Chinese Gold: Mo Yan’s Nobel Win

Some of the names thrown around were Haruki Murakami from Japan – author of Norwegian Wood and, most recently, 1Q84, a novel about a woman who slips into an alternate reality; Margaret Atwood or better yet Alice Munro from Canada; Syrian poet, Adonis; and Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, best known for his magnum opus, Things Fall Apart, the most widely read novel in Africa. Australia’s best bet to win the Nobel Prize in literature remains Les Murray. Widely acknowledged as one of the best poets writing in English today, his name is perennially linked to three postcolonial poets – all Nobel laureates – Derek Walcott from Saint Lucia, Seamus Heaney from Northern Ireland and the late Joseph Brodsky who hailed from the USSR. Each year America hopes, however unlikely, Bob Dylan might be their winner, but novelist Philip Roth is a more serious contender. In European eyes, contemporary American authors, it must be said, are considered too insular and unworldly to be strong contenders.

Some of the names thrown around were Haruki Murakami from Japan – author of Norwegian Wood and, most recently, 1Q84, a novel about a woman who slips into an alternate reality; Margaret Atwood or better yet Alice Munro from Canada; Syrian poet, Adonis; and Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, best known for his magnum opus, Things Fall Apart, the most widely read novel in Africa.

Australia’s best bet to win the Nobel Prize in literature remains Les Murray. Widely acknowledged as one of the best poets writing in English today, his name is perennially linked to three postcolonial poets – all Nobel laureates – Derek Walcott from Saint Lucia, Seamus Heaney from Northern Ireland and the late Joseph Brodsky who hailed from the USSR.

Each year America hopes, however unlikely, Bob Dylan might be their winner, but novelist Philip Roth is a more serious contender. In European eyes, contemporary American authors, it must be said, are considered too insular and unworldly to be strong contenders.

The 105th Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to novelist Mo Yan from China for his many works, the Swedish academy said, of “hallucinatory realism” that “merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.

The announcement was made at 10 pm (Australian time) on Thursday evening. When the academy phoned him at home to inform about the prize, Mo said he was “overjoyed and scared”.

Born Guan Moey, Mo assumed his non de plume – meaning “don’t speak” – to remind himself to hold his tongue and avoid trouble. He is the first Chinese national to win the Nobel Prize for literature (Gao Xingjian won in 2000 but by then he was residing in Paris).

Mo admits that early on his novels were fuelled by a desire to escape poverty. But these days, as one of China’s bestselling authors, money is no longer the motivator.

Mo came to fame with Red Sorghum, a novel set during the Japanese occupation which was made into a film directed by Yimou Zhang in 1987.

His other books include his masterwork, Big Breasts and Wide Hips, and the more accessible Garlic Ballads, a beautiful yet brutal novel about the suffering of farmers ordered to grow garlic crops in Revolutionary China.

Following the Nobel prizes for medicine, physics and chemistry earlier this week, the literature prize is the fourth and one of the most anticipated announcements the Nobel season. The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced today at noon, followed by the Economics Prize on Monday.

Following tradition, laureates will receive their prize at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December, the anniversary of the death of the prizes’ eponymous benefactor, Alfred Nobel, in 1896.

Interestingly two authors have declined the Nobel Prize in literature: Boris Pasternak in 1958 and Jean Paul Sartre in 1964.

As a result of the economic crisis, the Nobel Foundation has cut the prize money to eight million Swedish kronor ($A1.18 million) per award, down from the 10 million kronor awarded since 2001.

Last year, the literature prize went to Swedish poet Tomas Tranströemer.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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Breasts: florence williams’ unnatural history

Review of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams

Cultural histories of body parts are all the rage. Fashions, beliefs and fetishes have been catalogued on everything from hair to navels, thumbs to toes, and all the fun bits between. Histories of the genitals – a small industry in themselves – tend to have the most tittering titles: no prize for guessing what A Mind of Its Own, Read My Lips or The Rear View are about. Breasts, in art as in life, are also a popular object of meditation. But cultural histories of the human mammary gland – sketches of saints and a long march through the annals of European art – are rarely as titillating as readers might wish.

RV-AG805_BREAST_G_20120511012940Cultural histories of body parts are all the rage. Fashions, beliefs and fetishes have been catalogued on everything from hair to navels, thumbs to toes, and all the fun bits between. Histories of the genitals – a small industry in themselves – tend to have the most tittering titles: no prize for guessing what A Mind of Its Own, Read My Lips or The Rear View are about.

Breasts, in art as in life, are also a popular object of meditation. But cultural histories of the human mammary gland – sketches of saints and a long march through the annals of European art – are rarely as titillating as readers might wish.

And herein lies Florence Williams’ point of departure in Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. Williams leaves St Agatha’s breasts to wobble on a platter in the Louvre and turns to science to ask the ontological question of our age: Why is there something rather than nothing?

More specifically – and converse to the cry of tweenie angst – why are there breasts rather than no breasts? Or why was Jayne Mansfield (“a 41-inch bust and a lot of perseverance will get you more than a cup of coffee – a lot more”) Jayne Mansfield?

Given that female humans are the only mammals to sport year-round breasts, regardless of reproductive status, it is a curious question. In the early 14th century, a surgeon to the king of France proposed, among other quaintnesses, that breasts existed to warm and strengthen the stomach. In 1840, a more forbidding physician speculated that fatty breasts “enable women of the lower class to bear the very severe blows which they often receive in their drunken pugilistic contests”.

In delivering a more sensible answer, Williams, an American journalist and writer, has a prominent anthropologist to slay: cue Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape.

The human shift to bipedalism had many advantages – it freed the hands, for one – but the loss of male “hindsight” that came from face-to-face sex was not, apparently, chief among them. The reason women have breasts, Morris informs us, is because our cave-dwelling forefathers preferred the fronts of our cave-dwelling foremothers to mimic their backs: “The protuberant, hemispherical breasts of the female,” Morris deadpans, “must surely be copies of the fleshy buttocks, and the sharply defined red lips around the mouth must be copies of the red labia.”

(From which we may deduce that lips on men, if they be red, must surely be a most serious case of false advertising.)

The peculiar idea that men bred breasts in women out of a desire for front-buttocks went uncontested until, mercifully, someone cried bollocks. Breasts, Welsh writer Elaine Morgan argued in The Descent of Woman (1972), do owe something of their existence to bipedalism, but not for the reasons Morris supposes. The pendulous shape of the breast and its marvellous manoeuvrability – in humans the nipple is not anchored tightly to the ribs as it is in monkeys – allows a baby to feed while held in the crook of its upright mother’s arm.

If men are turned on by the resulting contours (and it must be acknowledged that across cultures not all are) it is not as architects of the breast but as beneficiaries of the infant’s – as Darwin put it – “struggle for existence”.

But Morgan’s argument, however sensible, has not dampened female efforts to exploit male infatuation with mammary glands. In the past century, women have lined up to inflate their breasts with everything from glass balls to ivory, paraffin wax to wood chips, peanut oil to honey, and goat’s milk to ox cartilage.

In 1962 the first silicone implant surgery took place in Texas, but less well-heeled women settled for silicone injections. In 1964 a topless go-go dancer had 44 such injections and made her fortune as “the new Twin Peaks of San Francisco”. Tom Wolfe immortalised her anatomy in The Pump House Gang (1968):

Carol Doda’s breasts are two incredible mammiform protrusions, no mere pliable mass of feminine tissues and fats there but living arterial sculpture – viscera spigot – great blown-up aureate morning-glories.

It’s hard to imagine, but these days there are more worrying things going into breasts than implants, and this is where Williams’ fascinating book turns deadly serious.

Breasts, it turns out, are not only receptacles for fantasy but also mirrors of our industrial lives, as Williams learned when she sent her breast milk to Germany for chemical testing. Her levels of flame-retardants came back 10 to 100 times higher than for European women, and she tested positive for perchlorate – a jet-fuel ingredient – and pesticides. These chemicals, deriving from household items – sofas, toys, electronics, play a dicey game with female and male estrogen levels. Against this backdrop, the human breast is un-gendered – a breast is a breast is a breast – and men are advised to ignore the lure of female breasts and pay attention to their own.

This article was originally published under the title ‘The mammaries linger on’ in The Weekend Australian (4-5 Aug 2012): 19.

Kate llewellyn’s curious fruit

Review of Poets and Perspectives: Kate Llewellyn from University of Wollongong Press

In the 1950s Pablo Neruda turned his back on the high style of his earlier work and began the first of his three volumes of odas elementales. Exploiting the panegyric style of the ode to exalt the simple things of our daily existence – lemons, onions, salt, wine, laziness, and love (among other things and feelings) – he eschewed affectation and all pretences of the intellect. His odes, with their simple language and short irregular lines, are poetry at its most pure and elemental. Similarly Kate Llewellyn’s poems, with their own straightforward celebration of ordinariness, are charming in their directness.

kate_narrowweb__300x379,0In the 1950s Pablo Neruda turned his back on the high style of his earlier work and began the first of his three volumes of odas elementales. Exploiting the panegyric style of the ode to exalt the simple things of our daily existence – lemons, onions, salt, wine, laziness, and love (among other things and feelings) – he eschewed affectation and all pretences of the intellect. His odes, with their simple language and short irregular lines, are poetry at its most pure and elemental.

Similarly Kate Llewellyn’s poems, with their own straightforward celebration of ordinariness, are charming in their directness. They are simple without being simplistic. Direct without being artless. Plain, and yet sophisticated. Offering her own praise to the everyday, Llewellyn exalts, variously, the orange, the egg, potatoes, and even the Chilean oyster (a poem which ends with an admission of failure on the speaker’s behalf to channel the speech of the oyster – “only Neruda” could do that). But it is her “odes” to the objects and feelings that inhabit a woman’s world, including her own body, that really sing. In her most celebrated poem, “Breasts”, the speaker turns her attention to her breasts and finds they have agency and vision: to the men who stare at them, she writes, “the breast stares straight back”. They are the “body’s curious fruit / wanting to know everything”. Humour keeps the poem alive, but Llewellyn wrenches it from the category of light verse with its ominous last lines: “like life they are not glamourous / merely dangerous”.

Likewise humour and danger make good bedfellows in “The Bed” which, the speaker says with a wink, has “seen a lot of action”. But the double entendre quickly made is very quickly unmade, or at least complicated, in the next line. The personified bed, more than a lover, is a soldier or nurse, and the “action” it witnesses is not simply of the sexual kind but rather the trouble, toil, and sorrow to be found on a battlefield. If the speaker is unable to sustain her love for the men (and women) who at various times shared her bed, she will love the thing itself. It is the repository of her memories, literally and figuratively holding her life: she “got in young but came out old”.

In addition to a frankness about sexuality, Llewellyn writes with an invigorating braggadocio reminiscent of Anne Sexton, using the poem as a weapon to break up a polite society that would have a woman know, tidily, her place. Parallels to Sexton can also be drawn in Llewellyn’s commitment to retelling tales. In a similar way that Sexton, in Transformations, recast the Grimm fairytales, a good number of Llewellyn’s poems proffer alternative narratives – or “plans for another reality” as the speaker says in “Ghettos” – for female mythological characters: Ariadne and Dido, among others, but most successfully Eve, whom Llewellyn describes as “the bright one / bored witless by Adam”. Eve, in Llewellyn’s telling, was in no way tempted by the snake, neither was she “kicked out” of Eden. Hungering not for food but for knowledge, Eve had the simple gumption to walk out.

Llewellyn makes good use of the intimacy that is created with the use of first-person point of view. While some poems are addressed to particular people, her best are the ones in which she makes a pact of complicity with the reader, and writes, like Neruda, a poetry for the people. As her work matures, the idea of connections emerges as a major theme. Explicitly in “Curriculum Vitae”, the speaker recounts:

my interests are
the connectedness of things
and what lies behind –

But instead of exploring the intangible, Llewellyn continues with a characteristically earthly metaphor: “always picking up a cushion / peering and replacing it”. The poem ends with a reconciliation that serves as a statement of Llewellyn’s poetics: “Everything is interesting / I have glimpsed paradise / and work daily”.

The latest issue in University of Wollongong Press’s Poets and Perspectives series (the first issue being a study of John Fulcher’s poetry) is an eponymous selection of Kate Llewellyn’s poems (spanning seven books published over a period of almost thirty years), book-ended by three critical essays. David Gilby, in his essay “‘Love’s Plunder’: Desire, Performance, and Craft in Kate Llewellyn’s Poetry”, describes her poems as “raw, fresh and angry”; while Susan Sheridan teases out Llewellyn’s feminist politics in an essay that historicises Llewellyn as a poet writing against a male tradition and making art from the domestic scene. In “Playing with Water: Elements of the Sublime in the Domestic Domain”, Anne Collett focuses on Llewellyn’s prose (and poetry) memoir Playing with Water, considering Llewellyn within the Romantic tradition and drawing interesting parallels between Llewellyn and Dorothy Wordsworth (unfortunately, the essay opens with a poem not included in the collection).           

Together the essays portray Llewellyn, convincingly, as a poet of enduring merit. It is a shame, however, that a final and overarching edit didn’t remove some of the over-lapping observations about Llewellyn’s lack of formal training as a poet and the small amount of critical attention her work has received. Repetition makes the case too strongly and gives an otherwise celebratory book a somewhat apologetic tone – which is not only unnecessary, given the impressive body of work on offer here, but it is also at odds, as far as the poems reveal, with the poet’s lone-wolf world view.

Originally published under the title ‘Curious Fruit’. Rev of Kate Llewellyn edited by Paul Sharrad. Australian Book Review 324 (Sept 2010): 70

Fine connections in touching lines

Geoff Page reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008). This first appeared in The Canberra Times (13 December 2008): 16.

by Geoff Page

It’s been seven years since Bronwyn Lea’s remarkable first book of poetry, Flight Animals. Now, at last, we have its successor, The Other Way Out: New Poems. The initial collection was marked by a consistent level of technical excellence and an impressive variety of form and tone. The second, luckily, lives up to the very high standard Lea created for herself. Perhaps that is why she has waited so long.

The new book falls into three parts: the first dealing mainly with issues of life and death, the second revisiting an intense love affair and the third meditating, among other subjects, on Eastern religions and the architecture and art they have given rise to. The poems in all three sections are finely but unobtrusively tuned and build, typically, to a highly memorable last line.

In ‘Dog Days’, for instance, her sonnet on Brisbane, she uses a variety of images to evoke the relentlessness of that city’s midsummer heat: ‘The sky is a blue so pressing it falls/like glass to the ground.’ She finds herself drawn by ‘hope’ to the river and concludes her poem by noting how ‘Today the water slides by/in silence, a quavering less oppressive city //splayed upside down on the surface./A dog barks in the white light, just once.’ That ‘just once’ is a typical Lea touch, a nicely resonant full stop to the whole poem.

A similar compression and understatedness can be seen in Lea’s poem, ‘Ars Poetica’. It’s short enough to quote in its entirety and is plainly indicative of where she is heading in this second collection: ‘I used to want/to say one thing //& have it turn/out to be another./Now I only want //to say one thing./As if the pleasure //now is in the voicing/not the trickery //but the soul making/itself heard //above the traffic.’

There was not very much ‘trickery’ in Flight Animals but one can sense here the eloquent simplicity Lea is reaching for. Some of the poems, for example, ‘Love Begins with a Vision’ and ‘View from the Blue Pavilion’, read like haiku sequences. Others, such as the technically ambitious ‘Routine Love Poem’, use the repetition of simple elements, almost in the manner of a Gertrude Stein or Samuel Beckett. The poem also displays the persistent ambivalence running through many of the erotic love poems at the book’s centre. In ‘Palinode’, for instance, Lea begins ‘I have written before how I loved him/ but I have never written how I disliked him too.’ In ‘Born Again’ she has the deliciously malevolent lines: ‘Instead of dying, god spoke to him./God forgave all his trespasses. But I/didn’t forgive his trespasses against me./My heart was a long ledger.’

This degree of intensity carries over to into the book’s final section which, while it touches on temples, pavilions and terracotta warriors, is just as much concerned with the raw force of human emotions. We are given, for instance, Lea’s versions of the graffiti at Sigiriya, written between the seventh and 11th centuries AD. They begin: ‘I came & saw the girls with gold chains/between their breasts now heaven is no good.’

Another poem in the sequence has Lea’s narrator reminiscing: ‘Each night/I found the present-tense of you: your body/in the bed conducting light,/the little room lit up, my sex ransacked/by a branch of burning sky.’ This might sound melodramatic but the poem’s ending is convincing enough: ‘Each morning we walked/ in staggered silence till the future came/to blind us with its mirror.’

In some other poems in the last section (such, for instance, the deeply moving ‘Father and Daughter’) there can sometimes be, by contrast, an almost risky minimalism but these are dangers Bronwyn Lea is more than willing to deal with in her pursuit of the subtlety she aims for. The Other Way Out will be more than satisfying to the many readers who have waited since Flight Animals in 2001 alerted them to the presence of a poet who has, as Alan Gould has put it, ‘the humour … the tact … and the fine connections of a very singular sensibility’.

Geoff Page reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008). This first appeared in The Canberra Times (13 December 2008): 16.

 

 

New poet produces a collection of unusual merit

Geoff Page reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001). This first appeared in The Canberra Times (1 Dec 2001): 16.

111193756Geoff Page reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001). This first appeared in The Canberra Times (1 Dec 2001): 16.

First collections of poetry rarely come more assured than Bronwyn Lea’s Flight Animals. At 32, Lea seems to have mastered contemporary American free verse and have the confidence to work in a variety of modes, from the haiku to the modified sonnet. Her poems are full of telling, sensuous detail held together by a low-key rhetoric that, while not afraid of emotion, nevertheless maintains an artistic detachment. Flight Animals has four thematic sections, of which the central two are the most memorable. Here, in poems such as ‘Original Sin’ (a wry but heartfelt elegy to a friend who says before she dies: if / I could live my life over again, I would / have more sex and fewer children), Lea uses a characteristic combination of simple detail and unobtrusive metaphor to embody a diversity of intense emotional experiences. Notable too are Lea’s formal skills. These range from the blank-verse sonnets in ‘Handing Back Time’ through to the remarkable combination of linked haiku and couplets in ‘A Rush of Butterflies’, the latter working very much by association, like the Persian ghazal. There is also the extended prose poem ‘Catalogue of People’, with its oracular paradoxes and their clever, often playful resolutions. There are those who believe God lives and those who believe God is dead. Both believe. In addition to this there are also a lighthearted but substantial tribute to John Forbes in ‘Seven Feet & Where They’re From’ and a number of engaging haiku (all of which maintain the 5/7/5 syllabic form). Perhaps two of the latter are as good a way as any to give a taste of Night Animals or, at least, a sample of its flavours: ‘A ring-tailed possum / squatting in the magpies nest / China in Tibet’ or ‘Losing you I prune / the bright red leaftips my breasts / aching from hedging’. Not all the poems are as immediately likeable as the ones I’ve talked about but there is little doubt Lea deserves the extravagant back-cover praise heaped on her by the poet MTC Cronin, and the critic Martin Duwell, of whom the latter should perhaps be given the last word:

‘These poems are resonant and delicate, but they are also very tough in mind and spirit. Their brilliance is immediately apparent. In short, an impressive first book.’