COMMENTARY ON WRITTEN WORKS by the judge, LUKE CARMAN
Presented at the anthology launch, October 2017
There’s something shameful about admitting you take pleasure in judging others, but there no use pretending I don’t enjoy the role of judge for Zinewest’s annual writing contest. The thrill of it for me, beyond any paltry exercise of power, is in taking the barometer of the literary atmosphere in our part of the world. The old literary philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin, believed that the only way to know the truth is to listen carefully to a cacophony of tongues speaking to one another. It’s in the carnival of overlapping voices, speaking through the folk property of language, where real revelation can occur. This year the word revelation seems especially fit to talk about the collection facing us – Zinewest 2017 begins with the divinity of particle physicists, those secular priests in Kerryn Valeontis’ concrete poem, a work that slams together 9 trillion atomic rotations and an image of the Mona Lisa with all the quantum mystery of a hadron collider.
From this Big Bang of a poem the ‘Trembling Hands’ of Peter Cartwright’s verse evolve, the tableau opening on a lightning strike struck for eternity – a broken fall on rock and leaf, an empty house awaits a life that is not coming, a ecstasy of fumbling with no place to be despite millennia of reaching.
The molecules in motion in Frances An’s prose enter with the crack of pool balls, gym bags hitting the thighs of Gary Cooper Asian Boys with gym equipment sparkling in their eyes. Time moves in Roman numerals, and all the weight of the British Empire rests on the ancient, unspoken eros of Teacher and Student. I know this secret well, having once married my university tutor. I know the guilty pleasure of fixated desire that plays out between orange campus walls.
Deconstruction is the motion of Kayote’s ‘Derridian Wave’, but despite the Postructualist’s demands, Truth, in the singular, has snuck into this postmodern tale of a heart which will not retreat. Words between father and son, a whirlpool of sincere anguish. The uncertainty of language, a refusal to surrender to the surge of instabilities.
Kate Brown’s ‘Once-Fish’ begins with a bare hand in butchery, a vivisection where the body of woman, like the gnashing ribs and the tearing spears in holy books, opens innocence and guts, pins it to heavenly bodies. A stained knife that ploughs a potter’s barren ground.
Norm Fairbairn’s ‘First day back’ is another force majeure, the calm before the tempest teetering in domestic atmospheres. A sin of despair where birth and death sit side-by-side on printed pages.
Tudor-Tomescu’s poem is a despair of different colour – a hetergloss of unanswered pleading: the wounded thigh bleeds – a corkscrew of unwanted news pushes into bodies over telephones, the furies of demonic sadness to be exorcized by telephone wire, cherry blossoms that chase out demons in their smooth smoke.
In Claire Haiek’s rainbow dawn the question of life is in the balance: desire, loss and hope all pivoting on the axis of a park’s seesaw. The image of traumatic unfullfilment hidden up a scrawny sleeve in a park full of all life’s youthful promises.
The universal laws return in Broadribb’s surreal prose as cruel cosmic prank – the superego torture of a world in which Id is king and all is blame and guilt. All language descends to monkey chatter, messages carved in trees sprout ominous puns. Inertia and threat, bewilderment and a final social integration of electric madness.
LE Armbrusters’ is the work of a fraud, who is tired of this writerly thing, this suffocating trick of inbetweeness thing. Better it were the work of a cake-maker, with clients and cash flow; or some balding Italian soccer tragic; or a Louis Vutton-wearing stay at home mom; a millennia mirrored in Tele-melodramas; an Irish jigger; a barbecue king. Anything but the fiendish rearranger of words the author pretends not to be.
Abullah Noman sees us sitting at a table round as the curve of space and time, between the constellation of complex reflections written in digital codes; around us all the ritual prayers of nature that plays its games of shade and light upon two diametric faces.
Lindy Courtney is right to warn us, she has returned to poetry with a bitter, vengeful force. Best not to inspect the secret cupboard, or the futon in the guest room which hides a dusty binder. Beware, as Coleridge said, for the novelist has drunk the Kool-Aid of the novel, and just for today, perhaps, will regurgitate its taste.
Morgana Ladrina returns us to a genesis revised, an open letter from the subterranean shadow-self of the loving mother under earth, who exhorts her terrarium children with an Oedipal warning: our incestuous symbiosis will reap a sowing, the giver of life become death in our irreversible trespasses.
Belinda Curby’s elegy is about another kind of mother, the kind that gives birth to a poet, a family of muses and masterpieces that live in a carnival of memories of coffee cups and tea and cake and laughter, where words pour like burning gold and one might still see the voices dancing with closed crying eyes for the old cafe.
Andrew Scobie’s ‘Within Dreams’ is a tale of paradise lost. The man who collects clocks in his youth falls in love with a woman less predictable than the German gears that clank in the movement of minutes and fill his head with troubled thoughts. She leaves him disconnected from time, revolving through a dream of life, the insubstantial pageant vivid in his ticking mind.
Robert Dunn’s ‘GLAM’ is another kind of game with time. Here is a poem that begins with lunar expansions of bodies – daughter, wife, mother in the hospital ward – then explodes into a burlesque of lyrics from all your favourite hits, before washing Charlie’s angel onto the lawn in the midday sun. With summer loving like no other, and Botox holding faces together, a brother cheekily serenades a sister.
Alison Miller holds a door to a mother-in-law, her refrain, ‘you are the daughter I never had’. The poet warns that these words hold a meaning heavy with emotional weight; there’s some secret knowledge in the summer heat, a woman wilting like a rose. The horizon of life without its thorns: almost unspeakable, almost.
Akshay Chougaonkar gives us a lesson on looking up at the heavens – contra Robert Frost’s idea that nothing much goes on up there. Militia in grey and brown, a crimson blue retreat, battles unfolding for the territory of dew on morning grass.
Grace Funk writes of heavenly bodies of an entirely different kind. ‘Waiting for Godot’ staring Pearl and Flo – only they wait for no man. Gifting the world as stage their celestial cheeks, those perfect wrinkled orbs on full drunken display, as they ponder the universal truths like shopping-trolley philosophers.
Their lush, spare divinity gives way to Danielle Catherine‘s antithesis of plentiful anxiety, a comedy of Grandparental chaos, with an antipasto antagonist riding shotgun to cavalcades of intrusive questions and all too reasonable demands. The promise of a seat-belt click becomes the bell of heaven, and the wisdom of the Nonno seems like a series of commandments, their ancient jokes a kind of prophesy in judgment.
Yumna Kassab takes us to the ‘House of Youssef’. Its curse of misfortunes devouring families, its days of granting heart attacks and bouts of madness finally levelled by bulldozers. But even in death the house scorns the plans of man, the pit where it once stood filling with water, becoming untouchable in death, like an ancient pharaoh’s tomb.
‘Friday’ for fayroze begins with a devotion – the shopkeepers and the shadows all gone to prayer. A clean pressed lightening-white religious code plays out by the letter-box, and in its call to attention, almost redeems the pall of concrete and the sky scrapers, and the shoulder-shoving letches who move among the crooked streets.
N L Mansell stands us at the edge of the bush, with far-off sounds of traffic we reflect on ghostly gums and the smell of eucalypt. The untouchable sense of live in all its sensory glory is punctured here by tragedy; a slip from rocks, the irreversible course of water gulping air from lungs, leaving only questions with no one left to answer.
In Jo Mularczyk’s prose a child gives the gift of youth to an old man who has given in to the final use of physics – a rocking chair from which to watch the small moments of life go passing by. His memories of living through younger eyes are like an ember slowly fading, the little boy once more stoking upon the coals.
Morag Sutton transfigures a question into an answer – ‘how does a nice warm doona sound?’ This is in fact an answered prayer, the antidote to Edvard Munch’s eternal scream of nature – the holiness of hospitality, the divine honeydew of human kindness.
A poisonous look of pity begins Kirsten Oakley’s ‘Second Reading’, from that one ‘painted’ expression the heroine’s last reason for being almost unravels. Wine spills from the glass, a kind of overflowing of emotions on tender springs. Smoked salmon is dumped into the bin, a sort of raging sacrifice. The world has begun to spin upon its axis, but the cosmic balance arights itself, Truth speaks itself onto the void of chaos, and all is renewed in new elegance of form by story’s end.
Arna Radovich’s story ‘Who do You Think You Are?’ is also set in a world of stories written in many tongues. Joan London comes to a train in Emu Plains. Butterflies sleep under drought-bleached fields, with durrie-butts for blankets. All the voices of the world speak between the pages and the ages of all time: Ottomans, communists, shepherds and slaves, all in the carnival of words – and through it all the real world, the world of plumbers and fathers shining through.
Shivani Anora almost takes the question of ‘Who you think you are’ back to its eternal source, an epistle to God. Orion’s Belt become a string of pearls. The cosmos collects in poetic veins, the devil swims like a lost boy in the flow of our blood, his strange oars in the stardust of our bodies, stoking the hell-fires of passion as he rows, while Peter Pan is an angel by the window – the last literary hope for a fallen world.
Samantha See wakes us to the ‘Beaufort House’, a cream weatherboard Queenslander on an ordinary corner of an ordinary street; a place that seemed to howl and thump and spoke a desire into our hero, Frankie, whose moleskin sketches are tied to this house and its enigmatic emanations. Inside, the secret of its call is waiting like a tell-tale heart.
The final words of this collection come from TigerSpirit, a dream of leaving home forever, to the pure snows of some Americana, away from the eucalyptus scents of Parramatta – the iron bark and the honey myrtle. Do we really want to leave? Do we want to find some other us? Even before we leave, we know there is no permanent escape – the senses of home live in us forever, in dreams and tongues not quite our possession, but by them our souls possessed.