Jan Owen’s most recent book is Poems 1980 – 2008. Her selection of Baudelaire translations has been accepted for publication in the U.K., and a New and Selected, The Offhand Angel, is also forthcoming in the UK with Eyewear Publishing.
La mort des amants
Nous aurons des lits pleins d’odeurs légères,
Des divans profonds comme des tombeaux,
Et d’étranges fleurs sur des étagères,
Ecloses pour nous sous des cieux plus beaux.
Usant à l’envi leurs chaleurs dernières,
Nos deux coeurs seront deux vastes flambeaux,
Qui réfléchiront leurs doubles lumières
Dans nos deux esprits, ces miroirs jumeaux.
Un soir fait de rose et de bleu mystique,
Nous échangerons un éclair unique,
Comme un long sanglot, tout chargé d’adieux;
Et plus tard un Ange, entr’ouvrant les portes,
Viendra ranimer, fidèle et joyeux,
Les miroirs ternis et les flammes mortes.
The Death of Lovers
We shall have beds imbued with faint perfumes,
and flowers from sunny lands on shelves above
the sofas deep and welcoming as tombs
will bloom for us as sweetly as our love.
Flaring up, our hearts will shine through space
like blazing torches spending life’s last heat,
with our twin souls, two mirrors face to face,
reflecting back their dazzling doubled light.
One evening born of rose and mystic blue,
a lightning flash will leap between us two
like a long sob heavy with last goodbyes;
and later on, half-opening the doors,
an angel slipping in with joyful eyes
will raise the tarnished mirrors and dead fires.
La mort des artistes
Combien faut-il de fois secouer mes grelots
Et baiser ton front bas, morne caricature?
Pour piquer dans le but, de mystique nature,
Combien, ô mon carquois, perdre de javelots?
Nous userons notre âme en de subtils complots,
Et nous démolirons mainte lourde armature,
Avant de contempler la grande Créature
Dont l’infernal désir nous remplit de sanglots!
Il en est qui jamais n’ont connu leur Idole,
Et ces sculpteurs damnés et marqués d’un affront,
Qui vont se martelant la poitrine et le front,
N’ont qu’un espoir, étrange et sombre Capitole!
C’est que la Mort, planant comme un soleil nouveau,
Fera s’épanouir les fleurs de leur cerveau!
The Death of Artists
How often must I shake my jester’s stick
and kiss this dismal caricature? Will I ever
hit the hidden target? Tell me, quiver,
how many more lost arrows will it take?
We waste our souls in subtleties, we tire
of smashing armatures to start again
in hopes we’ll stare the mighty creature down
that we’ve sobbed over with such hellish desire.
Some have never ever known their god,
and these failed sculptors branded with disgrace
go hammering their chest and head and face,
with one last hope, a capitol of dread—
that death sweep over like a second sun
and bring to bloom the flowers of their brain.
La Cloche fêlée
Il est amer et doux, pendant les nuits d’hiver,
D’écouter, près du feu qui palpite et qui fume,
Les souvenirs lointains lentement s’élever
Au bruit des carillons qui chantent dans la brume,
Bienheureuse la cloche au gosier vigoureux
Qui, malgré sa vieillesse, alerte et bien portante,
Jette fidèlement son cri religieux,
Ainsi qu’un vieux soldat qui veille sous la tente!
Moi, mon âme est fêlée, et lorsqu’en ses ennuis
Elle veut de ses chants peupler l’air froid des nuits,
Il arrive souvent que sa voix affaiblie
Semble le râle épais d’un blessé qu’on oublie
Au bord d’un lac de sang, sous un grand tas de morts,
Et qui meurt, sans bouger, dans d’immenses efforts.
The Cracked Bell
How bitter-sweet it is on winter nights
listening by the fire’s flicker and hiss
to distant memories slowly taking flight
with the carillons resounding through the mist.
Faithfully the sturdy-throated bell
flings its holy cry abroad. Unspent
despite it’s years, it’s vigorous and well
—a veteran keeping watch inside his tent.
As for me, my soul’s cracked through with pain;
I scarcely hold a tune in sun or rain,
and often now my voice turns weak and thin
as the last rattling breaths of a wounded man
crushed under a mound of corpses piled up high
next to a lake of blood. Struggling to die.
Tony Birch is the author of Shadowboxing (2006), Father’s Day (2009) and Blood (2011), shortlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award. His new collection of short stories, The Promise, will be released in 2014. Tony teaches in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.
Walking home after the paper round one Saturday morning Sonny and me come around the corner and saw a furniture van parked in the street. Workers were unloading cupboards and tea chests from the truck and carrying them into the house next door to Sonny’s place. It had been empty for months and the landlord had cleaned it out, painted it up and fixed the roof on the old stable at the back of the house. The stable had been used as a carpenter’s workshop from a long time back, but had been padlocked all the time I lived on the street.
We stopped on the footpath and watched the removalists wrestle with a piano, standing on its end and strapped to a trolley. The workmen were sweating and swearing at the piano like it was some fella they might be fighting in the pub.
‘Fucken iron frame,’ one of them grunted to the other. ‘I hate iron frames. I’m marking up the job for this. Fuck it. Double time for the day.’
They stopped for a smoke. One of them looked over at us, leaning against Sonny’s front fence eyeing them.
‘What you two looking at?’ he bit at us. ‘Can you carry this cunt on your back? If you can’t, stop gawking and let us get on with the job.’
It was our street they we on, so we weren’t about to fuck off any place. I pinched Sonny on the arm and nodded. We shifted to the front of my place and sat on the front step.
‘You reckon he’s happy with his job?’ Sonny laughed.
‘Wouldn’t you be? No weight in that piano there. Your pushbike’s heavier. He’s piss-weak, I reckon.’
They finished their smoke and dragged the piano into the house.
‘My mum can play the piano,’ Sonny said.
It was the first time Sonny had spoken about his mother since she’d shot through on the family with some fella she worked with at the tyre factory some time last year.
‘You don’t have one in your place. Where’s she play?’
‘Before we came here. We lived with my auntie, mum’s older sister, for a time. They had a piano in the front room. Mum would play and we’d all sing.’
‘What songs did she play?’
He looked away from me, along the street, to the furniture van.
‘Just stuff. I forget.’
The men came out of the house and stood at the back of the truck. The one who’d abused us was scratching his head and looking over. He buried his hands in his pockets and walked toward us.
‘You two want to make a couple of dollars?’ he asked.
‘You just told us to fuck off,’ Sonny called back.
‘I was just pissing around.’ He held out his hand. ‘Jack.’
I shook his hand and Sonny followed.
‘We got a load of folding chairs in the back there, maybe fifty, sixty, and my mate, Henry, and me want to get away for lunch and a beer at the pub. You two want to give us a hand for a couple of dollars?’
‘What’s a couple add up to?’ Sonny asked.
‘What it’s always been. Two dollars.’
Sonny held up three fingers.
‘Two’s not enough. It’s a Saturday, so we’re on time and a half.’
‘Jesus, you a union organiser or something? Fuck me. Three dollars then. Let’s get cracking.’
The chairs were made of wood and weighed a ton. I grabbed one under each arm and followed the removalists through the house. It smelled of fresh paint. We crossed the yard and walked through the open double doors of the stable. The piano was sitting at one end of the room, next to a brass cross, stuck on the end of a long pole. Picture frames rested against a wall. They looked like the prayer cards the Salvos gave out on street corners, only a lot bigger. I read one prayer aloud.
There Can Be No Being before God, As God Has No Mother.
‘Amen,’ Sonny laughed, making the sign of the cross over his heart.
One of the picture frames was covered in a piece of green cloth. Sonny pulled it away from the frame. We stared at a painting of a man in a dark three-piece suit and tie. He had shining black skin, dark eyes and was posing in a big velvet chair. Kneeling next to him was a young woman with golden curls, flowers in her hair, and white, white skin. She was looking up at the black man and holding his hand. Across the bottom of the painting were the words Father Jealous Divine & Mother Purity Divine.
‘Fucken weird,’ Sonny said.
Jack, the removalist, called his mate over.
‘Henry, take a look at these two.’
Henry was stacking chairs against the far wall. He shuffled over, scratching the arse of his work pants. He stood next to me and crossed his arms and studied the painting.
‘She’s not bad looking, Jack.’
‘Look at the way that old blackfella’s into her with those eyes. Bet he’s fucking the pants off her.’
‘Fucking the pants off her,’ Henry agreed. ‘What do you reckon, boys? He fucking her or what?’
The black man looked old enough to be her pop, although he couldn’t be, I guess, seeing as he was black and she was white. Henry repeated the question to Sonny, who like me, was too embarrassed to answer.
I heard heavy footsteps behind me in the yard.
A tall thin man stood in the doorway of the stable. He was wearing a dark suit, white shirt and string tie. His silver-grey hair was cut short, and even from the distance of the other side of the room I could see his cold blue eyes burning a hole in Henry’s heart, who was rubbing his chest with his hand and showing pain in his face.
The man stepped into the stable, walked toward Henry and stopped maybe six inches from his face. He looked down at the ground, at his own shining black leather shoes and back up at Henry, who turned away, too afraid to look the man in the eye.
‘Your remark?’ the man asked, raising an eyebrow.
Henry licked his bottom lip with his tongue, trying to get it moving.
‘That wasn’t any remark,’ Jack interrupted. ‘We were just mucking about with the boys.’
The man turned and set his eyes on Jack, making him feel just as jumpy and uncomfortable.
‘Do you often speak on behalf of your co-worker?’
‘Like I said, we were just mucking about.’
No one moved. The man took a white handkerchief out of his coat pocket and dabbed his mouth. He looked around the room.
‘Please set the chairs in even rows, an equal number of chairs, separated by a clear aisle. And move the piano to right side of the room. Would you be able to hang the framed psalms? And,’ he looked down at the green cloth that Sonny had pulled away from the painting pointed to the end wall and said, ‘mount the portrait of the Messenger and Mother Divine in line with the aisle. Are you able to do that?’
‘The Messenger,’ Jack smiled. ‘Sure. We can look after him, can’t we, Henry? It ‘ll cost a little more … Mr Beck, weren’t it?’
Jack offered his hand. The Reverend ignored it. He wiped his hands clean with the handkerchief and put it back in his pocket. He took a small bible from his pocket and held it in his hand. His eyes flicked to the side, sharp as a bird spotting a worm. A girl had arrived at the stable door. She was around my age and wore a long plain dress, almost her ankles, and a scarf on her head covering most of her fair hair. Even in her costume I could see she wasn’t bad looking. The Reverend turned to face her. She blinked and bit her lip.
‘Selina?’ he asked, stone-faced.
She spoke with her hands held together in prayer.
‘Some of the followers are here, asking what work you need them to do.’
The Reverend opened his arms, raised his hands in the air and closed his eyes. And he smiled.
‘There is work for them to do here. In our church.’
He stared up at the roof. While Jack and Henry were looking at him like he was some circus freak Sonny and me slipped out of the stable, into the yard and jumped the side fence into his place.
‘Fucken lunatic,’ I panted. ‘Did you see his eyes?’
‘Seen them, but not for long. I was too afraid to look at them. And what about the picture of the old black boy?’
‘Yeah. Did you see the girl who come into the stable? She looked pretty, under that scarf.’
‘Your off your head. I bet she’s crazy too.’
‘Still not bad looking.’
‘And crazy. You hear what he said. A church? Must be against the law, putting a church in a back shed?’
‘Maybe. But then so is running a sly-grog. Or an SP. And the two-up. Police can’t close any of them down. Hardly gonna go after a nutcase running a church.’
Lots of people came and went from the house. Men in dark suits and women and their daughters in the same long dresses and head scarves that Selina went around in, although she didn’t go around that often. I never saw her in the street on her own, and if she went to any school it wasn’t to mine. I sometimes spotted her sweeping the front yard with a straw broom or sitting up on the balcony with a book. I made noises when I walked by the house to get her attention, but she never looked my way, not even from the corner of her eye as far as I could tell.
I was woken early one Sunday morning by banging in the street. I crept downstairs, so not to wake my old man, who’d got home in the middle of the night from a road trip, and opened the front door. It was cold out. The street was crowded with cars and people were pouring into the Reverend Beck’s place. I went back into the house, made myself a cup of tea and took it up to bed. I could hear the piano playing in the stable, followed by some singing of hymns and shouting and screaming out.
Sonny knocked at my window a few minutes later and let himself. He had sleep in his eyes, his hair was standing on end like he’d stuck his finger in the toaster and he was wearing the jeans and jacket he’d had on the night before. They were dirty and crumpled. He must have slept in them.
‘You look like a dero, Sonny.’
‘Fuck up. You’re no day at the beach yourself.’
He picked up my mug of tea and took a long drink.
‘You hear that racket going on next door?’
‘Yeah. It woke me.’
‘We should go take a look.’
‘It’s freezing out.’
‘Put a jumper on. Come on.’
‘Not me. I’m staying in bed.’
He finished off my tea.
‘Please yourself. Your girlfriend, that Selina will be there.’
He was halfway out the window when I called him back.
‘Wait. I’ll come. And next time don’t drink all my tea.’
I followed Sonny out the window onto his roof and down the drainpipe. A thundering tune was almost lifting the roof off the stable. Sonny unlocked his back gate and we crept along the lane. He put an eye to a crack in the stable door. I kneeled beside him and tried pushing him along so I could take a look. He wouldn’t budge and was muttering ‘fuck, fuck,’ over and over to himself.
‘Move, will ya?’ I hissed, ‘and let me take a look’.
He pointed to a knothole close to the bottom corner of the door. I lay down on my guts. The ground was muddy and I was soaked through in about two seconds. I put my eye to the hole. All I could see were hundreds of chair legs and the ankles of old women and young girls, escaping the hems of long dresses. I noticed one ankle, bone white. I reckoned it might belong to Selina. I followed it upward, tapping along with the hymn. I wanted to reach out and touch that ankle and slide one hand up its leg and the other down the front of my pants.
The singing ended and it went quiet, except for my heartbeat and Sonny breathing. When the Reverend’s voice boomed out across the stable, Sonny jumped and stood on my hand. I bit on a lump of dirt to stop myself from crying out in pain. The words the Reverend was preaching didn’t make a lot of sense.
‘… And we have been brought to this Holy Place at the call of the Messenger … God Himself, Our Father Divine has called us here from across the ocean … and Mother Divine, in her chaste beauty and purity calls us to abstain in this place, this House of Worship …’
‘You hear that, Sonny?’ I whispered.
He nodded his head and stuck his ear against the crack in the door.
‘… And was it not proven in the days prior to the Great Earthquake of 1906, that the Messenger attended the city of San Francisco, a site of pestilence and evil, at the behest of the Holy Spirit, and bought wrath upon the sinful … And do we not know that when the Messenger was imprisoned for His works his gaolers were struck down by lightning and He was able to free Himself …’
The more he went on with the Bible talk, the louder and deeper his voice got. Women in the audience started crying and the men called out in agreement. The Reverend stopped preaching and people in the room stood up and clapped and cried out. The piano struck up another tune and they sang some more. Sonny tapped me on the shoulder and called me back along the laneway, into his yard.
‘You ever hear stuff like that?’ I asked. ‘And all them women babbling? Gave me the frights.’
‘Look at you,’ he laughed. ‘You’ve been rolling in crap.’
The front of my jumper and the knees of my jeans were covered in a mess of mud and dog shit. I tried wiping it off, but all I did was move it around.
‘My mum ‘ll kill me.’
Sonny couldn’t stop laughing.
‘And after that your old man will kill you double.’
I scraped a handful of the mess from my jumper and flung it at him, whacking him on the side of the face.
‘Don’t think its funny, Sonny. She’s gonna flog me for doing this.’
‘Stop worrying. Come inside and I’ll throw the stuff in the twin-tub and dry it by the heater.’
We sat in Sonny’s kitchen, me wearing a pink frilly dressing gown that belonged to his mum, while my clothes went through the machine.
‘You got any toast, Sonny?’
‘I don’t have any bread.’
‘No bread? What about a biscuit?’
‘Don’t have any. There’s nothing left in the house,’ he said, jumping from his chair and tugging at the sleeve of his jumper.
‘Where’s your old man? In bed with a hangover?’
He sat back at the table and looked down at his hands
‘He’s not here. Haven’t seen him for two days.’
It made sense all of a sudden, why he looked like shit and why there was no food in the house.
‘Where’d he go? What have you been living on? Nothing I bet.’
‘Shut up with the questions, Ray. I can take care of myself. You want to play copper, get yourself a badge.’
‘I was just asking …’
‘Don’t ask. Or you can give back my mum’s pink gown and piss of home in the nude.’
With my father off the road we had roast for Sunday lunch. He never talked much while he was eating, but my mother loved a chat. Said that the table was the place for the family to come together.
‘Why’d you head off early this morning?’ she asked.
‘Come on, Ray. You’re never out of bed early on a Sunday unless you’re off with your mate Sonny somewhere you’re not supposed to be.’ ‘No place. I was in Sonny’s.’
‘Doing what?’ my father interrupted.
‘Nothing. Just hanging around.’
He poked his knife in the air.
‘You spend half you life hanging around with that kid. Ever thought of widening your circle of friends?’
I looked down at my half-eaten lunch.
‘Mum, Sonny’s father gone off some place.’ ‘What do you mean, gone off?’
‘Missing. He’s been gone for a couple of days and left Sonny at home on his own.’
‘Probably better off.’ My dad tapped the side of his plate. ‘His old man’s fucken crazy.’
‘Mum, he’s got no food in the house.’
‘None of our business,’ my father interrupted again.
She opened her mouth to speak. He slapped the table with his hand.
‘None of our business.’
I made it our business later that night when I climbed out of my window, knocked at Sonny’s window and told him I’d made a leftover roast lamb and pickle sandwich for him.
He licked his lips. ‘Where is it, then?’
‘On the top of my dressing table.’
‘Why didn’t you bring it here?’
‘Thought you might like to bunk at my place, seeing as you’re on your own.’
He didn’t want to make out like he was interested and shrugged his shoulders as if he didn’t care one way or the other.
‘Eat here. Or your place. I don’t mind. But what about your old man? I don’t think he likes me.’
‘Means nothing. He don’t like me a lot. Anyway, he’ll be asleep. Can’t keep his eyes open once the sun goes down after he’s been driving.’
He followed me across the roof, through the window and demolished the sandwich in a couple of bites. He sent me downstairs for a second
sandwich. The radio was playing in my parents’ bedroom. My mother would be sitting up in bed, reading a book and humming in tune to the music.
Sonny was a little slower on the second sandwich. He tried saying something but I couldn’t understand him because his mouth was full. He waited until he’d swallowed a mouthful of sandwich and spoke again.
‘What’s the time?’
‘Time. What do want to know the time for?’
‘Cause I’ve got a secret for you.’
‘And what is it?’
‘Tell me the time first.’
I pointed to the clock with the luminous hands, sitting on the mantle above the fireplace.
‘Nearly ten. Now tell me the secret.’
He wiped crumbs and butter from his lips.
‘Same time, every night, I been in the yard watching the upstairs back window of the Reverend’s place. First couple of times it was by accident. Putting the rubbish in the bin when I look up and see this outline against the lace curtain in the room.’
His eyes widened and lit up like he’d just told me he’d found a pot of gold.
‘An outline? What about it?’
‘The outline of that girl, Selina. Side on. I could see her shape. Tits and all.’
‘How’d you know it was her? Could have been the mother.’
‘Bullshit. You had a good look at the mum. She’d have to be twenty stone. No, it was Selina. I seen her there the first night. And the next, when I put out the rubbish again. I been checking in the yard most nights since. And she’s there. Every night.’
I swallowed spit and licked my dry lips.
‘What time is she there?’
‘Just after ten.’
The small hand on the clock was about to touch ten.
‘You think we should go down in the yard and take a look?’
‘Better than that. I reckon we should climb out of this window and cross my roof onto hers. We might be able to see something through her window.’
‘She’ll see us.’
‘No, she won’t. Not if we’re careful.’
I looked over at the window and back to my open door. I walked across the floor, closed it and turned the light out. I nodded toward the window. Sonny opened it, climbed out and crept across his roof onto Selina’s. I followed him, trying as hard as I could not to step on a loose sheet of iron.
We sat under the window getting our breath back. Sonny stuck his finger in the air, turned onto his knees and slowly lifted his head to the window. When I tried kneeling he pushed my head down with his open hand, sat down, leaned across and whispered in my ear.
‘She’s got nothing on but he undies. Come on. Take a look.’
I turned around and slowly lifted my body until my chin was resting on the stone windowsill. Through the holes in the lace I could see into the room. Just like Sonny said, she had nothing on but a pair of white underpants. She had no scarf on her head and her hair sat on her shoulders. Her arms were crossed in front of her breasts. She was crying. And she was shaking. Her whole body.
I felt bad for staring at her and was about to turn away when the bedroom door opened. The Reverend came in, closed the door behind him and said something to her that we couldn’t hear. She turned away from her father and faced the bed. He took off his suit coat, slipped out of his braces, unbuttoned his shirt and took it off. The Reverend’s body was covered in dark hair. He moved closer to her and pushed her in the middle of the back with a giant paw. She landed on the bed, her sad face almost touching the windowpane. Suddenly it went dark and we could see nothing.
We both knew what we’d seen but didn’t know how to talk about it. I made Sonny a bed on the floor with my sleeping bag and spare pillow. I hopped into bed, my guts turning over and over. I couldn’t sleep.
‘You awake, Sonny?’
‘What are you thinking about?’
‘Not much. You?’
‘I was thinking about her face. I’ve never seen a look like that before. Never seen anyone so frightened and angry at the same time. Like she
was gonna die. And like she was about to cut someone’s throat.’
When the bedroom door opened I jumped with a fear of my own. My mother was standing in the doorway. She spotted Sonny’s bed on the floor and closed the door behind her.
‘Jesus, Ray. I thought you were talking in your sleep.’ She looked down at Sonny, who’d ducked into the sleeping bag. ‘You warm enough there, Sonny? Can I get you a blanket?’
‘No thanks, Mrs Moore. This is plenty warm.’
She leaned over the bed and looked at my face.
‘What’s up? You look like you’ve seen an ghost?’
I shook my head and answered, ‘nothing,’ without looking her in the eye.
‘Right then. Sleep now, and no chat. You don’t want to be waking you father.’
The next morning she knocked at the door with a spare pair of pyjamas under her arm.
‘Put these on, Sonny, and the two of you come down for breakfast.’
‘What about, dad?’ I asked.
‘Don’t worry about he pyjamas,’ Sonny interrupted. ‘I can climb back out the window here. I’m okay.’
‘You won’t be climbing out any window. You do what I said. Put these on and come down for breakfast.’ She tousled my hair. ‘And don’t worry about your father. He might have the bark, but I’m the only one who bites around here.’
Sonny and me didn’t talk about what we’d seen that night. I couldn’t speak for his feelings, but I knew I was ashamed of what I’d seen, even though I didn’t understand enough of it. I also reckoned that speaking about what we’d seen would be dangerous. I had nightmares about the Reverend turning into an animal, a bear, and other times, a wolf. When I passed him in the street I couldn’t take my eyes of the long hair growing on back of his hands, something I hadn’t noticed before. And if I came across Selina in her front yard I’d look the other way, full of guilt, like I’d done something bad to her myself, which in a way I had.
In the middle of the winter I was walking home from the fish and chip shop one night sharing a warm parcel of potato cakes with vinegar with Sonny when we heard the siren of a fire engine off in the distance. His father had turned up back at home after a week on a bender. He put himself on the wagon and an AA program and hadn’t had a drink since. Kept himself dry but miserable. But at least Sonny was getting a feed and the house was in order.
We turned the corner into the street. The scent of wood smoke was in the air.
‘I love that smell of wood. Means my mum will have the fire going and it ‘ll be cosy in the house. You’re dad put the fire on?’
‘Yep. Since he’s been off the piss, he orders in whole logs and chops the wood in the back yard. Doing his punishment. When he was on the grog he was happy to throw the furniture on the fire.’
I could see people were gathered at the far end of the street, and sparks leaping into the sky somewhere behind Sonny’s place. Or maybe my place. We started running. Sonny’s father was standing on the footpath out the front of his place with his hands on his hips.
‘Is it our joint?’ Sonny screamed.
‘Na. The religious mob next door. In the back stable where all the singing goes on.’
Less than a minute later the Fire Brigade tore into the street, lights flashing. The men jumped out of the truck and ran through The Reverend’s house, into the yard. Another fire engine turned out of the street, parked alongside the back lane. I could hear the old timber of the stable cracking and exploding. Selina was standing outside the house, holding her mother’s hand. She was wearing a crucifix and praying out loud. The Reverend was nowhere to be seen.
By the time the fire was out there was nothing left of the stable. It was burned to the ground, along with everything inside, including the piano, which turned to charcoal, on account of the intense heat. The police had turned up and one of the firemen was explaining to them that they hadn’t been able to get close to the fire until some of the heat had gone out of it.
‘And then we had to break the stable door down. It was heavily padlocked.’
While the copper was taking notes another fireman came out of the house and spoke to his mate.
‘We have a body. A male.’
‘In the stable. Under a sheet of roof iron and framing. Would have fallen in on him. Got a decent whack in the back of his head’
The policeman looked up from his notebook.
‘I thought you said the door was padlocked from the outside?’
The fireman looked insulted.
‘I know my job. I’m sure.’
Sonny stared at me and I looked across the street at Selina. Her face was as blank as a clean sheet.
Too Afraid to Cry
by Ali Cobby Eckermann
Reviewed by SOPHIA BARNES
Ali Cobby Eckermann’s elegant, confident and distinctive memoir is a slim volume for all that it contains. If a reader has the leisure to read it all in one sitting (as I did) the impact of its interwoven vignettes, interspersed with poetry, will be heightened. It is a book which rewards complete engagement and a willingness to follow the sometimes unanticipated shifts in rhythm of its fragmented form. Following the success of several collections of poetry and two verse novels, Too Afraid to Cry brings Cobby Eckermann’s ear for the cadences of memory to sharp, crisp, at times even blunt prose.
Each chapter, identified only by number, is short (the longest only stretch to three or four pages) and these chapters are frequently separated by brief, titled poems. This combination — a kind of verse novel (or verse memoir) in itself — serves to give a reader the sense that they are taking a series of interrupted glances at a tumultuous, changeable and rich life. Cobby Eckermann moves across stretches of time confidently, zooming in on moments of encounter, epiphany or conflict in such a way that we feel irresistibly pulled along with her, piecing together the intervening time through poetry whose loaded imagery is beautifully interwoven with narrative events. Occasionally the poems foreshadow, occasionally they meditate on what has passed (though never in an explicit or heavy-handed way), and together they underpin the rhythmic power which makes this memoir such compelling and affecting read.
Too Afraid to Cry opens with ‘Elfin’, a spare yet lyrical poem whose motifs of song and growth, of flight and emergence, are juxtaposed quite shockingly, but very effectively, with the almost uncannily abrupt scene of child sexual abuse which begins on the page opposite. As readers we know immediately that the territory of this memoir will not be comfortable or easy for us to traverse; yet what I found striking was that even as this horror of violation is bluntly introduced, we hear the young Ali’s voice, loud and clear. ‘Fat chance!’ she thinks, as she endures her Uncle’s fumbling. She may have experienced adult betrayal in the worst imaginable way, yet this young girl is no victim — that much is clear from the very opening, and it’s an impression which only becomes more concrete throughout.
Ali Cobby Eckermann grew up as in indigenous child in an adoptive family. There is real, if often unspoken, love between mother, father and adopted daughter; nonetheless, as Ali grows up she comes to feel more and more an outlier. The abuse to which she is subjected in her school years brings her to consciousness of her difference, and it is a realisation from which she cannot retreat. The tragic irony of the pressure under which she is put to adopt out her own child brings home to the reader the scope of an inter-generational story of dispossession and loss, as well as sacrifice. Along with her ‘Big Brother’, Cobby Eckermann shares the experience of being both familiar and foreign, in indigenous and white Australian society.
Too Afraid to Cry narrates fitful travels through the outback, from town to town, taken in the years of Cobby Eckermann’s early adulthood, and it does so with unswerving honesty — the choices made or not made, the relationships begun and ended, the jobs gained and abandoned. This account of her movement through space, from job to job and finally through rehab to a place of family, creativity and healing is always counterweighted by the timelessness (it is undoubtedly a cliché, yet I can’t help finding it to be true here) which her poetry seems to evoke, or to capture — at the very least, to speak to.
There is the confronting clarity and bluntness of ‘I Tell You True’: I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true / since I watched my daughter perish […] Since I found my sister dead […] Since my mother passed away. Then there is the irresistibly continuity, the extending time of ‘Bird Song’: Life is Extinct / Without bird song / Dream Birds / Arrive at dawn / Message birds / Tap Windows / Guardian birds / Circle the sky / Watcher birds / Sit nearby / Fill my ears / With bird song / I will survive. Cobby Eckermann balances the unadorned prose in which she recounts her memories and her journey without apology or bravado, with the rhythmic undercurrent of her poetry.
As we become more aware of the myriad experiences of dispossession and of broken families which have so defined our colonial history in Australia we might risk a sense of being overwhelmed, of feeling as if we had heard ‘too many’ stories, of being unable to step back and to see afresh the scale of what was done, and to listen to the accounts of those to whom it was done. Ali Cobby Eckermann offers a fresh, unflinching and uncompromising iteration of a search for identity undertaken by multiple generations of adopted and adoptive indigenous children and parents. Yet she does not just tell her story to add to the existing record; she weaves a compelling narrative whose lingering emotion, for this reader, was a vital and entirely beguiling strength. A continued and unashamed pleasure in life, a love for colour and voice and land, sensation, interaction and perhaps above all, language, radiated from this memoir, and I think that stray lines of Cobby Eckermann’s poems will continue to surface in my resting mind for weeks to come.
SOPHIA BARNES is a Postgraduate Teaching Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Sydney, where her Ph.D has recently been conferred. She has published academic work internationally, and has had creative writing published in WetInk Magazine. In 2013 she was shortlisted for the WetInk / CAL Short Story Prize for the second year running.
Born in Shanghai, Jamie Wang is an Australian writer currently living in Hong Kong. She holds a master’s degree in business and worked in the field of business analysis before embarking on a writing journey to fulfil her long time passion for literature. As well as writing literary fiction, Jamie creates local art gallery press releases and does volunteering work. She is a member of the Hong Kong Writers Circle. Jamie is currently working on fiction and nonfiction stories and studying literature and arts part time.
My grandfather passed away. He was 85. Died in peace. During his lifetime, he had five children; they all got married, and in turn had seven grandchildren. Sixteen of us, no matter where we were living in the world, all came back to Shanghai on weekend to see him the very last time.
The funeral was scheduled on Sunday, 4 days after my grandfather passed away. I had already been to the wake that my aunty set up. We made the paper money. We burned the incense. We stayed up for 3 days and nights to make sure the white candles at the altar did not go out.
The day my uncle arrived in Shanghai was clear and rainless. I looked through the window and saw him and my cousin get out of the taxi. He insisted on us not picking them up from the airport and went straight to our place after checking in to the hotel.
Tea was served. My mother apologized for not brewing it from fresh green tea leaves. It was almost the end of the year and new tea would be only ready in spring. My uncle sat in the middle of the couch, his arms folded, eyes red and swollen. My cousin was next to him. He grew up so fast. His body looked young and his muscles tightened under the shirt whenever he moved. The last time I saw him was years ago when I was on holiday in Hawaii. We had so much fun. I still have the photo of him snorkeling with all the fish nibbling his butt. I took it while I kept throwing bread to him from the boat. I was disappointed he did not make my wedding a few months ago. He had just started his first job after graduating from Berkeley.
“What happened to Pa?” My uncle sipped the tea and asked, his voice dreary and almost impersonal.
“Father was admitted into the hospital last Saturday; he was stable at first.” My mother went on telling how bad things then followed, how she had rushed to the hospital, how she had seen my grandfather the last time, how my father had cleaned my grandfather’s body. How she had held her grief to inform the relevant people. She would have repeated this so many times, the string of tears fell from her cheek to hands but she just kept talking. I wanted to stop this torture but I was not allowed to. It was her duty; the eldest, to report to the son that everything was properly done while he was away.
“I am the eldest, so I should pay for the biggest portion.”
“I am the eldest, so I shouldn’t let my sisters take the blame.”
She said this to my father and me so often that we got tired.
Sometimes I grew impatient and talked back. “So what, you take all the responsibilities and no one appreciated it. They only came when they needed help.”
This weekend she was not the eldest, as my uncle was there. He was the fourth of the siblings and the only son. My cousin was the son of him, which makes him the grandson. We else were just the third generation, as we did not bear the last name of Zhu.
“Ma, Jay kept talking about Yabuli, apparently Club Med built a new ski resort there. You must know that place right, somewhere in Heilongjiang?” My new husband was a huge snowboarding fan. He chased after the snow instead of sun. I asked my mother because she was sent there when she was 15.
“I had to go. It was the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao didn’t want us to study. He wanted us to go to the countryside to be farmers and learn from them.”
“Why did it have to be you?”
“I am the eldest, if I didn’t go, your aunts and uncle had to. I couldn’t let this happen.”
“Your mother got lucky,” every now and then some aunts would say this to me. “She went to Heilongjiang and got chosen to go to the army university. Then she became a lecturer and got sent to America. Not like us, we stayed in Shanghai, only graduated from high school then went to the factory and got laid off at 40.”
I smiled to them and nodded. I was a good niece.
“It was so cold there, the furthest part of China and bordered with Russia. Most of the time was negative 20 degrees,” my mother always opened her story with the extreme weather condition and geographical remoteness of the place. “If you lick a metal spoon outside the room. It would get stuck and hurt like hell when you tried to take it off.”
“What did you do there?”
“Everything, so long as it was deemed hard that we city people could benefit from doing it. We worked as farmers, as builders, or as anything Chairman Mao set his mind on. There were so many times I had to jump into the dirtiest water up to my waist to clean up the linen even when I got my period.”
“That’s gross.” I frowned, “What did you eat?”
“Potatoes. Stewed potatoes, stir fry potatoes, steamed potatoes, potato wedges, potato chips, whole potatoes, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes. Sometimes we had pork dumplings. Rarely, but that was the best. On those nights, the boys would play chess with the cooks and we girls would sneak into the kitchen to steal as many dumplings as we could, freeze them for the next few months.”
“But I never forgot studying. I smuggled books whenever I could. Oh boy, I could have got into big trouble if they saw the book underneath the red book of Mao.” My mother always finished the story as a good role model.
“Your mum was only 15,” my grandmother told me when I went to her to verify the details of the story, “I still remember the day I sent her to the train station. Your grandfather and I were heartbroken to see our little girl off to that place, so bitter and far away. She stayed there for four years.”
She is the eldest.
And he is the son.
She needed to report to him how they had tried their best to look after the old father after the son moved to America 17 years ago.
She needed to take the blame if the son was not happy with his sisters.
She needed to take the scolding from her younger sisters if they didn’t think
she defended them enough.
I sat at the other side of the room, watching.
A girl, an only child, an outsider.
I was the apple of my uncle’s eyes as he brought me up. But I was not allowed to participate in the discussion even though I was the eldest grandchild and I was 32. My little cousin was there, palms on his knee and silent. I wanted to take him away, cover his ears. He was tired, just had 16 hours flying and had to fly back in 3 days. He was too young to be involved. But I was not allowed to. He was the son of the only son. That qualified him.
The tea was getting cold and so was I. I almost forgot how cold Shanghai was in the middle of the winter. I had left so long, came back so little that some old friends of my grandfather no longer recognized me.
But I remembered. Once I was here, my body would carry me of its own accord, sit, talk and eat the way I was supposed to sit, talk and eat.
Deep fried Chinese doughnuts and sweetened soymilk. Jay opened his eyes wide when he saw me swallowing these down without a fuss.
“Guess someone is not allergic to deep fried food and white sugar anymore,” he said this to himself giving me a wink.
Or perhaps I hadn’t changed, perhaps this was the real me with my roots.
No one can be exempt from their birth place. Not even my cousin, who left Shanghai at a tender age of five
The funeral started.
“Let us share five of our favorite stories of our father,” said my uncle. “I’ll share mine first. When I was born, my father got a call from the hospital notifying him the news. He didn’t ask if my mother was okay, he just asked was it a boy or a girl? Once he heard the baby was a boy he left work immediately, went to the shop, bought a pram, and went to the hospital. This had never happened to any of my elder sisters and would not happen to my younger sister later when she was born.”
My mother was crying, the eldest. She told her story; the loving father magically multiplied the dumplings in her bowl by eating none himself.
My aunts were crying, the sisters. They told their stories. A kind father picked up his daughter from the work place every day for years until she married because she finished work after midnight. Later she was picked up by the husband.
Then another story plus another story.
Bow three times.
On your knees, bow three times.
The last prayer, bow another three times.
My mother stood there in black with a white flower in her hair, looked even smaller than the rest. She was the eldest, but the shortest among all the siblings, 160 cm as opposed to average 170 of all my aunts. Zhu’s family were very proud of their height.
“It must be because we sent her to that god damn place when she was still growing.” My grandmother always said this whenever someone mocked my mother’s height.
“Does he have any grandsons?” asked the officer from the funeral place.
I was silent, along with another 5 of us. We knew he was not asking about us.
“I am.” My cousin raised his hand.
“Well, you need to hammer the last nail to seal the coffin.”
The coffin was dark red, solid wood.
“Well, you need to take the picture of your grandfather and lead the procession.”
Here we were, 16 of us, the son, the eldest, the sisters, the third generation along with the others, following the grandson to walk the last part of the journey of my grandfather.
The funeral was over.
The ceremony would then last 49 days. The prayers would be sung by the monks in the temple every seven days. I was secretly glad that Jay and my cousin would have left by then. Their nostrils were not used to the smell of the burning incense. They sneezed crazily after staying in the room for a while.
The echoes of their sneezes were immediately swallowed by this city. The city of the grandfather. The city of the eldest. The city of the son. The city of the family.”
When My Brother was an Aztec
By Natalie Diaz
Copper Canyon Press
Reviewed by AIMEE A. NORTON
Natalie Diaz’s debut collection is a book about appetites. It contains raw, narrative poems that pivot on her brother’s meth addiction. Lyric surrealism is interspersed throughout and serves both as a welcome reprieve from the brutality of the narrative, but also expertly explores the universal hunger that brings people to their own personal tables of conflict and gluttony. The setting is the Mojave Indian Reservation where Diaz grew up and where she currently works with the last fluent speakers of Mojave to save the severely endangered language.
Diaz’s poems grind with a savagery that doesn’t often make it onto the page. The Aztecs are a culture known for ritualized violence and a theater of terror epitomized by state-organized human sacrifice. Diaz does well to sew the Aztecs together with drug culture in the Southwestern US which is an area saturated with narcotics related violence. Addiction itself is shown as a ritualized self-violence. The title poem ‘When My Brother Was an Aztec’ begins hauntingly.
He lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents
Every morning. It was awful. Unforgivable. But they kept coming
back for more. They loved him, was all they could say.
The poem ends just as hauntingly when Diaz describes her parents searching for their missing limbs, looking for their fingers…
To pry, to climb out of whatever dark belly my brother, the Aztec
their son, had fed them to.
Readers witness the violence of meth addiction, see the blackened spoons and the sores on her brother’s lips, hear the tribal cops outside on the lawn, understand from the poem titled ‘As a Consequence of My Brother Stealing All the Light Bulbs’ that her parents live without light. The tone is unapologetic and fierce. It is unblinking on a topic that breaks many families. Yet a close read reveals unmistakable joy in the writing. Diaz celebrates that language can express these truths, even if they are hard truths. The poems are alive on the page, delivered with a skill that often hides underneath the intensity of the material.
The characters devour, feed, starve, gorge, thirst and more. In the poem ‘Cloud Watching’, Diaz writes “So, when the cavalry came, / we ate their horses. Then, unfortunately, our bellies were filled / with bullet holes.” In ‘Soiree Fantastique’, her brother sets a table for a party attended by Houdini, Jesus, Antigone and others. It ends when the poet explains to a distressed Antigone “We aren’t here to eat, we are being eaten. / Come, pretty girl, let us devour our lives.” The effect of all this devouring on the reader is that it makes one insatiable for more of Diaz’s poems.
There are three parts to the book. The first section serves as an introduction to life on the reservation. We meet ‘A Woman with No Legs’ who “curses in Mojave some mornings Prays in English most nights Told me to keep my eyes open for the white man named Diabetes who is out there somewhere carrying her legs in red biohazard bags”. We visit a jalopy bar called ‘The Injun That Could’. We learn of a literal dismantling of the Hopi culture when a road is cut through Arizona in ‘The Facts of Art’. This section feels more historical and cultural than personal. For the lovers of form, Diaz scatters a Ghazal, a Pantoum, an Abcedarian, a list poem and prose poems throughout the collection.
The third section contains a handful of love and lust poems such as Monday Aubade:
to shut my eyes one more night
On the delta of shadows
between your shoulder blades –
mysterious wings tethered inside
the pale cage of your body – run through
by Lorca’s horn of moonlight,
strange unicorn loose along the dim streets
separating our skins;
The surrealism persists in the love poems. Often, the act of loving is portrayed as a kind of sacrifice. The answer to the poem titled ‘When the Beloved Asks, ‘What Would You Do if you Woke Up and I Was a Shark?’ ‘ is clear: “I’d place my head onto that dark alter of jaws” and “it would be no different from what I do each day – voyaging the salt-sharp sea of your body”. It’s obvious that Lorca has been a substantial influence on Diaz. She places a passionate poem titled ‘Lorca’s Red Dresses’ smack in the middle of the third section as well as mentioning him in ‘Monday Aubade’ and other poems.
The engine of the book is the second section. These poems cast and recast the brother as various characters: a Judas effigy, an Aztec, a Gethsemane, a bad king, a lost fucked-up Magus, a zoo of imaginary beings, a Huitzilopochtli (a half-man half-hummingbird god) and various characters from myth. The theme of the book is being present in the face of a powerful destroyer, or living through an encounter with the destroyer, witnessing the wreckage and not turning away. Ruin is wrought by her brother’s meth addiction. There’s a reach to her talent that challenges the importance of her work being limited by identity. I read a few of her poems to Plath’s ghost saying, “Look here, you aren’t the only one that can plate up mouthwatering, award-winning anger for male relatives”.
Destruction of Native American culture by Europeans settlers and the continued, historical bigotry is featured in the poems. Ships appear throughout the book as harmful things. Take the wonderfully-titled poem ‘If Eve Side-Stealer & Mary Busted-Chest Ruled the World’ which is an alternative retelling of first people and creation, the last stanza reads:
What if the world was an Indian
whose head & back were flat from being strapped
to a cradleboard as a baby & when she slept
she had nightmares lit up by yellow-haired men & ships
scraping anchors in her throat? What if she wailed
all night while great waves rose up carrying the fleets
across her flat back, over the edge of the flat world?
I struggled with the question in this poem: what if? Diaz refuses to answer it. The mind still asks: What if we erase just this one chapter where the Hopi’s burial sites are dug up for a new road? Or, what if a daughter is not stoned to death? What if Diaz’s brother had not gone to war and had not crawled into bed with death? Diaz knows this can not be. It is as likely as the world being flat. Her answer is a refusal to see anything other than the violent, beautiful world we have that is full of lightning. This is a brave approach. Yes, destruction is also generative. If there was an end to violence, then nothing new could be born.
Still, I wonder whether the perspective and tone in When My Brother Was an Aztec, which is in part the powerful backstory of Diaz’s life, will shift now that this fearless narrative is spoken. I predict that the book breaks open a future to be found in Diaz’s not-yet-written poems to show what a world would look like if she were the boss goddess. One truth is: the future exists. Another truth is: we get to help shape it. I confess that I read utopian science-fiction, so I know that Diaz has exactly the kind of brutally honest mind that should broker destiny by introducing a few options and answering that question: what if Eve Side-Stealer and Mary Busted-Chest ruled the world? I still want to know. I’m hoping her second book tells me. Diaz signed my copy of this book with “sumach ahotk” which is Mojave for “dream well”. Yes, let’s dream well.
In my opinion, this book will have a powerful effect on American poetry. By adding her forceful voice to the spectrum of next generation Native American poets such as Esther Belin and Orlando White, she’s already earned much recognition. Diaz has received the Lannan Literary Fellowship, Balcones Poetry Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and made the shortlist for a 2014 PEN/Open Book Award. The collection ends as it began – with hunger – when a lion devours a man. The lion protests he “didn’t want to eat the man like a piece of fruit”. The man “had earned his own deliciousness by ringing a stick against the lion’s cage”. The book has earned its deliciousness by ringing, too. My recommendation is to set the table and let the feasting begin.
AIMEE A NORTON is a research astronomer at Stanford University. Her research has appeared in the Astrophysical Journal, Solar Physics, and National Geographic News among other places. She is also an emerging poet who has published in Mascara Literary Review, Rabbit, Softblow, Many Mountains Moving, Paper Wasp, The Drunken Boat, Byline and Literature in North Queensland (LiNQ).
By Lily Chan
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
In the Folds of Making: A Review of Toyo by Lily Chan
Upon a close reading of Melbourne-based, Japanese-Australian author Lily Chan’s debut novel and memoir Toyo, a word cannot fail to strike our attention, returning like a litany throughout. It is the word “fold”: fold of the body as legs gently repose on the tatami in traditional Japanese fashion (183) or as the skin becomes wrinkled (240) and twisted (236) with old age; animal/vegetal folds as one coils in reaction “like an abandoned dog” (103) or curls back inwards like the petals of a flower (14); artfully folding and unfolding fans (52); folded cloths following the lines of a kimono (50, 60, 168), a pair of pants (80) or a shirt (136) or a string of tissues hidden in sleeves (232, 243 and 245); paper folds, yen notes appearing and disappearing magically (60), an old photo stuck in-between the curves of a curtain (63), hastily scribbled messages stuffed in someone else’s clothes (236), or the folds of the origami, the Japanese art of folding paper into decorative shapes and figures (10, 214).
A fold is neither a wrap nor a box. If the latter simultaneously conceal and reveal, the former possesses an “elastic” quality working at “the extremity of the line” between closure and disclosure. As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze commented in his work on Leibniz and the Baroque, “the unfold is thus not the opposite of the fold, but follows one fold until the next” (1991: 231), in the manner of origami. As suggested by, and as opposed to, the French idiomatic phrases “cela ne fait pas un pli” (there’s no doubt about it, literally meaning “it does not fold”) and “c’est un pli à prendre” (it’s something you’ve got to get used to), Deleuze traces here the contours of a subject whose form and content are neither straightforward nor linear, neither the one nor the other, but instead tortuous and tortured, and imbued with the prospect of limitless, multiple selves: “[This] labyrinth of continuity is not a line which would dissolve into independent points, like sand flowing in grains, but is like a piece of fabric or a sheet of paper which divides into an infinite number of folds or disintegrates into curved movements” (231).
Toyo narrates the story of a woman whose life as an exile would involve many detours. Toyo was first exiled from her origins and in particular her father, whom she met only twice, being the fruit of an illegitimate relationship needing concealment; exiled again from the safety of home in the face of war, poverty and the horrors of the atomic bomb, or the sexual abuse coming from various predatory men taking advantage of the situation – American soldiers but also a family doctor. In the event of her mother’s death, Toyo is compelled to attach herself to a new family and husband. This man is Ryu, who himself must face daily estrangement for being doubly crippled. A lame person posited within the diasporic folds of the Chinese community in Japan, Ryu struggles through discrimination with a level of strength and determination only those struck by proportionate ill fortune seem to possess: “They [the Chinese] were excluded from the healthcare schemes and prohibited from working in the public service; they had to register their businesses with the government department regulating alien residents.” (83)
Upon marrying Ryu, Toyo is asked to give up her Japanese citizenship. A new identity pass and a new name, Dong Yang Zhang, are issued to her, so that “she felt as if her body had been crossed out, as if she no longer existed” (88). Against all odds, Ryu succeeds in setting up coin-operated Laundromats across the entire city of Osaka, where none had existed hitherto, in a post-war, fast-modernising Japan ripe with hope and renewed opportunities. However, Ryu’s baroque eccentricities brought upon by wealth, his public gambling, drinking and flirting in particular, as well as the fatigue that hard work necessarily entails, makes him neglect his inner health in turn, only to die too soon of a simple kidney infection. As Deleuze has argued, “baroque architecture can be defined by that scission of the façade and the inside, of the interior and the exterior, the autonomy of the interior and the independence of the exterior effected in such a way that each one sets off the other.” (234) It is this precarious equilibrium, in-between “the coils (replis) of matter” and “the folds (plis) of the soul”, that Toyo, following a series of deaths within the Zhang family, will seek to achieve in her new life in Western Australia and her adoption of Eastern Indian spirituality – a balance sought out by Chan herself within the very skeleton of her memoir.
While the first part of the novel is chiefly concerned with replis, which as Deleuze’s translator explained, “evokes the movements of a reptile…the idea of folding in on oneself” (227), the second part of the novel set in Perth and in the country town of Narrogin, where Chan grew up, deals instead with the multifarious plis that migrant resilience and pliability imply. The reader may scoff at Toyo’s and her son Yoshio’s New Ageism, from nomadic trips to India to meet with Indian Guru Sai Baba, to the building of a communal ashram in the middle of the West Australian wheat belt. However, we must remind ourselves how personal questing through the teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism had proved extremely popular across the West back in the 1970s and 80s when we can infer the action to take place, this despite the elusiveness with which the historical fresco of Toyo’s life is depicted (one of the memoir’s chief limitations according to Alison Broinowski). The state of Western Australia’s sheer magnitude and Perth especially, one of the most remote cities on earth, have in literature often taken on an added religious dimension, as is the case in Toyo: “In Perth the temple seemed to be everywhere; the sky was a vast blue rooftop covering the entire city.” (180)
Perhaps the best way of grasping Chan’s insistence on Eastern spirituality is by looking at the corresponding thematic centrality of old age in the last sections of the book. Descriptions of an ageing, Alzheimer-struck Toyo following her return to Osaka after many years away, “where she felt like a tourist in her own city” (228), have given way in my view to the most interesting, most moving passages in the memoir. Here, the reader comes to understand how Chan’s book is, beyond being a memoir, primarily a fictional account of her grandmother’s “own hallucinations, dreams and fragmented recollections” (252). For a literature routinely plagued by discourses of cultural/historical authenticity/veracity, “how to break the mould of diasporic fiction and offer readers something unique is the challenge Lily Chan faces in her first book” (Broinowski 2012). Keeping this in mind, Broinowski’s subsequent criticism of the book’s ahistoricism feels strange, and her assertion that “most memoirs are of people who in some way were public figures or agents of change [while] Toyo is neither”, seems not only misplaced but factually wrong.
In effect, the genre of the memoir has more often than not been a prime vehicle for the emergence of erased stories by minorities – women, Blacks, indigenous peoples, as well as “ordinary” citizens of all kinds. These “micro-narratives” however deserve to be universalized due to the fact that matter “offers a texture that is infinitely porous, that is spongy or cavernous without empty parts, since there is always a cavern in the cavern: each body, however small it may be, contains a world insofar as it is perforated by uneven passageways” (Deleuze 1991: 230). The trans-generational nature of the memoir allows for a form of historicity that is neither fully personal nor “cosmological”, residing instead in the interstitial play of signs, the subterranean or subconscious “cave of making” (Bhabha 2009) that is at the origin of discourse. A dying, speechless Toyo will thus seek in her youngest grandchild a mirror to her own existence and a means of communication as she felt the irrepressible urge to speak to him, for “[she] saw, suddenly, that he was part of the constellation, that his very soul was flaring and bursting, and in the trajectory of his life, she could see her own intersect with his, the tenuous point of connection flickering like a sparked wire, yet to come into being” (258).
A word must be said here on the allegorical, poetic prose of Chan’s writing, before I return to the problematic of the fold as a matter of conclusion. As Delia Falconer has argued, “it’s a shame Chan’s overrefined prose stifles their [Chan’s characters’] “lifeness”…as she strives too often to pin them to artful similes.” This is missing the fact that, mentioned several times throughout the memoir, the art of kabuki has provided the cultural and formalistic framework through which Chan was able to give life and resonance to each one of her characters. A kabuki is “a form of traditional Japanese drama with highly stylized song, mime, and dance…using exaggerated gestures and body movements to express emotions, and including historical plays, domestic dramas, and dance pieces.” Style being another aspect of diasporic fiction by which the literary establishment regularly condemns or relegates the latter to the dusty archives of life-writing, it is not surprising to find, yet again, reluctance in the face of the fact that,
“it is the way in which matter [content] folds that constitute its texture [form]…defined less by its heterogeneous and genuinely distinct parts than by the manner in which, by virtue of particular folds, these parts become inseparable. From that one gets the concept of Mannerism in its operatory relation to the Baroque” (Deleuze 1991: 245).
The end of the book reverts in a roundabout way to Toyo’s illegitimate birth, but, unlike the image of a dog endlessly chasing its own tail/tale, Toyo at the dusk of life and for the first time felt fulfilled. As Deleuze again wrote, “the perfect harmony of the scission, or the resolution of tension, is effected by the distribution of two stories, which both belong to one and the same world (the line of the universe). The matter-façade tends downwards while the soul-chamber rises. The infinite fold thus passes between two stories.” (243) There would be quite a lot to say about Toyo’s stereotypical view of Australia, or her Orientalist (if not at times racist) appraisal of India – “India was dirty. Brown. Hot” (198) – or yet still, her complete ignorance of Aboriginal spirituality, but eventually, Chan’s writerly gift is to have shown us a life with multiple entries and folds, which is what distinguishes a rounded from a flat character.
If Chan chooses to leave the reader with a sense of plenitude, it is because Toyo, unlike her mother, born in a small farming village and who due to unforeseen circumstances was never able to realise her dream of becoming a nurse, has been given the opportunity to travel, be mobile while reinventing herself and grow old to share her knowledge and experience with others, which is no small feat. Altogether, quite a baroque life indeed:
Toyo taught her grandchildren origami…She carried boxes of coloured paper squares to the three primary schools in Narrogin and taught them how to fold samurai hats, boats, masks, jumping frogs. The children watched her fold the coloured paper and gasped in wonder when she held the finished pieces up. She liked to wander around the classrooms and examine the children’s bent heads, their industrious fingers folding and unfolding…Children ran to their parents at the bell, brandishing their boats and birds and frogs and sumo wrestlers. She felt complete. (214)
Bhabha, Homi K. 2009. “In the Cave of Making: Thoughts on Third Space.” Communicating in the Third Space (Karin Ikas & Gerhard Wagner eds.): IX-XIV. New York: Routledge.
Broinowski, Alison. 2012. “Rare Asian Family Study.” The Sydney Morning Herald, December 29.
<http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/rare-asian-family-study-20121228-2byac.html> (Accessed 13 Sept. 13).
Chan, Lily. 2012. Toyo. Melbourne: Black Inc.
Deleuze, Gilles. 1991. “The Fold.” Yale French Studies 80: 227-247.
Falconer, Delia. 2012. “Homing in on an Extraordinary Life.” The Australian, October 20.
<http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/homing-in-on-an-extraordinary-life/story-fn9n8gph-1226498574907> (Accessed 13 Sept. 13).
No Author. 2010. “Kabuki: a definition”. New Oxford American Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
PAUL GIIFFARD-FORET completed a PhD at Monash University. His work appears in Westerly, Transnational Literature and Mascara.
He teaches in Paris.
By Ali Alizadeh
University of Queensland Press
Reviewed by ELIZABETH BRYER
Ali Alizadeh’s Transactions is a panoramic cycle of vignettes that depict characters in a globalised world on the margins of Western and, most particularly, capitalist society. A vast array of characters jostle within its pages: assassins, prostitutes, poets, protesters and Oz-Exploitation directors, to name a few. Indeed, much of the delight to be had on reading the collection is in unravelling exactly how these people, all from diverse corners of the globe, are connected within the world of the book. Transactions is also a scathing critique of a system that exploits the most vulnerable, carefully laying out for scrutiny, as it does, moments, decisions and interactions that demonstrate the insidiousness of rampant capitalism and the questionable morals that it champions.
Because of the nature of the vignettes, the particular stories they tell are not so much stories as disparate moments, separated from each other in space but not so much in time, and revolving around a single interaction or conundrum. They are necessarily focussed and partial. While occasionally this can mean that some plot developments feel hastily resolved, or that characters can come across as types, this same feature also creates an intricate, interweaving architecture, much as if one were to find oneself in a building with many rooms, and through exploring these might happen upon hidden passages leading to spaces of a particular character—chambers, inglenooks, boudoirs—and staircases and doorways opening onto others. Indeed, the most successful moments are when the plot stretches across and through vignettes, sometimes skipping some only to reappear in others, and it is in this steady accumulation of connections and layering of experiences that the tone of the work, as well as its entwined themes, is best appreciated.
The title of the collection operates on a number of levels, encompassing more than just the usual context of business and exchange: in the world of this book, most things, even relationships and interactions, even the concepts of familial duty and mutual obligation, boil down to an economic imperative, and each of the transactions depicted is an occasion on which, in one way or another, one person is likely to give and the other, to gain. That the transaction is between unequals, all of whom must engage in the exchange while equipped with different levels of freedom of choice and with more or less to lose, is almost always the case. What is not often apparent—what is cause for much of the tension—is who will, ultimately, benefit. One avenging angel sees it as her duty to give those who have consistently profited through swindling another, whether through cruelty and maltreatment, a lack of recognition of the other’s humanity or uncompassionate policies, their comeuppance, to put it mildly.
Nothing, it seems, is free of the market, or of the pressures and fissures that this market places on and between people. And on one point the narrator is very clear: the corruption that the global system breeds does not just lead to wealth disparity, but to individuals both becoming expendable commodities, as when mining protesters are massacred and poor Liberian women are trafficked to Europe, and treating others as if they were, as when a would-be-author asks his co-author to sleep with a publisher to ensure their book’s publication. Those doing the exploiting, then, dehumanise the exploited, but in doing so they necessarily dehumanise themselves. But the narrator is careful to point to the potential dangers of all hierarchical systems, not just the capitalist one: one of the vignettes, whose protagonists recurs throughout the collection, shadows its protagonist as she comes to terms with the truth of her scientist father’s actions, or lack thereof, at the Chernobyl disaster. ‘He wanted to please the party. He knew there was something wrong with the control rods, Mama. But he didn’t say anything’ (p. 92).
Perhaps inevitably, given the subject matter, a strong sense of moralising at times comes to the fore. The poor are trapped in the position of bearing the system, and others, having risen through its ranks by way of economic or social capital, become a kind of embodiment of evil: there is Samia, the disease of affluence incarnate, in whose figure boredom and entitlement foster cruelty and sadism; there are Danish missionaries in Libya who use their women’s shelter as a means of trafficking women for the European sex trade; and there is a British magnate who has built her empire ‘upon the misery of others’ and yet sees herself ‘as truly innocent’ (18). Hypocrisy and corruption are rampant among the upper echelons, and are portrayed as unforgivable.
It is no mean feat to present such a geographically and culturally broad vision of humanity without falling into stereotypes, but Transactions navigates this carefully. Sometimes the fictional world created stretches credulity, such as when a character who has been poisoned continues to punch out words into her computer, the sentences becoming more fragmented, the words, more spaced. At other times, there are moments of confusion in the narrative logic that can prove distracting, such as when a mentally ill man stabs himself to death then self-immolates. But there is great delight in language, which is wielded with verve, and a playfulness and dexterity with form: some vignettes are epistolary, others are dialogue, others are poems and yet others are confessional. There are almost as many voices and registers as there are vignettes, here, without the forms ever proving distracting or perfunctory.
After the prologue, each of the vignettes carries the title of a tarot card from the Marseille deck, with one, ‘The Fool’, repeated—this is the title of both the first and last stories. Interestingly, the character to whom the title refers in the first story reappears in the last, though not, in the latter case, as the titular character, but as the one who proves the protagonist to be deserving of the designation. The circularity that this creates is effective, as is the astute choice to title the stories like so. Through the titles, the narrator suggests not just that world is thus ordered, but also frames the stories as, like tarot cards, tools with which we can attempt to comprehend the confounding nature of the system we humans have created for ourselves. Transactions offers us an assortment of stories that don’t just order the world, but help us understand it.
by Omar Musa
Blast! Publishing, 2013
Reviewed by ANGELA STRETCH
It takes time to have a heart, to suffer, to feel the weight of things. The heart is alive precisely through its capacity for fellow-feeling.
Like the posthumous soul in Malaysian thought, memory disperses as if it is no longer attached to something tangible. To keep the soul from disintegrating Omar Musa consistently evokes it, bringing it back into direct contact with the living world. In this second collection Musa negotiates the heart of Malay traditions and rituals comprising of family, people, objects and interactions. It provides the living with structured occasions to refresh memories of the dead through symbolic communication, historical knowledge that transmit moral principles, gleaming rectification in order to strengthen relationships.
Dream specifications for Musa’s amorous relations: a prospect of limitless power whose miraculous condescension or grace it is to single out for special tenderness the minute grain of sand or crystal it anyway contains. The contrasts between infinite ocean and finite pebble, between the fluidity of the saline medium and the attendant still of its denizens, between grandiose nominatives and familiarities, between absolute freedom and absolute dependency, such are the polarisations between the preservation of family memories and echoes of grand monumentality and unadorned ordinariness.
The book begins with an evocation of terrible alienation, a nomadship only terminated by self-destruction: a lost soul surviving precariously in a memory.
I stopped to bathe
and time tipped over the lip of a jug.
Just then I heard the echo of an ancestor,
wild and wise as a hart
The young man responds. Musa conceives of himself becoming a sort of teller, a people’s poet. The same drive toward simplification and abstraction can be found in the book’s title. Parang, a self-made dagger with many uses as whetted in The Parang and the Keris.[ii]
But this commonplace parang?
I know how to use it –
to clear a lane through jungle,
to tap rubber from a tree
or with swish calligraphic
take a head
Expressing stubbornness and tenacity that unfolds various meanings, Parang is almost a tale of a young man’s mortal frailty. The simple contact of intimate associations of those primary family members in a journey to Kuala Lumpar quietly affirms a bond stretching via memory beyond a grave.
The site of Musa’s discoveries through writing his own fragmented memoir, are chaptered in three presences; Parang, family and identity; Lost Planet, immigration and Dark Streets, environmentalism.
The nature of these voices are quickly revealed in stages of basic affective positions, inner attitudes towards life, “disembodied’ utterances that precipitate out of his contemplated experience. The movement of feeling and imaginative personifications exist in the reflection of our complex and difficult times, saturated with human and artistic experiences. In Amsterdam:
A couple parted
to cross the road.
As they stepped off the curb,
their hands unfastened
and the asphalt
leapt open between them
like a grin
or a grave.
ANGELA STRETCH is a language artist whose work has been exhibited and published nationally, and internationally. She is the coordinator of the Sydney Poetry program at the Brett Whiteley Studio and is on the National Advisory Board for Australian PoetryLtd. She is the co-director of Talking Through Your Arts, and writes an arts column of the same name for Alternative Media.
by Liam Ferney
Grande Parade Poets
Reviewed by MELINDA BUFTON
Liam Ferney’s Boom (Grand Parade Poets, 2013) is a much-anticipated collection of tightly-knit poetry, threaded with the things he has seen and the spaces he’s occupied, cast with a sardonic glance and the flick of a metaphoric burnt-down cigarette. It is the Steve McQueen of poetry collections, to my mind. Or perhaps, even more accurately, it is a smart, enthusiastic 30-something guy at a party describing what it is about Steve McQueen that matters. In really articulate tones, and with tie askew, because he’s come from work. We get potency and we get the sublime, with a lot of grit all around the edges. Intriguingly, the grit comes in the form of elegant sentences that surprise, their content seemingly slipped in under the radar of form. I wouldn’t say this is the aim; just that the music of the lines takes your senses first, and then come the beautiful clusters of pop disintegration, fuzzy images of the right brand of cynicism, a professional eye on the world’s seams. In an early poem within the collection, ‘Expecting Turbulence’, we get this:
First chance I get I’m SoCo mofo
backdrop a drained out montage, colours
of a nunsploitation print abandoned in a can.
In ‘that thin mercury sound’ (below) we get some more; pleasing rhythm with a certain amount of give, encompassing some event that could have been a bad day in the office or an international relations nightmare (Ferney is a poet who often mentions his work in public relations and politics, and we have this in the satisfyingly detailed bio included at the back of the book). We don’t know; it doesn’t matter. What matters is he’s buried it in here for us to have, and that is an absolution that cleanses much more than a top-marks performance review or a constitutional crisis averted (am I right, day-jobbers?).
lost in a hard drive somewhere between
formats and a nasty Trojan horse the length
of an absence stretches like a hair band
co-opted into service as a lock a galleon
In addition to the poems with a fast, chopping sensibility, there are also more narrative inclusions. A stand-out of the collection is a poem which takes us into the story of a relationship and a trip, ‘The September Project’ (below). It has a litany of living that situates our minds eye into a maybe-Bukowski landscape (without the domestic violence), or somewhere past in a collage that feels both American and Australian, but may include Korea, as many of the poems do. He gives her Converse to ‘scuff at the mudguard’, and they wash dishes for bad pay and write. The poem has pace, and an expansive sense of possibility that grows even while the relationship falters, as we know it will (It’s that kind of poem). It’s the most lovely example of written melancholy, seen to particular effect towards the end:
in winter she was cold she was starting to remember
as he was learning to forget and they could not
sit still the September project through mountains
in boats across the vortex a continent as vast as hope
and that September they had the strangest dreams
while the wind stilled in the middle of the early dark
in a city where they had no currency and the tea
tastes metallic they watched sharks arcing through the ocean
At the conclusion, Ferney ends with a line that ‘the September project was never submitted’. It’s this, in combination with an earlier moment in the poem ‘the September project was something/they could use in creative writing seminars/for all time..’ that makes us smile because we know this little hook, and that it saves us all – Ferney, and his readers – from too much sentimentality.
Once we would have just called that postmodern, that the self-reflexive was a smart attribute with which to back away from content that dealt in the romantic. Now, like late-model masculinity, we can treat it as an extra ingredient to the sentimental. It is the dash of bitters in the sweet lemon and lime. (And no, I’m not going to move on any time soon from this imagery. How could I waste such an opportunity, when Ferney has a poem in here called ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’? And given that his first collection was entitled Popular Mechanics? I’m in good company.)
‘Millenium Lite Redux’ is a dense poem that skates us through place via questions. It is typical of the many compact poems within the collection, and displays more of the fluidity that calls to mind John Forbes, but with the multi-faceted knowing that comes from having occupied so many roles and places already. That is, a Liam Ferney poem about the dole is not a poem that assumes the role of poet first and foremost. It’s a poem that says, quite rightly, how do I work these angles to get to the next place I need to be. It’s a poem that says ‘the diary is a newstart fraud de art’ and ‘if you don’t have the ingredients don’t try to cook’, and then, in the close of the second stanza ‘and I think I understand the saints/stranded so far from home’.
Boom is poetry without swagger and with plenty of humility, yet the sum of this is a kind of roar and a knowledge of social and cultural lexicons laid out like samples for us to buy. It reminds us, even within the lines, not to be a wanker; ‘us’ being the nexus of the poet, the work, the readers.
& that’s how
You get suckerpunched:
Using bigger &
As if somebody had tattooed
A scrabble player’s aesthetic
Over poetry’s flexed bicep.
(‘Crumpled Elegance’ p 15)
Despite its range of poems, it hangs together well due to the assuredness of voice (assured, even when it’s asking questions of itself). It asks us to come inside the poems and take those parts we want, and while we’re there, to have a look at those parts that have been laid in via code, and to not flip out if they don’t give themselves up to us immediately (or ever). It’s a text-y feast and there’s plenty to be had. Dial room service and say ‘Bring me some man poetry of the modern day’, and you’ll get Boom. Tucked in a white paper bag, like white toast in a Bathurst motel; exactly what you want.
MELINDA BUFTON is a Melbourne poet and reviewer, Her work has appeared in a number of publications including Cordite, Rabbit, The Age and translated in Chinese poetry journal Du Shi. Her debut collection is forthcoming from Inken Publisch (www.inkenpublisch.com).
Chandramohan.S is an Indian English poet/writer/social activist based in Kerala,India. His writings deal with the social struggles of marginalized identities of the world. His work has appeared in New Asia Writes.
Crimson stains of caste honour
legacies of lineage
between her legs
to climb trees
sit with legs spread.
eyes and ears of endogamic gaze
check out the gait,
eavesdrop on pissing sound decibels
to be attenuated by wifely docility,
keep the caste hymen intact
to be bartered away in yellow metal brokered weddings
bridal crimson stains of honour
dried and preserved to adorn the flags hoisted at caste rallies.
Purged from the annals of history
vestiges being excavated of fallen, broken, desecrated idols
entombed in violent memorials like Pokhran-II.
Tales of a great soul
lost in translation
from Pali to Sanskrit
scores of viharas
by vedic hymns.
Bullets from saffron terrorists
burned Bamiyans holes
in pages of medieval Indian history
tales of the vanquished race
erased from the fables agreed upon.
People of our race seek refuge,
in a lankan island,
like Chiang Kai Shek’s defeated army in Taiwan.
He used to meditate in
Padmasana, Abhaya, bhumisparsa
but before lynching
he lined up to the guillotine in Pranama posture.
He descended down
into the collective conscience of a
society as just one of the zillions of deities
without a capital first letter
India has become Brobdingnag for him,
the miniature Gulliver among saffron gods and goddesses.
he occasionally gets his due
in a giant prostate deity
as giant Gulliver in the land of Lilliput.
divided deviated now sold as saffron history textbooks twice born editor refused to acknowledging the ghost writer.
First global Indian
almost has an NRI status now.
Beads around the bosoms
A chain of beads
around the bare breasts of our eves
a grim reminder
of the lynching of our god