TEXT Review

In the World under a Soft Cover

review by Moya Costello


Jen Webb
Proverbs from Sierra Leone (New Poets 10)
Five Islands Press, Wollongong University, Wollongong, 2004
ISBN 1741280575
33 pp. Pb. AUD9.95

Jen Webb
Ways of Getting By
Ginniderra Press, Charnwood, ACT 2006
ISBN 1740272435
95 pp. Pb. AUD18.00


What is the sensibility that speaks through these poems and stories? What is the tone, a tone that can't be easily and singularly labelled, yet nevertheless is immediately recognisable as that of a writer in the world? And what is the significance of receiving these poems and stories from small presses?

Under its New Poets program, Five Islands publishes six small books of poetry a year by poets who have been publishing in magazines and newspapers, but who have not yet had a first book of poetry published. Over twelve years as a feisty operator, Five Islands has selected award-winning poets, including Webb, whose poem 'The eternity knot' won the 2003 inaugural ACT Poet of the Year award.

Five Islands is an independent publisher specialising 'in contemporary Australian poetry'. The title of Jen Webb's first collection is Proverbs from Sierra Leone. So here is Australia in the contemporary world, with the marks, like those of birth, of global life.

Webb originally came from South Africa and the poems more than occasionally are defined by, incorporate, or situate as a title a proverb from Sierra Leone, available on the Sierra Leone website. One such proverb is 'one man can't fill a box', centred in the collection's opening poem, 'The celebrant', about the death of the poet's father. As with all proverbs, transcendence and immanence, presence and absence, wisdom and banality combine in an unexpectedly powerful way to wound like an infected needle, causing an ache of recognition in us when we hope to escape, unaffected, with the barest of responses to the expected engagement required of ' … or so they say.'

Webb's spirited tactical response to situations such as 'when my father was cold/they took him to the grave' is to refuse to turn away. She refashions the challenge:

I will dress in red,
I will wear the grace
of blind expectation.

As the coupling of 'blind' with 'expectation' indicates, she faces the situation with what become credentials, but of vulnerability:

A pause.
And then the wait.

Her poems invest in and attest to being in the world. She is our 'humble correspondent', even though sometimes there is no news from the front, only the sound of her own heart speaking to her: 'cor/respond' ('News has no feet, but it travels'). For we simultaneously emerge from and are integrated into the routine and the chaotic: 'small colloquial crime[s]' and 'curfewed massacre[s]' ('What the pumpkin knows'). Within these poems there is no pretence at mastery-we are 'mislaid long before our end' ('The Mandela principle'). We live both in an improvisational and incorporated way within specific contexts, our open future contingent and unpredictable. So a convolvulus, in its famed rampancy, races 'over the house', and as a consequence:

… we sit in the darkness of leaves,
listening to nothing,
before we stumble back to sleep. ('Every day')

Or the poet is immersed, playfully, in the therapeutic and curative effects of the sea to come out 'sea-blind'.

Australia shares with Africa similarities of geography, climate, space and light. Both continents experience heat and humidity, 'hard-cooked ground' and 'tropical breeze[s]', and sand-laden winds from deserts; they contain coastlines, plains and hills, and 'implacable space' to traverse ('Coming home'). In Australia, traversing space is done on a bush track, in Africa on a 'snake-trail', 'judder of ruts', 'journey of giraffes, half thought/thorn-tree graded snail-pace goat-race', 'string of holes' or simply a 'dust tide'. And on a difficult journey in such country, especially a familiar one, South Africa, that the poet returns to, she puts her foot on the brake, stopping suddenly, unexpectedly, 'always too late', where that interruption is the shock of defamiliarisation of what was formerly taken for granted, symbolised by the commonly named and figured/seen: 'Brandt's ossewa' or 'Sipo's goats'.

This journey, where you need to - as a poem's title exhorts - 'Be aware', is a longing that is itself continually cut short. For memory 'slides' across the highway and ideas 'across the tar', and, with every 'shift in light', time is 'tick tocking you back from unquiet dreams'. On the one hand, you are almost able to grasp what 'lies just below thought', as in these poems which, while being neither wholly sparse nor rich in surface texture, foam like the waves in 'Sea blind', advancing from the deep, then breaking over rocks. On the other hand, you run from this thing that is 'unnamed' - the snake that you have been warned to look out for. While you'll never quite know what hunts or haunts you, the hunter/haunting in turn has an enviable knowledge:

- There is nothing about the inside
of the pumpkin
that the knife doesn't know. ('What the pumpkin knows')

Webb's eternity knot - or a 'twist of soft thread' or 'baby curls' - from the poem of the same title, is meant to bind us to safety forever, protect us from the hunting and haunting. But we can only do what we can:

You can survive … once, twice,
even seven times;
and then you're done.

'Getting by' is another way of saying this. 'Angel dust' opens Webb's collection of short stories, Ways of Getting By, and is a good choice, since it is archetypal as a short story. Its totality as meaning is elusive, at best ambiguous. And it's a short story that stays with you, pleasurably, as short stories should do, compressed, compacted, resonant, mysterious and poetic in its impact. The last line of 'Angel Dust', 'And after the light, what's next?', is enviable in its composition and placement. For what could be more ordinary yet unexpected in this historical moment of spin and immoderation than angel-human congress? So much of our present moment is insupportable, yet also full of, as yet, unimagined potentialities.

It's the insupportable that Webb examines in this collection. And death, self-induced, is clearly, inevitably one of the ways of getting by, as is some form of madness. So the strategy for linking this collection, as in Frank Moorhouse's early- to mid-career discontinuous narratives, is the narrator - in Webb's case, a therapist. She and her clients grapple with getting by, with how to live reasonably, ethically, within the parameters of the sane.

The eerie, subtly sci-fi, partially surreal setting of the stories is what Webb has called a parallel-present, or dystopic quasi-future in Australia or quasi-Australia - an 'unAustralia', as the recent Cultural Studies Association of Australasia Annual Conference at the University of Canberra named it. The landscape is denuded, dry and overheated, overly developed, undernourished, and ravaged by extreme weather conditions. In unAustralia, ways of getting by have to be formulated and induced by the disenfranchised, the fearful, the vulnerable, the sensitive, the thinking, the caring. In 'Jobhunting', those looking for work where there is none attempt to morph themselves into the employed whose capacity for defining identity becomes unattainably magisterial and mythic by contrast. The theorists, icons in 'Althusser's wife', who practise what Terry Eagleton has described as 'a reasonably systematic reflection on our guiding assumptions', become, likewise, acquainted, in a comic-tragic, black-humoured way, with violence, madness and suicide.

When the therapist enters the sea in 'Back from the brink', sees frogs returning to her garden in 'A floating doll's house', and when she confronts and acknowledges ageing and death as the common condition to being human, as she does in 'Ways of getting by', she is, for the duration of the world of the stories, getting by.

The stories are disturbing because of their surreal edge, yet also because they channel today's (un)Australia. Webb has invested in her narrator and characters to lay out a study of the tempered nature of trying to survive on ethical terms. Her poems offer a similar stance. In her delivery, the short story displays its remarkable characteristic of vivifying intense moments of engagement.

Together, the two collections, poetry and short stories, are a resource that offer an insight, by one author, into the multi-skilling across genres, as well as an insight into the function of small presses in Australia's literary culture.

While a probable lack of resources has affected production values of Ways of Getting By (aesthetically, the cover and internal design are in a home-brand vein), I'm nevertheless grateful to Ginninderra Press, an enterprise not dissimilar to Five Islands. Small, independent presses incarnate abundance, because as a reader, my reading world would be so much diminished, strangulated for want of breadth, depth, scope, interest and difference, without their input.



Moya Costello has two collections of short stories published, as well as a short novel. She assists in the administration of the Creative Writing program at the University of Adelaide, and teaches for the Flinders University of South Australia and online for the University of Canberra.


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Vol 11 No 1 April 2007
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb