Fatima Bhutto was born in Kabul in 1982. Her father Murtaza Bhutto, son of Pakistan’s former President and Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and an elected member of parliament, was killed by the police in 1996 in Karachi during the premiership of his sister, Benazir Bhutto. Fatima graduated from Columbia University in 2004, majoring in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures, and from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 2005 with a Masters in South Asian Government and Politics. She is the author of two books: Whispers of the Desert, a volume of poetry, which was published in 1997 by Oxford University Press, Pakistan when Fatima was 15 years old. 8.50 a.m. 8 October 2005, a collection of first-hand accounts from survivors of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, was published by OUP in 2006. Her third book, Songs of Blood and Sword, will be published around the world in 2010. Fatima wrote a weekly column for Jang – Pakistan’s largest Urdu newspaper and its English sister publication The News – for two years. She covered the Israeli Invasion and war with Lebanon from Lebanon in the summer of 2006 and also reported from Iran in January 2007 and Cuba in April 2008. Fatima’s work has appeared in the New Statesman, Daily Beast, Guardian, and The Caravan Magazine. Her latest book, Songs of Blood and Sword, will be published by Jonathan Cape in Australia this spring.
Photograph: Benjamin Loyseau
Breathed in through the lungs
Is sickly sweet
Like honeycomb left out to rot
In the warm, unrepentant heat.
It is thick, smoky
The evening scent of garbarge burning
At the first break of dusk’s early light.
Mynah birds and ravens caw
A jealous chord
Singing to the street.
I can hear the poor sweeper man
The moonlit littered roads.
I sleep in bed
Covered in a sheet of sweat.
There is no electricity now
In this deadened August night
Middle Eastern airlines, terminals and luggage belts
Stuck alongside students,
Honeymooners in black robes and white thobes
And slave labour, working through the night.
Hiding my name on my boarding passes,
A thumb obscuring the sight of letters, destinations and foreign nights
And inventing new fictions,
And family trees.
My legs are close to clotting
And my bags unnecessarily heavy.
Qatar, Etihad and Emirates
I count them off as lovers
I use in desperate times of need.,
Flying out every month
Pretending that I’m free,
Subsisting on airline meals.
Parting from Karachi
At departure gates
And onwards worldwide.
I wish it well
My love unkind.
Memories are dulled as the pilot starts the plane
Nostalgia side swept as stewardesses buckle belts and enquire about meal time.
Even our city’s lights
Even the noisy traffic
The congestion meek,
The airwaves clear.
From the sky,
From a passenger plane,
Filled with labourers
Dressed in January sandals
And drinking whisky
They’d never get otherwise,
And singing ghazals
To lull them to sleep,
This mangled city,
This wretched, wretched home
Loses so much heart.
Three days later
My chest hurts for a sound
Of something familiar
An exhaust broken on a motorcycle.
The smell of the salty, smoky air.
The taste off a broken beetel nut
I’d never eat at home
And I imagine
Some of the time.
He moved my body
On the underside of my knee.
It was winter
When he sold me,
Seventy five degrees
I sleep on tarmacs
Eyes half closed.
I have become an exile
With an open home.
My valise holds all my shirts
I’m packed for winter
Wearing summer clothes.
I left behind a country once,
I can’t remember when.
Underneath it all
I’m bare boned
Very simply alone.
On white ironed sheets
A knock on the ceiling
A boot against the floor
Sticky remote control at the foot of the bed
Fire escapes winding under my window
And an alarm reminds me
I ordered room service way too long ago.
In nine years
I hardly wrote a red line
The crawl inside me subsided.
In the car,
Sunday, past noon,
The freeway pulled me down
And drudged up my lines.
I spoke for him,
For his embrace,
Coated with warm sweat
In a parking lot,
For the kiss,
And the scrape of his beard
As I breathed him in
One more hurried time.
So, I wrote him these lines,
My only memories
Inside a kiss,
Held in by his lips
In a claustrophobic garage
In which our farewells were disguised.
Poetry is both universal and specific. Its rhythms and cadences can tap into something like an original language. An image or sentence might reach deeply inside of you telling you that your understanding of the world is shared with others.
At the same time, poetry can be the most specific of experiences. The music of a poem may require it to be read with its native accent. A set of cultural, geographical or temporal references may lose a reader completely.
In this way, I find Jee Leong Koh’s first collection of poetry, Equal to the Earth, published by Bench Press, particularly interesting in how it will connect with different readers: immigrants and ex-pats, gays and straights, lovers of language and rhyme. As a gay Asian poet, living outside of the country I was born in, I feel a kindred spirit in Koh, while conscious of our differences.
Koh’s use of rhyme and formal poetic structures is one of these differences. An Australian novelist and critic, Ian McFarlane, wrote in the Australian Literary Review (3 Feb 2010): “Until quite recently rhyme was crime and sniffingly discarded from the poetry editor’s slush pile, preferably with a pair of surgical tongs.” But he proposed that “we are disposed to rhythm and rhyme”, noting Nicholson Baker’s notion “that rhyme provides poetry’s true form”.
I note my cultural bias. My Canadian peers and role models most often wrote in free verse charged with conversational rhythm. So, I’m not inclined to rhyme but was impressed with Koh’s experimentation with rhyme and form, and caught myself noting how subtle rhymes could elevate an idea into song, enlivening phrase and sentence (in the poems “Pedestrian” and “Actual Landing”), and matched at times with gentle play and humour I (“Spinoza on Love”, “Thank you, thank you”).
A few poems I thought weaker had a central idea, and rhyme, but not enough internal energy to set them alight. I wondered if the rhyme patterns were constraining the energy of language, stronger ideas and words unable to break free. But perhaps I’m biased as one of my favourite of his poems was rhymeless, an intimate lament:
we both know, my love, who is no longer my love,
we’re standing at the very edge of Long Island
but, no, neither wild nor desolate is the edge.
I prefer this voice of Koh’s, when he matches the intensity of what he is feeling with something that reaches for something that is all at once, grand, universal and specific. In a few poems, I detect a depth of emotion that is somehow dampened, almost tossed away so as not to hurt as much. A poem to his father, “What’s Left” has the themes of familial betrayal, neglect, duty and resentment, and yet I noticed more the rhyming structure, or the repetition of the “sigh”, his symbol for his grandfather. Which could be the point: an Asian stoicism rather than a stronger reaction, but the poem still left me flat. Similarly, in “New Year’s Resolution”, the narrator battles loneliness by treating it lightly and the conversational language (“your friends sincere and good-looking, sort of”) lacks charge.
I enjoyed the frank, bold narratives of the handful of sex-oriented poems (including “Glass Orgasm”, “Cold Pastoral” and “Chapter Six: Anal Sex) though as a fellow romantic, I worry for a narrator who “mistakes loneliness for love” and is excited by the sound of a man, more than any man he’s met. But lots of us poets are tragic romantics and will sense a kindred spirit in these passages.
What I was most impressed with was the first section of Equal to the Earth, “Hungry Ghosts”, in which the narrator inhabits different men from China’s history who were attracted to other men – it uses Asian imagery and ideas in ways that are not kitsch but instead playful and original and matches it with a voice that crackles with energy.(“…kings are threaded with assassins, / male favorites, butchers, turtleshell diviners…”; “…the graying calligraphy, / the bamboo ribs bound by a belt of twine and worn / by age and use.” p. 13-14)
At the end of this set of poems, unexpectedly, the narrative shifts to the present-day, where the narrator describes a simple walk and a soon-to-occur visit from his male lover. The speech is natural and truthful and charged all at once, the rhymes subtle; this voice I felt I could listen to for far longer than it lasts. I liked it also because it wasn’t reaching for a big idea or a closing line, and yet it was resonant with meaning – aging, parental acceptance, sexual identity, companionship – and in a way that is compact and perhaps more successful than the seven-part poem “Talk About New York” about a reunion with an old friend from Malaysia.
Sign me up for the next installment.
Critic John Leonard wrote in Five Bells (Autumn/Winter 2009) that poets “swim in a current of mutual encouragement” and argues for a “climate of debate” which will lead to better poetry and wider readership (p. 18). At the same time, what is exciting about younger and less established poets is a freshness of voice, an energy and enthusiasm; different than the wise, practised voice of established poets, but valuable in their own ways. So, what I’ve aimed for in this review is balance so that my praise for what I very much enjoyed in the book is made more truthful by pointing out what didn’t resonate with me. Though to each his own, I disclaim.
First books of poetry are often exciting and compelling as they introduce you to a poet’s concerns and give an idea of where a poet will go in his next book. I’ll be interested to see how Koh builds on his strengths: a light touch applied to the right topics, an openness and accessibility, strong feeling and inventive images rendered in original language. Beyond the poems as individual works, I feel a writer who is working hard at his craft, publishing widely, and excited by language.
Matt Hetherington is a writer and musician who lives in a flat in Melbourne with a really good bath. His most recent collection is I Think We Have (Small Change Press, 2007) http://www.smallchangepress.com.au/. He is also on the board of the Australian Haiku Society http://www.haikuoz.org/
“The cage opens.The canary closes its eyes.”
~ David Stavanger, “Everyday Magician”
the canary sings like a canary.
it dreams of flying through the morning without moving;
its claws clutch at the perch,
but it is the yellow light only that rushes past,
and it sits almost still, tasting nothing.
within the darkness of the everyday coalmine’s heart
it falls into sleep with its black beak open,
seeing only caves of night
which suddenly bloom into fields of yellow air.
it warbles of false dawns in the lives of happy families
which sound like early morning warnings;
it rises like a puff of cigarette smoke,
and drifts over crumpled fields and the need to wake up;
it skims over seas of yellow clouds
inside which perhaps are sleeping the hooded dead.
a drop drips from the ceiling.
a candle flickers in the draught the open door left.
someone has left the gas going.
gravity is holding on.
the canary sings like a canary.
the cage closes.
the canary opens its eyes.
Starving Girl, Calcutta
acting or not, it didn’t matter
she didn’t need
desperate or debased or beyond despair
what she was
could not be hidden
i was only trying to leave the country
now trapped in the back of a taxi
in a midday traffic jam
she clutched at me
through the open window
sobbing, chanting, imploring, wailing
not even in english
(why didn’t the driver do like he did with the others
and tell her to go get lost?)
i felt for coins but had none
so (keeping my notes for the next stage to the airport)
as if it could help
i blessed her repeatedly
and for a whole two or three minutes
we stayed there
stuck in the spokes of the hideous, sacred wheel
at last the traffic moved forward
and she returned to her tribe under the plastic sheeting
while we drove upwards
onto the rabindra setu bridge
Lone Bird Collecting Twigs
“ Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me
How good, how good, does it feel to be free?
And I answer them most mysteriously
‘Are birds free from the chains of the skyways?’ ”
~ Bob Dylan, “Ballad in Plain D”
in the middle of anywhere
letting its song waft where it does
the contours of its mouth a tree to climb cliffs of falling from
i frown gratefully into the horizon’s setting
to see a baby looking
like she makes mandalas and angels with her eyelashes
below clouds like the brows of a father who cannot cry
below the moon like a large clump of dirt
below a jet-black eyeball staring through our ashes
Following on from her poetic achievements of The Bundanon Cantos (FIP, 2003), and co-editorship of the journal Five Bells from 2000-2003, comes Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s immaculately presented collection, Possession.
There are as many interpretations of Captain Cook as there are writers about him, each version taking on something of the personality and vision of the individual biographer. A tradition arises. As a Yorkshire-born woman herself, Kerdijk Nicholson is well positioned to grasp the underlying forces that went towards creating James Cook, navigator, and to express them through poetry:
From the first you knew it –
at Aireyholme Farm you knew. Out the door, up the hill,
you weren’t like the other lads…………………………
…………………………..You’d wind your scarf
across your chest and be out, round the curtain, through
the door, off into the wilding wicked stuff
and all the time your eyes were gathered to the coast
for you could smell it, touch it in your mind, that
which would let you leave this filthy soil and muck
behind and take your breath, your muscle, take
your lily-white body and brown arms off-shore
So long as you are let to live
you will mimic it: others stream before it,
shelter, or break, or are lifted up and carried away;
but you have let it into your bones so it flutes you.
You are, for this life’s breath, one,
and you take on its traits: you are whimsical,
caressing, cruel, strong, each of these things;
but above all, you are never wrong.
Three storylines interweave in this book – the literal journey undertaken by Cook; the philosophical or emotional response of protagonists, as represented in poems from the “lost manuscript”; and, finally, the poet/persona’s own voyage of self-discovery.
Like the chronicler Vanessa Collingridge, but at a deeper level of metaphysical apprehension, Kerdijk Nicholson follows Cook on his personal odyssey, experiencing and retrieving each stage of the journey :
Anchored: the time before dark is reflective. Candles
are lit in the Great Cabin, but the great black
is still visible and noises come from without
–which Banks’ dogs bark at – things
move at the corner of the eye. There’s enough light
inside for your standing apart to be shown
in the glass and for you to see the vastness outside.
You watch for the showing of unfamiliar stars.
The gentlemen work on. With daylight gone,
your time for charting’s done. You make your way
to the quarter-deck and wait for the track of a meteor,
once-only-given, and your unstoppable breath in:
A postcolonial slant on events allows us to go beyond recorded history, to subvert the chronological account with contemporary awareness:
You take possession of islands every day: every
thing within range of your eye seems capable of
dissolution and reconstitution at the tip of your pen.
It is ‘all for the Glory of God and for your King’,
they say; but only the sons of bitches could say that:
in this phosphorescent age, you are footprints on the moon.
The “lost manuscript” provides closer identification with the subject, a rendering of imagined thought processes and philosophical reflection, as in “You, the one who stands for us”:
What you started to measure, we have measured.
We have counted the words
of the world.
We have catalogued ourselves,
the outcomes of your dreams.(20)
or “Ambition is such a small thing”:
It is like the pip in the haw, hard
nor is there much flesh on it.
How is it that such a small thing
once it takes hold, hedges acres in?
If hacked at the base, slit
and laid, it still binds on,
thorny covetous bugger.(36)
“Today the distance between the threads of the net” enters into an imaginative re-creation of Cook’s state of mind after completion of his appointed tasks, the gap between intention and outcome:
Let us imagine it is the width of a chink of light
falling near her foot as she passes her husband’s door;
the worn dip in a butcher’s block on the Mile End Road;
the width of a carriage rut in the mud in York;
the fatness of folded secret orders from the Admiralty;
or perhaps as thin as a quill in an ink pot
on the St. Lawrence River; but how shall it be measured
now, and how will we know when it is done?(51)
The poet/persona’s own voyage of discovery parallels Cook’s, and is seamlessly interwoven into the narrative. Again it is about possession, the desire for appropriation, and the need to come to terms with these ambitions in some cognitive way. Like its namesake, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, the juxtaposed text reveals that research can, in the end, bring to light as much about the persona’s own story as it does about the subject. This progression emerges in the series of poems at Kangaroo Valley, and several in England and Torrox, Andalucia in the early 21st century, disturbing certainties and rearranging chronological ‘truths’ to create new meaning.
The different strands are interlinked by recurrent themes, motifs and references, which reverberate throughout the collection as a whole – preoccupations such as codes, maps, recording, measurement, even the reassuring barking of dogs. Pre-eminent is the cultural significance of naming, as though the act of naming might pin down an object/concept, allow ownership and prevent loss. This is exemplified in the poem “How strange to have a name, any name…”:
These huge blank territories are down to you to name.
Will those going where you have come before
touch the maps, lick their fingers and know you –
or just your salty aftertaste?(39)
Words themselves are signifiers, value laden, time and culture-specific, as in “Their words what the beads say”:
Do words have a price? Do they change
in value according to place or day? What does
with the Consent of the Natives mean?
Beads meaning ‘friendship’ or perhaps ‘no war’ are not
‘take our beads and you give informed consent’.
As language has no plumage or scent, how do you
reach the code-breaker for intent?(41)
This is one of the very few poems to register an Indigenous perspective, indirectly, via situational irony. The poem on p.42 is another. The overall lack of such representation is perhaps intentional, given that the collection is directed through the subjectivity of Cook.
Words can be obfuscating, hiding meaning, as in “Each word is a failure”:
Spills of madeira and wax
record events; words let you down.
You make a fair copy. Nor it nor your journal
get you where you were; not how you are,
or where you’d like to be…………………….
You are sick, of obfuscating lexicology.(46)
Naming is seen as no protection against loss:
When you’d got to the Cape, de Bougainville’s name
everywhere: how he gave Tahiti the Name
Cypre. Naming issued no protection.
Baptism didn’t stop your two being taken –
fragile life, one jolt and the future’s out,
bleeding at its parents’ feet. You press your eyes,
succumb to leaden Yorkshire skies.
She says, What’s the name of the place
We’ve just been through? You say you can’t recall
but does she think perhaps it will rain?
The ephemerality of words and their link to meaning, yet the need to pin down the unnameable, is encapsulated in the poem “It is difficult to live so long without words”:
There is a space on the table for a bowl
but that is all. The air is thick with words
breathed in, breathed out, read, some uttered;
some of them hooked up with meaning, carrying it
like a rosella’s tail; others still in their state of code,
There are books in the cabin with lists of meanings and uses:
attempts, laughable, made by one or a committee:
what do we know of words’ origins and where they might go?(49)
As a paradox to this questioning, Kerdijk Nicholson’s own linguistic pyrotechnics control the voyage of discovery and its meditations:
a celestial map, up is the flat black, fat black
glittering, not the stuff for feet and dirt.
then there’s trees and clouds and neighbours’ lights:
I’m not getting it at all, I’d lose myself if I had to navigate
back to the front door. Would I keep my eyes on
one constellation or its feature, follow it for all
I’m worth – but what about its pace, if I’m a liner or a dhow,
does it make a difference how I keep a grip on the pin pricks?
I start to muse on the same old stuff – we’re made from
the dust of stars, every bit of me’s recycled, I’m drinking
water which passed through other beings
many times before. What profound need or compulsion
would get me out there spotting Magellanic clouds?
Both narrative lines end with a sense of dubiety and loss, the ongoing futility and importance of human endeavour. In the wake of such iconic texts as James McAuley’s Captain Quiros and Kenneth Slessor’s Five Visions of Captain Cook,Kerdijk Nicholson’s Possession is an impressive contribution to the poetic reinterpretation of history.
Byatt, A.S. Chatto & Windus Ltd: London, 1990.
Collingridge, Vanessa. Captain Cook: Obsession and Betrayal in the New World (Ebury: London, 2002).
A musical collaboration between the US poet Franz Wright and Los Angeles musicians/producers Daniel Ahearn (Ill Lit) and Michael Rozon (Brazzaville, Melvins).
When I received Readings from Wheeling Motel, by Pulitzer Prize winning American poet, Franz Wright, I was immediately struck by how convincing Wright was as a reader. He does not rush a single moment, and brings a sense of assuredness to the recording, with his willingness to leave space where space is needed. Having Ahearn travel to the poet’s home in Waltham, MA to record the readings may have added to this, as the studio can be a demanding place, where budgets and schedules often hang over a performer.
The publisher notes that the original music, recorded by Ahearn and Rozon in Los Angeles, “creates a dreamy counterpoint to Wright’s delicate, deliberate lines” and “offers the rare opportunity to experience this world-class poet in a uniquely personal and direct manner.”
I agree. It is a highly personal experience, at times an unnerving one too, both musically and thematically. An extensively self-referential collection of pieces, conviction comes from a willingness to both examine and criticise the self. Even to run across the bruises at times, as in the mercenary tradition of much poetry, Wright tears through his own life and ends up sharing stunning material. “Night Flight Turbulence” is a perfect example of a personal moment becoming shared, through both its interaction with the music and the listener. The recording builds a tight space around the narrator, enhanced by heavy, reverb-drenched atmosphere, courtesy of the piano’s legato phrasing and reversed guitar. Wright’s expression of confinement is made more tangible with a word choice that is both conversational and abstract:
In the greenly-lit restroom,
I looked pretty ill, like
a vampire locked in
the drug had no effect
slightly more arctic and fearful.
Here and throughout, Wright’s voice is like an anchor, holding everything in place. The music moves around and beneath his raspy tone, never intruding, but instead supporting his imagery and deft use of metaphor and simile. At times the music almost sounds like it chills him, despite being recorded after his reading.
Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue seems comparable. Both recordings are musically cool and reflective, often pensive, or simply dark. And both voices are deep, raspy and weathered, but clear (though more so in the case of Wright). And it’s that clarity of voice that’s so frequently mirrored in his poems – “At 54” is a wonderful moment of revelation, where ‘place’ becomes everything:
And I can’t wait
to return to this chair
in which I am sitting, this
world, the one where
each object stands
for nothing at all but
its own inexplicable existence.
Listening to Wright read his poetry, I found myself at his mercy; I experienced each piece like a movie – knowing so little about what was coming next. It kept me involved in a way that was different to the page. In fact, one of the greatest challenges in writing about Readings from Wheeling Motel, is that I can only show you the words, I can’t let you hear them. And it’s important to feel the way in which the intensity of the poetry is counter-balanced by Wright’s calm, measured reading, the open, unobtrusive music. Now, when I re-read sections of the poems here, the intensity is stronger than the calm. Wright, who has battled alcoholism, addiction and psychiatric illness, is biting when it comes to the limitations of prescription therapy, as with “Paediatric Suicide”, which begins with the line:
Being who you are is not a disorder.
Being unloved is not psychiatric disorder.
This launches an attack, going well beyond defiance:
And seeing a psychiatrist for 15 minutes per month
some subdoormat psychiatrist, writing for just what you
need lots more drugs
to pay his mortgage Lexus lease and child’s future tuition
while pondering which wine to have for
dinner is not effective
treatment for friendless and permanent sadness.
Child your sick smile is the border of sleep.
The poem is one of the most beautiful and heart-rending of the collection. For as much as it is haunting, brooding and bleak, there is beauty, defiance and strength. Wright’s mix of tenderness and harsh realism weaves its way through so many poems, like “Waltham Catholic Cemetery” or one of the longer pieces, “With a Child”:
And the words
for these things are so terribly small;
and the world of those words
only slightly less mortal
than this instant of taking your hand,
of taking care to look both ways,
not to squeeze too hard, or be too aware
that no such mercy will be proffered
by a world that has no need
of words, or us.
At times it sounds like Wright is searching for and finding the right words, as if he does this ‘live’ as he reads. This space is used to great effect, such as in the list-like poem “Intake Interview,” where each line is given the room to stand alone:
Would you compare your education to a disease so rare no one
else has ever had it, or the deliberate extermination
of indigenous populations?
The entire recording is sequenced with space in mind. During the poems and between them, there is enough time to feel or think, between one poem and the next. The music, at times quite dramatic, though usually so understated, is transitional between pieces, but also allows the listener room to absorb the poem themselves.
The impressionistic sketches and musical fragments (arranged by a big supporting cast) comprise at the least, piano, pedal steel, nylon acoustic (on the delicate “Out of Delusion,”) electric guitar, wordless vocals. During “Day One”, a simple, hard drumbeat underscores the humour in the piece:
Good morning, class. Today
we’re going to be discussing
the deplorable adventures
of Franz Wright and his gory flute.
One of the more dissonant pieces of music in the recording is from “Abuse,” which brings a silent film or saloon to mind, with an off-kilter feel, one that is a surprising but not unwelcome contrast with the rest of the collection.
“Bumming a Cigarette” follows and returns to a slow, marching tone, for one of the most harrowing moments as Wright seems to accuse himself of becoming his father, who also suffered with alcoholism and who eventually died after being diagnosed with cancer of the tongue:
And you can only armour yourself in death-wish for so long, the
blows are not muffled, it will save you from nothing;
and the idiot drive to go on, and actually be glad to go on,
keeps breaking through, ruining everything, even
this last chance for some sort of peace.
The collection does have the feel, at times, of a startling eulogy. Death features large in the collection, both its inevitability and, perhaps, its inability to be explained away by religion (“Everyone, Lord who wakes up in a cell./Everyone Lord who wakes up in the cancer bed.” from “No Answer No Why”). I came to the closing track looking for something tender, more hopeful, and “Wheeling Motel” delivers this. Settling on a reflective moment, it is framed beautifully by piano and a wordless vocal with a gospel, Amazing Grace/Great Gig in the Sky-feel, where Wright closes with an echo, subverting the famous American Civil War poem and personalising the conflict by referencing himself and his father, suggesting an ability to reconcile, to forgive:
Then the moon will rise
like the word reconciliation,
like Walt Whitman examining the tear on a dead face.
It’s a privilege to be introduced to Wright’s work in this manner. Hearing a recording is an experience that many of us will never have. There are poets from the past whose readings are impossible to record. Contemporary poets may be prohibited, or lack the opportunity. There are so many stumbling blocks between poet and listener. But here, Ahearn, Rozon and Wright tear them down and present the poetry in a way that brings the reader, in Ahearn’s words “disorientation, transcendence, a strange peace.”
James Stuart’s most recent works include: online poem-world The Homeless Gods (www.thehomelessgods.net); Conversions, an exhibition of poetry in translation (Chengdu, Suzhou and Beijing); and, The Material Poem, an e-anthology of text-based art and inter-media writing (www.nongeneric.net). He was a 2008 Asialink Literature Resident in Chengdu, China, supported by the Australia Council and Arts NSW.
It’s time to savour your European life. At the airport
she combs her hair back into the Third World War:
Style is effortless the same way it’s easy
to have something unless everyone wants it too.
What emerges from urban pixellation is the greyest
of mysteries, furtive glance down an original side street.
You take each such image & let it vibrate
beneath the weight of two dialects, a single script.
I would join the chorus, though here
we pass only as much as one remains.
Soon the administrator’s garden, meandering,
revelation in the updraught of a smog-free sky.
May 2009 – Chengdu, Sichuan, China
A private celebration: mother
weeps; string of cameras carries
this likeness to row upon row of the remote.
What can you feel when the day turns to stone?
On a white beach south-west of Santiago
they feel it too: goose bumps in the cool sea breeze;
frosted glasses of Piña Colada; space afloat,
emptied. Handfuls of silence that pock-mark the air.
Then the unfolding of tides, lightly creased
linen of a surface which entombs
such reactions: nameless black water
layer upon layer of the stuff.
Skimming back across oceans to where a coordinated
wail rings out, appeasing humiliation
with pronouns & possessives
igniting public squares & campuses,
propane fists, their uranium hearts:
emotions when definite become
sharp, cut through whole crowds. This atonement
for the reckless anarchy of earth.
Against a sunset human shadows are
as paper dolls, barbs of phosphorescent light.
Finally, the arrival of the dead in wave
upon wave of photographs, spliced
an open wound, its destructive pomp.
Dim sum, the city’s great tradition: the captain of the steam cart
makes a beeline for our table across the vulgar carpet
then zig-zags port-side at the last minute.
We conceal disappointment behind the rain checks:
what can’t you find in a supermarket these days!?
In Aisle 4: plantation palm oil & the latest flavonoids.
Aisle 6: a numinous stream of crockery & chopsticks.
Ours was a world less innocent than such winding threads
of fluoro strip-lights & the gradual advent of disposable nappies.
For old times sake, let’s label our prejudices for the sample jars.
We’ll examine them tomorrow, over an ice-cold mango drink
in the laced shade of these hat brims,
though such a colonial taxonomy is sure to kill the mood.
Today remains your day. From his shrine, the North God
delegates aesthetic decisions as to the appearance of his idols –
that old fraudster! When the whistle blows, migrant workers
swim beneath the bridge and back to their dormitories,
a procession of orange hard-hats and flip-flops.
If you have ever seen such a sight
you are either immortal or a liar – for only now,
in the fragrant patio of dusk, do a pride of rosewood lions
pad out from the razed mangroves & prowl the foreshore
Featured poet, Judith Beveridge has published four books of poetry: The Domesticity of Giraffes (Black Lightning Press, 1987), Accidental Grace (UQP, 1996), Wolf Notes (Giramondo Publishing 2003), Storm and Honey (Giramondo Publishing 2009). She has won many awards for her poetry including the NSW Premier’s Award, The Victorian Premier’s Award and the Judith Wright Calanthe Award. In 2005 she was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for excellence in literature. She is currently the poetry editor for Meanjin and teaches poetry writing at postgraduate level at the University of Sydney.
This poem was video translated at the Memoria del Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín, Colombia. The International Poetry Festival at Medellin was founded by Feranando Rendón "to oppose terror with beauty, to bring poetry face to face with violent death. We interpreted the love of poetry and the will to live of thousands of people, at the right moment." (Poetry International Web, July 2007) In 2006 the festival was awarded the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize.
La poeta australiana Judith Beveridge interviene en el curso del IX Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín, leyendo un poema que contiene una dura metáfora sobre la melancolía y la hecatombe. Judith Beveridge nació en Londres, en 1956. Vive en Australia. Ha publicado los libros de poemas: La domesticidad de las jirafas (1987); Un paracaídas de azul (1995) y La gracia accidental (1996). Ha ganado diversos premios de Poesía en Australia. Se ha desempeñado como docente de Literatura y como colaboradora habitual de revistas y periódicos en su país. Fue incluida en la Antología de Poesía Contemporánea de Australia, editada por Trilce Editores, Bogotá, 1997.
Born in 1988 in Saigon, Vietnam, Ocean Vuong is currently an undergraduate English Major at Brooklyn College, CUNY. His poems have received an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Beatrice Dubin Rose Award, the Connecticut Poetry Society’s Al Savard Award, as well as two Pushcart Prize nominations. His work appear in Word Riot, the Kartika Review, Lantern Review, SOFTBLOW, Asia Literary Review, and PANK among others. He enjoys practicing Zen Meditation and lives in Brooklyn with an 84 year old lady who he nurses in lieu of paying rent. Visit his blog at www.oceanvuong.blogspot.com
Arrival by Fire
Wooden teacups, steam swirled into the blue
then gray of morning. There was no one there to drink.
Before dawn blurred the edges of the sky,
when darkness made fools of limbs, we followed
the lantern’s golden eye, blinking from across the shore.
The river sliced our legs at the waist. Water
could not keep our secrets. When a croc’s eyes lit
like coals in the dark, my mother’s hand
clasped my mouth. The scent of sweat and garlic
would infuse my dreams for years. I had to touch
to believe my father was shaking. But there
is something different about reptiles.
Unlike humans, they do not eat when full.
But to disappear one must be swallowed
and so, we crawled into the bowels of a boat.
When we drifted to where sky and sea vanished
into a black wall, someone began to sing
a childhood song, and someone else begged him
to stop. The air began to tremble
as a hundred prayers hummed through my skin.
And where a fragment of moon fell through the hull,
a blue river of piss and vomit streamed
across the deck—washing away the fallen tears.
When there was too much silence, we would place
a hand on the closest chest, feel for drumbeats
then drift into dreams of chrysanthemums
flickering in the youth we’ve never known.
When we reached the new world, we dissipated
into shadows, apologized for our clumsy tongues,
our far and archaic gods. We changed our names
to John, Julie, Edward, or Susan. How many mirrors
have we tried to prove wrong? Who were we
when burning houses dimmed with distance,
and we watched our fathers hurl their hearts
into oceans where the salt sizzled in their wounds?
Now, on nights like this, when sleep sounds too much
like the sea, when the bed stretches into a ship
we cannot abandon, all we have are these stories, resurrected
like ghosts over steam of tea. Listen. Someone is trying
to croon that old song but the voice cracks over words
like Mother, Home. Nicolas, comrade, brother, whatever
your name, touch here—my hand, and remember: we were drifters,
we were orphans, but mostly, we were heat—steam
If You Are a Refugee
There will be nights when you wake
to touch the photo, your fingers
fading the faces you cannot name.
They are phantoms of your own,
whose eyes have watched the precession
of waving hands
diminish into distance.
There will be moments, between
a lover’s kiss, when you remember
the taste of blood,
and the limits to the answers
one mouth can hold.
When you sweat, you will sweat the oil
that has stained the city
of which you only know
from what is lost.
You will return to that city,
beg the woman whose hair
has grayed to scalp to tell you
your true name. You will stare
into her turbid eyes and ask
of the crescent in your mother’s smile.
And when you dream, you will revisit
the body in the forest, say
it is not your brother’s. You will see again
the naked man crouched
by the charred house, licking ash
from his fingers to taste the bodies
he can no longer hold.
If you are a refugee, you will come to praise
the thickness of walls, the warmth
that clings to cotton
the cricket’s song
in a night virgin to death.
But before you leave
what is gone forever,
go back. Go back and gather that boy
you left behind. The boy who stood
at the edge of a field
where your father once prayed
with a pistol in his mouth.
Drinking Water in a Suburb Called Zetland: Notes on Memory and the City in Some Poems by Pam Brown
by Pam Brown
Salt Publishing, 2008
Reviewed by TIM WRIGHT
In a recent discussion of the lyric in Australian poetry on her blog[i], Pam Brown wrote of her poetics that she was interested in ‘the occurrence of ‘the current’’. The current here could be both ‘the contemporary’ or ‘the present moment’, the moment of writing. In her latest collection True Thoughts this interest in the current merges with an ongoing interests in memory and place (particularly the local). The past and present appears often as a duality in the collection, along with others: stillness and movement, inside and outside, this way or that way, here or there. The poems’ mode is kinetic, they proceed by indirection[ii].
Brown’s noted critical take on the everyday – and sometimes hyper (and anxious) self-reflexivity – is integrated into the practices and habits around work, leisure, friendships, travel, reading, and writing. The title is plural: ‘thoughts’ as in products; not ‘thought’ as process. The poems are less about the kind of thinking exemplified by Rodin’s Thinker, an absorbed stillness; instead thoughts occur, one after another, amidst and in response to movement, radio, traffic, mobile phones. Thinking takes place in a city, and so the possibilities or potentialities latent within it become part of the thinking process. Subject and object are often captured on the move, going somewhere else. Glimpses of the poet appear – catching a train to work or sitting at a desk to read – alongside and simultaneous with records of various kinds of mental action: observing and noticing, worrying, hesitating, remembering or speculating on conversations with other writers and friends, making a decision.
The poems don’t lend themselves to scholarly close reading; they wriggle out from under the microscope; they don’t seem to me to be coded or contained in the way that that method, at some level, implies. They share concerns of memory, and a responsibility to continue thinking politically and humorously in an increasingly fragmented contemporary. About half of the poems are more than three pages long, and move by branching, link-and-node formations: shape mimics thought. I read the poems as a book length work; not quite a sequence, but a collection in which chronology is important. I suspect that a way of reading (or listening) to the poems is required that is more open to distraction – a state the poems themselves are written through – one which could skip across the poems, read them glancingly and let them go out of focus as much as reading lines and words in a sharply focussed way. In a sense this is simply to read in the spirit of the poems themselves. They are not, I think, written as contained aesthetic objects to be regarded. The poems (and their ‘speaker’) proceed by way of indirection, and this is realised in the heightened attention and care given to line breaks – those points of the from which it could ‘go anywhere’ (as one poem says). The anywhere is not fantastic – an escape – but a state of (distracted) openness to possibility which the poems want to maintain, to keep in the air. It is productive to think of them, for a moment, alongside the ‘talk poems’ of the contemporary American poet David Antin. Antin has explained that his style of poem comes from wanting ‘to think about things that are worth thinking about that lead to more thinking[iii]‘.
The two opening poems, ‘Existence’ and ‘Amnesiac Recoveries’ are responses to the US war in Afghanistan, and the Iraq war as it proceeded from dreaded possibility to reality in the summer of 2003. JS Harry’s‘Peter Henry Lepus in ‘Iraq, 2003”(from Not finding Wittgenstein, 2007) and Jennifer Maiden’s George Jeffreys sequence (from Friendly Fire, 2005) are important reference points, being the major Australian poems I know of written in response to the second Iraq war. Where Harry and Maiden use fictional characters to imagine Baghdad, Brown’s response is autobiographical, remaining ‘herself’, in Sydney. In this context the description of a swim in harbour that opens the poem ‘Amnesiac Recoveries[iv]‘, seems luminous, a luxury, when posed against the knowledge of the distant war:
I get away
from the academy
dip in the green harbour
under sprinkling rain.
I know the war continues.
in the background of the frame
the investigator yawns.
The speaker is both part of, and separated from the unnamed war by a screen. She is, after all (as I am), Australian, a citizen of one of the countries involved in the war, and so, in an obscure sense, involved. I borrow the word from the last lines of John Forbes’ ‘Love Poem’, perhaps the most subtle Australian poem to do with the first Gulf War[v]. The final lines of Forbes’ poem have its speaker watching the televised bombing during the Gulf war of 1991, knowing, ‘ … obscurely, as I go to bed / all this is being staged for me’. Brown’s poem also ‘knows’ the war mediated by a TV screen, but doesn’t stage the same moment of laconic epistemology; it sets the image, moves on to something else.
The poem is noteworthy for how it plots different points across the city, passing through three different environments, from the desiccated university to breakfast to the green harbour in three lines. The searching and questioning provoked in Australia by the wars – about what it meant to be a citizen as well as a writer, an artist, or a poet – are explicit in the poem, and haunt the collection. There’s an awareness that there is possibly more at stake now than then, but also that the ideals and lifestyles of the seventies and eighties have largely disappeared, and that certainties about politics and political affiliations have become more complicated and more fragmented. Ken Bolton has noted of this collection that ‘[t]here is a lot of lying down, small rests, boredom defeated—but also, to a degree, a withdrawal from the game, beyond maintaining solidarity with others’ humanity . . .[vi]‘ .Simultaneously, there is a will to continue, and to continue thinking in the face of what often feels overwhelming; this is apparent in the plural title (‘Amnesiac Recoveries’) which suggests a series of shocks that each bring about a return to awareness (of history, of politics) from a state of amnesia. The poem continues:
that empty-to-the stomach feeling
as I enter the building
my twelfth year of toil
I know how to fix everything
but, obstinate in my resolve,
would phone Interflora
for your funeral
There is clearly a self-conscious eye observing the poet’s gloominess in these lines. While moods such as these reoccur in the collection, they’re rarely entirely dark. As much as in earlier collections, Brown’s poems are humorous, and anxious–the James Schuyler quote ‘I order you: RELAX’ is a favourite–as they record the attempts of a person to make sense of the new decade, and a new, disappointing, age brought about by those wars. The poems attempt to register that disappointment, but also to try and unlock keyholes to counter it. At the end of the title poem from his 2003 collection, Kieran Carroll made a distinction between decades when he noted the change from the 80s to the ‘slicker, mentally tougher 90s[vii]‘. These two poems and others in the collection seem to be an attempt to do something similar, to find a word for the first decade of the 2000s, to try to understand what is and what was unique about it. By staying close to the body, by not protecting the poems from the grotty everyday and the ephemeral (the ‘tangled crepe-paper streamers,/napkins, plastic plates/& other picnic junk’ left after Australia Day), and also by stubbornly resisting, most of the time, to ‘get metaphysical’, the poems feel out an attitude for existing politically now, one that is as subject to distraction, mood, and change as a mind and a body are.
The first poem in the collection, ‘Existence’ shares many of the concerns of ‘Amnesiac Recoveries’, and could be read as a companion poem. It begins:
from here on in
if I follow
the girl in the
sweatshirtas her motorcyclist
warms his darkly bubbling engine
ready to blur
into a field of speed
one less path
a dishwasher whirrs above me
a slab separates us –water restrictions
Sydney goes sailing
The imminence of war suggests that both poems were written at around the same time: a Sydney summer with its rain, heat and frangipanis smeared on the footpath. Both poems, too, juxtapose the luxuriance and privilege of water (sailing, sparkling waves, the ‘Rose Bay Afloat’) with the obscured, but still dimly apparent, ‘rest of the world’ that the water separates Australia from. As with most poems in the book, other lives appear only as strangers observed, emails, the trace of a life through the whirr of a neighbour’s dishwasher. As an opening poem it flags some of these themes of the book: Sydney, war, memory, and finding ways to continue.
The anti-war poems are followed by five written during a residency in the Trastevere in Rome. Most of the rest–about two thirds of the collection–seem to take place in or around contemporary Sydney. Memory and the city emerge explicitly as themes in ‘Saxe Blue Sky’ and ‘Train Train’, which detail two Sydney train journeys, one from the leafy eastern suburbs into the city, the other down from the Blue Mountains and past the sprawl of the western suburbs. ‘Saxe Blue Sky’ begins with a train journey to work. One of the things I like about this poem is the particular stretch of train journey it describes. As the train comes out of Kings Cross tunnel the passenger seems to float for a few hundred metres, about half a minute, over a zone of the city which is a crammed mix of the old and the hypermodern. It passes over the housing commission terraces and luxury apartments of Woolloomooloo, the towers along William Street in the distance, the Cahill Expressway, and for a moment beside the Art Gallery and the Domain. Bookended by two tunnels—one into Kings Cross and the other into Martin Place—the experience is highly cinematic down to the jumpcut beginning and the sudden fade to black as the train hits the tunnel. Local landmarks are registered: Brett Whiteley’s ‘burnt match/live match’ sculpture outside the Art Gallery of NSW, a bronze frieze on the gallery wall. Soon the speaker looks away from the train window, down to a set of catalogue cards she will need to go through once she gets to work:
cards detailed with
traces of old colleagues
now moved on.
The process of recording information onto a card by impression becomes analogous here to how memory can become "impressed" in material things, and here patina becomes important to thought over surface smoothness. What stays the same in a city over time? The poem details those things which persist: icons (the Harbour Bridge), identities (Brett Whiteley), official histories (plaques). Yet there is a frustrating weakness of visual memory, and the way it plays out in the experience of living in the city:
I remember most of them,
more,I remember their memos,
our names listed,
stapled to a corner,
memo read,name ticked,then passed along
to the next name—
The scripts of these old colleagues produce an encounter that’s placed parallel to those official histories embedded in the city, which flash past but leave little impression. One of the questions asked throughout the book is how to remember while avoiding the stillness, or endless replay of nostalgia (which in this case might be the colonial architecture of The Rocks). Cities change, taking memories with them, and so actively remembering former iterations (taking notes, documenting in some personal, experiential way) is a method of resisting what in ‘Amnesiac Recoveries’ is termed ‘memoricide’ – the bombed Baghdad library. Brown’s poems stay close to the built environment, and pay attention to inscription in all its forms (shops signs, old notes, memos…). Rather than history, it might be more useful to think of Brown’s concern with the materiality of memory in terms of heritage. Heritage as ‘that which we’ve inherited’, or ‘that which we are heir to’, allows a connection to history at the interface with the built environment. The political question then becomes, How is it decided what gets kept? In the poem, the sifting, sorting, chucking-out process that will shortly take place with the old cards could be the architectural model version of an answer: personal archivism.
The poem, ‘Today there is much more heritage than there used to be’, develops this concern while addressing a friend in hospital. The poem moves between several views, the ‘in situ’ view of the speaker, imagined views onto the Harbour, either from Brereton’s house or hospital, to a less inspiring view of a tv from her hospital bed. The poem begins,
built between the wars,
acts of social optimism,
our anachronistic homes—
we live in them,
sought after charm emblems.
in the block next to mine
a gang of workmen
is hurling the walls
and the tea break
and the lunch
out the windows,
bricks and door frames
plastic forks and curry packs,
like storm debris,
across the car park
a lightning flash
I imagine your stormy view
over Elizabeth Bay,beautiful
small boats tossing and slicing
through the bay
do such tiny blinkings
towards Clark Island
or heading back
to the illuminated city
The poem transitions between contrasting scenes (day and night, land and water), blending interior and exterior with the lines ‘a lightning flash / interrupts computing’. It suggests a kind of noir city imaginary that the poems work out of. The poem ends comically, with the poet on her knees waxing the bathroom tiles, and the realisation that ‘a resemblance of heritage’ is ‘as near as we’ll get’.
Brown’s poetry might be usefully thought of both in terms of the flâneuse and of the bricoleur, but also of the rag-gatherer, that other nineteenth century Parisian character, collector of what the city dwellers considered of little value. In The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin quotes Laforgue of Baudelaire, ‘He was the first to write about himself in a moderate confessional manner, and leave off the inspired tone.’ The description is reminiscent of the self-deprecating voice of many of Brown’s poems. The quote continues:
He was the first to speak of Paris from the point of view of one of her daily damned (the lighted gas jets flickering with the wind of prostitution, the restaurants, and their air vents, the hospitals, the gambling, the logs resounding as they are sawn and then dropped on the paved courtyards, and the chimney corner, and the cats, beds, stockings, drunkards, and modern perfumes) – all in a noble, remote and superior fashion . . . The first also who accuses himself rather than appearing triumphant, who shows his wounds, his laziness, his bored uselessness at the heart of this dedicated workaday century, its strange decor: the sad alcove . . . and to take pleasure in doing so[viii]
The ‘Haussmannization’ of old Paris in the nineteenth century, the period when Baudelaire was writing, might be the ‘Meritonization[ix]‘ of Sydney in the twenty-first. There are less smells to encounter, and not so many logs-being-sawn-and-then-dropped to listen to, but a pleasurable ‘bored uselessness’, certainly evident in Brown’s poetry, might be as effective a strategy as it was for Baudelaire. For Brown, the city is a grid for making sense of experience, as well as a mnemonic. The poems map the movement of thought as it occurs in a city space. The spare, pared back lines span outwards seeming to collect details. And while she is attentive to the world outside, she seems to be happy to not let it cohere: questions are permitted to stay unanswered, odd irregularities are often placed in the poem as readymades.
Rather than the smoothly flowing motion of the car or bike, the poems move at walking pace, and with the memory of its rhythm, are able to turn around and backtrack. Brian Massumi’s appealing idea of walking as ‘controlled falling’ is a reminder that walking is as much a product of resistance, each step being the arrest of a potential fall, as it is volition. Brown’s writing proceeds, it seems to me, with this necessary resistance, by cutting lines short. One step, then another; one thought, then another. The distractions of a city street are rendered in the short lines and variations in spacing across the page. Brown celebrates the pleasures of distraction, of being able to go ‘in any direction’. At times this distraction resolves into crystalline moments of attention. The first two short poems are from ‘Zennish’, a series of short poems from the earlier collection, 50/50, the third from Little Droppings, a chapbook of out-takes from the collection This World, This Place:
like the look
of a lucozadey amber
the little dose
of gamma radiation
at the clinic
in a suburb called
There is a singular state of attention present in these poems. Duchamp’s concept of the inframince,or the ‘ultrathin’, provides a useful context for these poems. Some of the well-known examples Duchamp gives are the sound of corduroy pants rubbing against each other, the difference in volume between a freshly washed shirt and a shirt worn for one day, the taste of one’s mouth lingering in exhaled smoke. It is these attenuated feelings, Brown’s poems suggest, that make up an everyday plane of affective experience. There is a resistance to explanation in the three line ‘Zetland’ poem, a trust in language to do the work. We are not told who is in Zetland, or why, or indeed what Zetland is: the name could be a 1920s version of a future city, with its ribbon-like freeway overpasses and hovercrafts. In fact, the name derives from the former name for the Shetland Islands – I discovered this by punching it into Google. It is a suburb in an inner but slightly hidden-away, often overlooked, part of Sydney; rapidly gentrifying.
True Thoughts is populated by screens, junk technology, litter, buildings, freeways and cars, public transport, water (the harbour, the beach, the dishwasher), brand names, and now and then, glimpses or traces (archival, memory traces) of other lives. The poems often alternate between exterior and interior spaces (the interior of a train carriage and the view through the window; the flash of lightning illuminating a study desk sitting at the computer) and this is paralleled to the constantly changing relationship between thought and the outside environment. Brown’s poems, her forms, are ‘true thoughts’, at the level of the nagging ethical worries, as well as the jingle reverberating in a mind interrupting more serious thought, or the overheard conversation. They attempt to remain open to experience in an age of (that potentially optimistic phrase) ‘late capitalism’.
[ii]The phrase is from Edward S. Casey’s chapter title ‘Proceeding to Place by Indirection’ from the book The Fate of
Place: A Philosophical History, University of California Press, Berkeley,1997/98
[iii]‘A Conversation with David Antin, with host Charles Bernstein and questions from Penn students’, University of Pennsylvania – March 16, 2004 [http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Antin.php]. A fuller quote reads: ‘I have a distaste for the jewel-like work, which I don’t tend to do very often as you can probably agree. I also don’t like it. That is in some sense I’d like to produce an object that’s an action. And it’s an action that leads to actions by others: mental actions or human actions. And on the other hand I don’t want it to be simply talk .. In a certain sense, simple talk that isn’t engaged with trying to figure something out or think something through, dissipates too rapidly for what I want to do, I want to think about things that are worth thinking about that lead to more thinking. I want to do thinking that leads to thinking.’
[iv]Taken from a longer collaboration with Susan Schultz, housed in the Department of Dislocated Memory, at the
International Corporation of Lost Structures [http://www.icols.org/pages/PB&SS/PB&SS.html]
[v]I refer to the final poem in Forbes New and Selected Poems (1992), not the poem of the same name from Damaged Glamour (1998).
[vi]Ken Bolton, from a review of True Thoughts unpublished at the time of writing
[vii]‘ The Night I saw Terry Alderman Dancing to Nick Cave at Chasers’, from the collection of the same name, Ginninderra Press, 2003
[viii]Convolute J, ‘Baudelaire’, The Arcades Project (1999) Harvard University Press, Cambridge,p. 246
[ix]Meriton is a large construction firm, responsible for many apartment block developments in Sydney.
Solrun Hoaas spent formative years in China and Japan. She discovered theatre as a student in Oslo and Kyoto, where she also trained as a Noh mask maker. An award-winning film-maker, her work was experimental, exploring cross-cultural themes. Her short film At Edge was a discovery of the Australian bush through the eyes and voice of the poet Judith Wright. The film can be purchased from Ronin http://www.roninfilms.com.au/feature/753.html Solrun submitted work to MascaraLiterary Review four months before her death in December 2009. This is the bio she submitted to our editors:
Melbourne-based Solrun Hoaas has returned to poetry after years of filmmaking. Her poems appear in Going Down Swinging , Holland 1945, Arabesques Literary Review, Softblow Poetry and Writing Macao.
My favorite winter coat
was made by a tailor from Noumea
at ninety-four, yellow cravat
beret cheekily cocked, crooked smile
wide as a welcome.
My coat one of a kind
patchwork of the finest fabrics
remnants from a factory long closed
midnight blue and grey wool blends
mustard suede for rubbing elbows
elegantly tailored, inside pockets
lining stitched with equal care.
The pattern was his own design
fashioned for civilian internees
sent from the northern pearling towns
and scattered Pacific islands
to incarceration at chilly Tatura.
Undaunted, he set up a sowing factory
for women in the camp, and there
the coats were made, all uniform
in maroon-dyed heavy wool,
to keep them warm through five
or more long wartime winters.
The tailor himself, born a Japanese,
was shipped from New Caledonia –
his first involuntary visit to Australia –
as a civilian, but enemy alien.
A lifetime business left behind,
his French no currency here,
he made the best of his confinement.
And when the war was over,
and he was ‘repatriated’ – not home,
but to impoverished Japan, a stranger there,
he started up again, stich by stich,
his handwritten sign in Yokohama,
still there –
‘Murayama, Tailleur Elegant.’
He had retired, but showed me around
the remains of his small factory,
ends of fabric still on the shelves.
One day a heavy coat arrived by mail.
A tailor-made Tatura model, lined and
multicoloured in thirteen different fabrics.
I wear it often, cloaked in memories of
his cheeky smile, wide as a welcome,
and tales of proud resilience
to injustice, his story still untold.
I am standing at a castle.
There is a map of an archipelago.
This is where I want to go.
The quickest way to get there
is to sail around the world.
I try to open the door of the castle,
but can’t work out which key to use.
There are so many on my key ring.
A Eurasian girl walks past and
opens it for me. Easily.
She has her own key, bent in a V,
and shows me how it fits
in the hole. She hands me
her key and a guidebook.
I step through the door.
I am standing on a cliff
with a steep drop to the sea.
A man and a child were with me
and have gone back down.
They called me. I didn’t answer.
Wonder if the old walls might crumble.
I should have been dead at eight
if logic governs destiny.
A heavy wooden platform fell on me
in the camelia garden at Aotani.
But maybe many years ago,
before a war had devastated
a thriving shipping port
and the ruined owners of a
Swiss-style Japanese mansion
were forced to sell my childhood home,
their platform held an orchestra,
violinists, sax and piano players,
as guests flirted and danced.
Why it was propped up outside
along the wall I still don’t know.
Most days it held up God’s word,
sermon, cross and organist.
As often, it was my incurable
curiosity that got me into strife. I pried
a wooden stopper loose at base.
Precarious already, the platform toppled.
I still remember the thud, the cries,
the breath squeezed out of me.
My mother’s amazement that
I was not dead, not even a tiny rib
crushed with the sudden impact.
‘She’s a tough little girl,’ they said.
But even now I hear the gasp,
a moment when breath was suspended
and feel the ponderous weight
of that preacher’s platform
crushing down on me.
What music of ancient delight
was it, that carried and lifted its weight?
My nights are star sand
sifting too slowly
through the hourglass
of diminishing dreams.
They could cut through
a mangrove forest once,
clearing a path to
a shimmering source.
Now, haunted by hollow accounts
and birds of credit pecking
at each lidless moment,
capturing the pitiful sandman.
Nothing left by morning but
drained waking and
the shamisen serenades
of a tousle-headed fisherman
with a towel around his head,
who says, ‘You’re hard
to take with chopsticks.’
Peardrops on eyelids
swollen with purple curses
the taste of tart guitarstrings
too taut, snapped
brittle as bone ballads,
a yellow weeping violin
the azure blue smells
of early morning
synthesis of sleepless nights.
Bones of flimsy fibres,
my algae entwine the body
locking it in a brutal embrace,
every step inviting a bolt
of lightning to strike jolting
flames into tender joints.
Better sing for your breakfast
than beat your head
against the bedstead,
waking fibrous with myalgia.