Poems by Mike Heald

September 5, 2001

Mackenzie Falls

In the pool at the foot
of the waterfall,
out where it’s calm,
blocks of granite resting,
as you say,
like the ruins of nothing.

Lifting the Chickens

The chickens aren’t used to their coop yet.medium_7348420096
They’re quiet, pale clouds in the gloom
I have to gather up one by one, and carry
to the perch. But there’s a surprising tenacity,
a principle of balance, as I carefully
release them, and they fluster, then settle:
their poised quiescence passes from my hands
as breathtakingly as flight.

Poem for Jim, on his first Birthday

Jim! Your movements are still jerky
like those anachronistic dinosaurs.
You smile so much, and laugh
at the ordinary, like my friend’s
description of his Zen teacher,
though up in the wattle tree
with the gang-gangs munching
seed-pods is where I’ve seen
your joyful equanimity before.
Jim! Your head on my chest
is a heavy warmth, unfathomable,
like that sphere of pure compassion
the meditator is supposed to let
enter his heart and radiate…
And in these times when armies
are proclaiming from the shadows
cast by luminous books, can I say,
with Mohammed, that I too
would let the worshippers stay
flattened like spear-grass
in a knock-em-down storm
while you finished your game.

Note: There is a story that once when he was leading prayers, Mohammed prolonged the prostration so as not to interrupt his infant nephew who was playing on his back in the mosque.
photo credit: Deannster via photopin cc

Shakespeare and Speculation

September 5, 2001

Katherine Duncan-Jones, Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from his Life, London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

ungentle-shakespeareUngentle Shakespeare is not intended as a conventional, chronological biography.  Instead Duncan-Jones chooses to explore some neglected areas of Shakespeare’s life and to “bring Shakespeare down from the lofty isolation to which he has been customarily elevated, and to show him as a man among men, a writer among writers – indeed, a writer whose manifest brilliance often made him the object of envy and malice, rather than adulation.”  Such an approach is laudable.  Duncan-Jones’s new book is thematic, and frequently enlightening.  But her arguments, however colourful or provocative, are not always successful.  Among her more controversial speculations is the argument that Shakespeare was homosexual, and she seems to leap on the dismal bandwagon that rolls over poor Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife and widow.

As Duncan-Jones herself makes plain, “It is manifestly risky to treat plays as sources of personal information or reflection.  Nevertheless…” she does so, following a long line of Shakespeare biographers in bold pursuit of the elusive bard through the pages of his folio.  In her case Duncan-Jones reads a good deal of autobiographical information in As You Like It.  She believes this play includes a wiser, more urbane William marking his transformation from the rural idiocy of his Stratford youth.  She also finds sexual puns in the names of Shakespeare and his characters, claiming that Shakespeare (“one who flashes a phallus”) is mimicked in As You Like It by Touchstone (“one who handles a testicle”).

Few definitive records exist to provide a comprehensive understanding of Shakespeare’s movements as a youth and a young man, and this book does not attempt to fill in all the intriguing gaps.  Duncan-Jones does not seek to quantify the Latin Shakespeare learned at grammar school, nor does she promote or discuss in detail the theory of a recusant Shakespeare, the ‘lost’ Lincolnshire years, or the possibility that young Will worked as an attorney’s clerk.  She does, however, take it for granted that the eighteen-year-old Shakespeare was forced to marry the twenty-six-year-old Anne Hathaway after making her pregnant. And she is sure that he did not truly love her.  From the very beginning Duncan-Jones’s account of Anne Hathaway is highly coloured and prejudicial.  She claims it is likely that after the death of her father in 1581, the unmarried Anne was left “without much parental care or control, and as a mature and spirited country girl she exploited her freedom to consort with the local youth.”  As for young William, apparently a combination of “boredom” and “sexual curiosity natural to his years” led to his “dalliance” with Anne in what Duncan-Jones miraculously defines as “probably his first experience of sex.”  The unenthusiastic groom soon became lumbered with a growing family to feed, and no real career prospects in Stratford.  Seeking to explain the young man’s involvement in theatre that provided him both a career in London and respite from his wife in Stratford, Duncan-Jones speculates that Shakespeare joined the Queen’s Men after being recruited from Leicester’s players, as other performers from the region had been before him.

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Sick With Desire

September 5, 2001

Philip Roth, The Dying Animal, London: Jonathan Cape, 2001.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

200px-DyingAnimalThe latest book from the multi-award-winning American novelist Philip Roth is another work of intense relationships.  Driven by sexual desire, and marked – at times brutally – by male power and weakness, this short novel is the latest instalment in a series of works centred on David Kepesh, a New York lecturer and cultural critic who is seventy years of age when he narrates The Dying Animal.  As the book begins, Kepesh chooses his “meat” from among the young women who take his class on Practical Criticism; independent and articulate young women who are drawn to his minor celebrity as a critic on local TV and reviewer of books for National Public Radio.  Kepesh is looking back eight years to his affair with the twenty-four year old Consuela Castillo, a wealthy Cuban-American with breasts like the Modigliani nude reclining on the book’s jacket.

As his story develops we become aware that Kepesh is both predator and vulnerable old man, haunted by eroticism, jealousy and a fear of death.  He selects his women from those on offer in the classroom, discards his wife in an act of ‘60s liberation that he routinely rationalises for the next three decades, and taunts the middle-aged son who blames his own personal failures – and adultery – on the absent father.  He uses his sophistication and cultural capital as lures to attract sex partners and as weapons to attack those who dare judge him, but he also relies on culture as a diversion from isolation and despair.  Kepesh fills his New York apartment with books, paintings, a piano and piles of music script; he tries to fill his life with female beauty, in the form of numerous young women who pass through his apartment – sometimes in secret – in a series of short-lived affairs.

The woman who dominates this novel – as she dominates Kepesh’s dreams – is Consuela Castillo, a memorable beauty who is both confident and threatened.  Although Roth writes boldly and explicitly of Consuela’s physical presence and her sexuality, it is Consuela’s absence that is most tormenting to Kepesh.  Consuela’s reflections on the marvels of Cuba before Castro’s blighted reign may be trite and second-hand – the product of a powerful visual imagination and so many nostalgic stories told by her parents and grandparents – but her decision not to return to Kepesh’s apartment after her graduation dislocates his life in a way reminiscent of the loss Consuela’s family feels when separated from their source of identity and passion.  After their year and a half together, Kepesh’s longing for Consuela is more than mere lust and selfishness, not simply the old goat craving a tasty feed or the bloated Cuban emigre greedily eyeing poor Cuba from across the sea in Miami.

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Beyond the White Boned Demon

September 5, 2001

Anchee Min, Becoming Madame Mao, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2001

Reviewed by Neralie Hoadley

Becoming_Madame_MaoAmbitious both in its undertaking and its realisation, Becoming Madame Mao is a historical novel about the life of Mao Tse-tung’s last wife. By following Jiang Ching from her birth in 1919 to death in 1991, Min gives the reader a grand sweep through twentieth century Chinese history.  She also attempts to explain the apparently inexplicable: Jiang Ching’s role in the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution. This is a fearsome task but Min is not afraid.

In this book, Min is embarking on new territory as a writer. Min’s remarkable autobiography Red Azalea and her earlier novel Katherine both touch on the Cultural Revolution. They give powerful and disturbing insights into the experience of such social upheaval, but neither tries to make any sense of the events. In fact, in these two books Min is content to let the senselessness of her subject matter speak for itself. She resorts very little to editorialising. In Becoming Madame Mao, however, Min is forced to hypothesise about the motivation of one of the key players in the cataclysm, and thus explain, to some extent, why it erupted. In doing this she never resorts to glib labels of the ‘psychopath’ or ‘megalomaniac’. Rather, she creates a convincing portrait of a strong woman – who considers herself a worthy partner in her husband’s great endeavour – warped by years of frustration and exclusion.

Min does not accept the strangely bifocal vision that has allowed people, both in China and the West, to regard Mao as a creative giant with minor faults while his wife and partner is perceived as an irredeemably destructive upstart. Min depicts the remorseless cruelty of Jiang Ching’s role in the Cultural Revolution as an outgrowth of devotion to her husband and his policies. This understanding is grounded in Min’s belief that the marriage between Mao and Jiang Ching was a love match on both sides. Certainly, Min allows that there were elements of opportunism present both for Mao and for the young actress, Jiang Ching, at the time of their first meeting in 1938. Mao was taking advantage of the absence of his wife – the revolutionary heroine, Zi-zhen, who he had despatched to the Soviet Union – to capitalise on the attentions of a pretty devotee. Jiang Ching, for her part, engineered an introduction to Mao clearly with an eye to where it might lead for her own benefit. Nevertheless, Min paints the development of their relationship as one of love, with a passionate physical connection. This is the lynchpin on which she hangs her understanding of the obsessive behaviour and disregard for common sense that characterised Jiang Ching’s later life. Min convincingly depicts Jiang Ching’s violent extremism as the twisted progeny of a grand passion. In grand passions, obsessions are manifest. They rarely allow room for common sense.  It is trite to observe that people find their lives taking strange, sometimes quite crazy, turnings because of the passionate attachments they form, particularly sexual attachments. However, the power ordinary people have to spread their craziness around extends only to those in their own family or immediate vicinity. The power of Mao and Jiang Ching, by contrast, was unspeakably huge.

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By Glen Jennings and Neralie Hoadley

PowerWithoutGloryPower Without Glory is an enormous novel detailing the rise to financial and political power of a Melbourne slum dweller, the fiercely determined John West.  It is a fascinating account of gambling – an Australian obsession – and it lacerates political corruption.  Power Without Glory is also Frank Hardy’s first and best known book.  Many commentators consider it the most influential novel published in Australia in the twentieth century.  It has become an Australian icon: not just because of the novel’s gripping tale of gambling, crime, and power, but for the stories that surround its unconventional publication in 1950 and the trial of its young author in 1951.  This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Frank Hardy’s public notoriety, and it is an opportune time to look once again at Power Without Glory and to assess Hardy’s general legacy.

The public spectacle of Hardy’s trial is in some ways ironic, because Power Without Glory was researched and written in elaborate secrecy.  Hardy and his supporters worked in a clandestine fashion to avoid the attention of police and powerful individuals who could prevent the novel’s publication.  After years in preparation, Power Without Glory appeared on Australian streets in 1950.  It was self-published and bound by volunteers in suburban homes across Melbourne.  Exhibiting its close relation with radical politics and the union movement, Power Without Glory was not distributed through normal literary channels: it was sold in factories, at political and cultural meetings, on street corners, in pubs, and under the clocks at Flinders Street Station.  Most contemporary reviewers in the established newspapers and journals ignored the novel.  Nevertheless, Hardy’s realist fiction soon became an underground hit, before exploding into public life when Parliamentarians and other leaders of society fulminated against his thinly veiled attack on powerful men and machine politics.  The thirty-three year old author was arrested and charged with criminal libel of Ellen Wren, the wife of John Wren, a multi-millionaire businessman and power broker in the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

John Wren, in the guise of the fictional protagonist John West, dominated Hardy’s great urban novel.  Power Without Glory depicted John West as a man who gained wealth and power through illegal gambling, bribery, and murder.  It traced West’s gambling empire from its birth in the 1880s in the alleyways of Melbourne’s slums.  The novel also explored West’s political racket within local councils and the ALP up to the 1940s, a web of influence defined by corruption, violence, and bribery.  Power Without Glory exposed police crimes, ruthless capitalism, political opportunism, hypocrisy within the church, and the machinations of the anti-Communist Movement spearheaded by B.A. Santamaria’s Industrial Groups within the Labor Party.  The attempt to suppress Power Without Glory and imprison its author was a key episode in the Australian Cold War.

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Interview With John Mateer

September 5, 2001

17_John_MateerJohn Mateer is a Melbourne-based poet, whose most recent book Barefoot Speech, (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2001) won the Victorian Premier’s Prize this year. John’s previous books are Burning Swans (1994) and Anachronism (1997), both also published by FACP. This interview with Mike Heald was conducted in December 2001, in Melbourne.

Congratulations on winning the Victorian Premier’s prize! What is your response to winning it, and what is your attitude to literary prizes in general?

Thanks. Well, winning the prize is a wonderful confirmation that my work has been noticed and is appreciated. It makes me feel that my work is now being recognized within the Australian context. I’m not sure what this will mean for the Australian context; whether it will be any different for the fact that my work is now a bit more prominent. As for my opinion of prizes in general: I think they are a great encouragement – they can make writers feel that their efforts are worthwhile – but ultimately they are a reflection as much of the judges’ sympathies as of the quality of the writing.

Could you say a little about your background?

I was born in Roodepoort, a satellite city of Johannesburg, South Africa, and mainly grew up there. When I was a child we moved to Toronto in Canada where I mixed with children – mostly immigrants – from various backgrounds: German, West African, Newfoundland… We returned to South Africa when I was about eight. I moved to Australia with my family shortly before I was conscripted into the South African army during the state of emergency in 1989. I’ve lived mainly in Perth, and since 1998 have been in Melbourne.

What was the process of settling in Australia like for you?

I found it very difficult. For the first year – I was in Year 12 here – I hardly spoke. I found it very difficult to make myself understood and to understand the language and attitudes of Australian people. Also during that time tremendous changes were taking place in South Africa. When we left the country was in a state of undeclared civil war: the African townships were frequently on fire, troops were being sent in to ‘restore order’, there were mass rallies and boycotts, and there was very strict censorship of the media. Shortly after we arrived in Australia Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the so-called thaw began. But even during that period there were bombings and the threat of radical Afrikaner nationalists. So, even while trying to live a ‘new life’ in Australia I felt beset by traumatic events taking place in South Africa. It took me a long time to become used to the experience of being here. And quite often I feel that I’m yet to become used to it.

How would you describe your relationship with Australian literature and readers in particular? Do you feel part of the Australian ‘scene’, if there is such a thing, or do you think nationality is fairly irrelevant.

These are fairly difficult questions. Australian literature is really two things: a context and a body of writing. In answer to your first question I must say that I do have an automatic relationship to Australian literature and readers simply for the reason that I am published here so I am inevitably in the Australian context. But what do I mean in the Australian context? Now that’s something you probably need to ask readers. I suspect that my work is ‘difficult’ in the Australian context in that there are few writers like myself – from a South African background, for example – working here. But then that is not the sole fact determining my difficulty. That I haven’t aligned myself with any of the prevailing schools of OZ lit has meant that many Australian readers don’t know how to approach my poetry. Although this is presently something of a problem, I don’t think it will mean much in the future. I think serious readers will eventually figure out how to read my work. They will eventually come to understand that my work is strange because – I am speculating here! – I am probably creating a new set of possibilities for writing in Australia. Maybe! And this does connect up with what you’re suggesting in the second part of your question; namely, that my writing isn’t easily placed within a national literary context with its attendant body of work. Poetry of my sort will probably cause readers to question the correspondence between person, nationality and literature. This is for the good, I think.

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