TEXT review

Matter(s) at hand

review by Ruby Todd


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Southerly: Elemental
David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (eds)
Volume 75, Number 1
The Journal of the English Association
Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney NSW 2015
ISBN 9781921556890
Pb 254pp AUD29.95


As its title suggests, this rewarding edition of Southerly offers a compilation of diverse and searching perspectives on the human experience of the elements. The themes and subjects underpinning the stories, essays and poems of this collection are variously meteorological, environmental, and chemical, and the four classical elements of earth, water, air and fire are constant touchstones. The disparate voices in Elemental are connected by their preoccupation with the essential and primitive in our experience of not only the physical world, but also of our own bodies and senses, and the imaginary territories built and sustained by this felt experience. In all cases, there is a marveling at the suddenness with which our routine experience of our selves and the world can suddenly be revealed in its strangeness, transience and precariousness. As Ian Buchanan observes in ‘Not our element’, a meditative essay on the poetics of swimming, ‘[w]ater is not “our” element; as such, it induces both awe and fear’ (50). This is a truth applicable to encounters with other elements considered in the collection; elements which, to quote from Elizabeth McMahon’s editorial, are variously ‘real and imaginal’ (6).

In his essay ‘Oi Kaymeni (“The Burnt Ones”)’, George Kouvaros reflects on the revenant capacity of repeat encounters with cinema over time to confront us with past versions of our lives and selves, held in our memory of earlier viewings. Kouvaros blends the philosophical with the personal in recalling his migrant mother’s recent reluctance to re-watch the 1951 Elizabeth Taylor film, A Place in the Sun. Kouvaros traces this reluctance to his mother’s instinctive awareness that re-encountering the film would also involve revisiting difficult memories of a more innocent self, decades before, in a now-distant Cyprus. As Kouvaros writes, ‘some part of who she was then remains preserved in her memory of the film, in the same way that the faces and bodies of the film’s actors are preserved in the images’ (83). In Alice Bishop’s personal account, ‘Wyenondable Ashes’, it is the sudden and cataclysmic force of the Black Saturday fires, rather than migration and the passage of time, which precipitates a more immediate kind of exile. In her story, ‘The Bird Watcher’, Raellee Chapman also evokes the radical force of fire in the rural Australian landscape, as both an atmospheric threat and a deadly reality for human and non-human inhabitants. In her description of the protagonist watching panicked flocks of birds struggling to escape the blaze, Chapman captures the strange beauty that sometimes attends the terrible commotion of bushfires: ‘She watched small, colourful Lorikeets darting and diving chaotically underneath the larger birds; they were unable [to] stay together as a flock and scattered like a rainbow unravelling’ (26).

Necessarily, the subject of climate change pervades and troubles much of Elemental, as both an indeterminate force and as a certain cause of drastic and measurable change. Claire Corbett’s ‘The Trillion Pearl Necklace’ evokes the unnerving spectacle of ‘an infestation of giant jellyfish’ on a Pacific island under siege from ‘rising king tides’ (106). Corbett’s description of the infestation is delightfully weird:

From one day to the next, the harbour was flocked with domes of pearly gelatin. The water rumpled and folded like bolts of cloth, almost solid, so thick no ship screw could turn. (106)

In ‘Angry Waves’, Dael Allison discusses the predicament of the low-lying Pacific island nation of Kiribati, which is already experiencing the effects of climate change-induced rising sea levels. One of these effects is an increase in the frequency and scale of coastal waves, causing both immediate and incremental destruction. Allison, who is a foreign resident of Kiribati, describes the disorienting transformation that these so-called ‘angry waves’ caused in 2015, when a familiar landscape was suddenly rendered strange:

Rivers flowed on these tiny atolls which have no rivers; people waded through lakes where lakes have never been before. Pictures of the new maternity wing of Beito hospital showed patients on sodden hospital beds awaiting evacuation. (134)

Due to the ongoing effects of climate change, Allison notes ‘[p]rojections suggest entire atolls may become uninhabitable within the next generation’ (141), and despite the best efforts of Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong, and others, to campaign for political action, these projections portend a future of migration for the nation’s 110,000 residents, plans for which are already underway (141). What might the social and cultural implications of such a mass migration be? As Kouvaros observes, ‘migration is not just about a dispersal of individuals across continents; it is also about a dispersal of the narrative details that we use to understand the people close to us’ (83). The consequences of narrative dispersal will be irrevocable in the case of Kiribati, where the very possibility of return is in question.
Unsurprisingly for a volume concerned with natural forces and cycles, themes of mortality, burial and memorial recur in several works. In ‘The Bones of Genesius’, Moreno Giovannoni weaves a story of death and mortal remains while meditating on the import of human and animal excrement at both ends of the life cycle in the farming hamlets of San Ginese in Italy, speaking at once to the transient and eternal. Roslyn Jolly’s essay, ‘St Thomas’s Churchyard’, poignantly explores the history of those buried in several colonial graves in a Sydney parkland cemetery, then acknowledges the relative ‘insulation from catastrophe’ with which we in the Western world are currently privileged (100). In ‘A Richer Dust’, John Stephenson delivers a distilled reflection on burial and memorial in literature and life, in encountering the surprise of a friend’s final resting place.

Alongside these and other stories, essays, and memoirs, is a robust offering of reviews, and a vibrant and diverse selection of poems from Pam Brown, Kate Lilley, Laurie Duggan, David Brooks, Brett Dionysius, and many more writers. Sophie Curzon-Siggers’ poem, ‘mourning takes me in red’, starkly evokes the way mourning radically alters the reality of the speaker, who is compelled to ‘wade through the lake poured / out on the floor. there circulate new veins / in legs and arms of wood, rugs / and teatowels sucking, / sponges at fate’s edge’ (131). In this poem, the boundaries between the speaker’s body and the environment become desperately blurred, as otherwise ordinary domestic surrounds are animated with hallucinatory intensity.

Throughout Elemental, we are reminded fruitfully of the extent to which – just as the physical phenomena we experience constantly mark and shape us – our felt experience of those phenomena is genuinely transformed by the memories, hopes, fears, and dreams we project upon them. In the process of encountering a once-familiar film, a savage fire, a stretch of slowly eroding coast, or the grave of a dead friend, we are at once witness and witnessed; revealed to ourselves as strange for a moment, before the other within and without us.


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 1 April 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste