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This is a formidable collection of sixteen short stories by Aimee Bender split into three sections, culminating in the title one, “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt”.

Intricate worlds are unravelled where nothing is what it seems and desire has many faces – a bowl mistakenly gifted intensifies existing introspection, a runaway teenager holds a woman’s life in his hands, a robber and his girl steal gemstone rings until the gems start to leak. And Aimee’s style is fantastical, both her characters and sentences bristling, alive.

In “The Rememberer”, a woman watches, helpless, as her boyfriend reverts to the origin of the species, the first lines captivate with amusing brevity:

My lover is experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month and now he’s a sea turtle.

In “Quiet Please”, a librarian sates her sudden lust by fucking men the day her father dies. When one parades her through the library on a couch, she reaches for the mural of fairies on the ceiling to give the fairy missing a mouth “a big wide dancing smile.” The next day, “an hour before her father is put into the ground”, she notes:

…the laughing ones now pull along one fairy with purple eyes, who is clearly dancing against her will, dragged along with the circle, her mouth wide open and screaming.

In “The Healer”, two girls attempt friendship at school – one has a hand of fire, the other has ice – finding they cancel each other out upon contact:

Their hands dissolved into regular flesh – exit mutant, enter normal. The fire girl panicked and let go, finding that her fire reblazed right away, while the ice spun back fast around the other girl’s fingers like a cold glass turban.

Lives on tilt, these encounters, while inhabiting elsewhere, are grounded in the visceral – love, fear, death, hope, what is real and what is less so. Aimee has another collection, Wilful Creatures, which is also on my wish list, because the magic is here, and there.

J V Birch reviews Glass Life by Jo Langdon

Pleased with this and appreciate the opportunity. The start of something

I knew of Cassandra and Paul, having read some of their work, and met them at the Poetry on the Move Festival in Canberra last year. Garron Publishing have published a chapbook of their poems in their latest Southern-Land Poets series, the launch of which they joined via video link as both were overseas.

An award-winning poet, Paul is head of the International Poetry Studies Institute and Professor of Writing at the University of Canberra. Wedding Dress and Other Poems takes us on a journey of nostalgia, each stop a place of potency with a spectrum of feeling. The majority of poems are prose, with a few in tercets and quatrains, and their literary admiration for one another is clear, with both dedicating a poem to the other. In ‘Peeling (for CA)’, ‘Peeling an existence is easier than it looks’, which continues into an exploration of self, culminating in succinct advice – ‘When words fall from through your mouth listen to what they say.’

The nuances of other relationships are explored from different perspectives. In ‘Holding’, intimacy is balanced with unfathomable distance:

They held each other at slow arms’ length in the morning’s

indistinct light. So many words; a year of feeling their way.

Histories no longer kept known arrangements; their hands

were charged with intricacies of absence.

‘Apartment’ is an atmospheric poem, not just of place, but of the linear connection between people. From the start of something, when ‘their sense of themselves became vapour’ making love ‘against the damp bathroom wall’ to the break – ‘After weeks they knew they’d leave their mutuality there…He inspected the rooms and found no history he could keep.’

Cassandra is a prose poet and passionate about it. Her work has been widely published, she’s judged numerous awards, including the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry, and is the current poetry editor for Westerly magazine. In Pre-Raphaelite and Other Prose Poems, there’s beauty and chaos, an ethereal quality fracturing edges, as Cassandra gives us poems about loss, desire and resolve in various stages. In ‘Bonds’, representing both the brand and the tie between people:

I promise to unbind you and gather you in my arms. Skin on

skin. My sweat will be our glue as I rip off that t-shirt and

bond you to me one last time.

In ‘Plum(b)’, food smears thoughts in a stream of consciousness – plums are kept in the fridge, farmyard animals are too ‘cute’ to devour, chicken, fish ‘and sometimes beef’ are eaten, bringing us back full circle to the drupe:

He doesn’t understand the importance of a big, red, expensive fridge.

He thinks they are just for keeping things cold. Like plums.

Cassandra reciprocates Paul’s dedicated poem with ‘Pineapple (for PH)’, where ‘Pineapple gives me atlas tongue. But I eat it and travel the world on my tastebuds’. A personal favourite of mine is ‘Heartbreak Spondee’ on the opposite page, a powerful piece in two parts in which the first is of a union – ‘We leave the lights off and let the sun trace our bodies on the bed’ – and the second separation – ‘Too many new moons have set without your touch.’ The grief in this piece is palpable.

I don’t do resolutions as a rule, but like to have goals, so this year I’ll attempt some prose poetry, aim to pack a punch, leave a mark, like the work in these collections do. And just to note, Melbourne University Press will be publishing The Australian Prose Poetry Anthology, edited by Cassandra and Paul, in 2020 (work submitted must have been previously published). I’ve no doubt it’ll be a fascinating read.

The MeToo movement started as a hashtag in October last year to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, empowering women to speak and be heard. Poetry gives voice, gathered and shared in this astonishing anthology.

Published by Fair Acre Press and edited by Deborah Alma, it’s a rollercoaster of emotion in print, leaving you with fistfuls of tears and nothing to hide. Split into seven parts, each bear witness to different states:

  • ‘silly lasses’
  • ‘my ordinary walk home’
  • ‘I see myself lie quiet as snow on rail tracks’
  • ‘Domestic’
  • ‘They can’t help it’
  • ‘I said I was the proof’
  • ‘make for the light’

akin to the grieving process, because here too there is loss, shock, denial and anger, with closure in a realm of its own.

From banter to rape, these are powerful poems from brave women – Emma Lee, Helen Ivory, Kim Moore, Katrina Naomi, Zelda Chappel, Pascale Petit and Holly Magill to name a few – who had the courage to revisit a place they’d rather not go. And I’ll leave you with a particularly poignant one by one of my favourite poets, because I believe this speaks to many.

 

The Library of Broken People

 

is catalogued by injury: the fractured;

the ruined from hunger; the raped;

 

the hammered shut. Some are clumped

together as “lost souls”; only the librarian

 

can retrieve those. There’s no ABC to damage,

they litter the alphabet ad hoc. If you browse

 

the catalogue they gift their injuries, lay

themselves flat. Last week two girls displayed

 

their abdomens to a first-year student,

bickered over abuse, spoke of neglect,

 

said life’s an unworkable toy. Other victims

are quieter, don’t talk so much, even when

 

the library’s shut. They drop to the back

of an index, all seal pup eyed, bones skittering

 

at the slightest flex. I survive amongst them,

wear a long jumper, drag sleeves down wrists.

 

Copyright @ Abegail Morley 2018

is Daniel Sluman’s second collection published by Nine Arches Press; sharp and unflinching work exquisitely rendered to convey aspects of mortality in all its bleak beauty.

Daniel is a UK-based poet with whom I first became acquainted participating in his Poetry of Pain course hosted online through the Poetry School. Daniel suffered with bone cancer when he was young and in these poems, he shares flashes of the trauma endured brilliantly, as well as those places and events no one wants to speak of.

In the terrible, there is pain and suffering, blood and release, acceptance and love, narcotics and knowing, and a frank realisation of the body’s fragility and the life it contains.

In ‘1991-2006’ we’re shown a fast-forward of father and son travelling in ‘a pounded blue ford’, ‘the faces from our life passing like boarded-up doors’. In ‘morphine’ ‘it waits for me to twist the lid’ and ‘dream of a wonderful weight on the chest sinking further towards the stalling heart.’ And in ‘angels’ there’s a bitterness, ‘as we reel the rope to knot around their chests’, pull and wait ‘for the snap of feather-bone & rib’.

The vessel in which we travel can be subject to ‘strange weather’ (a concept explored in ‘doppelganger’) threatening its delicate balance, and so I want to leave you with this poem, a poignant reminder the barely bearable is often shared:

 

& this is love

 

as she goes limp & falls into my arms

like an important looking letter

I help her to the bathroom

 

& sit on the other side of the door

tearing nails between my teeth

clutching the phone like a safety rope

 

& this is love    how we live between

the side-effects of glittering pills

the wads of her dead hair snarled

 

in the plug-hole    the morning cigarette

that shakes in her hand before her kiss

once again says whateverhappens    I ring

 

the ambulance when her head smacks

the floor    & in the crazed flutter of her lids

I see a million lives for us    each one perfect

 

Copyright @ Daniel Sluman 2015

is an exceptional collection by Angela Readman published by Nine Arches Press, one I couldn’t put down for the song calling and still hear.

The Book of Tides is Angela’s third collection of poems, described as salt-speckled and sea-tinged, they lure with their rhythmic magic and ability to weave the other worldliness with the normalcy of now. There are mermaids and fishermen, folklore and loss, love and murder, even a beard of bees:

The swarm began to flow uphill, a dark lace over the apple stuck in my throat (‘The Preacher’s Son and the Beard of Bees’)

each and every poem glittering with a visceral, yet incandescent, quality.

Angela’s work leaves indelible images, the titles alone capitulate these – ‘The Museum of Water’, ‘The House that Wanted to be a Boat’, ‘Our Name in Pebbles’, ‘Confession of a Selkie’ – and with sublime lines like:

Sometimes she stared at wolves chasing the window, landlocked clouds circled the house (‘The Book of Tides’)

and:

My fingers dry and uncurl, flakes fall. I leave freckles on the snow (‘The Woman with No Name’)

and:

The horizon is a closed ballroom where days of the week refuse to dance (‘The Woman Who Could Not Say Goodbye’)

these poems are keepsakes, the kind to net and stow in a sturdy, waterproof box.

The detail in Angela’s work is enviable, as the snippets above demonstrate, down to the quote she selected by Leonard Cohen by way of introduction – “If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick everyday.”

The title poem won the Mslexia Poetry Competition in 2013, but I want to leave you with ‘To Catch a Fisherman’, one of several favourites of mine for its sculpted perfection, like the seashell you found as a child whispering wonders:

 

To Catch a Fisherman

 

The Singer grunts another steel shanty.

Mother puts a foot down on fish skins

bucking the light, an ocean in the room.

 

It’s a fine day to catch a fisherman, let

fog spritz a veil over a squirm of tail, shells

cutting patterns in my chest like dough.

 

I can cut a fisherman out of his boat,

if I sit still long enough, dangle the bait of

a song off the rock to a man looking for a story

 

to reel. There’s none who won’t come,

reach out for a myth to writhe in his hands.

I serenade the speck of my house, sad

 

as a woman who can’t dance, wind rinsing

out recollections of sinking in the bath

pretending to be half-anemone, half-girl.

 

The keel of my voice creaks song

of Mother’s bad back, logs aching to be lugged,

a cold foot in bed inching for a warm sole.

 

She catches the lone fisherman in her net,

a sprat of man who sees me strip off my tail,

harpoon licking the hollow in his neck.

 

Together we bundle him back to the house,

Mother’s laugh is a shoal. It slips over us,

a glint of mermaids bringing the silver home.

 

Copyright © Angela Readman 2016

Having reviewed her son’s show, Susan Belperio asked if I’d review her photography exhibition, Under the Lens, currently on display at the same venue, The Lab, Queen’s Theatre.

A former medical practitioner and in addition to here, Susan’s work has been displayed in Queensland and the Northern Territory; she also had an image in a human rights exhibition in Tibet opened by the Dalai Lama.

For me, the exhibition comprises three parts, beginning with a stunning black and white photo of Josh either dressing or undressing for his show (it’s the voyeur’s choice), revealing the eight-inch scar travelling his skin. It’s an intimate scene, one of a mother portraying the glittering remnant of her son’s near-death experience.

In the cluster of black and white images that follow, hands and feet feature, snapshots of movement stilled. Two pairs of feet dangle carefreely from a balcony overlooking the beach. A pair of hands are clasped on a lap, the red painted nails the only colour calling. A circle of polished feet appears as if talking and a child’s hands are being introduced to the piano. Interspersed with images of the moon, birds, roads and the sea, they denote a journey well-travelled, be it flying, driving or sailing, elements that lead neatly into the final part.

The colour series is called Life’s a Beach, in which Susan conveys the multi-faceted sea, what it can give and take away. It’s a colour spangled dreamscape with each image expertly placed to both singularly shine and complement its neighbours. Humans are juxtaposed with the man-made and wild – the shadow of a plane over water, a lone feather, a child’s spade in the shallows, the ripples and twists found in the sand and sky. The sea dons day and night, carries time effortlessly, simultaneously evoking a distant longing and home.

Susan has an incredible ability to capture the everyday in a way that is not, to present indelible moments, to stop and embrace life. The exhibition, which is free to view, only runs until 17 March as part of the Fringe, so if you’d like to immerse yourself in some hauntingly beautiful images, I highly recommend a visit.

Giraffe is Bryony Littlefair’s fantastic debut collection. Published by Seren Books, it won the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition in 2017 and it’s easy to see why.

Through 19 poems, Bryony skillfully presents everyday life – from ‘Tara Miller’, the bad girl at school who leaves an impression to the lesson of healing in the title poem, where happiness when it comes “will be long-legged, sun-dappled: a giraffe.” We’re pulled into each scene, but it’s the insightful nuances that make these poems shine.

In ‘Dear Anne Monroe, Healthcare Assistant’, Bryony relays her sister’s blood-taking (somewhat apologetically) through the eyes of the nurse:

Sorry for her ratchety stubborn fear,

which will make you late for your next appointment. Sorry, also,

for the 16k a year, for the commute

from Clapham North to Archway

where the light is piss-yellow and everyone is angry.

Coming home early from school in ‘Hallway’, Bryony catches her mother “eyes closed, somewhere else” playing the piano as Bryony:

…stood quiet and uncertain,

shivering like a just-plucked violin string;

washed up in the hallway, wondering at her life.

It’s an absorbing collection – a series of expertly rendered snapshots in which Bryony punctuates conversational tone with poignancy. I’ll end with one of my favourites, for just this reason.

 

Amsterdam, July 2011     

 

I might have stayed, in that lighted carriage,

with its lullaby of whirring tracks, but stepped off here,

where the girls stare out from glass

as though they know your secrets, as though

they are okay with them.

 

The streets sing hymns here. The buildings talk quietly amongst themselves.

You check out early. There is no breakfast. Fuelled

by hunger, you can go and go. The ecstasy

of open space declares itself, and knows

of your relentless need to run roads.

 

Loneliness does not exist here, where every face looks like

one you might have loved in a previous life.

Undrunk vodka. Sky cool in my throat.

 

Like an empty suitcase, my heart flies open.

 

Copyright @ Bryony Littlefair 2017

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.

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