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This is an exceptional award-winning collection of short stories by an exceptionally gifted writer. The sort you never want to end. And when they do, they stay, having made a remarkable impression.

Published in 2016 by Jonathan Cape, part of Penguin Random House, the synopsis sums up the book beautifully:

The Fen is a liminal land. Real people live their lives here. They wrestle with familiar instincts, with sex and desire, with everyday routine. But the wild is always close at hand, ready to erupt. This is a place where animals and people commingle and fuse, where curious metamorphoses take place, where myth and dark magic still linger. So here a teenager may starve herself into the shape of an eel. A house might fall in love with a girl. A woman might give birth to a – well what? English folklore and a contemporary eye, sexual honesty and combustible invention – in Fen, these elements have come together to create a singular, startling piece of fiction.

Each story is unique, exquisitely and lovingly rendered. ‘Starver’ and ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ bookend the collection. In the first we find Katy, the eel-girl, her transformation told by her sister as Katy refuses humanistic needs to become something else:

They kept giving her oxygen. I wanted to tell them it wouldn’t work, it was no good. She was drowning in air. At night I brought her bowls of water, lowered her face in, watched the bubbles, saw how she came up just about smiling.

‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ returns us to water, where the keeper discovers an unusual being one day while out on the rocks trying to retrieve an umbrella:

The fish came cresting up. It was narrow-bellied when it rolled to curse her, the dark flesh sliding off to white before it reached the stomach; the eyes, when it lolled frontwards and ogled her, round as marbles. She stood watching the lope of it, the way it surfed up to jaw wordlessly at her.

In between, the richness continues. We meet further fantastical creatures, some human, others not so much, but all with a sense of purpose, an allusivity made real and gleaming you want to pocket it and keep it. This is, without a doubt, one of the best short story collections I have ever read. Makes me want to explore turning poetry into another way of being.

When we first moved here, over 5 years ago now, I was keen to immerse myself in Australian literature and quickly learnt that Tim Winton is iconic.

And so I began with Cloudstreet, arguably one of Winton’s most famous novels, in which we meet the Pickles and the Lambs, two working class Australian families who live together in a house in Perth and whose lives are charted over a twenty-year period. It’s a captivating read, winning the Miles Franklin Award in 1992 and one that firmly established Winton’s writing career.

Winton himself hails from Western Australia. Awarded the Centenary Medal for service to literature, he’s been named a Living Treasure by the National Trust. Reading him, you can see why. Winton’s writing is music with no unnecessary note as he conducts matters of the human heart – love, sorrow, pain, desire – in a spellbinding way.

I was so inspired after finishing In the Winter Dark I wrote a poem to try to encapsulate what it left me with, such a hauntingly atmospheric novella about human existence among others. I’ve also read Dirt Music where the wife of a local fisherman legend becomes fascinated with a stranger poaching fish, which inevitably has consequences. Have yet to read Eyrie.

And now I’m part-way through Minimum of Two, an absorbing collection of short stories with characters and plots that will linger for a while. Perfect little snapshots of life.

So, if you’re not familiar with Winton’s work I strongly recommend you be. You won’t be disappointed.

Supported through Crowdfunder and published by Nine Arches Press, Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back is an invaluable addition to disability literature.

Edited by Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman who themselves have disability, the anthology examines D/deaf and disabled poetics from personal, social and political perspectives, culminating in a beautifully rich collection of voices.

Split into ‘Bodies’, ‘Rules’, ‘Maps’, ‘Dreams’ and ‘Legends’, the experiences of those with physical, mental and emotional challenges are shared through poetry, essays and photos to:

showcase a diversity of opinions and survival strategies for an ableist world.

It’s gritty stuff; confronting perceptions of people who are considered and/or observed to be different. Some work is followed by a short biography offering further insight into its contributors. And there are a plethora of conditions both visible and unseen – deafness, absent limbs, MS, mental illness, autism, rheumatoid arthritis to name a few – stripped bare and laid out in indelible forms.

The idea for the anthology came from a desire to create a UK equivalent to the American anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Interestingly, this has recently been achieved here in Australia with Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain, developed as a companion to Articulations: The Body and Illness in Poetry in the US. This is an expanding field; one we should all make time to explore.

Having been reacquainted with Sylvia Plath’s poetry recently through one of my poetry groups, I thought I should revisit her only published novel.

The Bell Jar was one of many mandatory texts during my English degree and rereading it some twenty years later, the wow factor’s still there.

It’s a haunting account of a young girl’s breakdown and recovery, drawn from Plath’s own, which began in her late teens.  The protagonist, Esther Greenwood, wins an internship in New York but, unlike her colleagues, she is not wooed by the glamourous lifestyle; quite the contrary, it frightens her.  Bit by bit she unravels, plunders depths and herself, before slowly rising to the surface again.

With its sharp lyrical prose, it’s clear this is the work of an extraordinarily gifted poet:

‘I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.’

Losing yourself is a complicated thing; the dysconnectivity rendering you apart from every thing and one around you, reducing you to scattered pieces until there’s seemingly no way of reattachment. Plath eloquently captures this painful undoing and descent of the bell jar, which eventually sealed itself over her own brilliant mind.

is a must have collection. Published by Puncher and Wattmann and edited by Martin Langford, Judith Beveridge, Judy Johnson and David Musgrave, this 658-page book anthologises Australian poetry for the last 25 years.

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Taking 10 years to compile over 200 poets and 500 poems, it really is a landmark publication, a credit to the Australian poetry scene, and includes some incredible poets – Ken Bolton, Jennifer Compton, Peter Goldsworthy, Jill Jones, John Kinsella, Mike Ladd, David Malouf, David Mortimer, Les Murray, Jan Owen, Dorothy Porter, Mark Tredinnick, Fiona Wright, not to mention the editors themselves.

It’s being launched in Adelaide at the SA Writers Centre next Friday, which unfortunately I can’t make (off exploring Noosa), so I promptly ordered a copy. Flicking through for the first time, because this will need endless reads, two poems caught my eye – ‘Grief’ by Elizabeth Allen and ‘Snowflake’ by Anthony Lawrence.

Elizabeth is a Sydney-based poet and her chapbook Forgetful Hands is on my wish list.  Hers is a powerfully poignant piece about her sister, who having lost her ‘Botticelli curls’

‘…has been looking into people like mirrors

but does not know how to make a face

that resembles the pain inside her.’

Anthony I saw at Mildura’s Writers’ Festival the year Sharon Olds headlined, who I was lucky enough to meet.  His poem centres around his mother who cultivates a snowflake in the freezer ‘between the peas and the ice cream’, setting sapphires into her teeth:

‘At dinner I would pretend

to be a good son, and her smile

enameled the table

with points of dark blue light.’

This is a remarkable anthology, to be read, smiled, laughed, cried and absorbed between breaths, bit by brilliant bit.

I’m a bit behind the times, having only just gotten around to reading The Outcast by Sadie Jones.

 

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Originally published in 2007 by Vintage Books, the story is a harrowing one punctured with beauty.  Lewis is a young boy trying to cope with the aftermath of a tragic accident, surrounded by people who don’t understand him nor want to.  With the exception of Kit, four years his junior, suffering stifling domesticity herself and who has him on a pedestal, until the day he falls and saves them both.

 

The book won the Costa First Novel Prize, was shortlisted for the then Orange Prize and is a number one bestseller; you can see why when you read it.  Jones is a talented insightful writer with the ability to deliver haunting prose in vivid fluidity:

 

At the top of the stairs he stood in front of the door and it seemed to him that his mind was so noisy it would shake the air in the still house…

 

Similarly, after a particular brutal event at home, Kit reflects on her situation:

 

Her head hurt, under her hair, where she had hit the floor, and it made her whole head feel full of tears that she couldn’t cry. 

 

Jones conveys the pain and struggle of both Lewis and Kit with conviction and compassion; it’s absorbing from the start – the repression and menace elegantly done.

 

So I’ve just ordered Jones’s latest novel Fallout, which I anticipate to be just as enthralling.

There is never enough time to read everything you want or indeed have, and my collection of books, like my wish list, is forever growing.  This particular book had been lying on our coffee table for a while unread. Until yesterday.

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It’s a verse biography by Maureen Gibbons about a homeless woman called Lily Harrop, locally known as the “Butter Lady” due to surviving on sachets of butter, who was found dead in Perth’s Kings Park in 2001.  Part of the current Rabbit Poets Series, it’s a captivating read and is in fact the first verse novel I’ve read in one sitting, especially as I’m not a big fan of this genre.

Told in the voice of Pats, an old friend searching for an explanation for Lily’s death, it’s a moving elegy deftly weaving delicate moments and childhood memories with voracity and flashes of madness, as Pats pieces together Lily’s life before she died.  Upon finding Lily’s campsite in the park, Pats describes it as ‘a space of wild grass, sweet smelling freesias – a skin of silence –’

The butter fetish seemed to stem from when a young Lily and Pats worked in a corner shop, cutting, weighing and wrapping slabs of butter.  Now Pats imagines Lily furtively snacking on the fat, ‘feeling its vicious warmth in the back of her throat’.  And it becomes clear that Pats looked up to Lily as she surveys one of the many park’s gardens – ‘The scents are wild, untamed like the parts of Lily I longed to emulate…’

Halfway through the slimline book I found a snapshot that for me sums up the elusive troubled “Butter Lady”, relayed by one of the early morning walkers:

‘The day before her body was found,

she crossed my path.

She was grey and thin and carried

a rag-bag. I sensed she wanted to speak.’

Published by Lamplight Press, Lampshades & Glass Rivers is an expertly crafted sequence of 20 poems from prize-winning poet S. A. Leavesley, also known as Sarah James.

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Sarah has been published widely. Her debut collection, Into the Yell from Circaidy Gregory Press (also on my bookshelf), won third prize in the International Rubery Books Award in 2011 and her most recent collection, The Magnetic Diaries from Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, was highly commended in the Forward Prizes and has since been adapted for stage. Lampshades & Glass Rivers won the Overton Poetry Prize last year, established by the School of the Arts, English and Drama at Loughborough University where Lamplight Press is based.

Reminiscent of a delicate fairy tale, we meet a young woman called Ada and follow her through love, marriage and her attempts to conceive. There is so much to love in these dreamlike scenes, as they intricately weave Ada’s experiences with those of her grandmother forced to flee Poland during the war, quiet sufferings that hover at the edges as if to keep Ada’s company.

In the opening poem we find Ada and Dave ‘parting & meeting’, ‘meeting & parting’, ‘his dark-haired daring / laying laughter and daisies / in a ritual around her’, while she hears ‘a red-throated song / of sweet days’ long-limbed nights’. The piece is arrestingly placed on the page.

The next to catch my eye was a poem about glass, the third one in, containing the first hint at conception swiftly followed by one of the many stunning lines you’ll find in this chapbook:

Glass for pipettes, petri-dishes and test tubes.

Glass for their soft mouths sharpened by time.

References to Ada’s attempts to conceive continue, the absence of a baby increasing – ‘Red for the passage of blood, wet loss on her legs’, ‘On the hotel bed, / a naked woman lies childless, alone’, ‘…her fate might be re-reeded to birth / a Moses from her womb’s burst earth’ and then this heartbreaking image:

Dave dismantles the crib; the bars

lean at a low angle against the wall,

like failed hurdles.

There are several dominant themes in this collection – glass, fragility, rivers and loss juxtaposed with strength, endurance and woman as nature, with the lampshade battling light to prevent revelation. In one scene Ada is leaving a hotel, with ‘each room, the size of her mind’ and where ‘each guest’s wake / trembles in a sealess wave’ across the lobby’s lights, a dazzling description literally and then in another, she contemplates ‘that all water / is a form of strained cloud.’

I will leave you with one of my favourite extracts, a rich atmospheric snapshot from the halfway poem, in which Ada is revisiting her grandmother’s home where ‘memory stalls on how to say goodbye’:

Night is falling. Below the soon stark dark,

a vixen’s bark to her cubs. Roots burrow

upwards through the earth’s damp skin

 

into the skeletons of scarecrows,

shivering. In this cold: the spark

of beaded eyes, watching the light’s

 

walls crumble to a scattering

of unseen stones. These secret lives

visible only to those who know,

 

like the puddles of tumbled stars

that the days never notice

darting beneath their feet, then off,

 

disappearing to underground streams.

It’s rare I do this – buy a book I’ve borrowed. But this one I wanted to keep. Fiona Wright’s essays on hunger in Small acts of disappearance are just captivating, published by Giramondo Publishing.

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Fiona is also a poet, which shines through when reading this very personal account of her eating disorder, her first collection Knuckled was published in 2011 also by Giramondo. Each chapter is an essay offering a different perspective on her illness at different stages of her life, beginning in university as a physiological issue before escalating into a dangerously intricate disease from she cannot disassociate herself.

Having never understood the concept of anorexia, what drives a person to inflict such extreme discipline on the body, reading Fiona’s experience is the closest I’ve come to ‘getting it’. Below are the opening lines:

I’ll always remember the particular intensity that malnutrition brings on…That alertness of sensation, where every minute cell in the body is awake and alive to the smallest details of the outside world.

This alertness, this finite sense of being, the paring down of the self to increase connectivity, could be compared to the state a poets seeks – an extension of the world around them in which they are insignificant and merely serve as a conduit for expression. Wow. That’s deep I know, but this is the kind of thinking this books provokes.

Of course I’m not advocating restricting nutrition to increase perception (and I doubt I’ll ever be afflicted with such a disorder because I love food too much!), but for the first time I understood the appeal, if that’s the right word. This is further explored in Fiona’s interview, Everyday Intimacies, with Rachel Morley from Sydney Review of Books. In Fiona’s case, this balance of the self against the outside reaches an alarming and life-threatening degree, where she confesses that ‘at my sickest, a lover once folded a blanket over my shoulderblade before curling against my back to sleep’.

Interestingly I briefly discussed this book with a fellow poet the other night, and she too found the chapters on books, about how eating disorders are portrayed in characters, the least interesting, skimming through them as I did. Because the appeal of reading these essays is to get insider the author’s head, gain insight into a real person coping with it firsthand, rather than a fictional one.

Anyway, I just found this book fascinating; it has given me a certain respect for the power of such an illness and indeed for Fiona, for sharing such intimate parts of herself and her private battle with the literary world.

This is a gem of a book. Edited by Abegail Morley, Catherine Smith and Emer Gillespie, co-founders of Ekphrasis, this anthology of poems reveals new perspectives on Alice in Wonderland from some outstanding poets.

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With an insightful foreword by Ian Duhig, the book formed part of the British Library’s ‘150 years of Alice’ celebration ‘creating a dialogue between one art form and another’. And there are some big names in here keeping the editors company – Sharon Black, Helen Ivory, Sarah Salway, Penelope Shuttle and Tamar Yoseloff to name a few, contributing exquisite pieces. I will draw on some favourites.

In Abegail’s ‘Daisy Chains and Downers’ we find an Alice-esque girl ‘hanging out on Stanley Road after dark’, where ‘clocks untick’ and ‘time slackens’ culminating in ‘You can date me by bone density, scraps / of fabric, the shape my heart makes as it stops’, a beautifully haunting stanza.

In Helen’s ‘Wunderkammer with Escher Stairs and Cheshire Cat’ we fall into its bizarre world where ‘the ladder kinks off into another room’ and the infamous ‘drink me’ bottle ‘shrinks the day / and the cat shapes a cave from her sleeping bones’.

In Catherine’s ‘The Grin’ a child waits outside ‘the Head Teacher’s office, / convicted for day-dreaming in Trigonometry’ as their grin takes on a life of its own, ‘to take its place in the longest grass, / with all the other banished grins, / the smirks, the yawns, the blurted truths’.

In Heidi Williamson’s ‘Disappearance at six o’clock’ Alice is asked to wake up ‘step out of your dream now’, a poem inspired by Stephanie Bolster’s Portrait of Alice with Persephone, where there are ‘clouds in the water / like drowned breaths’.

I could go on but it would be better to read it firsthand. Poetry lovers should get a copy of this collection simply for the quality of work it contains. Non-poetry lovers should also because let’s face it, who doesn’t love Alice?!