Tag Archives: Poetry

Throat

Poetry collection about colonisation, queerness and the tension between city and country

Content warning: family violence, racism, colonisation

I first heard of this award-winning writer and poet when unacceptably they were harassed and abused online after their poem Mango was selected for a New South Wales Higher School Certificate English examination paper. Although I have been meaning to buy their work, it was not until I found myself standing in the poetry section of a book shop a couple of months ago looking for a different book that I saw their newest collection.

Image is of “Throat” by Ellen van Neerven. The paperback book is sitting on steps between two black skate shoes with hot pink laces and electric blue interior that match the fuchsia book cover. The cover design is of a face in blocks of colour split in two, the lips and chin at the top and the eyes, forehead and short hair at the bottom. There is a Sturt’s desert pea flower made out of red fabric in the foreground that commemorates the Frontier Wars.

“Throat” by Ellen van Neerven is a collection of poetry that explores the intersection of being both queer and Aboriginal. Through her poetry, van Neerven grapples with issues that are both personal and political and invites the reader to engage with issues such as racism, deaths in custody, calls for treaty, gender, urbanisation and identity.

Although I am no poetry aficionado, one thing that really struck me about this book was van Neerven’s exceptional and innovative use of structure. Their poem 18Cs, a clear reference to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the protection against offensive behaviour, lists 18 reflections relating to words beginning with the letter C. Similarly, Acts of protection refers to historical legislation that gave governments the power over Aboriginal people’s lives, and uses Roman numerals to emulate subsections of legislation in actually listing things that bring van Neerven comfort. Another poem, logonliveon, uses an Aboriginal flag emoji to punctuate their thoughts about being Aboriginal online. At one point, van Neerven invites the reader to sign a treaty they have drafted in relation to shared power.

I really enjoyed Chermy, in which van Neerven, tongue-in-cheek, reminisces about the “cultural” connection she and her family have with Westfield Chermside, and then more seriously considers the ongoing impact of colonisation and gentrification on connection to country. Van Neerven also writes about issues such as dysphoria, navigating queer spaces, loneliness, longing for country, language and family. Expert was particularly heart-breaking; writing about family violence in a queer relationship where Aboriginal identity is used against them and the stereotype of who is the perpetrator is turned upside down.

There is so much to think about in this book, so I won’t go into much more detail except to say that van Neerven is a deeply profound poet whose work is the finger on the pulse of this nation.

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The Love Virus

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author.

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Image is of a digital book cover of “The Love Virus” by Eleni Cay. The cover is pink text against a pink and beige background of vertical computer code.

“The Love Virus” by Eleni Cay is a verse novel about a young woman called Katie whose life is turned upside down when she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Casting aside her studies at Oxford University and her fiancé, Katie struggles to adjust to her loss of mobility and requiring significant personal care while in hospital. However, in some chapters, Katie is on a retreat in a country called Andratalia. With two bickering travellers accompanying her, Katie tours this hot land and meets some of the curious locals. As the book progresses, the two realities converge and Katie must find her own path forward.

This is an original book, told in long form poetry, with some science fiction themes. Cay draws on her own experiences of MS and the strongest parts of the book are the visceral scenes of Katie having to relinquish control over her body to those caring for her. Katie’s friends, family and fiancé all respond in different ways to her diagnosis, and there are some really important messages in this book about consent and inspiration porn. Cay explores what an alternative variant of MS could mean, amplifying the uncertainty, fear and hope around experimental treatments for chronic conditions. I found the poetic style very readable, and the story had a dreamy flow to it.

I think that the part I struggled the most with were the scenes in Andratalia. The majority of the text in these chapters is the dialogue between Katie’s two travel companions bickering over their competing philosophies. While the purpose of this journey becomes clear later in the story, I was a little disappointed to see Cay falling back on old stereotypes to describe the local people of Andratalia. Given the book hints at themes such as global conspiracy, genetic engineering and experimental medication, I felt that perhaps Andratalia would have been more interesting as a futuristic tech haven rather than a tropical paradise.

This is a really creative book in both theme and in form that blends lived experience with fiction to consider life and love with MS.

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Translating Feminisms

Translated poetry collections from Indonesia and the Philippines

Content warning: sexual themes, sexism, violence

A couple of months ago, I came across a Kickstarter campaign for two translated chapbooks on Twitter that really caught my eye. I have been doing The Quiet Pond‘s Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, but the majority of the books I have been reading have been novels. I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I was very interested in supporting this project. Since there are two separate chapbooks, I’ll review them both separately within this post.

Deviant Disciples: Indonesian Women Poets

“Deviant Disciples: Indonesian Women Poets” edited by Intan Paramaditha is a collection of poems by Indonesian writers Toeti Heraty, Dorothea Rosa Herliany, Zubaidah Djohar, Shinta Febriany and Hanna Fransisca translated by Tiffany Tsao, Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Eliza Vitri Handayani.

Paramaditha introduces the collection against the backdrop of the Balinese tale of Calon Arang and the idea of the subversive woman. The poems are concerned with sexuality, controlling the female body and how public morality encroaches on the private life. The women in the poems conduct rebellions in their own ways: navigating the spaces between mythology and social expectations to express their sexuality and inhabit their own bodies, sometimes at great risk to their own personal safety.

In Herliany’s poems Marriage of the Knife, Marriage of the Bodiless Whore and Sinta’s Elegy, she explores the danger and violence of prioritising female desire, reveling in the perceived darkness of succumbing to sex alone or with hypocritical and pathetic lovers. Febriany’s poems Open Body and Nightmare from the State consider how bodies are policed by friends, the state and even our own spirituality. In Djohar’s poems Siti Khalwat: An Excerpt and Here on the Land of 7000 Skirts, I, gendered violence is real and present and it is women who must accept punishment for the consequences of male desire. Heraty’s poems Entreating the Goddess Durga and A Middle Aged Ballad delve into the psyche of middle-aged women defying the roles set for them, speculating on the way these roles grow into gossip, rumour and folklore. Fransisca’s poems are concerned with Chinese-Indonesian women’s bodies specifically, objectified and reduced to their parts for consumption through labour or sex.

This is a fantastic, diverse collection of poetry that provides an excellent sample of some of the rich, evocative writing from Indonesia. Having lived in Indonesia and studied Bahasa Indonesia for many years, I am again inspired to read more Indonesian literature.

Pa-Liwanag (To the Light): Writings by Filipinas in Translation

“Pa-Liwanag (To the Light): Writings by Filipinas in Translations” compiled by Gantala Press is a collection of poetry by women from the Philippines. There are 27 different contributors acknowledged in this chapbook, so I won’t list them all here, but the contributors come from an incredibly diverse range of ethnic, linguistic, gender, sexuality, class and age backgrounds. Gantala press “is an independent, volunteer-run, feminist small press/literary collective” and sourced the poetry included in the collection from across the archipelago.

Some of the major themes that permeate this collection are motherhood, grief, state-sanctioned violence, poverty and forced disappearance and I’ll just mention some of the poems that particularly struck me. Kaisa Aquino’s poem Mother and her Ghosts Left Hanging in the Yard is a frisson-inducing poem about a mother whose husband is no longer there with beautiful nocturnal and domestic imagery. Liberty A. Notarte-Balanquit’s three poems Switch, A Gift of Suspicion and Birth are succinct reflections on the trauma and bargaining associated with motherhood. Miriam Villanueva’s Sister and Brother is a vignette about a sister who stands in for her mother who must leave the home to provide for the family. Pasig Jail by Melanie dela Cruz is a heartwrending account of exploited workers punished for trying to assert their rights in a corrupt system. A poem attributed to Organisasyon dagiti Nakurapay nga Umili ti Syudad We, the Poor reads like a prayer, a protest chant or even a working song. Abbey Pangilinan, Mixkaela Villalon and Ica Fernandez’ prose Hens in the Cull: Women in the Time of Tokhang uses chickens as a compelling metaphor for women under the Duterte Administration, particularly with respect to the instinct of mother hens to protect their brood.

This is a raw, challenging and heartbreaking collection full of as much love as it is hardship. The introduction of this chapbook states “[c]ompared to other Asian or Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines does not really engage in translation – whether of foreign books to local languages, of local books to another local language, or local books to foreign languages. This book is our response to that gap”. An incredibly important collection that certainly achieves the goal of sharing a feminist Filipina experience.

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Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Ancient book of Persian poetry

I received a copy of this book via one of Beyond Q’s care packages they were offering during the height of the social distancing measures in Canberra. I had quite an exciting experience when I realised that this was one of the books in the pack, because it is of some significance to an unsolved mystery. I don’t read much poetry, to be honest, but this looked both interesting and succinct.

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“Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” translated by Edward FitzGerald and illustrated by Edmund J. Sullivan is a collection of poems by Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and poet Omar Khayyám. FitzGerald provides a brief introduction to the collection before the poetry begins. The style of poetry is ruba’i: Persian four line rhyming poetry. The poems are arranged in a sort of narrative sequence and are largely concerned with life, death, faith, philosophy and hedonism.

This is a well-edited and nicely illustrated book that transitions smoothly from poem to poem with a clear, over-arching narrative. Khayyám includes himself as an older man grappling with his own morality, mortality and the love of a younger woman. This book has quite a nihilistic perspective, with Khayyám concluding that we’re all going to die anyway, so we might as well enjoy ourselves and love and drink to our heart’s desire. The poems present an almost equal balance between existential dread and enjoyment. The illustrations are incredibly evocative and with one per poem, I think that the contribution they have to the overall impact of the book cannot be understated.

There is quite some debate on how authentic FitzGerald’s translations are and, in fact, to how much of the poetry can truly be attributed to Khayyám himself. Not being any kind of expert in Iranian poetry, I cannot comment on this with any kind of authority. However, with possibly hundreds of poems at least thought to have been written by Khayyám, and only 75 selected for inclusion in this collection, I think that it is sensible to consider this largely FitzGerald’s work inspired closely by Khayyám.

It’s unsurprising to me that this volume was so popular. Even for someone who is not much of a poetry aficionado, it is very readable, clear and complex with universal, timeless themes.

 

 

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My Name is Book

Creative non-fiction short history of books

I actually have no recollection of where this book came from. There are no clues on it either except for a faded sticker that says $16.99 on the back. Was it a gift? Did it appear in my street library? Who knows! The important thing was that it was short, because I had mere days left to reach my 2019 reading goal.

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“My Name is Book” by John Agard and illustrated by Neil Packer is a short creative non-fiction book about the history of books. The book is told from the perspective of Book, an anthropomorphised representative of all books, who reflects on how books evolved from stories told by the fire to the eBooks of today.

Agard is a talented wordsmith who has a clear background as a poet. It is an easy, lyrical read with plenty of historical highlights, interesting designs, calligraphy, illustrations and poetry to keep the reader engaged. Although not particularly a poetry aficionado myself, it was Agard’s poetry, and the poetry of his partner Grace Nicols, that I enjoyed the most. The illustrations are also very beautiful, and I think this would make a really nice coffee table book.

I think it’s probably pretty self-evident that this is not a definitive history of books, but rather a creative non-fiction piece with historical elements. This book has a focus on written language as it developed from the Middle East/Northern Africa and spread through Western culture, and does not go into much detail about other independent inventions of writing around the world.

Nevertheless, a quick and entertaining read that brings books as physical objects to life.

 

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No Friend But the Mountains

Memoir of an asylum seeker in indefinite detention

I borrowed a copy of this book from a colleague. We had a bit of an office book club, and this was one our master list of books to discuss. This book garnered a significant amount of attention after publication for many reasons, but there were two that really stuck with me. First was that this book was written text message by text message over WhatsApp and then painstakingly translated. It is an enormous amount of work to write a book with the luxury of a laptop, but to type one out on a mobile phone is nothing short of remarkable. Second was that the author won two extremely prestigious awards in Australia, but due to being detained on Manus Island, was unable to accept the awards in person. Needless to say, this was a book I very much wanted to read.

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“No Friend But the Mountains” by Behrouz Boochani and translated by Omid Tofighian is a literary memoir about Boochani’s experiences as an asylum seeker in detention centre on Manus Island. The book begins by detailing harrowing attempts by Boochani and other asylum seekers to travel to Australia by boat, and the impact of failed attempts on the safety and morale of passengers. Eventually, after another dangerous attempt, Boochani’s boat is intercepted by Australian authorities and he is transported to Christmas Island before being transferred to Manus Island. Once there, it becomes clear that this is not likely to be a temporary stay. As time stretches on and the prisoners endure competition for access to food and facilities, tension from the guards and local Papuans and ultimately violence, Boochani begins to try to understand the logic behind the centre.

As we enter our 7th year of offshore detention policy, this is a critically important book. I’m going to break the fourth wall for a moment here and say that this is a very difficult review for me to write. Our media and political discourse has been dominated by polarised opinions about how best to manage the phenomenon of asylum seekers who attempt to travel to Australia by boat from Indonesia, and I have and continue to have a lot to say on the topic. However, I think that I need to set that aside for the purposes of this review and focus instead on Boochani’s book. The primary reason for this, aside from it being the subject of this review, is that I feel that largely the voices of people who are in offshore detention are excluded from discussion about the policies that directly impact them.

The translator, Tofighian, spends a long time before the book begins outlining some of the history of Iranian literature and the theories that Boochani has developed to try to understand the mechanism of offshore detention and the way the centre itself is run. This was invaluable later in the book to help understand Boochani’s unique style of prose intermingled with poetry and the broader implications of what is described as “Manus Prison Theory” and the “Kyriarchal system“. Boochani argues that the prison is deliberately run to cause conflict among the prisoners and between the prisoners and guards, and the availability of food, toilets, showers and any form of entertainment is deliberately limited to cause stress and hopelessness.

Boochani’s intellectualism oozes from the pages, and emphasises the self-awareness of people in offshore detention. Boochani wryly acknowledges that the difference between him being taken to Manus Island and him being assessed on mainland Australia was nothing more than a matter of days. Boochani styles himself as largely an observer of the prison dynamics, however he is ultimately never able to forget his status as a detainee and is never able to completely isolate himself from the pain his fellow detainees feel. In fact, this heightened and overwhelming sense of empathy between his efforts to rationalise what is happening is what really makes this book. The interludes of poetry, although I would hardly consider myself an authority on poetry, is where Boochani does what I feel that Australia has largely failed to do: highlight the humanity of the people on Manus Island.

I think that the main thing I struggle with about this book was a criticism I often level at memoir. In this case, it was Boochani’s decision not to explain in detail his personal circumstances that led him to flee Iran, and his decision not to explain the thought-process and mechanics of paying someone to take him to Australia by boat. I completely understand that there may be sensitivities around divulging this information, not just for Boochani’s safety but for people who may have assisted him. However, I did feel that given the strength of the rest of the book in building empathy and understanding, this was somewhat of a wasted opportunity. I won’t descend into a lecture about the legal status of refugees in the countries between Iran and Australia or the availability of rights and resettlement in Indonesia, but I felt that a by being a bit more frank about these issues Boochani’s book may have addressed some of the most frequent criticisms leveled at asylum seekers.

Nevertheless, this is a necessary book that brings a much-needed perspective to an issue that my country has been fighting over for years. Boochani has a strong, haunting voice and I think that this is a book that not only should be read by as many people as possible, but one that has and will continue to leave a mark on Australian literary history.

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Invitation to Poetry

Book of poetry about Romanian and universal life

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

Image result for Mihai brinas invitation to poetry

“Invitation to Poetry” by Mihai Brinas is a collection of free verse poetry. Brinas combines everyday observations with deep introspection in each of his verses.

I really liked some of the concepts in this book and I enjoyed Brinas’ take on the mundane aspects of daily life. I think my favourite poem was the sadness of books which included the lines:

i leave taking with me
the sadness of so many books unread.

I think that while I enjoyed the themes of Brinas’ poetry, I did feel like the language wasn’t always as fluid as I would have liked. A few of the poems included repeating words or particular word choices that were a little grating and I felt like a bit of a comb through would have helped smooth some of these out.

Anyway, this is an easy book of poetry to read and see the world through Brinas’ eyes.

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Love and Other Inconveniences

Incredibly readable romantic poetry from Trinidad and Tobago

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Love and Other Inconveniences” by Rhea Arielle is a collection of poetry that traces the life cycle of an intoxicating but doomed romance. Divided into three Acts, the book walks the reader through infatuation, heartbreak and self-love.

I started reading this book while waiting for the bus, and I was so engrossed I had finished it by the time I arrived at work. As is probably pretty apparent from this blog, I am not a huge consumer of poetry but there was something about Arielle’s incredibly unique and tactile way of writing that was very arresting. Her poems are very brief and very poignant and I love the way she handles space and time. I don’t often share quotes from books I read, but here are two that I particularly loved:

There are no locks on your future
so why do you knock at the door
Let yourself in.

When your lips
part to speak
the winds shimmer
under your voice
and carry music
to my waiting ear.

Romantic poetry is certainly not for everyone, and the themes in this book are very familiar. However, Arielle brings a freshness to a topic that most people can relate to.

This is the kind of poetry that even people who don’t normally enjoy poetry can enjoy. I liked it so much I bought a copy for my friend.

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All She Wrote

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I don’t know much about poetry, apart from being able to recite a bit of Banjo Patterson, so I was interested to try reading something a bit different.

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“All She Wrote” by Charmaine L. Glass is a collection of free-verse poetry. Loosely divided into themes, Glass’ poems cover a variety of topics with a heavy focus on the ups and downs of love.

Most of Glass’ poetry is written in the second person which gives it a really personal, intimate flavour, as though she’s talking to you, or you’re overhearing her talking to someone else. The sad, suburban setting of someone who not only lives for love, but is willing to give up everything for love, seeps through the words. Reading her poems, I got a real sense that Glass’ poetry is meant to be heard aloud. Although perhaps some of her strongest pieces like No Christmas TonightHeart Burn and Plant involve much more vivid imagery than her other, more soliloquy-type poems, the others aren’t to be dismissed entirely. I think some of the repetitive phrases and rhyming couplets would really shine if you could hear them spoken with their true, intended rhythm. I also really enjoyed I Must Be CrazyGrown Girl’s Lullaby and Time Upstate and more generally the Longing and Still She Wrote collections.

A heartfelt collection that would best be read aloud to a group.

 

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