A Review of Interior Despots edited by Sue Moss and Karen Knight

Faults notwithstanding, this is certainly an ambitious project, and where it works, it works powerfully. Naturally this kind of “assignment” will produce a large amount of subjective work, and the range of different voices and genres – the way in which each writer approaches the topic is interesting in and of itself. The topic sits somewhere between Freud and Cixous, between psychosis and a struggling femininity, and is an area which deserves further attention.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Interior Despots: Running the Border
edited by Sue Moss and Karen Knight
Pardalote Press
2001, ISBN 0-9578436-15
RRP A$22.50

It is a fascinating premise. Choose 24 well known Australian writers, all female, and all known to work in experimental, unusual terrains, and invite them to explore the theme of repression. The writers whose work populates Interior Despots ranges from poetry, to performance pieces, stories, a play, literary criticism, essays and a number of prose pieces. The problem is that, despite the unusual and interesting topic, this is a difficult area to write about. Good writers are always trying to extend the reach of words – to make them go deeper – breaching the space between writer and reader in an effort to communicate the unsayable, but the unconscious, the inchoate and repression are often given to chaos and broken impressions. It takes tremendous skill to illuminate this area while effectively communicating meaning to a reader. Where the unifying theme works best is where the writer takes careful account of the reader. The poetry in this collection does this best, its carefully chosen words often yielding gems.

MTC Cronin’s “The Confetti Stone” hints very subtly at a painfully repressed sexual abuse, while creating a beautifully clear image of a young woman about to be married and finding a way to deal with her past while again creating an act of repression:

And now she takes the confetti stone-sparks, rock pink and grass
and wheat-field gold, fluid deep in its sable shine – puts it in her moutn
and swallows him whole.

She’ll marry her man on no sleep with a smile as wide as a barbed
wire fence; with her doubts buried deep in the creek’s gravel…

Similarly, both of Tasmanian writer Philomena Van Rijswijk’s poems “Sunnybrook” and “My Animal” combine an intensely feminine, maternal perspective with natural symbolism and a storylike feel to reveal a damaged interior in “Sunnybrook”:

I couldn’t sleep
worrying about the ugly man
and the murdered child
until the day I realised that
the ugly man was my life

and the child was me.

In “My Animal” the loss of the feminine wildness of youth is contrasted perfectly with the very powerful image of a pseudo mother nursing an orphaned embryo rescued from roadkill:

I have lost my animal

It, too, was unformed and horrid tender-skinned
and could give strangers a fright if taken unawares by its sucking
o-mouthed or appearing inexplicably sightless on my neck.

Lyn Reeves’ “Boxed” and Karen Knight’s “inside the cupboard” both work in similar ways to conjure a kind of personal neurosis and fear/entrapment versus mental/astral escape as with “inside the cupboard:”

Out of the cupboard and into bright sunlight
one afternoon the child goes missing

Not as much light as you thought
they heckled
Not as much space as inside
the cupboard.

Or the visually delineated “Boxed:”

I  will make a secret panel on the bottom of the box slide it open and slip away go dancing all night on the mountains watch the dawn break the dark scatter when you open the lid you will find the doll still in her bed of cellophane paper her eyes will be empty sockets.

Angela Rockel’s essay on the work of New Zealand author Janet Frame “Writing a World to Live In” is also powerful, looking at Frames’ own exploration of repression and her use of language to create a new “music” or way of seeing, communicating and understanding. Rocket creates a piece of literary criticism which is both personal and thorough, looking at Frames’ work in a semiotic context: “Writing can prefigure change just as the intuitions of physicists and mathematicians sometimes precede verification “in the world”; it can precipitate change, out of awareness that another way can be thought.” 

Unfortunately many of the other pieces in this collection are incomprehensible, particularly the prose and performance pieces, which might work better when performed. Many of them lack punctuation altogether (“Po-mo Therapy,” “Cautionary Tales”) and some switch tenses so often (“Shapes”) or submerge the meaning so far into metaphor or are just too personal and diffuse to work (“People Judge,” “For Your Inconvenience,” “Childhood Madness, The Lady Bird,” “Labyrinth”).

Faults notwithstanding, this is certainly an ambitious project, and where it works, it works powerfully. Naturally this kind of “assignment” will produce a large amount of subjective work, and the range of different voices and genres – the way in which each writer approaches the topic – is interesting in and of itself. The topic sits somewhere between Freud and Cixous, between psychosis and a struggling femininity, and is an area which deserves further attention. As with any collection of such varied work, it is possible to just read through and discard what doesn’t work, focusing on what does, and there is much here worth reading in this all Australian, all female collection of work around the heady topic of repression in all its forms.

For more information about Interior Despots visit: http://www.postpressed.com/verse/despot.html

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