-review-the-sad-life-of-vance-and-nettie-palmers-daughter-20160408-go2238.html#ixzz45pwUBfaW

Also see:

‘This English’  (a poem by Aileen Palmer from her only published book of poetry, World without Strangers? [1964], p.30), courtesy of the John Cornford facebook page.

More notes…

Aileen Palmer at Spartacus Educational with regards her Spanish Civil War service:

Her biographer, Sylvia Martin, pointed out: “Aileen became one of the International Brigaders who worked on the frontlines of the conflict. She quickly added Spanish and Italian to her fluency in English, French and German and so was able to assist the doctors and ambulance drivers in several languages as the field hospital to which she was attached moved to the various battle sites attending to the wounded, sometimes hundreds in a day. Living under appalling conditions and in constant danger, she maintained a cheerful outlook in letters to her family.”

Response to Judith Rodriguez’s note on Aileen Palmer’s ‘The Swans / The Wanderer’

I thank Judith Rodriguez for extending and illuminating my reading of Aileen Palmer’s poem by drawing attention to John Manifold’s poem ‘The Sirens’. Palmer may have met John Manifold in London- she did meet John Cornford- although I have found no direct reference to their meeting. She respected his poetry, particularly ‘the colloquial, apparent simplicity of his expression within the frame-work of traditional verseforms’.2 She was to emulate this style, which was consistent with their communist politics of writing poetry for the ordinary people.

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Review: Burns, Maiden, Hannaford, White

Ali Jane Smith reviews new poetry collections by Joanne Burns, Jennifer Maiden, Kristin Hannaford and Petra White in last week’s Weekend Australian, [Jan 1-18 2015].

It’s good to see poet Ali Jane Smith reviewing for the newspapers. She uses the thematic question of  ‘Do politicians still read poetry?’ in structuring her review … for example, ‘Despite the satire, the conversations do not produce a predictable party line.”

Joanne Burns’ new collection brush is described as ‘serious and funny’ and that Burns writes of a multicultural, globalised and urbanised Australia but ‘never lets us get too far up ourselves’.

In Drones and Phantoms, Jennifer Maiden –  who has long been concerned ‘with the weft and warp of public and private lives’ – guesses ‘at the motivations and interpersonal nuances behind the sausage-skin of government.’

Kristin Hannaford’s Curio offers ‘well written lyric poems with moments of excitement, like the uncomfortable ‘Pickling:Trawalla, Central Victoria 1840’, a description of an encounter with ‘Wathawarrung women’ presented as ‘a meeting of difference, though the poet hints that the Wathawarrung women’s trading of their “o possum rugs” is a reminder of the similarities and points of connection that the newcomer taxidermist appears to ignore’.

And Petra White’s a hunger draws its inspiration from a work environment. ‘The deadened phrase “work-life balance” is given blood and breath’ in White’s book’, in which she ‘has consciously set out to write about the world of work, abstracting some of the familiar practices and experiences of office life’.

I’ve an interest – naturally, having published it – in Hannaford’s book, but Smith paints positives of each of the books she reviews. They can be found at

joanne burns, ‘brush’, Giramondo, 96 pp, $24

Jennifer Maiden, ‘Drones and Phantoms’, Giramondo, 96 pp, $24

Kristin Hannaford, ‘Curio’, Walleah Press, 68 pp, $20

Petra White, ‘a hunger’, John Leonard Press, 156 pp, $24.95

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‘Mercury’ review, ‘Mrs Fenton’s Journey’ (Margaretta Pos)

Reviewing Margaretta Pos’ recent book ‘Mrs Fenton’s Journey: India and Tasmania 1826-1876’ [Walleah Press, November 2014], the ‘Mercury’s’ Maggie Mackellar notes that family history has moved from ‘the province of the enthusiastic amateur, who wrote exceedingly bad accounts of ancient ancestors, to more sophisticated biographies, which were becoming part of the thrust and parry of mainstream biographers’. Mackellar suggests Pos’ book – drawing on the diaries of her great-great-great grandmother Elizabeth Fenton – falls within the latter category, with the result being ‘… a beautiful tribute to a pioneer, mother, wife, homemaker, and fine writer and shows how good family history adds to our understanding of colonial history’. (A glimpse into the life of Elizabeth Fenton appeared in print in 1901 when her early diaries of colonial life in India and arrival in Van Dieman’s Land were edited and published in London: Mrs Fenton’s Journey’ reveals the full extent of Elizabeth Fenton’s life, from her joyful but ultimately tragic life as a well-bred young Anglo-Irish wife in India to her new life as wife, mother and grandmother in the still-wild colony of Van Dieman’s Land – Tasmania).

Mackellar ends with the recommendation ‘… So if you want to learn how to write a thrilling family history, are interested in Tasmanian settlement history or just love a good story told well, then read this book’.

The book retails for $25 at local bookshops [Hobart and Launceston], or for $28.50 (posted).

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Two reviews: Zenobia Frost’s poetry collection ‘Salt and Bone’

As Zenobia Frost has discovered, it’s never easy to decide when a poetry manuscript’s finally finished. “I have managed to stop tinkering. Here’s a copy of the MS with zero comments in the margins’. Similarly  – on the question of a title – Frost found herself bouncing a couple of options around, being very attached to The Hour of the Curlew before eventually settling on Salt and Bone.

Appraisals of Frost’s work include, (most recently), a thoughtful and positive response from Alyson Miller in Cordite, ‘… Frost’s language is pared back to the bones, sparse and alarming. Salt and Bone is visceral and seductive, its poems as interested in the objective realities of ‘garlic cloves, broccoli, / potatoes and loaves’, as with other, more shadowy matters: the weight of the dead, the fabrication of memory, the search for a story.’ And another, a review by ReVerse Butcher in ‘Melbourne Spoken Word’, appeared in October 2014. ‘One of Frost’s strengths as a writer is that she has found a vocabulary for what some may label as morbid, without being maudlin or over-indulgent. Her observations are exquisitely described, and remain as capsules of tender moments, a tantalising meta-history of personal moments that whisper their place in a much wider world. She has a brave and exciting voice, and it is no wonder that her first collection was shortlisted for the 2013 Thomas Shapcott Prize.’

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