Reading and writing, for me, are like two playing cards pushed between opposite spokes of a pushbike wheel. In motion, the cards blur into one striped replica of smooth transference; when still, they are airlessly separate. One is vital to the other but their successful interchange is necessarily subtle, momentary and the gift of not so much a backwards glance as a puzzled glare.
There’s certainly a glare in the backwards look Geordie Williamson gives to what he regards as this nation’s neglect of its literary legacy. The Burning Library’s deliberately provocative first pages puts forcefully that our tertiary institutions have under-taught even our most significant writers. The introduction’s cry of alarm has snagged a large share of reviewers’ attention, overshadowing the rest of the book. This is a real pity, as the best argument for paying due attention to the best of yesterday’s voices is the supple analysis in the pages beyond. From the somatic near-baroque of Patrick White to the spare, circular minimalism of Gerard Murnane, Williamson surveys six female and eight male writers via fifteen to twenty page pen portraits, each chapter appositely accompanied with linocut likenesses of the author from that very considerable designer, W.H. Chong. Williamson’s vignettes are remarkable in their ability to both limn each author’s character and to suffuse key aspects of their work with a new vividness. M. Bernard Eldershaw’s 1947 speculative novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is described as ‘…offering a premonitory shiver’, such are its resonances with the Occupy movement and rising general disgust at political spin. Randolph Stow is drawn as ‘…sheltering…a single soul [with a] melancholy awareness of the insurmountable gulf that exists between others and ourselves.’ Whatever one thinks of the author selection (I couldn’t help but wonder how Williamson would essay Thea Astley or Elizabeth Jolley, amongst others), you can’t deny the erudition so lightly placed here in the service of the common, curious reader.
A very uncommon reader is Canadian poet, Anne Carson. In her works If Not, Winter and Autobiography of Red, Carson takes the scattered remnants of two ancient poets—Sappho and Stesichoros, respectively—and builds exceptional aggregates, sustained by their gaps as much as recovered scraps. In If Not, Winter Carson’s unmistakenly lissom English translations of Sappho, wrung from tattered papyrus themselves dug out from Egyptian rubbish tips, is faced with the ancient Greek. Riddled with gaps and lines that never complete, their fragmentary condition mimics the half-comprehended intensity of love and its whited-out longueurs.
But it is in Autobiography of Red that the expansive range of Carson as a creative force is most evident. In this hybrid work, prose leads to poetry and criticism leaps to imaginary interview. At its core is a verse novel (re)creation of a near-lost Steichoros poem—Tale of Geryon—recounting the fate of an unfortunate winged, red-skinned creature killed by Herakles for his 10th labour. Mixing mythology and Americanism, Carson imagines Geryon as a photographer, broken by love. Autobiography of Redlimber tone shrugs from sniggering wit one moment to crystalline imagery the next.
Herakles switched on the ignition and they jumped forward onto the back of the night.
but joined in astonishment as two cuts lie parallel in the same flesh.
In the age of the e-reader, the pleasurable physicality of a book risks becoming a rarer experience, as a variety of machines for reading vie for first place in the queue for the power-plug. In a conscious half-reaction, I’ve sought out illustrative forms, particularly superhero comics. Most, however initially promising, prove to be noisome and hollow, overly reliant on the same repetitious tropes. A welcome recent exception is writer Matt Fraction’s current run on the monthly comic Hawkeye.
Never a major character inside the comics universe, let alone outside, Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton is a modern-day Robin Hood, possessed of archery skills, trick arrows and a good heart—but no superpowers. Unlike, say, Batman (a similarly near-relatable figure), Hawkeye isn’t even haunted by an over-arching family tragedy, only by his failure to maintain a relationship. Fraction’s writing consistently hits the mark with drama, humour and pathos, ensuring that the characters aren’t defined by their over-determined costumes (which, pointedly, are rarely worn here). The primary artists also each bring a unique, cinematic style to their assigned issues. From the satirated colour and Giallo-influenced look of Francesco Francaville (10), Javier Pulido’s Bond-on-a-budget précis (4-5) and—most impressively—David Aja’s Dirty Harry delineations (1-3, 6, 8, 9, 11), the art is never less than striking. Best of all, the imagery marries beautifully with the storytelling, something that is not necessarily a given within an industry where the production of scripts often outpaces the art.
A widely acknowledged highpoint of Fraction’s writing and Aja’s art thus far—and perhaps of any superhero comic in recent memory—is issue 11, Pizza Is My Business. Told entirely from the view point of Hawkeye’s one-eye rescue dog Lucky, this is a soft-padded gumshoe tale in the Chandler mode. Lucky meets a doggy dame, wearily helps out when there’s trouble, gets roughed up for his efforts, but lives to fight another day. In an innovative move for a graphical medium where—too often—expository dialogue wafts around the panels like a Pal fart, Pizza Is My Business is free of speech except for those words which Lucky recognises (‘Good Boy’, ‘Come’, ‘Pizza’). Otherwise, this is a canine’s world of sight, sound and smell. Fraction and Aja ingenuously lay out a series of yellow-coloured scent maps, denoting relationships, occupations and olfactory mysteries. By emphasising the visual, Fraction and Aja clarify their storytelling down to its elemental forms—a facial expression, a gesture, a fall.
Scottish poet John Burnside’s collection Black Cat Bone similarly takes a sideways approach, in form this time but in his subjects—apparently luminal but rich. Burnside’s poetry alights on transitional moments like a breath caught in the cold air, dwelling for the longest fractions before it disappears. The mood Burnside pitches is often unsettled, restless—a hunt that never confirms its kill. But this does not mean that Burnside is a poet of the unsubstantial. There’s blood, bone and cold earth at your feet. There’s communion to, perhaps most tellingly in The Soul as Thought Experiment.
Where you cannot help but think
of kinship, at that point where snow begins
on some black road you thought was yours alone,
made bright and universal, while you listen.
The serenity at the heart of many of Burnside’s poems speaks of experience’s hard graft. It being—like reading, writing or life—wondrously concrete and provisional all at once. You just need to keep peddling.