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I went to the launch by Carol Lefevre of Jean Harley was here last night at Dymocks bookshop.

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This is Heather Taylor Johnson’s second novel, Pursuing Love and Death her first published in 2013 by Harper Collins, a domestically rich story with the protagonist suffering from Meniere’s disease, a debilitating condition of the inner ear causing vertigo and tinnitus, which Heather herself battles with. So Heather’s second novel has been hotly anticipated.

Published by the University of Queensland Press, it explores love, relationships and the impact of absence. Jean Harley – wife, mother, lover, dancer – is sunshine in the lives of those around her, but when tragedy strikes they are forced to continue without her. Despite a little unravelling and a few storms, Jean leaves a powerful legacy to abate them. I’ve heard it’s a tear-jerker

Heather is first and foremost a poet, with a number of sole and collaborative collections to her name, and her lyricism is reflected in her exquisite prose.  I recall Heather sharing an extract from the draft of this book last year at a reading with other poets, which has stayed with me, and Heather’s knack for scene-setting is like an intimacy shared, demonstrated by the excerpt she read yesterday from the chapter “Emotional Fishing”. Here’s a snapshot:

Charley sat as far back as he could, feeling out of place, though that was nothing new. His bald head shone under the fluoro lights and the back of his neck itched – an eczema problem that flared up when he was nervous. He kept smoothing his long beard to a point – another nervous tic. One might think he was made of tougher stuff because if this was an eye-for-eye world, here was a man who’d seen things that should’ve blinded him, a man who’d done the sort of things people don’t talk about at the dinner table but read about in newspapers over breakfast…”

Quoted as being “a book to savour” by Hannah Kent, it’s clear this will be another stunning read from an extraordinarily talented writer. A visceral narrative with complex, relatable characters, Heather offers us a world to get lost in, absorb, making us ponder our place in our own.

with a bang! And having missed last week’s readings, I was determined to make this week’s, the line-up simply too good to miss – Matt Hooton, Rebekah Clarkson, Heather Taylor Johnson and Andy Jackson.

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Hosted as ever by the highly entertaining Ken Bolton at the Dark Horsey Bookshop, Matt was first up with a series of questions for the audience – did Anne of Green Gables make it over here? Is Evel Knievel considered an icon here? And were we familiar with the concept of party lines? Setting the scene for an interesting read of his latest short story ‘Is this our inheritance our Lord and is that your voice we hear on the party line?’ We were presented with a scene in which two young boys are watching Evel Knievel perform his stunts on TV during his Korean tour, where ‘there is too much rocket, not enough bike’. What I particularly loved about this was the repetition of a raven image throughout the description of a seemingly ordinary suburban scene – ‘a prescription of ravens’ when the single mother knocks back a few painkillers in the bathroom; ‘an abandonment of ravens’ when Evel Knievel lands in North Korean airspace; culminating in the line ‘the inheritance of ravens goes quiet’. A thought-provoking piece.

Next to take the stage was Rebekah and it was her first time reading here. I knew of Rebekah, but was not familiar with her work. She read a piece of personal non-fiction called ‘Learning to swim’, which had been commissioned by an American journal. It pulled you in from the start, opening with ‘I don’t want to talk about the storm’ where after we learn her daughter was out at sea during it with the story also alluding to a meta-physical storm. And so we hear how Rebekah ‘fake swims’, which is considered an art form, a ‘careful construction of circumstance’, breathing out on the right side only. A memory is shared of her father trying to teach her to swim by literally throwing her in the deep, a somewhat traumatic experience, which ends in an apology from her father, the only time she ever hears one. To progress her ‘fake swimming’ Rebekah joins a swim class ‘full of pissed off women having done everything for everyone’ where she learns bilateral breathing and soon starts to ‘crave the silent underwater world’. Rebekah read well, thoroughly engaging her audience.

And then it was Heather, to whom I could listen for hours! Heather read a chapter from her forthcoming book from University of Queensland Press now in its final stages of editing. Here we find Orion, son of Jean who is in a coma in hospital having been diagnosed with cancer. In his bedroom ‘sunlight splashed the walls’ as he plays with a toy plane, which ‘has to follow the bottom racing stripe otherwise the world will blow up’. Death pervades this chapter, as we learn that Orion’s Nan also had cancer and often talks of dying, so he seeks out ‘Very Viv’, the ‘most fun of all the grown-ups’. When visiting his Mum in hospital, his friend, Juniper, tells Orion that his Mum is going to die (Juniper then gets scolded by her own for saying this). So Orion seeks release in the hospital playground, playing monsters with Juniper and a boy they befriend with an eye patch. Later, driving home with his Dad, Orion imagines they are ‘the only car in Adelaide on a conveyor belt’, pictures the danger and feels he has ‘died many times in his mind’. Big concepts for a little boy, can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

Andy closed the set reading the only poetry of the night. He shared a few from his collection the thin bridge, back in print again from Whitmore Press, and began with ‘Double helix’, which I remember from Heather’s poetry night, a poem about passing on genes with cleverly repetitive lines – ‘genetic screening is not an anagram for suicide’, ‘a disorder of connective tissue sewn into my own’, ‘you can be so lonely you don’t want to be touched’. Next came the poem ‘The platform’ about a young bird being placed out of harm’s way followed by ‘On being sculpted’ by his partner, in which he asks ‘will I ever be finished?’ and ‘who threw that yellow square across the floor; the moon, the streetlight or us?’ Andy then read from his next collection Immune systems, available from Transit Lounge, based on his visit to India, the first a string of statements connected by their strangeness. A ‘schoolgirl yawns’ with ‘henna snaking around her hands’ and ‘In the courtyard’ there is medical tourism as Andy is diagnosed by a man who ‘holds my wrist like a flute’. The last poem shared was about returning to Australia, to ‘wilting leaves and cobwebbed pegs’ and ‘a neighbour hammering a nail into a mortgage’, such vivid images.

It was a wonderful evening rich in literary ‘wowness’, which I know is not a word but I don’t care, it was fab.

 

Sunday evening was a divine mixture of fine food and company, as we devoured a three-course meal and the words of five Adelaide-based poets and novelists who shared a series of water-themed readings.

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Held in Sarah’s Sustainable Café in Semaphore as part of Adelaide’s Fringe-frenzy month, the line-up was impressive – Ray Tyndale, Mag Merrilees, Rachael Mead, Heather Taylor Johnson and Alison Flett – and Stuart Gifford, and his partner and co-chef Marian Prosser, did an amazing job of hosting and feeding!

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Ray was first up, a local poet living by the sea in Semaphore who writes a poem a day (impressive). Ray opened her set with a poem called ‘Dolphins’ written last July, describing how a mother and baby were ‘turning and surging in the shallows’, an image you could so clearly see.  Next up was a poem called ‘Menace’ where the sea ‘claims at least one to itself each year’ followed by ‘The kite-surfer’ where it ‘erupted into white horses’.  In ‘Winter on Semaphore beach’, there is ‘half a rainbow, a brilliant half’ and in ‘Blue seaweed’ ‘magic happened’.  Ray read well, was both warm and engaging, her work painting a picture of everyday events we could all relate to, as well as making reference to the highly variable temperatures in our state when ‘thunder rumbled like an upset stomach’.

Just before the main course was served, Mag started by explaining how she is primarily a novelist who dips into poetry. Mag began with an old poem, ‘The whales’, written 25 years ago about the time when these glorious mammals came back into Encounter Bay, watching as they were ‘rocked weightless by the waves’.  Next up was a poem about Kangaroo Island where she was ‘drawn homeward by moonlight’ followed by another short piece, ‘Flotsam’, which she later learnt was a Haibu (Haiku embedded in prose).  Mag’s last share was ‘Sea ground stones’, a much longer piece, both interesting and entertaining, which opened with the line ‘letters from my sister start mid-thought’ and then went onto explain Mag’s ‘digestion song’, and how she plans ‘to meet every pebble on the beach’ referring to them as ‘crumbs of mountain’.

Rachael was up next who confessed she had to trawl through the archives living in the hills, so began with a poem about a beach walk she took to calm down after a rather irritating visitor had left, where she ‘was the only one with untamed hair and sneakers’ and ‘the idea of day makes the hills blush’. Rachael then read a series of sonnets about her encounter with a great white shark while cage diving in Port Lincoln (on our to do list!) from her new chapbook, The Quiet Blue World and Other Poems, published by Garron Publishing and having heard them before, they were just as stunning.  ‘In the kayak’ followed, a very atmospheric piece likening the paddles to cutlery which ‘feast on platelets of silence’ and in ‘After crossing the bridge the first time’ to Hindmarsh Island, ‘an ant crawls across the page like punctuation gone wild’.  Rachael finished with a poem called ‘Lost on the coast road’ ‘in a car like a metaphor gone wrong’ through ‘a tangle of stars and streetlights’.

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As we were tucking into a delicious dessert, Heather began reading an excerpt from her new novel due out next year from University of Queensland Press, which focuses on a character called Jean Harley who is either dead or in a coma (Heather’s own words!). The passage was from a chapter called ‘The house of noise’ from the viewpoint of the mother-in-law Marion, who describes her daughter-in-law as ‘a sunken body in white sheets’ and tells of her own secret battle with cancer where ‘she lived on a lake, but today it sounded like an ocean’.  On a trip to West Beach with her son Stan and grandson Orion, Marion has a rare moment of contact with the former when ‘she cherished the linger, felt safe she could melt’ and then of Orion, ‘his smile as vast as the shoreline’.  The next passage was from the chapter ‘Very Viv’, where Viv is beach walking during that time of the month when ‘her uterus is emptying itself’ as she contemplates her affair with a professor who had had a fling with Jean before she married Stan.  What Heather shared was enough to make me want to buy the book and read more!  Heather finished with the poem ‘Gearing up’ about Adelaide’s Fringe season from her collection Thirsting for Lemonade published by Interactive Press, just perfect.

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Alison rounded off the readings who, having been in Australia now for five years from Scotland and a former resident poet in Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens, began with a poem called ‘First creek’ in the shape of a creek on a scroll of paper. With ‘surfaces reflecting scraps of sky’, water that ‘petered into pools and puddles’ and the ‘sun repeatedly paddle-beating my skull’, we were there with Alison on her journey.  The creek is compared with her sweat and the water at lunch, as she notes how ‘magpies look the same but make the strangest of noises’ and what is brilliantly referred to as the ‘disappointment of crows’ (so true!).  Alison then read ‘Pittance’, a poem that talks of the primeval presence trailing them, the animal they once were, followed by ‘Five ways to hear the ocean’ which was just that.  Alison finished with a poem I’ve heard her read before and just love, ‘The map of belonging’, which will form part of the new collection she’s working on funded by an Arts SA grant, ‘where home is a paper folded and torn’ and ‘you find yourself landless’, beautiful.

And there endeth a wonderful evening! A fantastic experience I was thrilled to be a part of.  And if you’re ever in Semaphore check out the cafe, it’s well worth a visit.