Steep Stairs Review, vol 12

November 29, 2017

It’s taken a bit of time for volume 12 to make an appearance, but with some end of the year down time for most of us around the corner, there is precious extra space to enjoy this diverse collection of original poetry, reviews, academic articles, stories and reflections.  The editors of Steep Stairs Review are aiming to bring out Volume 13 in the middle of 2018, and to publish an issue every six months going forward. So, enjoy the contributions, and consider submitting something for volume 13. See submission guidelines.

Editors Ros Almond, Glen Jennings, and Jennifer Mitchell.

Critical Articles

Trees of Codes (Sarah Dowling)
History Has Hooves (Tamar Lewit)


Bandi, The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea (Glen Jennings)
John Lyons (with Sylvie Le Clezio), Balcony Over Jerusalem: A Middle East Memoir (A.R Serge)
Australian Foreign Affairs Journal (Glen Jennings)

Reflective Pieces 

Pulau Sempu (Sasha Cyganowski)
Retreat (Dianne Siriban Armstrong)
Iago’s Silence: Reflections on Teaching Othello (Rod Beecham)


‘Shock and Awe’, Last Tomatoes, and Mess (Michael Heald)




By Sarah Dowling

614w3EVREeLIn October this year, Melbourne hosted the Australian premiere of the internationally acclaimed contemporary ballet Tree of Codes. The ballet is a collaboration between choreographer Wayne McGregor, installation artist Olafur Eliasson and electronic producer/musician Jamie xx, inspired by American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s work of the same name. Foer’s Tree of Codes is, itself, an adaptation of an existing artwork: its abstract narrative emerges through drastic redaction of Polish author Bruno Schulz’s collection of vignettes, The Street of Crocodiles. As the creators of the ballet have publicly noted, these successive re-imaginings of Schulz’s work illustrate the inevitable interplay between appropriation and originality in the creative process (Pasori). However, as a result of Foer’s emphasis on memory, trauma and poststructuralist theories of language, and in light of Schulz’s murder by a Nazi officer during World War II, the two Trees of Codes also problematize the very the nature of language and commemoration.

Schulz is a beloved national icon in Poland, where he is considered one of the country’s literary greats for his idiosyncratic prose style (Paloff). The Street of Crocodiles narrates a series of episodes ostensibly taken from his own life, which circulate around childhood experiences, family life and his father’s evolving madness. His stories are not plot-driven but, rather, invite the reader simply to luxuriate in the decadence of his prose, which is crammed with exuberant, lush imagery. Consider, for example, the wild garden full of “bestially liberated, . . . empty, overgrown, cabbage heads of burrs—enormous witches, shedding their voluminous skirts in broad daylight, throwing them down, one by one, until their swollen, rustling, hole riddled rags buried the whole quarrelsome bastard breed under their crazy expanse” (Schulz 51). A German SS officer shot the Jewish Shultz dead in the streets of Drohobycz ghetto in 1942 in an act of retribution, according to popular telling, against the Gestapo officer Felix Landau, for whom Schulz was painting a mural.

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History has Hooves

November 29, 2017

Animal sacrifice_Louvre

Sarcophagus relief of the sacrifice of a pig, a sheep and a bull to Mars (1st century AD). Louvre Museum. Photo M.-L. Nguyen (2005). Public Domain.

By Tamar Lewit

Sitting down to a sizzling beef steak, I reach to stroke the tabby cat curled at my feet. She ignores me, intent on the movements of a pesky possum, seen dimly through a window to the twilit garden. Such are the animals in my 21st-century Melbourne life: meat, pet, pest.

Rewind 2000 years. Rome rules the western world. Seventy-five million people bustle through marble cities built by the powerful government, sail thousands of cargo ships through the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Black Sea, and coax more food from the soils of Africa, Turkey, Spain and France to pay their taxes and feed half a million soldiers. Dressed in woollen clothing, they eat bread, cheese and pork, drive their carts along Roman roads, and burn smelly manure for fuel. Alongside them are their beasts.

History tells the story of humans. Human lives, human wars, human monuments, human art, and human ideas. But the story of humans is the story of animals, because humans have depended on domestic animals for thousands of years, and wild animals for millions. None of the busy life of the Roman Empire – its food supply, transport, cities, or army – could have existed without animals. Animals were necessary – not for meat or as companions, but in more complex ways.

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The Winter Sun

November 29, 2017

Bandi (Deborah Smith trans.), The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2017

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

BandiWhen my daughter was two years old, she enjoyed going to the public library with me and playing on the ‘poota’. She would help type out the author’s name, or the title of the book, but once we had finished searching, she would want to stay on the computer and type some more. This routine could take some time. But one day Santa Claus came through the library’s front door with his big white beard, his big black boots, his big red belly, and his big white sack over his left shoulder. My daughter looked up from the keyboard, saw Santa, screamed, jumped off the computer stool, clambered up my body like a monkey up a pole, buried her head in my chest and shouted “We go home!”

Now imagine that this takes place in North Korea. And instead of Santa Claus, your two-year-old child is surprised and horrified by a giant portrait of another bearded man: Karl Marx. Your child screams and cries. He cannot be consoled. He is terrified. He is afraid of the Eobi, a “fearsome creature who stuffs disobedient children into his sack and tosses them down a well” (p.36). This Eobi is ever-present. His portrait stares down on the ordered ranks of Pyongyang citizens massed to celebrate in Kim Il-sung Square: “One by one, columns began to form in the square, neatly divided like blocks of tofu” (p.55).

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The Occupation Up Close

November 29, 2017

John Lyons (with Sylvie Le Clezio), Balcony Over Jerusalem: A Middle East Memoir, Sydney: Harper Collins, 2017

Reviewed by A.R. Serge

x293Twice in October 2017, Federal Labor MP Michael Danby took out tax-payer funded advertisements in the Australian Jewish News to attack ABC reporter Sophie McNeill’s coverage of Israel and Palestine. If you find this politician’s behaviour extraordinary and his spending priorities highly questionable, then you have not followed Michael Danby’s career over the past three decades. Nor have you noted the unrelenting campaign waged against journalists who have angered the pro-Israel lobby in Australia. The attempt to discredit Sophie McNeill is the latest assault in a long line of attacks. John Lyons, a fellow Walkley Award-winning journalist, is familiar with the names and tactics of those criticising McNeill; they are the same names, using similar tactics, who have attacked him.

Balcony Over Jerusalem is a work of compassionate reportage stained by blood and bile. The heart of this memoir is Lyons’ six-year experience living in Jerusalem with his photographer wife Sylvie and their young son Jack. He reported on Israel and the Palestinian territories (including Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank), but also visited neighbouring countries. There he reported on corrupt Iranian elections, the fleeting Arab Spring, the overthrow and murder of Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi, Syria’s appalling civil war, and the murderous rise of ISIS.

In Jerusalem, Lyons enjoyed friendships with Israelis and Palestinians, but he witnessed growing hostility and separation as the pathway to peace was blocked by bloodshed, discrimination, bureaucratic bullying, political calculation, and literal walls. The bile of this book includes Lyons’ observations of gross injustice, and his negative experience with sections of the pro-Israel lobby. These individuals, including Michael Danby, took exception to his reporting on matters they deemed harmful to Israel’s reputation, such as settler confiscation of Palestinian homes and agricultural land, religious zealotry and racism, and the Israeli army’s abusive treatment of Palestinian child prisoners.

A good deal of this book involves discussions about the difficulties faced by journalists when reporting on injustice in Israel, including campaigns organised to discredit journalists, suppress their work or obfuscate facts. This does not make Lyons blind to the severe and sometimes violent limitations on press freedom in other countries in the Middle East.

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Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Australian-Foreign-Affairs-Oct-2017Launched in October 2017, Australian Foreign Affairs is a new journal that “seeks to explore – and encourage – debate on Australia’s place in the world and global outlook.” The inaugural issue, The Big Picture: Towards an Independent Foreign Policy, achieves this aim and sets a solid foundation for future discussions and debates. The Big Picture includes essays from leading academics Allan Gyngell, Linda Jakobson, James Curran and John Delury; an article on the changing face of Australia by one of our most thoughtful journalists and political authors, George Megalogenis; and an interview of strong opinion, clear analysis and memorable one-liners with former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Towards an Independent Foreign Policy may seem a slightly misleading sub-title, since contributors argue that Australia should retain formal military alliance relations with the USA while being less willing to automatically “tag along” with our big and powerful ally. This is what Paul Keating meant when he said that Australia should “cut the tag” with the United States. (He is not as radical in his critique of Australia/US relations as former PM Malcolm Fraser became in his final years.) Canada and New Zealand provide models for this alliance without obeisance. These two nations, unlike Australia under Prime Minister John Howard, did not follow the USA into the Iraq wars. Fortunately, Australia, like other US allies in the South-East Asian region today, has so far resisted US encouragement to “send a message to China” by sailing warships through the South China Sea. Australian Foreign Affairs emphasises that Australia needs to take responsibility for our own actions. In Allan Gyngell’s words: “It’s not independence that Australian foreign policy needs, but substance, subtlety and creativity.”

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Pulau Sempu

November 29, 2017

By Sasha Cyganowski

Even though it is precisely within the world, in the brushing up against others, that good occurs.” Goenawan Mohamad.

As a Westerner, I found the precarious balance of life and death difficult to accept,” Birut Galdikas.

Pulau Sempu photo 2

Photograph by Sasha Cyganowski

Selamat Tahun Baru. Happy New Year. I love New Year’s Day, all fresh and new. Things will happen. Super exciting. I don’t understand the fervent celebrations of the night prior. The year is over, it’s in the past, let it go. I’m usually in bed and asleep by 9pm, looking forward to the new day, the new year. Nothing beats waking up on New Year’s Day feeling fresh, going for a run, maybe to the beach, and out for dinner. That is the time for a nice meal and a few cocktails.

All is quiet on New Year’s Day. Nothing changes on New Year’s Day.

So it was wonderful waking up in Yogyakarta to begin 2017 with a run, a satisfying Indonesian breakfast (a meal without rice is not a meal, according to Indonesians), and then a swim in the hotel pool surrounded by a gorgeous Javanese garden. Michelle and I were the only ones by the pool, with only a couple of pool attendants chatting at the far end. Between our sun lounges sat a table with a menu, complete will a built-in buzzer for attracting wait staff. Ingenious, I thought. After such a big breakfast I wasn’t really hungry, but was curious about the technology, and the more I thought about it the hungrier I became. So I settled on a coconut and pushed the buzzer. Silence. I looked excitedly towards the pool attendants. No reaction. Nothing.

“You didn’t push it hard enough.”

I tried again, holding down the buzzer a good couple of seconds. Still the attendants went on chatting.

“Maybe the second push cancelled the first one.”

I pushed the buzzer at least 20 times, doing my best Morse code imitation of “bring me a fucking coconut!”

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November 29, 2017

By Dianne Siriban Armstrong


Daragang Magayon, Photograph by Dianne Siriban Armstrong.

It is only March and I have decided that 2008 is already the worst year of my life. So I take up my friend Scheherazade’s long-standing offer to visit her hometown in the province of Albay, Bicol. I have fervent hopes that a few days away will—if only a little—disperse the dark, heavy clouds that have been hanging around me since the holidays. On the way, I decide that I’d like to take my very own photo of that “perfect cone-shaped” volcano we have always been so collectively proud of, despite having no hand at all in its perfection. The people of Bicol call her Daragang Magayon or Mayon. The beautiful lady.

It takes me two hours of weaving through dense traffic to get from Laguna to Manila. Then another twelve gruelling hours on a bus to Ligao City where Sche welcomes me to her family’s huge ancestral home in the town’s centre. We make time for a little celebration before I collapse in a tired heap in the guest bedroom. I wake up at a ghastly six AM the next day and haul my sleepy ass out by seven into her bright violet Pajero.

“Okay, so,” Sche says excitedly. “The tourist traps are for today and today only. We want to cover all our bases, y’know.”  She steps on the gas and I scramble to buckle my seat belt. “Then,” she continues without missing a beat. “We’ll do the ‘anti-tourist’-tour’ for the rest of your stay.” She winks.

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Iago’s Silence

November 29, 2017

By Rod Beecham


From the production of Othello, at Pop-up Globe, Melbourne, October 2017. Photograph by Jennifer Mitchell

[The secondary literature on Shakespeare is unmanageably vast, and what follows does not pretend to be informed by it.  I am merely recording some thoughts I’ve had from teaching Othello in 2017.]

Othello, unlike Shakespeare’s other major tragedies, is a play in which the title character does not have the most lines.  That distinction belongs to the villain, Iago.  As those familiar with the play know, speech is the medium of Iago’s villainy: he furthers his designs through dialogue rather than action.  I have always been struck, therefore, by his last speech: ‘Demand me nothing; what you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word.’ (V.i.300-01).

What is the significance of Iago’s silence?  He tells his outraged listeners: ‘what you know, you know.’  What do they know?  I take Iago to mean that what he has done has been discovered and, that being the case, there is nothing more to be said.  Gratiano responds that, ‘Torments will ope your lips’ (V.i.303), suggesting that Iago will reveal the reasons for his behaviour under torture, but we in the audience who have followed the action cannot believe that, for what more is there for Iago to reveal?  He made ‘the net / That shall enmesh them all’ (II.iii.339-40) out of his own envy and spite, and these are not feelings that can be assigned to specific causes: they are the essence of his nature.  Iago did what he did because he was Iago.

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November 29, 2017

By Mike Heald


‘Shock and Awe’

My son at that time, when the sky

above the children of Baghdad

began to flash and boom, was five,

and still afraid of storms.

When thunder rumbled he’d run

from his room to mine, a drum-roll

of his small feet across the floor-boards before

the silent finale of his dive through the air

to safety in my bed…

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