Mario Licón Cabrera (México, 1949) has lived in Sydney since 1992. His third collection of poetry, La Reverberación de la Ceniza was publshed by Mora & Cantúa Editores in 2005. He was invited to the Spring writers Festival (Sydney) in 1998 and to the Semana de la Poesía Barcelona, 1999, and to The National Poetry Week in 2006. He has translated the poetry of Dorothy Porter, Judith Beveridge, Peter Boyle, J.S. Harry, Robert Adamson, amongst other Australian poets, into Spanish.These poems are part of Yuxtas, a bilingual collection (Spanish/English), written with the assistance of a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts/Literature Board. Read Peter Boyle’s review of Juxtas in our Reviews and Essays section.                                    

                                                                                                                                                    Photographer: David Cahill

 

Osario
 Will these be  the 206 aristocratic bones of my father?
		R.H
                                                                                             
I
 
Rodolfo Hinostrosa speaks of his father's bones and 
   I think about yours, padre,  
   and suddenly I wanted to see them.  
Will they have survived this quarter of century 
   buried under those drastic, 
   so insolent climate changes?
The scholars in such matters say that one or better said, 
   our bones  can survive thousands of years 
   buried in the Sahara sands.  
But you are not directly buried in the sand.  
   I don't even know what kind of coffin 
   my brothers had elected for you. 
In any case, I don't believe that you were buried 
   in a dark and fresh clay wombs' pot
   as our ancestors used to do it.  
II
Will they move. Will they change site  
   skull, humeri and femurs?  A shoulder blade  
   on a fibula or a tíbia?  
Will they seek the trace of the once beloved bones, 
   the bones loved
   beyond the skin?  
Of what will they dream? 
   Which song they will remember?  What name 
   will they want to name the bones , in their darkness?  
Perhaps when it rains they are scattered? 
III
Once, as a boy, I saw the relics of some coffins 
   and in them  remains of hair 
   and clothes stuck on some bones.  
They had removed a cemetery to build a playground in its place.  
   We never played there:  
   It was so much its dryness that we all crossed  in full silence.  
IV

One night, a couple of years ago  
   I passed in front of your last shoe-repair shop, 
   that one near the now extinct creek  of your Villa de Seris.  
The doors were wide open. 
   A dark deep silence inside. And the ruins 
   of the old huge house of Los Gómez more dead than ever.  
Now I think that the ideal place for your bones would be there 
   beside the ghost-creek, near the narrow bridge where all passers-by 
   greeted you with so much respect:  Don Ventura.  
 

Tonight
Tonight  I will not read 
any of my poems.
Tonight I want only to give thanks 
thanks to Poetry and to a bunch of poets.
To Poetry herself, for having given me 
another voice,
another voice with which I can talk
to the trees and stones and birds.
I want to say thanks to the Aztec poet 
Ayocuan Cuetzpatzin for his deep knowledge 
of the human heart. 
To Saint John of the Cross
for his advice on how to make love
to my soul. 
And thanks to Dante Alligieri and Arthur Rimbaud 
for having given me such good instruction 
on how to commute through the Hades.
To poetry for giving me a pair of hands 
with which I can greet  the wind and touch
the faces of my beloved dead-ones. 
To Walt Whitman and Federico García Lorca
for the profound resonance of their cry and for
the great love the second one had for the first one.
To Vicente Huidobro and Nicanor Parra for
taking off the face of to-much-solemnity 
that Pablo Neruda gave to poetry. 
And because the first one showed me how 
to fall from the bottom to the top.
Thanks to Jorge Luis Borges who in his noble blindness  
thought that paradise was a library. 
And thanks  to Cesar Vallejo, for all 
his sorrows, his solitude and his  poet's bravery. 
 
Esta Noche
Esta noche no leeré
ninguno de mis poemas.
Esta noche quiero solamente dar gracias 
gracias a la poesía y a una banda de poetas.
A la Poesía misma porque me a dado
otra voz,
otra voz con la que puedo hablar 
con los árboles y las piedras y los pájaros.
Quiero dar gracias al poeta azteca 
Ayocuan Cuetzpatzin-
por su vasto conocimento del corazón humano. 
A San Juan de la Cruz
por sus consejos de como hacer el amor
con mi alma.
Y gracias a Dante Alligieri y Arthur Rimbaud 
por darme tan buenas instruciones de como entrar y 
salir de los infiernos.
A la poesía por darme unas manos
con la que puedo saludar al viento y tocar
el rostro de mis queridos muertos.
A Walt Whitman Y Federico García Lorca
por la profunda resonancia de sus cantos y por
lo tanto que el segundo amó al primero.
A Vicente Huidobro y Nicanor Parra  por
haberle quitado el rostro tan solemne que Pablo
Neruda le dió a la poesía. Y por que el primero me 
enseño a caer de abajo hacia arriba.
Gracias a Jorge Luis Borges porque en su noble ceguera 
confundió el paraíso con una biblioteca. 
Y gracias a Cesar Vallejo por toda su tristeza 
todas sus soledades y toda su bravura de poeta.

 

Mark Tredinnick

Mark Tredinnick is a poet, essayist and writing teacher; he lives in Burradoo, in the highlands southwest of Sydney in Australia’s southeast. His books include The Little Red Writing Book (published in the United States and the United Kingdom in 2008 as The Cambridge Essential Writing Guide), The Land’s Wild Music and A Place on Earth. His landscape memoir, The Blue Plateau, and The Little Green Grammar Book will appear in 2008. Mark is also at work on a volume of poems and a book about the consolations of literature in a frantic age. Mark’s prizes include The Newcastle Poetry Prize, The Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize, The Calibre Essay Prize, The Wildcare Nature Writing Prize and shortlistings in major awards, including The ABR and Broadway Prizes. His writing (poems, essays and criticism) has appeared in many books and anthologies, in Best Australian Essays, and in Australian and overseas journals and newspapers including Island, isotope, Orion, Manoa, PAN, Southerly The Sydney Morning Herald. He has written regularly for The Bulletin.

In recent years, Mark has edited a number of collections of Australian writing, each published as a special issue of a literary journal: Where Waters Meet (Manoa18:2, with Larissa Behrendt and Barry Lopez), Watermarks (Southerly 64:2, with Nicolette Stasko), and Being True to the Earth (PAN 4, with Kate Rigby). He has taught landscape writing, creative non-fiction and poetry at centres in the USA and at The University of Sydney.

Photographer :Tony Sernack


Urban Eclogues

I

Adrift in the middle of my years, I sit in a corner and drink. I eavesdrop
a tableful of girls romancing their cell phones, workshopping
love’s abstract particulars.
            Football plays on the big screen;
I listen like a thief in case the women know the score.
But I never could tell. At fulltime I walk home like a motherless child.

II
    
Witness is a solitary game. There isn’t a thing I have left to say
but back in my room I ring like a singing bowl,
empty and unable to stop.
        You’re in nine kinds of pain, my friend; you know
the twenty-seven strains of despair. And your lovely hair has fallen.
The moon at my window is a rusted shot, caught in its corrupt trajectory down.

III

The world was always someone else’s oyster, a metaphor
I never could prise open.  
All I’m good for tonight
                     is to let the night pass,
while beyond me the world peters and my friend fights beautifully
like a trout on God’s line. The usual idiots are still in power. But they’ll keep.

 

Two Hens

Make prayer at the concrete trough
beneath the dripping tap. Flush now with summer
the water poplars graze a slow benediction
over the birds, and a miser’s rain falls through the
morning.

From my desk I look out on this
epitome of good fortune and pray for more

rain. The weather has turned. It will do that
if you wait. The wind is in the south
and the leaves of the poplars shiver silver
as though something that was wounded is now healed.

These past days have tried and found me
wanting, and I have almost failed, but here

I am, still who I always was,
only more so. The days you love are not
the days that prove you. Winter is my weather;
I grow by waiting. And there is no end

of the dying one did not know
one had yet to do to one’s self.

But you’ve had days like these. I envy
the hens the steady circle of their days,
but this is not how mine go; I am strung from stars
that once were gods and can’t seem to forget.

 

Plenty

Dandelions break out like lies in the grass. There’s an election
in the wind and promises on the table beneath the poplars and even the weeds
look good in the spring. But not far west        
                        crops fail in their red fields
and rivers wither into memory. The future fails and the economy blooms
its profuse abstractions. What will the children eat when the wheat no longer rises?

 

And You

One child learned to walk
                 the day another learned to drive
and in between sixteen years ran before they could crawl
me any closer to who I’m meant to be
by now. November’s fallen back into winter. All day long on the roof
the rain writes the only script there’ll ever be for any of this.

God delivers when you stop
                   praying. The music starts when you stop
playing so hard and listen.
Some good came along today when I was busy hoping
for nothing, sweeping the cowshed instead and putting things off.
Want only the rain to fall and your children to find out for themselves.

Oh, it’s way too late now
                to hope to say anything new.
All the music and all the meaning there ever were
have been here all along, and you may catch some –  
but you mustn’t try too hard – between your child’s first steps, between
downpours, between the sweeping judgments of the broom.    

The way Nan walks the lane
                   morning and evening behind her dog,
each step sounding one year of the ninety
she has seen; the way the black ducks land like tardy extras
on the rainy grass at dusk – enactments that say something I’d like my life
to say. Something the weather says, my children say, and you.

 

Two Responses to the Poetry of Thanh Thao, by Michelle Cahill & Boey Kim Cheng

Two Responses on the Poetry of Thanh Thao

by Michelle Cahill and Boey Kim Cheng

 

 

Humility in the Work of Thanh Thao

by Michelle Cahill

 

When Boey Kim Cheng and I first read the poems of Thanh Thao we were immediately struck by their quiet tone, their gentle transformations of personal and public suffering, which stem from the kind of humility we are in need of as writers to feed our souls. What is the soul anyway, we might ask ourselves, and why has it become so unfashionable to speak of compared to the other resources available to a poet’s creativity; such as language, or the body, or food? That would be the subject of another essay, though perhaps the reason is part of a broader, secular, and largely culturally-programmed sensibility. This aside, we felt that Thanh Thao’s poems, translated by Paul Hoover and Nguyen Do as part of an anthology of contemporary Vietnamese poetry, have much to offer our readers. Most of us can recall an emotional or ethical response to the Vietnam war: because it was the cause of such social and political dissent; because it was the war that epitomised the 1960’s Beat generation; because there are palpable scars, wounds and trauma in the history of Australia’s eleven year involvement in that protracted conflict and its aftermath; because it was a kind of prototype for the way in which the Australian public can undermine official versions of any war. We are mostly familiar with the protest or witness themes of Judith Wright, Jennifer Maiden, Denise Levertov, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Allan Ginsberg, but the Vietnamese perspective is relatively unknown, and it’s within this context that we can locate Thanh Thao’s work.

The dominant and interconnected themes of Thanh Thao’s poetry are the war and memory. Memory and forgetting mark out an imaginative landscape of resounding echoes, in which the poet is able to recover and reconcile the past, with its conflicting and long-suffering legacies. The poet depicts fragmented moments of unmasked vulnerability:

 echoes from fifty-six years ago
a day as pale as today
that no one cared about, no one remembered
a little puppy is dumbstruck looking at a lonely street

(“March 12”)

The images encountered are personal and domestic; of childhood, family, village, field, and against which the war becomes a prearranged backdrop.

 like someone beating a drum, the rain dropped on my waterproof army poncho
which was torn and badly needed mending
my friends were like forest trees, diminishing day by day
the war cut them down
like an electric trimmer
but now they’re all at peace
I remember also that evening, as a child,
the sweetness of the banana in my mother’s hand,
even sweeter when she carried me on her back!
the road over the dike echoed the soul of the river
dark brown sails and bamboo shadows floating slowly
a bridge where an older man got tired
and lay down to rest but not sleep  
(“To Suddenly Remember”)

 The poet is able to segue events here into a temporal fluidity where childhood returns to old age, where war becomes peace. Often the lines are unpunctuated, and uncapitalised, allowing their clauses to drift. The voice weaves through these suggestions with remarkable clarity; the rain beating like a drum, the bridge and the bamboo shadows providing the associative narrative links. There is no blame or anger evoked in any reference to the war, the poet adopting an entirely non-partisan attitude. The authenticity and immediacy of the speaker’s voice, resembles the surreal empiricism of Yusef Komunyakaa’s Vietnam poems. Komunyakaa’s poems however move at a much faster pace and are more brutal in their tone. In Thanh Thao’s verse, the brutality of the war is described indirectly and seems to be subsumed by the natural landscape. There’s a subtle irony, for instance, that his army poncho is badly in need of mending, or indeed in the figure of the old man, exhausted but not quite sleeping. In another poem, “To Suddenly Remember,” the poet juxtaposes an image of the war with the sound of thunder and with gentle descriptions of nature:

the aged sunlight
an evening of summer rain
and the bomb’s echo from the Duong bridge that sounded like rolling thunder  

(“To Suddenly Remember”)

Without knowledge of the Vietnamese language, one cannot fully appreciate that the rhythmic simplicity of these translations attempts to be faithful to the floating lines and to the monosyllabic tonal variations. This also renders the poet’s subdued impressions of war. War is referenced in Thanh Thao’s poetry in a manner that suggests that the function of memory is not to make recriminations, but to preserve the suffering, and to speak for those who have suffered. It’s interesting to read the poems within the context of the time-honoured ca dao tradition of folk poetry with its repertoire of landscape imagery: paddies, harvest, village. In his essay on Vietnamese war poets, Kevin Bowen refers to this lasting connection between the land and its people;

The belief in the power of the land to sustain and transform the terms of struggle is pivotal to both poem and culture.

A culturally-derived reading will also identify in these poems a residual trace of Tang tradition which fused Buddhist, Confuscian and Taoist values, preferring to reflect not on reality but “the idea beyond the word”. That kind of meditative moment and simplicity can be found in Thanh Thao’s work where we sense the poet’s self-effacement, his cautious recognition of the enemy within.

With two pens,
two chopsticks,
I’m going to look for the source of water
slowly and quietly.
Look, the pen is a little nervous,
breathing with every stroke.
I know I’m in a drought;
go slowly and silently. 

(“Andante for the Millenium”)

At the same time the quest for darkness in his poems differs from much of the nationalist Vietnamese poetry of the post-war period, with its elegiac tone and its ideological correctness. Visual phenomena arise accidentally and without warning, as in the poem “Suddenly”:

suddenly
without apology
a man flew through the treetops
leaving behind a woman, a thin trail of smoke
suddenly
the ships searched for a place to rest
the stars searched for a place to be seen
crowding into a puddle of water
where it gives birth to the sky
suddenly
as the poems searched for their flames

The images are fragmented and arbitrary, hinting at horror with ironic lyricism. It’s as though the text becomes an existential and unofficial platform, offering its own version of reality. Similarly, in the poem “Untitled,” the metaphor of fishing conveys to us the movement, and the synaesthetic moment of the surprise catch.

of snatching shadows from under the green sadness
of water hyacinths.

(“Untitled”)

With their sibilant sounds, there is nothing fierce or deliberate in these lines. The language seems effortless, not attempting to qualify or categorize; being born out of the sense of a deeply subjective darkness, one which is searching for its “flames,” as if the poems themselves were the source of light. That play of light and darkness is a recurring motif, a wave oscillation that shifts from abstractions to concrete images, as in the poem “A Journey,” where a cow is described as chewing the sunset:

A daydream takes me; I go into the private darkness of light.
The darkness differs significantly from reality, but it is still the reality
of a cow chewing the sunset; on one side is the yellow sunrise, on the other the   darkness of sunset –
the faint border between
reunion, separation, reunion.

 The poem invites us to take this journey; to experience the points of entry and departure. Yet there is no indulgence in the materiality of language. Rather than delineating the boundaries of presence and absence, the past and present are integrated into a new whole. This perspective in the poet’s work admits to the possibility of recovery and healing. The Vietnamese people have much to heal; their country having been occupied at different times by China, France, Japan and the USA; their war of independence lasting over 120 years, during which time hundreds of thousands of civilians perished or were displaced. The configuration of darkness in Thanh Thao’s work can be interpreted as a personal and deeply registered acknowledgement of that suffering. In his most controversial poem, “A Soldier Speaks of His Generation”, which was prohibited until political reforms took place in 1988, the poet’s tone becomes more overtly critical:

In our generation,
that train whistle is a declaration.
The generation in which each day is a battle,
its mission heavier than the barrel of mortar 82
that we carry on our shoulders.
The generation that never sleeps,
that goes half naked and patiently digs trenches,
that is naked and calm in its thinking,
that goes on its way as the past generation has gone,
by ways various and new.

The seemingly inconsequential details of the soldiers’ lives are evoked with compassion in the “small lumps of steamed rice” they share, or the “cans of sour soup.” And while the camaraderie between the troops is described, their sense of a shared destiny is conveyed more palpably than that of a shared purpose. This humanity leads away from any myopic nationalistic sentiment, to something of a more universal condition.

What do you want to tell me in the hazy night, Quoc,
as you sing passionately the whole flood season?
The Dien Dien flower raises its hot yellow petals
like the face of a hand that sunlight lands and stays on.
Our country comes from our hearts, simply,
like this Thap Muoi that need no further decoration
and is completely silent.
Stronger than any romance, this love goes directly
to any person
who doesn’t care about the limits of language

(“A Soldier Speaks of His Generation”)

 The poem does not try to be a testimony, nor does it attempt to protest the immorality of war, a criticism that can be made of much of the stateside poetry of Levertov and Ginsberg. The suffering while not arbitrary, belongs to a more general condition, a landscape where a star rises “from a water-filled crater”, where the faces of many are seen to be floating.

They are so very young
as they flicker along on the stream
into a distant meadow
on an endless evening. 

They’re the people who fought here first, 
twenty years ago as one generation,
and also the ones who will come later,
twenty years from today.

That evening
on the small canal
artillery attacks and flowing water.
How clearly you can see
the faces of
       our generation!

(“A Soldier Speaks of His Generation”)

The clarity of Thanh Thao’s poetry, his “strange and attractive voice”(Nguyen Do) can be attributed to the many faces of the war he describes. While private and personal, the poems always hint at the historical and social context of the world they remember. It’s poetry that makes the text-world relationship vulnerable, without an undue reliance on complexity or anything ostensible. Yet there is a gentle irony in this resignation, which points to the possibility of dissent, of perceiving new and different realities. And in this humility, in this acceptance of suffering as a condition of human existence, there is immense compassion; something which feeds our soul, leading us beyond the poem.

I already know
that other worlds
are no different –
a bird that tries to love its cage
has no need to begin singing.

(“Andante for the Millenium” (2000))


Notes

“Some Other Poets of the War” (1994) by Kevin Bowen is referenced in “War Poets From Vietnam” by Fred Marchant
Humanities, March/April 1998, Volume 19/Number 2

“The “Other War” In Thanh Thao’s Poetry”, Nguyen Do, Sacramento, December 21 2004

 

 

 

War Against Forgetting: The Poetry of Thanh Thao

by Boey Kim Cheng

 

In Ho Chi Minh City you see everywhere signs of a new Vietnam emerging: the widening of roads, the ubiquitous construction cranes, the gleaming new shopping complexes, the convoys of new foreign cars. The country is eager to catch up with its northern enemy, turning itself in a matter of a decade from a failing impoverished Communist state closed to the rest of the world, into an Asian tiger that is communist in name only. The Indochina conflict and the Vietnam War seem distant memories. In a country so long trapped in its traumatic past, the prosperous future promises deliverance from its troubled history. But it is a deliverance that carries with it the danger of forgetting not just its proud and bloody past but its traditions, the values for which it fought those wars. That is why Thanh Thao’s work is vital. It is a deep and searching work of memory, of a self engaged in the project of salvaging its own and the country’s memories.

Thanh Thao has the ability to make you feel like you are listening to him remember and what is remembered are not the big events, but little markers of time, seemingly insignificant images that can conjure up an entire scene, and make the memory so vivid:

comes a faint sound of women selling rice cakes  
on my birthday
it makes me remember
a packet of rice
a bowl of dried sweet potato mixed with molasses
a mother who was thin as the morning light
and laughter beside a heap of trash

(“March 12”)

The past comes to life through a metonymic process, the sensory details evoking the poet’s childhood, a series of vignettes flashing before him, all giving a sense of coherence, wholeness, uninterrupted by war. There is a wrenching nostalgia that is born out of the time’s depredations and the effects of war, a longing for pre-war harmony and innocence that is pastoral in nature. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell identities the pastoral impulse in the war poets as arising from a need to counter the traumas of the trenches with idyllic images of rural England. In the same way, the longing for the ancestral home, the rural vision in Thanh Thao’s work bespeaks a need to heal the wounds of war with images of peaceful rural Vietnam, a Vietnam that may not have existed in history but which lives in the poet’s imagination.
There theme of return underpins Thanh Thao’s work, the return to that place in time where the adult poet can rediscover the child he was:

I come again to my father and mother’s home
were a yellow plum that was just planted suddenly blooms
like a spotlight on a flood plain,
like my mother’s eyes
staring from the garden’s corner
where custard apple has a pure greenness.

(“Untitled”)

The memory yields a moment of connection with his roots, bestowing a sense of coherence and belonging, the fruits conjuring a sense of Edenic innocence and pleasure. Home is a recurrent word in Thanh Thao’s work. The poems attempt to salvage the memories of home, to heal the ravages of war and time. In retracing the steps back to his childhood memories, the poet rediscovers a pastoral scene far from the war, the abundant fruit imagery here suggesting innocence and also, a deep part of him that is unscarred by the war. The brutality of war is there, but there is a saving tenderness that connects the speaker with his past, with his humanity. Memory provides the way to healing, to a past where a sense of wholeness and coherence can be found:

my parents lived there a home
a ten-square-meter country
but because of our greater home
my parents didn’t prevent me
from going into battle
not for a brave death or a rainbow
I’m the hand on a compass
that only turns toward home.

(“To Suddenly Remember”)

Thanh Thao’s poems of memory are attempts at homecoming, bringing the displaced wounded spirit of the veteran back home. The land is a nourishing and healing presence, though it is also fraught with travails and ambiguities. In this regard his work can be located within the ca dao tradition, the oral poetry that sings of the intimate connections of the Vietnamese with the land. In “This Is Usual,” we find a kind of ars poetica in which the poet affirms the ties between the land and poetry: “I lean on time to catch the time that doesn’t run out. / To ignore the land is to be old, dry, lean, and thirsty.”

At the heart of this intimate relationship between the land and the self is the presence of the mother. Like the word “home,” the mother is a recurrent image, a deep source of sustenance to the poet’s life and work. “Wave Oscillation” is an elegy to the poet’s mother:

For all of my life, two shades have consoled me.
Whose steps remain
On the village trail?
What lights are in your eyes now that the rain has cleared?
Now the small line that separates two sufferings,
But still leaves the spicy fragrant smoke of our stove
In the garden with its dark green banana leaves –
From morning to night you still walk back and forth there! 

The mother is still very much alive, at least in the poet’s memory – the present tense and the atavistic vision in the last two lines suggest the immanent presence of the mother. In “To Suddenly Remember” the memory of the mother is also atavistically invoked: “I remember also that evening, as a child,/ the sweetness of the banana in my mother’s hand,/ even sweeter when she carried me on her back!” Smell, the most primal of the senses, metonymically connects the mother with the child and remembering war-veteran, and brings the past into alignment with the present. The maternal image allows an escape from abjection, to use the Kristevan word, a return to pre-war intimacy and harmony with both family and the land

Thanh Thao’s pastoral yearning, his nostalgic impulse and longing for the maternal embrace stem from a sense of displacement, a traumatised sense of history that is as much his as the nation’s. His work seeks healing but does so without denying the past. The poet does not eschew the horrors but includes them in his attempt to understand himself and his country. It is a poetry that excludes nothing, that takes in the past in all its beauty and terror. In “To Suddenly Remember,” the memories of family home, the mother, “the ripe smell of bananas,” “some old chairs/ a small ancient teapot/ the aged sunlight/ an evening of summer rain” are inextricably mixed with the friends cut down by war and “the bomb’s echo from the Duong bridge that sounded like rolling thunder.”

Rather than keeping the binaries of absence and presence, the past and present distinct and separate, Thanh Thao’s vision integrates them into new wholes. Another binary in his work is the personal and the historical. By locating the personal in the historical and the historical in the personal, and bringing the past, however difficult and horrifying it is, into some comprehensive relationship with the present, the poet achieves a perspective that allows the possibility of recovery and healing. Through weaving together the private and the communal, the poet forges a conscience that reminds and warns, to use Wilfred Owen’s sombre word, and commemorates those who suffered and those who perished.

Perhaps the intersection between the personal and political is nowhere more powerfully articulated than in his most controversial poem, “A Soldier Speaks of His Generation”:

The day we’re leaving,
the doors of the passenger train openly wide.
There’s no longer a reason for secrets.
The soldiers young as bamboo shoots
playfully stick their heads from the windows.
The soldiers young as bamboo shoots,
with army uniforms too large for them,
crowd together like tree leaves on the stairs of the cars.
The train whistles too loudly
And too long, as if broken,
like the voice of a teen who nearly has his man’s voice now.

In our generation,
that train whistle is a declaration.

The generation in which each day is a battle,
its mission heavier than the barrel of mortar 82
that we carry on our shoulders.
The generation that never sleeps,
that goes half naked and patiently digs trenches,
that is naked and calm in its thinking,
that goes on its way as our past has gone,
by ways various and new.

As the title announces, the speaker is taking on the role of a spokesman for a generation that is being forgetting in a rapidly modernizing Vietnam. Through his own autobiography, he evokes the travails of a whole generation, bringing to life the faces of the individuals lost in the numbing statistics of casualties. The details, like those in Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam story “The Things They Carried,” accumulate to give us the reality of the war; as in O’Brien’s story the relentless rhythm builds up to suggest the march, the inexorable trudge that is so much a part of the soldier’s existence. The details also bring the Vietnamese soldier close to us, his humane face free from demonization as the insidious VC or inhumanly fearless NVA:

Each backpack contains a uniform,
some dried fish sauce, and a small lump of steamed rice.
The camp’s wood stoves flame on the stone bank of a creek,
above which hang tall cans of sour soup
made from Giang leaves and shrimp sauce.
What we have,
we share,
share on the ground
completely.
To enemies, we spend all we have in battle.
To friends, we give until all we have is gone.

If you see that our skins are black from the sun,
our misshapen bodies seem older than they are,
and you can count the calluses on our hands
along with the war medals-still, nothing quite describes us.

(“A Soldier Speaks of His Generation”)

The poem commemorates the camaraderie, the sense of communal effort but it steers clear of patriotic drumbeating. It pays tribute to the individual soldier, confronts individual fears and privations. There is a moment reminiscent of Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”:

Unexpectedly, I meet my close friend again.
We both lie down on a My Long trail,
on an army coat under the dark sky,
where just this evening a B-52 harrowed the earth three times,
where for several years the bomb craters are uncountable,
where I suddenly speak a simple dream:
“When peace truly comes,
I will go to trail number four, spread out a coat and lie down
                completely satisfied.”
My friend gazes
at a star rising from a water-filled crater.
His eyes look so strange; I see
they contain both the star and the crater . . .

This a touching moment, a tender reprieve in the horrors of war, when the self moves beyond it own sufferings to share the pain and hope of the Other. In extremis, the self does not withdraw into its own privations but reaches out to the Other and this is a fragile but affirmative note in Thanh Thao’s war poem. There is also a further movement in time that locates the individual suffering in a broader context:

That evening rockets attacked,
Bending down the Binh Bat trees.
Sunset covers both banks like blood.
The canal is white from the flow of toxic gases.
Suddenly I see my face on the water’s surface,
among those poisonous mists,
on which floats the Binh Bat fruit,
on which floats our breaking country,
and I see
also floating the faces of many people,
some of them friends and some I have never seen.
They are so very young
as they flicker along on the stream
into a faraway meadow
                    on an endless evening.

They’re the people who fought here first, 
twenty years ago as one generation,
and also the ones who will come later,
twenty years from today.

That evening
on the small canal
artillery attacks and flowing water.
How clearly you can see
                the faces of
our generation

The speaker recognizes himself in those who had fought in the earlier war, as well as those who will inherit the legacy of this war. “A Soldier Speaks of His Generation” is not an anti-war poem, but a powerful war poem that effectively conveys what Wilfred Owen calls the “pity of war.” It is rooted in private experience but opens out to touch and embrace the others.

Thanh Thao’s work is driven by a dark imperative, an urgent need to remind, lest we forget. These are poems of intense, sometimes excruciating, disquieting beauty. The project of memory, of redeeming the past becomes especially urgent in new Vietnam, where capitalist developments are rapidly demolishing the world and beliefs that veterans like Thanh Thao fought for. His is a poetry of witness, of bearing witness to the sufferings of those who have no voice to express their sufferings. It is also a poetry of survival, a poetry that can recover a sense of beauty in the most barbaric and nightmarish experiences. Thanh Thao is a necessary poet for Vietnam and for our time.

 

 

 

Marcelle Freiman

Marcelle Freiman is a Sydney poet who migrated from South Africa to Australia via England in1981. She lectures in creative writing and post-colonial and diaspora literatures at Macquarie University. Her poetry has appeared in a range of literary journals and anthologies. Her first book Monkey’s Wedding (1995) was Highly Commended for the Marjorie Barnard prize.

 

Yellow

The journalist Nat Gould gazes into a doorway of a Sydney Opium Den 1896.

My pipe is honey, Englishman,
to you I am indolent, yellow
on a low bed in my house of pleasure,
head on a silk cushion, hip rounded.
I see you clearly through the smoke
sweet odour of my O P’Ien,
my slender pipe of bamboo like a flute.
Your slack mouth hangs with lust.
Is it my cheongsam body you desire
or the pagodas, ice and crocodiles,
the Herb of Joy brings,
the fine pitch of taste, the way
my smooth skin lives?   

You at the door, half in half out,
– I am not a woman
but opium and sex. You would steal it
as your country did at Nanking,
pious in your avarice.
My life is nothing to you –
I am dragon-woman
exotic to you as baboons and monkeys.

This is no den, it is your own
dark cell. Your necktie
is choking you. I am bright as fire,
my hands are small.
Yes, drink from your hip-flask, Mister,
shake my gaze from your face
if you can.  

Nat Gould, ‘Eaters of Raw Meat’ (1896), The Birth of Sydney, Ed. Tim Flannery, Melbourne, Text, 1999.

 

Clown

A smile, crazy with shame,
little lost diamond-eyes,
the clown mask pushed
its face against the glass
days of empty rooms
when we played a mad tune  
flippy with pigtails and mama’s red lipstick
stolen for sheer revenge –

turned itself tight, yes,
little monster found its power
but got trapped in the smile
like a puppet, got locked
in the cold room,
wild at the boar-shaped world –

and elsewhere it knew was sun,
like the ball left in the corner,
yellow as light of windows.

 

Road

I like streets that go down – Grace Cossington-Smith 1971

It’s a road that ribbons down a hill
and up –  a velocity, a force
more than a road –  

the sky is wide and bright
and the speed of your eye
grabs the horizon –

wanting elsewhere, beyond –  
fast as telegraphed voices in the wire,
fast as the line

of the eucalypt that bends its curve
on the surface of your eye
upwards from the purple gully.

How it fights with the walker, this road,
with the slow horse cart,
its line tense

with trees humming green,
edgy with the speed of sound,
the speed of your eye on the road.

 

Peter Boyle reviews Yuxtas, by Mario Licón Cabrera

 

Yuxtas (Back and Forth)by Mario Licón Cabrera

 

Launch Speech by PETER BOYLE

7 December Sydney 2007

Cervantes Publishing

ISBN 9780949274205

email:info@cervantespublishing.com

 

Peter Boyle lives in Sydney. His most recent books are 

Museum of Space (UQP) and Reading Borges (Picador)

 

 

 

 

I want to start by thanking Mario Licón for inviting me to speak at the launch of his new book Yuxtas. Ten years ago I first had the privilege of meeting Mario. He was living then in Little Comber Street in Paddington with Jennifer Green, Jenny who is in many of these poems. Not long after meeting Mario I was there at the funeral for Jenny, one of the many deaths that mark this book.

Meeting Mario meant being taken into a new world, the world of his passionate intensity for poetry. I had already read Lorca, Vallejo, Paz but Mario knew their work inwardly, with an intensity and depth possible for someone who had grown up inside Hispanic culture and inside the beautiful Spanish language. Mario’s readings of those poets, particularly Vallejo, captured their seriousness, their depth and resonance. As I‘ll want to show later, the rich tradition of Lorca, Vallejo and Paz, of Hispanic poetry in general, is a strong presence in the present collection, Yuxtas. Briefly speaking, it is a tradition that sees poetry as above all a place of truth. In poetry “no hay mentiras,” “there are no lies”. “En esa mar, no se miente” – on this sea, there is no lying. Poetry is marked above all by simplicity, by directness, by standing in a place of truth, rather than by metaphors or embellishment. It locates the value of poetry within the tone, the simplicity, the purity, the immense openness with which we start, rather than the verbal dressing up of what we have to say.

Coming now to the book itself, I would like to talk about it in two parts. Reading the manuscript for the first time over the last few days, I saw it as falling into two parts. The first part contains many poems I was already familiar with − either from reading earlier drafts of them or because of their similarity to other poems of Mario’s I had read before. They are poems of places and landscapes, of moving between landscapes but also of moving between languages. In them Mario gives us the blessing of letting us see our world enlarged, enriched as two worlds are put together and the familiar realities of Australia are seen through a double language. The second half of the book is something else again. It was a new discovery for me, a real revelation. There you get these wonderful poems, poem after poem, intense confronting poems of death.

One of the many benefits of living in a multicultural country is that you have the possibility of seeing the familiar world around you in so many ways, seeing it as perceived through different worlds and different languages. So the first half of Mario’s book is largely arranged by pairings of places and landscapes. The Domain is set against Chichen Itza; Centennial Park against Chapultepec Park; Hill End is placed beside Hermosilla City. The technique enlarges our world, shifts our perceptions so we can see differently.

It is not only landscapes Yuxtas travels between but also languages. To give you an idea of how Mario glides between languages and uses the special richness of both Spanish and English, to transform the most everyday item or experience into something glowing with beauty and strangeness, I want to read a short poem from near the beginning of the book, “Un patio vecino/ A Backyard Nearby”. I’ll read it in Spanish first:
 

Como un pájaro herido una sombrilla
roja y rota flapea rodeada

por macetas quebradas y plantas muertas
todas tiesas y desnudas bajo la brillante luz seca.

Algunas sillas volteadas rodean una mesa
cubiertas con raídas bolsas de plástico negro.
En el tenderdero un gancho solitario (now the English words}
clings y clangs contra un brazo de metal.
 

A Backyard Nearby

A broken red umbrella flaps,
like a wounded bird,
surrounded by cracked pots and dead plants,
stiff and bare under the dry-bright light.
{what a beautiful evocation of the Australian light, the typical
light of a summer “the dry bright light”}
Around a table, upside-down chairs,
covered with ragged black plastic bags.
On the clothes-hoist a lonely cloth hanger
clangs and clings against a metal limb {contra un brazo de
metal).a metal arm.

I want to turn now to the wonderful moving elegies and poems of death that make up the last part of this book. Among the powerful poems in the second half of the book three that stand out for me are “Osario,” an elegy for the death of his father, “Volker Shüler Will’s Funerals” and “La Muerte Agradecida,” both about the death of his mother. These are tough powerful poems. It is not easy to write about the death of one’s father or mother or wife. Anyone who is a writer or a poet knows that. Such hard things in life often flatten us completely, reduce us to silence. The tradition that sustains Mario here is one of simplicity, of honest directness, a tone of simple truthfulness. There are poems earlier in the book which show how this simplicity can work so strongly. An important element in this book is the presence of Vallejo with his vision of poetry as absolute truth, of speaking from a place where only the essential is left to be said. This can be seen in a very short poem from earlier in the book, “I hear/I read”:

I hear
rosellas
crying aloud.
I imagine
their bright
colours amid
the branches
shining under
the morning
sun.

I read
about a
young Mexican
bricklayer
who jumped
from the 6th floor.
 
Too poor
to help
his mother
and brothers.

Mario Licón identifies poetry as the force that makes it possible to stand in the presence of these fierce experiences of pain and loss and to continue. Poetry becomes a gift that enables us to be open to what surrounds us, open to those presences of our own dead and of the world. To read just a few lines from the poem “Tonight”:

Tonight I want to give thanks . . .
To poetry for giving me a pair of hands
with which I can greet the wind and touch
the faces of my beloved dead ones.

How is it possible to speak from within this space? By cultivating a simplicity, an honesty, a humility before the world. This is very much the legacy of the great Peruvian poet César Vallejo, a legacy there within the poetry of Mario Licón.

I will leave it to you to read for yourselves the long poems “Osario,” the wonderful moving prose poem “Volker Shüler-Will’s Funerals.” “La Muertre Agradecida,” the elegy for Jenny, for his brother. One can only imagine how difficult it must be to write of so many beloved dead ones, to be so deeply surrounded by the dead. Mario has enriched us all through these poems. I will finish by reading one of the shorter poems about death, a very beautiful poem with a delightful presence of life in it, “Cancion/Song.” I’ll read it mixing the Spanish and the English:

And how did Inez die?
Longing for love
longing for love
on her bed
on her bed.

And how did David die?
Murdered in prison
murdered in prison
by injustice
by injustice.

And how did Esperanza die?
Y como murió Esperanza?
Regando aquella flor
regando aquella flor
que tanto quería
que tanto quería
Watering that flower
watering that flower
that she loved the most

Y como murío Ilusión?
And how did Ilusion die?
Así como llegó
así como llegó
just as she arrived
just as she arrived
soñando
volando
dreaming
flying.

 

 

Philip Hammial

Philip Hammial has had twenty collections of poetry published, two of which were shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize – Bread in 2001 and In the Year of Our Lord Slaughter’s Children in 2004. He is also a sculptor (33 solo exhibitions) and the director of The Australian Collection of Outsider Art.

                                                                                                                                                                                                 Photograph 2006: Philip with his daughter Genevieve

 

Help

With a little help from a reader
we could crawl up onto the back
of a bicycle & blow. A horn? If
you like. Or a kiss? Maybe, but first
a question –  what
is your aim? To kill
swimming? For a closure to swimming
a kiss won’t do. Better
a horn, its blue. With
a little help from a reader we could wear
the same face for both, for the grown men
asleep in a bucket, for the children snoring
in a thimble & not care which belt
we’ve been trained up to. With
a little help from a reader we could blend
the desire for hearing with the desire
for speaking & come out on top
with meat to burn, your choice
of kangaroo or stork. With
a little help from a reader we could home rule
the market women AND their troublemaking
husbands, them to houses confined until
some progress in basting & roasting. With
a little help from a reader we could insist
that our at-a-crossroads-style becomes us
& everyone after us, even the marchers
as to heaven. With
a little help from a reader we could be joined
by an Alice whose relationship to history
however tenuous is precisely the joinery
that our journey requires. With
a little help from a reader we could swallow
the first & the second & even the third word
& even, if some truth was thereby accomplished,
the whole of the poem.

 

Socks

So you really think we’ve established
a case for bliss? Stand up in court
for how long? –  two minutes
if we’re lucky. Which reminds me: some joker

has taken all of the socks from my sock drawer
& filled it with forks with bent tines, all the better
to eat what with? Our last supper for two
was a disaster. Served by nuns

in a forest clearing, we were constantly distracted
by a klatch of monks who insisted that happy slaps
(as per those on London buses) could induce
instant liberation. A kind of pudding? Sue

those slap-happy bastards. For what? Their
bowls? Their beads? Count to ten
while I put this flesh to one side, for
later. Right now there’s work to do. We need

to set up for the next scene – a carriage
at rush hour, Aunt Jane getting on at Redfern
for her morning performance, will squat & pee
as we roll into Central. Watch out

for your shoes. Socks
still missing. Stand up in court
in piss-splashed shoes, no socks, our case
for bliss? Two minutes if we’re lucky.

 

A Ball

You saw it on NAGS, the scratch channel, how friends
in black can breed with friends in blue & at the end of nine
have a worthwhile product, a ball, say, that you can bounce
wherever you like. Why not

in a casbah? It’s speech as though by magic
translated into Arabic, you’ll break the spell
of Delmonico (the lion tamer ripped apart
by his seven lionesses). These urchins

will love you; they’ll let you live to tell the tale:
how camels, having negotiated the perils of the Pont
Neuf & the cobblestones of Rue Dauphine,

eventually arrived in Oran with three rimes
& a metaphor into which anything, even a recipe
for a homemade bomb, could be stuffed.

 

The Memory of the Tongue: Sujata Bhatt’s Diasporic Verse, by Paul Sharrad

by Associate Professor Paul Sharrad
University Of Wollongong

Paul Sharrad is Associate Professor in English Literatures at the University of Wollongong where he teaches postcolonial writing and theory. He has published on people such as Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, Christopher Koch, Anita Desai, Wilson Harris,Raja Rao and Albert Wendt. His book on Indian fiction in English and literary history will be appearing in 2008.

 

 

Sujata Bhatt was born in Ahmedabad, raised in Poona and New Orleans, university educated in Baltimore and Iowa, spent time writing in British Columbia, married and settled in Bremen, Germany and publishes her poetry in England. She has travelled as well to Poland, Israel, Latvia, Ireland and won prizes in Holland and Italy. All this moving across cultures makes her a more than fit subject for analysis within the contemporary discussions of globalisation and diasporic identity. Bhatt’s first collection, Brunizem, came out in 1988. Monkey Shadows appeared in 1991, The Stinking Rose (a study in the many meanings of garlic across history and geography) in 1995 and a selected poems, Point No Point in 1997. Augatora (2000) continues the interest in languages, and the latest collection, A Colour for Solitude (2002) is a sequence of “readings” of paintings and imagined conversations between the German painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker and her sculptor friend, Clara Westhoff, both of them linked to the poet Rilke. Her attempt to give voice to two women silenced in history by the more famous male artist, reflects a quiet but consistent interest in what might loosely be called “feminist” issues. Primarily, Bhatt is a lyricist with leanings towards the surreal (dreams appear repeatedly in her work), but she also has a strong sense at times of history and the postcolonial politics of culture. Addressing in turn the reader and the Hindu goddess of Siva’s Himalayas, she writes:
 
Do you know what it feels like
to pick green tea-leaves that grow 
on the other side of the path from the guava trees – Parvati 
why did you let Twinings take everything?
 
Parvati 
I must confess 
I like Twinings the best.

….
Heathen.
Pagan.Hindu. 
What does it mean, what is a pagan? 
Someone who worships fire? 
Someone who asks Parvati to account for 
the Industrial Revolution. (“Parvati” Brunizem 43)

  
Similar themes are explored in the sequence “History is a Broken Narrative” (Augatora 40). As part of this general historical interest, but also as a result of her own diasporic movements, Bhatt has a continuing interest in etymology and problems of shifting across languages and scripts. The title of her first collection, Brunizem, takes the word for a soil type that runs across the northern hemisphere, linking many of her countries of residence. Her title, Augatora is an old High German word for ‘window’ and the history and different associations of terms for the same object are traced:
 
Today, unravelling the word
Augatora – and thinking of the loss
of that word – imagining the days
of a thousand years ago when these languages collided
bitterly, bloodily –  
Old English, Old Norse, Latin,
            Old German – I turn
to your Danish grammar book – (“Augatora” 17-18)
 
Here languages are figured as a house, with the window being simultaneously a hole opening to the world and a barrier protecting one from the outside. At the end, children playing indoors urge each other to “Look outside” (Augatora 16-17). “Language” (Augatora 55) is a meditation on translation and the pleasure of closer contact with the text and writer through access to the original, while “A Detail from the Chandogya Upanishad” (Augatora 97) speaks of the ability of Sanskrit to encapsulate several differing meanings – the redness of sun, lotus and monkey’s bottom –  within one line or sentence, suggesting that true wisdom and worship will hold all three disparities in unison in the mind. This is not to suggest that Bhatt favours a simple ideal of harmony or uniformity based in fixed rules or phenomena. At times, she does seem to suggest some essential fit between language and experience that anchors identity: a memory of a child selling water by the railway line can only occur in Gujarati (“Search for my Tongue” Brunizem 65); a moment from childhood in Poona is recalled in Marathi (Augatora 19).
 
But equally, many poems point to meaning consisting in cadence (Augatora 106) or silence or the gap between words, “the time between the shadows,/in the sounds between/ the crows fighting in the guava trees” (Augatora 103). In her most famous piece, there is a physical contest enacted in the poet’s body as well as a textual competition between print types that admits of no easy resolution:
 
I can’t hold onto my tongue.
It’s slippery like the lizard’s tail
I try to grasp
But the lizard darts away.
…….
II
You ask me what I mean
by saying I have lost my tongue.
I ask you, what would you do
if you had two tongues in your mouth.
and lost the first one, the mother tongue,
and could not really know the other,
the foreign tongue.
You could not use them both together
even if you thought that way.
And if you lived in a place you had to
speak a foreign tongue,
your mother tongue would rot,
rot and die in your mouth
until you had to spit it out (“Search for my Tongue” Brunizem 63-66)
 
But the poet still dreams in Gujarati and knows that “sun” does not signify the same things as aakash because of personal memories and different climatic zones where the words are most used.
 
Bhatt has been accused of milking clichés of political correctness or programmatic discussions of multiculturalism by at least one Indian critic seemingly more interested in national identity (Mehrotra), but from the perspective of global movements of peoples her work constitutes an interesting take on how to find one’s place in the world. It is clear that Bhatt is interested in difference, but most often this finds expression not in public polemic, but rather in personal, solitary experience, registered at a fundamentally physical level. Bhatt’s verse is full of reference to body parts and the feelings that go with them. A lot of eating goes on: “a man like Orpheus/ scrapes artichoke leaves/ very slowly/ between his teeth,” dancing is felt as pain in stretched thighs (“The Multicultural Poem” Augatora 102-3) and a polio victim is always struggling with her withered leg (“A Swimmer in New England Speaks” Augatora 26); “the wired energy” of squirrels distracts the poet and is recorded as a frenzy of lust and rage that scrapes everything down to bones (“Squirrels” Augatora 12-13); the scripts of different languages are felt “clotting together in my mind,/raw, itchy – the way skin begins to heal” (“History is a Broken narrative” Augatora 41). Jane speaks of her language and body being changed by her relationship with Tarzan:
 
At first
I thought I should teach you
English – return to you
what you have lost.
But you have changed the sounds
I listen for,
…………….
Already you have changed my eyelids,
my ears, the nape of my neck –  
The way I lift my head to listen. (Augatora 57)
 

Such a deep-level registering of cultural and linguistic shifts as corporeal transformation indicates not just a personalised, atomistic sense of travelling experience. There is also an appeal here to fundamental levels of apprehending the world that can allow communication across differences. Bhatt seems to be interested in the mystery of how some things affect us subconsciously and looks to a place at the edge of or beyond language that is common to us all (as in “The Undertow” Brunizem 89.) There is a kind of residual Romanticism in this, perhaps, but Bhatt’s word is determinedly a-romantic, refusing the sublime in a set of surface images and flat documentary. The personal lyric remains, however, open to the possibility of community, and the basic vehicle for this is expression of corporeal, affective experience.

We can understand affect in this context as a pre-cognitive, pre-cultural registering of sensory impressions that is simultaneously an interface with cultural and linguistic systems codifying feeling into emotions and shaping behaviour (Tomkins, Massumi). Affective experience is both radically subjective and a way of connecting to others despite difference. Memory is shaped by time, place and culture, so that we will not all respond to Bhatt’s recall via thoughts in Marathi of Poona’s sounds and heat and encountering snakes in the house, but the affective response to thirst and a child’s seeking a drink at night can be a point of contact with any reader (“A Memory from Marathi” Augatora 19). If the diasporic person becomes separated from her mother tongue, she may also be disconnected from memory and from continuity of identity.

Sneja Gunew sees “Food and Language as Corporeal Home for the Unhoused Diasporic Body”, citing Bhatt’s fusion of language and tongue. Gunew asserts that, “language shapes us and that language is fundamentally grounded in the body itself” (94). Writing in the voice of German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker, about to break free of her marriage to paint in Paris, Bhatt echoes this:

The mouth is preparing itself
To speak French again
 
See how my lips have changed
Their shape: fuller, softer –  
                Even my words
Are more resilient.  (“Self-Portrait with a Necklace of White Beads” A Colour for Solitude 51)
 
We have seen how in the earlier “Search for my Tongue” she records the corporeal struggle of acquiring a second or third language, rendering psychic torment as physical pain.
 
If identity rests in affect and the body, Bhatt does not, however, essentialise the migrant body as a solid site of identity grounded in authentic personal experience, particular memory and specific cultural practice. Diaspora opens up a doubling of meanings. To some extent, the food/language/identity relationship is characterised by traditional ethnically marked cuisine – Gazpacho for Spain (Augatora 23); Wurst for Germany (SR 83); turmeric for India (Augatora/ Point No Point 133). Bhatt notes how Indian women in the US try to retain identity in continuing to produce an authentic chutney (“Chutney” The Stinking Rose 29). However, the travelling poet does not concern herself with such fixity. Something as simple as garlic undergoes linguistic and cultural transformation in The Stinking Rose, a global ethnography of different words and meanings and practices that make of a universal singularity a global plurality. Bhatt also sees writing as a continuous process of exploration (validated by Swami Anand’s advice to the young poet in India: “Swami Anand” Brunizem 18) and memory and the body as a series of rooms that undergo regular refits:
 
But I am the one
who always goes away.
…..
Maybe the joy lies
in always being able to leave –
 
But I never left home.
I carried it away
with me – here in my darkness
In myself….

We weren’t allowed
            to take much
but I managed to hide
my home behind my heart.

……
with my home intact
            but always changing
so the windows don’t match
the doors anymore – the colours
clash in the garden –
And the ocean lives in the bedroom.
 
I am the one,
who always goes
away with my home
which can only stay inside
in my blood –  my home which does not fit
with any geography
….. (“The one who goes away” The Stinking Rose 3-4, Point No Point 105-6)
 
To quote Gunew again, “The touch of language may certainly be described as a kind of skin” (100), and language and body both operate as “skins” between the poet and her world/s. Like the windows of “Augatora,” skins are both protective and permeable membranes (Augatora 16). Physical sensations of love-making can send the lover into a memory of smell and colour to suggest a mood that in turn influences behaviour in the present of the poem’s situation (“Sherdi” Brunizem 17; “Lizards” Brunizem 29. The colours and textures in the “skin” of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s paintings supply the contact that allows intuitions of sounds and emotions in the figures and the artist’s life (A Colour for Solitude 12). The multi-lingual Indian and diasporic Western poet is hyper-conscious of the vagaries of language and difficulties of translation. One word, like shantih can alter its meaning according to the context of its utterance: a command to children to “be quiet” or a religiose invocation of peace, and the prayer for peace will have different resonance in a war-torn town where a child has lost a limb (“Shantih” The Stinking Rose 78). One language can have different words (jal, pani) with different associations for the same phenomenon in its several aspects (“Water” The Stinking Rose 111). Subtle shifts of meaning or mood are consistently represented via sensory images.
 
Narayana Chandra praises Bhatt’s “sharply visual and tactile imagery” (1994). It is this that gives her work its immediacy for the reader, but while affective, body-located discourse has its essentialising, universalising aspect, it is also an unstable mode of experience and expression. Affective experience may be carried over from one mental compartment to another via the memory of the body. Sounds carry with them memories of smells (“A Gujarati Patient Speaks” [Monkey Shadows] Point No Point 143); smells convey the tastes of food and situations surrounding its preparation and consumption (“Wanting Agni” Brunizem 79-81). Synaesthesia is claimed as a characteristic of affect (Massumi) and is very much a part of Bhatt’s style and thematics.
 
Her objectivity of narrating voice and material manifestation of feeling relates to her imagist forebears and can lend an air of fixity and banality to a poem when it fails to rise beyond private significance or find some appropriate formal closure. (Chandra and Mehrotra both fault her for this, respectively charging her with selecting “batches of the irrelevant” or formulaic repetitions of postcolonial topics.) So much of Bhatt’s work is stripped of technical and structural decoration that its content seems to determine a poem’s impact. However, this prosaic lack of artifice must be set against the shifting qualities of synaesthetic reference and is itself something of a textual strategy related to the persona of a constant traveller, dis-placed from her own past and from the present she inhabits with others.
 
In “Skinnydipping in History” (The Stinking Rose 25) Bhatt rings the changes on a poem by John Ashbery to suggest that the surface (skin) is in fact the crucial site of meaning, the “visible core.” As such, it is a space of emergence and constant alteration, not the basis of some kind of identity politics, although in her memories of New Orleans and other poems such as her meditation on the swastika – as in “Deviben Pathak” (Monkey Shadows 46-7) – Bhatt shows she is perfectly aware of the politics of race. The skin is a place of constant alteration, of things surfacing and things being absorbed. Many poems enact a voyage into memory, dream, another person’s world, followed by some return to the surface of the recording persona or the writing of the poem itself, usually with some hint of transformation of that surface. Cecile Sandten notes how in Bhatt there is an awareness of “interhistorical process” that disrupts stable identities and that “the mythic is generated from within the poet and the poem” (1998, 57-8). In “Self-Portrait as Aubade”, for example, the first poem of A Colour for Solitude, the poet confronts the painter’s portrait of herself “open to the bone” before a mirror. The painter’s “quest” for self-knowledge is also the quest for understanding between poet and subject, mediated by surfaces that begin to bleed into each other, leading to identification of painted image with artist with examining poet and a sense of the potential in this forerunner of German modernism:
 
 
Your green broken with black branches
enters the mirror –  your green
invites the aubade –  gives fragrance to your waiting –
 
… however dark this green,
still, there is the fragrance
of a cold spring morning.

The gaze in the mirror is steady
and the part in your hair is so straight –

the green surrounds your moonstone skin –
            your memories of blanched almonds –

untouched and aching
                    to be touched

But you are the aubade
                 and do not know it – (A Colour for Solitude 17-18)

The body is in movement, sense impressions come and go, movement itself becomes a defining feature. Language is realised in change and that change is associated with picking up languages wherever you are (“History is a Broken Narrative” Augatora 40). A recurrent motif in all her books is metamorphosis (a ceiling fan “dreams/ of becoming a spider lily” in response to someone’s intrusion into a room, a woman turns into a mermaid in “At the Marketplace”, “Metamorphoses II: A Dream”, Brunizem 87, 91, 92-3), though it is set against the tendency to seek a dry witticism or ironic question that will sum up things. (Emily Dickinson has been identified by Mehrotra as the source of her dashes, and the poet does get one mention from Bhatt in “A Poem Consisting Entirely of Introductions” [Augatora 93], so perhaps there is a touch of écriture feminine in the fluidity of her lines and the sardonic notes here and there.) Art and the self appear not as a stable core or a fixed end product but as an affective “intensity” with which data are grasped (epigraph to A Colour for Solitude). One means of conveying such an intensity of perception is through synaesthetic imagery. This is part of the technique of the symbolist aspect of early modernism and consistent with the transformations effected in surrealism, both expressive modes informing Bhatt’s work. (She alludes to Yeats, Lorca, Gertrude Stein, and Rilke, for example). Poems speak of painting the sound of bells (“A Red Rose in November” A Colour for Solitude 48), the smell of light (“For Paula Modersohn-Becker” Brunizem 76), sound, colour and smell combine to be felt in the soles of the feet (“Living with Trains” Brunizem 55), sound suggests colour (“Poem for a Reader who was Born Blind” Augatora 98). But it is also more than mere symbolism.
 
Symbolism attempted to capture the elusive quality of intangible mood via synaesthesia, and there is something of this in Bhatt’s poetry. She offers a poem to Plato at one point (Brunizem 32) and there is often a Platonic sense of what Sandten describes as “a form beyond forms of which all phenomena are allegories” (Sandten 1998, 51). However, Bhatt’s verse extends beyond an aesthetic program into consideration of differences in modes of communication and the difficulties of capturing truth in words (Augatora 50). In “Poem for a reader who was born blind” Bhatt learns that there are other ways of apprehending colour, and intuits ” a vast blueness”, horses, a fox’s movements, straining throat muscles and snow from listening to a Mongolian shepherd’s song (Augatora 98).
 
Synaesthesia, then, becomes a device to suggest not organic harmonies but differences and shifting multiplicity. As Gunew points out, synaesthesia “is a way of undoing the naturalized meanings and functions associated with both food and language.” (99), and by extension, of the ethnically marked body too. So it is possible that this open-ended sense of things celebrated in “The multicultural poem” and enacted in synaesthetic images, the dashes at the end of lines, and the unanswered questions of many poems is the direct result of an awareness in the diasporic subject of the unfixity of even something like the body, despite and because of the many fixings that nations and cultures try to impose on it. Home becomes a site of continual change and self is defined by restless travels in dream and across time and space (“The Circle” Augatora 99). As “The Multicultural Poem” says: “It has to do/ with movement” (Augatora 100).
 
Sara Ahmed talks about how different groups of people are labelled as ’emotional’: within narratives of the nation as strong and rational and patriarchal, women and migrants are seen as weak, emotional, feminine, less developed, undermining of the social fabric (3). What stands out in any reading of Bhatt’s work, as noted already, is its consistently dispassionate voice. Despite her recourse to affective language, the overall impression from Bhatt’s work is of a distanced affect-less observer adopting what Sundeep Sen calls “a quietude of stance”.
 
Critics working with notions of originary national identity might find evidence that despite the losses of diasporic exile, Bhatt has preserved her South Asian cultural origins and writes meditative verse that works towards the thought-free mind: “Montauk Garden with Stones and Water”, “Equilibrium” (Augatora 95, 96). She does make reference, it is true, to the Ramayana, the Bhagavad Gita, the Buddha and the Upanishads, but she also shows how tradition of the religious mythic kind is not adequate to sustain one against the ravages of colonial economics or anti-female violence, or globalising warfare. The poet also has recourse to Western existentialism, citing Kierkegaard (“Baltimore” Brunizem 57) and Samuel Beckett (epigraph to The Stinking Rose). Moreover, she locates her persona in the role of perpetual traveller, the one who goes away, who stands ironically commenting on the good luck rituals of her mother culture as she leaves India’s shores. As “the one who goes away” she is displaced, detached (not pushed away, not actively rejecting home, just one involved in a defining but neutral process of continual change). She becomes the automatic “tape-recorder” dictated to by the chant of “the pure voice” (“Water” The Stinking Rose 111). Is this a result of geographical and linguistic uprooting and nomadism? Or is it (or is it also) a resistance, following Ahmed’s theory, to being positioned as a ‘shrill’ postcolonial diasporic racial minority female?
 
And yet, Bhatt’s poetry is essentially a lyric oeuvre. Her encounters with other objects and bodies locate her but seem to confirm her persona as a private being, an empty presence whose feelings emerge from the intensification of a mood in interaction with an object or situation and in the act of giving voice to that encounter from a private, reflective position. An art of deflection and indirectness: encounter leads to movement away into dream or memory or dispassionate commentary, followed by reflection on this, attachment to an echoing image that suggests a mood, a stance in relation to something – a hesitant engagement that is in the moment of the poem/of the encounter and will not admit to more significance than that. How emotions operate is of relevance to considering diasporic writing, since the idea of movement is inherent in the meaning of the word ’emotion’:
        
What moves us, what makes us feel is also that which holds us in place, or gives us a dwelling place. Hence movement does not cut the body off from the ‘where’ of its inhabitance, but connects bodies to other bodies: attachment takes place through movement, through being moved by the proximity of others. (Ahmed 11)
        
Ahmed inspects how, once affect becomes externalised, emotions circulate and ‘stick’ to objects; how objects are produced through the contact between somatic sensation, experience, bodily response, social codes. In the case of Bhatt’s poetry, if we accept that there is a refusal of the affect-laden object self of diasporic/migrant, then two things seem to follow: one, that the subject self is an observing presence (“I am the one who watches” (Augatora 18), distanced and dispassionate, that holds affect very much to heart – locates feelings “behind the heart” as a strictly personal thing; two, that affective encounters with others are mediated by objects onto which emotions are ‘stuck’.
 
Bhatt registers affect through mediated screens, sticking emotions to objects: food (garlic), art (paintings by Emily Carr, Edvard Munch, Picasso, Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo and Modesohn-Becker); photographs (Brunizem 45); love-making (bodily surfaces); news reports (Afghanistan, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984). One might simply say that this is the detached uprooted uncommitted nature of the cosmopolitan globetrotter. But again, Ahmed’s discussion of the ethics of responding / the ethical demand to respond to what we cannot experience ourselves (31) raises the possibility of a more complex reading of Bhatt’s position. In this light, we can see in her writing a quiet engagement that refuses to possess the other’s suffering as sentimentality or egocentric assimilation/universalism.
 
“Go to Ahmedabad” at once describes the heat, tropical disease and hunger of a ‘Third World’ setting and refuses to tell the reader about it. The poem shows the humanity and community of local life surviving despite adversity, and uses the personal memory and experience of the now unhoused poet to challenge the Anglophone reader (privileged either by class or foreignness) to go there and experience the suffering directly (Brunizem 100-2). A similarly ironic play of reticence and representation is found in “Frauenjournal” (The Stinking Rose 113-14). Here the poet records watching a graphic documentary on female circumcision and notes the twin dangers of averting one’s gaze and voyeurism. In a working example of postcolonial theory crossing with feminism, she wonders how she can speak for a woman who is proud of having killed her daughter in the process of enacting a different cultural tradition, and what one can do by recording the fact in words:
 
Is this being judgmental?
Or is this how one bears witness
                      With words? (The Stinking Rose 113)
 
Such a resistance to easy reprocessing of the pain of others comes from an awareness of her own distance from those around her and the impossibility of an harmonious ‘third space’ of translation/organic synthesis. In “The Stare”, for example ([Monkey Shadows] Point No Point62), a young monkey and a small child make eye-contact with each other, but their mutual curiosity does not permit any shared understanding. In “Search for my Tongue”, the three-level rendering of language estranges things for both English and Gujarati speakers, and for bilingual speakers – who do not need the Romanised transliteration, which is no help to the Anglophone reader either. The text remains a zone of unresolved struggle/ dissonance that nonetheless points to the necessary ongoing process of translation. Cecile Sandten has noted Bhatt’s “intense awareness of antagonistic forces: (2000, 115); and in this rejection of organic unity the muse itself becomes problematic:
 

I used to think there was
only one voice.
I used to wait patiently for that one voice to return
to begin its dictation.

I was wrong

I can never finish counting them now. (“The Voices” The Stinking Rose 103)

 
But this pluralising of voices does not absolve the writer of responsibility to “bear witness” and she does, quietly, non-committally but tellingly in relation to girl abortions in India (“Voice of the Unwanted Girl” Augatora 38), to the long history of deaths at sea in the Baltic (‘The Hole in the Wind” Augatora 63-74), to the almost casual domestic and public violence of North America (“Walking Across Brooklyn Bridge, July 1990” [Monkey Shadows] Point No Point 91).
M.S. Pandey reads Bhatt’s work in the old mode of diaspora’s exile and loss, but I do not find the kind of nostalgia for lost origins in the memories of India that this approach suggests. Indeed, Cecile Sandten quotes the poet as herself rejecting definitions in terms of postcolonial resistance or diasporic suffering. She sees herself as “Indian in the world” (2000, 102). However, Pandey makes the useful observation that “While the loss is real, in terms of spatial and temporal distance from the motherland, the recovery can only be imaginary – or at best aesthetic.” (233). This picks up on the modernist impulse behind much of Bhatt’s work, but it also calls attention to her particular position in global diasporas. Bhatt is the child of a university professional, herself raised through the global network of university fellowships and writers’ conferences. In her early collections especially, we can sense the pressure and contrivance of the creative writing class. It is this world that she inhabits; it is words that provide her with a home or at least a role that can be transported from one place to another. In Sandten’s words, “Home is … the inner self of the lyrical persona.” (2000, 105); home is in the poem, in the writing, and the writing, as Swami Anand pointed out early in her development, is an endless process (Brunizem 18-19).
 
It is hard to make definitive pronouncements on a poet’s development from looking through her published books, since most poets keep aside material for further work and later publication, hence simple chronological sequences are blurred. Some of the work in the 2002 collection A Colour for Solitude, for example, dates back to 1979 and appeared in both Brunizem (1993) and The Stinking Rose (1995). Nonetheless, in terms of self-presentation through published collections, we can generalise to note a progressive shift from memories of India, family and childhood through dream-like displacements of erotic moments with a lover and later personal mentions of miscarriages and childbirth. Such autobiographical material begins to be taken over by poetic responses to art and verse by others, with occasions of historical reflection and social critique of either a feminist or postcolonial nature. Cecile Sandten has categorised Bhatt’s work as “organic poetry” along the lines of Denise Levertov and densely intertextual verse (Sandten 1998). In the end, engagement with other artwork and artists forms the whole of the latest book and spans Bhatt’s entire writing career. Bhatt comments in her introduction to The Colour of Solitude that her imagined relationship to Becker, Westhoff and Rilke via readings of their work may have been a way “for [her] mind to enter and try to understand a totally alien culture and country” (13). Where she is now at home in Bremen, she still presents herself as “the ultimate foreigner,” but as with much of her other work, she claims belonging in her role as artist, and performs her diasporic identity as a negotiator of gaps and dissonant edges across several languages. There is a hint always of some place beyond language where some ideal home or community may be found, and this is registered in her work via bodily-based affect and surrealist technique, but in this world Bhatt clearly finds her being as part of a literary and artistic community (and perhaps part of an artistic sisterhood as well) that seems to carry her across limitations of language and nation and time, and which provides a subtly changing “home behind the heart” and adequate identity for the unsettled traveller.
 
 
 
Bibliography:
 
Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
Sujata Bhatt, Brunizem, [Manchester: Carcanet: 1988]; New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1993.
— Monkey Shadows, Manchester: Carcanet: 1991.
— The Stinking Rose, Manchester: Carcanet: 1995.
     Point No Point, Manchester: Carcanet: 1997.
     Augatora, Manchester: Carcanet: 2000.
— A Colour for Solitude, Manchester: Carcanet: 2002.
Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect, Ithaca &London: Cornell, 2004.
Roger Bromley, “A Concluding Essay: Narratives for a New Belonging – Writing in the Borderlands” in John C. Hawley (ed) Cross-Addressing: Resistance Literature at Cultural Borders New York: SUNY Press, 1996: 275-299.
K. Narayana Chandra, review of Brunizem, World Literature Today, 68.4 (1994).
—— review of Monkey Shadows, World Literature Today, 69.1 (1995): 223.
Sneja Gunew, “’Mouthwork’: Food and Language as Corporeal Home for the Unhoused Diasporic Body in South Asian Women’s Writing”, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 40.2 (2005): 93-103.
Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, SC: Duke , 2002.
Arvind K. Mehrotra, “The Anxiety of Being Sujata”, The Hindu, March 18, 2001 (http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/2001/03/18/stories/1318017f.htm)
M.S. Pandey, “The Trishanku Morif in the Poetry of Sujata Bhatt and Uma Parameswaran”, in The Literature of the Indian Diaspora, Ed. A.L. McLeod, New Delhi: Sterling, 2000: 225-38.
Cecile Sandten, “India, America, and Germany: Interhistorical and intertextual process in the poetry of Sujata Bhatt” in W. Kloos (ed) Across the Lines (ASNEL Papers 3) Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998: 51-63.
—— “In Her Own Voice: Sujata Bhatt and the Aesthetic Articulation of the Diasporic Condition”, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 35.1 (2000): 99-120.
Sundeep Sen, “Recent Indian English Poetry”, World Literature Today, 74.4 (2000): 783.
Nigel Thrift, “ Intensities of Feeling: Towards a Spatial Politics of Affect,” Geografiska Annaler, 86 (B). 1 (2004): 57-78.
Sylvan S. Tomkins, Affect Imagery Consciousness 4 volumes, New York: Springer, 1963.

Rob Walker

rob walker’s first full collection micromacro (Seaview Press) was delivered in 2006 after a twenty year gestation period. He’s published online, onpage, onradio and onCD. His latest chapbook is phobiaphobia – poems of fear and anxiety (Picaro Press). He moved to Himeji, Japan in January 2008.

 

 

cello

we drift
into sleep. my hand
an explorer wandering
your familiar valleys and
mountains playing the
xylophone of your
back. you are a cello
my hand languid
draped on
your
waist
for
an
8
bar
rest

 

 

Danny in Detention

Dad   works   at   Hills   but   he
hasta  go to  the  physio.  for  his
arm.  whennie   was   a   kid   his bruvva   useta     twist    is   arma
round.  me   bruvva  &  me  fight
all  the  time  he’s  16 I’m 11 but
I  can  bash  im  up.  he’s psycho
he  calls  me  pissweak so I bash
im. dad belted me. I  adta  go  to
bed ungry. me  bruvva works  at
kfc. dozen  gimme  nuffin.  dad’s
got  is  own   playstation   in   the lounge.                             dozen
lettuce     uzit        tho

 

The koan before the satori
(a long haiku / short tanka)
 
One hand is clapping in a forest,
                                   unseen
 
The other crushed by a falling tree,
presumably
                                       also unseen

 

 

Koan: a Zen teaching riddle
Satori: the spiritual goal of Zen Buddhism, roughly translating as individual Enlightenment, or a flash of sudden awareness

 

Diane Fahey

Diane Fahey lives in the Victorian coastal town of Barwon Heads, the setting of her recent poetry collection, Sea Wall and River Light. Her seven other collections variously engage with Greek myths, fairytales, visual art, nature writing, and autobiographical themes. Diane has published and read her poems internationally, and her poetry has appeared in over 60 anthologies. She has received a number of poetry awards such as the Mattara Poetry Prize, the Wesley Michel Wright Poetry Prize, the John Shaw Neilson Poetry Prize, and was co-winner of the 2007 Judith Wright Poetry Prize, for Sea Wall and River Light. She has been awarded writer’s fellowships and grants from Arts SA and Arts Victoria (most recently, a grant for 2008 to write on birds), and from the Australia Council, from which she also received support for writer’s residencies in Venice, at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland, and at the University of Adelaide. Other residencies have been at Hawthornden International Writers’ Centre, Scotland, and at Varuna, The Writers’ House, in the Blue Mountains. Diane holds the degrees of B.A. and M.A. in Literature, and a PhD in Creative Writing for her study ‘Places and Spaces of the Writing Life’.
An interview with Diane Fahey can be found in Thylazine No. 9:
www.thylazine.org

The following dramatic monologues are selections from Fahey’s verse novel
The Mystery of Rosa Moreland, published by Clouds of Magellan, 2008. 
www.cloudsofmagellan.net (ISBN 978-0-9802983-3-8).

 

Dolores

The place where I began was a green dusk
with slanted spears igniting vines, toucans
with black-and-gold beaks, glasswing butterflies;
it was a borderless map over which
my flight scrolled an eccentric signature.
Mulch carpet, and chandeliers of leaves
hanging from hot blue – I played the distances
between them, my scarlet and yellow cries
filled the rainforest’s dripping voice-box.
I was kidnapped, taken to live inside
a closed collective mind – among porcelain
sylphs and swains, stuffed owls, aspidistras.
The eyes of peacock feathers gleamed by altars
of heaped rubies, and died with them: transposed,
like myself, to paraphernalia.
An exiled Amazon queen, I gazed through
gilt bars, the gift of speech my only joy.
I revolved sounds like seeds in my beak, gnawed at
phrases as if they were cuttlefish bones
to be scraped into chalky hollows.
Intoning words fraught with sardonic mirth,
an eerie dread, I breached the unspoken.
Thus I became a pirate of forbidden thoughts –
to be released in Rabelaisian spurts,
raucous chunks or mind-teasing fragments.
And there were days when no words would come,
when I repined – a third-rate music-hall star,
waiting in my wings. But not tonight!
Crowds part as I’m borne across this vast stage –
in a state of thrilled prescience, my cage-cloak
of royal blue drawn back as if a curtain.
Like a retired diva craving the smell
and hush and violence of the theatre,
I dream of new, astonishing flights
above limelit sawdust…
                                       How fitting then
that I’ve been chosen to launch this tale:
instructive, diverting, or wicked? –
you, dear reader, must judge.

 

Florence Ellesmere

Applause: the fluttering of a million wings!
At my feet, coral and ivory blooms unfurled
from gold hearts as waterfalls of velvet
spilt crimsonly down, surged upwards.
Yet there were from the first, days, whole weeks
of fatigue when the pleasure of it left me.
I practised patience, gave all from nothing –
showering those rapt faces with gifts
from beggarhood. My Ariel-spirit
served while dreaming its freedom…
                                                               In full flight,
my voice of gold, ebony and lava
filled that darkened space like a great ear;
unseen eyes met each smouldering glance.
Even as a betrayed wife, letter
in hand, pacing the confines of a drawing room,
or a captive Queen, paraded in
the marketplace, I moved like a swan.
Then – arrived at the middle years,
the height of my powers – I must play
strumpet, murderess, bitter scold:
all the sordid trivia of men’s fears, desires.
So that I became a cliff buffeted
by hostile waves, eaten by the sea…
Enough! I have silenced that sea, left that
precipice curving towards emptiness.
Soon I’ll sit between burgundy drapes
in a house on Edinburgh’s quietest,
most hidden street. Calmly, I’ll set the stage
for glimpsing limelit shards of the future.
The cards will confirm what eyes, stance,
rhythm of breath and upturned hands tell me.
But I will take no dictation from the dead,
nor ever invoke them. Let them sleep,
or speak through dreams. My gift is to grasp
what’s just beyond reach – as if gazing from
half-closed eyes at a receding vision…
In the theatre I was adept at
waiting wordless while others declaimed,
ranted – with no hint of stage business
I kept all eyes upon me. So here,
I’ll be in charge of each performance:
Life’s bounty and Fate’s mercy must do the rest…
I’ll know what can be said and not said;
what will stall harm, turn from obsession,
dispel vain hopes. I’ll know. It’s like tasting
a line’s flavour before you say it.
I’ve spent my lifetime working on that.

 

 

Seamus L’Estrange
Spirit Photographer

Not for me the charades of revenants:
women with hypnotic eyes, robed in
lurid drapery –  like nothing so much
as animated stone effigies;
nor a dead child, dressed in Sunday best,
grafted back onto parents fixed by grief’s
dissolving stare – an uncanny foetus
anchored near head or womb.
                                                     Once, though,
in a derelict house, as I photographed
a stairway leading nowhere, midwinter
noon bloomed from an unseen source, and –
the cloud of dust I’d stirred up, was it? –
a glimmering shroud hung in icy air;
I yearned to walk through those ghostly steps.
Thereafter I sought light-effects
that fused the unearthly with the human –
accidental poltergeists of brilliance:
a cypress avenue, corridored by summer,
to which a blown mist brought metamorphoses;
candlelit rooms of cigarette-fuelled talk;
a forgotten kettle boiling into
sunlight – all yielded chimerical
glimpses, my lens positioned itself;
the shutter guillotined illusion.
I saw, where rock sliced a waterfall,
figures dancing above white tumult;
an avalanche rolled ice into sea-foam
alive with the unborn, the unretrieved.
Stranded by storm, I watched moon-hazed drops
slide down windowed darkness – as if they would
make of absence, a continuous presence;
my gaze plumbed fathomless transparency.
At this moment, I sit staring at light
filtered by my sealed eyelids: jet and gold
mingling, glass shadows wreathed inside
a mandorla, a mural on a great dome
pulsing with my invisible blood.

 

Helen Westwood

Where do you go when you cannot return
to the place where you’ve belonged? The marks
he scored across my body – once only,
in that cold onslaught – made the marks
across my soul palpable, gave them
a form; the unsealed skin I bathed and bound
in linen, healed to a scarred memory.
With profligate malice he dealt me
a dead hand, as if all the cards were his.
Now I have gone. He’ll sit at a bare table.
Only the mirror will so intimately
read the burst veins and bulging eyes of his wrath:
his need to disestablish, over and over,
life’s simple truth.
                                 I have plucked my daughter
from his intemperate love. Forever.
Her six-year-old eyelids cover pearl
and lapis lazuli fit to match
the sky-gleam of any river or sea on earth.
In this small room propelled by fire and steam
we’ll reach Edinburgh before dawn.
Journeying west, we will choose new names,
like talismans, for ourselves as fresh light strikes
crag and loch. At Stranraer, a steamship.
Blanched, shaking with fatigue, we’ll step out
onto Ireland. There, more untraceable
journeys between two lives, two centuries –
till we arrive at a place of refuge
and beginning: time’s virtue sifting
through all our days.
                                     My keepsakes I’ve sold
to effect this stylish, disguised leaving.
Together we’ll fashion new memories,
find new keepsakes.
                                     Claire and I lie still:
effigies about to wake.

 

 

Sam Byfield

Born in Newcastle in 1981, Sam Byfield is the author of From the Middle Kingdom (Pudding House Press). He has been published or is forthcoming in magazines including Heat and LiNQ (Australia), The National Poetry Review, The Cream City Review, Meridian, and Diner (North America), Nimesis (UK) and in many online magazines including The Pedestal Magazine, Foam-e, and Divan. He currently works for a public health/environment NGO in southwest China.

 

Sapphires

All afternoon panning for sapphires
in eucalypt shadows, hands dry
from rocks and river water,

frost-browned grass burnt back
by the optimistic site owner –
no snakes in that grass now.

Cockatoos make a sound like pure panic
and the dog races off after rabbits
and trouble, but not too much,

while the Milky Way comes out
like it only does in the country,
a massive tangle that seems to float

above the Earth. Way off, the cough
of kangaroos, big rough males
like the one my father told me of

from his childhood, that kept coming
and no amount of .22 slugs
could stop. Another image of him,

out on the Nullarbor hitchhiking dead –
west, nothing but sand and crows
for company, ending up in Esperance

and writing her, saying
it was the most beautiful place he’d seen.
He came back and proposed, straight away.

 

The Infinite Possibilities of Water

From here I can see the flood; the view is sublime.
Thirty year swell and the beach fills with container ship,
the Pasha Bulker like a boulder resting in a river bed.

            God of such things, remember the anemone fossil
            I discovered high in the mountains, a swirl waiting eons
            to be found? And quickly lost, as such things are.

From here I can smell the salt of the rearranged beach,
and I can see the gulls, watching the ship and thinking
What a strange sight for a Sunday.

            God of such things, remember the salt of her breasts
            three days up the valley, how she felt as insects danced
            like fireworks and the whole place shuddered?

Light funnels away from the ocean, turns red
then white; then, the quiet reconnaissance of the stars.
In the morning the faintest hint of smoke.

            God of such things, have you ever noticed how sometimes
            a woman smells like pine, or pine smells like a woman?
            The streets fill quickly with flood, yet the warmth.

 

Cures in a Cold Place

Ten minutes off the plane, first snow of the season. It starts as tiny darts, wind-whisked and rapidly dissolving,
then the city fades to white. It seems timed for my arrival.

I left here four months ago, walked straight into trouble. I was hollow, as if some piece of me remained in the city,
some fundamental part. Months later I landed on my feet and the terrain began to look familiar, yet things were
still off kilter, my yin and yang somehow askew.

Spent three days in Beijing, a city that has never been good to me. I had to make things right, settle some scores.
Outside a rowdy nightclub a beggar told me of his sick eight- year-old daughter. They’d come to Beijing to see a
doctor from a city eight hours south, but now had no money to pay and no ticket home. He said a man should
never be this low, begging to save his daughter. Above us, the flicker of coal-stained lights.

Then today, Changchun, the lake, frozen over a month earlier than usual, foot-deep tracks like tears across the face
of an angel. Old people spoke soft, faces lined like willow trees; the young threw snowballs and flirted in that
Chinese way. Street sweepers cracked the ice from roads, danced as if the snow made them warm. I found a piece
of myself, put it in my pocket, whistled a tune.