The World Repair Video Game – David Ireland


Timing for today’s review fits nicely with the revelation of my favourite books of 2016, this work clearly sits amongst the top ten books of the year, however I am going to leave it off the list, purely based on its limited availability. Only 350 copies of this novel were produced, by Island Magazine in Tasmania, it has sold out and my understanding is there will be no more print runs. Therefore to highlight the book on a “best of” list that not many people are going to get to read is a tad obscure, if you are based in Victoria in Australia there are ten copies available through libraries, so an intra library loan is a possibility.

David Ireland has won Australia’s pre-eminent literature prize, the Miles Franklin, three times, 1971 for “The Unknown Industrial Prisoner”, 1976 for “The Glass Canoe” and 1979 for “A Woman of the Future”, a book that won “The Age Book of the Year” in 1980. The Australian Literature Society Gold Medal was awarded in 1985 for “Archimedes and the Seagle”. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in June 1981 for his contribution to literature. Since 1987, with the publication of “Bloodfather” there was a ten year hiatus until “The Chosen” appeared in 1997 and then he disappeared off of the map.

As the Afterword explains;

…in 2004, David Ireland, three-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, submitted his latest novel to a series of publishers. That work, Desire, was the 300-odd page account of a man entrapped and sexually tortured by a woman he met in a bar. In was a savagely explicit investigation of the relationship between predator and prey, and a fierce indictment of the political and social moment in which it appeared. Everyone who read the manuscript knocked it back. This collective refusal was not just about the novel’s subject matter, however. It reflected a shift in critical opinion towards Ireland and his work that had been building for some time.

The violence and misogyny that characterised Ireland’s earlier novels…began to erode his standing as intellectual fashions changed in the years after Australia’s bicentenary.

His writing had not altered considerably across time but the hierarchy of values by which such work was judged had. During a period when Ozlit was mainly concerned with the recuperation or celebration of once-marginal literary voices belonging to women, migrants and indigenous Australians, Ireland’s transgressive tales of working-class white blokes rubbed against the weave of the cultural moment.

“The World Repair Video Game” was shortlisted for this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Award (the main gong was shared and given to Charlotte Wood for “The Natural Way of Things” and Lisa Gorton for “The Life of Houses”), where the judges described the work as “a novel largely devoid of conventional character and storytelling “!!!

Lisa Hill and ANZ LitLovers LitBlog called out a SPOILER ALERT (not knowing if she should) by revealing our narrator Kennard Sterling’s extracurricular activities, I really don’t know if a spoiler alert is required as his Travis Bickle style behaviour although crucial to his tale is not the crux of his story. However if you don’t want to know the narrative plot of this story stop reading now.

As mentioned our narrator is Kennard Sterling, and the book covers a few months in his life, all presented in a revealing diary, a diary where he divulges his daily chores, helping locals, running with his dog Ken, wandering the bush, revegetating his property for future nature lovers, watching the view from the top of the Big Hill, getting there via  a green path self-made of concrete and ground human bones, growing his own vegetables using ash made from human flesh in his compost, and finding “useless” non-contributing members of society, with birds on their heads and bird shit down their backs;

Markets, careers, bureaucrats, solidarity with others, none of these are for me. Free society can never be perfect, busy conscientious humans must be allowed their imperfections. My modest aim, while keeping mostly to myself, is to repair the world around me in small ways. Make it better. Adjust it, so it’s better to live in. Not perfection, but more tidy around the edges.

It’s a step towards my own salvation, which is an emotional thing. Without being embedded in it, I serve the community as a free agent.

Each day Kennard’s thoughts are interrupted by “Pym”, flashback style recollections of his youth or of other significant moments in his life. These thoughts can cause the linear narration to divert on a tangent, or the appearance of the thoughts can be discussed themselves.

Maybe a neurologist could describe a number of origins of these interruptions. By the way, Pym is Edgar Allan Poe’s real name. I like Poe. Who can resist the physical fascination and fear in “The Pit and the Pendulum”, the pace and excitement of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, or the nightmare dread in “The Masque of the Red Death”?

Kennard is a complex character, the unrelenting internal monologue is not one you can read for more than a few pages at a time, with regular breaks a prerequisite. Kennard believes is is doing the righteous thing;

I lie in bed, watching the clouds to the east. Murmuring magpies in nests herald another energetic day of high white clouds and sun. My aims are mainly rational, I think. I take time to help others though I necessarily come from outside their community, but assisting is good and right in my world. I have also in me things, objectives, hungers that are not rational, yet I believe that growing things, plants, societies, need pruning to promote healthy growth. Trimming the world at the edges is a needful work. My non-rational wants I haven’t the time or head-space to think of now, but one is Leonora.

He passes judgement on others;

I learned from teachers I respected that human dignity belongs to those who are moral beings. This is not a moral being.

He’s repairing a broken world;

Repairing a broken world, my project, I see as a good work. As a single passionate idea it contains explosive power but must be in harness with the compulsion, the ability and the readiness to act.

This man rejects, lifelong, the production process, he’s missing, yet accepts its benefits, which is not a moral life. Those who don’t want to be part of this world and take part in its customs, are candidates for expulsion.

This is a never ending, questioning soliloquy, the questions the thought processes thrown at you wear you out;

At night I walk up to the path to listen. There is no sound.
In my empty room I stand, and I’m empty too.
I hear the silence and it’s not nothing.
What a poor day, I think, looking back on it.

Kennard helps the aged and infirm locals with their gardening, their shopping, to him they have paid their debt to society, so they are worthy of assistance not scorn, is this the 89 year old David Ireland commenting on his own career?

More than a manifesto from a Seamus Heaney reading, Mozart listening, Patrick Bateman without the consumerism, the layers here are many and complex, for example, his death implement Ottelits or Ott (Stiletto spelt backwards) is talked to as animate, it is given more love than his victims. Kennard’s relationship is with a tree Big Manna, his ute Brian and his dog Ken. His family relationship, his ethics, morals and the nattering of “Pym” make up this complex loner, a loner who refers occasionally to Leonora, memories of a failed relationship, failed as he loved her unreciprocated though, and you’re left with a very uneasy feeling about her fate.

The quotes are that politically astute, relevant, moving or controversial, and so numerous it is neigh on impossible to choose the highlights for here;

What is the poem saying in the white spaces? What do lives say in the gaps between events and people? What happened to us or to poetry that we ordinary people can no longer be confident that we know that the poet is saying and why? Grandpa said to put no trust in verse. Why?

Like Marlow, from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, this is a search to find oneself “What am I?” and “At the end, will I be able to say I’ve done something of worth?”, “I don’t understand myself. I really am incomplete.

A very uncomfortable and complex work, narcissistic, and dabbling in areas where we may not want to go, this is an important work, it shows that there are people here in Australia still willing to push boundaries. As our literature becomes more homogenised, more pasteurised by the day, as “creative writing” becomes so bland and immediate, the bestsellers so similar, it is great to see some stalwarts sticking to their guns and producing works such as this.

How on earth can a writer celebrated 30-40 years ago suddenly struggle to get a book published? If he had lost his marbles and was producing trash maybe, but this is an aggravating, antagonistic, unsettling novel, a book through Kennard’s ideas, containing multitudes, a work that stays with you long after you’ve put it down, a work that should be celebrated for its singularity, giving voice to a narrator who contains little elements of all of us. Aren’t protagonists nowadays allowed to be xenophobic, narcissistic, racist, sexist? Therefore aren’t characters allowed to reflect society? Has political correctness gone that far that we have to censor voices that are not vanilla?

My highlight of 2016 Australian fiction and I did read quite a bit this year (including the book that knocked it off for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award), I’m all for David Ireland’s voice continuing bright, even as he enters his ninetieth year. Pity the poor bastard gets no recognition for his efforts.



Cocky’s Joy – Michael Farrell (Plus bonus interview)

intCockysJoy.jpgToday I am privileged to not only present my review of Michael Farrell’s “Cocky’s Joy” but I also had the opportunity to interview Michael about his book and his upcoming plans. A larger than usual post, but for a special book it is more than deserved. I personally hope that tomorrow night, when the winners of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards are announced, Michael Farrell brings home the $80,000 (tax free) prize for poetry.

My final review from the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Award Shortlist for Poetry is Michael Farrell’s “Cocky’s Joy”, thirty-nine poems that are a rollicking insane journey though whitefella Australian history, recent, imagined and since colonisation.

From the very first line of the very first poem you know that this collection is not your standard fare, “two anchovies; a bowl of milk; fried crumpet”. The second poem, “Making Love (To A Man)’ featuring homosexual sex and internet hook ups.

If stalwarts of Australian white male poetry in Les Murray and Robert Adamson also feature on the shortlist of the Prime Minister’s Award, this is a book that is at the polar opposite of their “bush”, man on the land, creations. There is the Australian bush ballad featured in Farrell’s work, the surrealist “Bush Christie” with characters such as Mary Gilmore, Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson, John Shaw Nellson, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Charles Harpur, Henry Kendall, Bennelong, Ned and Dan Kelly all appearing. Who is the Christie? Who is the murderer? Iconic Australian names (for those of us taught “poetry” in the 1980’s) poets, a couple of bushrangers and the senior man of the Eora Nation, the Aboriginal people of the Port Jackson area, who served as an interlocutor between the Eora and the British at the time of the first British settlement in Australia in 1788.

Australia’s settlement history gets a different focus under Farrell’s lens, here’s the first eight lines of the poem “Steelers, Regurgitated”;

Victoria’s first settlers were whalers as well
as prostitutes. They were hale, they drank
ale. They were whalewrights, sexwrights –
they were Whites. They ate a lot of pasta
too, well before the Italians put in an appearance.
They didn’t call it pasta, they called it boiled
hay. The famous hay-twirlers of that time
have unforch been forgotten, their names deimagined.

Not your romantic poetic view of Australia, however this collection is more Australian than you could possibly imagine, overseas readers would be scratching their heads to references such as;

The flags say, ‘Help! We Are Out
of Daddy Cool!’ and Mondo Rock come and talk about
those early days, by the River of Babylon, of cowboy
hats and Molly Meldrum, where every mother wanted a
gay one under a gay sun –

Australian kids of the 70’s and 80’s could quickly explain that Daddy Cool was a band fronted by Ross Wilson, who had a huge hit with “Eagle Rock”, after they broke up Wilson fronted a band called Mondo Rock, the River of Babylon was a song by Boney M. and a (presumed) gay Molly Meldrum hosted a Sunday night television program called “Countdown”, wearing a cowboy hat and featuring all the latest hits, a massive ratings success. Personally, I preferred the musical clips where bands broke the mould and upset Molly, bands such as the “Sacred Cowboys”, “Jimmy and the Boys” or the drag queen Divine.

Rapid fire poetry, bizarre images, iconic images reimagined as surrealist scenes with zebras or some other strange animal. For some reason the Australian (Chilean) painter Juan Davila came to mind, (Google images of his works if you don’t know who I’m talking about), here’s an example from “Abstract Alcohol”

On/the altar, a gold soccer ball. Green Mandolins
recline on the pool table. Think of an RSL
lined with red velvet, a country singer eating
shards of Diamanda Galas records. Curtains.

For readers or fans of the Oulipo movement, the four-page poem “The Comic Image” features references to Perec and Calvino and the 1967 Oulipo, also having a sly dig at colonial writing (again);

I used to be a bush butcher or
a journalist and I always keen a pinch of drought in
my coin pocket to remind me of the dry anthologies of
colonial writing.

This collection has innumerable literary references and mythological clues, with poems such as “Spoiled for Choice: 80 Ganymedes”, a poem of 80 lines, each dedicated to a male lover. The myth of “godlike Ganymedes that was born the fairest of mortal men; wherefore the gods caught him up on high to be cupbearer to Zeus by reason of his beauty, that he might dwell with the immortals.” (Homer, Iliad, Book XX, lines 233-235). This myth was the model for the Greek social custom of paiderastia, the socially acceptable erotic relationship between an adult male and an adolescent male.

Understandably this collection would not be for everyone, a rapid fire insane experimental collection, some poems hallucinatory in structure and style, others plain baffling, others humorous, yet others confronting. From “The Structuralist Cowboy”;

Sort of, meaning exactly. One cowboy rode a frog
another wore a cowpat hat. That was not on a range
nor even a ridge. Whether they rode in from the
crossroads of Trivia, or from a dry spot in New
South Fuckmyarse, was ever discussed. Aaiiee! might
just be the Apocalypse squealing. I wrestled with
my father: the thought that he was John Ashbery
gave me the extra strength to lay him on his back.
I then dragged his godforsaken Gertrude Steinish
hide to the tree in the orchard that opposed the
tree in another orchard I had read about. That was
pure instinct I believe. One cowboy I know liked
to say that the station he worked on was bigger
than Deconstruction. He read Corbière and Marx
in the cowboy editions but by the time they reached
him cowboy was an extinct language.

From the Prime Minister’s Literary Award Shortlist this collection is my favourite by far, a work embedded in 2016, unlike three of the other collections that although fine in style and structure are more collections that would be in place in a 1980’s high school class. Congratulations to Giramondo Press for bringing this book to a wider reading public, a shout out to the PM Literary Award Judges, Ms Louise Adler AM (chair), Mr Jamie Grant, Dr Robert Gray and Mr Des Cowley, for including a bold unique work on the shortlist, I have my fingers crossed that they continue the boldness on Tuesday night and recommend this collection as the winner. Noting that the judges make a recommendation to the Prime Minister, with him having the final decision, therefore we will not know if the judges do recommend any work with Malcolm Turnbull overruling their recommendation!

In order of preference here are my selections for the Award:

Cocky’s Joy by Michael Farrell (Giramondo)

The Hazards by Sarah Holland-Batt (University of Queensland Press)

The Ladder by Simon West (Puncher & Wattmann)

Net Needle by Robert Adamson (Black Inc.)

Waiting for the Past by Les Murray AO (Black Inc.)

I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the works win the award though, with such diversity on the shortlist it is impossible to know how the judges will lean, although I would be happy with either Michael Farrell or Sarah Holland-Batt, both more relevant and contributors “to the nation’s cultural and intellectual life” (the award’s mandate).

I interviewed Michael via email, I’m sure a number of his responses will appeal to readers here, let’s hope it extends his readership, and if any of my non-Australian readers buy the book and are unsure of the Australian references, drop me a line, in a lot of cases I’d be able to help out.

TM. If poetry is meant to evoke specific memories then I love the Countdown and 70’s & 80’s pop references, was there a specific thought process in adding/scattering these references?
MF. Pop music is a big part of the way I think about words/phrases, and to some extent poetic form. Countdown, and American Top 40 were highlights of the week when I was a kid. The references are added or scattered, (and there are 21st C refs too – Kanye, Pink), they’re just part of my image repertoire; and part of creating a particular affect/vibe. I want to write equivalents of great songs – the feel as much as the form.
TM. A couple of your poems in “Cocky’s Joy” feature detailed male-to-male sexual acts, sitting alongside Les Murray and Robert Adamson on the Prime Minister’s Literary Award Shortlists these references are confrontational. Was there any specific reaction you were aiming for with these references?
MF. I’m not sure .. to some extent “Making Love (To A Man)” was an attempt to write something less coded, less figurative, about sex .. I was partly resisting the hetero male poem of ‘the lover’, which I find cringey. I think there’s a queer element to my work generally that is resisted, but as long as it’s tagged experimental or whatever it can be rejected by self-styled progressives. Online dating is a big part of my life, and a recent phenomenon, and also to some extent invisible. It has a lot of potential for writing: poems are as likely to come from all the reading involved as much as the experiences.
TM. A couple of your narrative poems make me think of a surrealist on acid in a shopping mall or out in the ‘burbs. At times images of Juan Davila’s more controversial works came to mind (“The Arse End of the World (1994)” for example). How do you feel about these elements of your poems, have I completely missed the point or is that part of your intention?
MF. I admire Davila, especially his work with Australian iconography: and I think it has influenced my thinking to some extent. As has looking at Surrealist painting. I grew up in a small country town and in the bush, so I tend to think of the suburbs as other. I prefer to stick as close as possible to the CBD. So it’s an abstract terrain, relatively speaking. I’m interested in making scenes that are out of control, that are not ‘I saw a bird and now I’m going to do a wee’ kind of epiphanies. I love melodrama as a pop mode … everything’s building, going blue, our giraffe heads are popping out from behind our human masks etc.
TM. With references to innumerable writers and poets, it is obvious to any reader that you are very well read, who do you see as your main influences, idols?
MF. I’m a fan more than an idoliser. The formative influences are a role call of (but not of all of) the big 20th C US poets: Stein, O’Hara, Ashbery, Stevens, Williams, Moore, Spicer, cummings, Cage, Berrigan. Brecht and Lorca stand out as the non-Anglophones. Some I spent so much time with that I don’t have the same desire any more. Others I’ve taken up a bit more gradually. Stevens and Lorca. Pound. Perhaps Lorca is my idol circa now (or Derrida?). But that’s to speak in a poetry vacuum: Michael Jackson and Sesame Street are as big. My father’s metaphors as Prince Jackson says / songs about letters. Warhol …
I’m influenced by Hamlet and Macbeth more than Shakespeare generally: which means there’s more to come there too. Tzara is cool. Locally, Neilson is very important to me, and I am still interested in Harpur and Lawson. Later poets include Campbell, Dransfield, Neidjie … Australian history, which I read through my own Eastern states upbringing. I’ll leave out the living.
TM. You mention the Oupilo in the poem “The Comic Image”, their theory of adding constraint results in the writer’s creative energy being liberated. I couldn’t pick any Oulipo constraint in the poem, however is there one, and is it a technique you use or would like to explore?
MF. I guess I didn’t say much about the avant-gardes in my influences answer. I read the Dadaists and overlapping Surrealists, which have had a general effect. Concrete poetry is still part of my thinking, as is the conceptual, both in art terms and Goldsmith’s internet-inflected version. Oulipo have interested me, I like Perec in particular. The image of the jigsaw puzzle on the cover of Life: A User’s Manual has stayed with me. I have used constraints before, more particularly in a raiders guide and open sesame. There is a poem in open sesame called “Debit of a Pirate Kino” which uses the noun plus seven constraint. I think using them has an ongoing effect, that is there in a sense in poems like “Mary” and “New I New Field”. I have used anagrams and chance a lot in the past … new constraints probably lie ahead.
TM. What are you currently reading and why?
MF. I am normally reading around 100 books at any one time. Which makes me slow. I read a lot of lit theory and a fair amount of biography, which is useful material. I generally follow tips from one book to the next, but often pick up new things from browsing the library. I read some things for academic papers, but mainly I’m following a feeling. I have one eye on the form, depending on where I’m at formally and if what I’m reading relates in some way. The things I’m getting something from at the moment are Alexsander Wat, Petrarch, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Weldon Kees, Yehuda Halevi. I try to leave space for non-Anglophone poets.
TM. What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
MF. Partly that depends on whether any of the irons I have in the fire come back with anything on them (funding applications). It feels pretty loose at the moment. I got a lot off my chest with Cocky’s Joy, and there’s more to come in a new book next year. My research is getting explicitly queerer, so I might have to pull Captain Cook’s pants down in a poem.

Net Needle – Robert Adamson


If Les Murray making the Prime Minister’s Literary Award shortlist is a celebration of stalwarts of Australian poetry, then Robert Adamson joining him on the list potentially shows the judges preference for established names. Robert Adamson was announced as the winner of the 2011 Patrick White Award, an annual literary prize established by Australia’s only Nobel Prize in Literature winner using his 1973 Prize winnings to establish a trust. A $25,000 cash award is given to a “writer who has been highly creative over a long period but has not necessarily received adequate recognition”. Due to economic conditions the prize was reduced in 2010 to $18,000 so the former inmate received a smaller prize for his poetry.

With twenty books of poetry and three books of prose behind him, he is another stalwart of the Australian poetic family, from 1970 to 1985 he was the driving force behind Australia’s New Poetry magazine. A troubled youth Adamson was involved in the theft of an exotic bird from Taronga Park Zoo, setting him on the road to a childhood spent in correctional facilities.

“It was in prison, ultimately, where he discovered the saving grace of poetry. Inspired by the songs of Bob Dylan, he began writing what he thought were songs, only to be told by a priest that they were poems, not songs. The priest then gave him a book of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. For Adamson, it was his ”passport out of there””. (Taken from Canberra Times 4 November 2011 – “Former Inmate wins $18,000 Poetry Prize” )

“Net Needle” contains forty-two poems, broken into four parts, and opens with an epigraph by William Butler Yeats;

All the stream that’s roaring by
Came out of a needle’s Eye;
Things unborn, things that are gone,
Form needle’s eye still goad it on.

Part one contains mystic, natural poems, the first three poems containing references to gardens, swallows, cuckoos, koels, storm birds, poppies, mosquitoes, wasps, bees, crickets, mangroves, grapevines, bottlebrush, bamboo, possums. The second poem Summer subtitled (after Georg Trakl) is obviously a reference to the following Trakl poem (which appears in the collection “Sebastian Dreaming”, translated by James Reidel);


With evening ends the lament
Of the cuckoo in the woods.
The grain leans lower,
The red poppies.

A black storm threatens
Over the hill.
The old song of the crickets
Dies away in the field.

The leaves of the chestnut
Never stir.
One the winding stair
Your dress swishes.

The candle shines silent
In the dark room;
A silver hand
Snuffed it out;

A wind-still, starless night.

Here is Robert Adamson’s poem from “Net Needle”;


(after Georg Trakl)

A pallid cuckoo calls in a loop
more insistently as afternoon fades.

In garden beds humid air
clings to the stalks of poppies.

Mosquitoes rise from layers
of leaves under grapevines.

A blue shirt sticks to your back
as you climb the ladder.

Thunder rattles a fishing boat’s
canopy in the dry dock.

The storm silences crickets
chirruping under the mangroves.

Turbulence has passed.
A candle lights our dark room.

Outside, calm, a starless night –
then the flame is extinguished,

pinched between a finger
and thumb. In the eaves, at nest,

swallows rustle. You believe
the swallows glow in the dark.

Light daubs our skin with shapes –
the crushed petals of red poppies.

Adamson has moved the European to his home by the Hawkesbury River or Neutral Bay on Sydney Harbour, an area with a fishing history, a theme that is obvious through the title of the collection and through the mention of fishing nets, whaling harpoons, anchor ropes, rods, bait. The title of the collection appears in the poem “Net Makers” the poem that concludes Section one;

They stitched their lives into my days,
Blue’s Point fishermen, with a smoke
stuck to their bottom lips, bodies bent

forward, inspecting a haul-net’s wing
draped from a clothes line. Their hands
darting through mesh, holding bone

net needles, maybe a special half-needle
carved from tortoise shell.

Part two contains twelve autobiographical works, poems that reminisce about subjects such as the Saturday matinee movies in fancy dress in the 1950’s-60’s, or visits to the Sydney Stadium, watching boxing and Little Richard, Johnny Ray & Judy Garland, or time spent on the Sydney Harbour Ferries (a subject that also appeared in Les Murray’s collection “Waiting for the Past”);

Heaving the Rope

A ferry kisses the wharf –
engine rumble, shudder,
and prop-churn stir
the tide to white foam.
A deck hand makes a line
then heaves his rope,
lassos a bollard.
There’s a golden codger
fishing for blackfish,
his long rod and float,
green weed for bait.
The local boys, wharf rats
who fish all hours.
A businessman in bright
pinstripes walks
the gangplank. Boys
at Manly, diving from
pylons for silver coins,
girls off to Luna Park
or to school on the other
shore. The ferry’s
deckie ropes in the life
of the harbour – his
world framed by seagulls
and Southerly busters –
when he heaves the rope.

We also have subtle hints at a distant relationship with his father in the poem ‘The Phantom’, and the story of his troubled youth, who spent his “twenty-first in Long Bay Penitentiary”, reading Percy Shelley at night is told in the poem “The Long Bay Debating Society”.

Part three contains twelve poems, all different in style as all literary tributes to other poets, Rimbaud, Shelley, William Blake, Randolph Stow, among the tributes, all obviously influences on Adamson’s work. Besides the recurring “red poppies” there are other drug references GHB (in reference to Shelley’s “Satan Broken Loose”), or methadone (in “The Sibyl’s Avenue”). As in Les Murray’s collection we also have a reference to spinifex grass, the common subjects quite startling when you read this collections back-to-back.

Part four is similar to part one, a collection of the mystical, but all dedications to animals in the Hawkesbury area.

As I did mention in my write up of Les Murray’s collection, these are also assured works, poems from a writer who has form in the form, does this style of poetry excite me? Not really, yes uniquely Australian, however they remind me of poetry read at school, learned in universities, something from the 1970’s, 1980’s of Australia, not pushing the poetic boundaries in 2016. Yes, these are readable, they are enjoyable, they conjure up images of fishing towns, harbours, men in blue shirts with cigarettes and fishing gear, but where’s that cutting edge?

As an aside I much prefer the cover from the English edition, as published by Bloodaxe Books, as shown below.



Waiting for the Past – Les Murray


Is Australia shackled to a poetic history of “bush ballads”, rare marsupials, doing it tough on the land? A young nation, in English speaking terms, attempting to carve out a unique writing style, poetic and fiction, does it lead to perpetuating formulaic styles & subject matters?

For writers who have been professionally creating for over sixty years and published consistently for over fifty years an expected style, common themes, and a version of “Australianess” is to be expected.

If you read Australian poetry, you know of Les Murray, in fact a week before the announcement of the Nobel Prize Murray’s betting price was the same as winner Bob Dylan at 50/1. Extensive information about Murray’s background, farming, premature leaving of school due to his mother’s death, move to full time writing, depression, and controversies is all available on the web, for a more high level precis of his achievements the Australian Poetry Library site says:

Les Murray has unquestionably been a major figure in contemporary Australian literature. Media reports since the 1980s have frequently referred to him as Australia’s ‘unofficial poet laureate’, and since the 1990s he has been described as part of an international ‘poetry superleague’ of the best contemporary poets writing in English. Murray has attracted more international attention than any other Australian poet; he has been the recipient of prestigious international poetry prizes including the Petrarch Prize (1995), the T. S. Eliot Award (1997), and the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry (1998); collections of his work in translation have appeared in numerous languages including German, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Spanish, Italian, and Hindi. (for full article visit webpage here  )

It is not unusual for Murray to appear on the shortlists of poetry prizes and his latest collection “Waiting for the Past” was shortlisted for the prestigious TS Eliot Award, missing out to Sarah Howe’s stunning debut collection “Loop of Jade”.

There are numerous reasons why this collection should be in contention to win the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. And it is possibly a fruitless exercise to attempt to find those features. Let’s look at a few “highlights”

The first, and only, Australian to be recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church, Mary MacKillop, is the subject of one poem, “The Canonisation”, the process of her being declared a saint starting in the 1920’s and the canonisation taking place on Les Murray’s birthday, 17 October, in 2010:

Sainthood? So long after God did?
Independence? But you’re your own Scot.
The job of an Australian icon?

Or the uniquely Australian story of Lindy Chamberlain, and her baby Azaria, who she claims was stolen by a dingo during a camping trip to Uluru in 1980, after being imprisoned for murder and subsequent evidence coming to light, the coroner eventually confirmed Chamberlain’s story in 2012 (thirty-two years after the disappearance);

Being Spared the Inquests

A toddler’s scream –
the bared leap of a dingo,
the boy’s father running
with shouts and shovel blade.

Our valley came this close
to a deadly later fame.


With the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival currently underway it is timely to read the poetry of the horse racing industry and the cash changing hands, the outfits, the international shipping of horses, the breeding and the stance of jockeys is all captured in “Money and the Flying Horses”. The uniquely Australian themes running further with poems about Sydney Harbour Ferries, or desert grass (spinifex).

Rural themes have always featured in Murray’s poetry, and this collection is no different, “High Speed Trap Space”, set at night, a narrow country road, it is raining and suddenly an animal steps into the headlight beams…Or “Dog Skills” which opens;

From his high seat, an owner
of cattle has sent dogs
to work a mob of Angus.

As the title of the collection suggests. “Waiting for the Past” this book is deeply rooted in Murray’s past, with poems about his rural upbringing, his mother’s passing away from cancer, mentions of paddocks, horse riders, milking, there is the city folk, “while factory protein spiced with clones/grew beef or mutton, milk or bones” and the theme of ageing, prominently on display in the poems “Diabetica” and;


Last time I fell in a shower-room
I bled like a tumbril dandy
and the hotel longed to be rid of me.
Taken to the town clinic, I
described how I tripped on a steel
rim and found my head in the wardrobe.
Scalp-sewn and knotted and flagged
I thanked the Frau Doktor and fled,
wishing the grab-bar of age might
be bolted to all civilisation
and thinking of Rome’s eighth hill
heaped up out of broken amphorae.

When, any time after sixty,
or any time before, you stumble
over two stairs and club your forehead
among rake or hoe, brick or fuel-tin,
that’s time to call the purveyor
of steel pipe and indoor railings
and soon you’ll be gasping up landings
having left your balance in the car
from which please God you’ll never see
the launchway of tyres off a brink.
Later comes the sunny day when
street detail gets whitened to mauve

and people hurry you, or wait, quiet.


There is also the change resistant writer, one who uses paper & a typewriter, fearing the computer, in “The Privacy of Typewriters”:

I am an old book troglodyte
one who composes on paper
and types up the result
as many times as needs be

Mixed alongside the reminiscing there are modern views, such as “The Massacre” where a high school shooting sits alongside a poem about carers looking after the aged and the slow decay of the brain (as well as Murray’s own headstone inscription), and then poems about the natural, as in “High Foliage” or even domestic violence in “The murders of women”, or even clipping one’s toe nails.

To me these read as a collection of sixty-four poems that have been published in one book, not a themed collection, however I may have missed something. As an iconic Australian writer, Murray will surely be in contention when it comes to naming the main winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, personally this is another collection of his works that are finely written, readable and enjoyable. But they were not works that pushed my boundaries, and as most of you know I am a reader who likes to be challenged it didn’t quite hit the mark.  Having said that, readers who haven’t explored Australian poetry before and the rural themes generally found in the traditional fare this would be a nice introduction to the genre, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize probably a better judge of the poems than my bias and taste.




The Ladder – Simon West


Ekphrastic poetry, a year ago if you had thrown that term at me I would have looked at you with a blank look and probably questioned your sanity. Within the last twelve months I have come across two Australian collections that draw heavily on ekphrasis. According to the Poetry Foundation website “An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.”

Another collection shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, “The Hazards” by Sarah Holland-Batt used the ekphrastic form vividly to describe Lucien Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” (a £17.2 million – US$33.6 million – purchase in 2008) as well as the iconic Australian painting, Emanuel Phillips Fox’s “The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770” (1902).

Simon West frequently using the form in this collection “The Ladder”. A “Google Image” search a useful tool, allowing you to observe the painting in question before, during and after reading the poem. There are quite a few examples in the collection, I’ll highlight two;

“The Perfection of Apollo”, uses the painting ‘Apollo Flaying Marsyas’ by José de Ribera, an image showing Marsyas being punished by Apollo for daring to question the superiority of the melody of the divine lyre over the worldly sensuality of his flute. A graphic paining with exposed flesh, the “ghostly hue” of Apollo in comparison to the worldly shadows tinting Marsyas’ skin, and the mythological tale all vividly portrayed in a single page, twenty six lines (the form being six lines-six lines-six lines-eight lines).

For a book deeply rooted in Roman culture and imagery, I really enjoyed another ekphrastic form describing the painting ‘Burning of the Heretic’ by Sassetta, painted in 1423, a painting held by the National Gallery of Victoria. Vivit the image and the provenance and details here.  If you’d like to understand a little more about the ekphratic form, open the link, with the image and read the opening lines:

To one side and aslant an outdoor altar.
A bishop elevates the Host.
Rapt faces fill the middle ground. In the twilight
soldiers sit astride uneasy colts.

Simon West’s collection opens with the poem ‘Roman Bridge’ , the tone set from the first page, as a reader you are crossing over from one side (your current time and place) to another, using a structured approach, arches “holding gravity at bay”, construction is more powerful than the natural world. In West’s eyes, his landscape has room for bridges…spires, as well as the natural world of hills…birds.

The second poem also sets the scene for the upcoming collection of thirty-seven poems. ‘Climbing the Tower of Babel’ an exploration of language and speech, “An avowal of speech itself”. The original tower being built to reach God, his ire manifesting by him confounding their speech so that they could no longer understand each other and scattering them all around the world. The creation of languages.

An avowal of speech itself. Mouth muscles heaving
in a new element beyond the habit of murmur.
After the guttural sound-weights of home
it felt like always saying

Within two short poems we have learned of Simon West’s preoccupation with language and structure.

The title of the book “The Ladder” is not a poem itself, but appears in the poem ‘The Taking Up of Earthly Pursuits’;

…Only now as I climb without rest up and down my ladder do I begin to learn how each of us must be put to the test of likening.

A collection that is full of raw honesty, containing all the elements, irony, metaphor, executed with a wry sarcastic smile.

Outside on a Warm Evening I Consider My Confused Ideas about Poetry. For Now I Offer This Brief Account

The poets of my youth spoke of dwelling
in themselves, as if they meant a secret
cavern of emotions where an essence
might be found purring like a cat.
Too restless to abide, I’ve mostly lingered
round the threshold which the senses keep.
Outside there is so much to contemplate.
Some talk of depth and things as they are. Others
see layered surfaces alive with light.
Is it right to hold a tree up like a mirror a
s if looking out were a way of looking in?
For a few, songs of celebration must
suffice: our home in this realm is reaffirmed.

In the poetry of mountains and waters
a path meanders through vast landscapes. Sometimes
it is hard to distinguish a man from a cloud or a tree.
Here too, I imagine, before crossing a stream
it is wise to wash one’s hands and offer a prayer
while gazing into the flood. And so the earth
echoes with Hesiod – a Greek from long ago.
Have I made progress? For the moment
my lungs billow like curtains. Upstairs a muscle
clasps as tightly as it can a pronoun
it doesn’t want to share. But it must, it must.

A readable, enjoyable, thought provoking collection, crossing between classic Roman themes and Australian bush and homespun elements; who would have thought a poem could be written about the “Hail guns in the Goulburn Valley”? Or the simple pleasure of running around a sports oval? Another strong title from Puncher & Wattmann publishers, quality poetry collections seem to be their forte, appearing on the literary award shortlists all over the country.


I’ll put together my rankings of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlist after I have read all titles (I am heading away for a four day weekend away from work this weekend, and have packed two more titles from the shortlist – I could well have an opinion on my contenders for the main gong within a week!)

Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Shortlists 2016


Earlier in the week the shortlists for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards were announced. The Awards were established by the, then, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2007, shortly after the election with the first winners announced in 2008. The award is to “recognise individual excellence and the contribution Australian authors make to the nation’s cultural and intellectual life.” For the first two years the awards were given in Fiction and non-Fiction categories, in 2010 young adult and children’s fiction categories were added and in 2012 the addition of the poetry category and the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History were incorporated into the awards.

The judging panels, made up of twelve “experts”, recommend shortlists and winners across each of the categories, with the Prime Minister of Australia making the final decisions. In fact in 2014 the, then, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, overruled the judge’s decision to award the Fiction Prize to Steven Carroll for “A World of Other People” and announce joint winners, sharing the award between Carroll and Richard Flanagan for “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”. At the time this was highly controversial as Flanagan had been an outspoken critic of the Abbott Government.

The prize pool of $80,000 (tax free) for each winner of each category and $5,000 (tax free) each for shortlisted work is surely an amount sought by every writer, again Flanagan taking the limelight in 2014 by donating half of his prizemoney to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, stating that although he is not wealthy and had a mortgage, he recalled his father’s advice: “Money is like shit. If you pile it up, it stinks; if you spread it around, you may grow something.”

Let’s see if the 2016 winners, announced “later this year” (thanks for that clarification Arts Department), will make controversial or amusing statements in their winning speeches.


Forever Young by Steven Carroll (HarperCollins Publishers) Lisa Hill’s Review

The Life of Houses by Lisa Gorton (Giramondo) Lisa Hill’s Review

The World Repair Video Game by David Ireland AM (Island Magazine Inc.)

Quicksand by Steve Toltz (Penguin) Lisa Hill’s Review

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin) Lisa Hill’s Review (with links to numerous other reviews) –  my review here


Net Needle by Robert Adamson (Black Inc.)

Cocky’s Joy by Michael Farrell (Giramondo)

The Hazards by Sarah Holland-Batt (University of Queensland Press) – my review here

Waiting for the Past by Les Murray AO (Black Inc.)

The Ladder by Simon West (Puncher & Wattmann)


Tom Roberts and the Art of Portraiture by Julie Cotter (Thames & Hudson)

On Stalin’s Team: the Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics by Sheila Fitzpatrick (Melbourne University Press)

Thea Astley: Inventing her own Weather by Karen Lamb (University of Queensland Press)

Second Half First by Drusilla Modjeska (Penguin Random House Australia)

Island Home by Tim Winton (Penguin)

Prize for Australian History

The Story of Australia’s People. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Australia by Geoffrey Blainey AO (Penguin)

Let My People Go: the Untold Story of Australia and the Soviet Jews 1959–89 by Sam Lipski and Suzanne D Rutland (Hybrid Publishers)

Red Professor: the Cold War Life of Fred Rose by Peter Monteath and Valerie Munt (Wakefield Press)

Ned Kelly: A Lawless Life by Doug Morrissey (Connor Court Publishing)

The War with Germany: Volume III—The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War by Robert Stevenson (Oxford University Press)

Young Adult fiction

Becoming Kirrali Lewis by Jane Harrison (Magabala Books)

Illuminae: The Illuminae Files _01 by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (Allen & Unwin)

A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay (Walker Books Australia)

Inbetween Days by Vikki Wakefield (Text Publishing)

Green Valentine by Lili Wilkinson (Allen & Unwin)

Children’s fiction

Adelaide’s Secret World by Elise Hurst (Allen & Unwin)

Sister Heart by Sally Morgan (Fremantle Press)

Perfect by Danny Parker and illustrated by Freya Blackwood (Hardie Grant Egmont)

The Greatest Gatsby : A Visual Book of Grammar by Tohby Riddle (Penguin Random House Australia)

Mr Huff by Anna Walker (Penguin Random House Australia)


As per last year, I will read and review all of the Poetry shortlist (time permitting), with all titles ordered, excluding Sarah Holland-Batt’s “The Hazards”, which I have already read and reviewed.

I have linked reviews to Lisa Hill’s ANZ LitLovers Blog for the Fiction titles as she has covered nearly every title – excluding the limited edition “The World Repair Video Game”

The Hazards – Sarah Holland-Batt – 2016 WA Premier’s Literary Award (Poetry)

Onto the last of the shortlist for the 2016 Western Australian Premier’s Literary Awards for poetry and the University of Queensland Press’ “The Hazards” by Sarah Holland-Batt.
Sarah Holland-Batt is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the Queensland University of Technology and her first collection “Aria” (UQP, 2008), won a number of literary awards, including the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, the artsACT Judith Wright Prize, and the FAW Anne Elder Award, and was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Kenneth Slessor Prize and the Queensland Premier’s Judith Wright Calanthe Award. However as I’ve pointed out in the comments for another post, prior awards and recognition mean nothing when it comes to reading and assessing a writer’s latest works, let’s hope judges aren’t swayed by “form”.
This collection is made up of fifty-five poems broken into four sections, a rich collection using descriptive and lyric language touching on the themes of decay, violence and death. Poems that are so earthy you feel you are down in the steaming mulch on a humid day, looking above to the ferns.
Through observations of art, more specifically paintings, and frequently using an ekphrastic style (as self-described in the “notes”; an ‘ekphrastic’ poem a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. – Taken from the Poetry Foundation website.) Poems early in the collection reflecting upon British settlement, convicts, Aboriginals with spears, through to describing the landscape, the flora (less fauna) in the poem. In “An Illustrated History of Settlement” describing Emanuel Phillips Fox’s “The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770” (1902), I personally had the image of this artwork coming immediately to mind and the painting was not referenced in the poem itself, as an iconic painting there was no need for the specific reference, the imagery so vivid, you knew the reference;
On a far headland, two black men
stand warily, one holding up
a toothpick spear
as if to puncture the clouds’ drapery.
The first section rooted in Australian themes, flora and histories. The poem “Desert Pea” bringing the expanse of the desert firmly to mind, simply through the construction, the spaces matching the endless horizons, the silence in between the lines, the splash of red from the flower and the massive night skies all brought home in a short revelation:
Desert Pea
Like the pursuit of fire
a wind stirs the rocks,
summons into hear
a kind of cardinal calm.
This is the violence
of distance.
No end, no horizon.
Only desert floor,
henges of red
and the absolute artifice of sky.
I cannot stand
the certain world:
rock grass and thistle,
animal thirst
invading my eye.
Give me the night, the stars
streaming past me
huge and soundless.
Give me the silence
of the mind.
The rich descriptive language often creating mind pictures and even sounds, for example a vulture becomes a “Shaman of transfiguration,/high priest of the day’s death march,/he is the afterlife of all things:/child, star, pig, the small circumscribed lives/ of the apes and fleas.” And when the vulture eats the flesh, a surgeons language is used, gristle, gizzards and scalpels “cut and claw”.
Section II of the collection are all poems in homage to animals, vulture, toucan, capuchin, macaw, eel, parrot, green ant, cat, possum, muttonbird, and crab. Section III visits art and great artists, travel through Europe. Another ekphrastic poem being “Reclining Nude” reflecting and illuminating the controversial painting by Lucien Freud “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, a painting that once held the record for the highest priced work of art by a living artist (purchased by Roman Abramovich for £17.2 million (US$33.6 million) in May 2008), it depicts the nude portrait of a Job Centre worker Sue Tilley, at the time of the painting she weighed 127 kilograms.
Section IV ends with reflections of a worldly style, places inhabited, love, partners, all must “have us in the end”, and America. A collection that although worldly, point out the “hazards” that exist in the everyday, animals that are endangered, environments that are disappearing, innocent times that no longer exist, failed loves…
We have so little time left. We should love. (from “Ensign”)
A very rich collection, like the hummus in the forest at the feet of all the trees that appear, this is rich in styles, language, imagery and experience. For mine the most assured and timeless collection of poems on the shortlist. A collection that will stand the test of time, personally a work I will be hoping takes out the main gong, although all works on the shortlist are fine works and any of them taking home the main prize would not surprise. Although “The Hazards” maybe my favourite I’m not going to get grumpy if any of the other four works win.


When I return to the blog, it will be Women In Translation Month, a month long celebration that I participate in each year, where the only books I will review will be in translation and written by a woman. I have every intention of staying firmly with the Spanish language for the whole month, with fourteen books sitting on my “to be read” pile written by women. My first review will come from Chile (yes I’m returning), stay tuned for a review of an experimental fiction work.