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Esther Ottaway’s ‘Blood Universe’

In Blood Universe, Esther Ottaway takes an event - one both extraordinary and commonplace: the birth of a child – and, through a series of creative and challenging poems, transports her readers through the physical and psychological transformation of becoming a mother for the first time.

Every morning I cram my burgeoning
into pre-pregnancy clothes, needing
familiar prints, textures, needing
my skin of identity.
         [from ‘My Own Costume’]

Ottaway’s Blood Universe is a first collection, one of two [Claire Potter’s In Front of a Comma is the other] published by the Poets Union of Australia in 2006 as part of their Australian Young Poets’ Awards. Blood Universe articulates with clarity and originality the symbiotic bond between mother and child. Through Ottaway’s words, her experience – and for an individual, is there one that's more defining? – assumes compelling intimacy.

Her walls and ceiling are my viscera –
we share the vibrations of an eardrum,
music, traffic, loved voices, but only she
hears that interior percussion, my pumps and bellows,
acoustics of my secret engineering.
Since I will never hear them, perhaps these sounds
were never mine, built for her, osmotic rhythms
of blood and water, memories older than mind.
         [from ‘Dimension and Light’]

Though a thematic work, Blood Universe resists genre labelling as mere collection of motherhood poems, inspires instead a plurality of responses – emotional, rational (irrational, too). Ottaway’s verse is alive to the uncertainties given rise by the unaccustomedness of her condition: the questioning of the authentic ‘I’ (what will endure? what will be cast aside in deference to the new?)

Alone in this body’s twinning,
lonely in my body. For my body,
perhaps: there is little room left for me.
My difficult houseguest
tramples the body’s furniture,
dances until late.
         [from 'Headless Portrait Of A Pregnant Woman']

Within the stanzas above is a suggestion of Cartesian duality – delineating the division between body and mind [or soul] – but it’s not a state of mind embraced with conviction or for any length of time. Ottaway never remains static, she’s flexible in outlook and following her initial confusion progresses comfortably through each phase of pregnancy. With the acceptance of motherhood emerges a "seasoned woman", maturation triggering a loosening of "what was once / essential," with "skins / dropping away from / skins". On tuning in to that "interior percussion", change - both physical and psychological - precipitates an adjustment from preoccupation with self - "where you have value / only as a vessel" - to a new accommodation with the company of others. ["Prepare your armoury / of polite smiles and demure comments"]. An altered outlook on life is accepted with robust, wry humour.

In particular, don't bring that troublesome mouth
seen here shouting from the hospital foyer,
stranded, while the woman's body is cheerfully
trollied away. Get stamped with your cattle-brand
         [from 'Headless Portrait Of A Pregnant Woman']

The latter stages of pregnancy bring order and congruency, a state of mind suggested by the completeness of the rolling onion (which in itself lacks for nothing) as opposed to the trundling gait of the ‘blind lumbering’ potato – while the act of childbirth, when it arrives, comes with a tumultuous rush.

                                                           Crest! Rain in the
face, joy, crest! I roar, tumbling and reefed, washed and beached,
under, over. How small I am in this drowning; the foundering boat,
the feathered twist of kelp, the beautiful, flailed dead thing. The
sad, huge sky and my cloud alone.
         [from ‘Blood Universe’]

The day Ottaway learnt of the book's acceptance for publication, she enquired of her publisher, ‘How long might I expect to wait until my manuscript sees the light of day?’ ‘About nine months’ came the surprisingly appropriate reply. It’s not a bad recommendation to have your first manuscript chosen for publication by the country’s peer support body for poets. Blood Universe has been heavily marketed by the poet herself - in the way these ventures are - as a book women might particularly relate to, yet it possesses a potentially much broader readership.

The act of writing will never approach the experience it attempts to embody - the arrival of a child into the world, in this case - but can nevertheless provide a framework for reflection. Ottaway’s text explores beyond mere bodily experience. While it celebrates pregnancy and parenthood with poignancy and erudition, it introduces the ineffable - which is perhaps as innocuous, or as palpable, as bliss - breathing life into a writing project that appears as support act to the main event. Blood Universe, in this sense, is both harbinger and chronicle, a poetry collection revealing of verbal dexterity, intellectual curiosity and innate joy.

Will Fraser’s ‘The Leema Conspiracy’

Will Fraser’s poetry, often characterised by its crisp, short lines and sharp, frequently politically inspired observations, takes a different tack within his latest collection The Leema Conspiracy (Picaro Press, 2006), a light-hearted set of poems documenting the threat to an imaginery South American society of … well, Llamas. The different approach isn’t a necessarily major change to the writing style because both the crisp observations and short, punchy lines are retained; what’s altered is the tone. Here the mood is playful, gently satirical; a tenor perhaps out of character for Fraser, formerly a journalist, whose creative output includes short fiction, a stage play along with books on creativity in another area, leadlight design. In Fraser’s make-believe world of The Leema Conspiracy, his characters are only ever mock-serious.

He doesn’t feed us properly and when he is drunk
he beats us …’
Suddenly there was a painful ‘yelp’ and the line
went dead.
By now
was fully alert and a Llamad.

Revolution may be in the air, but the threat are more of an intellectual nature rather than conveying intonations of violence and physically threatening of life and limb.

‘He always turned his hearing aid down whenever we met’ –

Thirteen poems in length, The Leema Conspiracy is published in a format similar to Picaro Press’ Wagtail series; providing inexpensive production where production values nevetheless remain a consideration.

POETRIX, issue 28 (May 2007)

Writing in the May 2007 issue of Poetrix, Sherryl Clark notes that the magazine has arrived at its fifteenth year of publication. "There have been times when we’ve been tempted to turn Poetrix into something bigger and glossier (and thus more expensive)," Sherryl writes, "but sanity prevailed. We still get the insides and covers done separately and put the magazine together ourselves, by hand. And so it survives, like a poetry version of the Slow Movement."

In this issue you’ll find poetry by Leanne Hills, Mary Cresswell, Connie Barber, Lisa Saunders, Asuncion Pritchett, Kim Coull, Jane Downing, Moya Pacey, Sheryl Persson, Lorraine Marwood, Tru S. Dowling, Alice Allan, Gemma E. Mahadeo, Laura Jan Shore, Susan Kruss, Jillian Pattinson, Jessika Tong, Julie Chevalier, Beverley George, Lorraine McGuigan, Jean Frances, Irene Wilkie, Dawn Bruce, Carol Bradburn and Margaret Campbell.

Poetrix has no particular theme, other than publishing the best of Australasian women’s poetry. It is published twice a year, with closing dates for submissions being 28 February and 31 August. Subscriptions ($13.20 for two issues) should be made out to Western Women Writers and forwarded to POETRIX, PO Box 532, Altona North, Victoria 3025, Australia.


Meanjin enjoys a well-deserved reputation as one of Australia’s finest literary journals. In recent years, contributions to the magazine have centred around set themes, which could initially be seen as something of a stumbling block – what happens when a particular theme is of no great interest to its readership? Nevertheless the editorial strategy appears to be working for Meanjin.

Issue no. 1/2006 of Meanjin dealt with a range of responses to Black Australia, an exciting and challenging collection of creative writing, ideas and photographs. Indicative is Anita Heiss’ poem ‘Apologies’, questioning the way she is to respond and process the apologies of whites ‘with your lifetime of entrenched racism / wrapped up nicely into one word: / ‘Sorry’?" Heiss’ exasperation, one imagines, is due to the insincerity of an apology not meant; the inference that ‘sorry’ rolls off the tongue too readily for most but indicates no real change of heart, in fact no more than a temporary assuaging of guilt.

Heiss raises an interesting point. Does Black Australia still expect an apology? Or has debate moved beyond its necessity? (pace Philip Mead’s interview with Australian poet Lionel Fogarty in Jacket 1, October 1997 — Fogarty: "I don’t believe in a guilt complex where you base your struggle on ‘You done this to us long time ago, you done this to my people long time ago,’ that kind of guilt conscience. I don’t do that any more. Once in my teens I might have, but now today I understand that you don’t do that!"). Does it come down to a matter of individual interpretation?

In his novel ‘Kangaroo’, D.H. Lawrence’s observation - that at the heart of every Australian is a desert seldom explored - perhaps helped steer Kevin Brophy to accommodations of his own which surface in his essay ‘Desert at our Centre’. It’s a documentation of Brophy’s visit with family to Central Australia to satisfy not only a personal intellectual curiosity but perhaps something deeper … an engagement with something Other?

Jennifer Martiniello’s fiction piece ‘Chosen’ hinges on a violent act at an early age in one’s life, an intersection between the different customs and beliefs of White and Black. The mood introduced is of uncertainty; of a Western frame of mind lacking the capacity to meet the demands of an Aboriginal mentality.

Ken Bolton has argued that little magazines lack a sense of aesthetics – ("Imagine a war of the literary magazines, based on aesthetics – it’s impossible at the moment.") – so how does one approach Meanjin? To be entertained and informed by its eclecticism, as opposed to being confronted (by Hecate, or Overland, for example)? If one argues against eclectism, how do you explain away such exceptional collections of writing as Meanjin’s Black issue with its intelligently argued and contemporaneous points of view on an important and ongoing debate?

Martin Edmond’s Luca Antara [East Street Publications, 2006]

In his blog dérives, where he writes extensively of his experiences as a Sydney taxi-driver, Martin Edmond mentions an occasion – ‘confession time’ is the way he describes it – when he dropped a passenger at the wrong address. His fare was "… a bit detached, a bit abstracted, but good company and we chatted amiably all the way to ... well, he said Nelson and it wasn't until I'd dropped him off and was racing away down the street that I realised I'd left him in ... Trafalgar. It was only a block west of where he should have been & he had the number of his friends to call, but I still felt really bad."

Not all cabbies experience anything approaching Edmond’s sense of guilt at such mistakes. The dodgier are adept at ripping off passengers and workmates alike; pinching fellow drivers’ fares, transporting passengers via more circuitous routes to their destinations. That said – and having drawn a clear distinction between rogue cabbies and author/taxi driver Martin Edmond - I’d like to offer the perambulations of the dodgy taxi driver as analogy for Edmond's novel Luca Antara, because here too no simple linear progresssion from a to b exists. Luca Antara journeys circuitously through an intellectual landscape coursing with characters of interest both past and present, projecting a big-canvas picture in which history comes alive through a magical mix of fact and fiction, memoir, conjecture and gossip. Luca Antara achieves much, challenges on any number of levels, though first and foremost it’s about the writing. Martin Edmond is an undeniably gifted wordsmith for whom words flow with rhythm and grace. Add to this a lack of rancour, an ability to probe below the surface for explanations and a gift for genuine engagement with his readership … he's a masterful story-teller.

His search for Luca Antara – island? continent? myth? - is part romantic odyssey, part desire for novelty, part quest junkie coming to the fore. A consequence for quest junkies, Edmond explains, is that no sooner is one mission accomplished than you are casting around for another, adding that to Edward Dorn's speculation – "Is a man / Without quest / A dangerous sign" - he would have to answer yes. In Luca Antara, Edmond’s explorations are on the one hand a search for enlightenment of the highest order, a leisurely jaunt finding satisfaction in the simplest of delights on the other … for as he asks, "Who knows what other travellers might not have set out with a wild surmise for these shores? Looking perhaps for Luca Antara; perhaps just for the day after tomorrow".

During his habitual browsing of Sydney's bookstores in the early 1980's, Edmond happened across a book - James Joyce's Ulysses, at the time a proscribed text within Australia - previously owned, and inscribed, by Max Harris. From the date Harris had inscribed - December 1942 - Edmond deduces it may have been in Harris' possession at the time the Ern Malley hoax was perpetuated upon him during 1943-1944. "I have always wondered why Harris sold Ulysses," Edmond writes, "which I have now owned for more than twenty years, only a few years after he bought it". Perhaps Harris was not fond of the book, he surmises. "Or was it something else, an impulse to divest himself of unlawful goods in the aftermath of his derisory conviction for publishing Ern Malley's 'obscene' poems, a resiling from Ulysses' triumphant authority in the light of the ludicrous events with which his own name is ineradicably associated? Was the irony of legal vindication for Joyce while his own enterprises fell foul of the law too rich to bear?"

From a reading of Luca Antara, one intuits Edmond’s joy at laying his hands on Harris’ copy of Ulysses. Literary hoaxes, fictions and deceptions figure strongly in Edmond’s writing … minute permutations of black and white offer scant substance for the enquiring mind. (Perhaps there’s hoax contained in Edmond’s book? Where does memoir and semi-autobiography cease, and fiction begin? Do we need to know?) Are there varying degrees of hoax? Edmond is dismissive of the James McAuley and Harold Stewart literary hoax played out on Harris which derived its impetus from maliciousness. He’s far more sympathetic towards the seventy-two or more heteronyms of Portuguese Fernando Pessoa, "a semi-conscious creation, born from equal parts elation and despair". Perhaps his interest in Pessoa is the need for quest coming to the fore once more; though when pertaining to Pessoa, it’s a quest unattainable in any shape or form, Edmond realises. "(Pessoa’s) The Book of Disquiet is in fact an infinite book, a labyrinth within the labyrinth of Pessoa’s other writings in his own name or in the names of his seventy-two heteronyms. Anyone who engages with this oeuvre enters the maze without hope or perhaps desire of ever exiting; and, if they write as well, cannot avoid adding paths, with their inevitable false leads, non sequiturs and dead endings, to that maze."

Pessoa is but one of a multitude of history’s characters – alongside Jean Cabri, Feodar Ivanovich Tolstoy, Pelsaert, Ryckart Wouters, Wiebbe Hayes, Edward Robarts, Jan Pelgrom de Bye, Wouter Loos, et al - to appear in Edmond’s pages. Other entries derive from personal relationships; Mette, a sometime lover, of whom he notes that he’d chat with her for a while "… but these conversations, while not exactly inconsequential, were never intimate. We exchanged information or opinions, not confidences."; Mary, sister of his landlord: ‘…her life must have been one of scarcely believable circumscription and repetition’; Gerry the taxi driver, Steven the bookseller, Jonny Bear, Elle, Henry Klang….

While many books are energised by the flowering of a writer’s creative genius, most manage to remain discrete entities quite detached from their authors. Not so this book, where author and creation are inseparable. To experience Luca Antara is to gain an insight into Martin Edmond’s heart and soul at a particular stage of his life, firmly fixed in a moment in time.