TEXT review

Literary perspective: a writerly lens


reviews by Mary Pomfret


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Southerly: Lyre/Liar
David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (eds) 
Volume 73, Number 2
Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney 2013
ISBN 9781921556500
Pb 240pp AUD26.95

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Sight Lines
Kate Adams and others (eds)
UTS Writers’ Anthology
Xoum Publishing, Sydney 2014
ISBN 9781922057815
Pb 288pp AUD26.99


This themed issue of Southerly questions the innocence or otherwise of our writing positions and seeks to address ‘the moral responsibility of the writer’ (blurb) through interrogating’, ‘words as a life-giving or a life-taking tool’ and the act of ‘Writing as moral outlet’ (7). ‘Lyre/Liar’ is not an innocent title. The subtle play on words juxtaposes the deed of human mendacity with the image of the classical string instrument, the lyre. The title is also suggestive of the lyrebird, alluding to the concerns of this issue with the natural world.

Guest co-editor Teja B Pribac begins her editorial with a reference to the song of the nightingale. Pribac suggests that the human pursuit of writing is not always as self-aware as we would like to believe. ‘Like the nightingale’s song, poetry – and literature generally – is replete with nuances and implicit, disguised messages which are not always recognised by the author herself/himself’ (6). This issue of Southerly brings together poems, fiction, essays, articles and reviews which ‘explore some emerging ethical implications of writing, with a particular emphasis on nonhuman animals’ (7).

It is a difficult task to select and highlight certain poems over others. However, John Kinsella’s ‘Mouse ‘Plague’ Cycle’ with its accompanying notes expresses how violence damages and hurts both the wrongdoer and the victim. He writes:

We were trained to kill mice by the bucket-load, using lengths of poly-pipe to ‘whack them.’ The only thing that ended the plague was the mice themselves, self-destructing. The violence we meted out didn’t even reduce the impact: rather, we killed and hurt without achieving the purported goal, and the damage was also to ourselves. (123)

The poem asks, ‘How far into our heads have the mice burrowed? / Do we carry them inside out with us everywhere’ (130)? This suggests that cruelties committed remain forever in the psyche of the perpetrator.

Stuart Cooke’s poem ‘When Are You Coming Back’ pulses with a sense of loss and yearning. It suggests that ‘you’ are never coming back, and that damage of the natural world by humans can never be repaired: ‘You’ve flown away / into time’s smooth beak’; ‘I remain a tear trying to solve its own theorem’ (168). Christine Townsend’s poem ‘The Body on the Railway Line, Jaipur’ (11) compares two different forms of violence. A schoolboy is killed because ‘He was Muslim,’ Daya said. / ‘Hindu kills Muslim in these times’ (12). This simple statement suggests that the death of an innocent young boy whose ‘exercise books lay on the path/with a satchel’ (12) is justifiable on the grounds that a war exists between two religious groups. In an ironic contrast, ‘rescued cows’ are left to die because ‘It was forbidden to kill a cow’ (11).

David Brooks’ essay ‘The Fallacies: Theory, Saturation, Capitalism and the Animal’ suggests cryptically ‘in every poem, as in every human artefact, there is, inevitably, the trace of slaughter.’ Brooks considers that even the word ‘animals’ is ‘a conceptual violence, a means of shielding ourselves from what we like to think of as “them”’. Brooks writes that ‘much of our ontological distress’ stems from our denial of our own ‘animality’ and that daily we engage in ‘acts of cannibalism’ (47). Stevie’s thoughts in Kim Hunt’s story ‘Totaranui’ express a similar sentiment: ‘She didn’t understand how anyone could eat and kill an animal they acknowledged and interacted with each day; it seemed such a profound betrayal’ (19). Peter Downcy’s story, ‘These Lonely Hills’, recounts the intense feelings of sadness and loss which a man shares with his father at the death of their cattle dog.

I felt an overwhelming oneness with my father, the likes of which I had never felt before; yet at the same sad time, no part of me wished to approach that grievous creature. (44)

The story acknowledges the bonds connecting humans and animals, yet also suggests a realisation of the differences between them.


Sight Lines is a fitting title for the twenty-eighth UTS Writers’ Anthology, an annual production produced by the writing students at the University of Technology, Sydney. How you see things depends on your position, your vantage point, your point of view or line of sight. In the forward for this anthology, Hannah Kent writes that the collection features ‘thirty-one new ways of seeing the world’, different understandings of ‘displacement, of the frailty and poignancy of human connection’ and is a literary transportation ‘through time, ages, landscapes and cultures’ (viii). The anthology does not have a unifying theme, however there is a sense of cohesion throughout, in that all of these short works emanate from a singular viewpoint about a particular visceral situation.

In the opening story ‘The Ends of the Earth’, Mack is preparing for calamity and the possible end of civilization. He spends his days bottling peaches ready for the impending catastrophe he feels is looming, and when it comes, he has readied a shelter in a cave. His wife, Chantou, however, has in fact experienced cataclysmic events through a real war not just the fear of one. She tells him, ‘You have never been to war, Mack. You don’t know. Me? I know… War is not a hobby, Mack. It is not some stupid game’ (10).

In ‘Backslidden’ a woman empathises with the loss she imagines her birth mother would have encountered when she relinquished her at birth ‘into a stranger’s longing arms’ leaving her ‘with an empty womb and aching breasts’ (24). The woman’s relationship with her adoptive mother is somewhat fraught and appears to revolve around her adoptive mother’s religious convictions and needs. The daughter seems to yearn for her point of origin, her birth mother. When she takes up with a non-Christian man, her adoptive family are aghast. She reflects that her adoptive parents see her as ‘Backslidden … fallen away, turned back’ (29).  Yet, the term carries a dual meaning when is it used to describe how ‘when a calf is being born, it sometimes slides back into the womb of the mother’ (29).
In ‘Epiphany in Three Parts’, an art curator views the world through the prism of synaesthesia in which ‘the sensory connections are so interlinked that sometimes they don’t even know the rest of the world is bereft of them’ (60). The poem ‘synaesthesia’ uses this particular sensory phenomenon to frame the description of a death:

as you die, sounds become heavy, smooth and malleable
like wet sheets, or muscles. Maybe if I empty myself,
like pouring water from a jug, the light will never go
out, through many damnable people throw tears,
whole rivers, and their many, many sins like / grains of rice. (170)

The image of the pitting of cherries in which ‘it even hurts to scoop the seed / from the flesh, to separate the sour from the sweet’ (168) suggests the nature of death – the materiality of the body is cast off, leaving behind the source: the seed.
‘A Winter Solstice’ is an exploration of the loneliness that sometimes exists in a marriage. ‘… Joe pictured himself and Ellen moving on different planes, occupying the same house, but not at the same time’ (193). This story explores the separateness of the experience of two people in a relationship and the effects of compromise. At a dinner party, Joe enjoys the company and his wife Ellen does not. ‘For the first time since they had moved there hadn’t felt like a diluted version of himself’ (185). As well as loneliness, ‘Jealousy is a strange companion’ and perhaps no one person can totally meet the needs of another. Maybe it is this thought that occurs to Joe when he asks his wife, ‘…are you looking for something, Ellen?’ (196)

Alice finds a strange solace from her isolation and loneliness when she conducts her own private music show ‘The End of the World Radio Hour’ in the story of the same name. She plays records for people who are no longer there although it is not clear if the isolation Alice encounters is real or imagined. Is she really the last person left on earth or is this an illusory state of exile and isolation? ‘During the day she could admit she was alone. She could roam around town on her bike and be the queen of her castle. At night she needed to believe’ (225). In her private radio show Alice plays songs for people who have disappeared from her life for reasons she cannot fathom: ‘Aliens felt more rational than her other explanation’ that the ‘whole of the God-fearing town had been taken … leaving her – the heathen – behind’ (226).

The points of view presented in Sight Lines, though arguably not ‘new’, nevertheless offer a reminder of how individual our ways of ‘seeing the world’ really are.




Mary Pomfret is writing a creative PhD at La Trobe University, Bendigo. Her work has appeared in a variety of Australian and international journals. Ginninderra Press published her short form collections Writing in Virginia’s Shadow in 2012 and Cleaning out the Closet in 2014.


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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