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Prayers of a Secular World, edited by Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy: Book Review.

Sometimes, a poem can strike so deeply as to leave you speechless. It is often personal: the subject matter unearths a buried chord or a voice speaks like one you have heard before, calling memories out to play. It may be – variously – rhyme, rhythm, length, word choice. It might also depend on where one is, literally or metaphorically, at the time of reading. This is a wordy introduction to my favourite piece from Prayers of a Secular World because, frankly, Daniela Giorgi’s ‘Sea Fox’ has left me as close to speechless (and almost breathless) as I can get. It sings to me on every level in six succinct stanzas. My partner rarely reads poems (not even those written by me) but this is a poem I knew would resonate. When he agreed (with a sigh of resignation) to listen to a ‘Sea Fox’ reading, it took him a moment to find his voice. When he finally spoke it was to ask me to read it again. I hope you can hear my applause, Daniela Giorgi. Bravo.

I was initially daunted by what seemed a rather earnest and high-brow title. Prayers of a Secular World. But the poems and meditations are all accessible and inclusive. What a surprise to receive this beautifully designed (Sandy Cull, gogoGingko) compact book with a forward by Inkerman and Blunt publisher Donna Ward and an introduction by author and intellectual powerhouse David Tacey who reminds us that sacredness is a ‘dimension of the everyday’ rather than something to be celebrated at special times in holy buildings.

Aboriginal culture has never separated the sacred from the ordinary but finds it embedded in the everyday. (10)

Tacey tells us that we can bring a greater awareness into our own lives by thinking like poets.

The poems and contemplations in this volume are separated into six sections. There is something here for everyone but, in keeping with my opening remarks about the personal call of a poem, I’m going to tell you a little something about my favourites in each section.

See the Dreaming Claim You
Maya Ward’s ‘Powerful Owl’ gets its claws into the subterranean layer of my soul. It is dark and potent, the stuff of dreams.

My mind was forged in the crucible of you
And my spine is a tree
Where you have perched
For thousands of years (14)

 A Mantra That Will Keep Us
Every word in ‘The Sadhu’ by David Francis seems perfectly chosen, mulled over, repositioned perhaps. The effort put into the writing makes the reading effortless so that I was transported into the world of this journeyman of landscapes. I felt as though I was standing before a perfect portrait in a quiet gallery, seeing the sacred mountains. And then I felt myself breathing the thin mountain air. Now I can taste the rice and hear the bells. If I close my eyes, is it possible that I might see the mysteries and grace beyond the narrow path of the present? Maybe.

‘The Sea Fox’, as already mentioned, is my favourite. Giorgi’s metaphoric transportation of expressions between the pain-racked body, the surroundings (You pace the raw metres of our flat, it’s three a.m) and the thoughts of the partner (My brain is dry, red, sore, scratched by empathy) (42) is brilliant.

Domestic Interiors
It was very hard to narrow down my favourites in this section. ‘Don’t’ by Matt Hetherington is clever and poignant; a diamond. Ali Alizadeh brings perfect rhythm to a yearning for love in ‘Venus’. As a mother, I am transfixed by ‘First Night’. Anna Ryan-Punch captures the deftness of the midwives and nurses, the mystery of babies and the re-arrangement of a mother.

Midwives relieve me of your squalling
head. I am as glad and guilty as Catholic steak
on Good Friday. Soon they will bring back your limbs
that I made … (54)

 The Delicate Formation of Faults
As I indicated in my opening, sometimes the connection with a poem might have something to do with where the reader is reading and so I don’t doubt that ‘No End to Images’ by Sarah Holland-Batt has a particularly literal connection for me. I read it on a boat on the Danube so no surprise that lines like no end to iron shoes along he Danube and no end to the gardens of Europe/with their murderous symmetry (78) hit their mark. For the same reason ‘Folding Down Corners’ (Anna Ryan-Punch) and ‘Photographs of Jews’ (Lisa Jacobson) spoke to me clearly.

The Shadow of the World
Catherine Bateson’s ‘Imperfection’ brought to mind Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’. Cohen reminds us that the cracks let the light in. Bateson draws our eye to the beauty of a hand-embroidered orange nasturtium that … here, in the left hand corner/can never match its yellow twin (95).

Believe There’s a Road to El Paso
Judy Johnson’s ‘Swans’ is a stand-out for me, mainly because it made me laugh. Her beautiful poetic descriptions of the majesty of swans morphs into the comedy of the momentary glitches of the propellers of their feet failing to launch like the frenzied paddles of a waterwheel and their absurd cries half bugle, half air brake. Toward the end, the poem is deeply philosophical: The soul we do not believe in, suddenly/believes in us, and flutters in terror (138-139). And her final stanza, which I won’t quote here, is divine. You need to read the whole poem to fully appreciate its depth and beauty.

I have a weird habit. Whenever I finish reviewing a collection of poems or short stories, I go back through to see a) what my favourite pieces have in common, b) what I know about the authors, c) if there are any themes I seem to be leaning toward. I usually find that my choices are eclectic, unbiased and fun to analyse. And this time it’s no different. Many of the writers are unknown to me, the subject matters are vastly different and yet – on some level – linked.

There’s something for everyone in this beautiful gold-embossed collection. For more information, head to the Inkerman and Blunt website

BOOK DETAIL
Albiston, J and Brophy E, eds.
Prayers of a Secular World
Inkerman and Blunt, Carlton South.
ISBN: 978 0 9875401 9 5

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AUSTRALIAN LOVE STORIES Edited by Cate Kennedy:Review

Love, luv, lurve.

I adore a good love story. And the short form is perfectly suited to the genre, as this collection will attest. Destiny, heat and lust, cold betrayal, unrequited. It’s all here.

Cate Kennedy’s introduction is superb and I hope other Editors will take note of it. There is no need for spoilers and academic dissections. Nor do we need explanations about how the reader should interpret any given story or what we should expect to gain from the read. I have always felt that writers prefer their work to be interpreted by the reader; it allows for so many possibilities. Kennedy (award winning writer and poet) clearly understands this and she gives us a beautifully written introduction on what it means to be entrusted with so many pieces of work, juxtaposed with the interpretation of love itself, and a vignette on her considered approach to choosing the stories to be included in the collection. She writes:

‘They’re not all pretty, any more than love is always pretty, but look, here they are, miraculous, tumbled and shining, from a stranger’s cupped hand to yours.  I hope you love them.’ (6)

The grouping of the stories into what Kennedy calls a ‘narrative arc’ is uncontrived and gives the Contents pages the look of a poem with stanzas introduced thus: ‘That Sensuous Weight’ and ‘The Unbroken Trajectory of Falling’ book-ending seven sections in total. Beautiful.

Are they all love stories? That will be up to the reader to determine but I wasn’t sure about a few. ‘Is that what you call love?’ I asked myself. I was sometimes puzzled. Are all these stories Australian? Not necessarily in setting, so the Australian of the title perhaps relates more to authorship.

Minor quibbling. Let’s get to the nitty-gritty. Let’s look at some of these stories.

australian-love-stories-edited-by-cate-kennedy

I am going to start with my favourite. As I began to read Susan Midalia’s A BLAST OF A POEM, I felt my spine relax. Aah. This is the one I’d been waiting for.  Other readers will have a completely different aah moment I expect. ‘A Blast of a Poem’ starts off in a domestic setting with ‘creamy songs’ of ‘moons and stars and rivers’ and ‘one that made me shiver without knowing why’ (179) and with paragraphs beginning ‘When I was fourteen years old and gushingly romantic…’ (179) or ‘When I was twenty-four and my heart was shattered…’ (180). There are layers of love, set over yet more layers, gently and succinctly unfurling a life for us to see in all its sweetness, heartache and devotion. The story takes us from the undoing of a poem to primal sex, and to a few places in between. There are so many beautiful phrases and sentences and words I could offer you here as a sample.  I have chosen this one, not because it is necessarily the best, but because it gives you an idea of it all, without spoilers:

As the weeks became months and the months became years, my life began to feel like an old time movie, in which the leaves of a calendar are ripped off and tossed aside by some cruel, invisible hand. (185)

 

Here are some other standouts:

LOVER LIKE A TREE
J Anne deStaic’s haunting tale of addiction left me breathless. Here’s a man caught in ‘his own private storm’ (56), his veins like ‘wide highways painted blue’ (54). Here’s a woman who lays beside him watching him breathe. She remembers ‘the heat of his skin on hers when all that will fit between them is one layer of sweat’ (56). All the man wants is ‘morphine and a lover like a tree’ (58).

DAWN
Bruce Pascoe
allows the reader into the bed of the narrator and into the depths of his thoughts so that we can see beyond what may seem like simple, everyday actions, to the enormity of the emotion that propels them.

HAMMER ORCHID
Sally-Ann Jones
has given us a hint of star-crossed lovers of different shades. A ‘Ten Pound Pom’ (130) and an older Aboriginal farm hand. Love barely hinted at, barely understood. ‘Biscuits’ (as the farm hand is known) is cool and knowing; he’s warm and open, he’s understanding and closed. ‘Don’t look at me, kid,’ he tells her (136) when ‘she was sixteen and he was twenty-four’ (135). And much later when she goes to visit him, he warns her to stay away.  She tries to entice him into what she has always yearned for on the eve of her wedding. ‘It could be a wedding present,’ is her desperate enticement. ‘No’ is his succinct response (138-139). Sexy. Intriguing. Sad, in a way. But is it optimistic as well? Maybe.

THESE BONES
Allison Browning writes of mature weathered love. Enzo has dementia and the home is both alien and familiar. He wants to awake beside his partner Nev but time warps and memories waver and he is constantly distressed by the current self and the self of his dreams. ‘He is no longer the young man he was moments ago, without lines and the notations that time leaves.’ (224) But Nev still sees him through eyes of love: ‘He looks worn, his body deflated, but the essence of him fills the space somehow like the echo of laughter in a room’ (233).

A LITERARY LOVE STORY (memoir)
Catherine Bateson’s
entry (which I read as a letter to a younger self) gives a nod to the Bronte sisters and [French novelist] Colette and, as the title suggests, literary allusion and metaphor abound. ‘Once I woke with a French phrase clinging to my morning mouth, the only language for unrequited love.’ (21) Strangely though, it is wonderfully Australian.

MOSES OF THE FREEWAY
David Francis knows how to amuse. Gorgeously laugh-out-loud politically incorrect at almost every turn.   Can’t resist these quotes:-

  • The lesbians just look awkward as usual (142)
  • Next came the photo of the foundling called Marvel from El Salvador (143)
  • I, myself, can’t go to the gym. It isn’t safe. I end up backstage in the showers for hours, wondering if I shouldn’t just stay there forever, have my mail forwarded. (146)
  • My own pittance sent each month to Amalia from Manila. Lagoon eyes and a slightly snotty nose. Save the Christians probably added the snot for the photo. (146)
  • Bette’s vaguely bipolar in a subversive downtown beatnik sort of way, her hair a tangled mess. (148)

A GREEK TRAGEDY
Claire Varley
. Beautifully written. Beautifully sad.

WHERE THE HONEY MEETS THE AIR
Carmel Bird’s stream-of consciousness comic monologue is fun.  I adore its word play and jokes about topics as varied as ‘Elizabethan roots’, dictionaries and bees and ‘the merry media, social and anti-social’ (288).

There’s a good review at Musings of a Literary Dilettante.
My review is cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

BOOK DETAIL:
Kennedy, Cate (Ed).  Australian Love Stories. Inkerman and Blunt, Carlton South, Aust, 2014.
ISBN: 9 780987 540164

 ***

In the interests of full disclosure – one of the fundamentals of journalism – I confess to entering into the call for short stories about love, boots and all, but my ‘baby’ didn’t make the cut. I certainly didn’t take it personally and recalled a 2006 interview with Jane Sullivan (the Age) during which Kennedy talks about one of her short stories finding a place in The New Yorker after it had failed to make a mark in a number of Australian competitions. Ruminating on the lesson to take these knock-backs in a professional manner, she said it was a case of ‘Some other time, some other place’.

 

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