Not the review

Overland 175

Issue 175 of Overland features a generous sampling of fiction from Marion Devitt, MG Patterson, Simon Groth and Georgina Luck, poetry by Connie Barber, Mark Mahemoff, Andy Kissane, Louise Molloy, Jean Thornton, Luke Alexeyeff, Joel Deane, Terry Eyssens, Natasha Lester, Amanda Wilson, Paula Green and Walter Vivian, along with the magazine's de rigueur selections of essays, reviews and commentary.

Among the essays featured in the issue is a piece by Melbourne barrister and ALP member Peter Holding, commenting on the war in Iraq. Holding argues that in committing to bring Australia's troops home by Christmas, Mark Latham unnecessarily opened up political opportunities for John Howard; and Labor's qualified opposition to the war, he points out, witnessed many senior Labor members adopting the same approach as the government over claims Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs. Labor thus found itself in a position from where it "... could never move from its criticism of the Howard government for having lied to a criticism that it failed to take a sufficiently critical approach towards US and UK intelligence, because senior Labor figures fell hook line and sinker for the same intelligence."

Elsewhere, Katherine Wilson in 'Junk Science' comments on the commercial farming of genetically modified (GM) canola in Australia, and argues strongly against it gaining the government's approval. Much of the rhetoric appearing in the press is less from disinterested and impartial parties than from those pushing an agenda, Wilson suggests. She quotes geneticist David Suzuki who warns that "any scientist or politician who assures you that these products are safe is either very stupid or lying". Wilson's essay also gives space to the arguments put forth in the recent book entitled Seeds of Deception by Jeffrey M Smith, which is scathingly critical of Monsanto, the company owning 91 per cent of the GM crop market and 23 per cent of the world's seed companies.

Maria Tumarkin, in her article 'Traumascapes, memory and the curse of indifference' questions why it is generally resignation thatgreets the occasion of history repeating itself; resignation "imbued with sadness and self-irony perhaps, but resignation nonetheless". Tumarkin refers specifically to the development of Darwin's Mindil Beach, which till the 1930's was an Aboriginal burial ground and site of Aboriginal habitation, but which these days houses Darwin's Diamond Casino complex and its Sunset Markets. Some twenty-five years ago, human remains - subsequently identified as being of Aboriginal and mixed descent - were found on the beach. The remains were reburied, but continued development has seen the exhumation of more skeletal forms and the ongoing violation of the site. Tumarkin ponders whether the history of Mindil Beach as a burial ground, (a place notionally sacred to most cultures), is simply not important enough to remember.

Paul Strangia, in his review of John McLaren's Free Radicals, describes the book as a labour of love, "... a wonderfully rich and human account of the intersecting lives of the post-war radicals and intellectuals Stephen Murray-Smith, Ian turner and Ken Gott", and dealing with "... the trio's interlude of uncritical dogmatism, including the apologias for Stalinism, with admirable dispassion, he neither exculpates nor is judgemental."

Warwick McFadyn's short essay 'Moving On', a brilliant dissertation on the decision to wage war on Iraq, searches for common ground between the entrenched views of the political Left and Right. For the Left, Australia's involvement in the war is an immoral act it cannot easily gloss over; while for the Right, to mention the misuse of truth in the children overboard affair or the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, is passe. As John Howard has remarked - and the results of the election appear to bear out - "My view is that the public by and large has moved on".

The war has also provided us with a dichotomy between mathematics and morality, writes McFadyn. The war divided (and still does) media commentators, analysts, politicians (and basically anyone with an opinion) into pro- or anti-invasion. Prewar, the moral high ground became a desperately crowded place. Both sides could justify their stance: there was evidence of weapons of mass destruction, no there was not; there were links to al-Queda, no there were not. Postwar, the moral high ground is still overcrowded. And there, one can also hear a tiny sound: it is the clicking of a calculator. Morality is being calibrated to the mathematics of war.

The equation goes like this:
X x Y = moral justification/outrage
where X is the regime/government/person/coalition/group and Y is the
number of dead.

McFadyn’s is an exquisite piece of writing - but with its reviews, opinion pieces and opening editorial, Overland 175 is awash with good material. It follows on from the pinnacle of Overland 174 which featured Barry Hill’s superb Australia Day essay, the kind of publishing opportunity to arrive on an editor's desk just once in a blue moon. An articulate voice of the Left, is a journal of quality and class (no pun intended!) and demonstrates a genuine interest in discourse.

Peter Timms, What's Wrong with Contemporary Art?
UNSW Press, May 2004, 184pp, $29.95

According to Sydney curator Victoria Lynn, art is essential "for inspiration and wonder; for the encouragement to push boundaries and open our minds; to challenge our perspectives on life and society..." Lynn's words are quoted in the introduction to Peter Timms' new book What's Wrong with Contemporary Art? Timms, one suspects, would dearly love to agree with her - but finds himself hard pressed. The reality, as he sees it, is that our imagination is rarely challenged by contemporary art. What's Wrong with Contempory Art? sets out to explore the gap between "the hype about contemporary art and what I believe to be the common experience of it..."

One of its problems, Timms argues, is that contemporary art - by and large - is too conservative, too concerned with playing it safe. "How often do we hear of people demanding art be 'relevant' to their lives?" he asks. If 'relevancy' depends on art imitating life, then it will hardly be in a position to challenge our perspectives on life and society, can hardly make claims to innovation.

He views postmodernism, not as a new flourish of artistic endeavour but merely a staging ground - "a transitional phase, a sort of clearing of the intellectual decks" - making way for the next movement; a movement that rather than advocating art for art's sake, will integrate past dimensions of the artistic, intellectual, moral and ethical in an amalgamation of old and new. Anything less is narcissistic, Timms argues, insofar as it's concerned only with our own milieu. "If you have no conception of history - linear of otherwise - then you remain a prisoner of your own time, trapped in a cycle of habit".

Timms demands frameworks, points of reference. "If we accept that we needn't even be thinking about looking for meaning, then where's the problem? No meaning, no point, no problem." To emphasise his point, he quotes Roman philosopher Sextus Empericus, "Whenever they could find a plausible argument on one side of a question, they could find an equally plausible argument on the other. The arguments became equipollent on every issue, it was never reasonable to plump for this side or for that. The men of talent suspended their judgement. They affirmed nothing. They denied nothing. They believed nothing. And, wonderful to relate, a great tranquillity came over them." Simplified in this way, it’s almost mandatory to put forward a point of view, and Timms doesn't disappoint. In What’s Wrong with Contemporary Art?, he engages in intellectual debate that flows effortlessly across various art forms and extends from past to present; necessarily so, given Timms' focus on the lack of a historical representation in the art of the present.

Barbara de Franceschi, Lavender Blood
ISBN 1 74008 282 7 $25

Three years in the writing, Lavender Blood is Barbara de Franceschi’s first collection. The best of de Franceschi's poems work a thread exploring both the big and unanswerable questions as well as the familiar and everyday experiences. These are poems that are in turn both funny and serious, and reveal a writer who - though relatively new to her craft - has settled quickly into her stride.

Many of the poems in this collection have been published in magazines such as Centoria, The Tablet, Poetrix, Yellow Moon, Famous Reporter, Salt-Lick Quarterly, The Bunyip and elsewhere. The personal is conspicuous in a number of them, with certain poems - "The Poet in me", "Poetry Defended", "Writer" and "Where Has Poetry Gone", for instance - pinpointing a flowering of awareness of the possibilities of language. The poem ‘Writer’ points to a capacity as observer

Outside orthodoxy
he collects bits of life recycled

Beyond these handful of poems, de Franceschi is less introspective as she gathers her scraps and materials of inspiration from those she lives and deals with in far western NSW’s Broken Hill, documenting the experiences of the immigrant labour force working the mines....

handkerchief knotted
four corners on his head


navy blue singlet khaki shorts uniform of the migrant building trade

De Franceschi’s poems of the mines are not confined to personal tales of people and events. ‘Iron Will and Intellect’ presents a historical view of living conditions for the families of the mine’s past labourers.

The womenfolk of miners
marched against free labour in 1892
suckled children
in hand-me-downs>br /> fastened against
the coldness of company bosses
militant unionism
and with bounden duty>br /> suffered the poverty of the strike.

Even poems dealing with personal relationships are touched, inevitably, with the spectre of the mine.

You and I
twin mullock heaps

Others record with gentle, wry humour the domesticity of personal relationships. 'Likes and Dislikes' traces a father’s gradual acceptance of his daughter's suitor; how his son-in-law

hunted snails at night
that were wrecking Dad's garden.
Cooked and ate them actually.

Elsewhere, the frailties of old-age come under de Franceschi’s scrutiny in unsentimentally hopeful appraisals as in the poem ‘Relic’, whose elderly subject is ‘betrayed by faulty components / yet sharp of wit / still able to will small miracles’, acutely aware of the people

‘… who never look back
afraid to contemplate aged care
as though by denial
they secure their own immortality’.

Married with five children and six grandchildren, awarded the Order of Australia medal in 2002, Barbara de Franceschi comes to writing after a lifetime’s involvement in other activities. Within these poems, she brings her broad range of interests and resourcefulness to bear.

Les Wicks, Stories of the feet
Five Islands Press, ISBN 1 74128 042 7

In the Poets' Union's Directory of Australian Poets 1980, there's an early listing for Les Wicks which reveals he began writing in 1976.

If one engaged in a frivolous game by imagining Wicks writing a decade or so earlier, one might tease out the role he’d have played (if any) in the split within Australian poetry circles pitting the 'Generation of 68' against the traditionalists. He might have slotted in with the traditionalists who, in the words of Noel Rowe, "assumed the language of poetry had a moral and aesthetic purpose which elevated their task". Les? Well why not? Particularly if you're persuaded by the smattering of ecclesiastical terms filtering through the final poems of his new collection - 'benediction', 'sacrament', 'luminosity', 'temples', 'gods', eucharist', holy', 'souls' and 'clerical' - terms more readily identified with the iconography of religious faith.

But lauding one’s lot from on high isn't Wicks' style, so maybe he'd have been more appropriately matched with the 'Generation of 68', bound less by a sympathy of poetic approach than by an opposition to the traditionalists and their values. Yet here again there are problems. If the commonly sought approach of the 'Generation of 68' was to upset and undermine meaning, Wicks is on shaky ground. Though contemporary poetics casts aspersions on the poem as confession – "of lived personal experience, the (mostly) free verse presentation of sincerity and authenticity" as Ron Silliman puts it – the romantic notions of authenticity and reliability lie at the heart of Wicks' poetry.

On the Cordite website is a review by Rob Walker of Stories of the Feet. 'Someone once said that you shouldn’t use poetry to tell a story,' writes Walker, adding 'Either Les hasn’t heard this, or he chooses to ignore it.' Wicks writes about people. It's his forte. Even within a pastoral poem, human relationships intrude. Jill Jones, in reviewing Stephen Edgar’s Where the Trees Were some years ago, described Stephen’s collection as conveying a sense of landscapes or rooms not so much lacking human players, as enacting the space or time when the humans are not there. With Stories of the feet Wicks has produced the antithesis of the mood to which Jones alludes.

The real and imaginary characters peopling Wicks' poems are tended with a sensibility involving not a little compassion. Tended with humility too - or maybe it's just the wariness of someone for whom self-deception is a no-go zone. Prison, psych hospitals / the bush & the beats./ / They’re dangerous. [What's a prison term? No more than a debt to society? Once endured, are you ever really free of the debt to yourself?] 'I realise they're me, bar a few accidents' writes Wicks, leaving the impression of someone who's tottered at the edge, only to draw back. Is it any surprise this man's previous Five Islands Press collection was entitled Nitty Gritty?

At Varuna a little over four years ago, Mark O’Flynn launched Les Wicks Ways of Waves. "So join with me to wet your board, pull on your wettie, and welcome Les Wicks in the search for the Australian heart," Mark invited. The search continues, it's not at all surprising to find Wicks - the city poet, the Bondi boy - just as inherently curious about the bush.

possum caught in porch light
her eyes just as round, febrile


If you stay quiet long enough
wallaby bends again to green profusion at its feet.

While Wicks' city poems are often hard-edged and bleak, his nature poems are just as often wrapped with reverence and awe, a contrast to the habitually offhand dismissals of those who live with and absorb it daily. Just as for the optimist the glass is always half full, for Wicks the meat is on the hoof, not yet in the butcher's window. Clearly however, his perceptions are not merely the awed appraisals of the city boy. Sentimentality is saved by a clear eye. Is there anything like road-kill to augment the evening meal?

By the verge - hit then harvested -
a tail-taken kangaroo. Highway 32's dead,

Wicks' response to a residency in Tasmania's interior - halfway between Hobart and the West Coast - is to write of the issue that concentrates the minds of many in this state, the forest industry.

We are all tainted
by the gutted meats
of butchered trees
trucked out by hard-working men.
Smell the blood
each time you touch
new season couches, fine polished floors.

There's no over-blown rhetoric of the danger to every last tree, simply a poet's sensibility at work with his clear-eyed appraisals of the aesthetics of the situation.

Some months ago, The Sydney Morning Herald ran an interview with Bonita Mabo highlighting White Australia's continuing uneasy relationship with its indigenous peoples. "People don’t want to get close to black people [in Australia]" Mabo remarked. "Everybody's got to reconcile with each other. I think the first step is getting to know somebody, sit down and spend a bit of time talking to people and maybe you'll get to know them and then maybe they'll say, "Come on we'll go and have a barbie somewhere".

Most of us don't bother, but Wicks does. The mantle of the poet – rarely a passport to material luxuries – at least affords freedom for expression and scope for integrity. It's apparent with Wicks in poems such as ‘That Problem’, wherein he deplores his inability to write well about race. [Wicks writes well enough, as it happens, just not well enough to satisfy himself]. "I’ve met your mob too - / probably more than most white blokes - /less than necessary", he writes.


Why can’t I write it?

I met a Prime Minister once.
Easily distracted
from subjects less interesting than himself,
his smile was like the brightest fingerling
sunlight grab.
That’s 4 lines about
no great thing.

I’ve met your mob too –
probably more than most white blokes –
less than necessary.
You’re as bland, vile or luminous as us all
but that’s not the point.
I see you dance on powdered land,
the wordless lines.
You paint for a $50 pop
then beat your wives.
For rage or impotence,
not the point.

Hear about astonishing Aunties
who hold the kids together –
mother father elder.
Seen you in suits, the best dresses.
Dark head in a crowd, roe sprinkled on vichyssoise.
Your medicine, law books & politics are not the point.
My school’s fiercest bully was another
(though we never knew then).
Threw me off the embankment
with a scientific violence.
He ended up in Nimbin, last I heard.
Near Bourke, I saw a statue in a mission church,
the once vibrant Jesus – palms out –
faded imploration as he slouched.
Caged in chicken wire 'cause of the vandals
he was just another beggar.
Never had a meaningful talk with one
but that’s rare enough everywhere –
holidays, health, kids, property, sport … the stuff we go on about.
Another time taught one, her eyes quartz light
at found delight.
Two others said nothing
as the lunch bell tensed like a snake.
I have said sorry
on some organised book.
An intelligent man
nice, compassionate man
means I want to do more –
these are our pasts
with a mean, impotent edge.
Why can’t I write it?

For all his left wing certainties, there's a tolerance in Wicks the Christians would be delighted to claim as their own. I don't see eye to eye with everything he writes (holidays, health, kids, property, sport … the stuff we go on about. falls short for me: holidays, perhaps, but kids and health?) - nevertheless I respond to the general tenor of his approach. When it comes to judging others – Black or White – Wicks is both generous and forbearing. He certainly doesn't romanticise Black Australia. but offers a fair hearing, which is about as good as you can ask for. His words "less than necessary" demonstrate concern and a desire to come to terms with cultural difference.

Does Wicks address White Australia with this poem? A Black Australian audience? I suspect he writes for himself, cataloguing the questions that waltz the boundaries of his experience. "It’s where most of us white blokes end up," he says when you ask him about the poem. "It posits nothing by way of ‘special insight’, quite the opposite, and I don't see it as any braver than a poet needs to be with their work". With Wicks, there’s an itch, the background stuff he can’t discard, the simple normative experiences of someone who thinks with his heart. An honest and insightful attempt to see beyond subterfuge is what I take from Stories of the feet.

Michael Farrell, Ode Ode
Salt Publishing, ISBN 1 876857 53 6

During the course of an interview last year with Tasmanian writer Pete Hay, Pete observed that he found himself spending more time these days with forms of writing other than poetry. 'I write less poetry because I don't want to be enigmatic ... and enigma, it seems to me, is a part of successful poetry. A poem needs to leave people wondering, needs to be capable of a multitude of meanings."

‘Enigmatic’ might aptly describe the work of Melbourne poet Michael Farrell. Farrell shuns the off-the-rack constraints of conventional verse to suit himself; perhaps – even – to have fun. (Nothing wrong with that ... John Tranter, remarking on the poetries of Ashbery, O'Hara, Koch and Berrigan suggests it’s one of the best reasons you can have for writing poetry. "If it's fun for you it might be fun for the reader and that's a start isn't it?") Well-credentialled critics suggest Farrell's poetry is good … very good; "Australia's influential new stylist", as he's described on the back cover of ode ode, his current collection. His oeuvre, with its fractured images and ambiguous word associations, challenges assumptions. Readers foraging for meaning from his words run the risk of approaching Farrell from the wrong direction, of lending themselves as examples - to borrow Ron Silliman's analogy - of "why people who read poetry as, and for evidence in philosophical debates tend to be clumsy, if not outright incompetent, readers".

Commenting on the work of Gertrude Stein for online magazine HOW2, Farrell makes the point that Stein's democratic writing "avoids privileging character, description, plot or imagery". They're the kind of terms I'm tempted to use to describe Farrell's own work. Is Stein, in fact, difficult? Conversation on Jen Crawford’s poneme mailing list has tended to presume she isn't difficult at all - that she's 'particularly lucid', in fact - that what is problematic about her is 'a radical simplicity'. Is Farrell difficult?

Asked at a reading in Melbourne some months ago about the perceived difficulty of his writing, Michael grinned in response. "Give the poems a few readings, they'll come to you.". Whether they come to you or not depends largely on your habits as a reader; on whether you're prepared to accept Farrell’s cultural signifiers in good faith. Farrell manipulates responses, challenges assumptions, encourages readers to lay aside biases and preconceptions and visit the text with fresh eyes.

the whores

the whores wet from waterfight are
on the track illumining a grey way
their long necks tilt to lush loss
on crisp corners in soggy saunas
we chat we exchange industry hints
how we fill our pages with lashed
visages on the phone to friendsinlaw
the apocalypse will be canary yellow
i doubt that mewed a milder cat
a wilder water wet pyromanic
barbie & her shrimp valise oily
hair from here to there are the
wages of cheap peanut butter thiefs
straying in the grass a chestnut made
a bid for clover ices at midnight
a chance to balance out internal
excolonels hunt intestinal fauna they
sleep with their machines on escape to
unfashionable beaches clamour rules
inconsiderate swimming styles rife
sniff fat chips walk thighs raw the
next apocalypse will be wren blue your
duetting mother called your idealistic
fathers whipped himself into a froth

Peter Minter, also commenting on the poneme poetry list on the writing of Gertrude Stein, suggests the question of obscurity at first reading is a challenge to his sensibilities - "why don't i get this, why does it make me feel abject ... that is a challenge, as a human with a mind and heart, to find out more". I'm sympathetic, but that doesn't help me with Farrell. It's not that I find his poetry lacking the depth and dynamism I might find in more conventional verse, Farrell's as politically active and aware as the next person (in most cases more so). And by its very disjointedness, Farrell’s dislocations serve to question - and consequently reinforce? - existing cultural structures. The problems I have in adjusting to Farrell's text are all my own, a simple lack of the poetic skills to appreciate Farrell's construction of what Zan Ross aptly describes in five bells as "a rollercoaster of language". Still, (to take a positive spin from the experience) sometimes what you attain from a collection is the satisfaction of having met someone on his/her own terms, albeit (in my case) having been dragged through the text kicking and screaming. Attempting to meet Michael Farrell, even part way, brings its own rewards.