TEXT review

‘You can not hide what is in your bones’

review by Helen Gildfind


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Southerly: The Naked Writer
David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (eds)
Volume 73, Number 3
The Journal of the English Association
Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney 2013
ISBN 9781921556692
Pb 272pp AUD29.95


In typical Southerly style, The Naked Writer draws together excellent essays, poetry, reviews and fiction into one dense and sophisticated edition. As David Brooks explains in his editorial, this issue is loosely themed around the ‘nakedness’ of writers, from their moral and metaphoric nakedness, to their literary acts of allusion, exposure, dissection and exhumation (6-7).

Throughout the journal, over a dozen poems break up the analytic density of essayistic discussion with a diverse range of original voices. The editors have allowed room for compelling poetic sequences like Tracy Ryan’s ‘Hoard’ poems, Paul Summers’ ‘the blade & the lamb’, and Jacob Ziguras’ award winning extended poem ‘Vanity Fair’. Roo Stove’s poem ‘Panel II: Three Steps’ is a particularly striking work, born from the poet’s response to Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes 1611-12. Its bare simplicity evokes a truly empathetic engagement with the blunt physical and psychological traumas associated with this painting and its painter. The poem’s abrupt lines seem to stab angry accusation at all those who, throughout time, have neither cared about, nor comprehended, the life-wounding harm they’ve done to others:

When I was five I was raped and set alight,
I did not feel it for years and I felt nothing but it forever.
Some get away with murder.

He did.
I am not the me I began as.
She is dead.


I am not the me I began as.
I am the damage. (227)

The haunting universality of Stove’s poem immediately made me think of the stories of sadism and injustice that are currently coming out of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

This collection’s fiction includes Meredith Downes’ ‘Anatomically Correct’, a story which exposes the intimacies of a medical student’s misogynistic humiliation by her professional superiors as she learns her trade through dissection:

They do not give me male cadavers. I am too delicate and my audience, too eager. Driven to distraction, if I say the word scrotum, if I handle a penis. I push back folds of flesh that could have been my own. (114)

Downes’ story, from which this review’s title derives (114), is as much poem as prose, each word bearing the weight of its careful selection, allowing the narrator to immerse us in her self-dividing struggle to find her way in a world that seems choreographed by and for men:

I build walls of books. They are my first line of defence. Fact is sharper than any blade. Life can be reduced to parts unseen. Even man can be measured. (114)

Nike Sulway’s story, ‘The Lost Man’, is also located in the impersonal/too personal world of medicine and memory, while Tessa Lunney’s ‘The Mare’ offers a timely, nightmarish and humanising evocation of a nameless refugee’s struggle to survive a terrifyingly indifferent, war-wrecked world. John A Scott’s extended, closely observed, and masterfully paced experimental text, ‘André Breton in Melbourne’, really begs for a review of its own.

The essays in this collection are of an extremely high standard. Three writers look at representations of homosexual/homosocial desire and relationships in literature. Ann-Marie Priest sensitively explores Gwen Harwood’s poetry about her mentor and friend Vera Cottew. Priest argues that these poems are ‘transgressive’ (27) for they allowed Harwood to begin a new literary tradition which reified – but refused to classify – female love and friendship. Robert Darby offers a close and sensitive reading of Martin Boyd’s Scandal of Spring, focussing on themes typically neglected by other critics, whilst Peter Mitchell discusses Gary Dunne’s fiction and its determined foregrounding of gay male perspectives on the ‘changing historical effects’ of HIV/AIDS in Sydney in the 1980s (228).

Other essays include Michael Buhagiar’s discussion of AC Swinburne’s influence on Christopher Brennan, Alex Miller’s anecdotal account of his ‘most magically trusting epistolary friendship’ (17) with the ‘bewilderingly fine’ biographer Hazel Rowley (15), and Michelle Borzi’s retrospective on the ‘imprecise deist’ (122) Chris Wallace-Crabbe. One of the best essays I have read in a long time is Scott Esposito’s exquisitely crafted and sincerely felt discussion of JM Coetzee’s literary wrestlings with ‘the horrors of existential meaninglessness’ (96). Esposito argues that Coetzee’s work tries to reshape the modernist legacy of doubt into something that speaks to today when the ‘tragedy of a life free from meaning is no longer dreadful – it is just another thing … a complacent familiarity with the unspeakable’ (97-98). The love and respect that drive these essayists’ work models critical reading and writing at its very best. As Esposito states: ‘In literature we live our narratives in someone else’s fictions … authors like Coetzee momentarily let our hands grasp others’ (110). Likewise, great essayists help us find the hands that might help us the most.

The rest of this edition includes thoughtful book reviews on Melissa Lucashenko, John Kinsella and Pam Brown, plus two more thematically tangential essays that have clearly been included for their quality and originality. Ellin Williams offers a historical and mythical history of the Jenolan Caves, and uses personal narrative to evoke the timeless human experience of the cave’s suffocating ‘true dark’ (207). Rowena Lennox explores the mythical, fictional and factual narratives which perpetuate or negate the bloody collisions between canine and human worlds. She effectively shows how the dingo/dogs’ fate is drastically determined by whether we see them as predating pests, or – as indigenous people do – ancestral ‘kin’. Lennox reminds us that the stories we write for, about and against voiceless others are stories that not only determine their fate but define our (in)humanity.

If you are in doubt as to the quality or relevance of Southerly check out their free online companion site, Long Paddock. Here you can read reviews, essays and poetry that may well convince you to support this journal by buying it, reading it and discussing it so its voices and visions are disseminated into in a world where the topical and shallow reign.



Helen Gildfind lives in Melbourne and has published reviews, essays, short stories and poetry in Australia and overseas. She is currently seeking publication for a collection of short stories she wrote with the aid of an Australia Council Grant. One of these stories, ‘Quarry’, will be published in Griffith Review Novella Project III.


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Vol 19 No 2 October 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste