TEXT review

A rich mélange

review by Eugen Bacon


Southerly: Forward Thinking: Utopia and Apocalypse
David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (eds)
Volume 74, Number 1
Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney 2014
ISBN 9781921556722
Pb 275pp AUD26.95


The Journal of the English Association flourishes still. Here its only failing, if one must be named, is that – for all talent spotting – its editors find need for an elaborate belaboured editorial, sombre as a eulogy. A vivacious rather than a disanimated synopsis would mirror the flamboyant cornucopia that makes Southerly: Forward Thinking: Utopia and Apocalypse a privileged read.

The title emphasises multiplicity: forward thinking, utopia, apocalypse. Forward thinking denotes time, the future. Bill Ashcroft in ‘The Horizon of the Future’ (12-35) addresses forward thinking well. He refers to a notion of ‘horizon’ in reference to literary texts. While a horizon confines our view of the earth or field of vision, it also gives us a ‘permanent sign of spatial possibility’ (20). Literary language is familiar with that which is near or far, that boundary of perception, the phenomenon of meaning and open possibilities relevant to the limits of own language (21). Utopia may be a place or a concept; in Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1994), utopia models a society, ‘a social commentary that presents communal cooperation as the truest human ideal’ (Strauss 2000). As for apocalypse, it is an event or a revelation, sometimes synonymous with holocaust, catastrophe or Armageddon.

The memoirs, only three, hold my attention. In Stephanie Bishop’s ‘Weatherman’ (167-181) we come together to scatter the ashes: his. The writing, in second person, invites the reader to such a personal space that you feel guilt for intruding. ‘P, his name was P’, I read, into the night, unspooked by the newly dead. The story is sad and dark and bright and poignant; filled with the vividness of new death, as when the little girl asks: ‘How do you talk to died people?’ (175). Liesl Nunns’ ‘And in our room too’ (130-141) is also vivid:

One night this winter, nature surprised me. Not like the halt, the gasp, when rounding the corner of a winding track in marble mountains to see a lushly forested sinkhole plunging to ancient memory and quiet. That sort of surprise is hoped for, photographed, recounted, marketed. (130)

Written with mastery, with assurance, Nunns speckles her memoir with stories within a story. What loveliness in words about something deadly. The dread, the thrill of knowing: ‘Our wooden houses perch on the sheer hills, ready to plunge’ (132). Rozanna Lilley’s ‘The Little Prince, and other vehicles’ (40-50), a story of rapport with cars, focuses on the character of dad, Merv, inflexible as he is likeable. Whether the story, befitting the past – a looking back – regards utopia as a time rather than a concept or a place, is unclear. The ending riddles in a present, and a future:

But, wherever we roam, I keep my eyes fixed firmly on the rear view mirror, just in case that belligerent bastard is still behind the wheel. (50)

Gretchen Shirm’s review of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Random House (236-241) attracts for its detail, interrogation, and insightful knowing of the character Dorrigo Evans. Enchanting prose describes the horror of the prisoner-of-war camp on the Thai-Burma railway, reminiscent of The Railway Man (Lomax 1996). Ali Jane Smith’s review of Jill Jones’ The Beautiful Anxiety (263-267), a riveting read, tells us about Jill Jones:

She is a walking poet, like Wordsworth, but she beats urban tracks: that exhilarating burst of gold is a dandelion, remember, not a daffodil. Her experience of cities, however, is always embodied, sensory, it is a human relationship with place, the city a crowded savannah… (264-265)

Smith describes the poet’s ‘delicious game of drawing tension into the relationship between sound and meaning’ (264) and her confidence to let ‘the reader finish the idea for themselves while she moves on to her next image’ (264).

The most difficult thing about the future is that it doesn’t exist (12): Bill Ashcroft’s ‘The Horizon of the Future’ is solemn yet aesthetic academic writing. He embraces with tenderness and gusto the forward thinking / utopian theme in a long enlightening narrative:

Our crystal ball gazing offers us a mirror to ourselves, yet in literature it is this ‘ourselves’, this present, to which the non-existent future constantly speaks. (12)

His article, containing Bloch, Husserl, Ricouer, Malouf, Latour, even Ueding, stands out as exemplary. Other contenders in the anthology are Robin Gerster’s walk on uranium street (55-69) and Lucy Sussex’s guide on apocalypse vs. utopia (90-97).

Sian Lu’s ‘The Canton of our subconscious choreography’ (75-89), a translation, is a satirical monologue that builds to a climax. The unreal city Port Man Tou, or its director, offers a story that is scandalous and hilarious; sombre in its lightness. Susan Midalia’s ‘The hook’ (199-212) is compelling, enticing in its detail; its fine imagery and characterisation. We discover departed Connor through Marina’s solo trip from Perth to Manhattan. It is a trip of rekindling after a personal apocalypse. The title is equivocal, and the writing itself uses unobtrusive trickery – linguistic flow, syntax, repetition – to imprint the narrative. Lucy Sussex’s ‘Apocalypse rules’ (98-102) connects to her article and is unconventional, almost incoherent; in its listing of the wiki hacker’s rules, it amuses.

Distinctive selections of poetry include: Ariel Riveros Pavez’s mathematically inclined poem ‘While I was here with you and living on the other side of the world’ (36-38); Bev Braune’s immortality story ‘Waiting my turn’ (39); and Mark Roberts’ walk through history in ‘museum’ (52-53). The pleasure to be gained from these pieces, for their sense or nonsense, is astonishing. There’s also Toby Fitch’s redacted poem ‘from Jerilderies’ (71-74) and Andy Jackson’s order and disorder in ‘Double-helix’ (127) – with its pattern of repetition.

In the Long Paddock – the online section of the journal – are four short stories, seven poems and five reviews with dirge, ghost-town and Armageddon themes: as Amanda Hickie warns in ‘Looting Lucy’s’: ‘You can’t wipe your bum with an iPad’. Shevaun Cooley’s poem ‘the bone the island’ is notable for its blackness, pathos and arrangement.

The Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘speculate’ as follows: ‘to indulge in conjectural thought’; ‘to engage in thought or reflection, or meditate’ (2009: 1582). This literary anthology invites or portrays speculation. While a single writer may address a single motif, the mélange as a whole speaks in many genres and multiplies possibilities. The reflexive space it opens is one in which you immerse yourself as a reader, without concern for time, space or event. The juxtaposition of forms does not create a transcendent unity. But the disunity is a creative one, a fresh one that approaches the heart of human nature from logic or illogic.


Works cited

Le Guin, UK 1994 The Dispossessed, Harper Voyager, New York return to text

Lomax, E 1996 The Railway Man, Vintage, New York return to text

Macquarie Dictionary 2009, 5th edn, Macquarie Dictionary Publishers, Sydney return to text

Strauss, V 2000 ‘The Dispossessed: Ursula K. Le Guin’, SF site: https://www.sfsite.com/01b/dis73.htm (accessed 3 October 2014) return to text




Eugen Bacon studied at Maritime Campus - Greenwich University, UK, less than two minutes’ walk from The Royal Observatory of the Greenwich Meridian. Her arty muse fostered itself within the baroque setting of the Old Royal Naval College, and Eugen found herself a computer graduate mentally re-engineered into creative writing. She is now a PhD candidate in Writing by artefact and exegesis at Swinburne University of Technology.


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Vol 18 No 2 October 2014
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews editor: Linda Weste