The latest outing from Margaret River Press is Fire: a collection of stories, poems and visual images edited by Delys Bird.
The dark cover image gives a ‘heads-up’ to the sometimes confronting pieces it contains but nothing could have prepared me for the impact of Cassandra Atherton’s ‘Raining Blood and Money: Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire’. Her description of shoeboxes filled with personal belongings as “mini-coffins” is perfectly sad and sadly perfect. The term “thud-dead” that is the motif in this devastating imagined recounting is a quote from an eyewitness of the infamous 1911 New York factory fire and Atherton uses it to devastating effect. Of all the thud-deads repeated throughout the story, it was this one that left me breathless:
One of the girls hurtles into a street-light before her broken body lands on a pile of others beneath her. A muted thud-dead. (89)
If you know nothing of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, I can recommend reading blood and money as a mini-history lesson. If you know it well, the piece will bring the scene to life in all its unimaginable horror.
Another historical piece amongst the contemporary is ‘No Surrender’, in which Dorothy Simmons presents a different view of the Kelly Gang through a mother’s perspective. Coincidentally, ANZ LitLovers (where this review will be cross posted) has a recent review of Jean Bedford’s novella fictionalizing the life of Ned Kelly’s sister Kate. Such vignettes into the lives of the ‘bit-players’ in these vast sagas help bring history to life.
David Milroy’s commissioned piece ‘Walardu and Karla’ presents as a pastiche of Aboriginal legend and contemporary realism. Here we find Slim Dusty cassettes, the shadow of the Flying Doctor’s plane and a faded Dockers jumper, woven into the dreams and landscapes of tradition. There is some great comic writing in this story like the description of the local expert on the Karla legend who is “happy to live the rest of his life in beer, in cigarettes and in-cognito” (16-17). And this delightful gem where Alfred fondly recalls meeting the love of his life:-
Then from out of the darkness there came the voice of a goddess.
Ya got any cigarettes?
He turned slowly to face his destiny.
Nup! Don’t smoke. (20)
Underneath this rocking-good humour is a compact and special love story.
Kate Rizzetti writes beautifully in ‘Cool Change’ about a “man of the mountain, as strong and unyielding as the gums he felled for a living” (52), opening her story with Keith’s “unshaven kiss” (49) and ending with an imagined gentle kiss on his “whiskery cheek” (60).
Some of the poems are exceptional, from Paul Hetherington’s ‘Bushfire’ (“Rain came in drops like stones/clagging ash, banging roofs,/making molten dreams” ) to Carmel Macdonald Grahame’s expert melodic alliteration (“the lost, last bathroom was green and white,/leafily lead-lit” ) in ‘Coming Down to Earth’. Miranda Aitken’s ‘Isaac’s Land is Burning’ needs to be seen on the page to appreciate its cleverness.
Metaphors and similes provide for some great imagery in Clair Dunn’s ‘Quest for Fire. An old termite mound opposite a burnt out tree are, together, “like rusty bedheads” (185) and morning is described beautifully as a “smudge of indigo appearing in the east” as the narrator feels “the soft underbelly of night” at her back “curling up in hollows and burrows” (195).
The book itself is easy on the eye with an interesting use of white space and thoughtful placement of images, one of my favourite plates being Aerial King Lake – Black Saturday 2009 by John Gollings. It is so difficult to believe that the image is un-manipulated apart from a “small increase in contrast and red saturation” (39).
This is a collection that invites dipping into, here and there and I am sure I will revisit it many times, perhaps finding kernels of understanding and picking new favourite pieces. For now though, the thud-deads of ‘Raining Blood and Money’ won’t leave me alone.
Bird, Delys, Ed. Fire: a collection of stories, poems and visual images, Margaret River Press, Witchcliffe, WA, 2013.