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Turning points

John Tranter reviews

Robert Adamson, Cross the Border (Prism Books, Sydney, 1977)
Laurie Duggan, East (Rigmarole of the Hours, Melbourne, 1976)
John Forbes, Tropical Skiing (A & R, Sydney, 1976)
———, On the Beach (Sea Cruise Books, Sydney, 1977)
Philip Hammial, Foot Falls & Notes (The Saturday Centre, Sydney, 1976)
———, Mastication Poems (The Saturday Centre, Sydney, 1977)
———, Chemical Cart (Island Press, Sydney, 1977)
———, Hear Me Eating (Makar Press, Brisbane, 1977)
Rae Desmond Jones, Shakti (Makar Press, Brisbane, 1977)
Nigel Roberts, In Casablanca for the Waters (Wild & Woolley, Sydney, 1977)
Vicki Viidikas, unpublished manuscript (to be published by Wild & Woolley, Sydney, in 1978)
Alan Wearne, New Devil, New Parish (University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1976)
Laurie Hergenhan (editor), Australian Literary Studies, Volume 8, Number 2, October 1977 (University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1977)


This piece was first published in in Meanjin magazine, vol.37 no.1, Autumn, 1978. It is 5,250 words or about ten printed pages long.

This text has been transcribed from proof galleys dated March 1978. Later interpolations are given in square brackets. — J.T.


The October 1977 issue of Australian Literary Studies — usually a journal devoted to Aust. Lit. minutiae such as “The Variation in Gender of French Solecisms in Patrick White’s Grocery Lists” — consisted entirely of a survey of the “new writing” in Australia, written mainly by those who have been involved in the development of prose and poetry writing or publishing over the last ten years; that is, the active members of the “Generation of ’68”. The essays and statements in ALS make it clear that the writers who have come to prominence in this decade are noticeably different from their predecessors, and owe little to their example.

Their work has flourished, and they have gone on to publish books literally by the dozen. Of the poets among them, some have matured and some regressed, some gone crazy and some terribly sane; and some have merely grown older, while others have died.

Ten years is a long time in the life of a literary movement, and I have a feeling in my bones that a decade has closed, that 1978 will see the end of an age wherein a coherent purpose was visible and acknowledged, that the brave young poets who rose up against the conservative establishment to struggle and finally triumph, only to feel the weight of the dusty mantle settle onto their own shoulders, are finally drifting out from the hot centre of energy that burnt its message across the amazed countenances of a thousand readers and a dozen Aust. Lit. courses, and are now at last their own persons, writing the poems that the revolution helped them to devise but paradoxically held back from them until the larger collective work was done. I think we are now seeing the effects of a minor cultural shift of some significance — a revision of values that identified a large group of young innovative writers who are now not so young, and whose innovations are open to a more serious appraisal than was either possible or necessary during the experimental phase of their writing. I would like to discuss a dozen recently published books, partly from the viewpoint of the changes that I think are taking place.

                

It should have been the poetry publishing event of 1977 — Cross the Border, Robert Adamson’s sixth book, a large and extravagantly produced 142-page collection of new poems.

Those who saw his Swamp Riddles (1974) as a turning point in his writing career hardly knew what to expect. [See John Tranter’s review of Swamp Riddles on this site.] A return to the outlaw themes of his earlier work? A further exploration of the Hawkesbury River landscape? In a way we got a little of both these things, though we didn’t bargain on the “Grail Poems”.

Not much need be said about the first group of poems. They share many of the preoccupations of similar poems from his earlier books Canticles on the Skin, The Rumour and Swamp Riddles. Fast cars, drugs, lawlessness, country radio, poets and the poetic life are the predominant subjects, and they are handled much in the same way, though generally with a looser grip on form and with a sense of much less urgency than before. Adamson is rehearsing his earlier speeches here, and as with all forms of repetition, the voice eventually grows tired. At times he seems content merely to state the formula without the sustained effort needed to reach to the guts of the experience itself:

I drive, and the lawless music I make clears
the air, moving in no direction
is a swift-flame dancing . . .
. . . law is breaking
into the imaginative cosmos
and then out beyond order, language adrift,
exploding, moving through . . .

Invocation may be the working mode of both magic and poetry, but a magician is only as effective as the real manifestation of his spirits. In these poems we often have merely the intention to evoke, and little of the substance.

This is also a fault in the middle part of the book, where Adamson once again claims magical dominion over almost every animal, vegetable and mineral form in the Hawkesbury River System:

My arm is the arm around you . . .
but it is also the river’s arm . . .

The one exception to this catalogue of pretensions is the short poem “The Mullet Run”, a vivid and carefully-handled piece of naturalistic description.

The influence of Robert Duncan is again in evidence through most of the poems, but it would be too unkind to blame him entirely for the last section of the book, the “Grail Poems”. In these sixteen pages Adamson really lets go, somehow exalting himself to the status of a member of the nobility of the Round Table, while at the same time holding other options open:

Come, fill me with love for a maiden
Show me the path to a desire that is carnal
And offer me also the temptations and the fiery lust of Sodom.

The Grail legend travelled a long way, through many languages and several centuries, before it found its most moving embodiment in the work of Sir Thomas Malory. It is arguable that the English language was on the verge of its most potent stage of development in the late fifteenth century when Malory gathered, translated and re-worked the Arthurian legends. What is beyond argument is the dreadful decline in the power of this legend’s expression from Malory, through Tennyson, Rosetti, and Hollywood to Robert Adamson.

I draw the light from his death.
I lose hold, lose my grip, the sword falls.
I feel his arms about me, his warmth as I draw back
from the memory.
My needs flow through this female Hermes — a trick of Eros?
What deformity held me back?
We were knights, sucking our cocks
by the Light of the Grail, furiously affectionate.

Like the Pre-Raphaelite painting it so much resembles, Adamson’s art in the Grail poems is on the level of titillating decoration — baroque, effete, claiming for itself a profound human purpose while remaining vain and self-obsessed, and wasting its energy on tinsel emblems at the expense of the main design.

Adamson is too good a poet to wade further into this morass of coy self-regard. Some of the earlier poems in Cross the Border show traces of his old strength and wit; though it is worrying to note that in many places he claims virtues that the poems themselves fail to demonstrate.

                

Nigel Roberts has been around the new writing scene for some ten years, editing Free Poetry, organising the poetry side of the Balmain Prose and Poetry Readings, and generally stirring things up. He has only published one book, In Casablanca for the Waters (1977), and in its style and content it sums up an aspect of the poetry world in Sydney since 1968. There is plenty of dope, drink, fucking and sucking, poems about poets and painters, the Vietnam protests, big business, hippies on communes (treated very tartly) and John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet.

It is not a catalogue of affectations; it is rather a mixture of tough and witty critique and generous celebration. The style he has made his own is jagged and clipped, littered with ampersands & slant lines (the printer’s solidus, i.e./ ) yet accurately fitted to his voice. The poem with the most ragged and chopped-up layout is also the one with the most self-referential stylistic wit:

so what
that it looks
like
cut-up
prose

go
find fault
with thistle
because it is not
rose.

                 

Both Vicki Viidikas and Robyn Ravlich were associated with the early Balmain days of the new writing; but wrote out of a clear awareness of their female roles as poets, and while Ravlich appears to have gone on to other things after the publication of her book The Black Abacus in 1971 (among them, a degree from Sydney University and a role as ABC producer), Viidikas is still writing primarily as a poet, has avoided the academy and has travelled extensively through Europe and Asia. Her first book, Condition Red (1973), had many good poems in it, particularly four prose poems at the back of the book, and her collection of prose pieces, Wrappings (1974, and reprinted as a paperback in 1976) is in my opinion one of the most interesting books of the decade.

She has a new manuscript of poetry ready for printing with Wild & Woolley in Sydney, and I must confess I was disappointed with it. The flexible form of her prose is to my mind a more effective means of communication than her new poetry, which is a mixture of colourful scenery sketched quickly and without precise outline, and argumentative statement that often circles around the point without hitting it:

. . . My love, my blood
it is aeons of suffering
and the curtain before the sun;
O brother, O love
flesh the hands which hold the key,
O raise up the dead
and trust the spaces between the stars . . .

Her experiences in the underworld of dope and sex in Sydney and Asia are the materials of much of her poetry, and it looks as though the intensity of her emotional reactions is breaking the banks of her verse, spreading pools of bright colour across the page to little real effect.

                

John Forbes came on the scene during its second phase, when the drug-criminal experiments of Dransfield, Adamson and others were beginning to develop into a larger awareness of what poetry could do. When Forbes speaks of drugs, it is often to push only the word itself into place in the poem:

And we are as far away as ever from
The Perfect Carburettor. Drugs disappear
In the slipstream of a bright car, the
Windows are stuffed with menus but
They don’t keep out the cold.

(from The Sorrowful Mysteries)

In fact, when he speaks of almost anything at all, it is with a careful eye on the poem’s prospects rather than to do praise to the thing the word represents. Children, for example: “Was that a baby / or a shirt factory? / no one can tell in this weather . . .”, or rural landscape, that perennial theme of Aust. Lit.: “I don’t know much about bolts from the blue / But a house in the country spells death . . .” or even love itself: “who loves at close range / like they do thru a tube?”

There is a type of flip wit at work here, making mock of the great themes that poetry is supposed to worship, yet the lack of solemnity is also a lack of somnolence, and while the fresh air that drifts off his pages may not quite take your breath away, it is at least a refreshing antidote to the silly pompousness that a lot of poetry inflicts on us.

The two books he has published are both small (Tropical Skiing, 1976, and On the Beach, 1977) but it should be said that the energy of his working goes not into quantity but into quality, and that there is not a poem in either book that is a mis-fire. The accuracy of his selection of line and phrase is remarkable, and his effects are precisely calculated. His poem “4 Heads & How to Do Them” is in my opinion the most skilled and stylish work of the decade, and in its play with varied poetic forms (Classic, Romantic, Symbolist and Conceptual) it evades any notion of “subject” altogether, while ably demonstrating that its real subject, the styles themselves, is more interesting than anything else the poet might have chosen.

There are poems with subjects in Forbes’ books, and even some with convention narratives, though the path he choses for his tales is a devious one, as in the poem “TV”:

don’t bother telling me about the programs
describe what your set is like the casing the
curved screen its strip of white stillness like
beach sand at pools where the animals come
down to drink and a native hunter hides his
muscles, poised with a fire sharpened spear
until the sudden whirr of an anthropologist’s
hidden camera sends gazelles leaping off in
their delicate slow motion caught on film
despite the impulsive killing of unlucky Doctor
Mathews whose body was found three months later
the film and camera intact save for a faint,
green mould on its hand-made leather casing

The poem, quoted in full, takes on the form and style of its content, with the “action” inside the film inside the television set which the poet is not looking at, but asking the imperative object of the poem’s request to describe for the benefit of the reader. And the poet’s imaginary version of this answer that we never receive has a similar relationship to the reader that, say, the subject of Hamlet’s ruminations (his father’s ghost) has to the audience of Shakespeare’s play: a non-existent subject of the imagination of a character in a manufactured story. We swallow Shakespeare whole, but often balk at poems such as these, not realising their familiarity or their lineage.

                

Laurie Duggan’s book East (1977) collects the best of the poems he wrote from 1970 to 1974, and opens with the title poem, which won the New Poetry Award in 1972. It consists of eight sonnets that work in the collage form, and the portrait of Duggan’s family and the East Gippsland area they inhabited emerges vividly from the artfully arranged fragments. The other poems are in a variety of styles; two of them recall John Forbes. “Orient” gathers the detritus of a dozed Forbes poems and rearranges it in a mixture of parody, echo and homage: “. . . Thanks / for the postcard, the coconuts / stun me continually. It’s like the first colour movie / yes, but where are the ice-creams of last summer?” The poem “Cheerio” is dedicated to Forbes, and in it flies “crawl across the T.V. tube” where we remember meeting the unlucky Doctor Mathews.

The last section of East contains twelve anagrams, made up, after the manner of Jonathan Williams, of the letters of the names of poets, in this case, writers involved with the generation under discussion. Some are simply clever; others are dreadfully apt:

Ode’s R. R. boatman
art demon robs a
T. A. B. or dreams on
sodom. Be arrant;
do a sombre rant!

(‘Robert Adamson’)

Dead man chills fire.

(‘Michael Dransfield’)

I? I? Vi vas I kick’d?

(‘Vicki Viidikas’)

His later work, seen here and there in magazines and now collected for publication by Wild and Woolley late in 1978, has moved away from what Duggan calls his “post-Modernist phase”. It is more personal, more relaxed, more narrative and chatty, and follows an honorable tradition that had a great deal of influence on the writing of the late 1960s; that of Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, itself a form closely influenced by T’ang Dynasty poetry in Chinese and by some Japanese verse. Charles Buckmaster’s work had this tone around the edges of it, and it will be interesting to see what Duggan, with his impish, dry and sometimes caustic wit, makes of his material.

                

The Melbourne poet Alan Wearne took a large step forward with his second book, New Devil, New Parish (1976). The first section of 23 pages is interesting enough, containing as it does many good and typically complicated poems, and on its own might be considered a reasonable advance on his first book, Public Relations.

The last 56 pages, however, contain the long poem “Out Here”, a feat of endurance as well as skill. It is 2,000 lines long, and consists solely of dramatic monologues spoken by nine people thrown together by a knifing incident at a Melbourne high school. Though the dramatic monologue is a form noted for its difficult inward focus, this poem reaches out through a varied range of suburban personalities and life-styles, painting a picture of Australian life that has enough violence, ambition, disappointment, anguish and love in it to fill a large novel, or (more to the point, considering the style, a gripping movie.)

Wearne’s one problem is voice. In “Out Here” he has to build nine distinct personalities, and the variety of tone required for convincing characterisation stretches his vocal talents near their limit.

Nonetheless, the characters that people his story have so much to say, and say it with such directness and colour, that the supposed honesty of much contemporary personal and confessional poetry appears thin and hysterical by comparison. “Out Here” is a very unusual poem, both because of the confident authority of its achievement, and because its only obvious antecedent is Browning (and a few currently unpopular Americans of the older generation). Wearne owes little to any living writer, yet his work is recognisably modern; his writing shows no trace of any local tradition, yet he is distinctively Australian.

                

Philip Hammial only arrived in Australia in 1972 (he’s American) and didn’t publish his first book until 1976. His work has much that is relevant to recent Australian poetry, though, and he raises interesting questions about style and its relation to content. His books are Foot Falls & Notes (1976), and Mastication Poems, Chemical Cart, and Hear me Eating (all 1977). There’s not much a critic can say about the content or subject matter of his poetry; it’s simply too hard to work out what it is from poem to poem. Who in their right mind would dare to venture an opinion regarding the subject matter of — for example — the poem “Train Habits”, which opens

I shake to explain the wren.
The tracks are covered for filial (not political) consumption.
The person is therefore beneficial, & threats are made.
As pilgrim he is bridge, roman & spider...

It’s not bird-watching, nor Roman aqueduct architecture, nor the study of arachnids. Nowhere in his work does Hammial do more than give us cryptic clues as to what he’s talking about, and though there are clues in thousands, they point in a bewildering number of directions.

Yet there is a theme running through all his work, and it is that of mainly Christian religious doctrine and liturgy. Almost every poem contains at least one word or phrase with religious overtones and yet — the problem of elusive subject matter — the reader finds it impossible to know what to do with this knowledge even when he teases it out.

The other notable thing about his poetry is the extraordinary skill Hammial shows with rhythm, syntax and enjambment. His verse is so difficult that one might well say that we shall never know to what good purpose this talent is exercised; nonetheless it is there, and stands out clearly as both a gift and a discipline.

                

Rae Desmond Jones has continued to work in the area he staked out for himself in his first two books, Orpheus With a Tuba (1973) and The Mad Vibe (1975). His poems have often verged on the grotesque, and his latest volume, Shakti, contains plenty to make the reader sit up and take notice.

The opening poem, “The Buddha”, has its hero — yes, Gautama Buddha, centre of a vast and complex religion — being strapped into a fat Maserati and crashing horribly at Monte Carlo, and closes with the image of the car’s pistons masturbating “red hot under his feet”. The last poem in the book, “The El Paso Restaurant”, is a delightful game in the genre of old Western movies, but decked out in transvestite trappings — “down on the street gary cooper hitches / up his stockings and checks the clock” — and these two extremes of grotesque ugliness and manic camp wit form the outer borders of much of the stylistic play in the book.

More important is the tension between the personal and the public, often seen in terms of private vision versus political cynicism. The poem “Age”, for example, is in two parts; the first is a quietly impassioned rumination on how our society strips away the dignity of age —

all the disinherited &
the suffering and stupidity of the oppressed
beyond the cynical tolerance of the oppressor . . .

The second part is a nicely modulated poem about an old man sitting on a bench, that spreads out beyond the boundaries of a portrait to take in the cityscape and the harbour tides beating against the rock. No overt morals are deduced, nor is the scenery made to spell out a lesson.

The total effect of this poem is more than its surface suggests, and works finally in terms of the compassion that is always present behind Jones’ concerns, a care that shows itself in his scrupulous honesty to his subject rather than by any overt claims. In poems such as “Age” the poet is taking the side of the alienated proletariat against the impersonal forces that rob our society of its deeper values, yet while Jones’ commitment has the ring of authenticity, it is notable that he avoids facile empathising, and makes no claims for the poet as a special advocate for the dispossessed.

It is difficult to sum up the effect of Shakti, so varied are the poems and the approaches used. There are two prose-pieces, poems about bizarre sexual episodes, poems about poetry, politics, movie stars and revolution. It is equally difficult to point to a clear line of influence — Rae Jones belongs to no identifiable school or group of poets.

He is clearly not several things: not typically Australian, though his tone of voice often is; not American, though some debt to Ginsberg appears from time to time; not Romantic, though he sometimes outlines the poet’s role in neo-Romantic terms; and not taken in by the New York brand of flip poetic wit, though the poem “Jungle Juice” (in which Tarzan minces up to take part in the 1936 Congo Fashion Parade) has much in it that is reminiscent of Frank O’Hara at his most irreverently camp.

                

What I think is developing in his work is a model of what is happening to the whole generation: the American presence in Vietnam, the music of Bob Dylan and the manic thrill of speed have all been replaced by other things, many of them distinctly less pleasant (Timor, punk rock and heroin?), and its poetry is beginning to widen out. As poets such as Rae Jones grow older and plot a personal life increasingly more separate from the issues that tied them together in their youth, so their poems follow this shift, paradoxically taking on a more individual flavour as the complex issues of both humanity and the writer’s craft are absorbed.

Some — and I would argue that Adamson and Viidikas are among them — appear in their work to be regressing to a pre-socialised phase of ego development, seeing their writing as a means of forcing a stubborn reality to reflect a manufactured gratification of their psychic needs. The emphasis on magic and drugs and the denial of the claims of corporate social structures are the operative methods that the poetry both feeds on and attempts to authorise. Others — Jones and Wearne as examples — are using a more extravert mode involving social observation and critique to reach into and explore the varied world outside their personal concerns. The ego of the poet is still active in Jones’ work, balancing, criticising and giving shape to the portrayed world, where in Wearne’s writing it is subordinated to the needs of his characters.

The form of dramatic monologue used by Wearne is an abandonment of the poet’s voice in favour of the speech that will emerge from the beings called up from the poem; in this sense, the evocation of spirits is demonstrated as the method, and their utterances as the substance, of the poet’s art. The contrast with Adamson’s thaumaturgy could not be more vivid — in Wearne, the voices come so clearly from the world around us that his best lines have the fascination of a well-shaped documentary; in Adamson we hear, beneath the loud accents of the poet, only the ghostly echoes of voices trapped in books for a thousand years. Viidikas’ writing has other purposes: a means of therapy, a form of self-expression and a celebration of a mix of sub-cultural life-styles. As she says in a statement in the ALS issue mentioned previously:

“. . . I like all writers who are out of step, and I guess that’s what I try to write about myself, the realities of subcultures in Western society such as bohemians, junkies, criminals, prostitutes, atheists, homosexuals, or people who are just plain amoral . . . I’m only interested in creating out of the subconscious . . . Because intuitive knowledge is fast becoming lost in Western society, individuals are turning to extreme and abberated behaviour, in order to express themselves . . . my writing started as confessional therapy and has remained so . . .”
(ALS, pp. 155–6)

In many ways the poetry revolution of 1968 was itself an alienated sub-culture, and Viidikas’ emphasis on self-expression and unconscious forces strikes one of the notes that resonated through much of the writing of that period. The honesty of her commitment to her private visions is commendable, yet it is unfortunate that a species of writing that takes so little account of the broader society around it and of the average reader’s inability to endure the unstructured outpourings of the subconscious mind with more than temporary interest should have so much of the writer’s energy and belief invested in it. Writers like Viidikas — and since the invention of the Romantic Outsider there has been an endless stream of them — will always recall us to a proper consideration of the deeper urges that push up against the underside of our socialised gestures, and it is a pity that they should so often remind us of the bore who buttonholes us with the details of his dreams, recounted at great length.

                

As history is the analysis of change through the lens of hindsight, its character is often ironic. It is a minor irony that at a stage where the new writing of the late 1960s is beginning to be seen clearly as homogeneous, it is now also becoming obvious that the coherent purpose of writers such as Adamson, Dransfield, Buckmaster, Nigel Roberts, Rae Jones, Vicki Viidikas and others was merely the product of the constraining forces they worked against; in other words, they looked the same because they were all different from the established writers they opposed. And they were very different from, say, A.D.Hope, Buckley, McAuley, Wright, FitzGerald; long may they remain so.

Even as the picture comes into focus, its elements dissolve and disperse. I have pointed out the differences between Jones and Wearne on the one hand, and Adamson and Viidikas on the other; they are of course each different from one another, and there is more dissentience yet, various and profound enough to form the subject for a dozen dissertations. And it is not only the style and subject matter that is forming the basis for serious argument. Disquiet about the very teleology of poetic method is beginning to erode the fabric of community that once knit together a group of poets with an apparently common purpose.

It’s hard to see a single direct cause for this shift, but it seems to me that the two major changes in Australian political feeling in 1972 and 1975 have a, lot to do with it.

Whether the poets of 1968 were specifically articulate in political terms is beside the point. Their early work spoke loudly of a wish for change, and that change was duly achieved. Australian society showed a readiness to take on something new and untried, to abandon the safety of conventional, established values in favour of a future that was unconventional, exhilarating and morally committed. But that experiment, in its larger social terms, was quickly crippled; after Whitlam, most Australians simply wanted to turn back to a less exhausting and more stable way of life. I think this engendered in the young poets not a failure of nerve, but a failure of purpose. Their disillusionment was pervasive; it was as though, in the stunned aftermath of 11 November 1975, the poets voted informal, came in off the streets, and locked the study door. [see note below]

The twelve collections of recent poetry considered in this article — with perhaps the exceptions of Rae Jones and Nigel Roberts — display a turning away from social and political commitment. Each poet has taken a different direction, but the paths all diverge from what was once common territory. It’s not a happy prognosis for the poetry of commitment; but the poets are still writing, and getting better at it. A new range of styles is emerging, in these and other books, with a looser focus on the social realities and a closer attention to the voice of the individual. I doubt that the next decade will feature a group of young writers as energetically cohesive as those of 1968. What it might give us is something more valuable: a large number of varied individual voices, building on the achievements and hard-won freedoms of the past ten years, and leading poetry out into a larger and more generous field of experience.

____________________
Note: In December 1972, after 26 years of Liberal (conservative) government, the Australian people voted the Labor Party and its leader Gough Whitlam into power. Whitlam’s governments were extremely active… Many initiatives vitalized intellectual and cultural pursuits. A stronger sense of Australian identity prevailed, and some imperial symbols were abandoned. The government encouraged wage increases (including equal pay for women) and spent much on social services, notably health and urban amenities. To many, it appeared as if Whitlam were shaping a new and better Australia. Others saw the government as reckless and dangerous. Some of its members did lean toward irresponsibility… His opponents fought hard and bitterly, especially after the accession to opposition leadership in March 1975 of the Liberal Malcolm Fraser. The government lacked a majority in the Senate (the federal upper house), which accordingly deferred approval of revenue supply, the intent being to force Whitlam to call an election. The complex constitutional issue that thus arose required the adjudication of the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, the formal head of state under the crown. Kerr had been nominated by Whitlam, but on 11 November 1975 he dismissed Whitlam and appointed Fraser interim prime minister. Much excitement prevailed, and among Whitlam’s admirers, outrage. An election in December gave a handsome victory to Fraser. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

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