Author and musician Toby Fitch was born in London and raised in Sydney. His chapbook, Everyday Static, was published by Vagabond Press, 2010. His first full-length book of poems Raw Shock is forthcoming in 2011 with Puncher & Wattmann. tobyfitch.blogspot.com
As with rocks emerging
in the lull between waves,
flourishing green, rekindled flames,
memories arise comets
with strangely familiar names
seen from the bottom of the sea like somehow
I stepped on a light switch.
But as with autumn’s
undertow of leaves, rained-on
letters, tumbledown dreams,
memories dissolve coins cast into the sea,
while the one I keep sifting for
is lost in the gravel at my feet, the swollen
waves engulfing the rocks.
New Year’s Resolution
On a night of fireworks veiled in mist,
of Ferris wheels burdened by clouds —
after hollow music beat down the door to my ears
and soggy bones had dragged me home —
I found myself on a mattress on the floor
in the middle of a pitch-dark room
awake and listening to the echo, upstairs,
of an old, upright piano playing grand arpeggios —
twenty- to thirty-finger chords,
friends gathered round in warm chorus,
singing old standards with abandon —
and it occurred to me I want to see daybreak again
having become both cavernous and water-logged,
more afraid of myself than anyone else is of me.
Bird in a Carpark
She saw this coming:
stealth bombers hunting bats;
hailstones and lightning;
shadows burnt into the walls.
The land has been lifted
from under her claws
and replaced by a
complex of rectangles
where fluoro lights flicker,
where spellbound lemmings
go further and further
down, seeking a way up.
Concrete warren, trap
of all traps — the future
like tarmac setting fast
around machinery both
redundant and indispensable,
hissing with oil, crawling
with sparks. Tangled in
webs, she cracks her beak
on the ceiling of black thunder,
her cry becoming a distant,
Cyril Wong is the author of eight collections of poetry and a short story collection. His work appears in journals around the world, including Atlanta Review, Fulcrum, Poetry International, Cimarron Review, Wascana Review, Dimsum, and Asia Literary Review. They have also been featured in the 2008 WW Norton Anthology, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond, and Chinese Erotic Poems by Everyman’s Library. TIME magazine has written that “his work expands beyond simple sexuality…to embrace themes of love, alienation and human relationships of all kinds.”
I am on a bus full of school kids smelling of sweat
and hope. I still hope, don’t I? I get off at a stop
and my grandparents are standing beside the road.
Grandma holds a bag of fruits. Grandpa is
smiling, waiting to hold my arm. They are gone
when I look down at the phone ringing in my hand.
No one is on the other line. Two girls I used
to play with stroll past. One glances over,
tells the other, “The way he stares suggests
he has no direction.” A little boy runs on the street
as I am ready to cross. He yells my name or
a word I can no longer recognise.
I try my best to respond and he runs towards me,
his hands flying up as if caught in a breeze, circling
the air like mad birds. I catch him in my arms. He smiles
and tells me to put him down, saying, “You have to
let me go. I don’t ever want to be picked up
like that again. When I am running towards you,
turn and walk very quickly in the opposite direction.”
I put him down. He sprints off, laughing wildly.
I am already starting to miss him. I board
another bus and you are waiting in the backseat;
unlike me, your eyes seem to bear all the answers.
I sit beside you and you hold my hand, not caring
what anyone thinks. Then it is just me on the bus now,
since you and I were always one and the same.
Someone in front presses the bell, the present
calling me to rise from my seat, to step off this bus
and into a future for which I am unprepared,
where my name makes sense even when I no longer do.
I am about to have a buffet. But
when I try to get up, I am stuck
to my seat. An empty plate
in front of me grows brighter
and brighter. I could eat
the table cloth. I am so hungry
I forget I am here alone, so old
that no one outlived me. My belly
clenches like a fist but my body will
not rise to its feet. The other customers
finished eating, rising to leave.
As they squeeze past my table,
I lean back in my chair, sighing
loudly with contentment. Suddenly,
I am standing on my feet,
but I have to follow everyone out—
lunchtime is over. Those already outside,
talking among themselves beside the street,
are exclaiming about how full they are.
A fat couple smiles widely at me.
The husband tells me, “Today’s selection
was quite spectacular, wasn’t it?”
Nobody ate anything. They were sitting
before empty plates. I watch as they
hug and leave in pairs or groups.
I try to remember if I have always
lied about my hunger. With a heart-stopping
screech, a car brakes in the middle
of the road. A homeless, dirty-faced
man has collapsed in front of the vehicle,
clutching his stomach as he yells,
“Somebody help me, please! Somebody
feed me—I’m starving!” To which
none of us does nothing. Instead,
we slip back into walking fast,
barking into our phones. The driver
who stopped his car restarts his engine,
followed by the others behind him.
In an unremitting stream, they
run over the poor fool again and
again, until he may no longer make
a sound that anybody might hear
above the symphony of all that traffic.
We saw a bear, and my friend flew up a tree. I fell to the ground and played dead. Like in a dream, the bear bent down to sniff my chest, my neck, and whispered in my ear, “Trust no one who abandons you in your moment of need.” When I opened my eyes, the bear was gone, and my friend was beside me, asking what the bear had said. I drew out a gun and shot him in the head; not knowing why I did it, only that it felt good to do it. And dragged his body into the forest for god knows how long and for no particular reason. Perhaps I wanted to thank the bear for his warning. Perhaps I was searching for myself. The body was getting heavy. When I looked down upon it, I saw that I was lugging my own body behind me, while I had turned into a bear. Like in a dream, I did not seem to care. Instead I hauled my former self deeper into the woods. Hungry, I rested and chewed on it for food. Some birds passing overhead called out a word that could have been my name. When I was full, I went to sleep. When I awoke, I had no eyes left to open, for I had become part of the stillness floating like a web between the trees, catching a few leaves, that long syllable of the wind, running daylight through its delicate grasp, then letting it all go again.
by Mani Rao
Chameleon Press, 2010
Reviewed by AMOS TOH
Mani Rao has donned many hats – TV executive, visiting fellow, scholar, critic and performer – but she is perhaps most at home as a poet. Tellingly, her poetry has spanned over more than a decade, leaving a “ghostly trail of a narrative thread about the dynamics of a relationship and a corollary questioning of the self” in its wake (Cyril Wong, QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004). Like her past collections, Ghostmasters evidences an effortless kineticism and a tactile grasp of the language. However, there is also a sense that her restless journeying through love and loss, death and desire has come to fruition.
While Rao’s latest poems retain the freshness and immediacy of her penultimate collection, Echolocation (Hong Kong: Chameleon Press 2003), it also finds deeper satisfaction in the processes of questioning and undermining. Rao’s candid and sometimes acidulous perspective tugs insistently at the pretence of reality so that it tears away to illuminate a world of isolation and oblivion. Her hard-earned revelations enable the poet to shed past obsessions – the oft-romanticised “lovers of the moment” in “Choose”, “the hourglass of my body” and the “fat satin of gluttony” in “Grand Finale” – so that she may come to peace with “the memory of that knowledge by / which we continue to regard as true what we have known to be true” (“q”).
Rao burrows deep into the cacophony of human desire and activity to reveal their transience and therein their futility. She observes, with startling clarity, how want leaves us wanting:
If everything is impermanent why do you want it
I don’t want anything for ever
You will disappoint everyone
Then you will be free
Death and its associations of finality and salvation are similarly probed. The uneasy decorum and “polite timing” of a passing succumbs to the hunger of the living in “Shorts”; however “well-dressed” and “neatly folded”, death still marches to its pointless, facetious conclusion when “the family finds out who gets what / you are finally understood”. Immediately, the next poem “Duet” speaks of an apparently different subject matter but reaches starkly similar conclusions, finding little solace in the musings of wary lovers desperate to feel alive:
Next time check with me first
Drop in any time even if you are not around
You too phone when you have nothing to say
Each utterance struggles to come to terms with the suffocating stasis of a relationship that carries on in spite of itself and a future gone cold.
These are poems that provide neither sentimental consolations nor easy answers, probing the vagaries of love and loss with an unflinching eye to reveal our deepest natures and most intractable fears. Rao’s reflections become intensely personal in “Choose”, where a moment of whimsy while cleaning her ancestors’ graves leads the poet to contemplate the power to bring someone back to life. How quickly she discards her list of nominees – family, lovers, children – is reminiscent of American poet Louise Glück’s customary candour and dark wit:
Father of sacrifice needs no help to draw my pity
That is piteous
Mother of passion reigned over me
I resent that
Brother of empire I would re-instate
Sister of sullenness I feel for
Lovers of the moment I cannot deny
But they did not wait for me
Rao’s bathos is more mordant than trenchant, purging herself of the emptiness of self-righteous sacrifice and self-pity, as well as a love that is ultimately unloving.
Nevertheless, even as life falls away in “lumps and gravy” at the hands of a tyrant (“Pol Pot”) or crumbles to leave “one ragged wing banging in the wind” (“Shorts”), the poet finds something redeeming in the rediscovery of “the opening softening wood of my body”, as well as its retelling. Human emotions and experiences, already in themselves figments of language, are recast as new verbs, directions and destinations:
Pain is a Verb
Death is Not
Wrong is a Place
Love has No Opposite
Perfection is a Being
Rao refutes the absolutist perception that “love”, “pain” or a “wrong” can be ascribed boundaries of meaning or any particular ideal. To be sure, this does not mean her poems endorse “the pit of relativity…comparing this truth with that” (“Writing to Stop”). Instead, they reflect that there is nothing so virtuous or grand that cannot be flipped onto its back to reveal its hypocrisy:
That I think it is not to be feared does not mean I don’t fear it. I used
to be someone. I placed so much value on it I acted humble,
prefacing the admission of my fortune with ‘undeserved’. How
low an opinion I had of myself that I became satisfied.
The poet is now content with merely being, seeking solace in knowing “she is mere / Reflection” that “Stays with the metaphor / Some respectful distance from the sun.” (“Haul”). Writing may provide catharsis, yet that is no certainty in a topsy-turvy world where “language is language and gives away no clues” about its destinations (“Writing to Stop”). However, little does this faze the poet who is no longer afraid to linger on the threshold between desire and the desired, between the dying and the dead. Fittingly, she asks, “If we don’t stop writing love poems, how can we be loved?”, as if defying the irony. This is a poetry that reminds us to stop arranging our lives as a means to an end so that we may start living. It is little wonder then that Rao dedicates Ghostmasters neither to us nor our existence, but appeals instead to our sense of “presence”.
Lara S. Williams is a British/Australian writer who has been published or has work appearing in over twenty international literary journals including Voiceworks, Cordite, Antipodes, Islet, Blue Crow, page seventeen, Magma, Island, Agenda, MiPOesias, Blue Fifth Review, Orbis and Neon. She is currently living in Seoul, South Korea, and spends most of her time writing and eating kimchi. She plays the saxophone somewhat haphazardly.
A Fugue To Happy Moments In Time
‘Son, your mother doesn’t understand like I do. You need this.’
‘I didn’t even apply, it’s a scholarship.’
‘So you’re looking a gift in the mouth?’
‘It’s to look a gift horse in the mouth.’
He concedes with a wave of his hand, sips his absinthe and lets out a loud exhalation. His foot taps to the beat of Paul Desmond’s ‘Take Five’ crackling from a stereo above the doorway; he gears himself up.
‘Hundreds of people apply to this school and ninety nine percent of them spend years beating themselves up because they didn’t make it. Waste money on extra tuition, books. But you don’t need that! They’re giving it to you on a plate. “Didn’t even apply”, good god, boy!’ Another sip of absinthe. He never uses the accompanying sugar.
‘You drink far too many of those,’ I wince.
‘Don’t change the subject. I won’t watch you turn them down.’ He slams the table with his fist.
I smile into my less abrasive vodka, turning the glass in the sun and watching smoky rainbows strike the cement. ‘Calm down. You know I‘m going. It‘s mum.’
He considers, tilting his head at an angle. Past his ear I see the café sign winking to a bookshop across the street.
‘Lie,’ he says.
‘I cannot lie to my mother.’
‘But I can.’
‘I don’t want to tell her some story. I want her to be happy for me.’ I kick at the ground. ‘There’s only so long she can use the same excuse to keep me here.’
‘Now that’s unkind,’ he replies. ‘You know how she feels. She lost her son.’
‘We all lost him. But I can’t stay home with her forever. I’m not him. I’m not a replacement!’
‘She worries. And you should be more understanding.’ He is flustered and I regret upsetting him.
‘Will you come visit me?’
‘Never.’ We are silent for some time and my father raises his hand and clicks, signalling for another drink. I smile and shake away a second vodka.
He chews his cheek and thinks. ‘I said I’d never go back to Paris.’
‘Bad memories?’ I ask.
‘No, my son, good!’ he replies explosively. ‘Good memories, excellent, the very best of my life.’
‘Then why stay away?’
He is serious now, eyebrows almost meeting at the bridge of his nose. A new absinthe appears and he pushes it aside, fearing the distraction.
‘Have you ever felt so utterly happy and content that you want to lie down and die, just to finish on a high?’
‘Not exactly. I think it would put a rather sour note on things.’
‘I have!’ He leans forward, eyes fixed on something beyond my ear. ‘Years ago in Paris, I played flute in a tiny restaurant. I don’t recall where it was.’ He waves his hand impatiently, continues, ‘blue window shutters upstairs. It was called ‘L’amour’. I met Gabriella, a Spanish student visiting for a study break.’ He looks at me. ‘She was sensational. Dark and quiet, didn’t ask questions. I finished playing and drank wine with her and the moon came out over the top of her perfect head.’ He pulls a white handkerchief from his pocket and lays it on the table, showing me the embroidery of a woman’s figure in light blue thread.
‘I always liked this.’ I touch the corner
‘You ever wonder where I got it? She gave it to me. One kiss and an eternal memory.’ He stops and shivers. ‘Paris will make you.’ He finishes the drink and I think for a moment he means to stay longer, get drunker. Instead he tumbles two bills onto the table and gestures to the book store opposite us. ‘Come with me. I’m getting you something.’
I’d been there many times before, always finding unpriced copies of penguin editions in boxes at the counter. I watch my father disappear in that direction, then return clutching a sheaf of lined paper.
‘I knew they had this here,’ he says. My fist fills with paper and he ushers me out onto the street. ‘Beautiful on the flute, that.’ As I look he digs in his pocket and unwraps a chocolate cigar.
‘Satie? Ah, Trois Gynopodies.’ I point the music at his mid-drift and nod my head. ‘Thank you.’
‘You can play that at your final performance.’ He sprays cocoa smoke around my ears.
‘I might not get that far.’
He backs away, jabbing his cigar in the air. ‘Course you will. You’ve got Satie.’
‘Can we go home?’ I walk beside him and finger the corners of my sheet music to sweat.
I arrived for orientation on the third of February, early on a snowy evening. My bags, bursting with music sheaves and polishing oil, slapped against my father’s flute, all pressed tightly to my thigh like a child. Already students milled around the entrance hall dragging cases, stands, trunks, coats and naked instruments. A rumble of languages filled the quiet spaces in the air. As I made my way to the dormitory a black boy with coloured beads in his hair dropped a saxophone and I heard the squealing snap of valves.
My room was a twin, the room mate not yet arrived. I put my flute on a narrow metal-framed bed and inspected the pine shelves above the head board. After lining up a few books and unpacking my pressed clothes I went to explore the grounds.
Outside I buttoned my overcoat and turned the corner of the building, heading for a varnished wooden gate set into the surrounding fence. Slipping through I entered a small courtyard dark with pine branches. Bird feeders and bony rose stems dangled from the wood and tangled together until the two became one impenetrable force. Fresh snow sat on the grass like carpet free of footprints and rain stain. A paved ring of brickwork clawed through, its only adornment a rusty iron bench.
Seated was a young woman tightening the string of a viola. She drew the bow across its face, listening closed-eyed. I thought her beautiful; haematite hair wound around the neck of her instrument, knuckles pink in the cold, finger tips white with string pressure. I approached, watching the slender arm slide back and forth. Her eyes opened when my heels clicked on the bricks.
‘Bonjour.’ She lowered her viola.
‘Don’t stop,’ I murmured.
She smiled and put the instrument away. I looked at the shape of her coat collar against the white throat. Her eyes were wet with large irises that rolled around the line of my face. I wanted to say something about her playing.
‘Embrasse-moi,’ she breathed in melodious baritone.
Snow settled on my head, melt running behind my ear and traversing the hairline to spread at the nape of my neck. Her breath clouded into my nostrils and I smelt cinnamon and tasted tiny speckles of snow on her cheeks. Her left elbow was remarkably warm, sheltered as it was in the curve of her body whilst playing.
The spotlight swoons across my flute and ignites trickling mirrors in the valves. I see a man, short and portly, standing at the front. He waves a familiar white handkerchief and his presence gives me a pleasurable jolt.
I hold the flute like a fine sword, feeling a brassy thrum beneath my fingers. The lights dim, signalling my introduction.
‘This piece,’ I announce, ‘is for my father, the flautist Albert Pewty who has come here, at great risk to himself, to hear me play Satie.’
He remains standing, a tweed apostle, and the smile he illicits transforms my piece from perfected mournful practises into notes bent warm and sweet. The performance is long, accompanied by piano. I dimly hear my own playing over the roar in my head.
Behind my body the concert‘s highlight appears: an enormous silver moon born from moulded ceramic and tiny shards of glass, thick like the bottom of a vodka tumbler. It lowers before the backdrop and lights hit it on all sides, sending moonlight in every direction.
I see my father sit abruptly. His face is shadowed and he lowers his head to rest on his chest. I end my piece, arms lifted level with the flute, an unusual and ungainly stance but one that allows my body help the music collapse into finish. I lower my shivering arms and bow.
When there is relative quiet on the other side of the curtain I return to the stage. Looking down I am surprised to see my father still sitting in place.
‘Dad!’ I call out. ‘I can’t believe you came.’ I rush to the edge and drop down, sit beside him. ‘Did you enjoy it?’
He doesn’t look at me. I reach out and touch his lapel, run the finger down his body, feel the warmth of flesh under his clothes.
‘Answer me.’ I look down and see his handkerchief on the floor, a footprint across its body. ‘Dad?’
He is dead at sixty three, captured in the final happiness he feared. I bow my head and press it into his neck. I wonder why he is so warm and I so cold.
‘I’m glad you came,’ I whisper.
The jazz saxophones were swinging, punching out a fast paced version of Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker’s Street’. The vocalist, a young man, was perched on a green stool, thin black moustache pointing at the drums balanced across his knees. I sat, head on chest, nodding out of time.
‘Vous desirez?’ The waitress repeated herself three times to my silence before giving up and leaving a menu on my table.
A woman opposite me lifted dark eyes to meet mine. She was wrinkled and very beautiful. There was an aura of contentment around her greying hair.
‘You’re sad,’ she said in a thick Spanish accent. ‘Would you like a drink?’
I lowered my head and nodded weakly. ‘Thank you. A vodka.’ I paused. ‘Actually, absinthe.’ The woman called to the waitress and she soon appeared bearing two glasses and a bottle.
‘Why aren’t you with other young ones, enjoying such a beautiful night?’ She looked up at the moon, now full, hanging above her silver-tinted head. I took the absinthe in my fingers, steeled myself, and swallowed.
‘I’m not much for company tonight. But thank you.’ I gestured with the empty glass and she dipped her head.
‘Drink, talk.‘ She sipped and threw a hand across her glowing head. ‘After all, you’re in ‘L’amour’.’
I turned my head to look at the peeling wood sign. The blue window shutters banged in the breeze. I clapped my hands together and laughed. ‘Of course it is. Why wouldn’t it be?’
The woman went to refill my glass.
‘No!’ I cried involuntarily, placing my hand across the rim. ‘One is enough. Just one.’
Her tongue reached out to caress her bottom lip in slow contemplation. ‘It is a beautiful night,’ she sighed. ‘I have met a beautiful, sad man. But I am happy. If I were any happier, I would die.’
I don’t hesitate. ‘You probably will.’
‘What an end to the world.’
The drums fell away and one single saxophone carried the tune. The same rough voice sang only to me. Felt only me.
In 2009 Stuart Barnes’s unpublished memoir, A Cold Decade was shortlisted for the Olvar Wood Fellowship Award; and his poem “Solomon” was shortlisted for the Newcastle Poetry Prize. He lives in Melbourne.
God’s grey waiting room
eyes like stray cats’
of rotting compost
patients spin between doctors
like coloured tops between children
tests specified on paper
in puzzling Latin
roll call: the nurse
hums a golden
oldie like a vampire
The men are perfect:
Sargasso Sea eyes,
shoulders square as Spanish villas,
chests like polished bronze breastplates.
They dance, they do not speak.
Perfection is a crime:
it cannot be forgiven.
The men are too perfect:
they are strange untouchables,
they slide over mortals
like oil over water.
Perfection is an anchor.
The men are imperfect:
they dance, but they do not dare,
and they do not think.
Symptoms of Homesickness
by Nathanael O’Reilly
Picaro Press, 2010
Reviewed by EA GLEESON
With dedications to Conlon and Quigley and geographical cues such as Yambuk, The Lady Bay Hotel and The Moyne, the nomenclature of Symptoms of Homesickness orientates us towards the Irish Australian Diaspora and particularly as it is lived out in Victoria’s South West. Closer reading reveals a wider geographical terrain but the real landscape of this poetry is the cultural and emotional territory explored through childhood, teenage years and young adulthood.
O’Reilly has paid attention to experience and brings it to the reader in a poetry that is descriptive. The opening poem in ‘Deep Water’ places the reader in a childhood place many might choose not to remember.
On winter mornings, the State
Put children to the test
While teeth chattered,
Swimming caps squashed
Ears, testicles retreated.
More enticing to those who thrive on nostalgia might be O’Reilly’s description of ‘Stopping for Fish and Chips’.
the sweaty package
Of butcher’s paper and grabbed hot
Handfuls. Escaping steam fogged-up
The windows. We gripped sleeves
In our fists and wiped windows clear.
More of the poems have to do with burgeoning sexuality, friendship and risk taking.
I enjoy the way O’Reilly plays a situation to transform a seemingly ordinary activity such as waiting in the library for the protagonist’s dad to collect him, into a chance to explore some of the adult magazines housed in the library.
I could not
Imagine the flat chested, uniformed girls
In my class with ribbons, baubles and pig-tails
In their hair developing such adornments,
Shamelessly spreading themselves on car bonnets.
(“Afternoons Waiting in Libraries”)
O’ Reilly’s approach is to tell. This is reflected in titles such as ‘Folk LPs and No TV’, ‘Stopping for Fish and Chips’ and as cited above, ‘Afternoons Waiting in Libraries’. Events are reported in detail.
Evenings were spent at home
Drinking my parents’ wine
Eating thick slabs of cheese
Grilled on toast while watching
Day night cricket matches on telly.
Or if the Austudy hadn’t run out,
Drinking Carlton Draught downtown
In the Shamrock Hotel or the Rifle Brigade…
Events of the heart are often presented in a similarly descriptive style, “oscillating between melancholy and desire” (Anna Karenina in Canberra), with a reliance, sometimes, on the use of adverbs.
She needed someone to hold.
I eagerly took up the task,
Tracing the contours of her
Delicate face with my finger,
Gratefully inhaling her warm breath,
Entwining my limbs with hers…
I think the impact of this can be to emphasise the physical detail at the expense of the emotional impact and hence, to lessen the likelihood of surprise. I found myself sometimes wishing O’Reilly would place more trust in his reader. On the other hand, I was taken with the way he presented some of his ideas so evocatively. His strongest poetry alluded to possibilities. This was particularly evident in some of his endings:
“Saying yes, yes to the unknown” (The Present) or “you showed us the world, then let us go” (Mentor) and the last line of the book, “The Trinity of your Australian Life”.
This final example ends one of the most moving poems of the collection, ‘Requiem’, in which the internationally situated grandson is not able to attend his grandfather’s funeral in Australia due to the pending birth of his child. A poem based on such poignant points of the cycle of life, with the inherent knowledge that this man was not able to hold his dying grandfather and the great-grandfather will never hold his grandchild would have to affect the reader. But it is the details of the grandson that made this poem live for me. Images of the expatriate grandson; opening the package containing his grandfather’s “duct-taped binoculars and dusty green corduroy cap”, being held by his wife “as he sat on the toilet and wept”, of remembering his music and stories and potato crop while he held his newly born daughter. Poetry rich with imagery but controlled by emotional truth is a potent poetic combination.
The title poem “Symptoms of Homesickness” works differently from others in this book, but cleverly. The expatriate protagonist laments somewhat ironically, the aspects of Australian life he misses, and with his musings, the tone shifts from poignant to self- deprecating to funny. So it is a shock when the final lines read,
When the pain is almost too much to bear.
Wondering how much it costs to fly a body home.
Although I would call for a tightening of the poetic technique and editing in Symptoms of Homesickness, it is a work that has me buzzing. Its content is interesting and does the important work of preserving a unique cultural history within the Australian experience. Most significantly, it projects work with a distinctive Australian voice. Elements of the poetry are entertaining, beautiful and frank. I am grateful to the poet-teacher in ‘Mentor’ who “convinced a roomful of teenagers that poetry matters”. The most significant poems have me excited about the future possibilities that we are likely to see from this poet. I will be queuing to buy his first full-length manuscript.
E. A. GLEESON‘s poetry collection, In between the dancing, received the award for Best First Manuscript and was published by Interactive Press in 2008. Anne lives in Daylesford, Victoria where she works as a Funeral Director.
Aimee Norton is a research astronomer with a PhD from University of California, Los Angeles. She is a lecturer and researcher at James Cook University in Queensland. An emerging poet she has published in Many Mountains Moving, Paper Wasp, Byline and Literature in North Queensland (LiNQ). She was a featured reader in 2008 at Edge: A Reading Series of Emerging and Young Writers hosted by Casa Libre en la Solana in Arizona and a finalist in the 2005 poetry competition hosted by Many Mountains Moving as judged by Marcus Cafagna. She enjoys the parallel ways in which physics and poetry can compress great, big experiential truths into small spaces.
On the Road to Sexual Freedom
I’m grateful to lovers, every one, who flashed me the salt in their eyes
or Morse coded me in pleasure text to say passion
is a part of compassion. But my memories are pocked on all sides
by girls in tight cotton wearing NO on silver necklaces,
bank tellers of reproduction, these ascetics sat upright
with books covered in the brown, grocery-sack paper of thrift.
They insisted I do the same. Fear rose from them like startled birds.
The No-girls quick-syllable words were bought behind counters
stocked with lottery tickets and plastic saints.
I pitied such shortsighted chastity.
What they called a one-night stand was transformative.
Sex dissolved pain in the detergent of time. How empowering
to be chosen, even neon-light briefly, by another.
As a genius teenage fuck, I won the Nobel Prize for loving
several years running. My talent was seeing each brittle yeoman
for who he really was. In return, I was dubbed as easy, gained
a reputation spread by the fire tongues of the No-girls,
I threatened the sexual economy. Brigitta called me Slut
in her strangled pigeon voice. So I played parade music,
straight-ahead drum and bugle, and marveled on the downbeats
at all the No-girls didn’t know. This: a talisman against loneliness
is an old lovers name spoken aloud. And this: even a memory
of being held remains strong against the bowhead of time.
So here’s my note to the sanctimonious: Stop dinging
the sides of my dreams with fictive piety. Up ahead,
I see the Romeo nation, where Latissimus Dorsi curve
into the small of men’s backs and a chorus of stories
are sung as forearms become blunt instruments of bliss.
a spell of indifference
This body, it could be any body.
Rather, any body could be mine.
And the town, well, it is any town –
the street names wiped clean at dawn.
My husband, an arbitrary man,
is no less and no more than other men.
The children, small dear loaves of life,
are randomly being drawn out by time.
Anywhere, with any one,
any me could be.
I can’t tell if the sentiment
is laudable or laughable,
whether I’ve attained enlightenment
But clearly, it doesn’t matter.
The menu is always the same.
The apples arrive with
their leafless stems,
and the bird outside my window
is the same one outside yours.
Daniel East is an Australian writer currently working in South Korea. His work has been published in Voiceworks, Cordite and the 2007 Max Harris Poetry Award, “Poems in Perspex”. He was a member of
Australia’s only poetry boyband, The Bracket Creeps and co-wrote “Sexy Tales of Paleontology” which won the 2010 Sydney Fringe Comedy Award.
How Korea is Old
Three months in a city of red night
waking in a colourless cold dawn
where stumbling children stop as buses crush past
& with half-formed fingers linked, blink & move on.
Schools of tailor belly-up in tanks, bleached scallops,
octopus like phlegm writhing on the glass;
this scaffolded street an aquarium
shopping-bagged in smog.
Chillies & bedsheets set to dry by the road,
beggars hiding their stumps beneath black rubber mats,
plucked melodies of a geomungo blasting from a Buy-The-Way.
11 p.m. on Sunday Gwangmyeong market begins to shutter.
Cider-apple women peel garlic cross-legged on newspapers,
pre-teens return from night school
playing baseball on their touch-screens.
A plaque reads:
this market is three hundred years old.
Yesterday I watched cuttlefish butchered
in pools of scarlet & cream – tonight I drink beer on my roof
as neon crosses strike out across the valley
& the city starts to scream.
Writing After The Goldrush
On a yellow day in August you’ll find yourself alone
a coverlet twisting in your toes
& no more see his smile
but by an exact shadow.
There’ll be one green apple in a clay bowl
& to your thin fingers it will be
the smoothest thing you ever held –
but by a park on Parrish avenue
when your bare feet were cold,
he pressed a lily pad into your palm
the pink-white lotus beyond reach in clear
black water. It will be August,
& a nameless thing will go.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain writes and translates in French, English and Chinese. Her books include Water the Moon (Marick Press, 2010) and Silhouette/Shadow (co-authored with Gao Xingjian, Contours, 2007). Co-director of Vif éditions (www.vif-editions.com), an independent Parisian publishing house, and one of the editors at Cerise Press (www.cerisepress.com), she is also a zheng (ancient Chinese zither) concertist. Her CD, In One Take/Une seule prise (with Guo Gan, erhu) will be released in Europe this fall. Her translations of Hai Zi’s prose will be forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2012, and she is currently completing a French critical monograph on Gao Xingjian’s dramatic literature. She lives in Paris, France and New York. Visit www.fionasze.com
Rendez-vous at Pont des Arts
You’ll find me at Pont des Arts
where water remains water
till it moves between tolling bells
while your light feet carry speed,
you chase after disappearing bistros,
then find me at Pont des Arts.
In my bed on Rue de Seine,
we whisper and you touch my cheek,
charting out time with your fingers.
At my window on Rue de Seine,
I light a candle to look into your eyes
which find their way to Pont des Arts
without compass, without map,
as the bridge arches into time,
charting history across two banks.
Days connect years, years become places —
you travel over dreams or on bicycle.
Will I find you at Pont des Arts?
Moon crossing bridge in vanishing stars.
The sea under our bed
holds immensity for sleepless
hours that belong to last night.
I am moon fishing while
waiting for you to open
your eyes and cry for light.
Crawling in the sheets, I fear
burying you in my dreams where
your tears drop as water
trickling from the sky, and I am
that instant of devastating white.
My Grandmother Waters the Moon
Ingredients: 1 pound red azuki beans, lard,
sugar, salt, white sesame, walnuts, flour
First, she imagines an encrypted message,
longevity in Chinese characters,
ideograms of dashed bamboo and mandarin
ducks. Grains of red beans churn in her palm,
their voices a song of cascading waters.
Rinses every seed warm to her touch, a blender
crushing them until they are sand
soft enough to waltz once a finger dips in them.
Jump, of course they jump!
As she splatters them over steamy lard, little
fireworks in the greasy wok. Stirs until
a crimson bean paste foams. Let it cool.
Now, the mutation. Meander white dough
into miniature moons, pert peering hollows
waiting to be parched with spoonfuls
of bean paste. Throw sesame. Or slices of walnuts.
Just more dough is not enough to seal each moon
with mystery — molding her message on top
of each crust, she now gives it a mosaic look.
War strategy? Emperor Chu Yuan-chang
performed the same ritual. He who’d construct
a new dynasty, slipped espionage notes
inside mooncakes. Soldiers lacquered their lips
over them, tasting bitterness of each failed revolt.
In 1368, they drove the Mongols north,
back to their steppes. Here she is in 1980.
About histories, she is seldom wrong.
Time to transform the mooncakes golden —
oven heat for thirty minutes. Her discreet
signature before this last phase: watering
green tea over each chalked face. What is she
imagining again? That someday grasses
sprout with flowers on the moon?
All autumn she dreamt of stealing
that cupful of sky. A snack
to nibble for her granddaughter, the baby
me, wafts of caked fragrance
a lullaby, tucked in an apron, sleeping on her back.
A Slant of Light
by Paul Kane
Reviewed by Michelle Cahill
Paul Kane’s collection of Australian poems, A Slant of Light concerns itself with motion and matter, the visible spectrums. In this slim, modest volume, poems from Work Life, and the earlier Drowned Lands, as well as new poems are luminously arranged by dialectic turns. There are so many influences and traditions underpinning this work, yet it speaks to a reader with simplicity and clarity, so that one comes not merely to enjoy, but to value its irony and its philosophical refinement.
The physical and metaphysical properties of light and its objects thematically link these verses. At least two themes familiar to readers of Emily Dickinson are inferred by the book’s title: the circularity of truth and the disquiet of death, of loss and mourning. It is the “internal difference/Where the meanings are” which forms disturbing tensions that lie beneath the surface of poems about landscape, travel, friendship, family and loss.
“South Yarra,” the book’s opening poem, distinguishes light from shadow, reality from dream, as it describes the passing of time in the speaker’s study. Like doubt, the light takes no form of its own, other than objects it falls upon. The speaker’s book is illuminated, “the cyclamen luxuriates,” a blank wall is “blinding.” Materiality is evident in the careful choice of diction; the optic process of “accommodation” renders possible the gaze, but also there is a syllogistic inference being made about the waking experience and the dream, both of which in their shared similarity lay claim to reality. The apparent simplicity of the poem belies its lyric ability to unravel complexity.
Kane’s choice of “Plastic explosive on Toorak Road’ to follow the opening poem reinforces to the reader that his concerns are with quantities that can be measured. Here the charge that alters matter is scandalous but the object is simulacra: the scene, depicting a mannequin being dismantled in a Toorak shop and voyeuristically watched by a young man, evokes an unexpected emotion in the saleswoman:
She begins dismembering:
first an arm, then another, lies on the ground.
With a tenderness that perplexes her, she holds
a head in her lap. She could almost cry.
Intimacy, vulnerability and cruelty are eclipsed by an intentional ambiguity in the scene. The poem is subtle yet deeply disturbing, giving force to feelings beyond the armoury of appearance, hinting too, at dissatisfaction with the simulated world. That the speaker is somehow complicit in this, yet twice distanced, watching the watcher, deepens this fissure.
Kane’s poetics test the tensions between abstract and real matter, between external and eternal, and what that word might mean. His interest in landscape, place, in the physical nature of appearance situates a modernist aporia, “an alien shore,” an impasse in which truth and knowledge may be questioned rationally, or empirically, or with transcendental idealism rather than through deconstruction or mystic leaps. A poem like “In the Penal Colony” outlines the constructions of normative ethics, which oversimplify our existential restrictions
We are everywhere in chains, long before
this bondage confirms it
An unsentimental taking of terms, which extend beyond colonial or philosophical demarcations, is used to define entrapments “ beyond mere justice or injustice.” There is hardness and tenderness entwined, as “we tend to these machines lovingly.” Here, as elsewhere, salient use is made of the third person plural pronoun to imply a shared consciousness, in which nations and stories might converse. Kane’s unadorned style is beautifully wrought as a masculine music relying on assonance, puns, repetitions and a matter-of-fact tone:
The writs, by all rights, are the very terms
we endure with our bodies, upon our bodies.
We will be free one day, when we are as nothing.
If a Platonic or pre-Platonic ideal is imaginatively tested in this poem, other poems are more skeptical of knowledge. “Black Window” adopts the more Kantian perspective that only through appearances can we know ourselves:
we half-believe and half ignore.
Turn again says the room, but this time
vanish into what you are doing
that you may be seen for what you do
So the disparate elements of reality remain unreconciled, hope appearing like a sign, “a narrow band of light” in the existential darkness. Kane executes his prose poems very beautifully; one can observe traces of Romantic introspection in the movement as description leads to meditation and colloquy. But he makes this unique, tempering it with a critique of the light to which he alludes:
Were it not for all our cruelty,
we might live in grace, as hatred is darkness,
and darkness the absence of light.
We cannot get behind this world, only
deeper into it, until at last inside out its strangeness
is revealed and every prospect, every certainty
we thought we knew, turns foreign to us,
and fresh, like that band of light and those
This, from “Hard Light in the Goldfields,” seems to convey recognition that self, object and phenomenon are entwined. Despite the poem’s intellectual discipline one is aware of intuition, the poetic ego being subordinate to that incident between inner and outer worlds, which drives the poem towards passion.
Correspondences are drawn between aesthetics and ethics, that “grace” which eludes us. I read this as a secular slant, traces of which are found in many other poems. One delightful verse, “An Invitation,” evokes a hierarchy in terms of situation and conduct, from the low lying lands of Talbot to Mt Glasgow where the future “presides,” and where the reader is invited to join for coffee and lemon cake. The harshness of rural life, of drought, solitude, and desperation provides metaphysical reflections, which are eloquently voiced, rather than being maverick in language or compacted in craft. The wilderness is stark in “Kakadu Memory,” where ekphrasis establishes an anti-pastoral space from an abstract landscape:
The bleakness has yielded up desert colours
and the emptiness fills with bird song.
Nostalgia is replaced with despair; even the grasses “desperate…/ for moisture and forgiveness.” Menace is frequently hinted at; and in a poem like “On the Volcano” the biological order is metonymic of social hierarchies, and their implications of power:
I wouldn’t want to be a rodent on this
mountain, or anything low on the food chain.
We live among elements, any one of which
could take us in a moment.
Here, as in Emily Dickinson’s poems, ambivalence, the distinct angle between verbal style and subject creates strong psychological realities. A resisted threat is suggested. Such tonal manipulations are the hallmark of Kane’s poetics. A metaphysician who entertains ethics, and who at times employs theological tropes, his wit is a sign of his attachment to the world.
Transition, the relativity of time, the diurnal cycle, the Augustinian circle, the wave properties of light, are the physical principles on which Kane bases his eulogies. There’s a distillation informed by Emerson’s understanding that
The light is always identical in its composition, but it falls on a great variety of objects, and by so falling is first revealed to us, not in its own form, for it is formless, but in theirs; in like manner, thought only appears in the object it classifies.
The eulogies leave vivid and unassuming images of a person’s life. Some, like “Third Parent” and “Dear Margie” praise close relatives and friends, while others like “Dawn At Timor” are addressed to poet friends. Jahan Ramazani has described the transhistorical and transcultural sources of elegy, a genre steeped in formality, ritual and convention, pastoral and Puritan. Ardent yet plainly poised in their contemplation, Kane’s elegies insert a cross-cultural episteme into a national context. Movement bids the poet to “alien shores,” to “foreign seas,” where the perspectives he encounters are both a “common ground,’ and then, in mourning, “all the circumference/ of a life without the centre.” These perspectives, which intersect the local with the timeless, are relevant not merely for Australian readers but for a ‘transnationalist’ poetics, dare I mention that dangerously porous term.
And yet, the diasporic identity seems essential for the particular, inventive space of a poet who probes the disparities between reality and abstractions. For the diasporic or expatriate writer the absence of home or place may exert equal if not greater force on the imagination than home or place itself. Such liberal perspectives in Australian literature are valuable for their alterity and their cultural difference. They shed light on the way in which we see ourselves, re-classifying our literary identity.
Not strictly a modernist, not merely a Romantic, nor a transcendentalist, Kane’s work eludes easy classification. His poetics remind me of the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, grounded as they are in historical and philosophical awareness, ironic and polished in their forms, yet without the scaffolding of craft or the density of thought. Pleasing for their clarity, eloquence, and fine modulations of tone these poems are gentle in their ethical suggestions. They bring to our Australian landscapes new and vital physical and metaphysical reflections.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Portable Emerson, “The Transcendentalist.” Bode, Carl & Cowley, Malcolm, Eds. NY: Penguin, 1979. 92-93
Kane, Paul. Drowned Lands University of South Carolina, 2000
Kane, Paul. Work Life. NY: Turtle Point Press, 2007
Ramazani, Jahan. “Nationalism, Transnationalism, and the Poetry Of Mourning.” The Oxford Handbook Of The Elegy Ed Karen
Weisman. NY: OUP 2010. 601-619
MICHELLE CAHILL writes poetry and fiction, which has appeared in Blast, World Literature Today and Transnational Literature. She graduated in Medicine and in the Humanities, and she is an editor for Mascara Literary Review.