Economic Rationalism Meets Contemporary Poetry-Fiction; Or Where is that Old Black Magic?
review by Barry Westburg
Verandah 12 (1997)
Anna Coleman, Kate Johnstone, Barbara Oakman, Caitlin Punshon, Winnie Salamon, Gary Smith and Kate Whitfield eds.
Burwood Campus, Deakin University
So we live here
Forever taking leave- Rilke
I just finished digesting the twelfth issue of Verandah. This is a literary magazine emanating from the Burwood Campus of Deakin University. I think it is a good magazine, distinguished of its kind. Of its kind. I was at first reluctant to read it, since the actual process of reading all the way through a "literary" magazine ranks of late fairly low on my agenda, what with Spring in the air. But then I heard on my beloved Radio National that only a minority of blokes these days bother to read fiction and poetry. Guys, if they read at all, will reach for the biography or the history. So I felt challenged: Was I one of those brutes? Why would guys not want to read poetry and fiction?
With this ABC sound-bite on the scandalous demographics of readership ringing in my ears, I cracked the covers of Verandah 12. Relax! Guys are still writing fiction-and poetry. One of the seven editors is a guy. The table of contents, besides quickly reassuring me as to gender-balance (remember gender-balance?) usefully breaks down its contents generically: Poetry (36 instances), fiction (8 instances), artwork (7 instances), "prose" (2 instances), and essay (1 instance).
The sole essay, on "migrant literature as symbolic capital", hovers in lone splendor, provocatively, in ironic relationship to the creative contents of Verandah 12, and that tempts me to imagine an intent - a playful or perhaps even satanic editorial process behind this mag. For, unless in some Pickwickian sense we are all migrants, there is precious little migrant literary capital - symbolic or otherwise - being "produced" in this anthology. In fact, the first thing that began to dawn on me as I read from cover to cover, was - despite the varied content and the stylistic expertise displayed in so many of the individual pieces - a claustrophobic sense of what maybe could be called "monoculturalism". Or maybe the absence of difference. If I had time to read through the elephantine bibliography at the end of Leah Saunders' brief academic-style think-piece I might emerge better instructed as to what name I might give to all this absence of difference: The presence of sameness? (And yet others might feel a warming sense of the Return of the Familiar.)
Or maybe once again I am dead wrong. And being unfair. And picking on just one rather well-produced mag out of so many struggling organs. This monoculturalism might be the presence of Zeitgeist. And, in particular, the presence of a specifically literary moment or culture within the Zeitgeist. The presence, if you like, of a tacit agreement about how authentic writing must be produced. Very likely writing programs are the sites where this tacit knowledge is produced and disseminated. If we are in the presence of a specifically literary culture when we read Verandah, then perhaps the search for difference would be for difference at the same level - for nuances, as it were. Or for differences at the level of subject rather than a shared aesthetic.
If you read Verandah backwards, you discover your map to the monoculture. Stuck way in the back by the dunny and the rusty lawnmower is a "prose" piece by Jim Buck called "Get Real." This is presumably an impersonation of the monologic voice of the Writing Program. (Is "Jim Buck" an invention, like Huck Finn?). This imagined Writing Program is currently promoting Dirty Realism. Dirty Realism is probably yesterday's name for what we see in this anthology as traces of a literary subculture in shock no doubt from Economic Rationalism. The stories and the poems seem to have emanated from product-testing laboratories where toxic experiments are being performed on human subjects and where these subjects are even forced to experiment on themselves. Where all of us humanoids have been stripped jaybird naked in some awful delousing chamber at the end of the Second Millennium. We have no childhood, no past, no lovers, no families, no jobs, no talents, no prospects, no jokes, no music - no place. Is this the sign or symptom of the triumph of globalism, of global entropy? If we have a past, it is one of obscure victimisation (Kylie Monty, "An Artless Affair"); if we have families, they are sites of abuse; if we have lovers, either we or they, or both, are betrayers or just indifferent ("Tumble" a very clever story by Ashlley Morgan-Shae; "Lucy's Self," another good one by Emma Appleton). If we have futures…well, futures are for the Stock Exchange,
Three renowned writers from three far flung continents contribute to this issue of Verandah: Les Murray, Margaret Atwood, and Seamus Heaney. The first two have submitted workshop-shavings, but Heaney's contribution is two pieces ("Translated by the author from the Gaelic of Antoine Raftery 1784-1836"), which to me are the touchstones for this anthology. (By the way, editors, there are at least three typos in as many pages of Heaney's poetry. Is that a nice way to treat a Nobel Laureate? Not to mention the inconsistent spelling of his name!) Most of the poetry in this anthology deliberately eschews musicality. Perhaps, like humour (which also makes a rare appearance), music's a luxury item we can no longer afford. Poetry itself must no longer appear luxurious - gratifying in and for itself - or it will get its funding cut. Poetry had better get down to business. And it better be profound, too, or it is wasting our time. There is one villanelle in this anthology. Villanelles are 'sposed to be pretty and sonorous and maybe even sound profound. Villanelle form is a little contraption like a music box, guaranteed to spin deep echoes out of almost any skein of words. But in this one we get the not much other than the sound of a broken spring. (What economists call the ratchet effect?) By comparison, next door down the corridor, is "Raftery's Killeaden" by Heaney. It is a poet's Keynesian vision of earthly paradise, at once retrospective and prospective, laced with rich undertones of elegy and irony. Here the human voice, though migratory as a stormy petrel, has an imaginative grasp of place and time, of homing instinct, compassion and companionship, and this is conveyed in the reassurance of music itself, levitated by wit and humour. O where are the songs of yesteryear?
The spare non-committal clinicism of many of the other pieces (E.g. "The Question of Keeping Lists," by Mary Szymanski; "Swimming" by Cathy Randall) contrasts starkly with the gorgeous inventories of Heaney's poet. Is this Enlightenment rationalism reborn as a minimalist style for Hard Times? Many other stories and poems here are segmented into lists and some of these are numbered. ("Number, the language of science"). Accordingly, many of the "alienating" anti-humanist hyperreality-enhancing devices of the French nouveau Roman and later American surfictionists are well-integrated into this new monoculture of letters. In Rebecca Law's very expert narrative, "The Fade-Out," one of the most accomplished in this mag, we taste, as elsewhere the flinty nadas of Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Robert Coover. In poetry, see the fine piece by John Allison, "The Point of Departure," from which I have stolen my Rilke epigraph, which sums up the Zeitgeist so consistently and so well displayed in Verandah 12. By the way, when you read this mag don't miss "A Hot Dry Country" by Nathan Jackson-Smith. Or Steven Warburton's fine photographs.
Barry Westburg's most recent volume of short fiction, Rage of Angels, (Wakefield Press) was launched at this year's Adelaide Festival.
Vol 2 No 2 October 1998
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady