Elly McDonald

Writer


1 Comment

The shark with my name on it

It’s edging
into the narrows
between the reef and rocky outcrops.
It inserts its proboscis
its probe
and smiles that smile that is not
a smile.
The shark with my name on it
quivers with instinctive
connective drive
Its pale planetary
eyes dilate.
Sensing my proximity
the shutters come down
nictitating membrane.
Better than an eye roll
a full body twist
a wink that says
silently
I’ve got your number.

shark_elly_mcdonald_writer


3 Comments

Untitled (2018)

I nursed my father in my arms as he died
spewing black blood.
Do you think any residue between me and you
means anything
alongside that?

I do a lot of death.
The ones who grow old
The people who don’t
Those who barely made it past the cradle.
I wait in the market in Damascus and
no one is unexpected.

I stand on a bridge and
sooner or later they all pass by.
I extend my hand and
welcome them.

Hello, I say.
I have a room prepared.


Leave a comment

After viewing Philippe Mora’s film Monsieur Mayonnaise (2016)

Monsieur Mayonnaise: Philippe Mora’s colour-saturated documentary/memoir/graphic novel/cartoon about how his parents Georges and Mirka survived the Holocaust to introduce European bohemian culture to post-War Melbourne, Australia.

And how Gunther Morawski became Georges Morand then Mora then Monsieur Mayonnaise then Georges Mora; or, how Gunther Morawski became a Resistance hero, father substitute to Jewish war orphans, people smuggler, and impersonator of Catholic nuns (in company with best mate Marcel Marceau).

Some of my responses:- with apologies to Philippe Mora and his family for details I’ve recalled wrongly or that should have been included but are not. I hope the Mora family will forgive me for borrowing some of their images and artwork for this blog.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to see Monsieur Mayonnaise this response might be best read AFTER viewing. On the other hand, it’s the Holocaust – you know how that unfolded. Don’t you?]

monsieur-mayonnaise-hitler-book-burning

Artwork by Philippe Mora for his graphic novel Monsieur Mayonnaise

One morning Leon Zelik left his Paris apartment to buy a newspaper. While he was out, soldiers arrived and took his wife and his three daughters, Mirka, Madeleine and Salome.

The women were herded onto a train along with 1000 other Jews, mostly women and children. They were terrified. As the train rattled along, Mme Zelik and Mirka, her eldest daughter, peered through the wooden slats of their crate-carriage, strained to identify signage at train stations they passed.

The mother had had the presence of mind to grab a sheet of paper, a pen and an envelope from their apartment as they were taken. Now, she wrote the names of each train station in sequence. She folded the page into the unstamped envelope, which she addressed to her husband, Leon Zelik, at their street address.

She directed Mirka to drop the sealed envelope through the crate cracks as the train slowed. Mirka was frightened it would blow back onto the tracks.

They were disembarked at a massive holding centre. Four days before their contingent were scheduled to be shunted to Auschwitz, guards came and released them. As Mirka looked back towards the camp she saw the other detainees crowded against the fences, the children big-eyed, watching the Zelik family retreat to freedom.

In later years Mirka said the big eyes in the faces of the doomed children were the genesis of the angel children she painted throughout her life. She said the guilt pained her. Telling this, she cried.

Someone had found the addressed envelope, stamped it, and mailed it to Leon in Paris. From the list of train stations, Leon worked out the camp where his family were held. He convinced a clothing manufacturer to request that the Zelik women be released on the grounds that the mother was a required worker manufacturing German army uniforms. A lie, but it worked.

In later years, Mirka thanked that anonymous person who found her mother’s letter, every day, life long.

Mme Zelik, Mirka, Madeleine and Salome were the only survivors of the Jewish detainees on that transport. I have/had a mental blank on The Mother’s name. Wiki says she’s “Celia (Suzanne)” but in his film Philippe Mora refers to her by what I think must be a Lithuanian petname or diminutive.

monsieur-mayonnaise-mirka-mora-with-angel-children

Mirka Mora with angel children

There’s a sequel: by chance Leon met a French farm worker, a Christian, who offered the Zelik family sanctuary. In his village was a house locked up while its owner was a prisoner of war. The Zeliks spent 2 1/2 years there. The Frenchman’s daughter says her father never questioned that providing sanctuary was the right – the only – thing to do.

I won’t recount Georges story here. I can’t get his story out of my mind, and have been telling it to almost everyone I meet. But every time I tell it, I cry, and the people I tell it to cry too.

Suffice to say there’s a 92 y.o man on film who says he became an eminent New York child psychiatrist because Mora and his Resistance colleagues saved his life, because Mora cared, and because he wanted to be like Mora: to save children. Even if it meant dressing up as a nun and trekking Jewish war orphans to the Swiss frontier, a la The Sound of Music. In company with the famous mime Marcel Marceau. (No, even in New York none of this is required of child psychiatrists. This is what French Resistance operative code-name Mora did.)

monsieur-mayonnaise-georges-mora-philippe-mora

Georges Mora clips his son Philippe’s hair

In Philippe Mora’s film he visits a museum memorializing child victims of the Holocaust deported from France (not the famous Holocaust Museum in the States – I googled but could not identify this museum). The interior walls seem to be lit with a low golden glow and have what appear to be timber vertical divides and, less prominent, horizontal divides, so that the walls suggest a panel of spaces for portraits or icons. Many of the spaces are filled by photographs of children who died, with their name and (I think) age. The spaces left empty are ones where no photograph has been located. I believe in this museum there are 6000 framed spaces.

Aesthetically it’s beautiful. Emotionally, it’s devastating.

monsieur-mayonnaise-hitler-and-mickey

Artwork by Philippe Mora for his graphic novel Monsieur Mayonnaise

My father shocked me today when he asked if pogroms predated Hitler. He seemed to think anti-Semitism started in post-WW1 Germany. I can only think this is cognitive slippage in old age and illness, as Dad, having been a child in the ’30s, went on to be a student of economics, politics and modern history.

Yet knowledge of modern history is vanishing, replaced by Hollywood distortions (Inglourious Basterds), denial, and a galloping cynicism that buys into conspiracy theories and a belief that everything we’ve been told is propaganda.

When I was 22, in 1983, I went to an adult education course where my classmates included 3 older women, post-WW2 Jewish refugees. Two spoke with heavy accents and the third, after 35 years in Australia, barely spoke English at all. Her friends explained she rarely ventured outside the Jewish emigre community.

I asked if they’d encountered anti-Semitism in their early years in Australia.

“Oh darling,” one woman laughed. “No. People here didn’t know what a Jew WAS.”

I suppose part of the problem is when we can’t admit our ignorance, and *think* we “know” the stranger.

Openness to learn is more important than ever. But in a media age, what media do we trust?

monsieur-mayonnaise-georges-mora

George Mora. Monsieur Mayonnaise.

My friend Donna says, “I was married into a Jewish family for 32 years. The matriarch pulled the address labels off of every magazine that came to the house (the goyim see the name and know that is a Jewish household), and no one talked about illnesses or diseases except in very hushed voices (the government takes the weak first)… that was not uncommon in the WWII generation, but they are slowly dying off, and the younger folks have no idea..”

“George Mora’s” two sons had no idea he was really Gunther Morawitz, German-born, medical student at Leipzig University, native German speaker, until his last years; and no idea why he wouldn’t step into a VW or Mercedes-Benz or use Krupp appliances.

When I was at school I had teachers who were Holocaust survivors. Exposure to first-hand witnesses is invaluable. We’re losing them.

Remembering snow (1986)

Rosa says

I remember snow

When I was a girl I lived

in Siberia

There was so much snow so

much

we skated on a river of ice

Mrs Cameron

born Roth

40,916: tattooed in blue

teaches art

forgets

she remembers.

Don’t ask.

But

Mrs Zabukovec

gypsy eyes

teaches German

born Bulgarian

she remembers

being 18

in Berlin

being 18

Russians

she remembers.

Don’t.

She remembers

long rows of blossoms, white-clustered blossoms

so white so

much breaks

down

 

remembering snow

monsieur-mayonnaise-mirka-mora

 

 


Leave a comment

30 years on

In 1985 I was so insecure about my writing that when I picked up marked essays from the English department I carried them around for hours, or days, then tentatively peeked at the blank back page before working up courage to decipher the impress of the grade, the academic mark, through paper. End 1988, when I got my final results for my degree, I could not bear to open the envelope till late 1991.

Apart from my very first essay, which was an A-, and an A- from a Leavis-ite lecturer the next year, all my English marks were High Distinctions. In first year I won five awards or scholarships and in second year I topped the year. My professors were having conversations with me about winning the University medal and scholarships to Princeton. Scared the shit out of me. I didn’t know what I wanted but I was fairly sure Ivy League did not feature.

Against this background, it might come as no surprise that when my poetry book Other People (and other poems) was self-published in 1985 I did not seek out reviews. I was aware that one of my Associate Professors, Don Anderson, who the following year became my tutor and mentor, mentioned my little book kindly in his literary column in the Sydney Morning Herald. I knew my writing hero Helen Garner bought my book. I knew the poet Dorothy Hewett liked me (we’d met one rainy day sharing a table in a Kings Cross coffee shop and Dorothy opened her home to me). I knew Brenda Walker at the University of Western Australia was interested, because she’d asked her brother, Cold Chisel’s Don Walker, if he knew me as a fellow habitue of Kings Cross (he did). Also, Brenda was on the editorial board of Westerly, the literary journal, which published half a dozen of my poems, and she asked me to contribute to a study she was co-editing, Poetry and Gender: Statements and Essays in Australian Women’s Poetry and Poetics. My correspondence with Brenda in the mid-80s contributed immensely to my confidence as a writer and a student.

But real reviews? Reviews by critics? Spare me.

And so it happened that it was not till 31 years later, in 2016, that in hunting out a missing poem of mine on the austlit.edu.au Australian Literature database I discovered reviews exist for Other People. One was written by Judith Rodriguez, who had awarded me First Prize in a short story competition. When I printed out Judith’s review (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 1985) the sentence that leapt out was “McDonald’s collection is carrying a number of weaker pieces”, but I consider that friendly fire: the truth is my book was laden with duds. The other review was written by Barbara Giles (Australian Book Review #81, June 1986). Barbara’s review is so generous I’m overcome.

What really surprises me is that the four poems Judith and Barbara chose to quote were poems I considered weak – two of them so weak I haven’t bothered posting them on this blog site (even though one was anthologised). Forgive my hubris, but it’s rather nice to reappraise work I had long since dismissed.

Barbara. Judith. Helen. Brenda. Don. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. And to Dorothy and Merv, you are in my heart, always.

 

Judith Rodriguez, ‘New poets show power amid the complexity’ – Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 1985 p.46

Two very young poets are Elly McDonald, whose Other People (and other poems) can be had from PO Box 1230, Potts Point, and Adam Aitken with Letter to Marco Polo (Island, $5.95). Both are in their mid-twenties.

McDonald’s collection is carrying a number of weaker pieces, but her interest in people carries brightly through most of her short poems of encounters, confrontations, and overheard talk. Messalina at the Beach-House is a piquant description of a cat with personality; Telling catches a difficult tone of dull obsession, and old woman’s muttering:

My friend called Alice baked bread;
she baked bread, every day.
She was ill, and never told anyone
(I never told anyone
this, but she never did.)

Barbara Giles, ‘The Virtues of Simplicity’ – Australian Book Review, June 1986 p.23

Elly McDonald is another poet who writes with simplicity, yet with striking force. Apt metaphors, sparingly used, illuminate and enrich her verse. She also has something to say worth listening to. Other People, she calls her book, and the ‘I’ who surfaces occasionally must be she.

The people of whom she writes are lively and various, some successful, some unsuccessful; her own life as rock music, film and theatre writer offers her many slices of life. A continuing theme is the separateness, the self-possession, of women; a woman owns herself no matter what. ‘Alone in this place / where everything is his / through lips still thick with his body’s roughness / I whisper to shadows / He’s not a part of me.’ Again, ‘Two thighs / knees together / insolent autonomy’. These women are gentle, are brave, are cynical: ‘Swimming or flying; it’s exhausting / a lurching struggle to keep on top’.

Her portraits, both of men and women, are witty and she can take the mickey out of herself as well. Hers is a poetry that’s bright, tough, incisive, intelligent, and I’m glad she had the courage to self-publish.

Elly_McDonald_Writer Ian Greene 1985

Elly when Other People (and other poems) was published (pic: Ian Greene 1985)

 


Leave a comment

Statement of poetics (1985)

Poetry and Gender: Statements and Essays in Australian Women’s Poetry and Poetics – editors Davids Brooks and Brenda Walker, St Lucia University of Queensland, 1989, p.57/58

It’s very strange to re-read this after 30 years. I remember I was asked to write a Statement of Poetics for this study early in 1985, in my first term enrolled in English at the University of Sydney. I had no idea what a “Statement of poetics” should be. I knew nothing about gender theory in Literature. I took my draft to my Term 1 tutor, who as it happened was an aspiring creative writer too. She didn’t like me and she did not like my draft. I remember her wrinkling her nose. I also remember that when the writer Helen Garner visited that term, my tutor and a number of students joined Helen for a drink, and I hoped my tutor might introduce us. Of course I should have simply introduced myself. A short while after, Helen contacted me, by handwritten note, requesting a copy of my poetry book, Other People (and other poems). I was thrilled by her interest, and I told her I’d been present that evening at Sydney Uni. Helen wrote back saying it’s frustrating how often people she hoped to meet tell her they’d been somewhere in her proximity but had been too shy to introduce themselves.

The other thing I note is my bullshit. My poems did not have an “male/female, overtly sexual context”? My relationships with women and family were “more complex than my relationships with men”? I wrote “most often about female friendships”? No. No and no. Fact is most of my poems were autobiographical, and most concerned a particular male/female relationship, and I was embarrassed to own that. For the record: Other People (and other poems) was memoir. You know who you are.

Nearly all my poems are records of conflict; I write as a means of clarifying emotion.

The only reader I initially had in mind was me; for years I never considered poems of mine might be publishable. I was writing highly-codified, deceptively simple lines that read like printed lyrics to songs. The music was built-in: I relied on rhythm, and rhythm is still the lynchpin of my style. I actually regard some of my poems as songs for the inner-ear, though I’m aware that rhythms that seem to me insistent are not always obvious, comfortable or even apparent to some readers.

Repetition is another hallmark of my style. I like to play with a word, and its puns and variations and rhymes, in such a way that several meanings may be suggested. Punctuation in my poetry is a guide suggesting mental pauses like musical rests of varying value. I seldom use conventional punctuation, believing it forces too narrow a reading. Ideally, multiple meanings should bounce off each phrase. Lines often have a particular meaning taken by themselves that adds another dimension to their sense in the context of the whole sentence or verse. I like that. I think of it as texture, as verbal cross-weaving. It’s also an intellectual game, a form of self-amusement like a cryptic crossword. I once wrote a six-line poem in which the lines and phrases could be read in any sequence and still convey sense.

However, until quite recently it never occurred to me these games might be accepted as ‘real’ poetry. Real poetry, I thought, was based on metaphor. More abstract, more structurally complex and more dense, real poetry was rife with adjectives. My poetry became very wordy, which in itself I don’t consider a fault – writing is, after all, about words – so long as the words are used to effect. I do think, though, that in poems written during this phase I was cramming in too much, too clumsily.

Because I feel strongly about their subjects, my poems often have an impulsive, obsessive quality. Where poetry is concerned, I’m just not interesting in exploring anything but the politics of personal relationships. The relationships I have with other women and with my family have proved more complex than my relationships with men, so I write most often about female friendships, current and past. These ‘friendships’ have often been problematic, ambivalent; the poems are correspondingly ambiguous. (Some poems that may appear to address a man in fact involve a woman.)

Up until now, stalemated power-struggles have been the dominant recurring theme, and the image of the doppelganger stalks through much of my work. The doppelganger reflects a too-close identification with my perceived (female) ‘Enemy’: almost an exchange of identity. The doppelganger might be the Enemy as Self.

The doppelganger stares back from mirrors. Frequent references to mirrors in my poems are not intentional symbolism, but now I’ve become aware of them I’m sure they relate to a childhood conviction that mirrors are the bridge between the land of the living and a phantasm zone. Quite a few poems of mine are re-lived nightmares, or slip midway into nightmare sequences.

A sense of displacement, of dislocation, is also something I’m increasingly aware of as an element in my writing. The poems’ subjects are usually an Outsider – or an outcast, a misfit who’d choose to be accepted. More often than not, the Outsider’s survival is in jeopardy. The context is hostile, unknowable: strangers, people not recognised, mistaken identity and identity exchange recur.

These recurring elements have not been consciously endowed with significance, and I don’t fully understand their implications. Explicit meaning is not a high priority; my poems are not plotted in advance. When I sit down to write, all I usually have is a mood demanding expression. I may have a character, a specific situation and perhaps a key phrase or metaphor, but for the most part the first draft resembles automatic writing. I write till the words take on some kind of form, and then I examine what may have emerged. Invariably these days it requires re-working, but the first draft is the model.

I hope my work reads as distinctively female. Its focus on relationships in other than a male/female, overtly sexual context and its concern with inter-personal nuances are not, to my mind, typical of male writing. For me, poetry is close focus. I believe there are infinite kinds of feeling, forming all degrees of human bonding: variation on feeling seems to me a subject demanding close examination.

Elly_McDonald_Writer Ian Greene headshot 1985

Headshot taken for inclusion in poetry anthology 1985 (pic: Ian Greene)


Leave a comment

Be Alright (1986)

She and he
are sitting in a public place. They’re smiling. They’re
talking. Her fingers rest on his forearm and
their profiles overlap. They might
be kissing, but in fact
they’re talking. They’re smiling, and it’s all
alright

She and he
stand watching, observing themselves from the foreground.
A shared smile, turned inwards
her hand on his shoulder, long-held
hopes in her touch. See? She turns to him
softly – in this dream
they might be kissing. They might in fact
be talking, be smiling – they might both
be alright


Leave a comment

Pet (1986)

An image of a girl, smiling

A whitebread girl with small milkteeth

Sharp like a cat’s.

A narrow-faced woman with thin lips

A wide-stretched grin

Fixed. Pinched. Anxious eyes

Mistrustful, guarded – slanted slits under

Claw-slash brows

He loves her. He loves her long-limbed

Awkwardness, her stiff-necked

Elegance – the memory of how

She loved her cats.

Love. Memory. Shrill cries on the wind.

He takes in stray

Women and dreams

Of spilt milk.

woman with cat

 

WESTERLY, No.2, JUNE, 1987 77