This is a big book and it took a long time to read. ‘Big’ because it’s pushing 500 pages in length, and ‘big’ because it spans 37 years – a whole career. But it wasn’t just the size that made it such a drawn-out reading experience. It’s also because the essays are dense with ideas, and I found myself only able to read one at a time. They were mentally chewy and I wanted to let each one sit for a while.
Barry Hill has hovered on the edge of my consciousness without ever really breaking through. I was aware that he won plaudits for Broken Song, his biography of Ted Strehlow, and I’ve been vaguely aware of him through the Australian Book Review. Looking through the long list of publications at the beginning of the book, he’s been writing novels and poems since the 1970s. However, I haven’t read any of them.
I like reading essays, largely because they allow me to meet the author half-way: to sit in on a conversation, if you like. The essays that I enjoyed most in this collection were where he wrote as a son, writing about his father – an old union man and peace activist- in ‘Letter to My Father’; or about his mother in ‘Brecht’s Song’.
But many of other essays were more cerebral than emotional. After an excellent introduction by Tom Griffiths, the book is divided into four parts: Close to Bones; Inland; Naked Art Making, and Reason and Lovelessness, from which the collection takes its name. Part II (Inland) can be fairly easily characterized as being explorations of colonialism, with reviews and commentaries on W. E. H. Stanner, Greg Dening and elaborations on his own work on Ted Strehlow. He has really enticed me into moving Broken Song up from ‘one day’ to ‘soon’ as far as my own reading is concerned. He really does not like Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines at all (I haven’t read that one, either). In Part III (Naked Art Making) there are several essays on Lucien Freud, John Wolseley and the Australian artist Rod Moss whose work is on the front cover. Parts I and IV are more diverse, several of them based on interviews with poets, writers and artists. In Part IV in particular there are steps of logic that seem to link the essays together.
But I must confess that for many of these essays, I felt left behind. I hadn’t read the work or the author he was discussing, and on the few occasions when I had, I realized the richness of what I was missing. (e.g. his essays on Greg Dening and Robert Manne; his excellent essay about William Buckley who lived with the Port Phillip Wathaurong people after escaping from the convict settlement at Sorrento in 1803, his essay on George Orwell). Reading through his essay on Ezra Pound, I asked my very-widely-and idiosyncratically-read husband “Have you ever read any Ezra Pound?”. He had (of course), and then went on to talk about several of the things that Hill discussed. ” Well, have you heard of Rabindranth Tagore?” I asked him. Again, yes he had, and again mentioned things that Hill had also covered. “YOU should be reading this book!” I told my husband, and I meant it. There’s a conversation going on here, but I’m not part of it.
Should that matter? I found myself thinking of Montesquieu of all people, and the beguiling ease with which he draws you into his conversation. I rarely felt that same ease with Hill’s essays, beyond the more personal ones about his own family. Perhaps that’s because in many of these essays, he’s writing as a critic. Summarizing the content of a work is not part of the role of the critic, and there’s an implicit assumption that the reader is familiar with the work under discussion. That is the reader that Hill is writing for; not someone on the outside looking in. Several of the essays are reflections on interviews and conversations he has conducted with writers – Christina Stead and Rai Gaita – underlining that he is part of their milieu. As a poet, he writes about other poets – Fay Zwicky, Shonagon (the author of The Pillow Book)- and he shares in own poetry in several of the essay.
Given that these essays were written over thirty-five years, they have probably been selected to resonate with the 2018 political climate. ‘The Mood We’re In: circa Australia Day 2004’ was given as an Overland lecture, and it captures that strange era of Latham-esque politics. He still rages over the Bush/Blair/Howard invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and his feeling of impotence when protests across the world were futile permeates his essays ‘The Uses and Abuses of Humiliation’, ‘Poems that Kill’ and ‘Human Smoke, Bared Throats”. There is not – mercifully- even a breath of Trump. I suspect that he would find Trump almost beyond words.
This is not an easy book, written by “a truly learned man” as Tom Griffiths notes in his introduction. It demands intellectual chops and familiarity with an eclectic and erudite reading and artistic menu that strays far beyond my knowledge. I felt a bit intimidated by it, frankly.
Sourced from: a review copy from Monash University Publishing.