Alan Gould is an Australian poet, novelist and essayist. His seventh novel, The Lakewoman, was launched at The 2009 Melbourne Writers’ Festival, and his twelfth volume of poetry, Folk Tunes, has just been published by Salt. Among his many awards, he has won the NSW Premier’s Prize For Poetry (1981), The National Book Council Banjo Prize for Fiction (1992), The Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal For Literature, and The Grace Leven Award for his The Past Completes Me – Selected Poems 1973-2003.
Poets are born, they say, not made.
By the time of my own birth I was an over-cooked baby, having dallied in the interior of The Mudda for week after overcast week beyond the normal term. After such dalliance, little wonder my hankering to recover enchanted time.
So I, Claude Boon, begin by imagining The Mudda in that interval of my pre-birth. As my embryonic presence swelled her usually neat, Flemish frame it grew ungainly as a washtub, and needed to be hauled, ah, upstairs, uphill, upfront and upsadaisy, onto double-decker buses and into small black cars, and she, Boon-buoyant, Boon-weary, with the burden of me. Did she complain? I believe not. If she sat at table, I was a round under her grey smock like a great cheese remembered from the plenty of pre-war Holland. If she returned from wet Woolwich High Street where she had stood half an hour in the queue for a ration of sausages or liver, she felt my presence as a grapnel on her every fibre. Her patience, her resilience, were entering my character, as were some of the qualities of her Brabanter forbears, my clean complexion and open forehead, my good-natured nose and my eyes a little too trusting of the world, perhaps.
And if I pushed out my fist or my foot, how do I evoke the strangeness of her sensations? Here, did she sense it, was a live butterfly fluttering against the interior of a balloon, here was the gear-stick of a small black car pushed back and forth against her inner fabric?
‘Nou, we zullen zien wat er gaat gebeuren,’ she said, first in her own language to mask her impatience, then, to show politeness to the borough maternity nurse, ‘We must see what comes, of course.’
If the Mudda’s patience was sometimes tested, I appeared at ease with the situation. Through those weeks of the British winter and early spring I hunched in the placental tree-house, stem-fed by her magnificent system. Into my future flowed those exact proteins and vitamins she could extract from the spam, the herring, the dried egg of that tin-food era, the orange juice, rose hip syrup and extra allowance of milk allowed for this pregnancy by her green ration card. While the Pa beavered among his memos at the British War Office, I spent the day, either rocked asleep by the Mudda’s internal rhythms, or dreamily pushing that exploratory gear-stick against her womb wall.
Do embryos dream? Did my own lifelong attachment to reverie begin in the treehouse with some aural/maternal-fantasy? Is this where the protozoa of poems originate, for the muse is said to be a mother-figure.
Beglub-beglub pumped the Mudda’s heart, gloink, her intestinal plumbing eased itself, purrr, slid her blood along its Flemish conduits. Is it possible my proto-intellect was actually wired to the maternal dreaming during her final weeks of pregnancy in the Woolwich army quarter? From some trace-memory I possess, here is Mrs Boon dozing during the February afternoons, tiaras of raindrops agleam under the telegraph wires, while the scenes behind her eyelids show the imminent Boon, a spiked coronet on my round head that must surely tear her as I leave her. Then, in this phantasmagoria of a woman-with-child in a monarchic nation not her own, she watches as I grow away from her wounded body, recede to some altitude above her head like a gargoyle leering from the façade of one of those decorous, overbearing English cathedrals that her Englishman husband had shown her during his intervals of wartime leave.
Week to week, cell on cell, morula, blastocyst, trophoblast, from fertilised ovum to gargoyle I grew. Ears, limbs, testicles popped from me like mushrooms. Blood went beading along my arteries and capillaries; insulin was secreted; teeth aligned themselves below the gums in preparation for their future troublemaking. I gained the full human kit with the apparent exception of the will to move on from that original tree-house welfare state. So complacent was my attitude to being born, it was decided three weeks after my term I would need medical help to be induced into the world. Poeta nascitur, non fit.
While The Pa Read Milton
In fact I was not my parents’ first child, for there had been an elder sister, born at Dehra Dun in India in ’47 who survived only a few days. To safeguard my own emergence into the world therefore, it seems the Pa had arranged, at some expense, for Harley Street’s Sir John Cue to be at Mrs Boon’s side. Five months earlier, this obstetrician knight had assisted at the birth of the heir to the British throne, an attendance thought to give me an improved chance of safe arrival.
This may also account for the Mudda’s fantasy of my coronet, and in the longer term my sense of self-regard, this egotism materialising, as it were, at HRH favour.
My birth occurred at supper time on a March Friday in 1949 at one of the delivery rooms of the King’s College Hospital.
‘Hah, hah, hah,’ gasped the Mudda, who was a modest woman trying to recover her composure after a bodily event rather more public than she preferred. ‘Ferry kint, dank u wel.’
London’s Bow Bells did not ring for me, but outside the hospital window I gather the Thames sky did ooze a typical drizzle for this future minor Australian poet of the latter twentieth century. The 1949 streets were slimed with moisture as London families (like the Lucks of Third Avenue, Ilford) sat down to meals eked from whatever those green ration cards permitted; the spam, the rabbit pie, the dried egg scrambled to the insipid yellow of institutional soap, parsnip and cabbage boiled to a quattrocento artist’s corpse-pallor, or some originally orange winter vegetable similarly transmogrified.
On this, my opening night, the Pa sat halfway down the long corridor leading to the delivery room. He was, we must guess, without his supper. A well-thumbed, leather-bound volume was balanced on his knee and he looked up from his page only when he heard an ‘Ahem,’ and found the KBE with his case of medical instruments standing uncertainly before him. Having come directly from his desk at The War Office, my parent was still dressed in his service uniform, the tunic buttons glinting under the neon lights. Promptly he rose to attention in order to hear the obstetrician apprise him of the facts of my birth.
‘Colonel Boon,’ Sir John apparently chose his words, ‘You have become the parent of a somewhat serious-minded young fellow, if the first five minutes of a life are any guide.’
‘I am obliged to you,’ replied The Pa.
‘May I ask what you are reading?’ asked the knight.
‘I am reading the incomparable Milton.’
Keeping his finger in the page, the planet’s newest father held up the gold lettering on the spine of the book that it might be seen. The volume had accompanied the Pa during his war service with 43rd Division from Normandy to Bremerhaven so the tooled red leather of the cover was scarred by items, military and otherwise, that had chafed against it in one haversack or another during those eleven months of attritional European warfare.
‘I understand,’ replied the knight. ‘One is mindful at such moments as this of the need to touch the sublime.’
‘My feeling exactly,’ said the Pa.
‘Your wife is a foreigner, I see.’
‘Mrs Boon is Dutch, from Breda in the Northern Brabant.’
‘Just so,’ replied Sir John, (who perhaps felt he must disarm the Colonel’s tendency to over-explain when rank was an uncertainty in conversation). ‘Of course your son will be entitled to call himself a Cockney if he wishes. Earshot of the bells and so on.’
‘He will undoubtedly turn himself into something.’
‘Do you have in mind a name for the child?’
‘We have agreed on Claude Evelyn Boon.’
‘Claude from Claudius, just so. You have chosen stateliness there, I think.’ The knight rocked contemplatively back and forth on the balls of his feet. ‘And Evelyn!’ Sir John considered these syllables next.
‘As an obstetrician, you see, one takes an interest in names. Evelyn, Aveline, your choice here derives from the French word for the hazel which was a nut denoting wisdom in olden days, did you know?’
‘I did not. I am obliged to you for informing me.’
‘May I wish the very best to the three of you?’
‘You may indeed.’
At this the knight apparently took a step or two, then paused in his departure.
Let me pause to consider him. This person’s hands were the first to touch my own person. For some moments he would have cradled me, perhaps cleaned me, weighed me, and many years later, when I was intrigued by the remotest and smallest influences present in the formation of character, I was led to wonder what quiet influence those hands might have conferred upon me.
This was not altogether self-regarding whimsy on my part. Twenty-eight years later, in an encounter that was extraordinary for its casual coincidence, Boon, the babe now grown to youngish manhood, would meet and receive kindness at the hands of his obstetrician. That meeting must await its place in this story, but it would allow me to know that Sir John possessed a pleasant face, more that of a pastrymaker than a knight perhaps, and the upshot of this is that I am pleased by the thought of having come into the world where my first contact was a kindly stranger. The spring of natural charity in people has mystified me, and I will meet a diversity of kindly strangers in the travels that these pages record.
Now the knight, whose head would tremble a little as he struggled to express a perplexity, was confiding to the Pa. ‘And yet, you see, Colonel, if one only knew what that ‘best’ might include in these distracting times, Iron Curtains, atomic bombs and such palaver.’
The Pa, I should mention, was a staunch Cromwellian in outlook and therefore in the habit of providing answers that were to the purpose. Here before him was a figure of social rank who had mislaid that vital self-assurance proper to rank, particularly when it was needed to sustain morale in nuclear times.
‘One strives,’ the Pa delivered his view, ‘to give each child opportunity to discover such interests as may match a livelihood and that this match should please a commonwealth.’
Did this grandiloquence belong more to the floor of The House Of Commons than a chat in a hospital corridor? My Pa was perhaps more parliamentary than colloquial in his relations with both me, and all his acquaintance. His work in military education, and his papers on disadvantaged learners lay behind this conviction.
‘Just so,’ Sir John shifted on his feet.
And now there was an awkward pause, as of two men who might strike up an acquaintance could they fathom each other’s tone. Then they shook hands and Sir John receded down the corridor while the new father stood under the icy lights wondering whether he might now put aside the incomparable Milton to visit Mrs Boon. Along that corridor there may have been other delivery rooms producing other 1949 children, but no one intruded upon the colonel’s own small dilemma on that spot of linoleum.
For my Pa was a gentlemanly colonel, divided between his knowledge that there were matters to face and his decent uncertainty as to whether it was proper for the paternal person to end the mother’s privacy quite so early after that mysteriously female event of a birth. Resolving against doubt, and slipping Milton into his briefcase, the Pa set out for the door to the delivery room.
(from The Poets’ Stairwell, a picaresque novel-in-progress.)
Kirk Marshall is the Brisbane-born(e), Melbourne-based author of “A Solution to Economic Depression in Little Tokyo, 1953”, a 2007 Aurealis Award-nominated full-colour illustrated graphic novelette. He holds a Bachelor of Creative Industries (Creative Writing), with Distinction from the Queensland University of Technology, and a first-class Honours degree in Professional Writing from Deakin University. He has written for more than fifty publications, both in Australia and overseas, including “Going Down Swinging”, “Voiceworks”, “Word Riot” (U.S.A.) and “3:AM Magazine”. As of 2009, he is the editor of “Red Leaves”, Australia’s first (and only) English-language / Japanese bi-lingual literary journal (http://www.myspace.com/redleaveskoyo). His debut short-story collection, “Carnivalesque, And: Other Stories”, will be published by Black Rider Press in 2010.
Suite of Haiku
a strobing head, a cut lip
My blood gloves his fist.
They hug me once as
pillows of breath are wrestled
from my lungs: farewell.
Cities capture light
and reflect them back on streets
slick with midnight rain.
Through the winter he
watches from his register:
I greet him for smokes.
Moon suspended as
she smiles into her scarf and
replaces her phone.
Wolves whine at my door –
On the beach, they chase waves and
devour turtle eggs.
I write, knowing a
succession of dead poets
expect something grand.
He is heartbroken.
She is not. She is waiting.
He is years behind.
She lies amidst reeds:
her nude back is bruised where the
Fog hugs the king’s legs
as he forges through bracken:
a fox turns to watch.
Phyllis Perlstone, a Sydney poet, first worked as an artist and experimental filmmaker. She turned to poetry full time in 1992, taking courses in poetry at the New School for Social Research in New York. She has gained various awards, including the NSW Women Writers poetry prize in 2004, and was second in the National Women Writers poetry prize in 2005. She has published reviews and articles. Her poetry is published in various journals and anthologies including Westerly, Siglo, Social Alternatives, Notes and Furphies, Meanjin, Blue Dog and A Way of Happening. Her first book is You Chase After Your Likeness (2002), reviewed in Southerly by Jennifer Maiden, and by Louise Wakelin in Five Bells. Her poem “Music and Landscape and other Consolations” was included in The Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology for 2007and her latest book The Edge of Everything published by Puncher and Wattman was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry in the 2008 Premier’s Awards for N.S.W, and ‘Ondine’ was included in Motherlode, 2009.
(Photograph by Max Deutscher)
after your ‘thirty six
views of Mt. Fuji’
now you surprise me
on my calendar for April
with a print of poppies
the flowers are paper party-cups
folded on themselves
or flattened wide by a wind
springing the seams of things
in whole fields
open to the new season
That’s why I look at
my mother and her sister
in a snapshot
on a city street in Sydney
at their eyes on the photographer
their smiles and their hats
the bunched violets on my mother’s lapel
and my aunt’s cape
flaring on her shoulders
they dare their happiness
as if they were young and without care –
they might have said of themselves –
and why I stare at my orchids
my white ‘butterfly’ phaleonopsis
my dendrobium purples that arch out
into the room
and then turn to look outside
at the lemon-scented gum
rising, a casuarina going up even higher
and then back again to gaze
at a grevillea – the way
it crowds the balcony with a branched extension –
its tiny flowers spray-brushing the rail
Hokusai, because of your print of poppies
I look around at these things
for a joy to match yours
Tuesday 24th April 2007
For the rain it raineth everyday
today’s rain is falling
landing on leaves on roofs on
whatever catches it first –
it’s as steady as the air
it drops through –
at one or two almost-stopping points
you can hear the run of it
over the ground
where it puddles and leaks into holes
At an attention of waiting for its last
or next to last tick
my ears can’t help but measure it
Expectancy – as it’s still
unable to be tightened into silence –
doesn’t let me escape either
from your stress
your turning away
from what I can only think to myself
you don’t need to feel…
Basho’s frog croaks
in the half-quiet
the sound of my voice can’t repeat
adequate replies to you –
the rain a mirror to everything
as if it’s shining a night-light at itself –
there’s a lane of echoes
opening and closing
only the frog’s joking note
can hop away
by Jennifer Mackenzie
Reviewed by STEPHEN ATKINSON
Journeys, actual and metaphorical, geographical and spiritual, and the cultural exchanges they facilitate, are at the heart of Australian poet Jennifer Mackenzie’s epic Borobudur, in which the pilgrimages of Borobudur’s priest-architect Gunavarman are a reflection of the writer’s own travels through the region and the writing process. For Mackenzie, wandering and poetry are in many regards the one thing, both conducted along similar trajectories and according to the same states of mind. Of the creative process of writing Borobudur she has said that, ‘texts, my own travels and experiences pointed in a certain direction and I followed’. Along the way she came upon the poets of the Javanese epics, and Kukai, the peripatetic Japanese monk in whose poetry, to her delight, Mackenzie found echoes of the voice she had worked hard to establish for Gunavarman.
Soon, we are in lockstep with the poet and her guides, feeling the path beneath the soles of their ‘iris-dyed sandals’, embarking on voyages and alighting in sometimes unplanned destinations, hoisted on palanquins, and treated to the hospitality of princes, sages and scribes. The mandala-like structure of the 8th century Buddhist sanctuary of Borobudur was itself designed to be walked, successive clock-wise circumambulations allowing novices to ascend to progressively higher levels on the path to enlightenment, and so the figure of the journey acquires another layer of meaning, welding the experience of space to the rhythm of steady footfall, and to meditation, movement and poetry.
Thomas Stamford Raffles, who governed Java for the British over a brief period from 1811 to 1815, is said to have been sitting in his stately residence in Semarang on the Java Sea when he first heard stories of an immense ancient wonder that lay part buried near the plain of Kedu in Central Java. Borobudur, though the subject of lontar texts and folk tales, and clearly known to people living in the immediate vicinity, was nevertheless shrouded in a mystery maintained by a curse: for members of the Javanese nobility, to visit the site meant certain death. It is said that a young prince, who determined to see for himself the ‘warriors in cages’, vomited blood and died shortly after his return.
Raffles was a product of the English enlightenment, a linguist and scholar fascinated by the cultures, history and antiquities of the places he was assigned to govern. After hearing these fantastical descriptions, he summonsed the Dutch superintendent of historical monuments, Hermann Cornelius, who gathered a team to begin the task of locating Borobudur and disentangling it from centuries of obscurity. After months of steady labour, the extent of the structure and the technical and artistic virtuosity of its creators were revealed. This was almost fifty years before Angkor Wat was hacked from the jungle by a team led by Henri Mouhot, and so constituted Europeans’ first glimpse of the elaborate splendour of the Southeast Asian civilisations that predated their own. Such discoveries could have unsettled some of the presuppositions of superiority that increasingly came to underpin the whole colonial project, but the relatively new field of archaeology, and other disciplines like ethnology that busied themselves with the collection of artefacts, data and knowledge, at the same time constituted another form of conquest.
Mackenzie’s project in some ways runs counter to the task of archaeology because it is more concerned with the limits of knowledge, the restitution of mystery and a return of some of the dust so assiduously swept away. If archaeology undoes the work of time, Borobudur reaffirms it. Central to all investigations into the past, though often unacknowledged, is the matter of mortality. And if Borobudur has something to teach us, it could be that we are all, like everything else, subject to the same processes of transformation, and that the change inherent in movement and time has somehow to be embraced. While staying with a family of dancers in the Indian Buddhist centre of Nalanda, Gunavarman learns ‘that stone and dance could be equivalent’, and
that in the weathering of stone
I anticipated my own weathering
in the elegance of the gesture
I could traverse that weathering like a god (65)
While Raffles’ caretaker administration was short-lived, the West’s fascination with Borobudur and structures like it continued, scented with a romance and taste for the exotic not satisfied perhaps by the more austere relics of Europe. The nature of this continuing fascination, Mackenzie’s included, is interesting to ponder. In part it seems to be a case of sunlight and climate, a brightness and clarity that shimmers, sensual and fragrant, and Mackenzie’s verse is full of allusions to colours and light that fill the eyes to aching. Take for example, the sibilant whisper and crystal stillness of:
the lake’s transparent water
luxuriant with lotuses
the blue mountain’s snow-capped
summit moves easily
on its surface (p.62)
Here, what is more, is a striking image of a time before time, before the white noise of the present, and core to the affect of Borobudur is its concern with time’s passing, with the difficulty of grappling with either eternity or mortality, and with the poignancy of grand endeavours to achieve posterity that tumble into pointlessness, leaving, at best, an enigma, whose meanings are spent and purposes lost just at the moment of their realisation.
Borobudur gathers together lifetimes lived more slowly and with more conviction, to when journeys embarked upon in the pursuit of wisdom and higher learning could easily stretch to decades. A feature of Borobudur’s strength as a work of poetic cross-cultural interpretation is that it progresses through an engagement with, and imagined dialogue between, the lives, travels and works of the old Javanese poets whose witness offers another glimpse into Borobudur’s historic and cultural significance. In addition to her debt to poets such as Monaguna and Kertayasha, Mackenzie draws inspiration and insights from Prapanca, a documenter of the Majapahit Empire, whose fourteenth-century Negarakertagama makes reference to a Borobudur already long abandoned. That these writers were not all contemporaneous allows Mackenzie to eschew the tyranny of chronology to explore what we mean by timelessness, that is, what we mean when we describe a monument like Borobudur as timeless.
Borobudur can be read as a companion piece to more conventional guidebooks and histories: one that sets out to complicate as the other explicates, to obscure as the other reveals, to propose dimensions less measurable, to replicate Borobudur as it condensed in the mind of its architect, to explore the conditions of its conception, and to remind us that stone is as ephemeral as the people who shift, shape, and attribute meanings to it. Mackenzie renders it all lyrically as clearly as Gunavarman choreographed his epic dance of stone. It presents a Borobudur that visitors today might not immediately recognise as they pay their admission and run the gauntlet of souvenir vendors, but which lingers in the atmosphere, in the evidence of the chisel, in the favourable aspect of the site, and in the spectacular views and blossoming trees that led in part to its selection.
While the poems in the remaining section of this slim, beautifully designed volume, ‘Angkor and other poems’ arrive via different routes, they are similarly the product of Mackenzie’s personal engagement and fascination with the region and they also explore the relationship between wandering and poetry, people and nature, the material and the ethereal, time and disappearance. The haunted final poem of the collection, ‘The Botanist Lost at Lake Maninjau’, suggests the existence of portals to realms outside of time, asynchronous and invisible. For Mackenzie, to be lost in the jungle is to cease to exist or to have entered a world of disappearances. It ends:
he entered this light-filled canopy
walked ten minutes
broad leaves coalesced, undergrowth clotted
the air streamed with the inky curlicues of vines
the matte white of a sketch pad appeared iridescent
he turned around. the exit had disappeared.
Nathan Curnow’s latest collection, The Ghost Poetry Project (Puncher & Wattmann), is based upon his stays at ten haunted sites around the country. He has featured widely on ABC and with further assistance from the Australia Council is writing a new play based upon convict stories and escape myths.
Sails and Anvils
Travelling to Australia’s most ‘haunted’ house
Upon arrival I will be the working poet cocked
for inspiration, directing my hosts with a pen’s arrow
from the signs of my splitting headache. Inside
the plane the cabin of my head is rocked by
turbulence. Great sails and anvils are bright
arctic pages, the story of a doomed expedition.
This is the lesson—do not stay with poets
the night before flying out, drinking ensues
and they just want to have sex or complain
about their rejections. I left them moaning,
friends of mine, making love like friends,
bearing all but their vocabularies, competing
in wild noises. Aren’t we all falling, our egos
packed with a plastic whistle to draw attention?
If the plane lands safely there is a rental car
waiting, some compartment I can crash in.
Another brittle booth, certain to betray me
when the impact finally comes. I am cranky
this morning, hurtling toward the chapter of
my decline. But with a pen and a pose I go
to work as if spirited by questions of ‘soul’.
I just want to get off. Go, get fucked.
We are turning into cloud.
Love Note On Serviette
Inspired by an account of the ‘prisoner’ who in 1899 threw a love poem
weighted by a stone over the wall of the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum.
my own fond love
this portion find your path
I feel myself beyond myself
am able to choose this rock
to traffic these words
put your cold on me
gazing forever upward
throw me something
I love you I love you
lavender is making sense
notice the rocks
I have practiced this
promise me yourself
I found a secret passage
beneath the Peppercorn trees
it is forbidden by the Pope
instead he blessed me
with a hole in the wall
I have imagined
that you wave
much like you throw
throw me something
be my gracious garden
your voice climbs over
a lavender ladder
do you want to
hear me breathing
I am feeling myself
the stiff sin of a sinner
the Pope is always watching
The Frame Around Us
Following my night in a ‘haunted’ hearse
again my weight on the edge of your bed,
words fall like empty shells, your ticking clock is
Pinocchio’s face, hands point to always speak the truth
my up-late brainteaser, I beg you to tell me
but your body is a ruthless mime, signalling all
that you refuse to say, scared the words will turn to flesh
a shrug of your shoulders, you are locked,
it is late, I am so tired of this coming and going,
one day I will tell you of this grand adventure, what it did
and did not achieve, these long road-trips,
a night in a hearse cocooned in my sleeping bag,
I saw shadows spill over the ceiling’s canvas, slide off
above my head, slowly at first, each one fell
the way I have become my poems, retreated to
my cluttered desk, I am disappointing to meet in person
stranded by language, designed for answers,
neat squares on a page of black, filling the boxes
with crude solutions, revising, we are grubby crosswords
down and across, the hands of your clock
trim away the night, as if time decides the rules
of the puzzle, keeps changing the frame around us
just lie down, we are safe for now,
it takes more than courage and words, waiting
to tell you of all I have seen, tonight I will not budge
(These poems are published in The Ghost Poetry Project, Puncher and Wattmann, 2009) http://www.puncherandwattmann.com/pwghost.html
Anthony Lawrence’s most recent book of poems Bark (UQP 2008) was shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year Awards and the Judith Wright Calanthe Award. He is currently completing a PhD on the poetry of Richard Hugo, and a book-length poem The Welfare of My Enemy is forthcoming. He lives in Newcastle.
I can’t smell the oil-stained deck ropes
on the last boat leaving
the last town of the Cinque Terra,
or see the highlights in your hair
as you pass the Roman wall in Lucca,
but I can see you’re in a hurry –
the broken flourishes of your thinking
as you run for a train, the word because
reduced to bc in all your correspondence.
I can’t see you there, in that postcard
version of your dreaming, overseas
or when you returned to a life
doubled by keeping your options open
like a wound gone septic from neglect.
Today I see your name on my calendar.
Your birthday will come and go,
untroubled by gift or word, though under-
scored by this certainty: lost in the poor
terrain of your grammar, you worked
a moulting brush through muddy pigments
to abbreviate me.
The Sound of a Life
In frames of elapsed time
and contractions of deep sea light,
an open water dance
between science and bivalve
is bloodflow and the muted sound
of a life hinged and weighted
to its own design.
Behind the shelled meniscus
of a marine biologist’s faceplate,
where assessments of fact and beauty
play across her eyes, under pressure
she hears the blue mazurka
of loss and non-attachment
and she outbreathes what remains
in her tank to understand it.
Dilip Chitre n 1938 in Baroda, India. Studied in Mumbai. After graduating in 1959, taught English for three years in Ethiopia, returning to Mumbai in 1963, worked as a journalist, columnist, commentator, editor. Was Fellow of the International Writing Program, University of Iowa, Iowa City, USA from 1975 to 1977, Back in India, made films, painted, roamed around. Now live in Pune, Maharashtra for the last 25 years. Published 30 books in all, 5 in German translation, Won many prizes, honours, and awards. Travelled all over Europe, parts of Asia, and Africa.
The Ninth Breakfast: Astrological Forecast
Sometimes a mere sausage portends,
Waiter, the coming shadow
Of Saturn. Sad days begin
Insignificantly. But sinister days
Foretell their ways. The innocent sausage in one’s plate
Grows into a cobra. And one knows
That the tables have begun
On a Saturday you never
Get horseshoes for breakfast.
But a severe exhortation
In the morning’s editorial
On the duties of a citizen.
Here, where the cows are sacred,
And pigs taboo, a starving mob
Glares at your subversive sausage
Whose shape, moreover, is an implicit
Insult to Shiva’s phallus,
And you choke because you know
Is another man’s breakfast.
No thanks. I’ll only have tea and toast.
Absence From Myself
I am emptying my shelves and my drawers
I cannot cope with their contents
Any longer. They connect with a past
That hardly seems mine though known to me.
The shelves contain books, of course,
And some of them go a long way
Into a memory not exactly my own
Where my treacherous roots lie
Into humanity’s favourite myths.
The drawers contain documents, notes,
Unfinished manuscripts, faded photographs,
Letters, memorabilia, and possessions
That could be called mere fetishes.
Alternatively, one could call it heritage.
My father’s dead and my only son died too
Within just a short span separating them
And I would be someone sandwiched
Between them—a piece of living history
Between two dead ends.
I am the one that has endured and survived
Two ends of history and the emptiness
Of shelves and drawers and largely
Unwritten books, abandoned poems,
Unfinished paintings, unrealised films,
Spaces more empty than filled,
Occupied and left.
Spaces, spaces, spaces.
Time leaves no detail untouched
And time takes all details away.
My ancestor’s gone and so is my successor.
That leaves me no space but
Here and now, no room to negotiate,
Not even an edge to fall off from.
I am exquisitely here and now
And where I never before was
Nor ever will be.
Moreover, this is not an end.
From Moscow To Leningrad (1980)
From Moscow to Leningrad
I was travelling through a three-dimensional notebook
The notebook had mile after mile of snow
The notebook had railway tracks
Close to my chest there was a broken
Anthill the size of a woman
Close to my chest were eighteen she-cobras
Close to my chest was powdered turmeric
My body flung northwards
Pointed to the Pole
Whose sins were washed out by that journey
Whose wounds bled away in that journey
There were characters written in the notebook
Spreading like fire through the snow
In the shape of a spark.
Underneath the Chandeliers Hung by Stalin
Underneath the chandeliers hung by Stalin
People swarm to buy bread
And at a distance stand the churches of Christ
Detached and compassionate
Underneath this Russian snow there could be
Several flowering plants of poetry
Countless thorny solitudes
The bones of former citizens
On the Way to Petrograd/Leningrad
(—for Irina )
Time turns to ice
Boots fall into a vanishing line
The grief of black living eyes
Lies hidden in the groin
Ointment on a tender spot
Graft on an alien branch
In the closed car of a train
The ice of coals shovelled into
A couple of hours of intimacy
The rail track is refreshed by
Wheels speeding over it
From Moscow to Leningrad
You commit adultery and it’s a torture
And this Express goes
Right up to Finland
Towards the land of White Nights
The tall ghost of Peter the Great
The solid buildings of the navy
The palaces, the squares, the canals,
The innocent eyes of Mandelstam
Pushkin’s love affair
Dostoevsky’s vigil in terror
And the European masterpieces
In the Hermitage
Before the Revolution and after
All this is eternal
The Great War and the great peace
The pleading breasts
Of a starved woman
Her thighs gone awry
Vodka dripping over her shoulders and body
And as a frightened sparrow hits a wall in its search for a window in the dark
Her breath enters my nostrils and my mouth as she gasps for air
I do not dare to write a poem
On all this
Our own relatives will become the angels of death
To exile us into Siberia
Motherlode: Australian Women’s Poetry, 1986-2008
Jennifer Harrison & Kate Waterhouse (eds)
Puncher and Wattmann, 2009
Not A Muse
Kate Rogers, Viki Holmes (eds)
Haven Books, Hong Kong
Reviewed by BROOK EMERY
What are my credentials, or lack thereof, to review these two anthologies of women’s poetry?
Despite an androgynous first name, I am a sliced-white-bread, baby-boomer male. Husband not wife. Father not mother. I am also instinctively uneasy with categorisations that assume difference based on gender. Boys Book, Chick Lit – leave me out. Men analytical, women emotional; men aggressive, women nurturing – stop it! Men’s movements re-discovering the bear or hunter in themselves, women learning to be assertive – how sad. Single sex schools – indefensible, an admission of failure. Once, after a reading, I was told by one poet that my ‘sensibility was very feminine’ and, almost immediately afterwards, by another poet that my ‘voice was so masculine’. What to make of this? (That difference is in the ear of the beholder?) What to do? (Shrug and laugh?)
But biology and evolution cannot be denied, and neither can social conditioning, nor entrenched beliefs and prejudices, and historically, politically and culturally it was, and, unfortunately, maybe still is, important that spaces are made for ‘women’s writing’, though something will have to be done about such a term because it implicitly defines itself not just against the non-existent term ‘men’s writing’ but against ‘writing’ .
Perhaps it’s not so strange that I should have felt compelled to question my reviewing credentials as, in their own ways, the editors of each book exhibit a little nervousness about the reception of their projects and feel a need to position their anthologies within the history of feminism and so-called post-feminism. Harrison and Waterhouse write in their joint introduction to Motherlode:
We have been asked whether this is a feminist book and it undoubtedly is, if feminism is defined as that which women know and strive to make known.
They acknowledge that much has changed in the lives of women as a result of feminism but identify the enduring experiences as:
the realities of fertility, pregnancy, birth and the bonds between mothers and their mothers, daughters and sons.
The editors of Not A Muse: the inner lives of women are more political. Kate Rogers writes that the book explores,
how we define ourselves as women. Are we living our lives honestly, completely true to ourselves? If we choose an unconventional life, what are the costs? Not a Muse is, in part, about our choices. How we define ourselves as women and poets. How we define freedom.
Viki Holmes asks rhetorically, ‘To what end an anthology of women only in this post-feminist era? Shouldn’t we be looking beyond divisions of gender in the 21st century?’ She doesn’t really answer these questions specifically other than to assert a right, or need, to speak and occupy the foreground:
Woman as mysterious, retreating Other; an enigmatic figure retreating in the distance, inspiring and intriguing – and silent. But what happens when the muse speaks? Not a Muse began as an attempt to redress this relegating of women to be sources of inspiration rather than creators. The voices in this anthology speak eloquently, reflectively, and with certainty, about the roles women have chosen for themselves – perhaps enigmatic, certainly inspiring and intriguing – but never in the distant background.
In a preface, ‘On Reading Woman’, the Indonesian poet Laksmi Pamuntjak tackles possible objections to the anthology even more directly. She asks:
Aren’t the days of being jumpy at the very mention of the word ‘female’ or ‘feminine’ finally over, because women have advanced by leaps and bounds to assert themselves as a subject first and foremost, of which ‘woman’ is only part? … Hasn’t women’s liberation gone to such amazing lengths that many modern-day feminists now even believe that the very concept of woman is a fiction, thus raising the possibility that the concept of women’s oppression is finally obsolete and feminism’s raison d’etre has fallen away?
More pertinently: do we still need an anthology of women’s writing? Does it not seem an endorsement of the gender polarisation that women have fought so long and hard to batter down?
Her answers to the last two questions are unequivocal: ‘yes’, then ‘no’. They rest. in part, on an undeniable political truth: ‘ in many parts of the world where women have no voice, no discourse, no place from which to speak, defining the ‘feminine’ is a luxury that cannot be corralled into the collective’.
Really, neither book needs an apology or a theoretical feminist defence. The impregnable defence of both anthologies is just that they are artful, interesting explorations of human experience. Each one demonstrates the power of good poetry to engage people on emotional and conceptual levels not easily accessed by other means. How much more powerful, subtle and informing these poems are than shelves full of theory, therapy or self-help.
Motherlode is a great title playing as it does on all the resonances of exploration, mining and discovery, of richness, abundance and centrality, while gently ghosting the homophone ‘load’ with its connotations of weight and burden. With 125 poets, 172 poems, and at over 300 pages it is abundant indeed. Published by the innovative and relatively new Sydney publishing house Puncher and Wattmann, it is also a beautifully produced book, attractive to look at and to hold. The cover is flexi-case which is closer to traditional hardcover than soft cover, there is a headband at the top and bottom of the spine, and even an attached bookmark ribbon. The binding is stitched, the paper gorgeous, and it is sharply printed and laid out: the packaging does justice to the content.
The focus of Motherlode is clearly defined and circumscribed. It is dedicated to ‘our mothers’ and is not designed to include all shades of female experience but to explore the experience of motherhood and to make this accessible to the general reader. The anthology is divided into twelve sections: nature, icons, pregnancy, birth, infancy, sons and daughters, daily grind, loss, old wives tales, mothers and grandmothers, the world, this last retreat.
The editors suggest that the anthology be considered as a collective narrative and they invite us to read it sequentially as one would a novel. This can work, as poem after poem seems to be a conversation with and a departure from the one preceding it. To read it thus is, perhaps, to impose a narrative consistency and might lead to the temptation to construct archetypes corresponding to the section headings. Thus, to take for example the section heading ‘Birth’, the reader might move from ‘I am waiting / for what emerges / from the white edges / of catastrophe’ (Alison Croggon), to ‘Prostaglandin spreads like cold honey / my cervix ripening, as an avocado in brown paper’ (Kathryn Lomer) to ‘The next pain / takes your spine apart. / Pelvis gags / some kind of thing with horns / in its throat’ (Rebecca Edwards), to ‘Out from you as if in a continuum / is she still yourself? Finally she is not / She separates calmly, not crying’ (Phyllis Perlstone), to ‘This is the first thing I want you to know. I am your mother and you arrived in me and from me. You arrived not “child as other” but as the child of my centre, the child of grass and orchards, of mulberries in summer’ (Jennifer Harrison) to ‘Early this morning, when workmen were switching on lights / in chilly kitchens, packing their lunch boxes / into their Gladstone bags, starting their utes in the cold / and driving down quiet streets under misty lamps, / my daughter bore a son’ (Margaret Scott), to ‘At Bindawalla, the hospital / where only Aboriginal babies were born, / the nurses laughed as they put me in a shoe-box / and gave me to my mother; she cried’ (Elizabeth Hodgson), and finally to Rosemary Dobson: ‘Eight times it flowered in the dark, / Eight times my hand reached out to break / That icy wreath to bear away / Its pointed flowers beneath my heart. / Sharp are the pains and long the way / Down, down into the depths of night / Where one goes for another’s sake’.
There is nothing wrong with this way of reading unless the reader imposes unwarranted generalisations rather than paying attention to the particularities of individual poems; to the way in which the same subject and similar experiences provoke such different responses and voices. Perhaps, though, just as profitably one can dip in and out of this collection reading each poem as poem and not worrying about its place in any sequence, jumping from, say, Jan Owen’s ‘We have no tender name / for you, small being, / drawn awry by some sad chance / as though you thought to play / too early with earth’s creatures, / fish, fowl, seal’ to J S Harry’s ‘I am mrs mothers’ day / I will hire myself out to you / for the 364 other days / I will not be satisfied by / 1 plus 364 / grottybunches of whitechrysanthemum / you choose to offer me snottynose’. Either way the reader will find lively poems which refuse to be shaped to fit any theory – one of the strengths of this anthology is that the editors, while elegantly shaping the collection, have not sought to impose boundaries.
Motherlode’s timeframe is restricted. The book concentrates on poems published between 1986 and 2008 and aims to be as representative as possible of the range of poets writing in that period. 1986 is chosen as the starting date because that was when the groundbreaking Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets was published and, although comparison is not intended, inevitably and valuably, Motherlode will allow readers to consider what changes and continuities they can detect over this period. Motherlode publishes a number of poets (Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood, Faye Zwicky, Judith Rodriguez, Margaret Scott, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Bobbi Sykes and Rosemary Dobson among them), and a few poems, which appeared in the earlier anthology but it also gives space to newer and younger poets including Rebecca Edwards, Morgan Yasbincek, L K Holt, Petra White, Elizabeth Campbell, Jane Gibian, Esther Ottaway, Lisa Gorton, Judith Bishop and Francesca Haig. The editors say that, to make their selection, they read over 500 books of poetry (plus print and on-line journals). One of the excitements of this generous and generous-spirited anthology is to discover the number of Australian women poets writing now and the strength of their writing – from my own reading I’d hazard a guess that among the emerging generation of poets it is the women who are the most numerous and impressive. Opening the anthology with Gwen Harwood’s ‘Mother Who Gave Me Life’ and closing it with Judith Wright’s ‘Woman to Child’ provide powerful vantage points from which to view the achievement and consider the evolution of the tradition.
If Motherlode is a big book, Not A Muse, at over 500 pages, is huge. It features 114 poets from 24 countries. Ten of the poets (Pam Brown, Michelle Cahill, Suzanne Gervay, Margaret Grace, Tanya Hart, Jayne Fenton Keane, Laura Jean McKay, Kate Middleton, Leanne Murphy, Katrin Talbot) are Australian and, of these, only two, Pam Brown and Michelle Cahill, appear in Motherlode, and six were previously unknown to me. Perhaps the lack of crossover can be explained by the selection process – as I understand it the poets in Not A Muse were chosen by submission rather than by reading the available literature though, perhaps, some of the more well-known poets (Margaret Atwood, Sharon Olds, Erica Jong, Lorna Crozier, Laksmi Pamuntjak,) may have been invited to submit. This selection by submission does mean the quality of the poetry is a uneven and representation might be a little unbalanced but I don’t want that to sound like a serious criticism as I found much within these pages to enjoy and much that was new to me. The many countries represented allow for speculation about what might be thought universal and what culturally or personally specific.
Not A Muse is dedicated to ‘our mothers and sisters’. Its intent can be guessed by the politically and emotionally charged ‘sisters’ and it’s conceptual scope gauged by the sections into which it is divided. Each is conceived as an aspect of female identity, so each heading, bar the last, is preceded by the words ‘Woman as’: creator, family, archetype, explorer, myth maker, home maker, landscape, lover, freedom fighter, keeper of secrets, keeper of memories, ageing. It is tempting to read Not A Muse, more so than Motherlode, as a single, multi-voiced argument, as chapters in a developing thesis. The title is a rejection or a negative definition, specifically of Robert Graves’s conception of woman as poetic muse. The collection overtly celebrates woman as subject and agent, active, outspoken, central to the creation of her own life and the life of others. Here the section headings really do read like archetypes and could be said to be imposing limits on the conception ‘woman’. Can you imagine a collection with headings like: homemaker, housekeeper, spouse, companion or, indeed, muse?
This last question is not intended seriously. Poems on my imagined subjects do appear in the anthology and, indeed, ‘home maker’ is one of the headings. Individual poems in this anthology escape the confines of any characterisation even when they are at their most political and assertive and as I was reading I kept mentally thinking this poem could equally appear under this heading or that one. Try fitting the following excerpts under their assigned headings (answers appear, in order, at the end of the review):
Inside me, an Eastern European poet
is trying to get out. He’s killing me,
and I, with my recurring ear infections
and job, am slowly stifling him.
I’m not getting up
when you call
I don’t want to
do your bidding
I’ll just lie here
chase some flies
with my eyes
You can be
Like a river feeding itself to the ocean,
Child, I continue to give myself to you
Until I become undone – scattered pockets
Of primitive earth, peeled bare.
(Tammy Ho Lai-Ming)
Because, like a poem, the city doesn’t know where our feet will
take us, we walked, unseeing, inaudible, heart-shaped. Too
many signs to follow. But there was a delight in being lost,
and rivering along took care of that until our voices
grew shrill and words
in the air
imagine your mother
down on her knees
and sucking cock
and understand you will never really know her
I have not swept the floor – the Amy of Now
must pass that task to the Amy of Tomorrow
along with folding the clothes
and taking the garbage out. Tomorrow’s Amy
may not mind, she might open the day
eager to eat chores with a fork
The black of Radha’s hair is cow dung
Her arms of yellow
tumeric, pollen or perhaps
lime and the milk
of banyan leaves
One day she will put her hands out, fingers long
and she will
and she will find the words that will turn you
into a cunt
A funnel has been shoved into my mouth
through which I am force-fed the sky.
I have eaten thunderheads, slaughtered angels.
And now they are mashing up the stars
into baby gruel.
‘You can eat anything,’ the doctors say
a Kurdish woman sang me a lullaby,
she said bab meant gate,
she said I know no poems
but I can sing to my dead child,
will you listen? And I think,
the whole world is listening,
you just don’t know it.
I open my hand, see wrinkles, cold marks
of God’s anger upon my flesh. In these veins
runs depleted blood, returning capillary
by capillary from the centre of this rot.
Once, when I was a girl, I stood at the edge
of the sea and was tumbled over
by a rogue wave. What would it have been like
to glide on the undertow past kelp gardens
and coral reefs …
Who wants to hear about
two old farts getting it on
in the back seat of a buick,
in the garden shed among vermiculite,
in the kitchen where we should be drinking
ovaltine and saying no?
The differences between women (writers) are as great as the similarities. The similarities between men and women (writers) are as great as the differences. The particular disproves any generalisation but generalisations persist. The strength of both these books, on social, political and artistic levels, is that they give voice to similarities and differences, to the particularity and generality of female experiences. These are poems by women from women’s perspectives about women’s experiences but they are not just for women. It would be a terrible failure of sensibility if a male reader were unable to imaginatively and enjoyably live within the poems in these two valuable collections. Both books belong in all public and educational libraries and would certainly augment a private collection.
(Answers: Creator, Family, Archetype, Explorer, Myth Maker, Home Maker, Landscape, Lover, Freedom Fighter, Keeper of Secrets, Keeper of Memories, Ageing.)
Alan Gould is an Australian poet, novelist and essayist. His seventh novel, The Lakewoman, was launched at The 2009 Melbourne Writers’ Festival, and his twelfth volume of poetry, Folk Tunes, has just been published by Salt. Among his many awards, he has won the NSW Premier’s Prize For Poetry (1981), The National Book Council Banjo Prize for Fiction (1992), The Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal For Literature, and The Grace Leven Award for his The Past Completes Me – Selected Poems 1973-2003.
Two At A Café Table
Gold estuary falling on your shoulder,
what does blonde hair do?
It’s thirty seven Aprils since
I swam in gold with you,
lay close and breathed pine resin in;
we bonked our lunchtimes through,
our syllabus was tongue and groove
and what might nipples do.
Now coffee and our fancy cakes
are lush, but snag our way.
Miraculous how natural
the things we need to say,
to find response aglitter in
the lives that we now reach,
this winter day’s exquisite calm,
this frisson in our speech.
Is it your body’s loveliness,
is it my voice alone,
is it the gesture of a hand
or curve of your facial bone,
that lift us to our form of words
healing as they renew?
How come it took us half a life
to find this rendezvous
and see the gift of person in
the flesh that we once held,
now ADG can be less gauche,
Michelle be more Michelle’d?
Thirty seven years are here
and shoppers stop to stare
where two old lovers incandesce
and golden is the air.
by Adam Aitken
Poetry, Paperback, 144pp
Publication April 2009
Reviewed by KIM CHENG BOEY
In “The Photo,” the concluding poem in Eight Habitation, the traveller-poet who has journeyed from the safe and familiar precincts of Sydney to the ravaged landscape of Cambodian history, poses a question: “To forget or not to, / to write or not to – therefore live – / to forgive the monster/ is this impossible question.” In parodying Hamlet, Aitken does not merely revisit the Theodor Adorno proposition about poetry being an impossibility after Auschwitz, but also broaches the role of remembering that Milan Kundera has framed so memorably: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Eighth Habitation is a project in remembering; it revisits a personal and familial past, and then turns to the barbaric years of the Cambodian killing fields. The collection confronts the unspeakable without the false portentous gravitas that many bring to the subject; it does its work of remembering and witness with sensitivity, grace, humility and honesty, offering compelling records of the atrocities and sufferings in one of the most horrific nightmares of recent history.
But to suggest that Aitken’s cogent, rich and varied collection is merely an addition to what Carolyn Forché calls the poetry of witness is to miss its many other resonances, its arresting range of subjects and tone. Doubtless the core of the collection revolves around Atiken’s Cambodian sojourn and is shadowed by the country’s violent history, but there are other vital thematic veins to the work, not least of which is the story of Aitken’s father. In fact, Aitken’s father’s Asian adventures in the first part of the collection prefigure and frame his son’s Asian sojourn. The book begins at home; the first of the triptych, aptly called “Broken/ Unbroken,” puts together a family portrait, albeit fragmented, mythologising a father whose exploits echo the colonial figures Aitken examines in the Cambodian section. The father poems recall “the salt ghost” who left home when Aitken was thirteen, retracing his career in the army, and his travels through Asia in the 1950s. “The Fire Watchers: A Memoir” address the poet’s brother but tells of the family’s disintegration, and his mother burning all his father’s books. Out of the ruins of the family, Aitken has salvaged photographs, and “the narratives refine themselves with each passing year.” He follows his father as he “bargained with a waif at Changi/ for 13 postcards” and recreates his antics as he “danced, quite pissed, in women’s lace/ then swapped the Major’s lucky digger hat/ for a set of Dutch clogs.”
In “Archive” Aitken reconstructs his father’s Asian travels in the form of a travel journal. The son takes on the father’s voice here, giving a shorthand account of his encounters. Here Aitken senior is portrayed something of a ladies’ man; the poem is strewn with allusions to dalliances with local women, like Eleanor Kwong, “a commercial artist at Cathay Ltd,” Noël Bulke, the Anglo-Indian daughter of the Pakistani Ambassador, Edith Atkinson, “daughter of a Thai-Malaysian and Dutch mother,” a host of taxi dancers and “Singapore models.” Charming, irresistible, Aitken’s father seems interested in the East only as a site for sexual fantasy/ adventure, and cares little for Asian culture and politics. But this Orientalist exterior belies a complex mind and history, the flamboyant representations ironically hinting at a father whose contradictions the son is trying to apprehend without judgement.
Aitken senior’s adventures pave the way for his son’s Asian journey in the next two sections, his imperialistic/ colonial attitude contrasting with his son’s more sensitive explorations. Also, the hybrids that Aitken senior flirted with reflect his son’s complex make-up. Aitken, like Edith Aitkinson, is a hyphenated person, the product of an Anglo-Australian father and Thai mother; a diasporic childhood lived in London, Bangkok and Malaysia has resulted in multi-locale attachments and a shifting and complex sense of belonging. It is perhaps a need to articulate and affirm his transnational identity, to connect the Asian, and Anglo-Australian strands that impels the journeys in the collection. To this end the poems in the transitional section “Crossing to Lake Toba,” located in Cairns, Malaysian Indonesia, can be seen as metaphorically and geographically negotiating the liminal spaces between Australia and Asia. “Kuta Diary” reverberates with the Bali bombing and “For Effendy, Emperor of Icecream” is a tongue-in-cheek look at Wallace Stevens, globalisation, tourism, and the interaction between tourist and native: “And home we went to ‘Saving Private Ryan’/ on your new DVD.” Beguiling, observant, these poems reveal Aitken’s attentive eye for details and the nuances of cross-cultural interaction, his natural warmth and empathy, his aliveness to the Other, and a quiet humour that offers a light counterpoint to the heavier themes. “Cairns,” the last poem in this section, provides an engaging portrait of Aitken’s mother, giving her a voice as she recounts her migrant story. Aptly her Thai origin steers the collection to the ravaged landscape of Indochina in the next section.
The Cambodian poems grapple with wreckage left by years of war. “A Map of Cambodia” gives a synoptic survey of the country’s traumatised history and scarred landscape: “Magenta for bombed areas, /beaches named after hotels/ islands sold off to foreigners.” In quick effective strokes, Aitken captures the tide of changes sweeping across Phnom Penh, the signs of the nouveau riches, the gap between them and those still in the grip of poverty and the aftermath of war. He captures the precarious balance between destruction and recovery tellingly; while the capitalist developments, the multinational takeover of Cambodia betoken healing and movement forward, in reality they constitute a neo-colonialism that is partitioning and destroying the country in ways not different from the plunder of French colonialism. A new Cambodia is rising from the ashes of the past, eager to forget the past and embrace its capitalist future: “Under one map there’s another/ rising on the tide/ as the pain recedes.”
Aitken possesses a photographic eye alert to the telling instants and details. “Ruins” gives revealing snapshot:
In Phnom Penh a mountain of junked bicycles
is a monument to Welcome!
but Siem Reap’s giant preying mantis
toting an AK-47
at the Foreign Correspondents Club
counts as art.
Casual, understated, the observations get to the heart of the matter with arresting vividness: “Here, cows know more about road safety/ than townsfolk selling photocopied/ books on genocide.” Even clichéd images of the Vietnam War can attain cinematic clarity:
A woman sheltering under a rattan mat
from a thunderous downdraft of Hueys
by the banks of the Mekong
her last recollection of home.
In “S21” Aitken gives a virtual tour of the genocide museum where the Khmer Rouge exterminated 20 000 men, women and children. Unflinchingly the poem delivers the images in all their stark brutality:
Blood and rust melded together
in the springs of an old French style bed base.
An old cartridge case shit can.
Samplers of jumbled DNA,
in a room of ragged cast-offs.
The fragmentary images address headlong twentieth-century life in extremis; the connection between the two holocausts is inserted subtly: “Someone who’d been to Belsen/ had written ‘Justice’ in the visitor’s book.” Aitken lets the artefacts stand as evidence for what happened, avoiding the pathos and sentimental catharsis that popular representations of Holocausts like Schindler’s List peddles.
In perhaps the most powerful of Cambodian poem, “The Wearer of Amulets,” the poet meets “an old boy soldier” who reveals the secret of how he survived with the help of an amulet: “a desiccated human foetus/ cut from the uterus of a woman/ pregnant three months.” Here again Aitken reveals an ability to weave splintered lyric narrative and social observation. There is an engaging sense of kinship and empathy with the survivors, a respect for what the poet can perceive but not understand. Other memorable poems in this section include “Dear Henri,” which offers a critique of French colonialism in Indochina, “Pol Pot in Paris,” which suggests again the tenuous line between culture and barbarism, and the memorable “The Photo” that this review began with.
Eighth Habitation, as the title suggests, is a sojourn in purgatory, a journey through liminal zones where questions of self, the past, pain and suffering find expression in poems of lyric grace and compassion. If there is any flaw at all, it is its generosity in offering so much; one feels that there are a few poems that could have been omitted to make a more compact and coherent collection. But the reader shouldn’t complain; it is a rich collection that yields many pleasures and insights upon re-reading. The poems conduct their quest, ask the necessary questions in an honest, unpretentious, intelligent, self-effacing way; they inhabit and explore difficult thematic territories and have much to communicate to us of the complexities of travel and cross-cultural communication, of a fascinating family history, and of the ineffable experiences of loss, death, and healing.