A review of What happened to Joseph? by T.A.G. Hungerford

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

What happened to Joseph?
by T.A.G. Hungerford
Jacobyte Books
ISBN: 1 74100 178 1, 2005

T.A.G Hungerford’s latest book of stories and poems, Whatever Happened to Joseph is quintessentially Australian work: moving deftly from city to country; from the rich flora and fauna of the outside world, to the quiet observations of a drawing room. The prose is poetic and the poetry prosaic – each telling a story full of the detail of everyday life – ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. The book is structured with one or two poems sandwiched between each story. The opening story “O, Moon of Mullamulla” takes place during a party at an old and grand estate. It’s the end of an era – the start of the sixties, and another series of dichotomies – black and white – old money and new. The younger Winters are entertaining local aboriginals and honouring a black poet, Molly Wilcania. Morlock, a visiting gentleman, has his own epiphany amidst the harsh dialogue, suddenly noticing the beauty of the sky. The writing, as always with Hungerford, is lovely, even against the slight viciousness of the conversation that Molly has with Morlock. Behind the pretences on both sides, is nature – the nature that opens the story and ends it too:

He cut his engine for a moment to savour the stillness. It was not stillness, anyway. It was an absolute harmony of swamp night sounds, frogs, crickets, rustle of undergrowth, occasional birdcall contented and sleepy. Somehow, nevertheless, it all added up to a deep, restful silence.

“Anzac Day” is one of the more powerful pieces in the book. Like Wilfred Owen, Hungerford’s voice is laid back and ironic – showing rather than telling about the horror of blood and death and fighting, but also the seduction. The sudden slip from family man into killer, like the caged lion at the zoo – just a moment’s recollection of the jungle – the “blue wreaths of cordite”, the terrible beauty of that elemental animal behind the man of civilisation. The power in this poem is the way in which Hungerford weaves in death – both the the impending one that comes to us all with old age and the one we create, especially in war. This is done simultaneosly when the aging diggers are wheeled out from their nursing homes for the parade, their eyes glowing red. It’s a powerful poem and one that lodges itself beneath the reader’s skin, raising difficult questions and opening too many doors.

“Emu Dance” is an intimate piece – a strange and beautiful story of a spontaneous friendship that somehow conjures up memory and magic – a shared moment between an old black man and a young white boy. Hungerford manages the dialogue differences perfectly, even mirroring the lingo to demonstrate the way in which the two characters begin connecting. Once again Hungerford employs dichotomies to create tension and forward progression to the story as the characters – so different to one another, begin to merge, along with the past – a sense that this young child is gleaning, with growing excitement, and the present.

Like many of the stories in the book, “A Sort of Husband” is wrought with nostalgia – of something shared, held onto, and lost. Again the contrast between enemy and friend is worked out in the love affair between Andrew and Meiko, in their broken English and Spartan but moving relationship.

In “An Urban Black Goes for a Walk in the Scrub”, the writing straddles the line between poetry and prose – taking the reader into the sensual present, wrought with memory that goes beyond one lifetime. The writing moves from perception to epiphany:

Hot stillness, the scent of gumleaves burning,

building of nests, the ants’ relentless mining.

The undying fabric of the ancient dream

by which his remembering heart calls him home.

The title piece, “Whatever Happened to Joseph”, is a reimagining of the life of the Biblical carpenter – the minor character who never even got to be a father figure. In this version, Joseph plays a rather more major role in the proceedings of the new testament, with a twist at the end.

Other work moves across landmarks of Australia, from the opal colours of Uluru (with its cash register warning), Black Mountain, Canberra, the coast of Albany in Western Australia, and even some unknown planet or place populated with a human-like species. The lives it traces are also widespread, revealing the universe in moments uncovered – acts of generosity, coming-of-age, the mindless barberry of a the killing of a whale, the discovery of a dead seahorse: “I felt between my finger-tips I held/the secrets of all the oceans in the world”, or even the surprise humour of rhyme in the ‘insemination’ of tomatoes. Working through the almost intensely Australia flora and fauna are memory, nostalgia, mateship, war and its aftermath – the civilian life that follows, and hope. There are poems and stories that simultaneously celebrate and mourn the aging process, poems and stories that look at the nature of relationships, love, the kind of hate that leads to war and genocide, loss, and the alienation that sits in all of our hearts – between civilisation and our rough animal natures. There’s so much material here, and the language so rich and wrought, that the reader is left feeling like a lifetime as passed between the pages:

And settled back into the piled pillows,

deflating like a punctured inner-tube

until it seemed there was nothing there at all

but those still hands stark on the stark white sheets (“Gran’dad”)

Although some poems and stories are stronger than others, the work is always ambitious and tightly written, each story leaning naturally to the next poem, and blurring the lines between genre and style towards the creation of new meaning. This is a terrific collection that contains so many layers of what it means to be an Australian, and indeed, a human, that it bears multiple re-readings.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the poetry book Repulsion Thrust, the novel Sleep Before Evening, and a nonfiction book, The Art of Assessment. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.

Article first published as Book Review: Whatever Happened to Joseph? by T.A.G. Hungerford on Blogcritics.