- Alex Skovron /poetry /story /art
- Gina Mercer /poetry
- Lee James Shott /painting
- Steve Cox /two biographical stories and two watercolors
- Les Wicks /poetry
Masthead image is Man wearing gas mask 1950 (2020) by Lee James Shott.
Introductory images: Nighthawks (1942) Edward Hopper; Depopulated Nighthawks at the diner (2012) Dean Rohrer; and an Internet meme (2020) by unknown illustrator.
Alex SKOVRON /poetry /story /art
Alex Skovron was born in Poland, lived briefly in Israel, and emigrated to Australia in 1958, aged nearly ten. His family settled in Sydney, where he grew up and completed his studies. From the early 1970s he worked as an editor for book publishers in Sydney and (after 1980) Melbourne; since the 1990s he has worked as a freelance editor. His poetry has appeared widely in Australia and overseas. The Rearrangement (1988), his first book, won the Anne Elder and Mary Gilmore awards and was shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Awards; there followed Sleeve Notes (1992), Infinite City: 100 Sonnetinas (1999, shortlisted in the Age Book of the Year and Victorian Premier’s Awards), The Man and the Map (2003), Autographs: 56 poems in prose (2008), and Towards the Equator: New & Selected Poems (2014, shortlisted in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards). Other awards have included the Wesley Michel Wright Prize for Poetry, the John Shaw Neilson Poetry Award, and the Australian Book Review Poetry Prize. The numerous public readings he has given include appearances in China, Serbia, India, Ireland, Macedonia, Portugal, and on Norfolk Island. An 80-minute CD in which he reads from his poetry was published in 2019 under the title Towards the Equator. His next collection, Letters from the Periphery, is due in 2021.
Concurrently with his poetry, Alex has intermittently published in prose, including short stories, a novella, and the abovementioned Autographs, which can be read as a book of microstories. The novella, titled The Poet (2005), was joint winner of the FAW Christina Stead Award for a work of fiction and has been translated into Czech. The Attic, a bilingual selection of his poems translated into French, was published by PEN Melbourne in 2013; and Water Music, a bilingual volume of Chinese translations in the Flying Island series (Macau), came out in 2017. Some of his poetry has also been translated into Dutch, Polish, Spanish, Macedonian and German. His collection of short stories, The Man who Took to his Bed, was published in 2017, and a Czech-language edition appeared in 2019. He has collaborated with his Czech translator, Josef Tomáš, on English translations of the twentieth-century Czech poets Jiří Orten and Vladimír Holan.
Concerns that have driven Alex Skovron’s poetry and fiction are many and various: history, language and music; the riddles of time and the allure of memory; philosophy, faith and the quest for self-knowledge; art and the creative impulse; fantasy, eros and the affections. His interest in speculative fiction has played a recurring role in his thinking and his work, as has a lifelong passion for music. As a poet, he enjoys both the disciplines and the aesthetics of formal design and the diverse challenges of freer structures. Integral to his project has been a focus on musicality and the primacy of rhythm. He likes probing the elasticities of syntax, and exploiting the ‘contrapuntal’ layerings available to imagery and meaning via compression, connotation, ambiguity.
Photo: Martin Langford
The man who tried to erase his shadow
by Alex Skovron
Ever watched a man at a tramstop on a windy day, attempting to turn the page of a broadsheet? Not just turn the page, but fold it back and around the rest of his paper and then fold that over again, to leave exposed just the half-page that contains the article he’s interested in. The problem is the wind. To achieve his goal, the man must release the page he has finished, allowing the wind to grab it and lift it for him. All is well until the halfway point, the point when he tries to take control of the fluttering page, to fold it under. The wind won’t let him. The man twists his body this way and that, manoeuvring his vessel of print like a master mariner, trying to fill its sails to just the right measure, to catch just the right angle for the page to settle politely around the back of the paper. Several times he almost manages it, but the wind keeps changing at the last moment, he simply can’t rotate his body into the proper attitude and the page flaps wildly, defiant. The man is not unmindful of the comical aspect of his exertions, but for him it is exasperating. A bit like trying to evade your own shadow. In the end he settles for a very imperfect, untidy folding-back of the page – the kind he regards with contempt whenever someone at home has browsed through his paper with no concern for neatness or alignment.
Look, I might as well come clean. That comment about evading your shadow was not an accidental simile. The newspaper image seemed a good way to introduce what I really want to tell you about – the man who tried not just to evade, but to erase his shadow.
You’ll probably think this is simply an excuse for one of those fashionable little pieces you find in the literary journals. But my story is different because it really happened – yesterday afternoon, in fact. I didn’t want to share it with anyone at first, but this morning on waking I experienced this strange compulsion to get it out of my system. I considered telephoning a friend, and I certainly gave thought to telling my wife; but in the end I decided the best course was to write down what I had seen. Just for myself. Nobody will ever read this (I never show my jottings to anyone, and I’d never dream of publishing them) – though I confess that this knowledge feels both comforting and, well, a tiny bit sad. But then, that’s a feeling I get almost every time I sit down to write. Call it the subterranean rumblings of the ego.
Anyway, what happened is this. Yesterday morning I was alone in my room cradling my third cup of coffee and listening to a James Taylor CD. Lorelei had rung from the office to hurry me up on the Trixy Toys project – she’d received an email from Toronto and the parent company was getting edgy about deadlines, what with the launch of our new range set for October. I don’t know why I bother to remain in this job, I hate writing advertising copy, especially for products I don’t feel passionate about. Well, I do know why: because the money’s so good. And after all, it’s not as though I’m helping promote cigarettes or pornography or guns. Most of our accounts are toy manufacturers, with a scattering of sportswear labels, a newsagency chain and a hardware emporium. It shouldn’t be too difficult to believe in the products I write about, and I guess in a way I do. But you see, there’s no passion: I don’t feel even a shadow of conviction.
So when Lorelei rang I was a little put out, though I assure you that this had nothing to do with Lorelei. Quite the reverse. I’ve had a crush on Lorelei ever since she started with us back in April. I wouldn’t mind describing her to you – maybe I’ll do that next time. No, why not now? My great-aunt Trudi always said – in German, mind you, though it’s been so many years that I don’t recall her exact words – she would often remind me, whenever I was trying to put off some unsavoury chore (this is when I was a boy and great-aunt Trudi lived with us), that the Lord had no time for procrastinators; that when the Day of Judgment arrived, those who had been prompt to do their duty, be it scholastic, professional or military, would be the first to be admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven; so one should never shirk responsibilities, but embrace them with passion (there’s that word again, it makes me think of the Trixy Toys commission I’ve been stalling on). As you can see, great-aunt Trudi was a very religious woman, and she had quite an influence on my life at the time. She would have been proud of me, I suppose – a successful copywriter with a bustling firm. On the other hand, maybe with her religious beliefs she would have dismissed advertising as sinful – though surely not in the sort of accounts I handle. I’ll never have the chance to discuss this with her, because she’s been gone a long time. I was thirteen when she died. She was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm as she crossed a busy thoroughfare in the middle of town. She was carrying a steel-tipped umbrella, and the bolt of lightning must have noticed it and homed in with lightning glee. But that’s nonsense, why am I writing like this? Still, she did always have a hell of a time with that umbrella, an enormous thing with a sculpted handle; it would never open properly, and was inclined to blow out on itself at the first sign of a breeze. I have visions (no, I have actual memories) of great-aunt Trudi wrestling with her umbrella in the midst of lashing city gales, trying desperately to stop it from jumping inside out. It brings to mind the man wrestling with his broadsheet, and also the other man, the one who tried to erase his shadow. I’m coming to that. Perhaps Lorelei is the one I should have rung about it.
But I promised to describe her to you. Well, let me start by saying that Lorelei is not exactly beautiful; but she’s unbelievably sensual. At least, I think so. I’d like to tell her this, but I worry that she’ll take it the wrong way. Actually, she’d be taking it the right way, because I really would love to do it with her, as they say (if I may be forgiven such a vulgar expression), but she has a boyfriend and I’ve always made a point of avoiding trouble. My record is spotless. Great-aunt Trudi would be proud of my record, because she was a great believer in spotlessness. She was a fanatical polisher of the furniture, she used to follow visitors around with a duster – but that’s another story. Great-aunt Trudi probably wouldn’t approve of Lorelei, because she didn’t believe in sex before marriage, and I know that Lorelei lives with her boyfriend. He’s some sort of investment broker, and rather handsome. (Mind you, the company he works for sounds a bit shady.) He dropped in at the office once, and I was struck by his clear eyes and mellow diction. For some reason he reminded me of James Taylor. James Taylor is my favourite singer. I love his silky, hypnotic voice, his poetic lyrics, his country calm. I have all of his recordings. I suspect great-aunt Trudi would have approved of James Taylor’s country calm – after all, she was born in the German provinces. Thuringia, I think. Or was it Saxony? Though I really doubt if she would have understood his music. For her, singing ended with Schubert. What would she have made of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, the Sex Pistols?
But I was telling you about Lorelei. She has this amazing smile, and every time she smiles I nearly fold. She is slightly overweight, it’s true, and maybe her nose is a fraction too snub and her chin a trifle on the weak side. There are those who would call her plain. But whenever she smiles and flashes her two front teeth (with the saucy little gap between them), her cheek crinkles and her eyes light up with the most seductive glimmer, and you know, I feel like sweeping her up in my arms and carrying her off and, well, ravishing her. Sometimes she makes these suggestive little remarks – just to tease me, I suppose – and I try to ignore them. The nearest I ever came to responding to her advances (that’s how I’m tempted to view them, because she’s a bit of a flirt, and she uses too much eye-shadow), the closest I came to any danger was on her last birthday, when I gave her a festive peck on the cheek followed by a brief hug. It was so good to hold her, if just for a moment. She didn’t seem too eager to break away, in fact I even imagined she was pressing herself in towards me a little, so I pulled back. But then I always did have an over-vivid imagination. One day I might tell you a few of my erotic fantasies. One of them involves Lorelei. Great-aunt Trudi would be horrified.
Thinking of great-aunt Trudi in the same breath (can you say that?) makes me wonder if Lorelei is of German extraction too, because her name reminds me of a poem by a famous German – Goethe or Schiller, I think – which great-aunt Trudi taught me all those years ago. I used to know all the words. The poem tells of a legendary siren on the Rhine who lured sailors to their deaths with her beautiful singing. Perhaps I ought to be more careful with my Lorelei. I’ve never heard her sing, but she hums quite tunelessly, mostly when she’s embarrassed about something. Like on her birthday, after I’d rejected her advances.
If that’s what they were. Because I really shouldn’t be concerning myself with Lorelei. After all, I’m a married man; Tessa and I are not unhappy together. We’ve been married for eight years and plan to start a family soon. She can’t wait. Tessa comes from a very large family, she’s one of seven, and aside from her parents, her brothers and sisters and their children (about eighteen of them, all told), there are droves of cousins, uncles and aunts, and they all descend on our house at Christmas and Easter and whenever Tessa has a birthday or nameday. I can barely recognize or identify most of her relatives – to be honest, I still know only a few of the children by name, and I’m hopeless with all the cousins and aunts and uncles. Zio this and Zia that, most of them look the same to me. This annoys Tessa, of course; whenever we argue it’s usually to do with my attitude to her family. She says I don’t try hard enough, accuses me of going silent or escaping into my study when they come to visit. I must confess it’s true, I don’t have much time for her family – and her parents were cold towards me from the start. They would have loved their Teresa to marry a good dark curly-haired Catholic boy, but were saddled instead with this reticent German Protestant complete with blond mop and blue eyes. I must tell you about the marriage ceremony and the function that followed – it makes the wedding-banquet scene in Goodbye, Columbus seem sedate and dignified. No, I’ll leave that for another time, because I really need to describe the incident at the tramstop yesterday, the one with the man and his shadow, that I started to tell you about.
It was the tramstop nearest to the office. Now, trams have always exerted a strange fascination over me. I actually met Tessa on a tram. One of those totally illogical encounters that could easily not have occurred – you know, if the tram hadn’t happened to tarry a moment longer at that stop, if the seat next to me hadn’t happened to fall vacant, if she hadn’t happened to bump me as she sat down laden with awkward parcels – and if the butterfly hadn’t happened to alight on that specific palm-leaf in the steamy Brazilian jungle twenty years earlier … Anyhow, we started to chat about toys, mainly because the parcels she was carrying included a large Christmas selection for her nephews and nieces. And from there, things just seemed to take their ineluctable course. Before I knew it we were going on a date, and then another, and all of a sudden we were getting engaged, and then – never mind, or I’ll get started on the wedding again. Tessa hates it whenever I mention the wedding in the heat of an argument.
Not that we argue a lot. Mostly about her parents and relations. Oh, and sometimes about music as well. Tessa hates my taste in music, and she especially detests James Taylor. I think she has made a point of this just to spite me, she couldn’t have been so opposed to him before we got married because she’d hardly heard any of his songs (the one she knew was ‘Fire and Rain’, a terrific song, sure, but scarcely the key to the man’s artistry). I tried to play her a few of his albums and she listened just to humour me. It didn’t change her mind about James Taylor. She goes for the Carpenters, and Celine Dion, and John Farnham. How is it that I can appreciate her favourites, whereas she can’t bring herself to give my hero the scantiest of fair hearings? Lorelei says she adores James Taylor.
She’s not so keen on rain. I was actually with Lorelei when the incident with the man and his shadow took place. It was cloudy all day yesterday, and I was stuck in a Projects meeting that dragged on well beyond five. As I was leaving a tremendous thunderstorm erupted and the rain came teeming down. Lorelei, who had also been in the meeting, asked if she could share my umbrella as far as the tramstop. Well, I was going home by tram too (a different tram, unluckily), so we pushed off towards the stop together, me wrestling with my umbrella (thinking of great-aunt Trudi, as I always do in a thunderstorm) and Lorelei holding on to me for dear life, her arm locked into my elbow. It struck me that anyone observing us at that instant might think we were husband and wife, and this pleased and excited me. I thought of how disaffected I had become with Tessa, and how romantic it was to be struggling through a thundery downpour with Lorelei humming in my ear. (She really was, too, tunelessly of course.) It was even better than those erotic imaginings I was going to tell you about.
Then abruptly the rain stopped, the thunder receded, the sun broke through – and the spell I had woven with my fantasy was broken. That was when we caught sight of the man at the tramstop. He was tall and thin, and he seemed to be casting about for something – the way you do when you’ve dropped a coin that you know must have fallen close to your feet but you just can’t spot it. No – more the way an infant trapped in a highchair will strain to look outwards and downwards when a toy drops from his tray and he can’t understand where it’s gone. I must admit I don’t have much of a taste for infants. (Tessa senses this, it’s one of the unspoken tensions between us.) Infants have a special talent for throwing their playthings about. Toys are forever slipping out of their fingers, and I can tell you as a copywriter with a bit of research under my belt that some toys are particularly tricky that way. Tricky toys. Tricksy toys. Trixy Toys. That gives me an idea for a new promotional angle – why didn’t I think of it at yesterday’s meeting? But Lorelei was taking down the minutes and I can never concentrate properly when she’s around.
Another thought has just hit me. Is it possible that we both subconsciously planned the way we needed to leave the office at exactly the same time, the way she requested to share my umbrella, the way she hooked herself into my arm as we trudged through the wind and rain? Maybe she’s grown as unhappy with her boyfriend as I have with Tessa, perhaps she wants to have an affair. With me. What was she humming as we struggled towards the tramstop? What was she trying to tell me, in her tuneless, gap-toothed, gorgeous way? Now that I think about it, she did seem a little restless, as if she longed to come out with something, to share something important. But then we reached the tramstop and caught sight of the man who was trying to erase his shadow, and the moment passed. I want to tell you about this man, it was extraordinary to watch, I’ve never seen anything like it. And I will tell you about him, soon. Right now I’m feeling a little agitated, and I need to stop and think things through.
From The Man who Took to his Bed (Puncher & Wattmann, 2017)
Drawings and a painting by Alex Skovron
Gina MERCER /poetry
Gina Mercer enjoys a three-stranded career as writer, teacher, and editor. She has taught creative writing and literature in universities and communities for 35 years. She was Editor of Island from 2006–2010. She has a passion for working with writers as book doula. Gina has performed her poetry in cities and regions throughout Australia as well as Canada and Ireland. Recently she’s collaborated with musicians interweaving their original compositions with her eco-poetry in the performances: ‘Off with the Birds’ and ‘Diving into the Derwent’. She’s been writer-in-residence at Prince Edward Island (Canada), Varuna (NSW), the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre and Katherine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre (WA). She’s published widely in journals, anthologies, and diaries, as well as ten books (poetry, fiction, academic nonfiction). The three most recent books are: The Dictionary of Water, a limited edition poetry collection, Wild Element Press, 2019, firstname.lastname@example.org; Weaving Nests with Smoke and Stone, a poetry collection all about birds, Walleah Press, 2015; and The Sky Falls Down: An Anthology of Loss, co-edited with Terry Whitebeach, Ginninderra Press, 2019.
Photo: Gina Mercer with Patrick Kavanagh sculpture, Dublin.
Lee James SHOTT /painting
Lee James Shott was born in Aberdare in the Cynon Valley area of Rhondda Cynon Taf, Wales (UK), and holds an M.A. in Fine Art.
Shott's paintings subjectively capture the contemporary culture of communities throughout South Wales. The work focuses on human interactions and the idiosyncrasies of his daily life, observations of people and their interactions, night-time walks, and commuting by public transport.
Shott paints both landscapes and portraits that are at once psychological and voyeuristic, implying that the viewer is surveying and surveilling his environments and subjects.
The work, seen as a whole, includes portraits with blurred and fragmented features along with figurative images of workers and young people. His landscape paintings often show machinery in the green valleys of South Wales. Each painting is a precise, and precisely ambiguous, moment of life.
Steve COX /two biographical stories
Steve Cox is an artist and writer. He has a forty-year exhibition history and his work is held in major public and private collections throughout Australia and internationally. As an arts writer, since 2000, he has contributed articles and reviews, and has conducted interviews with artists, for numerous newspapers, journals and magazines, including The Guardian; VAULT: Australasian Art & Culture; Gay Times, UK; FilmInk.com, amongst others. Cox writes on a range of subjects, including contemporary and historical art; LGBTQI issues; social issues; cinema; contemporary music.
Between 2013–2014, he was the London Arts Editor of NakedButSafe magazine. In 2019 he was on the judging panel for the Young Arts Journalist Award (YAJA). Also in 2019, he was the inaugural Writer in Residence for Brunswick Street Village, an innovative building complex, which espouses green values and arts in the community as a primary concern. During the residency, he produced a collection of fifty poems, on a range of subjects.
Les WICKS /poetry
«Me—what can I say? Poetry has been a core part of my life since I was about 19 with a largish gap in the middle pursuing career and family. At its best, poetry can say things unutterable anywhere else and I’m completely committed to it. I really am now a one trick pony even if the beast is as thin as poetry is. I edit and run workshops which provides a bit of income but is much more rewarding on deeper levels. Most of my publishing work is aimed at getting new audiences rather than “clogging up” pre-existing outlets. Varying approaches, but some extraordinary outcomes in terms of getting poetry in front of people who wouldn’t normally encounter it. As for my own work I feel blessed that I have seen publication in rather a lot of places/countries/languages. I’ve had 14 books out and still love them all despite their attitude problems, the latest being Belief (Flying Islands, 2019). If you buy a copy you’ll make me very happy. I constantly work at bettering my poetry, I don’t share (a surprisingly common) delusion that I am a (grossly unrecognised) International Treasure. Compared to say actors I have occasionally said I am not a Streep or de Niro, but I aspire to be maybe Brian Dennehy. But heard today he has died!’»
Created with additional images by Indira Tjokorda - "untitled image" • Michał Lis - "untitled image" • Simone Daino - "Al Pacino judge you.." • Sam Balye - "A tv fish tank"