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Review: Vandemonian, by Cliff Forshaw

Cliff Forshaw has turned a tragic history into a compelling narrative of imperial hubris. The extermination of Tasmanian Aborgines by the Governor of Van Diemen's Land is the historical context, the particular story of the last of the full-blood Tasmanian, Trucanini, the shocking heart of the narrative.

The opening sequence, 'Vandemonian', establishes the imperial ambition... Notes to the text, arranged as in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, reveal the grim statistics of colonial repression: price-lists for teh headhunting of wildlife; inventories of the tools of repression - such as "300 pairs of handcuffs"- the dragnet used to capture the "strange dwellers" of this new paradise, "Calibans, half-man, half-fish. In 'Trucanini' the sequence then turns to the life-story of the last full-blood Tasmanian Aborgine, using anaphora and the ballard form to capture a life lived in a "stranger's tongue". Even in death, Trucanini suffers the indignity of cultural arrogance, her remains repeatedly dug up and placed on show.

Another sequence,'Reincarnated Light', gives similarly intense attention to the wildlife of Tasmania, and a final sequence, 'A Ned Kelly Hymnal', widens the range of Forshaw's imaginative power, with 'The Shoal Bay Death Spirit Dreaming' offering a superb defence of the imagination's rights. The making strange and music of unfamilar names is wonderful; the clever use of traditional songs a crucial part of teh collection's meanings; the use of sources never intrusive. Vandemonian is an often disturbing read, a humanist vision of nightmare handled with great wit and linguistic exuberance, erudition brought to life with the full force of feeling. A remarkable and somewhat shaming read.