TEXT review

In times of war

review by Ruby Todd


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:75.3-cover.jpg
Southerly: War and Peace
David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (eds)
Volume 75, Number 3
Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney NSW 2015
ISBN 9781921556913
Pb 256pp AUD29.95


A rich and varied collection of work attends War and Peace, Southerly’s final issue of 2015, which marks the centenary of World War I. While the essays, memoir, short fiction and poetry of this collection are all connected broadly by the subject of war, the diversity of their themes and preoccupations speaks to the way that war touches everything in its movement through time and space.

The pervasiveness of this movement is evoked on both a structural and narrative level in Brook Emery’s poem, ‘The brown current’, in which languorous first-person references to contemporary coastal Sydney are interrupted by text fragments in third-person which detail a succession of human conflicts. These fragments, indented from the main text and centred, suggest the predictability and continuity of human war as a mobile force, which can be tracked from antiquity to the present through its impact on society and history. These fragments speak of the Third Punic War in the first century BC, the bloodbaths of frontier Australia, and the Rwandan massacres of 1994, and other conflicts. The final fragment, which references the attacks of September 11 and the consequent US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, acknowledges the contingency of the recent staged withdrawals: ‘We may soon be back’ (70).

As elsewhere in this issue, a tone of absurdity and stupefaction in contemplation of war, and its motivations and costs, runs through Emery’s poem. One fragment, detailing North American frontier conflicts ‘which cost the lives of 19,000 whites and 30,000 Indians’, concludes pointedly: ‘This was manifest destiny’ (64). The poem also conveys a pervasive sense of the hubris of warmongers: ‘One million people were killed at the sacking of Urgench. Ghengis [sic] Khan styled himself “the flail of god”’ (64); ‘Ten million died. Leopold never set foot in the Congo’ (65). At the same time, this poem speaks to the suspect nature of the historical record and the persistence of those who would collude in history’s inventions and elisions: ‘More than 20,000 Aboriginals may have perished [in Australia’s colonial wars] though pedants insist this number is a fabrication’ (64); ‘Officially [the Armenian genocide] never happened’ (66).

Emery’s recourse to numerical tallies in testifying to lives lost in war is echoed in the title of Anne M Carson’s poem, ‘Of the 2,700: one voice’. Carson’s poem narrates a cattle train journey of Holocaust survivors in a collective voice like a Greek chorus, thus lending immediacy and particularity to the vagueness and remove of recorded numbers: ‘when the cattle-truck train doors / are finally opened, light floods / in, dazing us’ (169). Another poem, Lorraine McGuigan’s ‘Questions’, attempts to approach the confounding emotional and political realities of suicide bombing by focusing on the singular figure of ‘a ten-year old with death under her robe’ who ‘split[s] in two’ (141) when the bomb she is wearing explodes.

Peter Dickinson’s short story, ‘Eye into Eye’, testifies at once to the resonance of wartime experience which bears on bodies and landscapes long after combat ends, and to the difficulty of recalling the individuality of those killed. The story narrates a soldier’s memories of a 1990 UN mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Gulf War, in which he witnessed at close range the fatal shooting of a Pakistani army official. In recalling the official’s death, the narrator observes that, ‘[t]hough the sound of this shot will chase me through time’, inevitably ‘[t]he span of years will serve to erase this individual. He will fade into something seen at a distance, something remote that cannot touch me: a head in a mirage’ (73). The above admission underscores how the lived experience of war is subject to the elisions of memory, which over time enacts its own slow destruction in the blurring of precise details to arrive at a broader, more general narrative, which risks reducing individuals and their immediate traumas to impersonal facts and numbers.

The impossibility of quantifying or making sense of loss or destruction which seems senseless, to which so many of these works attest, is powerfully captured through a more personal lens by Kate Fagan’s crystalline poem, ‘Shadow the Spring’. As an elegy for the late poet and academic Martin Harrison, who died of natural causes in 2014, Fagan’s poem is less directly about war than it is about the difficulty of signifying loss through words, and about the strange resonance of the dead’s presence for those who mourn them. In the absence of the elegy’s subject, everything in the immediate environment of the speaker which remains extant seems to take on urgency and to refer metonymically to the lost one, from the morning itself, ‘full / of your death’, to ‘a burnt saucepan, / forgotten on the stove when lunch / drew out like a bow / and we shot arrows of talk’ (154). Like death, war endures, and, as Emery’s speaker proclaims, ‘[t]he immeasurable, the / unanswerable,/ keeps breaking in’ (69). Susan Adams’ poem, ‘Red Horizon’, which commemorates the ANZACs, similarly attests to the all-pervasiveness and persistence of war’s effects on the living, suggesting that ‘[m]emory is a meadow that flows into a road / then grows into the backdrop of every new thing’ (10).
Alongside this vibrant selection of poetry and fiction are some deeply thoughtful essays and memoir. Robin Gerster’s ‘Our Ground Zero: Future Wars and the Imagined Destruction of Australia’s Cities’ traces the ongoing psychic reverberations of nuclear capacity since the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Gerster discusses the stupefying totality of nuclear capability, which in ‘the anticipation of its palpable possibility’ (15) has already enacted the violence of colonising Australia’s ‘imaginative landscape’ (16). In ‘Aileen Palmer: Political Activist and “poet of conscience”‘, Sylvia Martin explores the personal costs of Palmer’s preparedness to act on her political and moral beliefs by fighting fascism in revolutionary Spain. Elsewhere, Nina Seja’s memoir ‘The White Fox Remembers its History’ testifies to the ruthlessness of history and human progress by vividly detailing memories of the author’s Siberian grandmother who was a prisoner of war, as well as the ongoing destruction of the ancestral habitat of the white fox. In ‘Wanted for War’, Michael Hamel-Green recalls his experience of being imprisoned for resisting the Vietnam War as a non-complier: despite his deprivations his action constituted a ‘small victory’ – withholding from battle ‘one less instrument’ in ‘a particularly indefensible war’ (120).

From a myriad of vantage points, these works and others too numerous to mention in this review, point to the ways that war excludes nothing from its frame of reference – the time and space it traverses is at once personal and historical, local and global, psychic and physical. As this issue of Southerly resolutely attests, the need to remember, record and debate war across a multitude of registers continues, however difficult the task.



Ruby Todd is a writer of prose and poetry, with a PhD in Creative Writing and Literary Theory from Deakin University, where she teaches. Her current research investigates the connections between elegy, ethics and ecology.


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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste