When: Tuesday May 28th, 6 for 6:30pm
Where: Common Room, John Woolley Building, University of Sydney (map here: http://sydney.edu.au/maps/campuses/?area=CAMDAR ) We deeply regret that this venue can only be accessed via stairs.
RSVP: firstname.lastname@example.org …or just turn up.
See you there!
In addition to being the planet’s sole island continent, Australia is comprised of many islands: 8,222 according to Geoscience Australia, as well as many others in its external territories. Islands have been at the forefront of heated public policy regarding asylum seekers and detention, and in relation to rising oceans. So, too, the man at the centre of the fight for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights, Eddie Mabo, came from Mer (Murray Island) in the Eastern Torres Strait.
Some Australian islands have been homelands for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people for millennia, while colonial culture recognised the potential of islands as ideal prisons, lazarets and strategic bases, and exploited their romantic associations as perfect idylls. Artists such as Ian Fairweather, have sought seclusions on islands; despots have sought complete autonomy on islands; and Western scholars have viewed them as perfect laboratories.
This issue of Southerly is framed by a contemplation of island futures by Elaine Stratford, taken from her opening address at the inaugural Australian Small Island Forum held in May 2012. The literary essays focus on the interplay between island fantasies and realities Australian writing where the island is a powerful site in real and imaginary terms, and David Brooks revises the map of Modernism to include Papua New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands, in view of Bronislaw Malinowski’s deep engagement with these island territories.
In addition to these thoughtful works of analysis, the issue includes a wealth of fiction, poetry and reviews centred on islands, archipelagos, the experience of their materiality and their imaginative power, ranging from Terri Janke’s “Turtle Island” about the Torres Strait to Angela Rockel’s “Silvereye” in Tasmani’s Huon Valley.
by Maria Takolander,
When I was a child I feared that I was the antichrist. I used to check for the mark of the devil on my scalp. I would stand up close to the bathroom mirror, with a smaller mirror in my hand to facilitate inspection of the back of my head, searching my scalp for a tattoo of the number of the beast.
To explain: I watched horror films from an early age. We got our first video recorder when I was in primary school, and visits to the video rental store saw my father choose video cassettes with lurid and grotesque pictures behind the sticky plastic of their protective covers. They included what have come to be well-known titles such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exorcist and A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as lesser known titles including Blood Sucking Freaks, Rosemary’s Killer and Basket Case. We would have watched every available horror movie in the store. My father even made illegal copies of the films with an ad-hoc system involving another video recorder, which meant that we could watch the movies over and over.
I have little insight into my father’s choice of horror—a genre that combines pornography and violence—for family entertainment. Perhaps it entailed a masculine demonstration of sisu, the quality of toughness celebrated as integral to Finnish victories against the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Perhaps it resonated with a particularly ugly masculine worldview inherited from his childhood in Helsinki, where he was born before the war’s end. In societies where men need to be ready for battle, where men have fought out of necessity, there is little room for sensitive souls. Sensitivity or weakness—the antithesis of sisu—also has a name in Finland: nassuja. Julia Kristeva would argue, according to her theory of horror and abjection, that my father’s choice of films exposes a regular practice of patriarchy, involving the marking and rejection of women as monstrously unclean. Whatever the case, motivations are always multifaceted and complex. And so-called insights regarding other people are so unavoidably obscured by one’s own emotional investments as to be borderline paranoid delusional, particularly in the case of family members (although there are those rare, disembodied and startling moments when one thinks one comes close to glimpsing something true).
The Omen and its sequel Damien: Omen II, which focused on a boy spawned by the devil and adopted by human parents, were the films responsible for my childhood anxiety about being the antichrist — although The Exorcist undoubtedly also played a part. One might view such a response as unfortunate and masochistic, but I suspect that a complete identification with the parade of female victims in horror films would have been worse. In fact, my anxious identification with Satan was probably unconsciously self-serving and empowering. I have written on gothic misogyny and children’s viewing in a book called Contemporary Children’s Literature and Film, and a lot of criticism of the gothic genre does focus on its representation of women. However, Carol Clover has done important work in evaluating the complex trans-gendered identifications of viewers when it comes to the characters in horror films. Judith Halberstam’s work on female masculinities, acknowledging women’s desire for power and trans-gendered ways of performing that power, is also highly relevant.
The way I see it, the character of Damien exemplified for my childish self various fantasies around power. To begin with, he embodied the fantasy of being adopted—one common to children (as the popularity of more palatable texts such as Annie and Heidi suggest)—and of therefore being ‘self-made’ and special. I am also sure that the capacity to supernaturally harm those who would do me wrong was an element of the character’s (albeit unconscious) appeal. Vicious Dobermans, nasty ravens and spontaneous aneurysms would befall those who tried to hurt or expose me—and I was a child who was bullied at school, being a shy migrant girl growing up in working class suburbs around Melbourne in the 1970s and 80s. It was also the case that there was someone devastatingly powerful looking after Damian, who stood to inherit nothing less than the Earth. There I was, the timid daughter of Finnish migrants, harbouring fantasies of omnipotence—and terrified of them!
We encourage young girls to be as innocuous as possible, while facilitating young boys’ fantasies of power through stories about superheroes and such, but I can’t see why all female children—or, indeed, grown women—wouldn’t experience similar transgressive desires for power. It has always struck me that Sylvia Plath’s poetry expresses fantasies of diabolical supremacy. Not surprisingly, when I was introduced to her poetry in my high school literature class—I was fortunate to have some wonderful English and literature teachers who made up for my lack of a traditionally bookish home life—I was instantly mesmerised. The last lines of ‘Lady Lazarus’ are, like the images from horror films, embedded in my memory: ‘Herr God, Herr Lucifer / Beware / Beware. / Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.’ Interestingly, Plath is much more commonly represented as a victim of the villainous Hughes, their story nevertheless resoundingly implicated in the gothic genre.
I should probably explain at this point that I had been brought up in the Lutheran religion, so that the idea of a devil and of a devil’s child struck me as perfectly feasible. Indeed, the supernatural realm of the horror films and of Christianity formed a single spectrum—and it was not one that was altogether separate from my quotidian existence. Particularly in those irrational states induced by night—by the mere turning of the earth from the sun, a phenomenon still so preternaturally abominable—I believed in it all like the child that I was.
This scenario offers not only a portrait of the kinds of pathological states inflicted upon children by casually irresponsible and religious parents—and what of the children compelled to act as demons in horror films?—but also a sketch of the background to my life as a writer. The first stories I wrote at primary school were firmly in the horror genre. One called ‘Maniac’—the heading dripping with red texta—told the story of a young girl who comes home from school one day to find her mother being carved up by a serial killer in their backyard. The girl flees to the police station, and the police put the child in a hotel, conceived as a kind of safe house. That evening, the girl looks out of her hotel room window and sees her dog being decapitated by the killer, now wielding a saw in the hotel car park.
Sometime after submitting this story to my teacher for assessment, I was called out of my class to the principal’s office. I sat before the principal’s desk and listened to the imposing Mr Orr express his astonishment at my imagination. He held my English workbook in his hands, flicking through the pages of the handwritten story. He went on to praise the narrative’s realism and asked me if I had a particular hotel in mind when I came up with the plot. I was a small, uncannily blonde and morbidly introverted girl of about ten years of age. It was possible that, during the entire interview, I said absolutely nothing—but I remember smiling.
It was only years later that I came to understand that my story had raised concerns about my home life and that the interview constituted a subtle interrogation. At the time, though, I had glowed with pride. I had been marked out as special. I had, after all, been singled out by the proverbial man in charge. He had recognised my hidden powers. From that day on I knew that I was destined to be—not a diabolical agent of the devil per se—but a writer.
by Maria Takolander
The older I get the more I realise that I don’t know anything, and yet I know that I am supposed to pretend that I know a lot. My role as an academic, and as a writer, requires of me that I generate knowledge and insights. This new role as a blogger for Southerly probably requires likewise.
I have to confess, though, that I find meeting such expectations difficult, as I seem to have inherited from my father something of a puerile—and, of course, unladylike—attitude towards authority and propriety. In response to viewing a pristine white-sheeted bed on the TV show Better Homes and Gardens, my father once memorably said, ‘that bed makes me want to shit on it.’ My father is a typically taciturn Finnish man, and it was one of the rare occasions that he deigned to speak. Finns are also notorious for their blunt elocutions. This anecdote might make my childhood sound like something from a Scandinavian Woody Allen movie, as might my Finnish mother’s notorious penchant for malapropisms—some memorable examples of which include ‘Danish pelican’, a dessert she served us once, and ‘Michael Bolton and the Dance of the Lords’, a stage show she attended. It was even the case that we lived, if not next door to a roller coaster (as per Alvy Singer’s childhood home in Annie Hall), on a main highway. Our living room windows rattled as semi-trailers thundered past.
There were also less comic elements to my childhood. Nevertheless, as Allen’s comic films often show, our parents are defining role models; we emerge into ourselves in an intersubjective environment in which their personalities dominate, whether we like it or not. This might be even more intensely the case in the hothouse environments endured by the children of isolated migrant families. Whether that last bit is true or not, I find myself embarrassingly prone to error when it comes to Australian colloquialisms and aphorisms. (‘When crunch comes to crunch’ is my husband’s all-time favourite.) More to the point, over time I have come to the unfortunate realisation that my father’s puerile urge to defecate on a pristine bed is suggestive of my creative praxis.
A demonstration of this might very well be evident in my decision—after enjoying months of appropriate, engaging, authoritative discussion on the Southerly blog—to begin my first post with an anecdote involving scatological humour. It might also be apparent in my impolite poems about childbirth, which comprise the first part of my new book of poetry, The End of the World, to be published by Giramondo at the end of the year. I must admit, for instance, harbouring disreputable feelings towards Judith Wright’s ladylike ‘Woman to man’ when I wrote ‘Unborn’.
My churlishness might also be evident in my book of short stories, The Double, which will be released by Text Publishing in September. The stories in the first part of the book offer ‘doubles’ of famous literary texts. ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, my response to Sigmund Freud’s literary classic, features a teenage boy masturbating to his fear-filled fantasies of women. ‘Mad Love’, my reply to André Breton’s experimental peon to romantic love, explores a wife’s intense hatred for her new complacent husband. She drags him around Africa (a place fetishised by the Surrealists), trying to make him suffer via the spectacle of a suffering world. The stories in the second part of the book, following on from ‘A Roānkin Philosophy of Poetry’, satirise the poetry world. The targets include self-important academic poets and breathless poems celebrating birdlife.
Of course, I don’t believe that I am being only puerile when I resist authority and propriety. I must, after all, be permitted to offer some kind of self-defence. I am fortunate that I have such famous precursors as the Dadaists and Surrealists—who were, incidentally, big fans of scatological humour—to fall back on, as well as a very healthy feminist tradition of revisionary writing. (Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque and DW Winnicott’s conceptualisation of creative play as antithetical to compliance provide useful additional theoretical justifications of my creative practice.) Freud might have memorably described the Surrealists ‘as 100 percent fools (or let’s rather say, as with alcohol, 95 percent)’, but I like to think that he was speaking mostly of Breton (who worshipped Freud and who, for a Surrealist, could be strangely lacking in a sense of humour and provisionality). In any case, Freud was in my view a man pathologically and destructively committed to his own authority and to conventional views of gender that irreparably flawed his grasp of reality.
In fact, what Freud shows us is that belief in one’s authority and the observance of convention can function as obstacles to new knowledge and insight, those things that I am supposed to be, as a writer and academic, boldly and baldly seeking. And so—arriving now at the grounds of my self-justification—I believe that my childish problem with authority and propriety, my retreat to a juvenile position of scatological rebelliousness, might very well be instrumental to my creativity. (I can picture Freud sagely nodding his head.) I hope that, like other impolite writers and artists before me, if you’ll once again excuse my father’s French (or Finnish), I shit on the hallowed sheets of literature in the name of truth and art. In fact, it is my strong belief that if we don’t shit on things from time to time, literary culture will become as middle-class, polite, self-important, performative, product-driven and inane as Better Homes and Gardens. (Piero Manzoni’s notorious can of artist’s shit, of course, expressed this point much more expeditiously than I have.)
I would like to close this post with a disclaimer. What I have said here is actually unrepresentative of my character—and probably of my writing. I am not an anarchist or even a bohemian. Indeed, I greatly value order and politeness. You would not find even so much as an unmade bed in my house.
A huge thanks to John Kinsella for his excellent posts last month. This month, our fabulous blogger is Maria Takolander. Her bio is below:
Maria Takolander is the author of two books of poems, Ghostly Subjects, published by Salt in 2009, and The End of the World, forthcoming with Giramondo in 2013. She is also an award-winning fiction writer and the author of the forthcoming short-story collection, The Double, which will be published by Text in September. Her book of literary criticism, Catching Butterflies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground, was published by Peter Lang in 2007. Maria is this year’s judge of theAustralian Book Review Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. She is currently working on a novel for Text Publishing, and she is a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies and Professional and Creative Writing at Deakin University in Geelong.
by John Kinsella
I’ve always loved ‘data’, though I am sceptical of how it is sourced and utilised. This re-engineered novel I’ve been talking about over recent weeks, Morpheus, is a book stuffed with data, yet aims to be a challenge to the ‘empirical’; the data of ‘learning’ — from school, the first year or two of university, private reading and even (scientific) researching. While writing Morpheus, I was studying and occasionally working in my own home lab, complete with Mettler balance, Bunsen burners, titration equipment and micro ground-jointed organic glassware, including Liebig condensers and even a Friedrichs condenser, and an old Cathode Ray Oscilloscope: a Cro, which worked well with all the ‘crows’ in my poems, and also informed my sense of poetic rhythms.
But the home lab was becoming a thing of the past and, leaving the county for the city to attend university, I still worked on and off in a commercial laboratory, preparing mineral sands for analysis and supervising the loading of (mineral sands) ships. Simultaneously, my politics of protest (eventually against the very work I was doing), were simmering and manifesting. I was obtaining knowledge through praxis, knowledge that would be used against its sources.
And ‘data’ are subjective in their derivations and applications. Maybe this is why ‘pseudo-science’ fascinates me, with its purported facts (I would argue plenty of facts arising from the ‘hard sciences’ are purported or dubious as well, especially given I am not satisfied with any ‘proofs’ of existence in the first place). I have mentioned my poetry of ‘graphology’, which has its origins in the materials that would constitute the novel Morpheus in my late teens, but I haven’t alluded to my interest in alchemy. I no longer have it, outside readings of Faust, but it’s omnipresent in Morpheus, and was probably one of the factors that enticed Paul Hardacre to offer to publish the manuscript with Papertiger back in 2007 (after a journey from there, it has been looked after by Geoffrey Gatza at Blazevox — thanks to both for assisting in its passage). Paul’s knowledge of esoterica and alchemy is second to none, and it informs his poetry as well as his critical practice. Of his book liber xix: differentia liber (Puncher and Wattman Poetry, NSW, 2011) I wrote:
liber xix is a remarkable if not unique book of poetry. To quote an alchemical expression from a quote cited by Hardacre, it’s a book in which language ‘dissolves and combines’. But for a work so specific in its prosody, the key to unlocking its mysteries actually locates itself in spiritual essence derived from a mixture of the animal, vegetable, mineral, and quintessential. This is a book about the meeting of differences, about the alchemical reactions that arise from these meetings, these mixings. The poem is always more than the sum of its parts, and change is always part of the discourse the poems engender within themselves, between each other, and in the context of the quotes that accompany them. These glimpses into chaos and formation are also mini-epics, condensed ‘vedas’ and ‘sagas’ reaching across belief systems and geographies to find a ‘universal’ way of viewing being. Across the ampersands the components of the poem speak, and accumulate towards a maxim-like ‘unconclusion’ – the ‘noble’ is reached only nominally, and the ‘lesser’ (base) elements of the poem retain their properties. Alchemically speaking, though deeply desiring and even believing a closure is possible, no ultimate ‘coniunctio’ is reached; maybe it is even studiously avoided in a playback Gertrude Stein would possibly have found enticing (if she had written them). But it’s overall this work really comes into its own – it is a narrative, a journey from heaven to hell, from God to the faces of evil. Evil is named. Strands of mystical histories of humanity twist around each other, mingle fluids. This is a beautifully terrifying work. Hardacre is one of the finest poetical transmuters out there. He is to be venerated and feared at once. He is going places few contemporary poets have risked acknowledging, never mind visiting. Like all great innovators, he reaches as far back as knowledge.
Alchemy has an essential space in the evolution of scientific research and can’t just be dismissed as turning-lead-into-gold fantasies, and a willingness to sell one’s soul to gain power. Articulating the body, the soul, of a human’s relationship to nature and ‘existence’ adds up to much more than ‘magic’ and greed. Reading Paracelsus and Meister Eckhart was part of the protagonist of Morpheus, Thomas’s, raison d’être as much as it was my own. How did this come about? Well, I lost ‘religion’ when I was sixteen or seventeen and walked out of a Christmas service during which the minister had compared the bounties of Christ’s birth to a cash register. Looking back, I’d like to think he was being ironic, critiquing the spendfest that is Christmas, but I doubt it. I was reading Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy; I was reading the Bhagavad-Gita; I was reading the Koran, and I was reading the Bible. I had been baptised and confirmed; I’d always thought Christ was okay but the trappings of Church were like the trappings of the state: about control, and little caring for anything outside their own existences. Thomas in Morpheus struggles with all this.
But what remained from my comparative readings was my own sense of what constituted ‘spirit’ and ‘spiritual’, and a lot of information. I continue to process that information through my writing, be it poetry, essays or fictions. I am interested in applying it ‘correctly’, but also ‘incorrectly’. I find errors generative, creative and ‘honest’. I find the slippage between fact and error enticing.
Why data? Actually, for an event to be staged in a narrative, for an event to provide the co-ordinates for a poem in which the ‘ineffable’ is framed with an eye to quiddity finding its own voice (metaphor in overdrive), one doesn’t need a lot of data. Just enough: let the language do the work.
Or is this undervaluing data? In the same way that the adage ‘show don’t tell’ is the death sentence to innovation and expansion of possibilities (being told doesn’t mean you have to ‘listen’: you can rearrange in your own head), so data can enliven our reading of an event. Superfluous, extraneous, even false, (excessive) data lose points of reference, become detached from the causal event. But that tells us something about how such events can’t exist in vacuums, that they interconnect on the most obtuse levels. An example: I write about a tree limb being blown down in a storm and falling very near us (my partner and myself). If we hadn’t moved from where we were sitting a few minutes prior, the limb would have fallen on us and possibly killed us. The poem is in that slippage, surely. So why stuff the poem with detail about the state of the road, a death a century ago and so on? Because it interconnects and paints a wider picture. We are small points in the pointillist whole (which is more of a hole and never complete).
And taking it further, what is the relation between ‘data’ and ‘detail’: is ‘extraneous’ description the same as precise detailed observation, and is detailed observation at least part of the material of ‘data’? Detail is not simply an accumulation of adjectives, an eruption of ‘purple prose’ (though that can be interesting in itself), but the precise deployment of specific information relating to an object/event/scenario. In addition, there’s the provision of ‘extra’ (and additional) information within and outside the frame which enhances our reading of the core subject, the focal point. Fine detail might give us a more ‘realistic’ or maybe ‘vivid’ picture of something, and thus encourage a depth of appreciation, but it can also distract from the supposed main object of focus. Yet it’s in this diffusion that I find expansion: tangents and alternative avenues for rereading/misreading and reconstructing. No knowledges are unrelated.
The misuse of data is equally interesting. Using ‘facts’ doesn’t mean you have to use ‘facts’ correctly. And facts are never correct. To observe a series of high temperatures precisely, and say that it was colder than expected, opens all sorts of possibilities: metaphorically and factually. I believe in the figurative strength of tautology: from the vaguely tautological ‘boiling hot’ to the more explicit ‘frozen ice’. One might translate, say, a series of readings of seismic activity into verbal and numerical tautologies. Therein is a poem.
And the ‘misuse’ of nomenclature, terminologies and ‘information’ often tells us more about a condition of being than stoical belief in any ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Deploying a word like ‘algorithm’ as metaphor doesn’t mean you don’t know what an algorithm is. It amazes me how upset people get with what they see as the casual deployment of ‘scientific terms’. As a slightly (though not particularly) relevant aside, I was making and programming computers in the mid seventies. I have no admiration for them now (for non-violent neo-Luddite reasons), but gee, I know how to use them (and, once upon a time, to make them). Maybe if a word is separated from its root meaning, or its acquired practice-application/s, the reader needs to ask why, and do some work beyond literal definitions. Facts are distractions as much as confirmations.
Knowledge is implicit in how and why we communicate. Writing is a processing of knowledge. It’s also a constant process of recategorising and reformatting knowledge. Those who control knowledge are about not liberty but deprivation. The net is supposed to be a knowledge revolution, but too often it’s a zone of mutual policing. The correction of wikipedia entries is an interesting case in point. Yes, I like to be certain the information I am reading is verifiable, and effectively expressed in terms of conveying these verifiable facts, but I also know that facts change and that sometimes an incorrect detail can import more of a ‘truth’ (behind the scenes) than cold, hard detail. We know we witness events differently, even if outcomes can be ‘agreed’ upon. But the reading and hearing of many different witnessings make a picture more absorbable. For me, that’s what writing is, and why writing can never be limited to a few classics, but must be an ongoing process of creativity: good/bad, right/wrong, ‘stylish’/’sloppy’, factual/sketchy… whatever binaries one creates, it’s all and much more.
Morpheus is a book stuffed full of ‘data’ (from chemical equations to details from Herodotus, that questionable and often hyperbolic ‘father of history’ who so stretched truth, but likely with great integrity: those wonderful contradictions). Data morph into the phantasm, the fact becomes the error, and that ambitious but shrewd Athenian, Themistocles, drinks too much. If we suddenly lost the ability mentally to file the facts we learn, what emerges when we try to affirm a ‘truth’ might well be poetry and a ‘fiction’. And I feel that ‘fiction’ is just truth and reality in a decategorised form. Its liberties are in its formal controls, in its ‘writerly’ concerns of composition and reading.
I notice that books on sports are often foisted on young readers: lots of facts about how a game is played, mixed with aspiration, disappointment and whatever moral message the writer feels obliged to push. Not surprising, really: arranging the figurative with the factual. A little older, and maybe it’ll be historical fictions. Combines a notion of ‘learning’ (historical facts) and socio-cultural application: scenarios and correlations we might draw with our own lives, our own behaviours. A model is made. I’d rather an historical novel with all the facts wrong, but giving the impression they are correct, than one that really only gives me a story trapped in a timeline, and period-appropriate details about clothing. In the slippage, the model collapses, and literature is made. Literature, in whatever form, is about change, and changing how we perceive ‘facts’ is a vital part of this.
I possess two items from my childhood. Both are books. Somehow I have held on to these through the upheavals of my life, including having twice sold vast collections of books to support my various needs (and long-past addictions) twenty and more years ago. When I did my last big ‘sell-off’ in the early nineties, I managed to hang on to my early J. H. Prynne Poems and a few signed collections of poetry as well, but that’s about it. I occasionally run into people who remark that they own books containing dedications from writers to me. But that’s the way of it, and though I enjoy having books around me, I am not stuck on owning things, and have little regard for material possessions.
Yet I do have those two books from childhood. One is Bedtime Nursery Rhymes, which was given to me on my second birthday by my maternal great-grandmother Coupar. She wrote in the front in her very formal, aged hand: ‘To dear little John, on his 2nd birthday from his Great-Grandma S. G. Coupar 1965’. This intrigued me through my childhood, because it became my only memory of this Goldfields woman, and I long mused over the formality and affection working together in the capitals for Great-Grandma, the initials in her name, counterpointed by the ‘dear little’. Should they have been in caps as well, I wondered? This seemed to me as much poetry as the wonderful rhymes inside which I still know by heart and recited to my son Tim when he was still in his cot.
But what’s more interesting, I think, is that the rhymes in that book are ‘Tales Retold for Younger Readers’. The nursery rhyme being given the recognition as adult text it should be accorded? Some of them are terrifying, even in their simplified and versified forms (some derived from fairy stories, others from Mother Goose and so on). ‘Solomon Grundy’ was the complete horror narrative.
Which brings me to the theme of this piece: how much plot it does or doesn’t take to tell a story. As I said in my earlier Morpheus piece, plot has never greatly interested me. And the material I am tracking here is integral to the writing of Morpheus, as it is to other fictions and certainly poetry. The retelling of a tale is not just condensation, bowdlerising and censorship. It’s also reconfiguring for an audience in the expectation that will find alternative points of entry. My nursery-rhyme book, mass-produced on cheap paper, printed in the Eastern bloc (‘Printed in Czechoslovakia by PZ Bratislava’) becomes a perverse détente at the height of the Cold War: the publisher, based in London, was the ubiquitously and fetishistically named Golden Pleasure Books Limited (purveyors of folk wisdom to children). As a child, I shared its ‘versions’ with thousands of other English-reading children around the world.
But getting back to the ‘point’: these tales-in-rhyme are partial, incomplete, or ‘lacking’ in some way, yet for me they were entirely adequate and told enough of a story for me to envisage ‘the rest’ or more. And this became the principle of my writing life (though I don’t always observe my own precepts! for me, really, anything goes in text): to show glimpses, not complete pictures. To let part of the tune be heard, not the whole thing. To have an incomplete music, rather than the full score. And for the painting to suggest rather than illustrate (all of the illustrations in my nursery-rhyme book are in blue: that was partial enough insight for me!).
When I discovered science fiction at the age of nine, my life changed. I devoured four or five books a week and this went on for years and years. I started with John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids and The Day of the Triffids, and though they have plot aplenty, it was more the glimpses into fear and inevitability, cause and effect, that compelled me. I would read large plot-driven Silverbergs or Frank Herberts or Asimovs, but it was the atmosphere of, say, Dune, or the great Library of Trantor, that lured me. And my reading of imperialistic, totalitarian, militaristic urges was done at the same time as reading Marx and Kropotkin (I was in my teens by this stage), and rather than enforce a reactionary politics, it illuminated the history I was so forensically interested in by giving it imaginary status and manifestations as well. Analogies, parables, fables… tales… have all interested me. All of this took me to One Thousand and One Nights; it took me to the theorists Propp and Todorov. Reading against my political grain was illuminating.
But I digress again. Tangents. That’s what drives a narrative for me. Plot is digression, is movement: it just doesn’t have to be event-driven to be causal. Back to Great-Grandma’s precious gift. One of my favourite limerick-squibs is this:
About Jack a Nory,
And now my story’s begun;
I’ll tell you another
Of Jack and his brother,
And now my story is done.
This is a piece of metatextual wonder, pure theory. It is completion/closure, and eternally open. It is the paradox that entices me to narrative and to reject plot (almost). The rhyme analyses its own condition of telling, opens doors and tells you everything (there is to know) while telling you nothing. This is the glimpse into eternal possibilities: you fill in the gap/s. It is also concision, craft and philosophy. To me, it seemed supremely logical. I liked logic. And I liked tangents. Poetry. Short fiction. The two have always seemed to me so closely related. In the Katherine Mansfield stories, ‘The Doll’s House’ and ‘The Woman at the Store’, we engage with narrative poetry at its very best. Prose poetry: open-form, run-on, succinct, evocative through telling no more than is needed. When I first read ‘I seen the little lamp’, I knew all I needed to know. That was the poem in the story, and the story was no story without the poem.
When I was a child, I ran a small magazine: I printed it on a silk-screen printer (as a vegan, I wouldn’t use silk now) and distributed to friends, families, and neighbours. I filled most editorial, writing and production roles myself, like most kids who do such things. I wrote poems and stories. A magazine should have both. They were two sides of the same coin. The difference? Poems had shorter lines and needed to ‘tell’ less. The stories had ‘run-on’ lines and told something, but not too much. An alien encounter, a kid riding his bike towards a corner where a truck had ignored a stop sign. Stop. No more information necessary. The cliff-hanger, but with no follow-up. No part two, no satisfaction. Poetry and stories had to bother, had to irritate, never seem complete. And novels… novels could do that too.
I mentioned two books from my childhood. The other was the classic, Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary by Charles Keeping, published by OUP. It’s an illustrated book of political, social, ethical and imaginative genius. Its ink-smudged illustrations (within bold, sketched lines) no doubt started a revolution in the illustration of children’s literature. I have wondered how much Keeping drew on the early advertising work (especially for women’s shoes) by Andy Warhol. I could Google it, but I can’t be bothered: I don’t want to find out that way. It’s just a personal impression for a book I wish to remain personal, and yet to share. In this book, I see that social contradiction at the core of anarchism: mutual aid. This story of urban development, class (struggle), high-rise and the old city, friendship, loneliness, alienation, redemption, fate, hope and freedom, is brief, to the point, poetic. Not a lot happens, but enough happens to make it seem epic. Here are some of my favourite lines:
But this isn’t enough. What mattered to me was the way the ‘prose’ seemed like non-end-stopped lines of poetry (sure, I wouldn’t have thought of it in such a way, but I did like the lines as they were arranged): the precise way it appeared on the page, above an illustration, mattered. It was in large print and was actually laid out like this:
And that, for me, was a short way from the layout of the texts in my nursery-rhyme book. Maybe this, with a ragged edge instead, would convince the sceptical reader that it functions as a poem as much as prose:
And I already knew there was more than rhyme to poetry — my mother, a poet, had told me that!
I won’t connect the dots — reader, you can do that. I’ve just told you a story, as I said I would. It’s my story, but it’s probably someone else’s as well. Maybe quite a few people’s. One last thing though: I should say that Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary carries a inscription from my maternal grandmother (daughter of Great-Grandma Coupar) and grandfather. It says and is laid out thus:
on your 5th Birthday
From Nanna and Pa.Pa. xx