R D Wood has had work published in Cordite, Overland, Westerly, Jacket2, Jalada and several academic publications. More of his writing can be found on: www.rdwood.org
- Asia to Australia
For me Australia has always been something contested, something to grapple and work with, something to move in and around and out of. I grew up in suburban Perth, but my childhood was marked by trips outside the city fringe and overseas. My father is from the Wheatbelt, and we have been going to the South West of Western Australia for as long as I can remember. My mother’s family is from India, and cousins, aunts and uncles lived in South East Asia. We used to visit them for school holidays and before I was an adult I had travelled to ten or so countries in three continents. It was a fortunate upbringing.
These places were all ‘not Australia’; they all perform some sort of negative labour in the definition of my nation, which if unknowable is a concrete assumption that demarcates the boundaries of my life. Indeed, to apprehend this thing one needs to place it in a web, economy, system of relations. I always knew I was Australian, but I did not quite know what ‘I’ was or what ‘Australia’ was in order for it to be so. I still don’t. This is partly because of the indeterminacy and misleading quality of ‘I’ itself, but there is also the resilience of being ‘West Australian’ and ‘a person of Asian origin’.
The eastern seaboard defines so much of ‘Australia’. Sydney and Melbourne, or particular parts of it, matter immensely in media and political representation here, in the life of power. So too do Canberra and rural places, around the Snowy Mountains for example or Queensland beaches and Tassie forests. When I finally came ‘over east’ I recognised the bush from Nolan and Streeton and Withers and others, from Lawson and Paterson and ‘A Country Practice’. It did not occur to me to visit these places when I was younger, assuming I had time and that they would be similar to the home I knew. How different they were when I finally crossed the Nullarbor.
In contrast I could not wait to leave Australia. I got my first job when I was 13, making pizzas two nights a week in a corporate fast food chain. I made $5.62 an hour and for the next four years put away most of it. I got that job so I could leave home. When school finished I made my way to America and Europe for a year, living on a $5000 shoestring. While I was away I don’t think I had a consciousness of my Australianness. I knew, of course, that I was not at home but I did not have the language or tools to reflect on what that meant. I was, like any colonial boy, trying my hardest to swallow ‘Culture’ whole. I wanted to be educated, to be learned, to be civilised and that meant going to the places I had been told were important. Cue the Louvre, the philharmonic, the opera, the ballet, the Tate. Cue too the Joshua Tree, jardins, the Alps and the Mediterranean coast. I was, in other words, trying to be a cultivated, bourgeois European, and it was as alienating as it was attractive.
This cultural learning, which is not ‘ours’, is integral to being Australian. It conveys the way in which we are less than autonomous. That might be for reasons of size, though to challenge such a claim one could point to literature in Ireland or music in Jamaica with their disproportionate global sway. But it might also be for reasons of history.
There is a tradition of going to the metropole, if not to prove oneself, then at least to learn a craft and way of seeing. This was supported by the ‘golden route’ of previous academic generations – Australian undergraduate degree, Oxbridge postgraduate followed by plum sandstone position back home. This however is a little antiquated, or rather it has been complicated by the growth of Australia in population and cultural production terms, and by the style of that growth. Paradoxically, Australia has achieved more self-definition since its opening up from the 1970s onwards, due in a racial sense to the end of the White Australia Policy and due in an economic sense to the floating of the dollar, the liberalisation of banking rules and the 1984 Accord. I do not mean ‘self-definition’ only in the nationalist sense of wanting to explain and explore national characteristics, but also as being more self-definite, more self-assured, more self-confident.
By being placed in a globalised world Australia’s localism could be more easily perceived and that I think gave us an increased power. To make a corollary, John Kinsella trades on his Wheatlands’ identity, his rural authenticity, precisely through participating in a world economic network that traverses the transatlantic. Similarly, the flat white or smashed avocado on toast is perceivable as a thing in and of itself because it is away from its roots. Or, when writers of colour gather round we do not talk about being writers of colour necessarily. We become who we are by having an Other. For any group to define itself then we need an audience, an interlocutor, someone who is ‘not Australian’ in this particular case.
In the middlebrow imagination Australia still looms as a frontier, masculinist and white. This is Steve Irwin and dangerous animals, lifesavers and surfers, rugged leading Hollywood men. In the poetic imagination, or imaginations, it is harder to say what Australia is – the success of Jacket2 matters, but one need also acknowledge Les Murray’s position on MFA reading lists and Robert Adamson’s recent success in America. It is still all about the nature. But to highlight these examples is to reinforce the idea that Australia’s best Other is still the transatlantic metropole. What of the linkages, relations, routes of different connections?
This is not the place to suggest some ill conceived ‘world literature’. But we must acknowledge that individuals access different aesthetic, and political, possibilities through their taste and experience. I realised my ‘Australianness’ when I lived in India as much as when I studied at Penn, even as there is a legitimating quality to the latter. Now though I can cognise ‘Australian poetry’ as part of an ecosystem that includes Africa (see Jalada), the Caribbean (see Calabash), Latin America (see Cecelia Vicuna and Ernesto Livon-Grossman) and various Asian intersections. Note too that these are not nations. This suggests that there need not be a return to the nationalist moment, but rather that ‘Australia’ in a continental iteration has merit and resilience as an organising principle. So too might ‘settler’, ‘Anglophone’ and a whole range of other groupings that intersect with a certain population here.
A D Hope wrote in 1962 that:
Australian writers have always had to compete for the attention of the best sort of readers with contemporary English and American writers, whereas their opposite numbers in England and America have been assured of the attention of the most discriminating part of their home public. As a result they have often had most success with, and perhaps unconsciously aimed at pleasing, a less discriminating class of readers whose tastes were not so ‘literary’; and they have tended to avoid competition with overseas writers and have concentrated on being as ‘Australian’ as possible. This has meant, in effect, the attempt to set up a special and purely Australian standard of writing.
These words are complicated and contestable now (we see, for example, the gloss between ‘literary’ and the empire, the discernible note of heteronomy). In Hope’s words however, we could see something about writing as an ‘Asian’ or a ‘person of colour’ in today’s Australia.
In other words, ‘Asian Australian’ writing has often attempted to set up a special standard of writing. This is to say there is a middle lens where one is caught by one’s authorial identification but also wants to transcend it. I don’t think I am alone in saying I want readers beyond my ethnicity, contested though that is. The aim then is de-hyphenise that identity and the identity of Others in the lexicon of the literary bureaucratic establishment. This is to say why can’t ‘Asian Australian’ stories be ‘Australian’ stories? Or why can’t ‘Australian’ stories be Keatingly ‘regional’ or even ‘universal’ precisely because of their particularity? This though is not a new question, but an ongoing concern that need be addressed again and again.
To constantly be pigeonholed is to undermine the potential reach of specific identities. It says, in other words, you are welcome here but play your role; thanks for coming but we will not accommodate you. The aim to break into the empire is essentially assimilative – the foregoing of a smaller frame of reference for a larger one. But assimilation brings with it changes to expectations and structures. It is not, never has been, never will be, a one-way street. When Australians write to ‘the world’ or ‘the literary’, which makes their whiteness invisible, Australia changes in itself. When Asian Australians write to ‘the nation’ they change the nation too. Indeed, in riding our bikes along that road, we want to acknowledge that the rules of the game need change. And that change has not been readily forthcoming if we are to judge by the programming hours of literary festivals, the identity of literary bureaucratic workers, the diversity of prize lists and the formal expectations of the artform.
Indeed, this question of identity matters to me in so far as it matters for the style of writing that is given space and promoted. I cherish the presence of Asian Australian poetry not because of some supposedly natural association between our embodied histories, but because of what it offers at the level of form and style to the context of writing in general. That is also an ethical imperative.
There are of course other networks to be made – ‘person of colour’ and ‘Indigenous’ are discursive terms that exist in the transnational Anglophonic world and there are differences in their meaning and implication in the USA, South Africa, New Zealand and the UK for example. There are also differences inside those places. Indeed, one of the ways in which these labels are red herrings is that there may be more similarity between the Drakensberg, Saskatchewan and the Kimberley than there is between Brunswick East and the Kimberley even though the latter two are both in Australia. The affective bonds of the nation are maintained in part because of the material realities of politics. Houses of parliament still matter then in helping us to make sense of the boundaries of our own cultural lives, they still reach into our day to day despite the growing presence of multinational corporations that disregard all forms of localism.
There is power yet in ‘Australia’, especially because it will never be settled. To write back to it though as an empirical experience means not only giving marginalised stories space, but doing so in a voice and style that is particular to different experience. We need then to contest the hegemony of an invisible race thinking through claiming this land as our land, and in so doing re-consider the boundaries of the possible and unsettle the great trauma of occupation, our exile from the kingdom. That it must come from an essential love of place is what can motivate us yet.
- After Binaries
Since the publication of Oodgeroo Noonucal’s We Are Going in 1964, there has been an expectation that Indigenous Australians have been speaking for themselves within the poetic literary economy. But to highlight this one book is to deny the pre-history of Indigenous writing and it is to focus on the author as autonomous individual rather than the network in which this work occurs. Critics, from Stephanie Honor Convery to Peter Minter and Anita Heiss to Michael Farrell, often like to cite Bennelong’s 1796 letter to Governor Philip as the first example of Indigenous writing. But we do not know for sure if he penned the work or had it transcribed. In that sense there are other informants before him, whose voices we can hear against the grain of primary sources, and there does exist a 1792 transcription of song lyrics by Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne, which was recorded when they performed for an aristocratic audience in England.
This factual attentiveness is important partly because we make judgements based on the past and partly because they can reframe abstractions. Indeed, decolonising Australia means historicising it materially, means decolonising the idea that there is one Australia, which also means deconstructing the idea of a hegemonic Indigenous experience.
My relationship with Indigenous Australias is not only in the archive, but in the lived world as well. My father’s father came to Australia in 1925, the year between the Bedford Downs Massacre (1924) and the Forest River Massacre (1926), which are claimed to be the last two massacres in Western Australia. He worked as a baker, logger and whaler in the South West and Wheatbelt alongside Aboriginal people who he knew as Jacky and Nugget.
As a returned serviceman my uncle was ‘given’ a settlement block by the government on the Gibb River Road. He and my aunt turned it into a cattle station and lived there with local traditional owners, participating in ceremonies and law. They worked the land for twenty years, but left the Kimberley a shade before equal wages came in with nothing in their pockets. When I look back on this era and their role at the frontier, I have mixed feelings, a sense of shame for my family’s participation in what many would describe as colonialism and a sense of pride because it looks different when you are at the coalface, not in the ivory towers or café confines of relative metropoles. When they went back there in the 1990s to return religious artefacts that had been given to them, the community asked that they continue to hold onto them. One of these pieces is an item that my aunt swears has protected my cousin, who is an SAS soldier, through twenty years of front line war service. Such belief is not easy to think through.
On my mother’s side, people often think her and my aunties are Aboriginal. In one incident we often laugh about, one (white) woman came up to her and said sorry on the day Kevin Rudd apologised in parliament. But it has happened on other occasions too. It has also led to abuse.
My own life though has always been entangled with that of Indigenous Australians, from urban Noongar primary school friends to my Ngarluma brother-in-law and nephew today. When I was a kid I was part of a pilot Aboriginal Studies school program and got to meet people like Pat Dodson and visit missions in the Gascoyne. I have worked though most closely with people in the Pilbara, and continue to read and learn Western Pilbara languages with the help of family and Wangka Maya language resources. In one way of framing it though, the issue of mining and land rights up there looks very different from the concerns of people in a particular scene in Melbourne or Sydney, regardless of their Indigeneity or not.
There are paradigmatic ways of speaking about Aboriginal Australias. One, that it is monolithic; two, that it has representatives; three, that it is full of infighting. We see different representations by non-Indigenous writers too, which hark back to a less salubrious past. One notes in Tim Winton’s latest work Island Home, a representation of one Aboriginal man as having a voice ‘untouched by modernity’ who, when sleeping, ‘looks as serene as a child’ (212). I would not be so bold as to think my observations could be projected onto this particular case in Winton, but I do think we need be mindful of historical representations. To that end, I wonder how one can be ‘untouched by modernity’ when one is riding in a car and I would also wonder what are the benefits for the burdened white man infantilising an Other as he steers the car like a benevolent father. The old men I know up in the Pilbara love country and western music and that, however unconsciously, flavours their singing; the youngfellas prefer Akon and Kanye. And they all look like men when they sleep. These two examples from Winton though are simply the most obvious, and they betray something of the acceptable racism of middlebrow populism today.
We see a similar over-simplification, albeit expressed more subtly, in other writers too. One need only consider ‘Storylines’ by Stephanie Honor Convery. In it she writes:
However, occasionally a text will come out, such as Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, that appears to pay absolutely no heed to Western narrative convention. Wright’s first novel, Plains of Promise, has a relatively linear structure. Carpentaria, on the other hand, sprawls: the narrative sequence loops backwards and forwards through time without warning, characters appear and disappear in strange, apparently unexplained circumstances. I argue that part of what makes Carpentaria important—and so strange to non-Indigenous readers—is that it represents the lived experience of traditional stories as cultural adhesive. But many (white) readers find the novel incomprehensible and inaccessible.
The suggestion is flawed though in that there might be a Western narrative tradition that need not be explained. How is Ulysses the same as War and Peace? Is Tristam Shandy the same as At Swim Two Birds? We need a Propp-esque Morphology of the Western Novel before we could suggest as much, let alone a materialist sociological survey of who and how today’s non-Indigenous readers interpret. One would only set up these binaries if one is invested in seeing Indigenous and Western as opposing forces in a binarised world, not interacting and porous heuristics constantly in need of interrogation. And, what too of this convenient slippage between white and non-Indigenous? Malayalee epic poetry ‘sprawls’; there are examples from Latin American (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Chinese (various works by Mo Yan) and African (Ben Okri) ‘magical realist’ novels where time ‘loops backwards and forwards’; and characters ‘appear and disappear’ the world over. This is, yet again, the failure of criticism to deal with text but it is also about the sedimentation of an antiquated race thinking in Australia, which needs to be contested. When I went up to the Gulf of Carpentaria with Alexis in late 2013, I remember her telling me the importance of listening to ‘your old people’, which is not to say who those old people are. In remote communities all over Australia those people are more mixed up than ‘we’ like to think, mixed up in the sense of identity, which is racial amongst other things. How else could we get someone with Chinese, European and Aboriginal heritage writing about modernity and myth?
But this aporia and hegemonism is there too in Indigenous writers. In Madee Clark and Genevieve Grieves ‘Decolonising Solidarity’ in Overland there seems to be some sort of Indigenous experience approaching the unitary. This is supported when they write: ‘What is the role of non-Indigenous people in Indigenous affairs?’; ‘How can non-Indigenous people truly be effective allies for Indigenous issues?’; ‘Throughout their lives, non-Indigenous Australians often remain largely ignorant of the history and present realities of Indigenous Australia.’ But for me, Melbourne, where both these women are based, is a long way from Cheeditha and to yoke these two places together through something called ‘the Indigenous’ often occludes the power relations of lived experience. It might be one thing to show solidarity, but why should a demonstration in an East Coast city be counted as more important than a daily interaction on country? In other words, what is to be gained by perpetuating these basic identity categories as assumed forms of authentic cultural capital rather than calling into question their very foundations? Why can’t someone who works in a remote community (and may happen to be non-Ngarluma or non-Banjima or non-Yindjibarndi or non-indigenous) speak with, for, against their lived experience because of a reigning paradigm of Indigeneity? In other words ‘Noongar life’ is different from other life and it, in and of itself, might not be a worthwhile category such is the multiplicity of experiences within it.
Being a fellow traveller to Indigenous Australias means not only being cognisant of its histories, which is not the same as its myths, but also constantly questioning the assumptions of discourses of colonisation, settlement and race. We need challenge the foundations of those very categories, to ask what is to be maintained by double consciousness rather than hybridity or homonymity, to ask who benefits from speaking of groups based in race, to ask what are the material circumstances of specific individuals as individuals not as ambassadors. We need also question the validity of lived experience decoupled from analytical endeavour, and vice versa. If we begin to do so we might begin to describe a vision of the world that we can welcome rather than remaining locked in ignorant narratives that curtail our very possibilities.
- On Exile
Like my mother before me I live in exile. She from nation; me from country. She was raised in Singapore and has lived ‘here’ for 30 years, but she still feels outside ‘Australia’. This is partly about race, partly about place. My father lives, I think, with a sense of belonging even as he is as peripatetic as anyone I know. That is because he believes in the nation state as a home, which is only reinforced by going overseas every three weeks or so. He is ‘Australian’ rather than a person from the Wheatbelt who migrated to Perth.
Country is not nation. I do not only mean to invoke, least of all appropriate, the Indigenised discourse of the former, or borrow naively the political science of the latter. Rather, I mean it more simply – borders, boundaries, maps are not natural, but cultural, imposed, recent. How we talk about nature has similar structural issues because it is part of language. But its endogenous, definitive markings make a more ecological, knowing sense – rivers, mountains, desert as features of division longer, older, more authoritative than English, a politics that is not about identity as we know it. The Great Lakes is a country even as it crosses two nations; Lake Ottawa is more like Lake Michigan than the Mojave Desert. Australia is a nation, but to me is many countries.
My distinction between nation and country is important for thinking about aesthetics and politics, and is informed by John Wesley Powell, a late nineteenth century American geographer. To quote, at length, Geoffrey Hutchinson’s ‘John Wesley Powell and the New West’:
In the 1878 Report [about the continental Western United States] Powell had two revolutionary recommendations that continue to reverberate in land-use debates today.
First, because water is the key to development (and irrigation the ultimate agricultural objective), land management units should be organized around watersheds. This would require scrapping the “township and range” survey system that imposed a rigid systematic grid pattern on the land. This led to the vast checkerboard of land holdings familiar to any transcontinental airline passenger with a window seat. In its place, Powell recommended a management plan and a survey system based on watershed units.
Using watersheds as an organizing principle, the whole region would be subdivided along topographic lines, beginning with large river basins or districts, such as the Rio Grande in New Mexico, within which would be nested smaller districts, such as the San Luis Valley. Each district could be evaluated in terms of the water it might yield to support irrigation. Powell’s watershed approach was revolutionary by acknowledging that different lands within one region had different economic potential. He further asserted that the government, which was seeking to transfer lands into private hands, must perform surveys to establish the potential value of the land and make survey results known to the public.
Based on his experiences in Mormon Utah, Powell felt that, rather than relying on individual initiative, communities should undertake development of western “watershed commonwealths.” This was a significant departure from the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy based on individual independent farmers that had helped propel westward expansion.
A ‘watershed democracy’ that Powell talked about then is about country, about responding with land management tools that pay appropriate heed to the natural environment rather than impose arbitrary political frames on top of land. It is essentially a permacultural vision of the American West. Why should state lines be straight?
The Southwest of the continent mislabelled ‘Australia’ is my country (see here: http://gsp.yale.edu/sites/default/files/images/Aboriginal_Australia_Map_sm.jpg). I do not claim it though, as if to explore, prospect, prosper, own, farm. It is simply where I am from and connected to, and which is why I say I am in exile when I simply live in Melbourne. If one wanted to be more specific I would say Lake Herdsman, the Swan River and Redgate Beach are important sites for me, and have furnished me with my deepest spiritual experiences yet. That we rarely hear from writers of colour about the relationship to nature is to me an ongoing disservice to our diversity of experience and ‘national’ identity.
I grew up in the South West’s cracks and crevices, in its waves and breezes, in its alienation and dislocation, in its anger and submission. All my sensory memory is tied to that place when I think about my daily life – I did not wear pants until I was thirteen; I was swooped by magpies and still look to check for them; I burnt my feet every summer at the beach, when I had double gees and bindis stuck in them too; I assume a certain flatness to country and a sameness of weather; I assume I can roam around and find bush even in the city; and that birds are simply everywhere.
The South West is, in our times, the place of Winton and John Kinsella. Although I recognise Winton’s places more, there is no duende in his writing, no dialectic of enlightenment. If one is too close to what one claims to care for, one cannot see it clearly. It is an anxious man who need check in so frequently. It is also a Romantic one who so need extoll his closeness to bush as if to perform that connection rather than simply be with and in it. Kinsella, though I appreciate him more in an intellectual sense, brings with him a sensibility of place that seems foreign. He is from where my father is from, but his world of salinity, poison, hunting, farming is a type of ‘Australia’ away from my saltwater country. Both of them though are attached. Similarly, I have Redgate, which is my Wheatlands, which is my Angelus.
My mother and I are fortunate in that we can return to our homelands, but often we live a little muddled – especially when confronted by our unbelonging and the entreaties to be settled. But living in exile is not a romanticisation of the literary theory of unsettling, which has a trace of nomadics (heavy in Stuart Cook, lighter in Michael Farrell). Exile has discernible, traceable, real roots, which are not origins but genealogies. Everyone has roots. In my experience white people in the context of Australia forget that the most. They are not asked where are you from, which allows them to distance themselves from history, especially of family.
It might also be a question of asking: what sea are your archipelagos in? My islands might be Brunswick East, Wembley, Roebourne, Redgate; or Melbourne, Perth, the Pilbara, the South West; but there lingers too a trace of Lyneham, West Philadelphia, Charlottenburg, Montparnasse, Kalkaji. Those are the places I have lived for extended amounts of time, and their connections are made only in my life. But for the most part my sea is ‘Australia’ even as I do not wish to speak to, with, for, against the nation but situate myself here for political reasons, for reasons of the body.
Wole Soyinka wrote in The Guardian:
Going into exile was one thing, I argued, arriving there was another. Who was to tell me that I had arrived? That unique status of going into, but not having arrived at, was a luxury I could bestow on myself with the authority of lines from Lenrie Peters:
Earth has nowhere to go
You are at the starting point
Jumping across worlds
In condensed time
After the awkward fall
We are always at the starting point
Those lines are from his poem “Parachute Men”; and if ever there was an image that is appropriate and definitive on the liminal but dynamic condition of the exiled writer, the parachutist or free-fall glider is surely a front runner.
Exile then is an embodied thing, an in-betweeness, and we have not yet left or certainly arrived, maintaining a pushed and pulled identity. Part of it is physical; part of it is in the mind. As an intellectual I was in exile in Perth, away from centres of knowledge that I wanted to be part of. Away from the South West my body cried out for salt water, too bright sky, red tail black cockatoos. Melbourne has not solved either of these issues, and nor do I want it to.
Exile does not always have to tell you, like Soyinka or Peters, what it so obviously is either. Exile is there too, submerged, in Celan, Wittgenstein, Marx, but not Sartre, Foucault, Althusser. It is not quite homesickness, not quite alienation, and perhaps all of us in ‘Australia’ live in some sort of exile from history. How then to live in exile?
The body is a home wherever we go, for that is where the heart is. My body looks at home in Cuba, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, France, Spain, Italy, Northern India, America, Canada, even Australia. When I was in these places people assumed I was their citizen. And I have been asked by nationals if I am Argentinian, Moroccan and more besides. My body’s social place then is in a lot of places, and part of that is about being a man with certain class privileges. But part of that is about me and my belonging and reception in the world. I am at home in my body – how can I not be? But writing, language, has also been an origin, a shell, a skin – the notebook goes wherever I go. It will stay once I am gone and with it, I hope, someone can make sense of a home I am yet to call my own.
Carly Nugent is an Australian short story author and novelist. Carly’s short fiction has featured in numerous print and online publications, including The Bellevue Literary Review and the sixth edition of Award Winning Australian Writing (Melbourne Books). Carly currently lives in Phnom Penh, where she coordinates a bi-weekly writing workshop.
She had told Aunt Susan she had a summer book report to finish. But the truth was the assignment was already typed and sitting in her school bag. Mae had been at the table for half an hour, holding the novel in front of her like a shield, like a last line of defence between her and what lay in the kitchen.
She was fifteen, and could count the things she had killed on one hand. A cockroach in fourth grade because she wanted to prove to Tom Kelly that she wasn’t scared; a snail one morning on the footpath after a night of heavy rain; and a bee, though it had really killed itself when it stung her by the rosebush at Nana’s house last spring. And now here she was, a week before her sixteenth birthday, about to slit a chicken’s throat.
‘If you’re going to be here all summer you’re going to learn,’ Aunt Susan had said, pulling a knife from the block. It was the largest knife Mae had ever seen. It glinted up at her like a wicked white-toothed smile.
‘Finish your homework. I’ll be in the kitchen when you’re done.’
Mae had sat in the dining room with the book open, reading nothing, listening to the sounds her aunt made. First the backdoor slammed, and Mae pictured Aunt Susan walking out onto the farm. Her boots would be sinking a little in the mud. Mae imagined her entering the chicken coop, the birds scattering at first, then coming back expecting food. Aunt Susan would pluck one from the bunch – the brown and white one; the one Mae thought looked like marble chocolate. She heard the back door open and close again. A cluck. Mae pictured it in the kitchen, in a basket on the bench. For almost half an hour Mae imagined it sitting there – silently – staring out the window at the early dark. She imagined her aunt peeling potatoes, letting the still-dirty skins drop onto the floor like worms. They fell in slow motion.
Mae wished she could freeze time right here. Even if it meant she would never turn eighteen, never drive a car, never sleep with someone. Even if it meant she would spend the rest of her life at this table, with this book. The moment in the kitchen stood before her like a roadblock, like a hurdle she would have to jump over if she wanted to keep running this race. It seemed easier just to stop running.
When Mae finally walked into the kitchen things didn’t look at all the way she had imagined. Her aunt was rolling pastry on the counter, her entire body moving. There was no mud on her boots. Light was still filtering through the back window; it played across her face and she was beautiful. And the chicken – orange and black – was fluttering in the basket. It was pecking at things, clucking like it knew. Mae was surprised, staring at the chicken’s bobbing head, to see things moving at such a normal speed.
‘Alright,’ Aunt Susan said. The knife was in Mae’s hand. ‘You’ve seen me do this a dozen times. Off you go.’
There was a blue bucket on the floor. Aunt Susan lifted the chicken by its legs and held it upside down. Then finally, like she was hitting the play button on a remote control, Mae leaned forward to cut the bird’s throat.
Meera Atkinson is a Sydney-based writer, poet and scholar. Her work has appeared in over sixty publications, including Best Australian Stories 2007, Best Australian Poems 2010, and Griffith REVIEW. Meera has a PhD from the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University and is co-editor of Traumatic Affect (2013), an international volume of academic essays exploring the nexus of trauma and affect.
It was a late winter night; the kind that feels like spring will never come. Around the corner from the choked neon artery of Kings Cross a decrepit Persian cat with knotted fur sat at an upstairs window of an Art Deco building. The cat leapt off the ledge, sauntered into the kitchen, and rubbed its arthritic hips against the frail stockinged legs of an old woman who was finishing a meal of fried fish fingers.
Peggy stood and rinsed the plate under the cold tap before laying it face down on the aluminium sink. The flat was dark, except for a bald bulb illuminating the kitchen. It was tidy enough, but nothing was clean; a film of dust and grime covered the surfaces and the air had a musty scent to it, as if the windows had long been closed. Everything gave off Peggy’s peculiar smell: cheap perfume and stale make-up mixed with that strange salty stench of aged, unwashed skin.
Over the years, the cat had scratched the stuffing out of the arms of the sofa, and the floral carpet had worn threadbare in heavy-trafficked patches. The furnishings dated from the wake of WWII when an eighteen-year-old Peggy first moved in with her husband, a returned soldier. Oh, the Cross had seemed so grand then, with life ahead of them, all promise and plans. But gradually the neighbourhood changed around the distinguished old building, morphing into a sleek and moneyed enclave of stock brokers and publicists, its glamorous heyday and bohemian history alive only in the memory of the few left to recall it. The sleaze, sex, suburban punters and die-hard junkies persisted like dwindling life forms circling a dying star.
Peggy made her way to the bedroom and sat at her dresser. She powered a pale mask onto her face, and the particles made craters of her pores. When she considered herself in the mirror, under the stark glow of the overhead light, Peggy still saw herself as she was at forty, the decade of her prime. Back then she was the owner of a prosperous photographic business, respected by the community, welcomed everywhere, finally happy and free. Her husband, an immature young man when they married, had grown into a brutish bore far removed from the swaggering digger she waited for, and on her fortieth birthday he was five years in his grave. Satisfied, Peggy applied her lipstick and, standing, smoothed down her skirt. With some effort she tottered down the hall. A camera rested on a side table in the hallway, obscuring a framed photograph of a girl with a strawberry blonde ponytail. Peggy picked up the camera, hung it around her neck on its leather strap, and closed the door behind her leaving the cat staring dully at the door.
Emerging from the wrought iron gates at the entrance of the building, Peggy adjusted her wig, a silvery blonde bouffant, as the gate swung closed behind her. Once a glamorous faux-hairdo, its original glory had given way to gravity; the wig had lost its shape, and it was lacklustre and matted. Peggy was one of those elderly women whose years are impossible to guess. She had a kindly face that had once been pretty and her still generous lips were coloured with wonky red lipstick. She wore only black and white: a no longer so white shirt, a knee length black skirt that had seen better days, and sensible yet stylish black shoes that were worn down at the heels and scuffed at the toe. She was coatless and seemed impervious to the cold. The huge old Polaroid camera hung like a relic around her neck, pulling her already burdened shoulders down further.
Jasmine, a transgender working girl,leant against the wall in her usual spot, smiling warmly at Peggy as she stepped out into the night.
“Evening Peg”, hollered Jasmine in a singsong tone.
“Good evening”, replied Peggy with a sweet smile as she passed by.
Jasmine called out.
“You have a good night hey! ”
Peggy reached the glittering main drag and weaved through the crowds with a fragile sure-footedness and an intimate knowledge of the curves and crannies of the streets that eluded the tourists and revellers. She disappeared into restaurant after restaurant and promptly appeared again. She made her way down The Strip, venturing off into the laneways that shot off it. She walked in and out of doors, in and out, until at last the corns and calluses on her feet complained. The largest, on her big toe, was threatening to become ulcerous, and the pain of it forced her to return to the flat without a penny earned.
The following Saturday night Peggy went through the same ritual once again: first the fish fingers, then the powdering of her face, the drawing of dubious eyebrows, the rubbing in of out of date anti-biotic cream on the corns, the careful covering the area with bandage and stockings, the dressing in linty black and sullied white, before setting out again, her collapsing wig set high on her head, her lips in the trademark red. She turned into the first backstreet and entered a small, upmarket restaurant. A clean-cut waiter spied her and moved forward in a swift motion stopping her in her tracks: “You know I can’t let you in. Owners orders.”
Peggy’s eyes flicked up to meet his briefly before she turned and left, the camera hanging heavy around her neck. She seemed unaffected, oblivious to the humiliation; a small, half-mad smile set on her face, her eyes deep set and distant as if focussed on another dimension. She walked further down the street, entering the colourful doorway of a busy Thai restaurant. At first she seemed to go unnoticed but as she approached a young corporate looking couple eating spring rolls at a cosy corner table a tiny Asian woman materialised and spoke in clipped accented English: “No, you go please. Customer don’t like.” Peggy turned and left, once again seeming to float above her expulsion.
She continued down The Strip, and when she reached the intersection of William Street she crossed over into Victoria Road, walking with the famous Coke sign blinking behind and above her. Peggy passed by a noisy café with a NO HAWKERS sign before entering the loud, bustling restaurant beside it. The staff didn’t seem to mind; the owner, Johann, a benevolent old German, considered her a local institution and didn’t have the heart to refuse her.
Years ago, when Peggy had first wandered into the place, it had wider aisles, fewer tables, and it was not peopled by garish groups of well-to-do trend-makers swilling wine. Then a good night at The Bavarian meant a few immigrants and truck drivers, and perhaps a table of scruffy young people wearing torn jeans, eating cheap in the homely room. It was not the kind of restaurant she serviced back in those days, and she only bothered with it on slow nights, and not so much to work as to take the opportunity for a coffee break and a chat with Johann. Over the decades, the classy restaurants that were once her stock in trade had disappeared one by one and business at The Bavarian had picked up, attracting the professional class who flocked to eat its hearty fare, streaming from renovated Paddington terraces and slick Surry Hills penthouses and the new high rise luxury apartment buildings of Darlinghurst to enjoy the novelty of working class fare: homemade sausage, stew, schnitzel, hash browns and slaw. Paradoxically, it was the only place left in the Cross that welcomed her.
A waiter in lederhosen stood impatiently beside a table, order pad in hand, while a young couple deliberated over dessert. Finally, the young woman flicked her red hair, closed the menu and announced her decision. The waiter moved off. Peggy snaked along a clear passage surveying the diners. Her melancholic-mad eyes settled on a table where two middle-aged women ate their meals and talked soberly. One of the women saw Peggy’s approach from the corner of her eye and, visibly annoyed at the intended interruption, held up a hand before Peggy could speak: “No photos thank you.”
Peggy crossed to another table where an older couple considered their menus. The woman looked up at Peggy and quickly turned back to the menu. Peggy addressed the man: “Would you like a souvenir photo, Sir?” He forced a quick smile and avoided eye contact: “Not tonight thank you.” The young woman with red hair watched as Peggy made her way toward them. She leaned forward and whispered to her boyfriend. “There’s an old woman coming. I think she’s going to ask us to have our photo taken. It’s so sad. Everyone’s turning her down.” Her voice trailed off as Peggy appeared smiling her inexplicable smile. “Would you like a souvenir photo?” asked Peggy, cheerily. The young woman looked up at her and noticed, with a sharp stab of pity, that this inspired hope in Peggy’s tired blue eyes. Peggy spoke again. “A souvenir photo to remember the occasion?” The young woman glanced at her boyfriend awkwardly and looked around the room to see if anyone was watching. “Okay”, she said, in a small embarrassed voice.
Peggy sprang into action and positioned the camera. She viewed the pose in the frame: the young woman’s stiff, uncomfortable smile, the young man’s exaggerated, indulgent grin, his shot glance toward the young woman, humouring his girl. The flash went off. The Polaroid developed up from the white plastic like magic. Peggy waved it in the air and blew on it, then handed it to the young woman who stared at the photo. The paper was damaged with a crease at the corner, and it had a bad colour, making her and her boyfriend look sallow and dark under the eyes. The young woman feigned satisfaction. “Thank you. How much?”, she asked. “Twenty dollars please”, replied Peggy.
The young man’s eyes widened, and he pulled a face in the direction of his girlfriend as he reached for his wallet, plucked out a twenty, and gave it to Peggy. As Peggy moved off his outraged whisper could be heard by the dinners at the next table, but not by Peggy, whose hearing wasn’t what it used to be: “Twenty bucks?!”
Peggy moved to a table where a bespectacled man was in intense debate with two female companions. “Would you like a souvenir photo?” Peggy asked the clever looking gentleman. They turned to acknowledge her with indifference. The man nodded no and resumed his discussion.
Her feet ached and, with the mere twenty dollars in hand, Peggy walked back to her flat. When she opened the door, the cat meowed and rubbed around her throbbing, varicosed legs. Peggy put the camera down on the side table and kicked off her shoes. Her corn had rubbed red again under the bandage. She picked up the cat and sat down on the sofa, stroking its lustreless fur in the dark.
The next Saturday night Peggy ate her fish fingers, made her face up, and walked down The Strip, darting in and out of cafes and restaurants, the crooked, beatific smile fixed on her face. When she reached the The Bavarian, she was once again tolerated by the staff and shooed away by the diners. Peggy was just about to leave when she noticed a rowdy table where a group of friends were held to ransom by their life-of-the-party pal, seemingly at the tail end of an animated story. Peggy made her way over and waited for him to finish before speaking. “Would you like a souvenir photo, something to remember the occasion?” A girl in the party promptly answered: “No, thank you.” The storyteller, drunk and bloated, interjected. “Oh, come on!” He turned to Peggy: “Sure, we’ll get a picture.”“Dave!” protested the girl.
Peggy stood back with her camera. “Can you squeeze in together please?” She made a waving gesture. The group squeezed together. Peggy framed the pose: Dave smiled cheesily with his arms stretched around the women either side of him. One fellow held up his drink, a woman smiled into the camera sarcastically, and the girl who’d first said no turned to Dave with a why-are-you-letting-her-take-our-photo sneer. The flash went off. The Polaroid developed and Peggy passed it to Dave. The paper was not creased this time but there was still the bad colour and the top of Dave’s head was cut off.
“Twenty dollars thank you”, said Peggy, sweetly.
Dave pulled out a twenty and handed it to her and the group closed in to look at the photo. A roar of laughter erupted from the table as Peggy departed, which even her failing ears caught. A voice cut through the din.
“Hey, Dave’s had a lobotomy.”
“About time”, said the girl who’d said no.
“Check out the look on Zoe’s face”, observed another.
On her way home Peggy’s feet hurt so bad that she sat down to rest on the edge of the El Alamein fountain. She watched the street, staring blankly into the night, watching the ghosts of yesteryear. A car pulled up in front of her. Jasmine climbed out and walked toward Peggy in high heels. She sat down, crossed her long, muscular legs, and rummaged around in her purse for a cigarette. “Good thinking Peg. Time for a break.” Jasmine lit the cigarette and exhaled with a dramatic sigh. “You live alone in that nice old building, don’t you?” asked Jasmine. Peggy nodded. “No family?” Peggy nodded again. “I had a husband once but he died, a long time ago”, said Peggy. “I had a daughter. She passed too”. Jasmine sounded a small apologetic “oh”. “It’s not right for a child to die before a parent is it?” She looked briefly at Peg’s profile, took another drag of her cigarette and blew the smoke out in a straight line in front of her. “You don’t work these dirty streets unless you got a story eh? Ah well, they’re cleaning it up so much there won’t be anyone with stories left soon.”
Peggy’s mind drifted back to a time when going out to a restaurant on a Saturday night was special, when a woman would wear her finest dress and a man would wear his best suit and they would be greeted at the door by a bow-tied maitre’d and shown to an elegantly set table. And when Peggy approached them and offered to take a photograph almost everyone would jump at the chance to take a memento of good times home to show the family, a keepsake of happiness, to put in a frame on the mantel, or to give pride of place to in a photo album. Cheerful diners, in couples or groups, would pose, the women handsome with set-hair and pearls and the men slick and clean-shaven. Peggy spoke in a daze, as if talking to herself.
“It was wonderful then. People dressed up so nice for dinner. I took photos in every club and restaurant in the Cross. One Saturday night I took sixty photos!”
Peggy adjusted her wig, which was slipping, and continued.
“Back in those days everyone wanted a souvenir because the night was special, see. It’s not like that any more.”
“Nah”, said Jasmine, butting her cigarette out, “it’s all selfies and piss-ups these days, isn’t it?”
Jasmine stood up with a sigh.
“Better get back to the salt mines”, she said, laughing at her own joke.
Peggy stood and wavered slightly on her ulcerated foot. Jasmine grabbed Peggy’s arm and together they crossed the road. “Good night”, said Peggy, when they reached the other side, leaving Jasmine to take her position against the wall.
Peggy took the elevator up to the top floor and the cables creaked as the lift rose. She lay her camera down on the side table along with the $20. It wasn’t much, but it all helped. Peggy switched on the radio, poured herself a port, and sat down on the faded reproduction Louis XIV chair in the dim living room. She sipped her drink and tapped a cigarette out the pack, humming along to a jazz standard, a song she’d loved when she was a girl. Tommy Dorsey came on next and Peggy rose unsteadily, sore corn and all, and began dancing, slowly, around the room, port in hand. When the song ended Peggy stopped and stood looking through the window at the skeletons of trees.
The following Saturday night Peggy left her building with the camera around her neck. As she set off she saw Jasmine bent down to a car window. Peggy walked up The Strip, past an arguing tattooed couple and the bikers who still loitered around their motorcycles. She played out the same routine, weathering a string of ejections before taking refuge in The Bavarian on Victoria Street. As she entered the familiar clamour, the waiter looked up at her with a tense grimace. A waitress passed with plates in hand and glanced at Peggy with a regretful twist to her smile. A man Peggy had never seen before stood behind the counter. The headwaiter approached her and spoke in a low, sympathetic tone.
“I’m very sorry. We’ve got a new owner. He has a policy.”
Peggy stood with no perceptible response. He continued.
“You can’t take photos here any more. I’m very sorry.”
Peggy walked back down The Strip with throbbing feet. She rounded the corner into Potts Point, passing Jasmine’s empty spot. She entered her building, took the lift up, opened her door, and placed her camera on the side table. She moved into the kitchen and poured her nightly shot of port. The cat rubbed against her shin and purred. Peggy took the drink into her bedroom, and when she switched the light on the room illumed, revealing her bed with its frilled, stained mauve bedspread and dusty lady porcelain boudoir lamps on the bedside tables.
Peggy took a seat at the dresser and put her drink down next to the scattered make-up. She removed her wig, placing it on a battered Styrofoam wig head, and opened a jar of cold cream, spreading it onto her face and removing it with tissues. She sat staring at her bare, wrinkled face in the mirror until the cat jumped up onto the dresser, weaving before her, all croaky chirrups, all love.
Martin Kovan completed graduate studies in English at Sydney University and UC Davis. His poetry, prose and non-fiction have been published in Australia by Cordite Poetry Review, Overland Journal, Antithesis, Tirra Lirra, Colloquy, Westerly, Peril Magazine, Group Magazine, and Southerly, and in a number of publications overseas. He has lived for long periods in Europe, India and SE Asia, and also works in academic ethics and philosophy.
In Khost Province
The roads—still mostly unpaved. I’ve always thought I’d get used to the shuddering, the relentless jarring of the bones. All the other places—always the same. (In Iraq, Markus said he got haemorrhoids, not from sitting on rubble, on broken concrete for sometimes hours at a time, in the middle of a hotzone, waiting for the free exit. He got them from the days, weeks, travelling on the rutted, desert roads.) Not sandy, not lush or smooth, not a movie-scape, there, or here. I’ve been in deserts, as full of waves as the sea—but not here, in the waking world. I’ve travelled through them in dreams.
More than a hundred kilometers, now, in the valley due south from Kabul. The rise of the mountains in the west, and further, towards Pakistan. The city I can’t describe—mythical, like so many cities here, minarets rising above poplars and fruit trees—but I can see it, in my mind’s eye, I work in images, in planes of shape cut by shadow, the way a human face breaks the formal mode and lets life break in. Life—breaking in, despite all the denial.
A couple of weeks ago I saw a coloured mural, a thing of wonder in Kandahar, a dream-evocation of democracy, the rich blues and greens promising Ballot not Bullet, in English and Pashto, a dove with an olive branch, the ballot-box an emerald gem-stone. It was like Berlin 1989, all over again, my first commission, the release, the promise, the promise, but here, now, more than twenty years of knowing this country, it was a dream blooming before me, school children walked by, talking and laughing, in clean laundered salwar kameez, young, unknowing, knowing too much. I took the shot, caught, stole the colour, the promise—sent everywhere, in every direction, far from Afghanistan.
I don’t know what is in the children’s minds, not really. We travelled to Khost with the convoy for the voting materials, from Kabul, under armed escort. I already know the country is full of betrayal—but I trust the children. So many of them are taken away—not always stolen in person, but their minds held hostage. The madrassas like toxic mushrooms, sprouting all over, I’ve seen them, the young girls like crows, full body chador, floating menaces in the streets, also young, too young. I didn’t photograph them, not out of respect for Islam, but their virginal modesty. Nor a disrespect for the religion, either—I respect the will of the person, of the woman to live as she wills. But these ones are so young, they can’t know what they want; they only know what they are terrorized to believe. I defended, lately in the press compound, that word—’terrorized’, that is so over-used. A mind that swims, at first, in innocence, can only experience that force of authority as a violence. It kills what is alive, what is already free, in it. There is no such thing as a moderate religious fundamentalism. Or, I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen a lot—but not that.
I’ve seen the violence, of it, instead, in all these places. I saw it in Germany, as a child, long after the war, but deep in the denial, in the fear of facing the past. The schoolmasters who ridiculed my carrying a camera around. There was no time for art, they said, in the new Germany. I was sixteen, I didn’t know anything; only one thing: that with the camera I could, when nothing else could, identify, and capture, the truth. Not words; not politics, and it was still years before the Wall would come down. For a decade before then, I wandered the streets on assignment; small-town scandals, accidents, winter festivals. Whatever kind of truth, it was still the truth. Higher stakes now; and truth has become the truth, more than anything, of trust.
It is dry, but threatens rain. The foothills rise up like long, elongated birds in the distance. I don’t think so much about the National Army soldiers who accompany us here; they are quiet, like we are. We left Khost an hour ago, I don’t expect trouble here. I also know not to trust my expectations—but I’ve kept paranoia at bay all these years by not making a dogma out of it. There are always exceptions—which often prove the rule. I’m a believer—in my unbelief.
Always the people that draw me, out there on the roads. The elderly faces, as well as the young ones. Woman now by the roadside, carrying bound kindling on her back. A young man on a pony, catching her up. There are all these stories, biblical ones—but I don’t seek the narrative so much as the stills of realization, in the faces, the eyes, especially. A vast story within something that is already epic. You can’t see it on TV, in a three second newsbite. You can see it in large-format print, silent on a gallery wall. Berlin, two years ago—a moment of truth, as the cliché goes. How many moments…passed now. This one…and this.
We’re coming to the edge of Tani; a voting-station will be set up here, we’ll cover this new ‘moment of truth’ for the Afghan people. What will it bring? I don’t know, not yet. I only hope no threats, no suicide-bombs. Already last month in Kabul, two journalists killed. I can’t call them by name, anymore; the shock has been nearly as deadly, for all of us. I knew them too well, to know them in death. We don’t speak of them, now, under armed guard.
I’m not alone, never alone. A woman, a friend, braver than I am, just here, doing what I do in words, the words that escape me, but not the image. There is a security there, in the image, held in its frame: nothing can escape, and also, nothing can invade it: it is inviolable. When I cut the frame, I control the life it holds: it is contained, at long last. Also—safe; I bestow care, and compassion, on the image, the reality it exposes: everything there, left to the world to see, naked, disclosed life, but set free in safety. That’s something I do—the act of a mother, maybe. Not needing children, myself, already having so many, set loose in the world, in frame, enframed by the care I took in the conception, in the nurture, and in the letting go. Has that been my job, all along? To let the truth—of all this—free into the world, as joy? Then an alchemy, when I’ve got it right—a transformation of, often, base lead into gold, a living gold of the heart, of life, one that can’t be stored away or hoarded as capital, because it can only live in its freedom. That’s what, on good days, the work has been.
Not having ever really thought about it. I don’t think; I see, and hold, forever, what I see. Then I let it go, reconfigured. That’s enough, I think.
It’s strange though, to let the image float free, right out into the ether, across the feeds and the online networks, when I am myself surrounded by armed protection. The irony: my images more free than I am, who gave them birth. Would I be free at all, without my camera? I could go back home, and stay there, out of harm’s way. I could…and forget what it is to be alive. I don’t know. We do what we’re called to do. Schicksal. ‘Mein Schicksal’—too funny. I laugh when things are so true that they can never be understood.
The check-point ahead. We have passes, the right documentation, everything is in order. Like the Wall before the Fall. Like all walls—you have to merge through them, like a ghost, like liquefaction. I would like the car to stop so I can get out and take some shots of the dirt road leading up to the point of entry; the cordon of security, the men in full uniform holding subdued talk, guns slung over shoulders, the dust in the air, the smell of coming rain, that I can include only by invocation, or association, a kind of prayer. I would like to stop and pray, an unbeliever, a believer of children, in the dirt, stop and, even, a real surrender, lay down the camera. But I can’t, can’t say this even, to the driver, or my colleague; we are each silent in our—what is still called here—kismet: each in their fated world.
I am in this one, still here, the car stopping, now, for the police patrol. They are national servicemen, in our service, serving our freedom, our safety, that of their fellow countrymen. One of the men, he could be the unit commander, comes to the car, speaks now, I want to hear, I can’t hear, I can only see, I have the image, in my mind’s eye, I have caught it, it is conceived, the stillness of it, the eternal frame in my line of sight, he raises a gun to us, inside the car, faces down, he prays, too, says out loud Allahu Akbar! The caught image, life, breaking in, is mine—is free.
(In memoriam Anja Niedringhaus, killed April 4th, 2014, Khost Province, Afghanistan)
Raelee Chapman grew up in Albury-Wodonga. Since 2011, she has lived in Singapore with her family. Her fiction and narrative non-fiction has been published in Australia and overseas in places such as Southerly, Lip Magazine & Expat Living among others. She is currently compiling an anthology of short stories set in Singapore for Monsoon Books.
It’s a tar thick night. A cool mist licks at her heels. He can no longer touch her skin now that she is hiding. She knows he is looking for her in the swirling mist. This is how girls vanish. She treads light as a marsupial over the rotting leaves. He fumbles and lugs, heavy through the bush. The bats watch, their eyes pinned on him like a hundred needles casting a voodoo spell. There is a full moon, a fat halo of light leading her. The air tastes sweet as she leaves Big Man’s scent of tobacco leaf and three day post-shower stench behind. No longer will she sleep pressed into his sweaty armpits listening to his enlarged heart’s odd beats. Soon she’ll no longer hear him flailing behind her.
At night-time she has trained one ear, the ear not pressed against him, for the distant, syncopating hum of a highway. She doesn’t remember the road or the way to it, when she came here, her eyes were closed. She can hear him swearing, grunting, stopping to pant, holding onto paper-bark trees, sheaving their Bible-page thin peelings. His bare feet are nicked by bindi-eyes and scratched by low scrub. For there was no time to put on boots. “Bathroom,” she’d whispered and slung off his heavy arm. She stepped out of bed and crouched by their bottom drawer and paused her hands resting on its contents for only a moment. Summoning her strength. Big Man let her use the flush toilet these days, instead of the chamber pot by the bed. He was more relaxed since she’d given birth to their son.
She moves on, stealth in the night towards the white noise of the highway and leaves behind all that was familiar to her for the last six years. The lonely wooden farm house with tannin-stained windows and gap-tooth steps. She had tripped many times on those steps. An ideal haunt, so well hidden in thick bush if you didn’t know it was there, you would never find it. There is one road in and one road out. She avoids that road.
She passes the pile of ashes where they sometimes lit a fire. Where onetime a black fella arrived unannounced with a dead kangaroo over his shoulder. Road kill. They accepted his invitation to cook and share the meat. The visitor never spoke, he saw her with the lead-rope looped around her waist connected to Big Man’s belt and said nothing. The black fella slept by the fire that night on a dirt mattress he made with his hands and was gone the next morning.
Her soles kick up and scatter ashes through the archway Big Man made with scraggly sticks. Where they married, wattle wreath in her hair, its sunny pollen dusting her nose and cheeks. “My golden girl,” he had called her. There were no witnesses, perhaps not a proper marriage. Big Man said the rites or made them up. It was the first time he let her off the lead rope tied around her waist since the day she arrived. She was fourteen, he was forty-one.
In the bush she finds clothes, dotted in trees, lifted by the wind years ago from their simple rope clothesline. These clothes made a run for it before she did. How often she’d wished the wind could carry her. In a copse she recognizes what Big Man called the birthing tree, where her son was born in the dirt. Big Man had wrapped him in a flannelette shirt and squeezed her breasts to show her there was milk. The baby softened Big Man. How often he holds their son aloft, a naked pudding baby, a trophy, both of them cooing. He could no longer restrain her so closely now that their son needed constant attention, feeding, bathing, changing. He was more trusting. But when Big Man went out, he locked her in a windowless back room without a fan because once before their son was born he found her with an electrical cord around her neck.
When her son tumbled forth from her womb, a new and instant love came with it, saving her. He is what gave her strength and makes her push on. Her son is the only light in that dirty house. A house she could never get clean, that has decades of filth and grime entrenched in every grain of wood, every porous surface, rusty tap and sink. Mice and cockroaches scuttle across the floorboards and her son loves to watch them wide-eyed and clap his clumsy hands.
A branch snaps and she hears him stop dead in his tracks. She can hear it too, the boy’s wailing. It has taken on a more desperate pitch as though he can sense what is happening. He is tucked in his little bed made from a deep, empty chest drawer, nestled in old clothes. She knows now Big Man won’t follow. This is the only way. Her only chance. If she takes the boy, he will hunt her down, never let her go. She will come back to claim her son. Someday Big Man will be locked up. She wonders who will hold his lead rope. She will swoop up her dirt-stained son and wipe him clean of Big Man, of this place.
She hears him turn back, his soles slap crashing back to their son. She follows the moon’s spotlight. She is robed in her ivory shroud. When Big Man looks up, seeking light for his path, all he sees is sky as dark as a tar canvas.
Linda Ashok has been a guest poet to many literary events in India including The Hindu Lit for Life (Prakriti Foundation, 2014), PEN Prithvi (Mumbai, 2015), The Kala Ghoda Festival of Arts (2016) and others. Her poetry has appeared or forthcoming in various literary journals including the Honest Ulsterman, Friends Journal, The McNeese Review, the Big Bridge Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry and others. She reviews poetry for The Rumpus, Entropy and Stirring – a Sundress Publication. She’s the Founder/President of RædLeaf Foundation for Poetry & Allied Arts, administering the RL Poetry Awards since 2013. Linda tweets at @thebluelimit.
of waters, manners
the waters return home
play with boats, dead sea-men, shells
and when done, they bring back
the toys to where their burial belong
…the way pain returns us our bones
or a gazelle forgives her hunter…
the waters return everything
except time and its own iridescence
Letter to the bunion toed man
a door cut out of fresh morning air/ three poets, a painter, and a hippie gone mellow / In your mind, two boys gathering berries, your twelve-year olds/ a transcriptionist setting dishes out for wash…/ Notwithstanding a few anthills /eavesdropping our silences
“Every time, my hand rose by the side/ the bamboo paused me in bizarre ways/ You stood still at the corner and later, on the beanbag/ with no hunch of attempts”
Two forests meet for a while, sing to each other / exchange birds, chaos, and merge, not forgetting the wood/ they carry back to their idea of homes
We will die in this silence, like the bone / in your toe that never complains, still dying
In 2015, Jena Woodhouse was awarded creative residencies at CAMAC Centre d’Art, Marnay-sur-Seine, France, and at the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Greece. She is currently (2016) continuing the latter assignment at the hostel of the British School of Archaeology at Knossos, Crete.
Cassowaries, Etty Bay
They stride out of prehistory.
Their gait is measured, leisurely,
a stately placing of prehensile toes
whose middle claw can kill.
There is a degree of pomp
in panoplies of plumage,
layers of black feathering
enhancing their aplomb,
a living cape from which the lofty
blue and crimson neck protrudes,
the head crowned with a casque of horn
pre-dating Babylon and Rome.
They make their regal way among
chance courtiers, the day-trippers,
posing for a photo shoot,
peering into picnic hampers,
scooping up the offerings of fruit
and choice exotic morsels,
scorning hands that reach to touch
the flounce of elegant black plumes,
slipping into rainforest like shadows
to elude the throng:
primeval apparitions that once
trod the Earth with dinosaurs
and lingered on, imprinting
after-images in sleek iphones,
reminders of the marvellous
that vanishes as we look on,
another species that may not
survive our hegemon.
a.j. carruthers is a contemporary experimental poet and scholar. He is the author of AXIS, a lifelong long poem, the first volume of which, Book 1: Areal, was released by Vagabond in 2014. He is also the author of The Tulip Beds: A Toneme Suite (Vagabond 2013) and two forthcoming books, Opus 16 on Tehching Hsieh and Stave Sightings: Notational Experiments in North American Long Poems, 1961-2011. carruthers edits SOd press and is Essays Editor for Rabbit Poetry Journal.
AXIS 47: Cage
A choral re:rhythming of John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing
retaining the four original registers.
For performance by 2-5 voices.
Give any cussion
and the get evert you cide
and that is
go on called
and there is
, ; . .
course, as I earth
corn glass empty
an i–dea glass empty
gard it as
? , . ,
enjoy climax; and the
Each comes from accepts
can as sugar
carry A piece
, , , .
each unit a space
As you see,
, , . .
A pupil enjoy it
accident girls’ calendar
and that part craze
an arts critic
? , . .
chooses. a means
Clearly as we
calls all I
, – .” .)
ever call it
,— ? . .
ear gressions all its
ear clean slate and that
ear could hear
go contemporary ,
: ; ,” ,
attached to the
audible even more
are else is
are ever found
; , .” .
cool air absurd
course, goes on
? ,” : :
, , ). .
, , ). .
are getting continue
a pleasure getting
, , ). .
are now eleventh
as the goes
, , ). .
else. and goes
as the goes
as the talk
? , : .”
eighty-eight a method;
? . ,— .)
any piece collections
A thing even
at least called
a thing. can
a process Everybody
All I know
David Brooks is the author of five collections of poetry, three of short fiction, four highly acclaimed novels, and a major work of Australian literary history, The Sons of Clovis (UQP, 2011). His The Book of Sei (1985) was heralded as the most impressive debut in Australian short fiction since Peter Carey’s, and his second novel, The Fern Tattoo (UQP, 2007), was short-listed for the Miles Franklin award. The Sydney Morning Herald called his previous collection of poetry, The Balcony (UQP, 2008) ‘an electric performance’. Until 2013, he taught Australian Literature at the University of Sydney, where he was also the foundation director of the graduate writing program. He is currently co-editor of literary journal Southerly, lives in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, and spends several months each year in a village on the coast of Slovenia. His most recent collection of poetry is Open House (UQP, 2015).
An Invasion of Clouds
My study has just been invaded by clouds
each smelling vaguely of lanolin and urine,
soft-eyed, wet nosed, curious-tongued,
come to inspect my books and papers,
like tax collectors for the invisible
or auditors from the ineffable earth
trying to determine how I waste my time.
Their leader, the unicorn, wants to taste
the volume of poems in my lap, while another
makes for the unfiled bills, the third
stares at the ancient aquatint
of my great-grandmother in her wedding-dress,
and the fourth, the black one, turning his back,
slowly and sensually rubs his behind
on the literary theory section of the bookshelf.
Following the others out,
he pauses at the door-frame for a final scratch
then pees with pleasure on the just-washed floor.
Midnight, and out of nowhere
a giant hornet
worrying the window-frame,
two red moths
dozing under the desklamp-shade
and a bright green scarab
clambering over the stale bread; outside
a purple moon
rising over Nova Vas, the Great
Bear and her cub so
visible last night
now hidden by cloud, or should that be
mist, in the Vast Forest?
Somewhere a priest
worrying a fragment of a leaf.
Somewhere an ant
wrestling with her God.
Somewhere another Earth.
Tracy Ryan is a Western Australian writer whose most recent book of poetry is Hoard (Whitmore Press, 2015), and whose latest novel is Claustrophobia (Transit Lounge, 2014). She is currently a visiting fellow with Literary Cultures of the Global South at the University of Tuebingen, Germany.
Inured by now to snow
nothing could drag me
away from inwardness
this would-be scraping
and clearing of the mind’s
dark drive with its slick
misnomer “black” ice
to the neuralgic window —
except that queer aria
of howls, falsetto, which now
in counterpoint and now
in unison makes plaint
to a woman who not so much
walks two white dogs as is
herself spurred on by animal pain
and mine, and stops her ears.
…haul/ My eyelids up
— Sylvia Plath, “Black Rook in Rainy Weather”
Unseen, and named not by our utterance but by his own,
cranking the day up for me as he cranks your day down,
insistent and regular as the kitchen roller-shutter: creak…
creak… asserting particularity, necessity, marking off time
remaining in this place, staking out hours for work
and hours domestic, that querulous line between Home
and Them. The rest of the process a guessing-game,
if you care to determine who makes that mimic cry
and is endemic and does not leave in winter, allowing that
seasons are now so altered the guides don’t always apply.
If we have to make him real I’ll settle for woodcock,
Waldschnepfe, but in our private bird-world he will not
have to be hunted, only to be what he does, Winch-bird.