Michelle de Kretser wins the Miles Franklin

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty – Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Questions of Travel’

After a week of rampant sexism in the media, a good-news story about a woman comes as a welcome relief. At a ceremony at the National Library in Canberra on Wednesday, Simon Lewis announced that Michelle de Kretser has won this year’s $60,000 Miles Franklin Literary Award for her novel, Questions of Travel.

Since the Miles Franklin Award began in 1957, a woman has won only 14 times. With de Kretser’s win the count creeps up to 15. The awards were notable this year for being the first in the prize’s 56-year history to have an all-female shortlist.

According to Neville, chair of the judging panel, the 2013 Miles Franklin was also one of the largest with 72 entries, and he described the judging process as “exhaustive”. Of Questions of Travel, which takes its name from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, Neville said:

Michelle de Kretser’s wonderful novel centres on two characters, with two stories, each describing a different journey. The stories intertwine and pull against one another, and within this double narrative, de Kretser explores questions of home and away, travel and tourism, refugees and migrants, as well as “questions of travel” in the virtual world, charting the rapid changes in electronic communication that mark our lives today. She brings these large questions close-up and personal with her witty and poignant observations and her vivid language. Her novel is about keeping balance in a speeding, spinning world.

Michelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka and emigrated to Australia when she was 14. She was educated in Melbourne and Paris and has worked as an academic, an editor and a book reviewer. She has written three previous novels: The Rose Grower; The Hamilton Case; and The Lost Dog, which won Book of the Year at the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and was longlisted for the 2008 Orange Prize for Fiction and the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

Neville was joined on the judging panel by Murray Waldren, journalist at The Australian newspaper; Anna Low, a Sydney bookseller; Craig Munro, book historian and former editor at UQP; and Emeritus Professor Susan Sheridan.

The shortlisted titles

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This year’s miles franklin is all woman

Well this is curious. Women outnumbered men on the Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist by 4:1, and now the judges – for the first time in the Award’s 57-year history – have turned out a shortlist that is 100% female. The all-female shortlist comes less than two weeks after the inaugural Stella Prize of $50,000 for a book by a female Australian author was awarded to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds. The Stella, which retrieves the given-name Miles Franklin felt she needed to suppress in order to be taken seriously as a writer, was created in indignant response to the all-male shortlists the Franklin served up in 2009 and 2011.

milesWell this is curious. Women outnumbered men on the Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist by 4:1, and now the judges – for the first time in the Award’s 57-year history – have turned out a shortlist that is 100% female:

The all-female shortlist comes less than two weeks after the inaugural Stella Prize of $50,000 for a book by a female Australian author was awarded to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds.

The Stella, which retrieves the given-name Miles Franklin felt she needed to suppress in order to be taken seriously as a writer, was created in indignant response to the all-male shortlists the Franklin served up in 2009 and 2011.

But any point of distinction the Stella Prize sought to make has not eventuated. In fact the 2013 Stella and Franklin shortlists look remarkably similar.

Not only are both lists composed entirely of women, but Tiffany and de Krester appear on both. And while first-time novelist Romy Ash fell off the Stella shortlist, she has held her ground in the Miles Franklin.

But in what appears to be a blatant – but not unwelcome – effort to muscle its way back to Australia’s top dog literary prize, this year the Miles Franklin has increased its cash prize by $10,000 to $60,000.

And Miles Franklin shortlisted authors needn’t feel pressured to follow Carrie Tiffany’s generous lead in returning $10,000 of her Stella Prize win to share equally among her shortlisted comrades.

In another new initiative, Miles Franklin shortlisted authors will be awarded $5,000 in prize money by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, a long term partner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It’s a win-win situation, for Australian women authors at least.

Speaking on behalf of The Trust Company, which manages the estate of the late Miles Franklin, Simon Lewis congratulated all the shortlisted authors:

The shortlist demonstrates how strong Australia’s pipeline of female literary talent really is, as witnessed with last year’s Miles Franklin winner, Anna Funder, as well as by the growing number of first time female authors included in the long and shortlists in recent years.

“We look forward to announcing yet another outstanding Australian female literary talent on the 19 June as the 2013 Miles Franklin Award winner,” Mr Lewis said.

Since the Miles Franklin Award began in 1957, a woman has won only 14 times. This year the count creeps up to 15.

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Carrie tiffany wins a stella prize of her own

The Stella Prize, which comes with a whopping $50,000 purse, is Australia’s newest literary prize celebrating Australian women authors. Australia’s other “gendered” prizes for literature include The Kibble Literary Award ($30,000) for a fiction or nonfiction book by an established Australian woman writer; and The Dobbie Literary Award ($5,000) for a first published work by an Australian woman writer. Australian women writers are also eligible to enter Britain’s The Women’s Prize for Fiction (AU$45,000), awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English. It is not impossible that a first book by an Australian woman author could sweep all of these prizes in a literary superfecta amassing a tidy $130,000.

stella-logo-largeThe Stella Prize, which comes with a whopping $50,000 purse, is Australia’s newest literary prize celebrating Australian women authors. Australia’s other “gendered” prizes for literature include The Kibble Literary Award ($30,000) for a fiction or nonfiction book by an established Australian woman writer; and The Dobbie Literary Award ($5,000) for a first published work by an Australian woman writer. Australian women writers are also eligible to enter Britain’s The Women’s Prize for Fiction (£30,000/AU$45,000), awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English.

It is not impossible that a first book by an Australian woman author could sweep all of these prizes in a literary superfecta amassing a tidy $130,000. Which is exactly what Carrie Tiffany – who last night was awarded the inaugural Stella Prize for her novel, Mateship with Birds – looks set to do.

Of course Tiffany can’t win the Dobbie because Mateship with Birds is her second novel. But that shouldn’t worry her greatly, as she already won it in 2007 for her debut novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living.

In addition to last night’s win, Mateship with Birds is currently longlisted for the Kibble and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. And it might even pick up The Barbara Jefferis Award – a $35,000 prize for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society” – which is yet to release a shortlist.

It does’t end there. Mateship with Birds is also longlisted for Australia’s most prestigious literary award, The Miles Franklin, which fueled the gender debate when it served up all-male shortlists in 2009 and 2011. Perhaps in response to these criticisms, this year’s longlist sees the largest number of female authors selected since the longlist was first introduced in 2005.

Of winning the Stella Prize, Tiffany said: “It is astonishing and lovely to be the first recipient of this new prize. The Stella Prize is an opportunity to fete and honour writing by Australian women.

When I sit down to write I am anchored by all of the books I have read. My sentences would not have been possible without the sentences of Christina Stead, Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Beverley Farmer, Kate Grenville, Gillian Mears, Helen Garner and the many other fine Australian writers that I have read and continue to read.

At the award night, Tiffany announced that she wanted to donate $10,000 of the Stella prize money back to be split equally among the other five shortlistees:

  • The Burial by Courtney Collins (Allen & Unwin)
  • Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson (Five Islands Press)
  • Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy (Scribe Publications)
  • Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)

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May 15: montreal international poetry prize

Entries are now open for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. The winner of the prize will receive a cash prize of CA$20,000 (AU$19,000). The prize is open to original, unpublished poems up to 40 lines long. Entrants can be from anywhere in the world. Entries close 15 May 2013.

Entries are now open for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. The winner of the prize will receive a cash prize of CA$20,000 (approximately AU$19,000; US$19,500; or GBP £12,900). The prize is open to original, unpublished poems up to 40 lines long. Entrants can be from anywhere in the worldEntries close 15 May 2013.

Entries will be judged by the prize’s editorial board. A total of fifty poems will be selected for publication in the prize’s anthology. The judge for the 2013 prize is Scottish poet Don Paterson.

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Another Man Booker for Hilary Mantel

While the guests at the 2012 Man Booker Prize award ceremony dinner in London tucked-in to roasted leg of lamb, potato mille feuille, confit turnip and jugs of Madeira jus, I and book bloggers around the world sat with our blurry eyes glued to the @ManBookerPrize Twitter feed to be among the first to know this year’s winner of the world’s most anticipated literary prize. Shortly after 6 a.m. Australian time Sir Peter Stothard – Chair of the judging committee and editor of the Times Literary Supplement – raised his glass (as we lifted our coffee mugs) to toast the winner of the 44th Man Booker prize: Hilary Mantel for Bring Up the Bodies. Sir Peter said that the judges had made their final decision on Tuesday after a lengthy and forensic examination. The winning book is ‘a very remarkable piece of English prose’, he said, ‘that transcends the work already written by a great English prose writer.

While the guests at the 2012 Man Booker Prize award ceremony dinner in London tucked-in to roasted leg of lamb, potato mille feuille, confit turnip and jugs of Madeira jus, I and book bloggers around the world sat with our blurry eyes glued to the @ManBookerPrize Twitter feed to be among the first to know this year’s winner of the world’s most anticipated literary prize.

Shortly after 6 a.m. Australian time Sir Peter Stothard – Chair of the judging committee and editor of the Times Literary Supplement – raised his glass (as we lifted our coffee mugs) to toast the winner of the 44th Man Booker prize: Hilary Mantel for Bring Up the Bodies.

Sir Peter said that the judges had made their final decision on Tuesday after a lengthy and forensic examination. The winning book is ‘a very remarkable piece of English prose’, he said, ‘that transcends the work already written by a great English prose writer’.

Mantel has recast the most essential period of our modern English history. We have the greatest modern English prose writer reviving possibly one of the best known pieces of English history.

Bring Up the Bodies is the second instalment in Mantel’s historical trilogy, following Wolf Hall, which itself won a Booker in 2009.

‘Nobody, including me’, Mantel said, ‘expects a writer to do it twice. But it would not be human to not want to win’.

Mantel’s triumph makes her only the third person in history to win a double Booker and catapults her into the literary empyrean – along with Australian author Peter Carey, who lives in New York, and South African Nobel laureate, JM Coetzee, who lives in Australia.

But in the end Mantel’s win came down to firsts: she became the first British author to win the Booker twice; the first author to win Bookers for back-to-back books; the first author to win for a sequel; and the first woman author in history to win two Man Booker prizes.

Mantel told reporters that Bring Up the Bodies was ‘a more fully achieved book than Wolf Hall. Formally, it probably has the edge.’

At her win three years ago Mantel, 60, said she would be spending the £50,000 ($AU 78,000) prize money on ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’. Today she joked it would be spent on rehab. After a brief reappraisal she added: ‘my pension, probably’.

Mantel now faces the daunting task of completely the filnal instalment in the trilogy, to be called The Mirror and the Light, which will continue Cromwell’s story until his execution in 1540.

According to How to win the Booker prize, Will Self was best placed – statistically speaking – to take home this year’s prize for the bravura achievement of Umbrella. But luckily for him, Self didn’t really want to win.

‘Personally’, he said in the Huffington Post, ‘it means very little to me’ because, he admits, ‘I am a miserable person. And I can’t suspend disbelief in social constructs of any kind, as you might be able to tell from my fiction’.

Nevertheless, the boon to sales for a Man Booker winner is considerable. According to the BBC since 1996 every winning book has grossed more than $AU 1.5 million. Yan Martel’s Life of Pi, which won in 2002 and has since been made into a film directed by Ang Lee, made just under $AU 10 million. Last year’s winner, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, has sold more than 300,000 print editions in the UK alone.

According to the latest figures, Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies has sold more than a hundred-thousand copies, which is more than the other 11 Man Booker longlisted novels combined.

The 44th Man Booker shortlist comprised six authors: here are the other five:

Tan Twan EngThe Garden of Evening Mists
Deborah LevySwimming Home
Alison Moore, The Lighthouse
Will Self, Umbrella
Jeet ThayilNarcopolis

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New Queensland literary award

Campbell Newman might have hoped the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards were dead, buried and cremated: the allocated prize pool of $230,000 shared across 14 categories had been scratched from his budget and any mention of the awards, including past winners since 1999, was thoroughly wiped from his website. But miraculously – or rather due to the harnessed outrage and exhaustive efforts of volunteers from Queensland’s literary and arts community – a new suite of literary awards has arisen from the ashes without a skerrick of government funding, nor the Premier’s name in the title.

QLD-Literary-AwardsCampbell Newman might have hoped the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards were dead, buried and cremated: the allocated prize pool of $230,000 shared across 14 categories had been scratched from his budget and any mention of the awards, including past winners since 1999, was thoroughly wiped from his website.

But miraculously – or rather due to the harnessed outrage and exhaustive efforts of volunteers from Queensland’s literary and arts community – a new suite of literary awards has arisen from the ashes without a skerrick of government funding, nor the Premier’s name in the title. Short on lead time and with no funding in place, the group led by Matthew Condon, Krissy Kneen and Stuart Glover assembled in April to create a website and Facebook page which attracted more than 1000 fans in under a week.

The Copyright Agency Cultural Fund injected $20,000 into the kitty, and a fundraising campaign on www.pozible.com raised more than $30,000 for author prizes and associated costs. Avid Reader bookshop offered its premises to house and distribute the 600-plus book and manuscript submissions the campaign received.

The inaugural Queensland Literary Awards, announced last night in Brisbane, were described by Frank Moorhouse – winner of the QLA Fiction Book Award for his novel Cold Light – as “the noblest prize this year.”

“It has some cache because it’s a citizen’s prize,” he said, “not the Premier’s prize.”

Echoing sentiments expressed by Anna Funder in her Miles Franklin acceptance speech earlier this year, Moorhouse expounded: “Governments are not only there to legislate, but to affirm civilised values.”

But if citizens are going to have to fund it with two dollars here and five dollars there,” Moorhouse continued, “it is rather a shameful situation. It sends a very sad message to kids who want to get into the creative arts.

From a shortlist of 68 titles, the winners in each category of the Queensland Literary Awards received $1000, with Queensland novelist Simon Cleary, winner of the inaugural Courier-Mail’s People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year, snapping up $5,000 for his novel, Closer to Stone.

Premier Campbell Newman and Ros Bates, Minister for Science, IT, Innovation and the Arts, so far have not offered their congratulations.

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Powers we pretend to understand: funder’s all that I am

Review of All that I Am by Anna Funder

“When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.” The sentence shocks with its indulgence – the bather’s husband is in the kitchen crushing limes for mojitos – as it conjures the vulnerability of naked flesh against the army of jackboots that are about to descend upon Europe. It also happens to be the first sentence of Anna Funder’s debut novel, All That I Am, which has had a busy time of late garnering literary awards and accolades. In addition to winning the Indie Book of the Year award, the Australian Book Industry Book of the Year, and the $35,000 Barbara Jefferis Award, it has been shortlisted for the $80,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for fiction.

ImageGen.ashx“When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.” The sentence shocks with its indulgence – the bather’s husband is in the kitchen crushing limes for mojitos – as it conjures the vulnerability of naked flesh against the army of jackboots that are about to descend upon Europe.

It also happens to be the first sentence of Anna Funder’s debut novel, All That I Am, which has had a busy time of late garnering literary awards and accolades. In addition to winning the Indie Book of the Year award, the Australian Book Industry Book of the Year, and the $35,000 Barbara Jefferis Award, it has been shortlisted for the $80,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for fiction.

All of which has fuelled speculation that All That I Am is a front-runner for this year’s Miles Franklin Award, which will be announced on Wednesday night in Brisbane.

Funder’s novel follows her impressive non-fiction title, Stasiland: Stories Behind the Berlin War, which presented first-hand accounts of life in the former German Democratic Republic. Whereas in Stasiland, Funder focused on post-war Germany, in All That I Am she has turned her attention to the decade preceding the war when Europe resolved – as left-wing German playwright Ernst Toller put it – “to hurl herself into the abyss of suicide”.

The narrative centres on a coterie of German dissidents – cousins, Ruth Becker and Dora Fabian, and their respective lovers, Hans Wesemann and Ernst Toller – whose political agitating against Hitler and his Third Reich necessitated their hasty departure from Germany and their subsequent resettlement in London as refugees.

The persecution the exiles suffer unfortunately doesn’t stop at the Channel, and their story builds to a harrowing – and tragic – denouement.

Funder came to the story through her friendship with Ruth Blatt, the novel’s dedicatee whose extraordinary life inspired the character of Ruth Becker.

Ruth – the sole survivor of the group – spent five years in solitary confinement in a German prison before securing her passage to Australia (via Shanghai) in 1947. She lived the next fifty years of her life alone in a flat in Bondi Junction. Funder has said:

In conversation, Ruth would move from criticising Hitler to criticising our own government at the time, in a way that made it clear that when you are living through something, there are some people who can see things for what they are (whether that’s dire, or just moderately unpalatable), and will always speak out. It is this kind of courage that fascinated me, along with the moral compass that underlies it.

All That I Am is a novel that questions the ubiquity of the human conscience, yet it insists on its cultivation. We ignore our conscience – or allow its distortion – at our peril. History shows that the consequences can be mighty.

As WH Auden (who makes a cameo appearance in Funder’s novel) writes in his poem, “In Memory of Ernst Toller”: 

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our lives; it is they who direct us at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our own hand.

It’s true All That I Am is a dark novel, but as history and a warning there aren’t many more important.

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XX chromosomes returned to the Miles Franklin

439628-anna-funderJust because it’s the debate we had to have, didn’t mean it wasn’t going to hurt.

The fracas began in 2011 when the Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, unveiled its all-male shortlist.

The gender imbalance might have gone unnoticed, if it hadn’t coincided with the latest VIDA research that revealed an alarming under-representation of female authors and critics in international literary pages.

Back in Australia, female authors were horrified to find VIDA’s inequities replicated in Australian publications. In sharp response, Sophie Cunningham and a handful of writers, publishers and commentators decided to do something about the lack of profile accorded female authors.

The result is a $50,000 literary prize for a book in any genre by a female Australian author: The Stella Prize. The eponymous award retrieves the given-name Miles Franklin believed she needed to suppress in order to be taken seriously as a writer.

Forwarding a year, Professor Gillian Whitlock announced, at the Mitchell Library in Sydney today, a very different Miles Franklin shortlist for 2012:

Speaking on behalf of the judging panel, Whitlock framed the shortlist in terms experience rather than gender: “The breadth of the shortlist includes well-known and loved Australian authors, as well as featuring two wonderful first-time novelists.”

She also highlighted the power of historical fiction (Funder and Moore) and an observable turn to trauma narratives and childhood (Birch, Mears and Parrett).

Debates on gender – along with the concurrent debate on the invisibility of Australian literature – are useful and will lead to greater understanding of our literary milieu. But it would be a travesty if these conversations were to throw doubt over the merits of the female authors shortlisted amid the uproar.

Frank Moorhouse is the heavy hitter on the list, but from what I hear the contest is still very much alive. The winner will be announced in a ceremony at the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane on 20 June.

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The Vogel: what’s age got to do with it?

Most writers will admit they’d never get anything done without the pressure of a good deadline. And for unpublished writers there’s no bigger deadline on the Australian publishing calendar than that of the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. To be clear, the big day is not the June deadline when the call for entries closes each year, but the deadline that comes only once in a lifetime on the eve of a writer’s 35th birthday. As the clock strikes midnight on this inauspicious day, unpublished writers graduate from “young and unpublished” to officially “old and unpublished”. At least that’s the message the Vogel Award – which comes with $20,000 and a publishing contract with Allen & Unwin – delivers when it bars writers 35 and up from entering the competition.

4857101224_614d21aecdMost writers will admit they’d never get anything done without the pressure of a good deadline. And for unpublished writers there’s no bigger deadline on the Australian publishing calendar than that of the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award.

To be clear, the big day is not the June deadline when the call for entries closes each year, but the deadline that comes only once in a lifetime on the eve of a writer’s 35th birthday.

As the clock strikes midnight on this inauspicious day, unpublished writers graduate from “young and unpublished” to officially “old and unpublished”.

At least that’s the message the Vogel Award – which comes with $20,000 and a publishing contract with Allen & Unwin – delivers when it bars writers 35 and up from entering the competition.

Happily that’s not something Paul D. Carter needs to worry about now that John Birmingham has declared Carter’s novel, Eleven Seasons, this year’s Vogel winner. Although at 32 years of age, he must have felt his “authorial clock” ticking.

Fortunately an author’s clock is a social contruction, not a deadline set in DNA. Literature is one of the few arts in which its practitioners regularly improve with age, and it’s also one of the few to permit a late beginning.

Annie Proulx – of Shipping News fame – was 57 when her first novel, Postcards, came out in 1992. Frank McCourt didn’t publish his first book, Angela’s Ashes, until he was 66. David Malouf was 44 when Johnno appeared in 1975, although he was a published poet by that time.

Other late bloomers include Anthony Burgess, 39, for Time for a Tiger (A Clockwork Orange appeared when he was 45); William Burroughs, 39, for Junky; and Henry Miller, 44, for Tropic of Cancer. Raymond Chandler published his first novel, The Big Sleep, at 51 years of age.

And so the list of great authors who would have been unable to satisfy the Vogel’s eligibility requirements (era and citizenship notwithstanding) goes on.

To be fair, a good number of Australia’s leading novelists did manage to meet the deadline and kick-start their career with a Vogel win: Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Mandy Sayer, Andrew McGahan, to name just a few.

And two of Australia’s greatest novelists, Patrick White and Christina Stead, both would have been contenders for a Vogel win (had it existed in their time), with their first novels appearing at ages 27 and 32 respectively.

The problem with the Vogel age-limit is not that it’s ageist, but that it’s arbitrary. And that’s what makes it meaningless.

Why 35? The cut-off in the early years of the award was 30, but it was raised in 1982, presumably to attract better quality entries. But why didn’t the executors raise the cut-off to, say, 34 years?

Or perhaps 36 so that this year’s shortlisted writer, Clare Carlin – who has since turned 35 – could have been eligible to enter in 2013. A manuscript, if it’s any good, doesn’t it become irrelevant overnight.

The Vogel is the 1980 brainchild of Niels Stevns, the owner of Vogel’s Bread in Australia, who had a passion for literature. Since he put up the idea and the money, he rightly got to decide the rules.

(Conceivably a benefactor could establish an award for writers whose last names start with F, and if it’s not our money at stake we’d all have to live with the idiosyncrasy.)

But if the intent behind the Vogel is to grant aspiring authors entry into the publishing industry, then a 51-year-old writer (the age of the Marquis de Sade when he published his infamous first novel, Justine) is just as in need of assistance as a 31-year-old.

The rules of the Vogel have changed over the years: due dates, prize money, number of judges, publishing schedules and so on. Why not keep spirit of the prize by retaining the criterion that a writer be unpublished, but cross out the barrier of age?

There’s a famous anecdote – possibly apocryphal – that has Canadian author Margaret Atwood at a cocktail party. A brain surgeon tells her he’s going to write a novel when he retires.

“That’s interesting,” Atwood is purported to say, “when I retire I’m going to take up brain surgery.”

Atwood’s point is that writing a novel is a specialty art that requires skill and years of training to perfect. Good novels rarely just appear but are earned by hard work over a long period of time.

But what the anecdote fails to acknowledge is that most of us are more skilled with a keyboard than a scalpel – and a good story can be told at any age.

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An assembly of poets

Review of Australian poetry titles in 2009

The Mary Gilmore Prize is for a first book of poetry. This year there were 39 entries: 33 of them were authored by women. The short list of five, perhaps not surprisingly given the odds, is made up entirely of women: Emily Ballou for The Darwin Poems (UWA 2009), Helen Hagemann for Evangelyne and Other Poems (APC 2009), Sarah Holland-Batt for Aria (UQP 2008), Emma Jones for The Striped World (Faber & Faber 2009), and Joanna Preston for The Summer King (Otago UP 2009). At the time of writing, the winner of the Mary Gilmore Prize has not yet been announced; however, several of these titles have already won national (and, in Jones’s case, international) prizes, in some cases in competition against highly esteemed and established poets.

stamp_mary_gilmoreThe Mary Gilmore Prize is for a first book of poetry. This year there were 39 entries: 33 of them were authored by women. The short list of five, perhaps not surprisingly given the odds, is made up entirely of women: Emily Ballou for The Darwin Poems (UWA 2009), Helen Hagemann for Evangelyne and Other Poems (APC 2009), Sarah Holland-Batt for Aria (UQP 2008), Emma Jones for The Striped World (Faber & Faber 2009), and Joanna Preston for The Summer King (Otago UP 2009).

At the time of writing, the winner of the Mary Gilmore Prize has not yet been announced; however, several of these titles  have already won national (and, in Jones’s case, international) prizes, in some cases in competition against highly esteemed and established poets. Unfortunately, these particular books were published just prior to the catchment for this review so I was not afforded the pleasure of reviewing them here. But I bring up the Gilmore shortlist in any case because I think it best illustrates a point that poetry critics and reviewers have been making for some time now: the most exciting poetry in Australia seems to be found, very often, in first books by young female poets.

The emphasis on female authors, it’s worth adding, has become evident not just in poetry publishing in Australia but also overseas and in other genres. In 2009 all eyes were on the women who swept the heavyweight international literary awards: the Nobel Prize in Literature went to German author Herta Müller who, the Swedish judges said, “with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed”; the Man Booker went to Hilary Mantel for her novel Wolf Hall; the International Man Booker went to Alice Murno for Too Much Happiness; and Elizabeth Strout won a Pulitzer for her short story collection, Olive Kitteridge. Is it an accident they were all women; stacked judging panels; a mini-trend? Or are the tides turning?

Back home in Australia, similar questions were being posed in poetry circles. Reviews that commented on the predominance of young female talent among poets left some of the authors in question feeling not so much flattered as wondering – in conversation and in blogs – why they were being singled out as female: they preferred, some of them said, to be judged – and categorised if they must be categorised – based on some quality of their writing, not on the particular pairing of their chromosomes. It’s not that it isn’t interesting to think about the poet’s sex (and for that matter his or her gender and sexuality), they argued, but only if such interrogations yield interesting results pertinent to their work. Many of the same poets deemed that this clumping, as they saw it, did not. As might be expected, however, some bloggers (some of whom were poets, some critics)  accused them of being overly sensitive: the “young female poets” were being complimented, not being thrown into a now non-existent gender ghetto. Then one anonymous blogger – a male? – smirked: “I’ve heard them referred to as the Ladies of the Lyric”. The condescension was as loud as the phrase is alliterative, and the sexist cat – to stretch the ghetto metaphor – was out of the bag and running down an alley.

This review is not the appropriate forum for interrogating lyricism, nor its alleged linkage to female poets. There are too many books that need attention to waste space theorising. But some of these observations – and objections – were foremost in my mind as I surveyed a year’s worth of poetry books sent to me for review. Having read the books on offer, and thought about them, I feel safe to dismiss the gender question as not particularly pertinent this year. And I would dismiss it immediately if it weren’t for the presence of a very striking book in this catchment that happens to be yet another first (full length) book by an Australian female poet: Ghostly Subjects (Salt 2009) by Maria Takolander. It’s also one of the darkest books on offer.

Takolander’s poems are ruinous, diabolical, all the more so for their polish and precision. Here, as in Baudelaire, beauty is inextricably linked with evil: it’s “the dark italics”, as Wallace Stevens phrased it, that compels the poetic imagination in these poems. Not surprisingly, it’s often night-time in a Takolander poem: night is “the dangerous time”, the speaker says in “Drunk”, adding “anything goes when the light goes.” In “Pillowtalk”, a devastating poem in which innuendo lingers like poison, “There is no rest. / Nights are for unreason.” It opens with a stunningly precise if ominous image:

Inside the bedside drawer,
The knife blade empties
Like an unwatched mirror
At night.

The child-speaker’s psychological “bed was made” by whatever happened to her during those long, black hours. We’re not told exactly what did happen – some words should never see the flood of day – though the father’s rifle leaning behind two old coats does lend itself to a Freudian interpretation. The poem closes with the speaker’s troubling confession that she hides bullets in her mouth – her invocation as a poet? – and grinds them down like candy. Almost all the poems in Ghostly Subjects are similarly menacing, but they’re also stylish and very smart. Don’t be surprised if they take up residence in your body after reading them, like “a tree full of vultures … / hulking like souls” (“Tableaux”) – it’s just that kind of book.

This year’s catchment, in contrast to the previous year, contained few first-time authors but instead saw a number of fine books by Australia’s senior poets. In Les Murray’s Taller When Prone (Black Inc 2010) the poems, as seen in his last few books, are shorter than in his early work, and so is his line. His thinking seems tidier than before, the breathing more relaxed, but this new collection nevertheless showcases Murray’s trademark sally and satire, along with the whimsicality and wisecracking wordplay that safeguards his rank as one of the best poets writing in English. The title of the collection comes from the poem “The Conversations”: “A full moon always rises at sunset / and a person is taller when prone”. As depicted on the cover, these seemingly paradoxical lines are resolved in the image of a man’s late-day shadow stretching into a paper-thin giant. But as often is the case with Murray it is also a pean to the imagination, the idea that a person is more than himself when asleep and dreaming: “a person is taller at night”, the speaker also asserts. Or it might also connote that a person reaches full stature only through the canonising processes afforded by death.

It struck me reading this book that it is haunted not only by Murray’s old foe, the black dog of melancholy, but also by the spectre of insanity. Like Lear – “O! let me not be mad,” cries the king – the speakers in Murray’s poem fear losing their mind. In fact King Lear is evoked in one of the most striking poems in the collection, “King Lear Had Alzheimer’s” – a poem that draws parallels between Cordelia’s disinheritance and, to read intertextually, that of his own father’s. The poem pushes a bleak, almost Hardyesque idea of fate and what it does to a human:

The great feral novel
every human is in
is ruthless.

Alzheimer’s appears again in the poem, “Nursing Home”. “Don’t outlive yourself”, it warns as the speaker recounts the losses and indignities of old age: “the end of gender / never a happy ender”. Then, proving he still can dance on bits of paper, Murray conjures “a lady” in a nursing home who has “who has distilled to love / beyond the fall of memory”:

She sits holding hands
with an ancient woman
who calls her brother and George
as bees summarise the garden.

“Summerise” is quintessential Murray. Sonorous, yes, but it’s also a pun on the season – “summer-ise” – at the same time granting bees the busy work of joining the dots in this bittersweet scene.

Bees bring to mind Dorothy Porter and her seventh and final collection of poetry, The Bee Hut (Black Inc 2009). Written in the last five years of her life, it was completed just before her death in December 2008. “The bee hut became a metaphor for these last years of [Porter’s] life”, Andrea Goldsmith writes in the Foreword: “she marvelled at the bees, as she had always marvelled at life, but she was also aware of the danger amid the sweetness and beauty”. In the titular poem, the speaker tells of a swarm of bees that has taken over an old shed:

I love the bee hut
on my friend Robert’s farm.
I love the invisible mystery
of its delicious industry.
But do I love the lesson
of my thralldom
to the sweet dark things
that can do me harm?

Even Porter’s love cannot forego awareness of the forces that hurt and destroy, even if she would have them subsumed within a celebratory synthesis. Like the Romantics who feature in a number of Porter’s poems – Keats, Byron – Porter is often at her finest when voicing contradictory surmises about the relationship between the imagination and the pressures of reality. As Keats did in “When I Have Fears”, Porter stared down her own death in her final poems. But unlike Keats, Porter stays wildly passionate – “exorbitantly flamboyant”, even, like the art deco buildings she sees through her window at the Mercy Private Hospital in Melbourne – until the end. Her last poem, “View from 417”, was written two weeks before she died. It’s impossible not to love the stubborn optimism of the collection’s last words:

something in me
despite everything
can’t believe my luck

In an earlier poem, “Early Morning at the Mercy”, the speaker, at 6 a.m. in the “cool-blue cool / of early morning”, lets her tea go cold and turns her mind to Gwen Harwood’s Bone Scan poems.  “How on earth she could write / so eloquently in hospital”, she wonders. The Bee Hut – poignant, powerful, spirited – has me asking the same question of Porter.

Speaking of luck, Catherine Bateson takes up the theme and spins it on her head in her poem “The Day Complains” from Marriage for Beginners (John Leonard Press 2009). Feeling distinctly unlucky – the speaker in the humorous if unlikely guise of “a day” – shows, as do many of Bateson’s poems, that poetry and comedy are good bedfellows. It begins:

Why can’t you take me as I am
the way I have to take you –
hungover and foul-mouthed
in your Cookie Monster pjs
last night’s argument with the ex
banging away in your head

“The Day” continues its admonishment of the poet-addressee and concludes with a king hit Dorothy Porter, for one, would love:

So roll over, close your eyes
and sleep me off.
I’ll go down to the nursing home
where they’re grateful just to see me.

Some say Tom Shapcott’s Parts of Us (UQP 2010), his fifteenth book of poems, is his best yet. An unflinching meditation on death, aging, and the unheralded losses that come with physical decline, it is at times painfully candid. In the sonnet “Miranda at Two”, just as the speaker’s young granddaughter is “tumbling toward speech” – learning that “sound is the conduit for all those urgent things inside” – the speaker finds  that his own capacity for language, or more accurately his capacity to sound language, is closing down around him:

my own tongue thickens and the muscles distort
language so that I hesitate to express myself and cannot
control articulation. Silence rather than speech
is my new mode.

The final couplet has Miranda laughing up at the silent poet and adopting as her own the poet’s task of naming; she addresses him – though we’re not told by what name – “with perfect symmetry”. Despite the isolating effect that the loss of speech has on a human life – which is of course the heart of this poem – it is difficult to discern self pity in these lines. Speech is to a poet what hearing is to a musician, and one imagines the loss should be more terrible than it is presented in this poem. But as a poet he is still able to write – and this he does exceptionally well – but more than this he can listen.

Hearing is a sense Shapcott revels in. Everywhere his love of classical music is evident, particularly in the first section of the book where poems about Stravinsky, Vivaldi, Schoenberg and other musicians abound. But in a startlingly beautiful and enigmatic poem called “Nocturne” it’s not humans who make music, but the “night’s full choir / of possibilities”.

Listen. The night is dark
though it’s amazing how much light
pretends otherwise – the stars
could be hidden by clouds but this
street and advertisement message
hoodwinks us into believing
our fate is otherwise.
We are alone.

The poet says he knows “the ultimate of silence” but still, he says, he “cannot believe silence / will truly happen to [him]”. Parts of Us tells us it won’t.

With Judith Beveridge’s unquestioned reputation as one of Australia’s most highly regarded poets, even knowing her work well it comes as a shock that Storm and Honey (Giramondo 2009) is only her fourth collection of poems. But those who know poetry know that quality and quantity are not necessary apportioned in equal measure, as Elizabeth Bishop with her small handful of exquisite books illustrated so well. As Bishop sometimes did, Beveridge takes the ocean as her subject and makes it her element. Storm and Honey opens with a boy, or what was left with him, being pulled from the steaming gut of a shark, and it ends with a shark in “The Aquarium” that the speaker cannot forget:

how its eyes keep staring, colder than time – how it never
stops swimming,
how it never closes its mouth.

The shark, the ultimate predator whose open mouth causes “our hearts [to] burn inside us”, becomes a symbol of unceasing hunger, the cause of so much grief. It’s this philosophical dimension of Beveridge’s poems that gives them resonance beyond her capacity to carve an intricate image or to craft into language the sounds of the nature and the rhythms of work. Though it must be said that she does the latter exceedingly well.

Like Porter, Beveridge also has a poem about a bee hive – hers is in bushland, “in an old toppled red gum”:

Sometimes, I’ll picture that old fallen
red gum exhaling bees from the shaft of its cracked
trunk. I’ll picture my hand deep in the gum’s
center, warm with the running honey; the swarm
suddenly around my head like a toxic bloom,
and the noise, the noise in my ears – still wuthering.

These remain among the most intoxicating lines I have read in a long while. As with Murray’s “summarising” bees, Beveridge’s wuthering bees are evidence of her power as a poet to breathe life into forgotten words and show how their presence in our lexicon is earned, not as a luxury but as a   necessity that we may live life fully.

Similarly intoxicating, Sarah Day’s Grass Notes (Brandl & Schlesinger 2009) is, to adapt a phrase from her poem “Fungi”, a “beacon of freakish beauty”. The rapturous poem “Apples” opens with a couplet as majestic as any – “these apples have weathered / the rise and fall of civilisations” – and traces their cultural trajectory along the Silk Route to ancient Persia , branching into varieties “illustrous as any dynasty”, passing through art and religion and science to end again as themselves: “These half dozen apples on a plate – / currency of Everyman’s pleasure.

But not all her poems ride such heady top notes: Day is also a master of gravity. As seen in the quiet devastation of “Wombat” in which the speaker attempts to haul the bulk of a dead wombat – his head “big as a person’s”, his “grey palms big and soft as / a child’s” – off the road.

In the end, the only way to move his bulk
was to hook an arm under each of historical
and haul him like a dead man
off the yellow gravel across the ditch
and leave him on the grass bank
as if in deep repose.

The speaker projects the wombat’s slow decay as his body collapses from within and “recedes into two dimensions”:

An arrangement of bones upon the drying grass,
summer warming up his patch of earth;
the forest ravens jawing higher up the hill,
a magpie carolling each lightening morning
and skylarks overhead
rising on each ascending note.

It’s this kind of movement that gives, along with her many other staggeringly good poems, evidence for the claim on the back of the book”: Day is indeed one of the most considerable of modern Australian poets.

Ascending notes bring to mind Alan Gould’s twelfth book of poems: Folk Tunes (Salt 2009). The collection, filled with rhymes and rhythms that accord with its title, is filled with light: sometimes it glances off the beloved’s “head of silver curls” (“She Sings Him”); other times it glints from a juggler’s cleaver (“The Juggler and My Mother”). Music abounds but it’s when the darkness of satire enters the minds of these otherwise romping and playful poems that things turn operatic. As in the brilliant but biting “In Thought They Lived Like Russians”, which begins:

They stripped the furniture from their flat,
and put on gloves to pay the rent,
they scorned their freeholds in the fat
of middle class content.

The poem concludes, like a Russian novel, with a reconciling of opposing emotions, underscored by a dazzling enjambment that spins meaning on its head:

They were the fate within the novel
where joy and disenchantment join
at some not altogether sane
not altogether pain-
ful level.

Likewise Ross Bolleter celebrates, mourns, and charms in equal measures in Piano Hill (Fremantle Press 2009). Bolleter – a musician who runs tours at a ruined piano sanctuary in WA – possesses the whimsical ear of a composer, paired (not pared) with a mind ruthless as a zen scalpel. “Suite for Ruined Piano” is a knockout sequence that, as a whole, is an unapologetic ode to the piano. There’s a little bit of jazz in the dazzling “Everytime We Say Goodbye” – but it’s mostly about a Sudanese poet who, after sharing with the speaker a meal of “chili mutton rice and onion”, recites a poem in Arabic (translated by an English woman). But it’s what the Sudanese poet doesn’t say that gives the poem its crushing ending:

‘Memory’, says the poet, trying not to recall
waking with a gun in his face, soldiers
ripping the coverlets off his children –
who burrowed into their beds abandoning
their bodies like the remains of a feast
not worth touching.

Africa looms large in Marcelle Freiman’s White Lines (Vertical) (Hybrid 2010). “Mercy” is a powerful and moving portrait of a nurse in Johannesburg who each night “comes from Soweto / to the white suburbs” to look after the speaker’s father. The end is amazing:

When he died she walked
into our house with its candles,
her hips arthritic, bent with stroke, still massive:
round the family table, she held our hands, opened her Bible
closed her eyes, and sang,
her voice like a bell –
you could feel God at her shoulder,
waiting over the horizon.

While some poets stare into darkness for inspiration, Andrew Taylor looks into the light. The Unhaunting (Salt 2009) is Taylor’s fifteenth book of poems – his first since confronting a severe illness in 2003 – is brilliant. The collection takes as its title, and overarching theme, the idea that ghosts are real and live among us – not as spirits but as fellow humans, whose torment is our haunting. Death is their – and our – only release.

Taylor plays with the idea in “The Carillon Clock”, a gorgeous poem in which time haunts literally and figuratively. It describes an old pendulum clock that came from France, “possibly in the time / of the Second Empire” but which “neither trilled nor peeled / … rather it breathed”. One night the speaker in his insomnia – “already awake” – hears the clock “in barely audible words” offer up its final wisdom before settling into silence forever:

And to you –
my lonely listener – I say, try to live
beyond time, in that dimension
no one can measure. Then the voice fell silent
and for many years the clock stayed
hanging on the wall. Probably
its outline is still there on the plaster.

You can feel, in this collection, Taylor getting closer and closer to the things he wants to say in his vocation as a poet. In “The Impossible Poem”, the final poem that serves as a coda of sorts for the collection, the poet – or “lonely listener” – conjectures:

There are only two poems –
the one you write
and the one always undoing
your words

As you get older, he continues, the latter, that impossible poem, “stretches its fingers toward you” and you can maybe, just, feel what that poem might actually be:

as Adam might have felt it
when God reached across the Sistine ceiling
toward his touch.

In this impossible poem, all things – a warm stone, a stranger’s smile – become a word or a phrase, a kind of living language we can learn to appreciate even when we can’t quite fully comprehend it.

In Gillian Telford’s Moments of Perfect Poise (Ginninderra Press 2008) the poem “Hunted” is a standout. Taking up an activity dear to the heart of Dorothy Porter – driving fast, that is – the speaker is “alone / late at night” with a pack of of cars close behind and “coming closer”: and that’s when you know, the poems ends shifting gears into metaphor, “how it is / for a gazelle / losing ground”. There’s a sense of urgency, too, in Susan Hawthorne’s Earth’s Breath (Spinifex 2009), which takes  cyclones –  local and mythical – as its subject. Perhaps one of the most haunting poems in the collection is “Storm Birds”, which opens with the image of storm birds at rest, looking like “a boat stranded in a tree / in flight a crucifix”. In part two of this poem:

Curlews are calling
presaging wind wail out of stillness.
Silent for weeks
their cry is an agony
the keening wind of dispossessed souls.

With Birds in Mind (Wombat 2009), Andrew Landsdown joins Judith Wright and Robert Adamson, among others, in dedicating a whole book largely to poetic birds. But it’s as much a book about the imagination and memory as it is about animals: “Now they’re gone I see them / again”, the speaker says in “Kangaroo Crossing” – “kangaroos bounding / through the troubled water // and a heron flying up”. Birds abound – cockatoos, corellas, pelicans – in unexpected water in Mark O’Connor’s Pilbara (John Leonard Press 2009). Meanwhile Vivienne Glance goes underwater in her collection of luscious and imagistic poems, The Softness of Water (Sunline 2009), as best seen in the end of “Desire”:

A golden fish
brushes her leg
slips into the folds
of her floating dress.

By contrast Nathan Shepherdson, enigmatic poet that he is, sometimes seems more concerned with unseeing than seeing in his second book, Apples with Human Skin (UQP 2009). Poems for Shepherdson are not images, nor are they answers, nor even questions: they are simply possibilities and alternatives. Like a zen koan, a Shepherdson poem can be pondered for months or it can be grasped in a flash – there’s no telling when it will release its ore. The idea, the axiom, the paradox is paramount in his work, as asserted in section “5” of “the easiest way to open the door is to turn the handle” – a long but straightforward title for a poem whose numerical sections run, quite naturally, backwards:

The idea of a wall
is defeated when the wall is built
tearing it down does not defeat the idea of tearing it down

Perhaps the most handsome books in the catchment are the signed and limited-edition chapbooks produced by Whitmore Press. Barry Hill’s Four Lines East (Whitmore 2009) –  rife with the “incessant vigor of thought” – is a small book intent on interrogating big realities. Hill is not afraid of abstractions – “no self no soul no being no life” – but he always drags them down to earth, as in the gorgeous poem “Noodles” that succeeds in shattering such concepts with its final image:

In a blue sweater, pants maroon
like Tibetan robes
the man stands with a golden net
hauling it up like noodles.

Also from Whitmore Press’s chapbook series, The Pallbearer’s Garden (2008) by A. Frances Johnson is, to use the words describing her Auntie’s garden, “caught by wind / and singed by fire” (“Floracide”). Each poem is a “repeatable beauty”, even when the poet is in the midst of grief and horror. The heavyhearted poem “Pallbearer” ends with unexpected levity: “I lift, helft and hold – shore up / howling lightness, lifting”. Then there’s Brendan Ryan’s Tight Circle (Whitmore 2008) which, though a compact chapbook, carries the weight of a full-length collection. The collection is named for a devastatingly good poem the centres on an uncle’s burial: the undertakers ask the family “made straggly with grief” and who “need distance from the hole” to form a tight circle around the grave. They “mutter / through the Lord’s Prayer” as the farmer-undertakers “lower [the] uncle into darkness”. The poem ends with a portrait of the speaker’s father (the dead man’s brother) that proves that life moves in concentric circles:

Burying has aged my father
softened his handshake.
He wakes in the night to exercise his new replacement knee.
Each afternoon he leans against the front fence
with his crutches talking to anybody who’ll stop;
he has to know what’s going on,
and when he’ll be allowed to drive out to the farm
to see the cows
bunched up in the yard
in a tight circle.

Sadly,  there are two posthumous books – in addition to Dorothy Porter’s discussed earlier – in this year’s catchment: la, la, la (Five Islands 2009) by Tatjana Lukic and Beautiful Waste (Fremantle Press 2009) by David McComb of the post-punk band, The Triffids. Although she published four books of poems in her homeland, the former Yugoslavia, la, la, la is Lukic’s first collection of poems in English since she migrated to Australia in 1992. The title poem appears to be a conversation, perhaps by telephone, in which she assures a worried querent that, no, she was “not in the square when a grenade hit”; nor was she “forced from her home” nor taken to “the camp”. But she did see “corpses floating along the river” and “someone changed the locks and lay in [her] bed”. “Yes”, she admits, she “remembers everything” but, like survivors who want to survive must, she tucks the memories in a place in her mind where the trauma cannot hurt her:

the whole day
what did I sing?
about a cloud and a bird
a wish and a star,
la la la,
yes, nothing else

The speaker’s levity may not convince, but the psychological realism is chilling. Lukic writes of her war-torn homeland with such directness that even when she turns her attention to her new life in the sleepy Canberra suburbs, the scarring – darkened by the contrast – still shines through. Lukic  died of cancer in 2009.

Many of the poems in McComb’s book (written over the course of his short life) hold a fascination with mirrors: doubling is everywhere. It is as if speaker can’t quite hold himself together in a single psychology. In “You’re My Double” the speaker is scared to sleep by the mirror; in “You My Second Skin” the speaker wants to “peel you off me”; and a quatrain called “Nature’s Warning” has the poet driving through the mist of Northern England imagining his “belated and her substitute” for him, lying in “a double bed somewhere, kissing”. If you like Leonard Cohen’s music you’ll enjoy Beautiful Waste. The two lyricists share an aesthetic that embraces the ceremonies of suffering, finding great beauty in trauma and addiction, full release only in brokenness. In “Ode to January 1989”, McComb writes that “everything sins, suffers, grows”.

Which brings to mind the closing lines of the first poem in Chris Mansell’s sixth book, Letters (Kardoorair 2009), which puts the reader by the Mediterranean Sea, drinking “thick, sweet coffee” and thinking of those “who have gone before”. Then the poem would have you “visit Cavafy’s house / and think”:

why poetry is filled to the heart
with humanity and this grief
shall be long and strong
and you will weep
one more time and the world
will be laughably fresh
as it has been
this old world
all along.

Originally published in Westerly 55.1 (July 2010): 21–38.