Back in the day, I did some writing for SYN media. The old artsmitten website is defunct now, but I wanted to make a record of the reviews I’d done for them. The first was for the collection Transactions by Ali Alizadeh. The second was for the poetry collection Free Logic by Rachael Briggs.
Transactions – Review by Emily Prince
The latest book from prolific author Ali Alizadeh, Transactions, will not disappoint enthusiasts of Alizadeh’s previous work. No stranger to controversial responses, Alizadeh has been both celebrated and criticised for his unconventional use of multiple forms and the strong political commentary that pervades his work. With Transactions, the reader is presented with a set of linked short fictions exploring themes ranging from the conflict in the Middle East to the culture of victim blaming and the accommodation of the male gaze.
Alizadeh weaves threads of connection through his prose, bringing it full circle by the end of the novel, tying off loose ends in certain cases, and leaving others achingly unfinished. It is the power of insinuation that works best in Alizadeh’s work – what is not quite described, but sits in shadows, just off the page. Those storylines that remain uncompleted will sit in the reader’s mind long after they have finished the book, and it is perhaps in these stories most of all that the political commentary speaks louder than the narrative.
Transactions spans the political divide – the characters are drawn at all ends of the socio-economic scale representing various ages, genders, ethnicities, political persuasions and experiences. Certain characters and locations Alizadeh revisits more than others, and nearly all are mentioned in stories other than their own. Among Alizadeh’s strongest characters are a Ukrainian prostitute whose father’s involvement with the Chernobyl disaster plagues her new life in Amsterdam, a mysterious online extremist who goes by the moniker ‘The Alchemist’, and a nameless assassin who winds through the stories, reappearing when the reader least expects it. Paths cross and fates intertwine but despite the carefully crafted connections, each story stands strong on it’s own – how they relate to each other is not their most important achievement.
Some of the more repulsive characterisations include people who take sexual advantage of individuals displaced by war, and there is also a strong critique of an international aid organization, guilty of patronising it’s charges and ‘putting religion before humanism’ (p. 134). Transactions is filled with timely commentaries of the current state of humanity and the globe, and the depiction of refugees in these stories echoes, with uncomfortable clarity, the predicament of asylum seekers in Australia.
The benefit of fiction gives us the figure of the nameless assassin, who becomes a sort of avenging soldier, disposing of those who have taken advantage of already-distressed victims of war. While an exciting link between the stories, not to mention a desirable prism of karmic significance, this character does not hold up as very realistic next to the organic and gritty portrayals of normal people struggling under extreme circumstances.
Alizadeh uses third-person narration regularly but not exclusively, injecting one chapter with graphic, confrontational poetry that is beautiful in its composition and inherently ugly in it’s content. Alizadeh also experiments with unbroken first-person narration that borders on stream-of-consciousness in some cases. Toward the end of the book is a purely epistolary chapter and a chapter comprised completely of one poem broken into small, precise stanzas. While these are good examples of Alizadeh’s talent with different forms, the inclusion of more variety in form throughout the book would have made their placement less jarring to the reader’s experience.
Amongst the sexual, social and political commentary of Transactions are the sometimes humorous, sometimes brutal, always thought-provoking little interactions between characters. It is these moments when Alizadeh’s prose shines the brightest and when the divide between reader and story merges most seamlessly.
Free Logic – Review by Emily Prince
Free Logic, the latest offering from philosopher and poet Rachael Briggs, 2012 winner of the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, is another triumph for the UQP Poetry Series. Briggs has crafted an impressive collection of almost 80 poems, widely diverse in content and arranged in topical suites.
Her strength in linking poems through suites is apparent, and some of the strongest verse occurs once the linked poems have established a pattern, be it a first line copied word-for-word from the final line of the previous poem (the ‘Tough Luck’ suite, which provides some interesting play with punctuation) or a less rigid connection that links only a few key words in the same way (‘Toothfish’ suite). The human condition is dissected and analysed throughout Briggs’ work; this is done particularly well in the ‘Deadly Sevenlings’ suite, which comprises 7 poems each focused on a different cardinal sin. The suite titled ‘This Poem Is Not About You’ cleverly ties each poem back to the author herself in the final stanza, referencing her by name, or a variation thereof.
Briggs’ American roots shine through in poems such as ‘Halloween’, and her ‘Cryptid Riddles’ suite focuses on Australia – its geography, folklore, history and culture – and is an enlightening and often amusing read, particularly when coupled with the knowledge that the author is originally from overseas. Briggs is a master of exploration, delicately teasing out certain themes and weaving them throughout her prose with patience and insight. Such themes include love, gender identity, sexual maturity, adolescence and philosophical discussion. Poems like ‘The Care and Feeding of Prehistoric Reptiles’ and ‘Swampy’ leap out at the reader, their construction eliciting a tangibility that is rare to find and even rarer to pull off. Briggs wields her talent masterfully, balancing shorter, punchier poems with more languid works, and the contrast complements the collection well.
Contrast of content also highlights her versatility – while some poems investigate the mundane domesticity of the everyday:
Me in sweatpants, you in midmorning whiskers,
planning out the last of our winter weekend.
Yesterday: bad sci fi and Islay whisky.
Now: I need coffee.
Others border on mythology and horror:
There’s a black glaze monster
gazing from the shattered clay
with one red eye. Far off, the sea
cries out. Her heartbeat roars an answer.
The sometimes-repeated metaphor of animals in place of children and pregnancy manages to exist without becoming overdone, and similes appear sporadically and beautifully in lines such as:
…the snow shows no sign of calming.
Every flake is bright as a tiny comet.
Her expertise and passion for philosophy is obvious, and is further expanded upon in the ‘Notes’ section at the conclusion of the book. This section defines various terms for the curious reader who may not be familiar with them due to academic and/or cultural background, as well as acknowledging and referencing song lyrics used. This is an interesting resource (and no doubt a legal requirement), but some readers will prefer to skip this, and enjoy Briggs’ skill with words without revealing the nuts and bolts behind it.