Gaiutra Bahadur is an award-winning American journalist and book critic. She is the author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (HURST, 2013). Her essays, criticism and journalism have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The (London) Observer, The Nation, History Today, The Virginia Quarterly Review and Ms. Magazine, among other publications.
She writes frequently about literature, gender and migration and has reported from the Middle East, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom and India. She’s a graduate of Yale and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard during the 2007-2008 academic year. When she was six years old, her family immigrated to the United States, to the New York City area, from Guyana, the only country in South America that was once a British colony.
In 2013, Gaiutra won awards from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation, the national feminist arts organization, both on the merits of the manuscript for Coolie Woman. The book was published in 2013 to critical acclaim in the U.S., U.K., India and the Caribbean. It was a finalist for the UK’s prestigious Orwell Book Prize, for political writing that is artful, and won the 2014 Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Prize, awarded by scholars of the Caribbean to the best book about the Caribbean published in the previous three years. Coolie Woman was also one of three nonfiction finalists for the Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.
Extracts from Coolie Woman, The Odyssey of Indenture
from PART ONE, EMBARKING
THE MAGICIAN”S BOX
… I was almost seven, old enough to have memories of Guyana and young enough to be severed in two by the act of leaving it. Emigrating was like stepping into a magician’s box. The sawing in half was just a trick. In time, limbs and coherence would be restored, and a whole, intact self sent back into the audience. But at my age, unformed and impressionable, I didn’t know that. All I knew was that everything seemed to split apart. Time became twofold, divided into the era BA, or before America, and the one after it, after 7 November 1981. Space was also sundered, torn slowly and excruciatingly into two conflicting realms, inside and out.
My memories of Guyana are almost all set outdoors. The houses there stand on stilts, to avoid the flood underfoot. That kicks open, underneath, a concrete terrain known as the Bottom House. There, curries are cooked and eaten, laundry washed and set to dry. There, life unfurls, exposed to the eyes of the lane, open to the comment of neighbors. And there, visits are paid. Hammocks rock back-and-forth, marking the absence of time, as hours pass in gyaffing, a West Indian brand of aimless talk, encompassing everything and nothing at once.*
I remember the outside of our house in Cumberland Village much better than the inside. The Bottom House opened into the front yard, where we posed for our photo that last day. To the left stood our guinep tree, the scant, sweet pulp of its fruit encased in a green shell. To the right stood our concrete temple, the size of a toolshed. It lay outside the frame of that final picture, but I remember it vividly. The mandir was honeycombed for ventilation and painted as blue as the clay gods within. It sat next to my grandmother’s garden, where so many times, zinnias tucked into our braids, sheets wrapped like saris around our waists, my cousin and I played at being brides. We staged our weddings in and around a curvaceous blue car parked inside the gate. It belonged to Brudda, a taxi-driving cousin renowned for his ability to squeeze in a dozen passengers in any one go. The car had died and, for some reason, Brudda had laid it to rest under the guinep tree. Three decades later, Brudda is in Canada, and we are in America; but the remains of the car still lie there, an indestructible shard of blue in the weeds choking our abandoned plot of Guyanese earth. The temple, the garden and the car comprise the hazy landscape of my first childhood, like stickers pasted onto a board-game map of the past. Flat, but brightly colored, they represent what was, in the wide-open place we left behind.
In the America we arrived in, it was too cold for all that. Our aunts gave me and my cousin matching grey winter coats. We wore them through our first season of snow. We learned how to speak and shoved indoors the Creole words that vibrated with Bottom House and playmates. There wasn’t much extra room for those words in the close spaces of our new life, on the first floor of my uncle’s house in New Jersey. We rented three tight rooms and slept five in a row, on two beds pushed together, for half a decade. My grandmother, who had crossed a border crawling on her belly to join us by then, made the fifth. From the fire escape, we could see the Twin Towers. Despite the panoramic view of Manhattan, our apartment promoted claustrophobia. The door swung into the windowless bathroom to reveal my mother balanced on the edge of the bathtub, attacking clothes in sudsy water, pummeling hand-me-down jeans until they screeched, beating the ugly green corduroys that made me look as awkward as I felt. She nearly fainted once, with the fumes of Clorox bleach concentrated in that tiny room.
The gods were also crowded; they, too, had been forced inside. From the airy temple perfumed by zinnias, they were driven into the closet—the linen closet in the bedroom, to be precise. There was a box of Barbie dolls on the bottom shelf, and nightly, the rats made incisions into the pale plastic of their perfectly formed legs. On the top shelf rested framed prints of the gods: elephant-trunked Ganesh, the remover of obstacles; Hanuman, the monkey with a mountain in his palm; and Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge.
Our journey took us past endless fields of flowering yellow along the northern banks of the Ganges. When we pulled into towns, we asked for directions, from children balancing loads three times their size on their heads, from crouching women tending baskets of cauliflower and eggplant by the roadside, from men in the stores that stared open-faced onto the street, framing a tailor at his sewing machine, a man pumping air into bicycle tyres, a camera-wallah behind his counter. We sought the guidance of random people on the route, turning to them as to a massive human compass. And they obliged. They pointed us along bumpy roads bracketed by tiny pastel altars made to worship the sun, until one man finally indicated a rocky path. “That way,” he said.
We had travelled five hours over shell-shocked roads and narrow dirt lanes to arrive here, at the threshold of a place I wasn’t even sure still existed. It did a century ago. That’s what a document that I had discovered two years earlier, in Guyana’s national archives, indicated. It was the emigration pass issued to my great-grandmother on 29 July 1903, the day she sailed from Calcutta for the Caribbean.
Catalogued on this brittle artifact, sepia and crumbling with age, was everything about Immigrant #96153 that the imperial bureaucracy had considered worth
recording: “Name: Sheojari.” “Age: 27.” “Height: five-feet, four-and-a-half inches.” “Caste: Brahman.” Here was colonial officialdom’s cold summary of an indentured laborer’s life. Yet, it included strokes of unsettling intimacy. The emigration pass told me that my great-grandmother had a scar on her left foot, a burn mark. Someone had scribbled “Pregnant 4 mos” in pencil at the document’s edge. On the line for husband’s name, there was only a dash.
Though my great-grandmother claimed no husband, she did list coordinates for home. The pass pointed to it precisely, almost like a map to some mythic location with hidden riches. X marks the spot: the state of Bihar, the province of Chhapra, the police district of Majhi and the village of Bhurahupur. There the past rested, buried. And here we were, just a few miles away, more than a century later, hoping to excavate lost history. Bihar isn’t a place where people typically go in search of buried treasure. Outsiders typically don’t go there at all, although it’s the second most populous state in India. The few foreign tourists it attracts are on Buddha’s trail, making pilgrimage to the place where he attained enlightenment. Bihar was once the seat of a vast and ancient empire stretching to Iran, but few people see it now as anything but a corrupt and dangerous backwater. Its per capita income is among the lowest and its illiteracy rate among the highest nationwide. One historian has branded the state “a stinking skeleton in India’s democratic cupboard.”1
It was November 2005, four days before provincial elections—a bad time to be travelling in Bihar. Ballot boxes had been stolen at gunpoint in the past. And Marxist rebels had just broken out of a jail south of the capital, Patna, when we set out. The military had been ordered to keep civilian vehicles off the roads until the votes had been cast. One of my guides decided we would pose as journalists to get past the roadblocks. He taped a phony “PRESS” sign onto the windshield of our white Ambassador. This voluptuous vintage car is a relic from the pre-globalized era when Indians drank Thums Up instead of Coca-Cola, and its presence everywhere on Bihar’s potholed highways was another sign that the sleek, new India of nanos and glimmering shopping malls has not reached all corners of the subcontinent. Surprisingly, our Scotch-taped stratagem worked. Soldiers in khaki fatigues stopped us, but they did not ask for credentials. They took us at our word.
My guide Abhijit eyed the rocky little lane that stood between me and my great-grandmother’s village. It seemed impossible that the massive Ambassador could force its way through. He chuckled. “That’s a great scene, just like Veer Zara,” he said, with a sudden, sarcastic edge. “Preethi Zintha is searching for her forefathers.” He was referring to a Bollywood movie that had cast its dimpled starlet along village backroads in search of a lost love—not lost forefathers. But the imprecision of the analogy seemed somehow appropriate to my journey. Ancestral memory had told my family the story of who we are: brown-skinned people with many gods and peculiar, stubborn habits. It had told it imperfectly. Memory, after all, fails us. That we expect, especially over generations and across oceans. Details get smudged, and dialogue garbled. The will to remember the past is undermined by an equally formidable will to forget. Given how facts had fared with the passage of time, how could I do anything but fumble my way inaccurately through India? I had to rely on Abhijit to name things like the yellow fields, and the comedy was unavoidable. “Is it saffron?” I asked. Yes, he said—though saffron does not grow anywhere near this corner of the subcontinent, and those stalks were mustard.
We arrived at the village in the late afternoon, an hour before the winter sunset, and we had to be back in Patna by bedtime. Our time was limited. My second guide, Jitendra—a man with a face so straight and correct it could have been drawn with a protractor—took charge. He did not ask anyone about Sujaria. There would have been no point, he assured me. “Women,” he explained, “were not known persons at the time.” Instead, he dropped the name of Sujaria’s father: Mukhlal. It was listed on her emigration pass, along with a next-of-kin, a female cousin. Armed with this information, Jitendra approached a group of men loitering near the entrance to the village, off a gravel lane, along a tributary of the Ganges. He asked if anyone knew of a Mukhlal who had lived in Bhurahupur a century ago. No one did.
The villagers took us to a toothless man with a helmet of white hair, sitting on a bench outside his house, a mustard shawl draped over his bony body. He was a schoolteacher and an elder, the kind of man you might expect to be the keeper of local memory. He had, however, no information. My heart sank a little, although I wasn’t expecting anything concrete from this trip. I hadn’t even known whether or not the village would still be standing. I couldn’t really believe I was here. In Bhurahupur. X marks the spot. The precise point where an umbilical cord connected me to India. And here I was, being sized up by a curious crowd of real-life men who called it home.
“Alright,” I told Jitendra. “I just want to ask some general questions about the village. Can we do that?”
The schoolteacher called for three chairs, and we sat.
“Go ahead,” Abhijit snapped. “Ask your questions.”
It was my turn to speak, and I didn’t know where to start.
“My great-grandmother left this village,” I ventured, throat tight, conscious that our entire impromptu entourage was looking and listening. I turned to Abhijit, waiting for him to interpret my words into Bhojpuri, the dialect spoken in the district, but he was mute. Jitendra, thankfully, stepped into the breach. Though he spoke less English than Abhijit, he understood much better what I was after and how to help me get it.
The schoolteacher listened, his eyes on me, on the long white kurta I wore over red tapered leggings and on my hair, loose and tangled from the bumpy ride and contradicting my traditional dress. He fixed me in one penetrating gaze and pronounced: “You should be living here.” It was delivered like a reproach. India’s diaspora, now at 17 million worldwide, has quit India’s borders despite a prejudice with the force of religion behind it. To leave was to cross the kala pani, “the dark waters,”* of the Indian Ocean and therefore to lose caste, according to the strictures of Hinduism.
These two extracts are reprinted from Coolie Woman, The Odyssey of Indenture, Hurst and Co, London, 2013
The End of the World
Reviewed by JACINTA LE PLASTRIER
In native American and other cultural traditions, the raven has a powerful symbology. It is considered a messenger who carries information between worlds, is of the earth but also capable of bridging to other realms. It can also represent the souls of the murdered. In this, it is an apt choice as the cover illustration of Maria Takolander’s second full poetry collection, The End of the World.
There is no direct reference to a raven in any of the book’s 41 poems but certainly it could be argued, as a lens for its reading, that many of them either directly or implicitly address the presence of the otherworldly, the ethereal and the spectral. There are also veils between the earthly world and our perception of it, and between a self’s experience and its familial and historic connections and heritages.
As Takolander writes in the first poem of the book, ‘Unborn’, which addresses pregnancy, ‘Still emerging from yourself, the bud of your nose alone/ makes the universe less impossible. You do not know/ that we are here, but this is how we watch you: on a/ black-and-white plasma screen suspended on a wall/ – the happy technician flicking us between dimensions/ like Dr Who – and as if from an infinite distance.’
This is a second collection and while the poet carries through themes begun in her first book, Ghostly Subjects (SALT, 2009), particularly in regard to poems about the intimate self and her family’s history in the first two parts of The End of the World, it also sets out on what feels like a new orientation – especially in the book’s final third section. These poems spring beyond the field of own experience.
In his recent non-fiction book, A History of Silence: A Family Memoir (Text Publishing, 2013), NZ author Lloyd Jones contends, ‘a writer’s works have a way of tracking back to his wellsprings.’ In the context of his book, this meant an examination of his lineage’s ‘ancestry of silence’, and ‘the sediment within him’. These are useful ideas to apply to the work in The End of the World where Takolander exhumes her own family’s spectres.
These ghosts are not only familial. They are also metaphysical, those of the dark imagination which has inhabited this poet’s work from her earliest poems, published in the 2005 chapbook, Narcissism (Whitmore Poetry Press).
Of Finnish origin, Takolander’s family members were killed in Stalinist purges. Some were exiled or they experienced other horrors of war. The traumatic consequences of these experiences, for themselves and descendants, are insidious and potent. It is a brave poetry which addresses them.
In one of the finest poems in Ghostly Subjects, ‘Finland: Fables’, Takolander assized this family history in prose-poetry wording, each stanza a long-lined sentence:
In a kitchen there was a man who drank the worlds contained in bottles, but who could never find the strangers he had killed in the
war, whose blood had melted with the snow.
It is subject matter reprised yet differently confronted in a number of poems in Part 2 of the The End of the World, including ‘Mushrooms’ and ‘The Old World’. These are moving poems. In them Takolander explores not only for herself, as poet and a self, but also in poems such as ‘The Old World’ gives voice to the those gone before us, whose aching for what has been lost might (perhaps inevitably will) re-sprout in those who follow. The poem closes, ‘See how the sun burns all night, like a promise/ of the end of the world.’ This is one reference to the book’s title.
Later in Part 2 is the poem actually titled ‘The End of the World’. The subject matter is the history of and a visit to Punta Arena, Chile. Written in five-lined stanzas, it closes in language of an edged, gothic beauty:
their skullbones and cross-bones now encrypted
in the cemetery across the way, where angels dive among
cypresses manicured into a wonderland silence
that takes the edge off death and the sight
of all those abominable dogs, ranging everywhere.
This poem is an example of what has marked Takolander’s poetry since its beginnings. There is a discipline of form though she is writing in free verse which allows it to have the echo of formal metrics within it. This tendency is always an opportunity for a poet to clarify and amplify their poetic thinking – the movement of mind in the work. There has also prevailed in her poetry – though it might be a strange term to use – a discipline in the language she chooses as her oeuvre’s ‘field’. It is an educated vocabulary but with a sense of the pared, of having been boned – also of the elemental or even glacial. I think of an earlier poem like ‘Storm’:
It may be true we don’t deserve this,
Our earthly things reduced
To shadows we dream
Things from: the firs, the stooks,
The fence posts¾none belong.
They don’t belong.
Yet we’ve always waked and slept
When the sky says we should,
Like birds and monkeys,
Abandoning the world
Evening after evening…
The majority of poems in The End of the World combine this clarified language with a formal control – and their poetic ideas are robust – but there are a number which don’t, and which make for uneasy reading. In these, certain lines or phrases are weak but the main concern is that the poetic conception has not been deepened – pressurized – sufficiently in the process of their creation. One example is in a poem about her forebears, ‘Missing in Action’. The material is unusual and powerful – her great-grandfather, ‘lost to Stalinist purges’, an eldest uncle, ‘dysentery got him as an infant in Karelia’, a grandfather of which she writes ‘(Hung over, he would beat the horses, their flanks shivering.’). And the formal structure is clear. There are lines in the poem which spark, but a major part of the poem’s language and its thinking through is not brought up to the task of interrogating – and so unearthing meaning – of such a tragic territory. (This is most definitely not the case with the earlier ‘Finland: Fables’, which traversed similar subjects.)
It is uncomfortable to criticize a poem whose material is profound, and of obvious importance to the poet. Having said that, in stark contrast is perhaps the finest poem in the new book, ‘Stalin Confesses’. Adopting Stalin as subject, the narrating, poetic voice is both authoritative and, in the most positive sense, destabilized and destabilizing. One wonders, at different points through the poem, ‘who is speaking now?’ This shifting of angles is beautifully controlled. The poem begins: ‘At my side I have concealed a child/ whose body was twice trodden by horses/ hauling carriages through our boggy village,/ the hooves like machines./ The child’s father, sludge-drunk and stone-fisted, beat him,/ as did his mother, full of God./ The seminary silenced his Georgian tongue,/ and the Russian army, even in war’s thick, rejected him./ The child’s face is smudged as the moon’s.’ Here is poetry whose language is muscled, precise yet allusive. It startles, and its promise drives through the whole work. Later is this: ‘He once entrusted to me a chronic dream/ in which his mother, father, unborn brothers,/ soiled villagers in their carts,/ the priest in his finery, and even God Himself/ will not, no matter the torment he inflicts on them,/ look upon his scorched soul/ and confess they were responsible.’
In Part 3 of The End of the World, Takolander takes up a different poetic drum. This poetry is sometimes fantastical – the final four prose poems are inhabited by Aesopic animals and the twists of fable. The part opens with poems, one section in catalogue form, inspired after 19th-century ‘scientific’ treatises on criminology.
Here, in a later poem, are the opening lines of ‘Witch’:
Her Hair was the Colour of Dirt, her Fingernails
of Stone, but she did not Lack Shelter or Know Hunger.
She Knew how the Body forces the Foetus to leave
its Mucous Womb and Breathe Air, and she could effect
Certain Remedies for Those Unwanted, rendering
The Creatures, While Still Hidden, Powerless. Small
Corpses were not Such a Problem. …
This final part to the book is adventurous and its subject matter and wielding, strange and beguiling.
JACINTA LE PLASTRIER is a Melbourne-based poet, writer, editor and publisher. Her poetry collection is forthcoming with John Leonard Press. To read more, Jacinta Le Plastrier
The Petrov Poems
by Lesley Lebkowicz
Pitt Street Poetry, 2013
Reviewed by LINDA WESTE
Lesley Lebkowicz’s The Petrov Poems is a verse novel that keeps its offerings close to its chest: at eighty pages the volume is slim and unassuming, its cover inconspicuous. While this reserve accords with its theme of espionage, nevertheless its subject — the defection of the Petrovs, an “escapade which rocked the sleepy town of Canberra in April 1954” (Jacket blurb) — ensures there is more to this verse novel than its appearance suggests.
The Petrov Poems required “massive amounts of research,” Lebkowicz acknowledges (Interview). Not only did she spend many hours accessing documents, including ASIO files, in the National Archives and the National Library, she spoke with Canberra people about their memories, and “walked around the Embassy, the Petrovs’ house and the Hotel Kingston”, until, she adds, “the details infiltrated the poems” (Interview).
The material was abundant, Lebkowicz recalls: “the Petrovs’ lives were choc-a-bloc with material made for a novel” (Interview). Lebkowicz has been mindful to ensure the content is accessible rather than overwhelming; the verse novel comprises four sections of interlinked poems in chronological order, and much of the narrative backstory and plot is in place by the end of Part I. The historical details are re-presented in a credible story world.
Initially Lebkowicz intended to write the story from the point of view of Evdokia Petrova and the other women involved (Madame Ollier, a diplomat; the air hostess, Joyce Bull). In order to do this, she had to know about Vladimir Petrov as well, and before long, she acknowledges, “I realised he was a gift” (Interview), though not exactly the stereotypical spy — “bumbling” is the term Lebkowicz assigns him. Nevertheless Lebkowicz wanted to convey Vladimir Petrov and Evdokia Petrova “as people, not as spies” whose “dilemmas were human and often heart-rending” (Interview). Her approach to speech and thought representation was “to take the reader in as close as possible to the Petrovs” (Interview). Lebkowicz states she chose “the intimate forms of their names (Volodya and Dusya) and gave a lot of their interior lives, especially Dusya’s”, but resisted first-person mode, realising that omniscient third-person narration in past tense would allow the overview she required (Interview).
How Lebkowicz embodies the Soviet diplomat-spy is often visceral, evoking a corpulent Volodya: “his fingers white slugs on the saucer”; “softness has long fled / his mind” (4). In ‘Blood II’, however, his body and mind dissemble along with future plans:
Each drink had laid down errant cells
in the dark of his arteries. They came loose and sidled
along networks that threaded his body.
His blood struggled.
His heart laboured.
A clot jammed the flow in his brain
and then nothing worked. Now words richochet
and can’t find the path to his tongue. (79)
The poem ‘Disintegration’ iterates the unstoppable advance of mortality: Volodya, post stroke, has lost his memory. When Dusya visits him in the nursing home, he does not recognise her: “No more strangers he yells. I want my wife” (80). It is poignant but moreover ironic treatment that Lebkowicz aims for in The Petrov Poems, and achieves. There is paradox, too, in this narrative of political asylum, in contrasting the metaphors of life networks as “a kind of containment” (78), and of ‘the body as a prison’ (79) with ‘the body needing shelter’.
If there’s a predominant poetic form in The Petrov Poems, Lebkowicz believes “it is probably the sonnet — but not the formal sonnet of earlier centuries. No end-stopped rhyme, though generally fourteen lines and a volta of sorts” (Interview). What may vex readers expecting a more prominent poetic template is this verse novel’s stylistic preference for description over trope. That is not to say that personification, simile, metaphor, are not present. Rather, poetic elements are muted, and the poetic narrative is naturalised and accessible: “Water flirts with the boats.” (3); “…the letters she types / skitter over her desk like dry chaff.” (78)
Why many poems are expository, more focused on describing narrative space and the narrative events taking place, than on elaboration, is in part, attributable to the need for narrative momentum. Fewer poetic embellishments, in Lebkowicz’s design, “keep the pace fairly fast” (Interview). The emphasis on description is also instrumental for spatial and temporal presentation. Description is a discourse strategy for the disclosure of spatial information (Ryan 2014), a means to convey “the physically existing environment in which characters live and move” (Buchholz and Jahn 2005).
The emphasis on description, therefore, is a concession to narrative ends; effective for reconstructing the temporal sequence of the events of the Petrov’s defection. This stylistic foregrounding of space and time is evident in the titles or subtitles of poems, for example, ‘Inside the Embassy I’; ‘Volodya crashes on the way to meet Mme Ollier in Cooma. 25 December 1953’; ‘Petrov and Richards meet in a car behind the Kingston Hotel. 26 March 1954.’; ‘Bialoguski’s flat, Point Piper, 19 March 1954’ and ‘Flight from Mascot to Darwin, 19 April 1954’.
Yet the emphasis on description extends the textual spatiality of The Petrov Poems beyond its setting, that of mid-twentieth-century Canberra, Australia, and also beyond its spatial frames — those separate locations where events transpire: the ship Orcades; the Russian Club; the ASIO office; the Embassy; Government House; Bialoguski’s flat; in a car behind Kingston Hotel; the airport; the safe house and the nursing home — to encompass story space, “the space relevant to the plot, as mapped by the actions and thoughts of the characters (which) consists of all the spatial frames plus all the locations mentioned by the text that are not the scene of actually occurring events” (Ryan 8).
The story space can then also incorporate Russia, Stockholm and the valley about which Dusya Petrova dreamed, “where almost-twin girls/took milk from a cow” (79); the labour camp where her husband was taken and died; and the “big room in Moscow” (17) where she and first husband, Román, lived together “with Román’s books on the shelves above the bed” (17). Story space in The Petrov Poems also maps the places about which Volodya Petrov thinks: Sinkiang, the autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China, and one of the province’s largest cities; Yarkand, the ancient city on the Silk Road, once a major transport hub and centre of moneylending and trade; the village of Volodya’s family house; the USSR; the farm he was raised on; Moscow; the countries of Canada and Japan from which other agents defect; and the farm he imagines himself living on, sometime in the future.
The narrative unfolds without a single specific reference to the Cold War, nevertheless it becomes possible to convey Cold War divisions. Readers envision the frontier “to prevent communism from gaining ground in the region” imagined by the 1954 formulation of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation — formed between the United States, France, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines — as they bring further spatial information — narrative (or story) world space — to the text on “the basis of cultural knowledge and real world experience” (Ryan 2014).
Lebkowicz, an accomplished poet, wrote The Petrov Poems without “a conscious model” although she had read other verse novels — by Dorothy Porter, Judy Johnson, Geoff Page and Vikram Seth. The act of writing The Petrov Poems was to affirm Lebkowicz’s enthusiasm for the verse novel: “It’s a powerful form —flexible and compelling” she asserts (Interview). The publication of The Petrov Poems by one of Australia’s small poetry presses, Pitt Street Poetry, consolidates Lebkowicz’s previous credits, a book of poetry and a short story collection.
Readers who regularly engage with the verse novel form, come to know its infinite variety.
The Petrov Poems is one of a growing number of verse novels internationally that narrativise historical material. The Petrov Poems does so without ostentation, yet its approach to its subject, at once compassionate and penetrating, arises from careful research, and ensures a worthy contribution.
Buchholz, Sabine and Manfred Jahn.“Space.” In: Herman. D et al. (eds): Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. London: Routledge, 2008 : 551–54.
Lebkowicz, Lesley. Interview by Linda Weste, 6 July 2014.
—. The Petrov Poems. Sydney: Pitt Street Poetry, 2013.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Space”. In: Hühn, Peter et al. (eds.): the living handbook of narratology. Hamburg: Hamburg University. [view date:1 July 2014]
“Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), 1954”, Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, United States Department of State. [view date:1 July 2014]
LINDA WESTE is a poet, editor and teacher of creative writing who researches poetic and narrative interplay.
by Cameron Lowe
Puncher and Wattmann
Reviewed by VANESSA PAGE
Cameron Lowe’s Circle Work is a graceful collection of poems, with no trace of the masculine, high octane themes that you might expect from a book bearing this title. Instead, the reader is drawn into Lowe’s strange and beautiful landscapes – where there are certainly circular themes at play – the simple cycles of things, seasons, relationships and days.
The circle symbolises a wholeness – a completeness, but also the idea of movement and motion, the elapsing of time. From this perspective, the idea of ‘circle work’ as a broad umbrella to hold over this collection of poems, seems apt.
The sense of movement is one of the most striking features about this collection. In particular, the visual movement that Lowe creates through the arrangement of the poems on each page. The words dance, skip and sometimes yawn and stretch across the pages, leading the reader subtly and deeply into the delicate scenes that Lowe has created.
The arrangement of the poems in Circle Work also appear to follow a loose seasonal pattern. In the opening piece, ‘In Memory of Flowers’, this scene is set, providing signposts to the season, setting up that sense of motion, but also a sense of waiting for the season to change, for the flowers to bloom.
And so, as winter/rain falls steadily/upon bluestone,
again the limits of/patience strain/to make flowers
Precise and seemingly ‘hand-chiselled’ observations and fragments linger constantly on the edge of the ‘domestic world’, melding effortlessly with the ‘natural world’:
a sky so blue
the noise of cars
This interplay of the earthly and the other-worldly through razor-sharp observations is at its most mesmerising in the piece ‘The skin of it’ which is told in six parts.
These observations, on the surface appear quite simple, but the poems are deceptively hypnotic, and have a way of working under your skin, with a gentleness, and sense of calm that makes the reading of them a pleasure.
The lapping of light over light – and the clock ticking in the kitchen, rhythmic as the dripping tap.
From this distilled beauty, Lowe shifts effortlessly into a contrasting space in simple vignettes that provide pockets of relief. I liked ‘At the Geelong Art Gallery – a great Australian poet discovers a potato cake in his pocket’ – a funny, simple poem that reminded me of one of major reasons I love the art form of poetry – the way so much can be said with such few words – this brevity, combined with Lowe’s seductive knack for opening windows onto crystal-clear and carefully painted scenes is on display here. A fantastic and tongue in cheek poke at ‘poet-types’’.
The book’s moments of beauty are frequent and lead the reader deeper into the collection. I found myself wanting more of them.
There are numerous references to sparrows and birches, flowers, the sky and the behaviour or light as it slips between the seasons, creating a strong, botanic thread throughout the collection.
In ‘The’ Lowe’s mastery of observation is at its beautiful best, as he once more leads the reader in the natural world through his keenly focussed viewfinder.
binding sunlight to bird/to blue sky/to the honey-cream colour/of dry grass – / a tuft of white wool/caught on a barb (31)
There is some repetition in references to onions frying, white pickets, powerlines and aerials even the presence of sparrows. While these references are evidence of the domestic mooring for many of Lowe’s poems their repetition is not enough to distract from the collection. It is, however, noticeable enough to provide little speed bumps that I found made me slow down while I thought back to the poems where I’d heard them before.
Still, it seems Lowe’s poems seem based on familiar aspects, scenes and surroundings and it is this consistency in the setting for many of these poems that helps to bind the collection together.
There is something very domestic about this collection – you could almost imagine the poet writing these poems while looking out upon the same familiar scene, perhaps in his own home, perhaps in another frequented place.
This domesticity is at play in ‘Practising everyday life’ where simple meal preparations, the narrator’s scene from the balcony hooks the reader into a much deeper internal conversation about his own relationship explained in the context of this ‘keeping on’ this cycle of things – both natural and domestic.
It’s there/in the no need to really think ease of the balcony
Or the clean, taut/ lines of aerials/at dusk
Wherever the setting, it is clear that Cameron Lowe knows how to document beauty and weave these moments into delicately powerful poems with transportational qualities.
I found the book to be accessible –this is simple language, done well. The type of writing offers a bridge to readers, whether they are regular readers of poetry or not. This is the type of poetry I like to read – where I can experience an emotion, open an imagined window onto a scene so clear and so precise that I could be standing in it myself.
Night sweeping by, the moon hidden, not a star to see
and you twisted suddenly in your sleep
as if something hurt or scared you
As all great art has that point of connection, it is here in the lines of Circle Work – in the relationships, the emotional responses, the observations and the sense that as a reader you are forgetting yourself.
This is a gift and Circle Work succeeds on this level. And while the repetition of scene, some references and subject matter is present, there are also cleverly placed moments of humour and relief to provide balance. Certainly the strongest poems in this collection draw the reader in, walking them along that tightrope between the natural and domestic worlds and offering up countless opportunities for connection.
Find it, noting its shape that is something like a heart but more comely, something like a thought but more defined, something nurtured at the margins of the leaf itself.
VANESSA PAGE is a Brisbane poet who has published two collections of poetry: Feeding Paper Tigers (ALS Press, 2012) and Confessional Box (Walleah Press, 2013). Confessional Box won the 2013 FAW Anne Elder Award. She has previously been shortlisted in the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and the ACU Poetry Prize, and blogs at vanessapage.wordpress.com.
رویای آزادی یا احساس حبس و بند
زمین زیر پای سم اسبان میلرزد.
چهار نعل میگریزند ..وحشی و افسار گسیخته
در یالهایشان میپیچد آرزوهایم….
هوا سرشار از بوی اسب و غم و کمی هم غبطه….
در افق نقطه های سیاه کوچکی رخ مینماید و زمینی که من بر آن ایستاده ام رفته رفته آرام میگیرد…
پنداری رویایی بود همه….
رویای آزادی…یا احساس حبس و بند
Ground shakes beneath the hoofs of horses.
They gallop faster than the wind –
wild and free.
I see my dreams sparkling in their manes.
Oh the air is filled
with the smell of horses
sorrow and a tiny bit of envy.
Far away in the horizon
I can see a few little black spots
and the ground I am standing on
starts to still again.
It is all gone.
I was all a dream.
My dream of freedom.
The outburst of the feelings
these restriction have created
Abba (detained 15 months)
This was originally written in Farsi and translated to English. Translators name withheld.
FJ Bridger was born and raised in Mackay on the Central Queensland coast. She studied arts and law at the University of Queensland, then practised as a lawyer in the private and public sectors, and as a government policy advisor. In 2007 she completed a Master of Arts degree from Griffith University. FJ Bridger writes novels, short stories and memoir. Her first novel manuscript won a place in the Queensland Writers Centre/Hachette Publishing manuscript development program in 2012. A short story was published in Idiom 23 in 2013. FJ Bridger lives in Brisbane with her husband and two sons.
Not much of a haul today. People aren’t throwing away their perfectly good old stuff like they used to.
Still, I had a nice find the other day. Trick is, see, you’ve got to be the first there. Problem is, you don’t know who’s going to put out the good stuff when. But I’ve been studying it. Eight years now I’ve been doing the rounds. Perfecting the art. It’s not just random stumbling on terrific finds like some people think. You’ve got to be smart to make a good haul. ‘Streetcombing’, I call it.
Once a year or so, the council trucks pick up your old washing machines and furniture and mattresses, bulky sort of stuff. Meant to be things you can’t take to the dump in the average family car. But people are taking liberties with their cast offs, putting out everyday stuff, not just the bulkier things. Things like clothes and toasters and little plastic Christmas trees. Stuff the charities could do with. Gets ruined if it rains. A waste, really.
Annoys me a bit, thinking about the years I missed, before I got onto it. It was my wife Marjorie got me started. God, don’t think I’ve said her name in years! We were only together for about three years. It’s one of the few things I can thank her for. When I was at work at the museum one day she cleaned up the house and put out the old suitcase I stored all my school reports and treasures in. Lucky I got home in time. Found it out on the footpath before someone swiped it or the council truck came. I would have been ropeable if I’d lost it. It was precious. Still is. I gave her a piece of my mind over that, I tell you.
After that, I set her some rules. No throwing my stuff out, for a start. It’s not as if I had much gear in the first place. She was the one who’d inherited all the furniture, and a thousand and one little things that came with the house. All the silverware and paintings on the walls and jewellery and dining suites and wardrobes and lawn mowers. Not that you’d want to throw out good quality stuff like that. But she could have gone through her mother’s old papers and tablecloths and got rid of them. Poor old Brenda had no further use for them. Not like me and my suitcase.
That same night, I had to get out of the house, I was that angry with Marjorie. So, I went for a walk. While I was out I saw stuff on the footpath in front of other houses. The trucks were due to come round the next day, see? Anyway, that near-disaster and seeing those piles of gear got me thinking. I noticed the kinds of things people put out. It was an education, I tell you.
There was the usual old rubbish, like rusted pots and pans, and old garden tools and prams and sports gear. Then there was the big stuff like dryers and couches and cupboards. But when I got up close I came across things I liked the look of. Figurines and vases, and really old bottles. All there for the taking. A blue china bowl that caught my eye. I picked it up and put in under my jacket.
It dawned on me, I could collect this stuff. And it wouldn’t cost a cent. I’d show Marjorie I could have a worthwhile thing or two. I’d do my research and learn all about antiques and collectables. I could take books in to the museum and spend work time studying up on it. My supervisor, Bethany Flangel, she would never know. She’s hardly ever there, and doesn’t take much notice of what I do anyway. I’m the one who keeps the place going. So many museums are closing, or cutting back opening days and hours. Not mine, thank god. I don’t know what I’d do without my job. It’s my vocation, see?
So, that night got me started. I’ve collected a heck of a lot of stuff in those eight years. Not just any old junk – fabulous stuff. And I’ve done my homework, reading up, honing my expertise. But I’m not greedy. I don’t like the idea of venturing far from home. I keep myself to just a few suburbs near me. Luckily, they happen to be some of the better suburbs in town. So, good pickings. You wouldn’t believe what some people turf out.
A few years back, I was tempted to throw out all my rules, be a bit of a rebel. Go out to far-flung suburbs to pick through their throw outs. Or stick to just the best streets of Ascot and Hamilton where I was bound to score well, and where locals wouldn’t be seen dead going through their neighbours’ piles. You never know what you’ll come across. But my conscience wouldn’t have it. That would be too much like scrounging from a dump. Almost like going through rubbish bins. I can’t come at that.
After I’d been in the game a few years, I did expand my territory another suburb, an extra thirty streets. With a bigger area, I could do my streetcombing for more weeks of the year, see? A very nice neighbourhood the new one is. Upmarket. Gives a good yield. Last time I found an ornate bedside lamp, and a lovely pair of china dogs.
I have to be sure to get to the good finds before those scavengers who drive round other people’s neighbourhoods. The council drops the flyers round in letterboxes a week before the pick up day. I’ve got to be vigilant, keep an eye out for people putting their discards out early. Others put them out at the last moment. Then there’s everything in between. You can’t take your eye off the ball, see? The bloke might clean out first and put his throw outs on the footpath, then the wife might have a go. It’s just too bad if one of them wants something that shouldn’t have been put out. If it’s anything remotely desirable, it’s gone.
What I can’t stand is those flea market people and second hand dealers who swipe stuff for profit rather than their own use. Some people say it’s just another way of recycling, so it’s not a bad thing. But I’d rather it was salvaged by someone who needed it themselves, or the charities, or me.
Once, I thought about if I should take time off from my job during kerbside clean up week. My boss Bethany is always on at me to take leave, since I’ve accumulated a lot in 18 years. I can never think what to do on days off. Public holidays are bad enough, but a whole week is almost unbearable. At Christmas, I’m beside myself during the two and a half week closing. When my wife was around she organised holidays, little trips away to the beach or the mountains. Now I’m on my own, it’s more of a problem. She did have her uses.
I decided to take a couple of sickies. Bethany would never notice I was off at around the same time every year. She’s not a details person. God knows what she’s doing working in a museum. Luckily, she lives on the other side of town, so she’d never know when it’s my suburb’s turn for the clean up. I’m always careful not to mention it. It’s cold and flu season anyway, so phoning in saying I’ve got a bad cold, after complaining of a headache and sore throat the day before, is a reasonable ploy. It’s ridiculous that I have to report to Bethany. She doesn’t know half what I know about the exhibits, but I need her approval for everything I do. Perhaps she’ll drop off her perch one of these days.
Some of the neighbours look at me. They think they’re being discreet, but I can sense them, or see them twitching the curtains in their front rooms, when I’m picking through their cast offs. I suspect a couple of them are low enough to deliberately smear disgusting muck on a thing I might want, so I either have to leave it or clean the muck off. A bit of rotting food doesn’t put me off. I always wear gloves, of course.
I don’t mix with the neighbours. I’m not into having friendly drinks, or weekend barbecues, or their noisy brats running through my garden.
My parents are dead now. I’m an only child. Not that I feel like I’ve missed anything, mind, not having a brother or sister. Far as I can see, there’s nothing but fighting and jealousy between siblings. Arguments about one being favoured more than the other, rivalry over who’s smarter or better looking or makes more money. Punch ups even. Accusing each other of neglecting their aged parents, and ripping off their pensions, and contesting wills.
There were a couple of cousins I saw a bit of when I was young. Once Mum and Dad were gone, I told them to stop coming over. I didn’t need them snooping around. I could tell they were looking for handouts, or hoping I’d die, thinking they’d inherit the house and all my precious stuff.
If I didn’t love my job so much, I’d think about going into business as an antiques dealer. High end stuff only. I’d have to learn to part with my finds, of course. Become a lot more hard-nosed. But I’d have to get used to dealing with other people. I wouldn’t only be going local with my streetcombing then. The world would be my treasure house. It’d be business, after all.
That good find I was telling you about. 1920s Lalique vase. Gorgeous! Not a scratch or chip on it. Did I look over my shoulder when I saw that sitting there? They must have only just put it out and I was the first to come across it. I hurried straight back home after finding that beauty, though I’d only been out looking for a couple of hours.
I reckoned when I did a bit of research it was worth $4,000. My glassware expert says more like $6,000 in the right auction. Just think! Six grand’s worth, just thrown in the garbage! Didn’t know what they had, of course. Spoilt brats with too much money and no appreciation of works of art. If I hadn’t come along and plucked it out of the pile it could have been smashed, or thrown on the dump like a piece of worthless junk.
Anyway, back to my technique. Soon as the council delivers those flyers in letterboxes about a clean up coming up, I’m out there. But that’s when the punters find out and start putting gear out. I’m onto it much earlier.
Here’s how I do it. I go through the phone book and find the name of a man in a nice street in my patch. Women are no good. I’m not going to go around impersonating females on the phone, am I? A man has his limits. Anyway, I note down the name and address. I phone the council, masquerading as the resident, asking when the kerbside clean up is happening in ‘my’ street. They always tell me, no problem.
So, I plan my attack. Dates, best time of day or night, whether I’ll drive the removalist truck or just the ute, which route to take, which streets I think will have the best haul that I’ll comb at the start of my run, then sweep past again to check if any more treasures have been put out before I head home.
There’s the odd occupational hazard in streetcombing. Once a vicious mongrel dog attacked me. I swear it was part illegal pit bull terrier. Damn fool owner left the gate unlatched. But I was crafty, see? Phoned up the council to complain, using the name and address of one of the blokes I’d found earlier. Then I thought, I’ll make a series of complaints under these names I’ve got. Make it sound real convincing. The dog’s gone, so they must have had to get rid of it, or moved house. Good result.
Occasionally there’s been an argument with one of those flea market scavengers over a find. In my mind, there are unwritten rules, but some people don’t live by them. One of the rules is, don’t go hunting through a pile if someone’s right there going through it before you. You have to wait till they’ve finished. Then it’s your turn. And you don’t stand over them watching either. Common decency.
One time, one of these second hand dealer types pulls up in his truck just when I’d started on a promising spread outside a flash house. Comes right up and starts poking around with a stick. I got in between him and the pile, pushed his stick away. Ended up being a bit of a scuffle. Had to do some quick thinking. I fumbled in my bag and pulled out a black skull and shoved it right in his face, giving a great big roar. Never saw a bloke move so fast in my life! Ha! That taught him. Some mother must have cleaned out her teenage son’s room and tossed it out. Bet she never thought it’d be put to such good use so quick!
I’ve perfected my strategy over time. Refined it. It’s only in the last six years or so I started recording my haul in the back of one of Marjorie’s mother’s old journals. (There, I’ve said her name again!) I could’ve kicked myself that I hadn’t been doing it from day one. Working in the museum, cataloguing is a big part of it.
I’ve just realised, I started recording my finds just after Marjorie disappeared from my life. My mind functioned so much better once she was out of the way. And that made way for me to sort out her and her parents’ things, and make room for my collection.
I guess in a way, the whole house is the jewel in my crown. Those in-laws of mine had some lovely stuff. Moorcroft, Meissen, Fabergé. Mine now.
It’s just a pity after six years I still have to put up with getting letters addressed to Mrs M Walstrum or Marjorie Walstrum, or even occasionally Miss M Parminter, as she was. Lucky Marjorie’s parents died years ago, and she was an only child, like me. She had no job, hardly any friends, and the neighbours kept away, so no-one missed her. Strangely enough, I find myself missing her occasionally. But I’ve got my job at the museum, and my collecting.
Sometimes, at the end of a night of searching, I stand at the end of a street that’s served up a good few treasures over the years, and give the neighbourhood a silent blessing. It’s the middle of the night, see? After one o’clock. No-one’s about but me. I stretch my arms up and do a little chant. For that moment, I’m the High Priest of the Kerbside Clean Up, Sultan of the Streetcomb. I am fulfilled.
Rivers of Water Run Down.
years and months… weeks and days…
hours…and minutes… seconds are passing
from me…But my pain has
caused my heart to be broken.
Rivers of water run down from my eyes.
The thick layer of pain covers
my whole body.
My heart is crying so bad all the time
because that pain is heavier
that my dreams … my hopes…aims…
and my feelings to just have patience.
Give me some attention to my troubles…
I am coming from very deep water.
Why are you dishonest with me?
I cannot be dishonest with my feelings.
I am waiting and waiting
for some rest from all of this.
My eyes have also grown dim
because of sorrow.
I am unable to think of my future.
I cannot see the way.
Please show me the way
and my future.
(detained in Nauru RPC 2 years)
Bijan Najdi (1941-1997) was an Iranian poet and short-story writer, famous for his collection The Leopards Who Have Run With Me (1994), from which the selected short-story “The Burial” comes from. His style is characterized by the use of unfamiliar and poetical images offering a fresh perspective on the everyday world.
Translated by Ali Alizadeh and Laetitia Nanquette
Taher stopped singing in the shower and listened to the sound of the water. He watched the water flow down the sagging skin of his thin arms. The smell of soap dripped from his hair. Steam encircled the old man’s head. When he threw the towel around his shoulders, he felt as if parts of his body’s old age stuck to the long red towel and the swollen veins of his legs stopped throbbing. He buried his head in the towel and lingered by the door of the bathroom until he started to feel cold. Then he dragged himself to the mirror of the main room and saw that he was indeed an old man now.
In the mirror, he could see the breakfast spread on the floor and Maliheh’s profile. The samovar was boiling, silently in the mirror and loudly in the room, and Taher and his image in the mirror warmed up to it.
Maliheh said: “Don’t open the window; you’ll catch a cold, ok?”
Friday was behind the window with its incredible resemblance to all the winter’s Fridays. An electric line was bulging under the blackness of birds. The curtain dividing the main room was motionless and the wood-burner was burning to the song of the sparrows. Taher sat down for breakfast, switched on the radio (…with minus 11, theirs was the coldest part of the country), and raised a glass of tea.
Maliheh, turning her face towards the window, said, “Listen, it sounds like there’s something going on outside.”
Their home had a balcony overlooking the only paved street of the village. Twice a week, the sound of the train arrived, passed the window, and ended up on the broken pieces of the plasterwork of the ceiling. On the days when Taher did not feel like reading the old newspapers, when the smell of the old paper made him feel sick and when Maliheh was too tired to sing the forgotten songs of Qamar through her dentures, they went to the balcony to listen to the sound of the train, without ever seeing it.
“I’m talking to you, Taher. Let’s see what’s going on outside.”
Taher put down his glass on the tablecloth and went with his wet hair to the balcony, his mouth full of bread and cheese. There were people running towards the end of the street.
“What’s happening?” asked Maliheh.
She was more or less sixty years old. Thin. Her lips had sagged. She did not pluck her facial hair anymore.
“I don’t know.”
“I hope it’s not a corpse again… They must have found a corpse again.”
Even if Maliheh had not said “a corpse again”, they would have continued to eat their breakfast remembering the hot and sticky summer day when they had argued about the choice of a name: the day when the sun had crossed the frontier of Khorasan, lingered a bit on the Gonbad-e Qabus tower and travelled from there to the village to spread a pale dawn on Maliheh’s clothesline.
Taher, in the bed saturated with Sunday’s sun, had woken up to the music that Maliheh’s feet made each day. Maliheh would soon open the wooden door, and then she did just that. Before putting the bread on the breakfast spread, Maliheh said:
“Get up, Taher, get up.”
“At the bakery, people said they’d found a corpse under the bridge.”
“A dead body… Everyone’s going to have a look at it, get up.”
The two of them walked towards the bridge. There were people standing on it and looking down. For such a crowd, they were not making much noise. A warm wind was blowing towards the mulberry trees. A few young men were sitting on the edge of the bridge with their legs pointing down to the sound of the water. The police had formed a circle around a jeep. As soon as Maliheh and Taher arrived at the bridge, the police placed the corpse into the jeep and drove away.
Maliheh asked a young girl: “Who was it, my dear?
“I don’t know.”
“He was young?”
“I don’t know.”
“You didn’t see?”
The young girl moved away from Maliheh.
A man leaning on the railing of the bridge said: “I saw him. He was all blown up and dark. It was a kid, Mother, a little one.”
Taher took Maliheh’s arm. The bridge and the man and the river swirled around her. All that could be seen of the jeep was some dust moving towards the village.
“This man called me Mother, did you hear Taher? He called me…”
The sun had set. There was a little triangle of sweat on the back of Taher’s shirt.
Maliheh said: “Where are they taking this kid now? Was he dead? Maybe he was in the water playing and then…” The warm wind had failed to ripen any mulberries and had come back to ruffle Maliheh’s chador. “I didn’t find out how old he was! Take my hand, Taher.”
“Let’s sit down for a bit.”
Maliheh was thinking, if only there were children here instead of all these trees. “Ask someone where they’re taking him, will you?”
“Probably to the police station or to the clinic.”
Maliheh was thinking, if only I could see him.
Taher added: “What is there to see anyway, it’s just a kid.”
“That’s what I’ve been telling you.”
“You want to go and see Yavari?”
The doors of the clinic were open. There was a row of tall pine trees in the alley leading to the building’s landing, so dry that summer paled to insignificance next to them.
Doctor Yavari shook Taher’s hand and asked Maliheh: “Have you been taking your pills?”
The doctor asked Taher: “Is she sleeping well at night?”
Maliheh interrupted: “Doctor, they’ve found a child. Do you know about this?”
“Where is he now?”
“They’ve put him in the storeroom.”
“Storeroom? A kid? In the storeroom?”
“You know we don’t have a morgue here.”
“What will they do with him?”
“They’ll keep him ‘til tomorrow. If nobody comes to claim him, well, they’ll bury him.”
“If nobody comes, if nobody claims him, can we take him?”
“Can you… what?”
Taher said: “Take the child with us? What for, Maliheh?”
“We will bury him, we will bury him ourselves. Maybe then we can love him. Even now, it’s as if, as if… I love him…” Maliheh buried her head in her chador and the cry that she had kept from the bridge to the clinic broke out and her thin shoulders twisted under her chador and she blew her nose into her covered fist.
Taher poured a glass of water. The doctor had Maliheh lying down on a wooden bench. He stuck a thin needle under the skin of her hand. A bit of cotton with two drops of blood fell in the small bucket near the bench and until sunset that day, until the not-passing of the sound of the train, Maliheh did not open her eyes and did not say a single word.
It was Friday. The curtain of the main room was motionless and the wood-burner was burning to the song of the sparrows. The white winter, on that side of the window, wandered with its white coldness.
Maliheh said: “So many names, but nothing in the end.”
“We will eventually find one.”
“If we couldn’t find a name that day, then we can’t. Which day of the week was it, Taher?”
“The day when we went to the bridge?”
“No, the following day, when we went to the clinic…”
The day following that Sunday nobody came to claim the corpse. So on Monday, they sent the corpse from the clinic to the cemetery, carried on a crate, rolled up in a grey sheet. Outside of the clinic’s courtyard, Maliheh and Taher, who were not dressed in black, in a weather that was neither sunny nor rainy, started to walk at a slower pace than the man who carried the crate, who changed it from one hand to the other from time to time and sometimes rested it on the ground or against the trunk of a tree. They went around the small square of the village and entered its sole street. In front of the coffeehouse, the man rested the crate under a lamppost, which, although it did not look at all like a tree, was casting a shadow on the ground just like one. The coffeehouse keeper poured water from a jug and the man washed his hands and stayed at the same place to drink a glass of hot milk from the saucer. Maliheh turned her head and felt something leaking from between her breast to her shirt just as she walked past the crate. Taher slowed down his pace. Even though their house was nearby, Maliheh and Taher did not return home and stood still until the man was ready, for they did not wish the break the solemn silence of the funeral procession. They even stopped and looked at the balcony of their house where the window was still open to let the sound of the train enter, and they saw a young Maliheh bending to pour water in a flowerpot. When she lifted her head, an old Maliheh was gathering the empty flowerpots. Maliheh, with her firm flesh and her dark hair loosened, opened the curtain. Maliheh, with her small face and her hair tainted with henna, was walking in the rain. It rained just a few drops and then the man entered the cemetery. Taher and his wife had walked over the grass between the stones, a few steps away from the house where the corpses were washed. The burial ceremony—grey, dusty—lasted so long that they eventually had to sit down on the wet grass. When the gravediggers left, one could still hear the sound of the spade.
Taher said: “Get up, let’s go.”
“Help me then.”
They held on to one another. One could not say which one was supporting the other. As they struggled to stay on their feet, Maliheh said: “So he belongs to us now, no? Now we have a child who’s dead…”
All around them were stones, names and dates of birth…
Maliheh added: “We must tell them to carve a stone for him.”
“We must find him a name.”
It was Friday; the wood-burner was burning to the song of the sparrows and from the balcony one could hear the hubbub of the people echoing from the other end of the street. They were making so much noise that Taher and Maliheh could not hear the sound of the train, approaching, passing, disappearing.
LAETITIA NANQUETTE is a French translator and academic, based at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, specializing on contemporary Iranian literature and World Literature. She frequently travels to Iran.
ALI ALIZADEH is a Melbourne-based writer and lecturer at Monash University, and is co-editor and co-translator, with John Kinsella, of Six Vowels and Twenty Three Consonants: An Anthology of Persian Poetry from Rudaki to Langroodi
YZ Chin’s first chapbook of poetry deter was published last year by Chicago’s dancing girl press. Her fiction has previously appeared in Malaysian anthology, Collateral Damage, Hong Kong’s Cha, failbetter.com, and other publications.
Hunger pinned her to the bunk. Starvation impaled her through the stomach, keeping her down on the thin mattress, resisting the momentum of her feebly raised head. Her neck strained to bring her vision to the requisite level such that she could observe the movement of sun against her prison walls. The sun was her way of telling the time, of estimating the next delivery of food.
Not that it mattered now. It was her third month in maximum security. She did feel secure, as if nothing would ever happen to her again, until death. The days lost their shape, shedding the definition of hours and minutes. Her body, too, lost its shape, pooling downward, lowering her center of gravity, rooting her toward dirt and dust.
They said she was staging a hunger strike. Isa, on her part, felt that the refusal of food was really to make life behind bars more interesting. The meals they brought to her cell were markers of time, and she had looked forward to the packets of rice and gravy as daily celebrations. But then she started feeling like a Pavlovian dog. The nods of the men who handed her sustenance became sinister, laced with degradation. She resented the regular reminders of her weakness and dependency.
After minutes of work, she managed to prop herself up on one elbow. A rolling wave of dizziness lurched her, listing, tipping. She smiled widely. In her teenage years, when she lived a sheltered life, she had tried many times, each attempt lasting days or weeks or months, to go on diet. It didn’t much matter what kind of diets they were, or how much science was behind them. The hope was what she needed, that blindness leading her around each awkward corner of her then-life. She wished, on the other side of each corner, to find a slim, beautiful her, standing still with folded hands, waiting.
And now, she was living the perfect set-up to obtain the thinnest body of her life. She dreamt, still smiling, of her wafer physique gliding effortlessly among obstacles thrown up by invisible enemies. Anything anybody erected against her, she slipped past with a slight sideway turn of her frame, her arms extended ramrod above her head, as if surrendering, but really, evading, winning.
She was disappointed to feel, on being next conscious, that she was again flat on her back, her previous progress negated. Shadows swum before her eyes. She opened them. Men. Men were leaning over her, explaining something, but not to her. To each other, or maybe to an unseen observer. She sighed. Rank air filled her nose. Rolling her eyes upward, she caught the glance of one man, who started talking faster.
Hands pressed down on her shoulders, pinning them. A hand touched her lips. Isa suddenly wondered what clothes she was wearing. Whether she wore any.
Another pair of hands caught hold of her ankles. Her mind, wandering, entertained the absurd vision of a single many-limbed being. It had paused its speech when it extended hands and fists to restrain her, but now it started up again. Isa thought it might be expecting a response from her, but she could not understand it. When she opened her mouth to tell it so, fingers slipped through and stretched her lips. She gagged, and mush rushed in, filling her.
Of course she tried to spit. Of course she thrashed. At first. Then the mush began to acquire flavor, become more than texture. It wasted first like somebody else’s vomit, and then like her own. And then it became her, and she was being force-fed herself.
She re-closed her eyes. A piece of advice from a lifetime ago floated up. It had been given by a man, who based his authority upon his being a loving father with a daughter of his own. He recommended that when losing out to a rapist, a woman should give in and acquiesce. In other words, have sex with him. Do not fight. For survival should be your only focus, and you ran the risk of incurring murderous wrath to no avail by fighting while you are down. Everything other than your continued breathing — be it jewelry, other possessions, body, honor — is expendable. Save your life. Do not fight.
Oatmeal. That was what was in her mouth.
Joanne Burns’ most recent book of poems is amphora. Giramondo Publishing 2011. A new poetry collection brush will be published by Giramondo later in 2014. She is currently assembling poems for a selected volume of her work, spanning over four decades.