Recounting: Antagony Book I – Luis Goytisolo (translated by Brendan Riley)

Recounting

The Catalan “Ulysses”?

In recent months I have come across a plethora of references to James Joyce’s novel, with comparisons to numerous world literature works, must be the circles I mix in on social media! As frequent visitors here would know, I have recently reviewed part of Oğuz Atay’s “Tutunamayanlar” (“The Disconnecte d”), referred to as the Turkish “Ulysses” and today I look at Luis Goytisolo’s “Antagony”, more precisely “Recounting: Book 1”.

Here’s a few snippets of other reviewer’s thoughts, one taken from the publisher’s foreign rights page, the other from a site I visit often to explore world literature.

In whatever way, like Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s In search of lost time, like many others—or few others—you shouldn’t die without having read it (Antonio Martínez Asensio, blog Tiempo de silencio, Antena3.com)

In Spain, it is considered as one of the great works of 20th century literature, compared both to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; Remembrance of Things Past). The comparison are certainly valid. Like the Joyce it is a Bildungsroman while, like the Proust, it is a long exploration of the artistic development of a young man. From the site “The Modern Novel” (although a great review it should come with a spoiler warning)

And then we have Mario Vargas Llosa (thanks to The Untranslated for this snippet ):

Besides being an ambitious and complex book, difficult to read due to the protoplasmic configuration of the narrative matter, it is also an experiment intended to renew the content and the form of the traditional novel, following the example of those paradigms which revolutionalised the genre of the novel or at least tried to do so — above all Proust and Joyce, but, also James, Broch and Pavese –, without renouncing a certain moral and civic commitment to historical reality which, although very diluted, is always present, sometimes on the front stage, sometimes as the novel’s backdrop.

Structurally this book does have a Proustian bent, following the life of Raúl Ferrer Gamide, a middle class Catalan, from childhood through army service, law studies, romantic interludes but more importantly his desire to be a writer. All against the political backdrop of Barcelona. I won’t be putting any spoilers in my thoughts here, rest assured if you decide to tackle this massive book I’ll allow you to discover the narrative yourself.

However, it is not the plot that is the main attraction here, it is the novel’s structure, grand sweeping exploration of Catalan society after the Spanish Civil War and the political luminosity that drags you along, through 648 pages.

A difficult book to read, we have ten page paragraphs, generally consisting of a single sentence, dialogue that forms part of the main text, so it is a challenge to understand who is speaking, a cast of hundreds, all with nicknames, some with code names and then broad philosophical debates, including political manifestos.

For example there are three page explanations as to why a door was locked at 3pm precisely, another three pages observing the eating of a ham sandwich, but it is the microscopic examination of Barcelona and the middle class that brings the richness to this novel.

A wonderful example of the craft is the beginning of Chapter IV, where the paragraph opens with “Coming down to Las Ramblas…”, an area of Barcelona, and ends with “their fitful procession heading up Las Ramblas.” In between there are descriptions of all the alleys, the crowds, the flowers, “confusing alleys and side streets with their little dives which stank of hashish, alleys where, as it grew dark, the shining lights isolated the ground floor businesses, the red doorways, the worn, narrow pavement, the filthy paving stones, high-heeled shoes, bulging hips, necklines, long manes of hair, painted eyes, a succession of bars, of turf marked off and intensified by cigarette smoke.”

Each of the players circle in and out of focus, and as we move through Raúl’s maturation from childhood to schooling, to army service, to his involvement with the socialist/communist party, his distribution of clandestine pamphlets, his legal work and dreams of being a writer, we learn more and more about Catalan society.

Classic references to things such as the “caganer”, the defecating figurine in Catalan nativity scenes, blend with discussions on Catalan poetry, literature, its demise and subsequent rise, and further discussions on Spanish speaking Catalonians, this is a detailed expose of cultural life.

In one section we have many pages describing the Sagrada Familia, Raúl simply walking in there to hide from the police, when suddenly the text lapses into descriptive explanations of the iconic Church:

And to the right, the Portico of Faith, enraptured altarpiece centred on the presentation of Jesus in the temple, with an outline of images now solemn and impassive, now violent, like the one of John the Baptist preaching in the desert, foretelling the coming of the Messiah, all that upon an embroidered background of wretchedness and suffering, of an interwoven framework of thorns and flowers, buds, corollas, thalamus, sepals, petals. Stigmata, honeybees drawn to pollen, and superimposed on the bramble-crag crenellations, the lantern, a three-peaked oil lamp, eternal triangle, base of Immaculate Conception, dogmatic effigy rising in ecstasy, like an ejaculatory prayer from within a large cascade of sprigs and grape clusters, all those details one can spot carefully from any one of the points of the belfry towers, as you climb the airy spiral staircases, from the doorways, from the enclosed balconies sinuously integrated on the projections of architraves and cornices of the frontispiece, balconies with bulbous wrought iron railings, small contoured galleries, catwalks, small steps, intestinal cavities, twisted corridors of irregular relief, passages conjoined in a coming and going from the belfries to the façade, four intercommunicating bell towers, harmonically erect. Which, if near their bases appear rather strangely compounded with the parameters of the porticoes, as the separate, each acquiring its own shape, they becomes curving parabolic cones, the two outer pairs equal in height, the two center towers taller.

The more you read of this complex work, the more you realise it is an homage to Barcelona.

Richly packed with snippets of historical data, with references to cultural icons and other books, there are also brilliantly referenced cultural scraps, for example when one character’s father suspiciously dies and the subsequent legal action over his business interests hots up, there is a reference to Goya’s “Trágala, perro”, “depicting some raving monks with a giant syringe about to forcibly administer an enema to a trembling man in the presence of his veiled wife.”

 

425px-Museo_del_Prado_-_Goya_-_Caprichos_-_No._58_-_Tragala_perro

 

Suddenly an obscure etching has made itself into my sphere, and now my consciousness.

We also have a number of references to Marcel Proust, one of my favourite sections talking about a literary endeavour:

…we have a good example of that in Manolo Maragas, with his remembrances and reflections, with the magnified profiles of his memory, when he talks about Alicia and Sunche, when he talks about Magdalena’s grandmother as if she were the Duchess of Guermantes and as if Grandpa Augusto were the duke, and Doña America were Madame Verduin, and that crazy Tito Coll a sort of Charlus, while he, Manolo Moragas, the narrative I, an apathetic Marcel, too sceptical to take the trouble to write anything, the only reason for him not already having withdrawn into his cork-lined cell, becomes a chronicler of Barcelonan society, the literary transcription of whose avatars, for any reader not directly implicated in that world, would awaken the same interest, probably, as the prose of one of those stylists in the Sunday edition of a provincial newspaper who’ve achieved a certain notoriety by the agreeable character of the collaborations, stylists who philosophize like a sheep chewing its cud before the ruins of the Parthenon, not in service of the validity of the ideas developed, but rather, to please his readers’ palates, of the originality of the focus and the graceful exposition, as well as this stylist’s prose, the interest of the specific problems of that world, of the characters capable of inhabiting it, grazing and watering among the ruins of the culture, with the grace and subtlety and elegance of a bull’s head that, like Narcissus, gazes at itself in a puddle.

In a few lines, the depth of characters take on a new meaning, readers of Proust suddenly having another layer to the already complex players. But we are not restricted to Proust, the is a whole section questioning scholars and them not giving enough time to Dante’s Canto 34 in Inferno. Through drunken debates, scholarly discussions, a whole playing field of the author’s views can be spread on this massive canvas.

I must admit, there were many political sections where I tired of the proletariat debate, the roles of the bourgeois, the eternal struggle of the worker, however these political rants were more than adequately balanced with crystal clear observations of daily life, of the existentialist struggle. A Menippean satire? Possibly. A Catalan “Ulysses”, less likely, for a start it isn’t a single day…

A massively complex but thoroughly engaging work, unfortunately we have to wait until August 2018 for Book II to be released in English, and by that time it may mean a re-reading of “Recounting” is required, a novel that would reveal so much more upon every re-read, and so little time!!!

I am hoping to get to a few other world literature “Ulysses” over the coming months, I may tire of that journey but a few books I do have set aside are:

“Leg Over Leg” by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (all four volumes)

“Three Trapped Tigers” by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

“Adam Buenosayres: A Critical Edition” by Leopoldo Marechal

“All About H. Hatterr” by G.V. Desani

“Berlin Alexanderplatz” by Alfred Döblin

And of course I need to post my thoughts on the remaining section of Oğuz Atay’s “The Disconnecte d”

I am sure there are many many more books that fall into the “Ulysses” category, hopefully I get to discover their riches over the coming years.

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2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards

pmla_logo

The shortlists for the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards have been announced today. Each winner receives $80,000 and each shortlisted title $5,000

I would like to congratulate the judges of the Poetry Award (also the Fiction Award Judges), for a wonderful list. Chair, Associate Professor Bronwyn Lea, Kathy Shand, Dr James Ley, Susan Wyndham and Sarah Holland-Batt.

Two of the poetry titles I have reviewed and interviewed the poet, the links in the listing will take you to those reviews/interviews.

I wish all shortlisted writers the best of luck when the winners are announced (interestingly not one of the press releases has the date of the announcement!!!)

Fiction

“The Easy Way Out” by Steven Amsterdam

“The Last Days of Ava Langdon” by Mark O’Flynn

“Their Brilliant Careers” by Ryan O’Neill

“Waiting” by Philip Salom

“Extinctions” by Josephine Wilson

Poetry

“Painting Red Orchids” by Eileen Chong

“Year of the Wasp” by Joel Deane

“Content” by Liam Ferney

“Fragments” by Antigone Kefala

“Headwaters” by Anthony Lawrence

Non-Fiction

“Mick: A life of Randolph Stow” by Suzanne Falkiner

“The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft” by Tom Griffiths

“Our Man Elsewhere : In Search of Alan Moorehead” by Thornton McCamish

“Quicksilver” by Nicolas Rothwell

“The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art” by Sebastian Smee

Prize for Australian History

“’A passion for exploring new countries’ Matthew Flinders and George Bass” by Josephine Bastian

“Valiant for Truth: The Life of Chester Wilmot, War Correspondent” by Neil McDonald

“Evatt: A Life” by Professor John Murphy

“Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga story” by Dr Elizabeth Tynan

“A Handful of Sand: The Gurindji Struggle, After the Walk-off” by Charlie Ward

Young Adult Fiction

“Words in Deep Blue” by Cath Crowley

“The Bone Sparrow” by Zana Fraillon

“The Stars at Oktober Bend” by Glenda Millard

“Forgetting Foster” by Dianne Touchell

“One Would Think The Deep” by Claire Zorn

Children Fiction

“Home In The Run” by Bob Graham

“Blue Sky, Yellow Kite” by Janet A. Holmes

“My Brother” by Dee Huxley

“Figgy and the President” by Tasmin Janu

“Dragonfly Song” by Wendy Orr

Self imposed book buying ban complete

Today a debrief on the last five months, the period where I decided to not purchase a single new book until I had read fifty titles from my shelves. As an experiment in addiction, I’m happy to report I received a string of supportive tweets, as I posted each completed book. This interest in my plight greatly assisted with the persistence required to complete the task.

There were a number of interesting learnings that I would like to share with you.

The public scrutiny. When I initially floated the idea of reducing my backlog of titles, I pledged to report my progress via Twitter, and I remained solid in that pledge, every single completed title getting a photo and a countdown message, via social media. All of a sudden, a pastime which can be very private is in the public domain. In the history of this blog I have never reviewed every book that I read, sometimes I simply don’t like the book, other times I don’t feel as though I have anything worthwhile to add to the plethora of other material available on a title, yet other times I couldn’t put into words my feelings for a particular book, and even other times I simply didn’t want to be part of a continued hype around a newly released title, occasionally I simply don’t have time to write up my thoughts. Publicly declaring each title meant I was revealing the extent of my “black hole”. FYI – whilst reading fifty titles I posted twenty-six reviews (one “The Disconnecte d” by Oğuz Atay I have yet to complete, the review was of Part One only), showing I post thoughts on one in every two titles read.

Choices – suddenly I had a deadline, I was being measured, and this restriction influenced my choices. Larger, weighted tomes would slow down my progress, complex works would hinder completion, short books could be considered a soft option. I now had a different measure to add to the complex choice of what to read next. It is a relief to have finished the journey and pick up a 648 page behemoth, no pressure as to a completion date. I also have the last two volumes of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”, “The Prisoner”, “The Fugitive”, and “Finding Time Again” to complete, I can do so without the niggling feeling that reading is slowing down my progress.

During the five months I also observed the new and shiny  come and go from favour, novels that were being discussed by numerous commentators, books that I would have normally bought, have disappeared from view just as quickly as they blasted onto the scene. Throughout the five months I kept a “wish list” of books I would ordinarily buy, and now looking back at that list there are a number of titles I had to really contemplate to understand why I had put them on my list in the first place. The work of publicists, who ordinarily would have grabbed me hook line and sinker, suddenly became redundant.

I also found that my reading tastes altered, I have shifted towards more complex, weightier works, ones to savour, or classics, books that remain in print many many years after release. That is not at all being dismissive of works that are now out of print, it is simply an observation that I have shifted towards fare that explores a national culture or has contributed to such, works that have shifted the paradigm of fiction itself. This “taste” may shift again over the coming months, the exercise may not have even contributed to this alteration, however I can report that “Don Quixote” has been calling for a number of months now, I think a summer re-read is in order.

Another observation was my abandonment of books quicker than in the past, if it wasn’t grabbing me within fifty pages it was tossed to one side. Given the sheer volume of books I own this is a trait I fully expect to continue.

Whilst I underwent this journey I also took the time to catalogue the vast majority of my collection, I would have about 400 or so titles that I am still to add to my Goodreads lists (a large number of Australian poetry titles, or books from smaller independent publishers, simply don’t exist there and to create them would be a very time consuming task, if the barcode or cover didn’t scan I didn’t add it to my list), but I do now know that I own over one thousand unread books. Given my reading speed throughout this venture was approximately ten titles per month, I have about seven years of reading ahead of me without having to buy another book!!!

The other astounding fact was the number of books that arrived whilst I was not buying anything new. Subscriptions to independent publishers, advance review copies and gifts equalled more than fifty titles!!! Yes, whilst I did not buy a single new book I still managed to have an increased backlog. So seven years of unread books, is not at all seven years, I could actually never buy another book and still never finish my collection before I shed this mortal coil.

Guilt, yes guilt came into play, poor struggling writers whose works I would ordinarily buy suddenly had one less potential reader. When it came to Australian poets the guilt factor was HIGH, as you have probably seen via the blog, the poets in Australia have been extremely generous with their time and thoughts as I’ve interviewed them throughout the year, to repay them by not even buying their books!!! Don’t worry poets, the journey is complete, my wallet is open, more Australian poetry will be hitting my shelves shortly.

I am glad I’ve finished my journey, happy I managed to last the trip, a splurge is in order, as is quiet contemplation of a few books that will take some time to fully appreciate. Stay tuned for a few reviews of some really really obscure titles.

All in all what did I learn? Bottom line was the whole experience was pretty futile, I may have learned a little about my reading habits, I may have learned a little about distraction, a little more about addiction. Will the whole exercise change me in the long run? Probably not.

Engraft and Hush – Michele Seminara PLUS bonus poet interview

engraft

Today another Australian poet review/interview, Michele Seminara, who has recently released a small book “Hush” through the small independent publisher Black Rune Press, I purchased and read this collection soon after release and then was fortunate enough to be sent a copy of Michele Seminara’s earlier book “Engraft” (Island Press) by the poet herself.

“Engraft” has four sections, the opening one titled “Mammoth”, the opening poem “Hoary” starting;

Fifteen thousand years I have slumbered
In my icy casket, a hoary
Princess waiting
Not to be kissed, but punctured
By the pick of a prying scientist.

Personally I was reminded of a song by The Triffids “Jerdacuttup Man”, although miles apart in content, the book reflecting a digging up of the past, a collection of memories. Moving straight from a digging up to the honesty of ageing in “All Dried Up”;

I
an old lady
waiting in this parched bed
for something to happen

which cannot happen

I
an old lady with an impatient
unsated belly

that will not rain

I
an old lady
whose slow mind spreads
so far her eyed has
lost sight

I
the one
who age must not tame –

May my drying up cause this spark to flame!

These are poems of self awareness, raw;

Impassive as a mountain
I sit, hand resting reverentially in
the infertile valley of my lap,
(from “Self Seen”)

the self being compared to a dog in the very next poem, pulling on a leash, “world jerks my neck”

The book contains unsettling works, poems addressing child sexual abuse, but they are also, at times, sensual, the shorter poems breathless, drawn out with space, stretching, extending the experience;

The Lover

The skin’s sumptuously soft.               The body’s
thin,
                                                hairless,

                                    vulnerable. She
doesn’t look
            She      Touches                       his
sex,          caresses                  the strange
novelty. He moans,     In dreadful love

And          the pain is
slowly                          borne towards pleasure.

This poem is an erasure poem sourced from Marguerite Duras’s novel “The Lover” (translated by Barbara Bray). Erasure poems take an existing work and erase text, framing the end result as a poem. The collection containing four such poems. Three other works are a free-form remix of Stuart Barnes’ work, another poet I have interviewed, and Michele Seminara’s poems highlighting the evolving thought processes, highlighting language.

The trials and tribulations of motherhood are explored in the section “Mother” “obediently becoming (for me)/what I never wanted/you to be”. All domestic depths are explored here on the page, a drug addicted child, the loss of a child, a tender but harrowing collection.

“Hush” a smaller book, also soaring with familial bliss and plunging to the depths. A work that contains only thirteen poems it features an Edvard Munch paiting on the front, “Ashes” (1894). The book a limited edition print run of only fifty copies, is beautifully presented. If you are interested in a copy, try blackrunepress at gmail.com

 

Over to the interview with Michele Seminara, and as always I am forever grateful for the poet’s time and honesty. I am working on something else with both Michele Seminara and Stuart Barnes, hopefully it comes together and you will get to see the result in the upcoming months.

 

Thanks you for agreeing to this interview, I’d like to talk about your two publications, “Engraft” and “Hush”.

Q. Both of your works are very “unsettling” and in “Dead Ottla” (a poem sourced from the letters of Franz Kafka) you say “(Writing is a form of prayer, Dear Ottla,/ a key to the chambers inside oneself:” Your work is very personal, leaving yourself open and raw on the page, is writing cathartic for you?

Absolutely. Especially writing poetry, which expresses the inexpressible best of all, in my view. Basically, when life feels intense, I pick up a pen. I also write to have fun, relax, learn, experiment, grow and communicate – but I’m first and foremost of the Bukowski school:

unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.

(‘so you want to be a writer?’)

That might sound naff, but that’s why and how I write poetry, and also why I read it. It’s a solace for the soul.

Q. “Engraft” ends with a cento drawn from the letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, unrequited love and “Hush” with “Only darkness; easeful darkness.” Is there any hope?

Always, but we don’t always feel it. That’s why there’s poetry – and religion! For many, like Kafka, they are forms of the same thing.

I’m a Buddhist, and it’s a faith that encourages you to look at life realistically – although not in a morbid way. Buddhists meditate upon their own deaths to bring an awareness of life as ephemeral, and to inspire themselves to apply effort to creating peace within. That’s where the hope lies.

 Q. Your latest publication “Hush” features an artwork by Edvard Munch “Ashes” (described as when  lovers are consumed by the hot flame of passion their love turns to ashes) and it contains an ekphrastic poem “Blood Nature” in response to his famous work “The Scream of Nature”. You obviously have a love, a connection to his work, how did this come about?

I feel Munch’s artwork, like Bukowski’s poetry, shoots ‘like a rocket’ out of his soul. I resonate with the darkness he sees in the everyday. It amazes me how we live as if life lasts forever and as if there isn’t sickness, separation and death. I’m drawn to Munch’s heightened sense of seeing. I think we all experience this when we go through difficult times – our skins are thinner, and we see things as they really are – but often we’re quite distracted, or numb. I like to look things in the eye. I find it perversely comforting.

 Q. I really enjoyed your “erasure poems”, can you explain a little about the process, why you chose those texts, did you have a clear message or view before/during/after the erasure?

I love the process of erasure, and usually work with texts I’ve read many times and feel an emotional connection to. I instinctively choose a favorite passage and start circling words and teasing out connections. I’m looking to converse with the writer, as well as to find an objective correlative to my own experiences within the text.

Sometimes writing erasure or found poetry is a way of saying what you want to say using some else’s voice. It’s a strange process! You have to be ok with some initial chaos and embrace chance when you write that way. You’re not completely in control of what emerges. I enjoy the discovery! I also like being able to say things I wouldn’t be bold enough to say in my own voice, and hiding behind the other writer.

 Q. As I mentioned in the first question, your poems address unsettling subjects, for example childhood sexual abuse, all the dirty laundry’s here on the page, however there is a Buddhist hint of forgiveness, is the art of writing about these experiences a forgiveness in itself?

That’s a wonderful question. I think it is a forgiveness – of the self, and others – a way of processing experiences, some of which can be quite horrendous, but still holding a sense of compassion around it all. I am definitely from the ‘better out than in’ school of writing. I look to poetry to help me with the big questions and experiences.

 Q. Your book “Engraft” contained a section “Mother”, a celebration as well as the frustrations and anguish of being a mother, and your new chapbook “Hush” is very deeply rooted in “family”. These are subjects you return to often, but it is not always a rosy picture that you paint. Can you talk a bit about this subject matter and why it features so prominently?

Because that’s what I’ve been doing with the last twenty years of my life – mothering – and because it’s the most intense role I’ve played: the ups are so up and the downs are so down. Therefore I write about, and from, my domestic trenches. Some people might think that’s boring, but I think it’s the real deal.

 Q. As I ask all my interviewees, and given your breadth of reading where your poems are drawn from many sources, including the Bible!!!, can you tell us what you are reading right now and why?

I’m reading a lot of Sharon Olds. I love her passion and boldness, and also her simplicity. She’s a very intuitive writer. I find myself binging on certain writers when I sense I have something particular to learn from them at that point in time. Perhaps there’s something in my own writing technique that’s holding me back, or some new way of seeing or expressing that I’m ready to learn, but whatever it is, I’ll be drawn to a certain writer to learn via the osmosis of reading. So I’m rereading Satan Says, Stag’s Leap and Odes.

 Q. Finally, what are you currently working on, is it something you can tell us about?

I’m working on BUGGER ALL because Verity La has sucked me dry this year, and I don’t write well when I have my administrative hat on. I LOVE being Managing Editor of Verity La – it feeds me in many ways, and I thrive off the connections I make with other writers, and learn a huge amount from it all. BUT it leaves little time for the creative brain to kick in. So although I’m tinkering on a few poems, I have a sense that I’m creatively gestating, waiting until the end of the year (when we take six weeks off publishing) to give birth to a whole book of poems. Either that or I’ll just go to the beach and enjoy an empty mind. Will keep you posted!

 

 

 

These Things Are Real – Alan Wearne PLUS bonus poet interview

These-Things-Are-Real

Another recent release from Giramondo Publishing is Alan Wearne’s “These Things Are Real”, a very different read from a number of recent poetry books that I have reviewed here. The collection contains two sections, “Five Verse Narratives” and “The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre”. The back cover advises the reader that “Alan Wearne specialises in monologues and verse narratives” and although this collection contains five narratives and fifteen other titled works, the narratives are the “speciality”, they make up more than the half of the book.

Opening with five epigraphs, alone a secret into the work, the narratives commence with “They Came to Moorabbin”, a tragic post war story of a widow, a mother of four, and a couple with three children and their “friendship” in suburban Melbourne. A doomed relationship features next in “Anger Management: a South Coast Tale”, a discourse on domestic violence with no end “through regional Australia”. All of these narratives a complex detailed studies with a lot compacted into a small space, whole lives in 15-20 pages, complex lives explored, the people who are generally living on the margins. Of the five, two are monologues, three are “verse narratives”.

The epigraphs for the second section “The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre” include Ezra Pound, Irving Berlin, Graham Kennedy and Kevin Sheedy. For overseas readers Graham Kennedy was a television host for many years in early television in Australia and Kevin Sheedy a player and then a long-term coach for Australian Rules Football.

You can spot a bad critic when he starts by discussing the poet not the poem. EZRA POUND.

So I here’s part of a poem:

1.

                …it happens quick and (even stranger) smooth,
for it’s a suggestion, a suggestion which you follow
from a slightly oiled, brush-backed man,
with just that few more years of life about him,
who may have read some books and starts by sneering ‘Goose’
at you, this year’s smug term of derision.
                Later of course you’ll need to wander home, More than
half-hoping it had happened.

The opening of “Memoirs of a Ceb” one of the verse narratives, where the story of Peter’s sexual awakening, aligned to the “Holy Trinity’s Outreach Program” is explored.

The second section containing many humorous, satirical, playful pieces, including limericks, short rhymes, and formal poetic structures:

Lines (Really) Showing my Age
(for Laurie Duggan)
What care I for Kylie, Kurt or Bono?
I’ve Satanic Majesties…in mono!

The 1987 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry recalled
What you see is what you get:
Runner-up to Lily Brett

The enjoyable satire may require an understanding of Australian literature, poetry or politics, however this sections contains a number of “laugh out loud” moments, including Les Murray’s introduction to D’arcy Niland’s The Shiralee where he speaks of Robert Mitchum, “in the heyday of his career” being “The first American actor we’d ever heard get an Australian accent right”;

The taken mile reverts to inch:
That actor, Les, was Peter Finch.
 

Or former Prime Minister Tony Abbott;

On the Deposing of Tony Abbott
Dumped in that ditch himself has dug,
The smart-arse Catholic schoolboy thug.

The “Notes” section is a worthwhile read, even if you know of people like Kevin Sheedy, as it contains some real gems of biting satire.

As mentioned above, not the standard work that I usually look at here, however one that brought many smiles, and a few cringes, to my face. The dichotomy of the narratives to the playful satire an interesting balance.

As always I thank the poet for their time, and honesty, in answering my questions. Yet again a great interview that reveals another layer to the writer involved. Thanks to Alan Wearne for making the time to reply to my meagre questions.

Over to the interview.

Q. The title of your book, and one of the epigraphs, is from Ern Malley, a literary hoax, is this book a literary game?

‘I am an elitist, I am an entertainer’ I’ve often announced, so I suppose a solid part of my writing is indeed a game, though whether it’s the elitist or entertainer who plays…take your pick.

If you wish to see the ‘game’ element I refer you to the latest volume from Grand Parade Poets, (GPP) With the Youngsters an anthology of Group Sestinas and Group Villanelles assembled by my students from over 18 years. These are indeed examples of out and out game.

Another game I suggested they perform was after my lecture on Ern Malley and his Australian descendants (the Free Grass crowd, Timothy Kline, Billy Ah Lun, Toby Nicholson etc.).

The students were to invent a poet, write a brief bio and then some of the poet’s work.

The greatest game players in poetry were Fernando Pessoa and The Heteronyms. He and they were glorious one offs.

Q. You don’t hold back in your book, with opinions in “Hail! Muse! Et cetera” one example, do you ever wonder if the subjects of your satire may not be easily amused?

Do I wonder? No more than Dryden, Pope or Byron did. Sometimes I wish I could be more rampaging but realise that restraint is one of many weapons in a satirist’s arsenal. Besides those being satirised can always reply in kind, or ask a friend to do it. I know that describing in a review a bad book of verse by the late Dorothy Porter as ‘conservative free verse doggerel’ didn’t endear me to her and probably others. Well she should have written much better poetry shouldn’t she? Of course I try to balance this poetaster obsession with backing a variety of good emerging or overlooked poets, see my GPP list for starters.

I trust my satire goes more after narcissists than egotists. The latter I believe can often laugh at themselves, enjoying the idea that if someone makes fun of them they are still very much in the limelight. The narcissist detests being made fun of, as the current United States president shows.

Q. You write one monologue in the second person, ‘Anger Management: a South Coast Tale’. Is this specific example addressed to somebody in particular or is it a case of purposely putting the reader into a difficult situation, heightening the impact?

This poem is one of only two I wrote set around Wollongong during my eighteen and a half years there, the other being Seventeen Illawarra Couplets dedicated to the now famous Vanessa Badham and her then boyfriend.

For whatever reason Anger Management was written over three days (at the most five) when most of my works of this size take years. Only after the completion did I realise it was in the second person.

I knew the man who turned into the male protagonist, got on well with him, found him amiable, talented, with solid elements of the lost soul. But when told of his violent madman side I immediately thought ‘Oh yeah…that figures…’ though I can’t explain quite why I had this reaction. I didn’t know the woman he abused. I believe I saw her twice and felt that she and I would have very little in common. Which of course made it a necessity to be fair in creating the ‘you’; an approach which could be summarised as ‘I’m going to do the right thing by her.’ I also wanted to be fair to the man, for there was a tragic person, though always hoping that in the poem I was on the woman’s side.

Q. With lines like ‘I can think of any number of poetasters and promoters of doggerel (rhyming, blank verse or free) who should be charged with bringing poetry into disrepute’, do you feel you may be on the outer?

If being ‘on the outer’ means being with Gig Ryan, Pi O, Nigel Roberts, Pam Brown, Joanne Burns, John Tranter, Ken Bolton, Pete Spence, Geoffrey Lehmann, Anthony Lawrence, Liam Ferney, Jaya Savige, A J Carruthers, Bonny Cassidy, Kate Middleton, plenty of others within this general drift, plus the shades of Martin Johnston, Jas H Duke, Robert Harris, John Forbes, Benjamin Frater and Rae Desmond Jones…let’s move to ‘the outer’ right now.

Q. Your monologues are tightly edited, to make such a compact story so rich within such a short space. Can you explain the process?

This writing practise of mine can be equated with a footballer playing a game or a student sitting an exam. Does the footballer recall everything he did on the field? Does the student recall everything they wrote? Can you recall details of something so intense as creativity? You operate at a different level of consciousness, surely.

In Victorian secondary schools fifty or sixty years ago one of the units in Forms Four, Five and Six English was precis writing, wherein students had to cut back and back a slab of verbiage to its essentials. I don’t think I was all that good at it but I did learn plenty that would help me in later life.

Having some kind of structure behind the poem assists of course. My own blank-enough verse certainly helps in reigning-in and focussing. Other than that it’s a poem by poem enterprise with near endless drafts, all but the very final versions in long hand.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I’m reading Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccamanno, a large contemporary Argentinian novel set in a small city south of Buenos Aires. Its cast of hundreds brings to mind Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, John Dos Passos’ USA, some of the better Robert Altman movies and indeed my own verse novels. Its inter-linked ‘noir’ tales the author tells are not so ‘easy-going’ at times (who need easy going?) but the volume does possess a certain sordid vigour. Mind you being translated into 21st Century American English with all its hideous dude-speak doesn’t help.

I try reading as many volumes from non-English writing authors as I can. I’ve no more interest in Contemporary Australian Fiction than, say, Messrs Flanagan and Winton have in Contemporary Australian Poetry. If I’m wrong and they read our poetry let them contact me and we’ll swap volumes and read each other.

Before reading the above book I read R J B Bosworth’s biography of Mussolini. Given the way the world might be heading, led by the quasi if incompetent Fascist in the White House I wanted to see what the original was like. Mussolini has of course been overshadowed by Hitler since 1933, and his is a sad enough tale for Italy, Ethiopia etc. but at least he was more an egotist that a narcissist and can be seen as human; for me Hitler can’t.

I try discovering new poets each year, and not just those bringing out volumes in Australia. In the past decade for example I was aware of Thomas Lovell Beddoes and Patrick Kavanagh as names and finally set about reading them. I’m very glad I did. Recently I borrowed the Farrar, Straus and Giroux Book of Twentieth Century Italian Poetry (a bi-lingual volume) to discover Raffaello Baldini (1924-2005) a poet of whom I’d like to read more.

Q. Finally, another question I ask all interviewees, what’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I’m in the final drafting/typing stages of Near believing, a monologue spoken by a former Anglo-Catholic priest, now a Roman Catholic one, whose past as an Anglian sex abuser catches up with him. Of course I’m attempting to be fair to Father John, but his combination of narcissism, hypocrisy and sleaze, all propped with many a theological underpinning , make him a much more fascinating than his sex exploits, and thus ripe for satire.

 

 

 

Fragments – Antigone Kefala PLUS bonus poet interview

Fragments

Earlier this month the Queensland Literary Awards were announced. The winner of the ‘State Library of Queensland Poetry Collection – Judith Wright Calanthe Award’ was Antigone Kefala for her collection “Fragments”, this timely for myself as I had already arranged an interview with the poet. I read this book soon after it had been shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, won by Peter Doyle for “Ghostspeaking”.

Antigone Kefala was born in Romania in 1935 of Greek parents, the family emigrated to New Zealand in 1951, and she moved to Australia in 1960’s. Her collections of poetry have been very intermittent, with a seventeen year gap between her “Poems” from Owl Publishing in Melbourne, her book in 2008 “Sydney Journals” and this book.

Now in her 80’s I am very grateful that she took the time out to engage in an email interview with me, computer technology a new phenomenon in her life. Unlike an earlier interview I conducted with Bruce Dawe where the answers were dictated to his wife, who transposed them, Antigone Kefala, has been thoughtful in her replies, even if they are shorter than some younger writers, her choice of words very much like her poems.

“Fragments” contains sixty-one minimalist poems, broken into five sections. These sparse works explore the emptiness:

dried by a desert wind (from “Letter II” p4)
the road stretched empty (from “Dream” p5)

the space not only appearing on the page but featuring prominently in the themes.

Night Thoughts

Around her
the city breathing in the night
and she was walking home.
She knew that now there was
no home, and no home comings,
only the emptiness
inside that waits in silence
not searching for an answer.

She knew now that she had never
been in love with anyone, in love
only with her image of a love.

Exploring the elements fire, air, water the alchemy of existence is prominent, with the passing of time woven expertly into the works. At dawn the mist and fog, “the charcoal stubs/ of the burnt trees”, come noon “a lizard/ riding the dry leaves” and by late evening, dusk, the ringbarked trees are “skeletons/ patiently waiting in the sun/ eroding slowly into ashes” The sparse landscapes of inner and coastal Australia captured vividly, through the phases of light, flickering, colours, reflections.

Moon Wolf

The full moon watchful,
transparent olive green
floating in the dark sea
above my head
aiming at me, swooping down
a bird now
its hollowed eyes
penciled in crimson
its incandescent tail
a white light
searing through the air
around me, closing in
burning the ground.
At my feet, the white wolf
the tense arch of its back
blue phosphorescence.

Aesthetically pleasing, belletristic, these poems bring vivid images to mind. Ageing coming to the fore in the final section, a collection of character studies, observations of leaders, writers, committee members and people we will never know;

The Visit

Time passing
not an abstraction now
her face changing
under its leaden weight.
From deep inside her eyes
her resigned self
looked out.

These poems are polished gems, not a single word out of place, the impression that the poet has agonized over a single line, two or three words, this reminded me of Alexandra Pizarnik’s poems from “Extracting the Stone of Madness”, so I asked her about this connection, Antigone Kefala being totally honest in her reply, she’d never heard of Alexandra Pizarnik.

Recently reading a lot of young poets, a number of experimental poets, it was a refreshing change to visit a collection exploring the spaces, the passing of time, in a more traditional, minimalist approach.

Over to the interview, as always a huge thanks to the poet for making the time to answer my questions. Today I open with the email reply about Alexandra Pizarnik, not an answer to one of my questions per se but an insight into the poet herself. As always I have presented the interview, un-edited (I did fix one spelling mistake), and have also included the poet’s closing line of the email exchange.

I hope you enjoy the insights;

 

“But first, many thanks for introducing us to Alexandra Pizarnik. Except for a few well known names in Latin American poetry , we have never heard of her Some information on line , which I looked at, and now we are trying to order ‘Extracting the Stone of Madness’ Poems 1973-73 , Translated by Yvette Siegert , published by New Directions In 2015 . I hope we can find it.”

Q. It has been a very long time in between books, your last “Sydney Journals” in 2008, and this latest collection each poem is finely crafted, not a word out of place. At times I was reminded of the work of Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, another writer who contemplated each word in each poem. Is the poetic creation a slow process for you?

Yes, writing is a very slow process for me. You must also remember that I came to English rather late . A long process of maturity in language and writing . But probably I would have written at the same tempo in languages that I was born into , but because of so many changes I never managed to master well enough to use them creatively.

Q. Elements such as earth, wind, fire, water are prominent in your book, from where does this “ancient” interest stem?

Possibly part of my Greek inheritance, in awe of powerful , elemental forces. But then Australia too is also part of these forces, the size of the continent, the tremendous land mass, a powerful continent with metaphysical undercurrents, the Aboriginal inheritance, the transformation into a European place, possibly only skin deep.

Q. Section three of “Fragments” muses on loss, wandering in the emptiness, light prominent but the themes dark, do these poems form part of a grieving process?

A personal grieving process, but at the same time an attitude to life, to death, our terrible vulnerability.

Q. Your heritage is Romanian, Greek, New Zealander and Australian, do you think this influences your concept of “home”?

Of course, so many different landscapes , cultures, languages. all leave  their mark, an active core that colours one’s attitude to life to writing. Home- a difficult concept for us forced to change countries. An impermanence would probably  best describe our attitude. A permanent Impermanence would probably be more appropriate.

On the other hand , there is the Greek proverb:

‘ Where you live, this is your country.’

Q. Your book ends with “an exuberance/of youth”, is the future rosy?

Youth, always a promise of positive things, more, energy coming into society, more idealism, Involvement with living.

 

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?

What I am reading?

Some poetry books, essays, books recommended by friends, books written by friends, reviews, a return to books one has read a long time ago and were of great influence. I am reading at the moment a new translation by Robert VIlain of Rilke’s prose work -The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge

Poetry books:  Austerity Measures, the new Greek Poetry edited by Karen van Dyke; Anna Couani, thinking process, Owl Publishing; Zenny Giles,Parables. Owl Publishing;

Elizabeth Smithers. Night Horse, -Auckland University Press; Les Wicks. Getting by not

Fitting in,Island Press Cooperative. Ali Cobby Ekerman. Inside My Mother, Giramondo

Mark Mordue. Darlinghurst Funeral Rites,  Transit Lounge

 

Prose Elizabeth Harrower, A few days in the Country and Other Stories, Text Publishing;

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, The girl from the Metropol Hotel ,Penguin ; James Baldwin, The

Last Interview and other Conversations, Melville House Publishing; A History of Greek Cinema,

Vrasidas Karalis, The Continuum Press.

Q. Finally, another question I ask all interviewees, what’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

At the moment I am looking at a lot of accumulated material and trying to sort things out, whether anything will emerge remains to be seen.

Dear Tony. This is the longest text I wrote on line , I came to these new devices only some months ago. I hope I have not made too many errors.

 

 

The Disconnecte d – Oğuz Atay (translated by Sevin Seydi) – Part One

DIsconnected

I’ve added another “difficult” work to my reading agenda, not happy with slowly working my way through Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream” I am now tackling the Turkish “Ulysses”, Oğuz Atay’s “Tutunamayanlar” (“The Disconnecte d”). Like my irregular posts here about “Bottom’s Dream” I intend to post about my progress through another work described as “untranslatable”.

In 2004 UNESCO listed Oğuz Atay’s “Tutunamayanlar” (“The Disconnecte d”) as an important literary work in need of an English translation. First published in 1971 & 1972 (as two books due to the publisher not being able to fund a single release), it has entered the Turkish psyche and although the book wasn’t “discovered” until after Oğuz Atay’s death, it has now been reprinted in Turkey at least seventy times.

Known as being “untranslatable” the work finally made its way into Dutch in 2011 and now finally it is available in English, albeit in a very limited print run of only 200 copies. The book uses various forms of Turkish, “such as the heavily arabicised Ottoman Turkish and the purist, reformed Turkish” (thanks to The Untranslated blog) this making the work of a translator difficult, and begs the question of how to render these different styles in English? As you will see in my posts, the use of French, Middle English and English is the approach the translator has taken.

In the introduction to “The Disconnecte d”, a potted history of language reform in Turkey is presented;

The Ottomans had no great interest in pre-Islamic Turkey, and, besides, the official language was full of Arabic and Persian. With the nationalism of the revolution this changed. In the 1920’s and 1930’s some wild theories flourished: that it was the Turks who had brought the beginnings of civilization from central Asia to Anatolia, that Turkish was the primitive language from which all others derived. By the time in which this book is set these theories were more or less dead, but their ghosts lived on, and here and there haunt the narrative. Besides, the Turkish Language Society (TDK), founded in 1926, was still active. Its ruling never had the force of law except in school curricula, but Arabic and Persian words were gradually purged.

This is melding of language, let’s leave the cultural to one side for the time being, is represented, in translation, in various forms;

As the Americans say, seriosity killed the cat: of course my word play is lost in translation. (P50)

…he was teaching tally-craft (algebra).
He practices healing, also of lower creatures (veterinary science). Among his other interests are purethought (philosophy) and finelimning (painting). (P167)

I could not like your salon-salle-à-manger, your enormous foam-rubber bed – it reminded me of the sea – and with it, the matching gilded garderobe and the matching chiffonier and the matching dressing-table. You had got rid of the Turkish language in your house. (P12)

The book has a simple narrative plot, and opens with Turgut who lives “squeezed between points the latitude of which was forty-one degrees, zero zero minutes North and forty-one degrees, zero zero minutes one second North; the longitude was twenty-nine degrees twelve minutes East and twenty-nine degrees twelve minutes one second East”. Thanks to Google maps we can now see where that is:

Satelitte

MapDisconect

Now an empty block on the outskirts of Istanbul.

It is at this location that Turgut learns of his childhood friend, the petit bourgeois Selim, who has “voluntarily abandoned this world”. This suicide leads Turgut to examine Selim’s life in more detail to understand what could have led his final act. A journey of self-discovery then takes place.

Selim might have accounted for this feeling as suffocation under the petit bourgeois comforts such as the salon-salle-à-manger in front, two bedrooms at the back, kitchen-pantry-boxroom-bathroom along the corridor, and his sleeping wife of children. Turgut scrutinised his surroundings, but as yet without understanding. The walls were covered with ‘works of art’, remnants from the days when he used to draw.

However, the main narrative is only a sub-plot here, it is through the weaving of experiences, backtracking, reliving scenes, and examining Turkish history that the intricacies and revelations occur.

In the opening sections the influence of encroaching, clashing cultures is portrayed through detailed descriptions of décor, painted walls, intricate cigarette holders, ashtrays, the trappings of a material life. Why I had recollections of Patrick Bateman in Brett Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho” I don’t know…

You had got rid of the Turkish language in your house.

The “superfluous man” in Oblomov from Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel is also a recurring character, this is not only a reference to Russian culture it is a character that the deceased Selim aligns himself with, the superfluous coming to the fore. Another classic I will personally revisit.

We are playing at making the time pass…And we can do it; it does pass, though not very usefully.

We have a wonderful soliloquy on boredom and a fascinating mathematical game to ease said boredom, a game played using the fourteen bus stops on a regular journey. The irrelevant, the trite all adding up to a rich character development.

Yes, Selim. Pouf! Our language mirrors our way of life.

In this short quote the use of a French word, is subtly showing the breakdown of the Turkish culture as the influences of the West encroach, however it is not only the West, there is also the influence of the East, mingled with Turkish history. Chapter six opens with a dream sequence containing Sultan Abdülhamit, 34th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the last Sultan to exert effective control over the fracturing state, and Mustafa Kemal, army officer, revolutionary, and founder of the Republic of Turkey, serving as its first President from 1923 until his death in 1938.

Our protagonist, Turgut the childhood friend attempting to reconcile to suicide of Selim, lives a banal existence, this is borne out through his daily wanderings:

He looked at the salon-salle-à-manger: it was laid for supper. He walked to it, dragging his slippers, and in an unenthusiastic voice he spoke, looking towards the kitchen: “So what has my clever wife cooked for tonight?”

Turgut’s journey to understand Selim’s death leads him to visit various characters, including Selim’s mother, where he discovers another unknown friend of Selim’s, whilst there he goes into Seim’s room, the place where Selim killed himself.

He sought the story of the Disconnected.
Words, loneliness gave life its salt, its taste;
Death and eternity he yearned to embrace.

As part of his ongoing investigation Turgut makes another visit, this time reading a poem, written by Selim, of 600 lines “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow”, after the reading, apparently written in a different hand, is a “commentary” of the poem “that confuses things even more”, a 100 page explanation of the poem itself!

Part of the “commentary” includes the history of the BILIG-TENUZ, inscribed stones, “The Sea of Knowledge”, the equivalent of 12,000 pages in our books today, ranking the stones in 7th place among the world’s encyclopaedias, it is the sum of all knowledge 2014 years ago, archaic, containing the story of pure Turks, Gök Turks.

The Disconnected (Disconnectus erectus) : A clumsy and easily frightened animal. Some can even be the size of a human being. In fact, at first glance, they even look like humans. The grip of his claws is weak. He is incapable of climbing hills, and comes down a slope by sliding (frequently falling as he does so). He has almost no hair on his body; he has large eyes but weak sight, which is why he cannot see danger from a distance.

Later described in the notes, and appearing in the poem, are the ‘seven Prophets’, who ran away from Central Asia to Chine, and returned to Anatolia, where they wrote the ‘Catechismas’, of 72 sections, ‘The New Order’, “Chronicles’ and “Praxis’ these are then described.

Two hundred and twenty-two pages into this 718 page work and here endeth Part One of this stunningly detailed work, an existentialist journey through Turkish history, a self-discovery, a play on language and culture, nationalism and politics. A book that has revelations in every sentence, why has it taken so long to be released in English, and an even greater damnation is the limited release of only 200 copies, simply because there is a belief readers aren’t interested in this style of literature. It is possibly true, however I can assure you, I know of a handful, via my social media interactions, who are relishing this reading journey.

If you would like to secure on of the limited editions of this book I suggest you contact the publisher Olric Publishing quickly as the last time I was in contact there was only a handful remaining, yes the book is expensive, however it is stunningly presented, on archival quality paper, and you will be the proud owner of a very very rare gem.