John Carey is an ex-teacher of French and Latin and a former part-time actor. The latest of his four poetry collections is One Lip Smacking (Picaro Press 2013)
From the security cameras…
Some footage of the Mardi Gras and bummage and plumage: a corps de danse-sirs
in a ballet sequins; a security cordon of muscled jocks in frocks but non-threatening…
a mini sleeper-hold perhaps then let you down gently with a bedtime story; a dozen
Julie Bishops put the Medusa stare on each other on the back of a trailer; a Sophie
Mirabella look-alike sinks her teeth into a rubber snake. It’s all rather jolly really,
nothing for Jehovah to get his robes in a knot over.
Two men in a lifeboat perched on the top of the hill, link arms. The taller,
in a blue suit and tie, wiggles his wing-nut ears. The second, in a fur-collared
parka, with narrow eyes in a sinister riverbank face, croaks through thin lips:
“ Turn back the floats !”. “Turn back the floats !” shouts his comrade-in-arms.
In a joint press release, they affirm their belief in a pluralist society:
“ What else is an oligarchy? Can’t you count? It’s not the unnatural things they do,
it’s the propaganda!”
“ What do you mean?” says his partner, “ ‘unlikely bedfellows’? Are you from the ABC?”
According to Immigration Detention statistics Australia holds 647 children in closed detention, 500 on the mainland, 146 children on Christmas Island, of which 28 have disabilities, and at least 186 on Nauru. The children on Christmas Island have little access to recreational or educational opportunities; many are depressed and suffer from anxiety disorders. Concern has mounted from medical practitioners working within detention centers that medical treatment is sub-standard to the point that that they are unable to properly fulfill their professional and ethical obligations. The Medical Journal of Australia recently published results of a questionnaire conducted by researchers at the University of Sydney and Westmead Hospital indicating that 80% of Australian pediatricians consider mandatory detention of children to be akin to ‘child abuse’. Only 13.4% of respondents correctly identified that most applicants wait in UNHCR camps for an average of more than 10 years before resettlement to Australia.
Previous studies indicate that long-term detention causes significant risk of mental harm as well as developmental risks, whilst also damaging the bonds that young people develop with family caregivers. It is a Stolen generation scenario. It severely limits educational opportunities and worsens the effect of other traumas (APS, 2004; Thomas & Lau, 2002). There have been numerous reports and media coverage of self-harm and other kinds of psycho-sexual abuse occurring in off-shore detention centers. The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship is the legal guardian for unaccompanied minors.
Janet Galbraith has been running a Facebook group with online forums to teach poetry to detainees as a liberating practice. She facilitates the writing program from her home in Castlemaine, Victoria. She has also visited Christmas Island to work with refugees who write, and she curates poetry readings in public spaces such as the Immigration Museum and Federation Square in Melbourne. Writing Through Fences is a workshop for young refugees offshore and onshore, those in community detention as well as some in Indonesia and Israel. She says: ‘It is not an exaggeration to say that actively sharing writing, stories and creativity has become a life-line. Of course this is nothing new, this is what writing and art can do. To create in the circumstances these children live in is to write a self into being; to find a friend – something that cannot be taken away’.
In this short video produced by Jane Curtis for the ABC, Janet discusses her work. Poems by refugees are enacted and in the hope that language promises their names are half-spoken, their faces are masked. These poems speak of physical and emotional deprivation, but also the visible scars of institutional abuse and neglect.
Ref: Med J Aust 2014; 201 (7): 393-398 David Isaacs, Alanna Maycock, Hasantha Gunasekera,Elizabeth J M Corbett
Written by Michelle Cahill; Video credit Jane Curtis, ABC
We are all human
I am not Pashton, not Tajik; not Uzbek and Hazara,
none have tendency for hatred or fighting.
If you want to be my guest, come as if you come to Afghan house. We are all Afghan.
We are all human.
It would be nothing if I devote my life for this beautiful land.
May God Almighty keep safe and secure my beloved Afghanistan.
Logar, Faryab, Kunar, Takhar — every part of my country is my soul and my body.
It is like precious gold.
You are my brother,
you are the crown of my head.
Let us go, Farah and Jawzjan together.
Let us raise our hands and pray, friends —
you, the friends of bright and beautiful mornings of mine.
Let us bring full baskets of Damascus roses.
I will sprinkle them on you,
and you sprinkle them on me.
M. B (15 years of age: written from Kabul)
Janet Galbraith is a poet living in Jaara country. Her work has been published in academic, health and literary journals in Australia. Her poetry collection remembering was published by Walleah Press in 2013. Janet is founder and facilitator of Writing Through Fences: a writing group made up of people writing from within Australia’s immigration detention industry.
Writing and Complexity at the Borders of Humanity
I will not dance to your war drum
I will not lend my soul nor my bones to your war drum
I will not dance to that beat
I know that beat
It is life-less
I know intimately that skin you are hitting
It was alive once
I will not dance to your drummed up war
…… I will craft my own drum (1)
Writing Through Fences is a writing group made up of people who are, or have been, directly affected by the Australian immigration industry. The name refers to the ability of writers and artists to reach beyond the fences and walls that attempt to contain, define and silence them. Each time the writers of Writing Through Fences write they are crafting their own drum. Through the writings of this diverse group of people – linked in their experiences of immigration detention, displacement, imprisonment, and writing – language, experience, knowledge and identity, beyond reductive understandings of people as ‘detainee’, ‘asylum seeker’ ‘refugee’, are (re)affirmed and created.
’Til when will I be called ‘asylum seeker’, ‘refugee’’, asks one young woman writing from within immigration detention (2).
‘I am not only this’, says a boy incarcerated in Christmas Island. ‘I am a boy, a brother, a son, a football player, a Hazara, a friend, a student. I love my mother, I love my family, I love Janet, I love my friends, I love biryani’.(3)
As many readers will know, people incarcerated within immigration detention centres in Australia, on Nauru and Manus Island are referred to by a number given them upon arrival. This number is referred to as their ID or boat numbers. This use of numbers to replace names effects a denial of personal and cultural history. To lose one’s name is, for many people I have spoken with, to lose a sense of self. It removes the identity of the individual that exists prior to imprisonment in immigration detention. The primary experience of self then becomes that of prisoner and with that the confusion of being labelled ‘illegal’ and ‘criminal’.
from Surroundings of Sadness
what have i done to deserve this situation?
is seeking asylum a crime?
what i was looking for is peace and freedom
but now it is far from me
it is like the distance between earth and sky.
—– S. Ahmed (Christmas Island)
This use of numbers also add to the fracturing of familial relationsips. As one young girl of 17 explains in a post in our writing group: ’I am sick of being called [number withheld]. My mother gave me a beautiful name. It is all I have left. But now even this is gone because I am just a number.’ (4) In response to this post another young writer sends a poem:
One Strong Woman to Another
Let us look forward.
We will get our chance one day.
And we will be called by our beautiful names.
We didn’t come by illegal way.
We are not illegal.
We cry and cry.
No-one gives us a tissue.
We are refugees.
Flashbacks take us back
Where we cannot go.
Where can we go forward?
They will not let us settle.
Let us be strong.
Let us forget numbers
Let us call out
our beautiful names.
—– Asmine (Darwin)
One of the things that I find most powerful about this poem is that rather than being defined by those who would un-name and mis-name her, the writer enacts her own agency as she chooses to provide sustaining care for another young writer, encouraging the remembering and use of their beautiful names. Against the brutal background of detention, and the belittling notions of the ‘poor refugees’, these writers claim strength, tenderness and solidarity, asserting possession of their own histories, their own memories, thoughts, emotions, experiences and names.
To claim this is not to forget the harm being inflicted upon the bodies and psyches of people in detention.
from 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.
The experience of detention industry often produce a profound sense of isolation and dislocation:
All the birds have flown up and gone,
a lonely cloud floats leisurely by.
We never tire of looking at each other
only the mountain and I.
Alongside this, however, is the maintenance of relationship. As the following writer writes intimately of his love for his wife, the reader is invited in to witness a deep love that has withstood much loss and withstands ongoing suffering in immigration detention.
there is your smell
on the footpath
of my place.
when everything is gone
and everywhere is clean.
I do not yet know
what can clean your name
from the wall of my heart?
The natural world too is experienced in varying ways. For one writer incarcerated on Manus Island the natural world adds to the torture he is experiencing. ‘Here is green hell.’ (5) A young writer incarcerated on Christmas Island experiences the beauty of the natural world:
When the world slept
I was writing
when the rest of the world slept.
The birds were singing,
the weather was calm.
While the stars were twinkling
I sat outside
and looking at the sky
I suddenly thought:
How beautiful is Allah’s creation.
—– H. Aden (Christmas Island)
Whilst each person incarcerated within the detention fences will have stories of violence, trauma, loss and despair, they will also have stories of joy, attention, love, relationship and wonder. Witnessing this requires that we recognise these writers as complex people rather than abstractions of humanity.
Another writer, who has been incarcerated in immigration detention for more than 5 years overtly demands the reader examine him/herself, our ways of seeing and our expressions and understanding of humanity:
Is it a human being that you see what you look at me?
From the depths of your soul, I ask you to give me an honest answer.
—–G. (detained 5 years Melbourne)
As I read more and more work from people writing from within Australia’s immigration detention industry I become more aware that what is needed is that we ‘bring our own individuality more honestly to meet another’s.’ (6)
A writer, reflecting on an image published of people incarcerated in Nauru challenges us to look closely, to reach beyond the deadening and de-humanising effects of mass media.
Look at this image closely.
Take 30 seconds of your time and look closer.
Feel the pain in this image.
These people are refugee children, women and men in the camp of Nauru. You don’t have to know any of them. Just looks at their hands, faces and eyes.
The voice of the cries and shouts that burn inside people can be easily felt beyond these fences.
Look at the closed fists of these men and women. They have fled from the prison of politics, tribe discrimination, mono religiousness, religious fanaticism, insight orientation, Basij orientation, hypocrisy, dictatorship, mean fellow and motes, separation, gender discrimination, inflation and government subsidies and have been caught in the wicked sight of men with ties.
Zoom in on the tired faces of these children. They also love freedom, they have the dream of high educational degrees like other kids.
This picture is not for recording the memory of a family picnic. It is to show perfection of so called “human rights” in the farthest place in the world. This is a masterpiece of the history of barbarity and abuse of human values.
This is Nauru – as prison – where all the spiritual and psychological torture tools for children are decorated and systematic.
In this image shameless immorality and terror are clearly shown – metallic fences are the borders between morality and immorality.
Watch carefully. Don’t miss this scene!
—– A.N (written once released)
Each of these writers demands that we ‘look closely’ at the images we are fed of people incarcerated in immigration detention. They invite readers outside of the fences to see beyond and despite the reductive language that circles around them both in relation to supporters of Australia’s immigration detention industry and some of it’s detractors. We are invited to see the ‘hands, eyes and faces of these people’; to feel the ‘cries and shouts that burn inside people’; to remember their names, to recognise that people have fled their homelands for many different reasons; and that this picture tells us much about our own humanity: ‘In this image shameless immorality and terror are clearly shown’.
Fady Joudah, poet and doctor writes: ’Somehow, poetry can participate in restoring the humanity of others despite the language of the day.’ (7) It is perhaps in this way that the poetry and writing from those involved in Writing Through Fences is a larger gift than those of us outside of the fences have imagined. It opens a space for a re-writing of the borders of humanity in a climate where, as a writer incarcerated in Manus Island writes: ‘It is the loss of your own humanity we are seeing.’ (8)
-This piece was written by Janet Galbraith in collaboration with the writers of Writing Through Fences.
1. What I Will’, spoken-word poem by Suheir Hammad http://www.ted.com/talks/suheir_hammad_poems_of_war_peace_women_power?language=en
2. A. Mohammed
3. name withheld
4. name withheld
8. Hossein Baabahmadi Squad of Death, thearrivalists.tumblr
by Bella Li
Vagabond Press, 2013
The Tulip Beds
by A. J. Carruthers
Vagabond Press, 2013
Reviewed by TAMRYN BENNETT
As Rare Object #94 and #92 respectively, Bella Li’s Maps, Cargo and A. J Carruthers’ The Tulip Beds are set to become even more recherché as Vagabond rounds-out their long-running series at #100. Vagabond’s Rare Objects are revered, not only as one of the finest chapbook series of recent years, but for the Press’ cultivation of so many debut collections. This tradition of careful curation and experimentation continues to shape the transitory spaces of both Maps, Cargo and The Tulip Beds.
Li is a cartographer of a different kind. Her map-making is as aesthetic as it is topographic, plotting fragmented histories, horizons and the spectral lands of memory and dream. Coordinates ‘E 44 10 N 33 15’ mark the first poem and the prophet Mohammed’s journey ‘In the year of the Hegira 622, driven from he city and exiled’ (p.1). Rather than patch together gapped historio-graphic accounts Li allows the poem to remain open to multiple imaginings, an approach that resonates with Lyn Hejinian’s overthrowing of fixed meaning in her paper ‘The Rejection of Closure’ (1985). The openness, participation and uncertainty invited by Li’s deliberate spaces is emphasised in the line ‘Concerning the origins of the name “ ” (in the palace, there was a small )’ (p.1).
These gapped expeditions continue to traverse continents, drifting through centuries of knotted cargo and ‘drowned’ coastlines (p.8). Above each of the travellers a constant damp of clouds hovers, and after the precise ‘Accounting of knives, guns and hats’ (p.3) Li steers towards more subliminal waters with the poems ‘Two children are threatened by a , 1924 (Ernst)’, ‘Drowning dream’ and ‘Window’.
‘Drowning dream’, my favourite mirage and perhaps the most melancholy offering of the collection, adapts its first line from Anne Sexton’s ‘Imitations of drowning’ (1981):
That August I began to dream of drowning. It was the season
of water—strange storms troubled the air. All day I crept
along the edges of rooms, avoiding the precious windows—
half ajar, propped open with old newspapers where the
green sky pooled (p.11).
Here, the clouds that loom like lodestars above the travellers give way to storms and rising seas that swallow gardens and swell timbers of a seemingly abandoned house. The slow wreckage of exteriors is mirrored in the basement of the house ‘where a man—quiet and still as a mouse—floated face down in the dark’ (p.11). There are no numbers to navigate, no landmarks, only the hum of the house above and hope of a different nightmare. The final poem, ‘Window’, draws back curtains like ghost nets inside a blue room of sleep.
through the window and you
can feel the hairs on your
neck do their little dance
and when you exit as
you must now that
you have entered
it is though
Like the chipped histories stacked around it, the house and window offers nothing whole. Instead the poem calls us into the unmapped, where flotsam and forgotten songs wait to be rediscovered.
Cosmic hollows and harmonies also shape Carruthers’ The Tulip Beds – a toneme suite, a collection as intricate and interconnected as the sources that sparked its creation. In the opening TONE/ NOTE Carruthers explains the alchemy involved in assembling this work:
‘Multiple procedures converged in the making of this piece. Initially, I was struck by a photo image of the extinct filter-feeder Siphusauctum gregarum, which appeared to show a three-line “stave”, in a 2012 article by Lorna J. O’Brien and Jean-Bernard Caron. I then used this article, as well as English translation of Johannes Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi (1619), and Aristoxenus’ Elementra Harmonica, as source-texts. Many of the images were generated thanks to the extraordinary website www.seeingwithsound.com’ (p.1).
This omnium of sources problematises classification of The Tulip Beds in a similar vein as the fossilised tulip-shaped creatures that remained incertae sedis for such a long time . The incongruent categorisation of these soft-bodied creatures echoes in the first ‘bars’ of the suite as Carruthers recounts the mystery of flower-like filter feeder:
In which a fossilized
species deserving of
the name Problematica
is poeticized by a
scientist, who found in
the three lines of a
stave an image worthy
of the poetry of nature (p. 1)
With the puzzle of Siphusauctum gregarum finally solved by science, the suite curves into the mysteries of planetary motion. Carruthers splices lines from Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and images generated by sound augmentations. The curve towards such chords also mirrored in the pixelated image squares that sit beneath each stanza. The tulip-like calyx that populate the first 14 stanzas morph into grainy planets and human hands as the suite scales tunings of Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and the Earth.
(The earth sings MI,
FA, MI so that you may
infer even from the
syllables that in this
our domicile MIsery
and FAmine obtain.)
ED IN THE EXTREME* (p.12)
While this citational poetics of source matter, semitones and symbols riffs in original and unexpected ways, the collection succeeds most, for me, when Carruthers gives space to his own tones within this celestial cacophony. Perhaps the next instalment of Tonemes, a chapbook forthcoming from SUS Press, will score more of Carruthers’ original compositions.
Hejinian, Lyn. ‘The Rejection of Closure’ (1985), in The Language of Inquiry, Berkley: University of California Press, 2000, pp. 40-58.
O’Brien, Lorna J.; Caron, Jean-Bernard. ‘A New Stalked Filter-Feeder from the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale, British Columbia, Canada’. PLoS ONE, 1, 2012.
TAMRYN BENNETT is a poet and artist. Since 2004 she has created artist’s books and comics in collaboration, exhibiting works in Sydney, Melbourne, Switzerland and Mexico. Her poetry and essays have been published in The Drunken Boat, Cordite, Nth Degree, English in Australia and ImageText. She has a PhD in Literature from UNSW and is currently Education Manager for The Red Room Company.
Naming the Ruins
by Dinah Romah
Reviewed and launched by MERLINDA BOBIS
What do you do with loss? Or with the violated body? Or the devastated dream? What do you with ruins?
You name them. You story them. You incant them into ‘oracles of love.’
This is what Naming the Ruins and its poet Dinah Roma have done: ‘Make oracles of love.’ Even if the poet herself says, ‘No more’, in the opening poem Coda—
The first call
after the pain exhausts—
the voice valiant
in distance. No more
the need to pull in,
to muse on what
could have been.
Or make an oracle
out of love.
So, the poet protests: ‘No more’ to ‘make an oracle out of love.’ Even as each poem in this book is, in fact, an ‘oracle of love.’
Of course, there is a marked distinction here: To make an oracle out of love is to make love a portent or a promise, a harbinger of something else. But to make an oracle of love is about the loving in the making, as when a poem is loved into being, so
The words are uttered,
each syllable freed
for what it is.
So the loss, the violation and devastation, the ruins fall away, and what remains is
The sound of heartbeat,
crisp on the verge
not of misery,
nor of joy,
But of desire, as desire is always on the verge of, which is the very locus of this book—this body re-instating desire that was once violated, devastated, lost.
But how paradoxical that this song which the poet verges on is, in fact
… the silence
of great cathedrals
as the last note
It could be the silence of relief, rest, or illumination after loss and lament, or even after reading a poem. It could be all of these silences, but more compellingly, it is also the silence of praise. That hush of awe.
I hear it in this collection—and strangely, or perhaps aptly, in the white space after a solitary word falls.
I, too, hear Rainer Maria Rilke coming into this white space, as if coming into the light in his Sonnets to Orpheus—
Only in the Realm of Praising should Lament
walk, the naiad of the wept-for fountain,
watching over the stream of our complaint
that it be clear upon the very stone
that bears the arch of triumph and the altar.
—(The Sonnets to Orpheus, 237)
So I am led to ask: What right do we have to lament if we cannot praise?
Lament there is in Dinah’s poetry—and always, always praise. And even in the lamentation—whether it is for love betrayed, or for lives wrecked by superstorm Haiyan, or for the loss of a culture in Angkor Wat, or for a mother being laid to rest—lament becomes praise, when it becomes a poem.
In ‘Consuming Sorrow’, the poet raises both query and command—
Why waste the rites
of lament when they can be
put on show? Inside the pantry,
sorted out in cans, labeled
with fancy fonts. Each name,
a use. Or beside a vase of blooms,
magnificent in minutiae,
an exotic figure hand-picked
from a bazaar of all lost
and transported. Or let it
hang from your neck, the sheen
of gems guarding an order
of value, their shores and hills
polished after the silhouette of bone.
Or let a ring grasp the full
diameter of eternity in vows
engraved in indelible death.
There is a self-mocking stance towards the making precious of grief and its performance—something to be consumed—even as the poet strategically makes sorrow flesh, real, touchable—
Its nature is solid. Its measure
is mass and volume. So let it stand
among your prized possessions.
Let it say: here, touch me,
don’t be afraid. …
Hear the doubleness of the invitation: ‘Touch me’ and touch the grief (it’s out there, on display), and this body-in-grief (it’s me before you, reader). Make me solid too.
don’t be afraid
A call to courage like a call to arms, in a bid for kinship: from solid to solidarity. So with her reader-witness, the poet is brave. To lament, to wail, to speak of ruins, to make them seen and heard as incantation—as Philippine shamans would. They who know how praise and transcendence are organic to lament; they who live by oracle-making.
So as we “witness” each poem in this book, we too are co-opted into this oracle-making.
… We [become] bodies
circling into radiance unimpeded
into the trail of sudden tremor.
It is this sudden tremor of consciousness after each poem that astounds in this collection. That returns us to the silence of great cathedrals.
So witness the lived bodies in this book—utter them, incant them.
Yes, Roma is a Philippine poet. She writes about her specific culture, its world and worldview—that she expands beyond this specificity, beyond the white spaces around her spare lines, beyond the page, the book, and into the air that we breathe.
Roma writes from the voices of her own home. And yet these voices can come alive in our own mouths: other breaths suddenly in our breath. Because—
I am the story told many times over.
I am someone in someone else’s
body of someone else.
Lest we forget: all of us are that ‘body of someone else.’ But only if we are willing and unafraid to acknowledge it.
The Sonnets to Orpheus (I, 8),’The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Trans & Ed Stephen Mitchell. (1989). NY: Vintage, 1989, p237.
MERLINDA BOBIS is an award-winning Filipino-Australian writer. She teaches at the University of Wollongong
Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience)
by Les Wicks
Puncher & Wattman Poetry
Reviewed by JOHN UPTON
Before you open Les Wick’s latest collection he’s already playing with your eye and your mind: the title is a joke and an admonition: it’s “Sea of Heartbeak”, not “Heartbreak”. A sentimental cliché becomes a warning – take nothing for granted.
Inside is much serious intent and more jokes, but the most immediate feature is Wick’s striking poetic technique, developed over 35 years of publication. Consider this:
Feed the stairs
roll the corridors like
your last smoke at this edge of lamps. Someone chose
this wacky orange for the waiting room.
An “array” of tests (military language).
Cancer is coming. Cancer has gone.
Moles bloom on atom geography.
Amidst a darkling fever
Double barrage, his cinched levis.
Our bones aren’t a cage.
these constructs our words have mortared-in around
the pledge of mortality.
No-one would vote for this
but it’s ours.
A visit to a doctor’s busy waiting room is deconstructed and re-cut, slightly askew, so that we remain aware of the elements as well as the divinity of the whole. Wicks’s obliqueness makes us search for meaning. (Though one must admit this chopped reality sacrifices the elegance and sensuality of a long, voluptuous line).
Wicks’s style loves a different image in each line:
Silver whistles slept.
Trains had abandoned
that brittle underlife.
In the empty waft of untapped electricity
he was somewhere up the way
in my plastic-bucket-blue uniform
(‘The Hinge’ 13)
This is the opening of the third poem in the book – the situation is set rapidly, there’s dramatic involvement for the reader, but each line is a separate idea, its build is subtle. An employee in the railway underground, perhaps Wicks, is sent to find a vagrant sheltering in a tunnel. A common situation made uncommon by the illuminations. This poem is a long narrative, unique in this collection, and it catches another important element in Wicks’s work – his sympathy for those marginalised and fighting for urban survival. Sympathy for the dispossessed links arms with his suspicious disrespect for authority, the same disrespect captured by his aggressive, choppy style that jiggles your elbow for attention. His poetic is personal but manages to wear its heart on its sleeve without being mawkish about it. Towards the end of “The Hinge”, the narrator finds the NFP (someone with No Fixed Place of abode) and brings him back to the railway office, where the police are called:
He was put
down on a stalwart vinyl chair at the security office,
a bent & filthy hope. The police
smashed his head
into a matching grey desk.
All our days are numbered
moral failure impotent vicinities.
Rills of snot,
NFP leaked scared & crying –
the constables thought they had a simple solution,
No point laying charges with fuckin’ NFPs
YOU will never (bash)
come to Central (bash)
Another moment caromed past,
into the linger of weight
like stone above air, late shift lives on lines.
Still or in flail,
our culpable hands.
(‘The Hinge’ p 16-17)
Violence occurs elsewhere in the collection, but it’s never as explicit as here. That exploration is of a different kind – of perception and reality, of morality, of the emotions. The world is glimpsed in vivid flashes, sometimes from lightning at night, sometimes from passing cars, or in glimpses in harsh daylight from the corner of an eye. The flashes are then edited into sequences that are sharp but puzzling, familiar and yet disturbing, dramatic but amusing:
Leaving the apartment block, note
Barry has a buzz on, a brim.
He sings & howls seamlessly. Down the street
a couple whisper like wire brushes, their love is a nail.
Later, on the train two troubled blondes
from a wooden part of town
exhaust what credit they have on the phone.
Some graffiti – Acpopulus Later. Yesterday, I was served by an assistant
in Islamic scarf & Santa hat. I fit in here,
this country when it works … no worries.
At Rockdale the promissory Black Garter Escorts
sits patiently beside White Lady Funerals.
(‘The Necropolitan’ 18)
Wicks works his ideas through images rather than argument. The poems are visceral; each shaped towards an emotional experience. As a technique for examining history, society and art, postmodernism excels; as a form to illuminate feelings and experience, it can drain the essence if poorly applied. Wicks understands that.
A different aspect of his work is his attitude to words. He’s as exuberant as James Joyce with a spray can and a wall. He plays the punster funster, having a ball: “we are a crowd of trees, awestruck / a crowd of fleas, hungry fleeing / crowd of pleas, more”; “eulogies of eucalyptus”, “lantana manana”, “plucked the snake out of sass”, “suit yourself or suture yourself”, “sprinkle wrinkles”, “[a cop] blocky blond and aerated with action”. His titles include ‘Magic Nihilism’ & ‘The Problem of Splendour’, ‘The Necropolitan’, ‘On The Nature Of Wickedness And Plums’, ‘Ted Near Dead & the New Lyricism’, ‘Flotsam Ahoy’. He’s like a biblical prophet caught doing stand-up, who can’t believe his luck.
But mostly his eye is quick and exact:
The desert wind wears a blunt dust
from the deaths
of the snub-nosed Silverton buses all
cut like raw opal
pressed into a humiliating servitude
windbreaks for camels.
Punctuation of crows
affixed on air.
(‘Aeolus at the Mulga’ 49)
One reason his postmodern re-cutting works is because Wicks does a neat line in aphorisms. They’re scattered throughout the poems, but in “Secret Saids – Everything I Know” he piles up three pages of them, heaped like strawberries: “Certainty is fickle”, “Your dreams will wake you up”, “One can find truth in a bottle / but the light’s a bit distorted”, “Money isn’t everyone”, and my own reflexive favourite, “Nothing belongs to us all”.
Wicks has an aggressive and striking technique but what, ultimately, is he on about? Well, can you evangelize secular humanism? Wicks believes so. But he implies rather than lectures, his vision accretes through poems and instances, in nourished glimpses rather than a steady stare. And though the tone is knowing, cool, a bit sad, it’s also alert to fecundity and wonder. World-weariness is still a few drinks away.
Usually, though, wonder is understated – ecstasy isn’t cool in these back streets and corner pubs so the verse doesn’t soar –as, say, Murray can – but prefers its urban irony.
Wit is on the prowl, however, and can be warm, sly and cheeky or savage and judgmental: an evening railway station with “scratchy girl-less gangs / with all the hate that Saturday / had thrown up all / over their denims” (‘The Hinge’ 13)
Although the voice is vernacular, the intention is literary, sometimes mysterious and deliberately difficult. ‘Healed and Hurt’ opens:
I blame you and the island. There’s an electronica,
that I wear like a lei. Feint complaint
from our hearts, all the uniforms are bleached.
Wearing tinnitus “like a lei “ is good, but I don’t know what the rest means. Which island? “Feint complaint”? Over-compression can reduce a poem’s impact, like a clarinet heard at a distance, where the melodic line comes only in phrases.
For the most part, though, exuberance and wisdom shine through, as in this celebration of the annual migration of bogong moths:
Small deaths serve simply to mark the way
another diaspora pit stop
on this acne-string of peopled coast.
Bogongs are fooled by trashy suns that humans make;
our floodlit, foodless acres of town.
But they leave this bleak cover
the lightstained indigo of evening.
Throughout this book, a sharp poetic eye works with practised skill to celebrate newness in the everyday.
JOHN UPTON’s poetry has been published in SMH, The Australian, Canberra Times, Quadrant, Cordite, Best Australian Poems 2014 and many other literary magazines and anthologies. He has had five stage plays produced and has written for more than 20 television drama series. His political comedy Machiavelli won the Australian Writers Guild’s award for Best New Play.
Lillian Kwok is originally from Philadelphia and now lives and studies in Sweden. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Hawaii Pacific Review, Off the Coast, burntdistrict and other journals. She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
We spend that summer with our dad in Hainan. My sister is nine and wants to spend
all her time with me, but I want to bike along the water alone, look for seaglass and
dead sea animals without her. So she cries and dad becomes cross. My sister gets
Saturday candy but not me. To punish him I refuse to eat lunch and dinner. But my
father, the oldest of nine brothers and sisters, knows a thing or two about hunger and
is not afraid of me. Whenever I want to starve, he lets me starve.
by Kent MacCarter
Reviewed by DAN DISNEY
If you are looking for narrative sensibilities or lyric sense-making in a narrow sense, then Sputnik’s Cousin is not for you. About as far out as its Russian satellite namesake once was, this is a book of astronomically strange experiments delivered as ‘poems and non-fiction’ (back cover). MacCarter’s texts are a kind of otherly reportage fed through deviant, garbled syntax, and these little machines of momentary expressive orbit are built to record the fetishistic weirdness of their human subjects. Indeed, and as if Sputnik-ing from the sidereal, MacCarter’s excursive and idiosyncratic inventions sputter heartily to their own trajectories; this is literature but not as we have known it.
The book is organised into seven discrete packages of high-octane oddness: in Sputnik’s Cousin we find prose, faux-sonnets, prose-poems, strange verse, even an historical melodrama. ‘Fat Chance’ is pure gallows humor, an enumeration of unexpected death which has less to do with the darker satires of, say, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 or Vanessa Place’s Statements of Fact, and is more like scrolling randomly through liveleak.com scanning for Darwin Awards nominees; ‘Pork Town’ is a Bataille-esque psychogeographical romp across the patina of Melbourne’s inner-western badlands, and both these non-fiction sections offer generic (but not stylistic) variation from the poems. ‘Stencil’ is a suite of 23 non-accentual ‘sonnets’, ungainly but measured, mostly rhyming; here, we may be forgiven for thinking MacCarter is lapsing into his own version of neo-surrealism. The eighth ‘sonnet’, ‘Geiger-Müller Counter’, seems at least initially to want to party hard with the oeuvres of, say, James Tate or Russell Edson –
A little pony of a man with a tiny pony brain
trots up floor after floor … (42)
But unlike the willed madness of surrealism first championed by André Breton in the 1920s and taken up by Tate et al toward the end of the 20th century, MacCarter is up to something more state-of-the-art than playing out processes capturing (as Isidore Ducasse framed it) a ‘fortuitous meeting, on a dissection table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella’. MacCarter’s anarchic fervor is instead sustained by distinctly contemporary experimental impulses –
detecting blocks, an office tower
the jaundiced shade of gristle Geoffrey Smart wars, reconsiders
chews over, measures. A centre freeway oyster blade Vein
this man’s contraptions pulsate along clot hot in kitchen space
tallying ill the zap gone microwaves serve wet tantrums
at employee-meat like a tennis star’s frippery of spectrums
re-heated from the United Colours (sic) of Benetton’s face …
(‘Geiger-Müller Counter’ 42)
Such is the sheer quantity of chopped and mangled imagery in ‘Stencils’, and indeed throughout this book, that instead of rocket like missile-missives, these poem-vessels propagate a ‘rudiments of barnstorming’ (40) more akin to a poetics of image-as-displacement, or the recording of random detritus. Perhaps echoing Kenneth Goldsmith’s notion of ‘language as junk’, these texts are remnants and remainders, repurposed in a cut-up and readymade mode: a new spin, then, on what theorist Marjorie Perloff brands as récriture (that is, literature as recycling). And it is this that makes Sputnik’s Cousin such a difficult but welcome arrival.
Rather than staging surrealistic mayhem, MacCarter’s poems speak from a different order of assemblage; so often the poems are located somewhere between récriture and reconnaissance, played out in this collection as a repurposing of random snapshots, a mixing/ switching of registers, and the recalibrating of canonical forms. In ‘Smoke Odes’, a multiply-epigraphed suite in which a perhaps-augmented MacCarter nods to his influences (literary and elsewise), we see just how many filters overlay the viewfinder –
Oddity, your small army
of guerilla cosmopolitans and pomegranate cleverness
keeps our gossip sugary and tasteful
and under Magritte’s derby
cluster our prized ruby gems
… Neil Gaiman, Osamu Tezuka, Eddie the Eagle, Tom Baker, et al
(‘Kissing Frank O’Hara [not on the mouth remix]’ 23).
As promised on the book’s back cover, these texts ‘hum a progress charged by humanity’s witless pursuit of technology and civility’; Sputnik’s Cousin charts a progression from Darwin’s Beagle (87) to near-future potentialities and, at heart, these meditations (at times hilarious, at times confronting, at times outright confusing) promulgate a particular and peculiar worldview churned through eccentric grammar – gerunds, denominal verbs, split infinitives, subjunctives – swirling into vertiginous non-unity. Prosodically then, if after Pope the sound must seem an echo to the sense, these poems are loud expositions of a world falling to pieces.
MacCarter writes how ‘I swear at times I know’ (130), and this book is suffused with deliberately destabilised processes of deliberation. The texts are always fast-paced and straight-faced, but also cockeyed – the poet ‘will oilspill/ your salted waters’ (16), and ‘tip the cup for sip’ (16); these are not so much ‘plots of gibberish’ (125) as febrile examinations of meaning-making (and where that has got us so far, circa 21c.) by a poet who seems altogether at ease as an outsider expressing the contours of exile to his ‘fellow travellers’ (this the literal translation of ‘Sputnik’) –
corroding its circuitry, the hairdos of maniacs
cut to its verb
remains. What remains (?)
of the grammar and me
supine from its unstoppable whispering
(‘Mergers/ Acquisitions’ 93)
MacCarter is exploring expressivist possibility here, and indeed experimenting with the plasticity of his material (that is, language); this post-po/mo jongleur is a free range radical stuffing his texts with images not so much fragmented as purposefully blurred. These are snapshots of an existence undertaken at velocity where even affect is bleary, vague, and out of focus: ‘I had bang lick wow they was abject’ (134). MacCarter’s is a savvy but also risky experimentalism, and by intentionally defocussing the image he will certainly be misread by some. But the great value of Sputnik’s Cousin is that it is not derivative (despite the many references to literary influences throughout the book), but instead opens intelligent new heterotopic possibility.
Indeed, Sputnik’s Cousin is a laboratory strewn with sensible inventions, where precision seems to have been intentionally deprioritized, and the view defocused to imitate the speeds of contemporary existence. The broken syntax echoes current conditions of consciousness – multitasking, distracted, spanning surfaces without the depth-experience of connection – and these poems are plausible models, a collection of ummwhatwasIsaying sayings. When surveying the persistence of older modes of the lyric impulse, arché-Conceptualist Christian Bök tells us how he is ‘amazed that poets will continue to write about their divorces, even though there is currently a robot taking pictures of orange ethane lakes on Titan’. File Kent MacCarter’s book under ‘feral’ or ‘HAZCHEM’, and expect the dizziness that can happen when accustomed modes of understanding shift, or the vertigo of non-comprehension when a mutant genus first arrives. Sputnik’s Cousin is voicing the everyday in ways that are lyrically, indeed generically, challenging: a feistier means of having the tops of our heads taken off.
DAN DISNEY teaches with the English Literature Program at Sogang University (Seoul)
by Bernice Chauly
(Math Paper Press, 2013)
Reviewed by JENNIFER MACKENZIE
‘Say it loud, say it silent’ (Socks)
Bernice Chauly’s Onkalo begins with an extraordinary quotation in the preface from Michael Madison, director of Into Eternity, a documentary on Onkalo, a nuclear fuel repository being built on the coast of Finland:
You are now in the tunnel. This place is not a place of honour. No esteemed deeds are Commemorated her. You should not have come here. You are heading towards a place where you should never go. What is there is dangerous and the danger will Still be present in your time, as it is in ours. Please turn around and never come back. There is nothing here for you. Go no further
This sense of a forbidden place, a place where entry will cost you, where there is no reward and only risk, is an apt vehicle for Chauly’s collection, which documents the poetic idea of bravery and risk, not in the sense of the confessional but in hard-edged reflection of decisive moments in a life; it is a place where the social, personal and political intersect. This place of intersection, this Onkalo if you will, reveals itself through the poet’s mastery of form, whether it be in the refinement of the love lyric or in the exhortation of the political cry. It also reveals itself through the apt placement of individual poems.
It is of interest to reflect on why the quality of bravery is so inherently important to an appreciation of Onkalo. In an earlier collection, The Book of Sins (2008), Chauly challenges her readers by writing with a starling lyricism of incidents of violence (This Love) to tenderness (Forgiveness). It is difficult indeed both psychologically and technically to write of what is inflicted upon us, or indeed bestowed upon us, but the poet succeeds in this regard through the concision of language and image.
In Onkalo inquiry is placed decisively in the political realm as a kind of political ecology, effectively underscoring the personal. The first long poem in the collection, Jerit, speaks to Malaysia as Ginsberg spoke to the United States of the 1950’s in Howl:
Will you let us write of new pages by those
who in yellow-infused riotous colour
betrayed the hallowed streets of the city
in the hundreds, in the tens and tens of thousands
who fought back the tear-gassed alleys
with brave tears and Maalox
Following on from this is Still, a rhythmically concise poem questioning where ethnic divisions may lead:
When does thought become action?
Will the keris strike yellow flesh?
Will it know when it is satisfied?
The emphasis on what I have termed the ‘political ecology’ of the collection is revealed through apt thematic placement. The title poem Onkalo for instance appears straight after these two overtly political poems, and segues into an evocation of the personal at once endangered and exposed. Onkalo, a place of ‘eternal thirst’, of ‘spent eviscerated/energy rods’ is called to rest ‘until the fiery skies/call out to you’, captures the sense of flame and risk that appears in Untitled 1 where rest suggests protection and renewal:
I am better off like this
in between the gnarled roots
the folds of black earth, the hands
of fertile leaves that are now in bloom
In Untitled 2 the city is portrayed as a site of metal, fuel and corruption, an Onkalo of now:
The city is tiresome
it vomits interminable streams
of coloured metal, engaged
on roads that toil underneath
the weight of the familiar
But it is also a place (Untitled 3) where one flames, one lives, a place you are compelled and indeed willed to inhabit:
The irreverent thrill
of a wanton evening –
on the flat road to home.
All under the gaze of a malevolent heaven:
The concrete sky
decapitating the haze
With Signs we find an extension of a Persephonian trope, where the poet leaves the Onkalo of a landscape ‘translated by fear/ruled by pain’ to become springlike and ’green again’, ‘populated once again/like pollen’.
This is not to suggest that the collection is subsumed under this conceit. Poems of love, travel and challenge (see the brilliant The Snatch) follow their own trajectory, but with the motif recurring like a theme in musical composition. Mood and climate weave their own variation in such poems of chill winter as The Nut House and In Amsterdam, or in the love lyric Novo Tel. In the exquisite Luang Prabang, longing flows through blossoming nature in order to define what the poet must say, must apprehend:
Maybe this is enough
I tell myself – perhaps longing
As I imagine reaching out
for your hand, across the
across the long banquet table
pierced with white lilies,
sugared roses, the spirals of jasmine
and the scent of a new world.
The penultimate poem, Sometimes, takes us to the world of death and grieving familiar to reader of Chauly’s fine memoir Growing Up With Ghosts, and in the concluding poem, 1973, she writes:
I chose my suffering
I walked with it
I ate it with deliberation
I breathed it, I drank it all
in its brief longevity
I chose my suffering
but I did not choose to see you die
I have paid grief its price
from the realm of the living
to the dead who still haunt me.
In the scoring of this suffering, Onkalo brings us the complexities of a life, the nerve of being.
JENNIFER MACKENZIE is the author of Borobudur (Transit Lounge, 2009), republished in Indonesia as “Borobudur and Other Poems” (Lontar, Jakarta, 2012). She has presented her work at many festivals and conferences in Asia, most recently at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Myanmar (supported by the Australia Council for the Arts) and at the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators Conference in Singapore.