Seabirds Crying in the Harbour Dark
by Catherine Cole
Reviewed by CAROLINE VAN DE POL
‘The Brain – is wider than the Sky -,’ wrote Emily Dickinson revealing our capacity to expand our mind beyond experience to imagination. Acclaimed American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson recently recapped this magical opening of the mind that comes with reading when she wrote an article describing what it’s like for an author trying to find the right word. I was reminded of this image again when delving into a new collection of short stories from Australian writer and academic Catherine Cole. In diverse and joyful ways Robinson and Cole remind me of what I love about reading (and writing), of what I learn from books through that open invitation to go beyond a closed door, to find my way around the darkness and relish the light that shines through even the saddest of stories.
In this impressive collection of short stories, Cole finds those exacting words to reveal glimpses of life that fill you with love and compassion and leave you yearning to know more. It’s easy to see why her story ‘LOVE’ was chosen as part of the narrative for the Yes campaign for marriage equality. Anyone who reads this, who really listens as mother and son share the moment of disclosure, who feels the lump in the throat when she says ‘Mothers do know these things’ will understand the message for affirmation on marriage equality much more than from some of the distressing ignorance and bigotry flooding the media.
Cole, in writing that is both poetic and purposeful, selective, and at times, sparse, expands our minds and encourages the reader to look more closely at the detail and the ordinary lives of ‘others’. While some characters and places are more familiar each possess their own authenticity and truth. While many, on the surface, appear lonely and even suffocated by their longing, they are also, at times, comforting in their intimacy. There’s Dorrie on the ferry to Manly dreaming of her childhood, Ruth on her daily trek to the shopping mall and pet shop, Bert on his way to Villawood with gifts for the detainees and Willem preparing for work when all around him are partying. Often Cole’s characters feel like family or friends we know well, struggling to find their place. A recurrent theme of movement towards understanding prevails as we learn more about the many connotations of ‘home’ and what having a home means.
At times the memory of childhood or first love is evoked so provocatively that you can find yourself believing you might know ‘Little Kerrie’ or, in ‘Plenty’ you might find yourself wanting to slap James for his smugness and lack of compassion. In other stories Cole gives prominence to the environment and the external stimuli take over our senses as we hear the call of the furious ocean, taste the scratchy red dirt in the hot wind and feel the cracks in the ground of the outback ‘excoriated, open to whatever memories you might want to plant’ in ‘Steers’.
The stories of this collection resonate so well because of what Robinson calls ‘that movement towards essentials’, the removal of the extraneous to explore themes around love and pleasure in ‘The Navigator’ and loss and pain in ‘Hell Comes, Hell Goes’.
While enjoying the collection, I’m struck by that contradictory feeling of wanting to rush through the book and the stories, devouring each page in the way I might with a Raymond Carver or Alice Munro collection while also wanting to savour them and make my enjoyment of everyday escapism last longer. And it can be a hard to know where to begin because short stories, unlike a novel, offer the capacity to move in and out of the organisation at your pleasure. Should I read them in order, from the beginning, or dip in and out choosing on title or length?
Cole shows how to embrace and relish the short story, a sometimes-overlooked literary genre, while Seabirds Crying in the Harbour Dark would make an ideal study for teachers in how a collection of short stories can offer a sense of connectedness with its provocative themes and repeat characters, not unlike Tim Winton’s Minimum of Two.
CAROLINE VAN DE POL is the author of Back to Broady (Ventura Press/Peter Bishop Books); her first memoir. She is a writer and university lecturer in media and communication. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Wollongong and her articles and creative work have appeared in journals including Text and New Writing. Caroline has worked as a journalist and editor for newspapers and magazines including Melbourne’s Herald Sun. She has published two nonfiction health books on pregnancy and parenting. Caroline grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and she now lives in regional Victoria.
Harold Legaspi is a Sydney-based author who is currently completing the Masters of Creative Writing program at The University of Sydney. His writing has appeared in The Kalahari Review, Verity La, The University of Sydney Anthology 2016, among others. He has completed the final draft of a first novel.
Lucy just stands there in the kitchen. She’s frying bacon and eggs with a vacant look while I sit with the kids, forcing them to eat their breakfast. Lucy had slept at the opposite end of the bed last night. Now she won’t even look my way, even though I’m wearing a new shirt that bursts in the seams and shows off my pecks. So for the umpteen time, I wipe my son’s face and pour my daughter some orange juice so she could swallow the bacon. And here we were, pre-packaged and nuclear like in those ads that you saw on Netflix about breakfast cereals or free-range produce.
I don’t even know what to say to her in the mornings. I keep silent, reading the paper and turning to sports for news. Panthers flogged the Sharks 25-to-1, or so I read, not that that meant anything to her these days. She was into footy when we first got together; now I’m not so sure. The upshot is: I won some money in the footy tips at the office. I swear to God, if my team wins this year, I’ll marry her again. She won’t join us for breakfast today. She keeps flipping those damn eggs and adding strips of bacon on our plates. As I am leaving, she picks up my suit jacket and places it on my shoulders. Then she hurries me out the door and kisses me on the lips.
At the office, some clown in accounts named Larry hounds me to raise a purchase order so that my bills could get paid. He has one of those faces scrunched up real tight, which morphs into a snarl the moment he turns away. It didn’t register that he could have raised the PO himself or dealt with my secretary for the insignificant sum. He thinks he’s real clever and confronts me about my 500 percent budget overrun, right in front of the GM. So now I’m the bad guy, and Terry’s the one exercising control, with all the rest of them cost-cutting at Oden Financials.
At the lifts, Terry stands next to my secretary then asks for my pen. As we descend to the ground floor, he writes a note, which he hands to my secretary. Terry gives me my pen back then makes a quick exit as the lift door opens. My secretary reads the note beside me and bursts into a fit of laughter. When I ask him what it says, he stuffs the note in his suit pocket and downplays what he read. Next thing he’s giving me that sordid look like I’m the one with something to hide. In a flash, he scuttles away. I don’t even know what. All I know is that Terry has it in for me, bad.
Meanwhile, I have a pile of insurance claims to sift through and stamp. I roll in-and-out of meetings, file in hand, drilling the experts in investigations. They are a funny lot. A calculating breed of bored actuaries and fraud analysts. One of them, Barry, won a Fields medal for his ‘contribution’ to stochastic partial differential equations. He says it has something to do with statistical mechanics, but what, I’m not quite sure. We tend to leave Barry be. He plugs away in his other dimension, with all his mathematical modelling and in jest we nod confounded.
We lock the doors while our meetings are in progress. Having the doors locked gave the impression that our work was vital; that we couldn’t be disturbed. I’m sitting there running my fingers through my slick hair trying to get a straight answer. What if we slipped up? What if the client staged their accident? What’s the probability of depleted reserves? At what point did bacterial growth render all stock obsolete? We turn our heads to face Barry. Barry gives us a blank stare.
At lunch, I got to thinking. I pull aside Ted, my mate from sales, and talk shop for a bit. Then we talk hypotheticals about our missus. I begin to set the scene:
“It’s mayhem at this restaurant. I’m there with my wife. The kitchen, which is in the middle of the room, is in full swing. The chefs are screaming abuses at the waitstaff, and there are lashings of ginger tea. Factory-line style dining tables surrounded them, with cushions on swivel chairs. The dining space is an oval shape with clean lines and a garden landscape.”
“What are you eating?” asks Ted.
“That doesn’t matter. What matters is that a guy walks into the restaurant with his wife and he’s looking real dapper,” I say.
“Why does that matter?” asks Ted.
“There’s something not quite right about him. He’s got one of those flowers in his suit pocket, and he dresses real neat. He’s looking around the room, while his wife peels off her scarf. Next thing, the guy is taking a seat beside my wife, to her right. I’m plonked on her other side beside her, to her left, at the end of the line.”
“Wait, wait, wait…So where’s your missus?” asks Ted.
“She’s bang, smack in the middle, in between this fella and me,” I said.
“So, where’s his wife?”
“She’s ducked off to the ladies. Gone to freshen up, who knows? Just pretend she’s not there,” I said.
“So?” Ted looks at me wearing a wry grin.
“Anyway my wife, well, she’s looking real sumptuous, and she smells real clean like someone you could trust. It’s an open kitchen, and everyone’s on show. The food is being dished out in rhythmic synchronicity. Then, the guy next to my missus asks her to pass some wasabi,” I said.
“Well, it’s open plan isn’t it? You’re mingled together with strangers,” says Ted.
“The thing is, he’s right there, next to my wife and he asks her with this comforting grin that seems real inviting and friendly. My wife cackles, which turns to a smile, and she’s handing it over. She goes to fix her hair then shifts her eyes back to me discretely,” I said.
“So what do you say to her?” asks Ted.
“I have her attention again but only for a split second, because now the guy next to her is asking for soy sauce. She smiles again, showing off her perfect teeth. She has a killer smile. A smile that could solve the energy crisis coz it’s real warm. I feel their chemistry. And although I’m not the jealous type I feel rotten. Her eyes are only meant for me,” I said.
“What do you do?” asks Ted.
“Well—I lose all my appetite,” I said.
Ted eggs me on. He’s like, “Just tell her, ‘If you ever, ever do tha—.’”
I cut in, “she’ll be all like, ‘Do what? Pass the wasabi and soy?’… She’ll be saying crap like ‘Now we’re even or that I’m the one paranoid.’”
Ted rolls his eyes and says, “You, my friend, are under the thumb.”
“I almost got up to thump the guy next to her. But that’s not the sort of guy I am.”
“Did she say anything to you on your way home?” asks Ted.
“Not a word,” I said.
Ted thinks I give in too easily. He’s been married for fifteen years since he turned twenty-one. He has a real housewife of Sydney – always dressed to the nines; she wears a headscarf on sunny days and prances around with Chanel, her Chihuahua. Ted says marriage isn’t for everybody – especially not the gays. He’s real conservative like that, like Fred Nile. His family think he’s God’s gift. He got into the property market before the boom and made a killing. Now he drives a red Corvette. Ted’s mad. He’s always mad about something or someone, but never at me. Once Ted’s neighbour deliberately poisoned their orange tree. Ted built a fence between his neighbour so quickly they couldn’t even get a word in. Then he stuffs an invoice in their mailbox quoting some arcane piece of legislation saying they had to pay half. Because that’s the kind of guy he is.
At the water cooler, a bunch of guys are talking about some new recruit. They say she’s in IT, a real fox. The guys are saying she’d be all like “show me how to do this and show me how to do that…Where do you find this and what’s the deal with that?” Quid pro quo, Y’know. Well, that got them going. The guys are pandering to her every need. They say she’s got one of those pencil skirts that’s real tight around the waist. Her bust so firm it reminds them of rockmelons. Real jugulars. So they be all like “I’ll show you how it’s done good and proper…Why certainly miss, it’s my pleasure.” They say she’s a real man-eater. You show her this and that, and she’ll get real close so you can smell her perfume. Then she’ll purse her lips and flick her hair to reveal her slender neckline. They’re all like, I would. They’d all reach over there and grab something. Why the hell not.
On the drive home, I’m the bad guy, again. I’m on the hands-free with my folks who remind me it’s Lola’s birthday. “Why did Y’all miss church last Sunday? … Go see a doctor about that ulcer.” Yap, yap, yap. My folks, they’re trying to kill me. No, seriously, they mean to cause me pain. I look in the rear-view mirror and see a dead bird squashed on the motorway. I see its entrails, bits of red, bits of brown and bits of feather. I’ll end up like that bird if I stay on the phone too long with my folks. No really, my folks, they are going to kill me.
I look out the window and think of the kids. Little Angelica and Max on the couch, trawling through Tyrannosaurus-Rex YouTube clips. Having them loose on their playpen with Play-Doh, mingling the reds, the purples and the greens. My folks ask me about our future plans for Angelica, going back and forth in rhetoric. The cars pile up in front of me on the exit of the M4. It’s bumper-to-bumper. Everyone’s being so God damn slow. I just want to get home to play with my kids.
My mind wafts. On my dashboard, a gyrating Hawaiian girl with a grass skirt and a floral wreath stares right at me. She remains topless and grinning with all grass covering her itty bits. I bought the Hawaiian girl on our honeymoon before the kids arrived. It was just the two of us back then, on American soil, and we went berserk. Lucy and I did it like rabbits. Every night, we did it, with champagne and strawberries and saxophone music. We had Careless Whisper on repeat. The Little itty skirt had been on my dashboard ever since.
I must get out of this traffic jam. I make a bad joke to my folks about some distant cousin that has claimed genetic ancestry to our family name. What am I supposed to do, welcome him to our home all of a sudden? We might be free on the weekend in a couple of months time, but he’ll have to wait it out. Apparently, he’s a thespian of sorts; a real artist. “What’s he got that you don’t,” I hear my folks ask me. He’s got an audience, that’s what, like he’s real entertaining. He’ll come around, play pranks on my kids like he’s on show or in front of the camera. Lucy’ll be there seething like I’m the bad guy in this, and all weekend it’s going to be pranks, iced tea and cucumber sandwiches. Dad will be complaining about an itch on his belly. Mum will drill him about his methods till he turns blue.
I play with the kids after speaking with Lola, long enough to know the names of their new friends in school. I learned about Mr Shawn’s antics at school – he pulled faces, and found out the kids planted a lilly pilly in the playground. Little Max, who is almost three, darts his eyes to the fan in the hallway. He says something quirky like, “Dad…Fan…Os-cill-a-ting!” He’s so smart; some day he’ll know more than me. I just wish he wasn’t so darn hyperactive! Little Angelica, who is four and a half, got a real gold star. She turns up to class with a butt that’s nappy free. She went all the way to the toilet holding Mrs McFarlane’s hand without pooping her pants. Next, I hear a thud in the sun-room then discover my little guy with the boxes all stacked up. He’s at it again, climbing the mantlepiece to reach the lolly jar, coz he’s craving sugar in pyjamas. I find him up there, one hand elbow deep in the Gummy Bears and the other stuffing Jelly Belly beans in his mouth.
“Don’t kid yourself,” says Lucy, “It’ll only be for a little while.” She’s doing that raised eyebrow thing in front of her vanity mirror. I swear I can physically feel the power being taken away from me. She wants me to apply for paternity leave so I can babysit the kids during school holidays. She says it’s like a very “Scandinavian thing” to do, and we all know they live better. “All their dads do it. It’s their law,” she harps, “You’ll be a latte papa.” The longer I think about how little I’ve accomplished in the office, the more I freeze up. I’m running stagnant. Either my boss will chew me up and spit me out, or my wife will tear me to shreds. I reach over and pop the door shut so that the kids won’t hear. “Oh, honeeey.” I’m in my underwear, and I turn to face her, but she has her back where my manhood ought to be. She’s facing the mirror. So I lie down and caress the dooner, which by the way has a very high thread count. I nestle my head on her pillow and purr; come, come. She applies on her lotion with that smouldering look, and I picture her in the open air under the roof of the sky. She’s that twinkling star; the brightest and she burns. When I forget how I got here, she’s that light, cosmic and I see. She lies on the bed where we sleep – my favourite destination. It’s finally dark, and I’m home. The only place where I couldn’t say no.
Kathy Sharpe is a graduate of the University of Wollongong’s Master of Arts in Creative Writing. She writes about contemporary Australian life, and her stories are often set within the small, enclosed world of country towns. She has twice been awarded a Varuna residency and was shortlisted for one of Varuna’s Publishers Introduction Programs. She was selected for the Hachette QWC Writers’ Centre Manuscript Development Program (2009). She has worked in editorial roles in regional newspapers for 23 years. In 2011 she helped create and publish a collection of memories of the older residents of one humble street in North Nowra. Track By the River collectively narrates the story of a very poor, but strong community of battlers who lived along Illaroo Road on the Shoalhaven River. No dams is the winner of the 2017 Wollongong Writers’ Festival Short Story Prize.
Mary flings open her jacket to reveal the familiar yellow and black triangle.
“Look what I found,” she says. John and I stare at the letters on her T-shirt, stretched large and straining, not slapped flat as they used to be on her younger, skinnier chest.
“I hate you for still fitting into that,” I say.
“No dams,” says John, tasting the words.
Those words, encased in their pool rack triangle, on car windows, telegraph poles and pub toilets doors all over Sydney. Shouted through megaphones at city street rallies. A call to arms.
Mary takes her seat.
“Now, who do I have to sleep with to get a drink around here?”
The barman doesn’t raise an eyebrow when we order champagne, even though the Swan has just opened for the day.
“Good man,” says John. “He remembers the 1980s.”
The Swan is our old student haunt, but gone is the lingering whiff of rancid hops and the faint smell of gas. Gone too are the junkies like shadows around the pool table and the nasal drone of the television, calling the dogs, the punters sitting transfixed, their cigarette ash growing long and finally falling onto the table in front of them.
“Gentrified,” John says.
We don’t wait for Bruce. We clink our glasses together, we three. Mary, still beautiful, though I notice a tiredness around her theatre-dark eyes. John’s salt and pepper hair suits him, but his face remains tense. His eyes are small but they still manage to dominate his face. He is watchful and wary as ever, as though the world is out to trick him.
Mary puts her arm around me and draws me to her, rubbing her hand over my hair. Her perfume is smoky and spicy like the incense we used to burn in our student house. The smell of our youth is a decaying mix of incense, Champion Ruby and seagrass matting.
“Lou,” she says softly. “Where do the years go?”
We drink quickly to cover how much it still means, for us to be together.
Bruce arrives, flinging himself into a chair, puffing and panting in his grey tracksuit.
He picks up a serviette and wipes his damp face.
“Someone get me a drink, for God’s sake.”
“Did you run here?” John says. “Why didn’t you tell us, we would’ve sponsored you.”
Mary divides the last drops of champagne between our glasses with scientific precision.
“What’s with you?” Mary says. “Trying to keep up with that young girlfriend of yours?”
Once a year we meet, and each time I wonder at the electricity that still sparkles between us, like static, raising the hairs on our skin. One day a year, to let old attractions and hurts jostle for position as memories are shaken out, aired and exposed under the harsh light of being grown-ups.
“Good for you, Brucie,” says Mary. “You’re still hot, if you ask me.”
At a nearby table, a group of students are drinking coffee. One of the young girls laughs loudly, flicking back her stream of caramel coloured hair.
“Look at those twats,” says Mary.
“It was better in our day, when university was free,” John says. “You got real students, like us. Dirty, unwashed, the arse falling out of our jeans.”
“But with ideals,” says Bruce.
Mary bursts out laughing mid sip, and spits champagne across the table in a fine mist.
“Still haven’t learnt any table manners,” Bruce says.
“Here’s to ideals!” John says, raising his glass and clinking it against Mary’s. “No dams!”
“No dams!” we echo.
We drink, and like always, our time together starts to race, as we build the warm, boozy cocoon around us.
John comes back from the bar with two bottles of white wine and four glasses. He puts them on the table and as he leans over he squeezes me into a tight, cold hug.
“I wish it was still the 1980s,” I say.
“Lou, you always wanted to save the world,” Mary says.
“But you didn’t, did you Lou?” John says. “You left that up to Nigel.”
They are all laughing now. They always have to bring up Nigel.
I sound whiny as I try and defend myself. I sound twenty again.
“You all came to the protest marches, too. It wasn’t just me.”
“I only went to meet girls,” says Bruce. “Greenies got all the roots.”
“I only went for something to do,” says Mary. “Plus, I got to wear this!” She flashes her Tshirt again, tossing back her drink. Bruce is staring at her breasts and I can tell that Mary doesn’t mind.
We drink, and the morning slips away. The kitchen is closed by the time we decide we are hungry, so we have to be content with bar snacks. A waitress brings a share plate scattered with a dozen tiny morsels of vegetable and animal, drizzled with yellow olive oil and sprinkled with cracked pepper. A single lemon wedge perches apologetically to one side.
“That’ll keep us going,” says Mary, refilling glasses.
“Don’t worry, it only cost $40,” says John.
The waitress’s expression doesn’t change. She looks like a shop mannequin as she picks up the empties with her long, stick thin arms and glides off back to her position behind the bar.
“Have robots already taken over the world?” Bruce says.
“We used to look like that, Lou,” Mary says. “If we’d known we’d never be that thin again we would have worn better clothes, instead of all those rags from vinnies.”
“And all that black,” I say. “The whole city, full of young people dressed in black. As though we were in mourning.”
“We should have worn tight fitting dresses, and short skirts,” Mary goes on. “With low cut tops to show off our goods. We might have met richer men.”
John flinches and Bruce rolls his eyes.
Nigel liked thin girls. With small breasts, he said. My breasts were small, back then, and at the time I had taken this remark as a great compliment. But now, all these years later, it seemed creepy.
Mary picks at a tired piece of tempura cauliflower on the share plate.
“Look at this crap,” she says. “Seriously?”
As the sun slants in from the street, travelling across the floorboards, Mary and John are bad-mouthing people we used to know. It’s a game they play, passing cruelty back and forth between them, each time saying something slightly worse. Their words shoot back and forth, soft and light as arrows, glancing towards some invisible line that should never be crossed. Mary throws back her head and laughs and her glossy, black hair, her Princess hair, bounces around her shoulders. John smirks silently, watching her, enjoying her reaction, looking forward to what she will say next. He raises his glass and drinks, never taking his eyes from her face.
The bottles of wine are empty.
“My shout,” says Mary, heading off to the bar.
“Get something decent will you,” Bruce calls after him. “Not that camel’s piss again.”
John turns to me now.
“Remember when Nigel made you beg in the street for money for the trip to the Franklin?”
“It wasn’t begging,” I say.
Me. Standing in Martin Place, rattling a tin, trying to project my voice like Nigel had shown me.
“No dams,” I said. The words came out small and flat, lost in the rumbling of trains and the clatter of hurrying feet. No one even noticed me.
“No dams,” I said politely. With each person who walked past, I seemed to grow smaller and my voice softer, until I felt invisible.
A busker turned up and unfolded a filthy blanket, which he spread out on the ground against the wall. He sat down, cross legged and took out his guitar.
“No dams,” I called but then I couldn’t hear myself above his singing and the clinking of the coins that people were tossing into his battered guitar case. After a while, he scooped up his loot and stuffed it into his pocket. He packed up his guitar, then walked over to me. He began dancing around me, singing, “No dams, no dams, no dams, thank you mam!” People were laughing. The busker pushed a five cent coin into my tin, then walked away. I could smell his dirty clothes and his cigarette breath. But it didn’t matter how bad he smelled. He was the winner. He had won.
“Nigel,” John scoffs. “You would have walked on water for that fuckwit.”
We always do this. We let the alcohol unravel us and then we start to snipe. We dredge up humiliating memories from the past. In this way we can keep from showing, at least for now, how fiercely we still love each other.
“So Lou,” says Bruce, “Still waiting for Mr Right?”
“Leave her alone,” says Mary.
“And what about John?” says Bruce.
“We’re not all pedophiles like you,” John says. I gasp and we dissolve into laughter.
Mary tosses her hair. She says it’s going grey underneath the dye, but it doesn’t show.. I see how John and Bruce watch her, transfixed.
“Maybe we burned up all our sex appeal back then,” she says. “It was like we had to have sex with as many people as we could. We were living under the shadow of the mushroom cloud.”
“That poster was everywhere.” says Bruce. “The mushroom cloud.”
“And that one with the poem,” I say. “When the last tree has fallen, when the last fish is poisoned….”
“And no dams!” says Mary, pulling back her jacket and thrusting her boobs out to make her point.
No dams. That triangle told of a far away world, in Tasmania. Students were packing up and heading south, in search of their better selves.
“Except I didn’t make it,” I say, then realise I have spoken out loud. But luckily, no one is listening to me. They talk, and laugh and tease and argue, while my mind goes back to the kitchen of the dark terrace house, that I’m sure is still standing, just outside the doors of the Swan, and around the corner. The morning I walked in and saw Nigel huddled over the table, looking at a map with a texta line drawn down to the bottom of Victoria, then a dotted line across the sea, then a solid line south to Tasmania.
“Morning,” I said. He looked up at me, annoyed. I pulled my quilted dressing gown around me, tying its belt, and suddenly felt hopelessly suburban. I lit the gas and put the kettle on the stove. I stood for a moment, watching the flame burn down the length of the bbq matchstick.
“We can only take 12, in the van,” Nigel said out of nowhere, just as I blew out the match, the smoke curling, white and pungent into a giant question mark in front of my face. Or maybe it wasn’t really a question mark, but that’s how I remember it.
“We had to prioritise,” he said, “according to personal commitment.”
I heard the scrape of him dragging his bike down the hall, the slam of the door. I stood there, my feet cold on the dirty lino, until the screeching of the kettle became unbearable.
The sun has lifted its fingers from the floor boards now and the pub is filling up with people. Mary is on her phone to her husband.
“Can you pick them up, hon?” she says. “And Holly’s got that dance thing later. I’ll get takeaway on my way home. Love you.”
“Listen to you,” says John. “The whole fucking package. The husband, the kids, the Range Rover.”
“Don’t pretend you’re any different, fuck-face,” Mary says, her voice loud and reckless. “None of us are fighting the good fight and rallying against the establishment anymore. We ARE the fucking establishment.”
Mary and I were sitting on her bed, watching TV when we heard. Bob Hawke came on, making his promise to stop the dam. The camera panned to the greenie camp, the people celebrating. I searched for Nigel in the blur of brown, dancing Dryza-Bones, bedraggled beards and wet hair, and suddenly the pain of not being part of the victory was worse than the pain of not being Nigel’s girlfriend anymore.
“Who’s got cigarettes?” says Mary. “Or are we all still pretending we don’t smoke.”
“Still pretending,” I say.
Bruce reaches into his jacket and pulls out cigarettes. He puts his hand on her elbow, to steady her, as they make their way out into the beer garden. Funny that the two who are coupled-up are the two who are flirting with each other. John and I are left in our pool of silence. He looks at me and I look at him. History passes between us. I raise my glass.
“Here’s to the unloved,” I say.
“Or the unloveable,” he says.
I see his small eyes are red with drink, and his face is clenched hard.
“But we used to…” I start.
“Don’t,” he says.
I stop talking. I reach across the table and hold his hand. It feels small and cold in mine.
Bruce and Mary are taking a long time. Their phones have been ringing and ringing on the table. When they finally come back, Mary picks up her phone, swaying as she tries to focus on the words in the message.
“Fuck,”she says. “It’s after six. I’ve got to go.”
“Share a cab?” says Bruce.
“Nuh.” She starts to gather up her things, swiping items off the table into her handbag; her phone, her purse, her sunglasses, Bruce’s cigarettes.
Bruce looks crestfallen and I know Mary has been kissing him, out there in the beer garden. Mary hasn’t changed, I think. She still wants everything. Everything and everyone.
“See you fuckers next year,” she says, and walks out. Bruce rises unsteadily from his seat. He hugs us both, awkward with John, their angles crashing together, the futile male patting of each other’s backs. He folds me into his soft, slightly sweaty chest. I don’t want to let go, but he pulls away.
Soon John and I will leave too, still holding hands as we walk down Abercrombie Street. We will walk slowly and silently under the streetlights. Gone are those kids who raced along Chalmers Street, Cleveland and Crown, devouring life, tripping and falling over and holding each other up.
We will go through the little iron gate of his terrace, and up the narrow stairs. We will lie on his bed with the balcony doors open. We will listen to the city roaring around us and the lost will come home and the unloved will be loved and we will remember how it was, back when we thought we could save the world.
Sivashneel Sanjappa is a writer, chef and keen gardener originally from Fiji and currently based in Melbourne. He is currently working on his first novel. His work has been published previously in Verge literary journal. He can be found on Twitter @sivashneel and on Instagram @sivashneel.
- Questions and Answers
For every impossible question that had floated up inside Roop’s thought bubble, there was a very real answer, if one cared to find out.
Was it Roop’s childhood kingfisher that had visited him that morning?
It was not.
Kingfishers don’t live that long. Roop’s childhood kingfisher died well before it could reach its natural lifespan. It died from a dynamite bomb that exploded while it had dipped into the ocean in search of its lunch. After it exploded, the fish died and floated up to the surface. The fisherman collected them and sold them at the Municipal Market that weekend. The kingfisher died and was carried to the beach by the incoming tide. It was lodged in the roots of a na-ivi tree, where it decomposed slowly. Weeks later, the ebbing tide took away its feathers and bones.
It had had three little eggs in its nest, tucked away in the thick of the tiritiri, the mangrove forest. They hatched shortly after it died. The hatchlings starved to death within hours of hatching. Over the years, the entire population of kingfishers in that tiritiri vanished. The Municipal Rubbish Dump on a nearby shore regularly sent an army of plastic bags, nylon sacks and such to the roots of the mangroves. The leachate from the growing pile of decomposing garbage seeped directly into the lagoon, where it travelled up the roots of the tiritiri and suffocated the mangrove trees. The kingfishers, along with the mudcrabs and the herons, either died or migrated to new homes.
The tiritiri that guarded the lagoon near Roop’s current village was intact, but for how long? The beach there had been leased to an overseas investor, who was planning to erect a new marina. Gossip went that he was planning to dredge up the entire lagoon, with the tiritiri, to make way for construction boats.
The kingfisher’s call may soon become a myth.
Did Roop’s butterfly survive its first flight?
It did indeed.
After it disappeared into the canopy of the rain trees in the Library Gardens, after Roop and Zarina went home that morning, it embarked on its life as a free butterfly. It fed on the nectar of many flowers. It fluttered over the tops of the trees, over to the gardens in the villages close by. It mated with many other butterflies. It laid many eggs and, at the end of its life cycle, died a natural death. It lived a short, fulfilled life.
Roop would have been happy to know this. Had he not released it from the jar that morning, it surely would have died a wretched, captive death.
Where did Tinisha, Mrs Murthi’s wedding hairdresser, disappear to?
Well, they fell in love.
One afternoon, a man named Manoj, a regular customer of Tinisha’s, came to the salon for his usual haircut. Tinisha’s heart beat a little faster around Manoj, as it always did. They flirted with each other in their usual, uneasy, secretive manner. Then, out of the blue, Manoj put his hand on Tinisha’s hip. Tinisha took his hand and led him to the back of their salon, behind a short wall.
Tinisha was a lucky point-five, perhaps the luckiest of all point-fives in Fiji. They experienced a first kiss, on the lips. The loving embrace of a strong man. They lay on top of Manoj for some time, caressing his bushy eyebrow, while the Sugar City dismantled itself at the end of the work day and people went home to have family dinners.
Tinisha and Manoj eloped to a small, distant village. Tinisha took him to their brother’s house, which had been vacant since he moved overseas six years ago. They lit a little fire in the backyard and walked around it seven times, thus marrying each other like Bollywood sweethearts. They lived a brief, blissful married life.
Two weeks later, two men came to the house with cane knives. One of them was Manoj’s tavale, his wife’s brother. Gossip had spread quickly, and because gossip was a more accurate source of information than any media channel, it wasn’t hard to track Manoj down. His tavale had come to take Manoj back to his wife and two children. To remind him of his responsibilities, to hold him accountable. To chastise him for the shame he had brought to their family. To set him back on track.
They beat Manoj up and took him away in a blue van. Before leaving, they locked Tinisha inside a clothes cupboard.
Tinisha spent a day figuring their way out of the cupboard. They managed to break it open from inside. They took a bus back to the Sugar City and waited outside Manoj’s workplace. When Manoj saw Tinisha, as he emerged at the bottom of the flight of stairs that led to his office, terror contorted his face into a grim mask. He pulled Tinisha aside. His forehead was bruised and he had a bandage around a finger. He told Tinisha he had moved on. He begged Tinisha to leave him alone. He asked them to move to Suva or somewhere and start a new life. Then he ran to the kerb and jumped in a taxi, which disappeared into the afternoon dust.
Tinisha, shaken, heartbroken, downtrodden, took their wig off and threw it in a public rubbish bin. They took the bus back to the house where they had got married. They stepped back into the cupboard they had fought their way out of earlier that day, and hung themself from the railing with a wire hanger.
Some weeks later, their body was found by a neighbour who couldn’t handle the stench from rotting corpse any longer. The police tried to contact Tinisha’s overseas brother, but to no avail. Tinisha was burnt in a public crematorium.
Gossip travelled around the country, like a Sunbeam Bus, that they had moved to Suva and opened a stylish new salon.
And, finally…where do bijuriyas go when they’re not dancing at weddings?
Where does lightning go after it has struck?
No one knows.
No one cares to find out.
However, as Roop put his brain to sleep late that night, Shilpa, the bijuriya, sat on a secluded beach a few villages away, gazing at a gibbous moon.
A couple of hours after Roop and Zarina had finished eating their BBQ and driven off, Shilpa had arrived at the Library Garden. They had taken their ghaangra off. They wore a short skirt and crop top. They had reapplied their lipstick, which glistened under the street lamp.
Two women in similar clothes stood at the edge of the garden, keeping an eye on passing cars. Shilpa asked them for a cigarette. One of them handed Shilpa a half-smoked Rothman’s cigarette.
A shiny Mitsubishi drove past and slowed down. The tinted windows were rolled down. Four sets of teeth appeared, floating, inside the van.
The back door opened and one of the passengers, a man, urged Shilpa in.
They were given a cold Fiji Bitter stubby. They sipped it quietly. The man next to them took their hand and slid it into his pants. They massaged the man’s crotch quietly. The man unzipped their fly and shoved Shilpa’s head into his crotch. He held their head down.
Still, Shilpa serviced the man’s crotch.
The van drove out of the town, down a windy road, to a secluded beach. The men got out.
Shilpa adjusted their wig and got out of the van. They dropped to their knees, and serviced the four smelly dicks. One at a time, two at a time, three at a time.
They spat out each one’s ejaculate onto the sand.
One of the men, who had the unmistakable overseas aura about him, handed them a $20 note.
Shilpa kicked up a fuss. They demanded $20 for each smelly dick.
“We didnt even fuck you bitch,” they said, and drove off in their van.
“Saala maichod bhatiyara,” Shilpa shouted at the van. They threw a piece of dead coral at the van, but it missed. Shilpa sat on the beach, and watched the gibbous moon touching the ocean, ever so gently. The tide was out. The exposed tiritiri roots jutted into the sand like stiff, sedentary snakes. Little crabs crawled from one hole to another over the wet sand.
Shilpa felt angry, guilty. They hadn’t needed to be a whore that night, they had made enough cash at the wedding. Why had they taken to the street then? Maybe it was dancing in the lap of that beautiful boy with the piercing eyes and bulging eyeballs at the wedding. The force with which he had pushed her off. The disdain, the violence — it had aroused Shilpa, brought their point-five juices alive.
They waited for daylight to break, but fell asleep presently.
They were woken up by the prongs of a crab-spear poking their shoulder. A woman with a big afro like a halo and a charcoal-shined face was asking them if they were alright. The tide was flowing in, lapping at Shilpa’s feet.
“Isa, what you doing here?” the lady asked in Fijian. Shilpa replied, in broken Fijian, that they had been stranded there. The lady introduced herself as Siteri. She didn’t ask Shilpa for details. She invited Shilpa to her house.
It was a tiny tin house, surrounded by coconut trees. Siteri lived alone. She said her children lived near the town, and they visited her sometimes.
In the backyard, water was boiling in a big pot over a fire. Siteri fed more wood into the fire, then plunged the one crab she had speared earlier into the boiling water.
She rolled out a woven mat on the floor of her house. Shilpa sat down.
They drank tea and ate some boiled cassava.
Siteri said the tiritiri was dying. Back in the day, she said she would have filled her basket with crabs. She would have had enough to give some to her neighbours. Now the white vulagi who bought the beach wanted to dig it all up. She said the whole church was praying to God to save their village.
Shilpa asked Siteri about the charcoal. Siteri told her that it protected her skin from the sun.
When their clothes had dried up, Shilpa thanked Siteri and took their leave. They walked up the dusty road, following Siteri’s directions. They boarded a bus at the junction. The bus was empty, the bus driver didn’t charge them.
Later, around mid-morning, Shilpa arrived at the shack that she rented from a pimp. She shared the shack with two others. One was Julie, who had been forced to the street by her husband and then abandoned by him when he found himself a younger wife. The other girl wouldn’t tell them her name. She was Chinese, so Shilpa and Julie affectionately called her Ching. Ching barely spoke to anyone. She had been brought to Fiji on a student visa and given over to Shilpa’s pimp. The pimp said someone was coming to take Ching away soon, when her student visa expired.
Inside the shack, the bucket in the middle of the floor had filled up with the previous night’s rain (which had leaked in through a hole in the roof) and flowed out. The mattress was wet. Julie was snoring on one end. Ching wasn’t around.
Shilpa took their wig off and fell asleep on the wet mattress.
- The Much Needed Holiday
As Shilpa fell asleep, a few villages away, Roop sat up in his bed and stretched his arms. He cursed himself for waking up so late — he had probably missed the kingfisher’s call at dawn.
Other than the chickens scratching about on the lawn and the mynahs chirping up in the trees, the only other sound he could hear was the radio in the kitchen. An announcer was announcing funeral notices.
Mr and Mrs Murthi had gone to Sunday Service at the Big Church. Mrs Murthi left the radio on to ward off would-be burglars. She took this extra precaution even though Roop was the lightest of sleepers,
Roop flung his bedsheet off and went to the bathroom. He undressed and studied himself in the mirror. His stubble was overgrown and needed shaving. His unruly hair looked as though it was full of dust. As though dust would fall out if he shook his head.
Veins stood out in his thin arms. The hollows in his collar bones could hold a tablespoon of water each. His ribs were visible in his chest. The one thing he had retained from childhood was his small, round belly. He sucked it in and it disappeared. Then he exhaled and it was back, a little kangaroo pouch. Further down, his penis was limp. The foreskin was shrivelled and pointed slightly to the left. His balls hung heavily, as though gravity pulled them more forcefully than it did the rest of his body. Perhaps gravity was humiliating him for being a twenty-eight year old virgin.
His bum cheeks also hung low, like ripe pawpaws waiting to fall off a tree.
He turned the tap on and stood under the cold water for some time. Then he dressed and went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. The radio announcer had finished with the funeral notices, and played a jolly Sunday morning song:
Khush rehne ko zaroori, kya hai bolo yaar?
Khushi toh milti hai jab, mile kisi ka pyaaaar
To be happy, what do we need friend?
Happiness comes when we someone loves us.
Roop sat down at the dining table with his cup of tea. Yesterday’s newspaper lay open on the table. It was turned to page 13.
TWO MEN IMPRISONED ON HOMOSEXUAL CHARGES, the headline read in bold print.
Roop read the article. An Australian man and a Fiji-Indian man had been found engaging in homosexual behaviour in a hotel room. The Australian homosexual had called the police after he found all his money missing after the Fiji-Indian homosexual made a run with it after their ‘encounter’. The police came and seized the Australian’s belongings. On his digital camera, they found the recording of the ‘disgusting acts’ the homosexuals had filmed. Both homosexuals were arrested and the court sentenced them to prison.
Fiji had been one of the first countries in the world to have a bill of rights that specifically illegalised discrimination based on sexual orientation. But still two homosexuals were in prison. They were charged for filming sex, that is producing pornography, which was illegal. Still, the article made it clear that the two homosexuals were disgusting. A Methodist Church pastor was quoted as saying that.
In a few days, the Australian homosexual would be released and fly back to his country. The Fiji-Indian homosexual would remain in prison. His wife would beg a garment factory owner for a job so she could look after her little son and daughter.
It wasn’t by coincidence that the newspaper came to be lying on the dining table, conveniently turned to page 13. Someone had left it there, for Roop to read. Roop had found a similar newspaper article when he had come home during uni break in 2000, some months after the May 2000 civilian coup.
That time, it had been about John Scott. He was a half-Fijian half-white man who grew up in New Zealand. He had returned to Fiji and worked as a volunteer, and eventually became the Director of the Red Cross. After the ministers in parliament were taken hostage and kept captive in the Parliament House, John Scott had been most active in taking provisions in for them, checking on their health. The country had been awed with his generosity, his bravery. That he risked his life for the hostages. Media channels had praised and applauded him.
Then, one night he had been discovered brutally murdered in his house. His young lover, a kiwi man had also been murdered. The post-mortem results confirmed that the two homosexuals had been subjected to vile torture before being hacked to death. But even before the post-mortem results were released, even before the accused murderer had appeared in court, a senior police officer had made official statements about the case. He said the accused, a young Fijian man, had been abused by John Scott. That John Scott had lured him away from his rugby career in high school with alcohol and drugs. It had mentally disturbed the accused and driven him to this vengeful act. Several months later, the accused was sent to a mental institution and not charged with murder. John Scott, once a generous and brave hero, bowed out of history as a disgusting, alcoholic, drug-addicted homosexual. His body, and his young lover’s body, were both taken to New Zealand by their families for proper funeral services.
Roop finished his tea, and threw the newspaper in the bin. He turned the stupid radio off. Zarina came and picked him up. They drove to Village 4 to see a film. She had been hoping to see Brokeback Mountain, for the rave reviews it had received. She said movie tickets in Melbourne cost 20 Australian dollars. In Fiji, they cost 5 Fijian dollars. Roop told her that Brokeback Mountain had played in the cinemas for exactly two days. Then members of the Methodist Church of Fiji had marched through the streets in protest, demanding the cinemas stop showing it. It was now banned in the country. Zarina was furious. “When will this country move on from these foolish things?” she asked.
They decided to watch the remake of Umrao Jaan.
In the thirty minutes they had to kill before the film started, Roop went to the Internet cafe next to the cinema and printed out the application forms for an Australian tourist visa from the Embassy Website.
A Personal History of Vision
By Luke Fischer
UWAP Poetry, 2017
Reviewed by DOMINIQUE HECQ
Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—at most: column, tower… But to say them, you must understand, O to say them more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of being—R. M. Rilke
Luke Fischer’s second collection, A Personal History of Vision, published earlier this year in UWAP’s Poetry Series, firmly establishes him as a pyrotechnician of language. This is Fischer’s second collection, and like the first, which was commended in the Anne Elder Award, it brings a dazzling range and depth of experience to his writing. Fischer’s ‘Augury?’, included in Paths of Flight, won the 2012 Overland Judith Wright Prize. Fischer is also a scholar of Romanticism, and this informs his poetry in unexpected and delightful ways. He has learned from Rainer Maria Rilke that an attentiveness to language enhances our understanding of things and therefore intensifies our vision. Like Rilke, his purpose is ‘to say [words] more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of being’. In that, he goes further than Samuel Taylor Coleridge who, in his Treatise on Logic, famously wrote: ‘it is words, names, or, if images used as words or names, that are the only and exclusive subject of understanding. In no instance do we understand a thing in itself’. In the poem ‘Why I write’ Fischer lists, and dismisses a number of reasons he might write for. He settles on the following:
I write for the expansion of the present
vital as breath to an empty lung,
for the garden that grows around me,
whether I’m in the city or on a mountain—
an invisible garden of fruit trees, hanging
wisteria and vines, honey bees, angophoras.
In these deceptively simple yet finely wrought lines, we recognise the path taken by the poet who, in Goethe’s formulation, ‘sees the universal in the particular’. We also make out the point at which the path forks out into three romantic traditions through specific images, and we hear echoes of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Novalis, Lamartine, Nerval, Baudelaire, Coleridge and Rilke. There may be more. Or less. (I may be seeing and hearing things). This is to suggest how Fischer’s verse conjures up a singularly-layered poetic world that produces a richness of tones and references.
Fischer’s poetic world is formal, philosophical, historical and, to a lesser extent, ecocritical in engagement and the concurrent romantic vision of the redemptive possibilities of art. His domain is ‘Nature’s Temple’ as immortalised in Baudelaire’s credo, ‘Correspondences’. In it, there is wonder, but also the anguish of melancholy, solitude, grief, suffering, dispossession and death. However, against these his poetry essentially offers life-affirming opportunities for delight—delight in the image-making magic of its own plays upon perception and language and, through these, in the multitudinous variety of nature, culture and art. Often cemented in an aesthetic image, or work of art, many of the poems collected in A Personal History of Vision express concern and empathy for the dead, grieving, lost and afflicted, for isolates driven inwards by their own perceptions. Answers are often gestured towards with empathy, and glimpses of the sublime, but they are more often than not cut short, leaving it to the reader to cope with the affect delivered by the last image. In ‘Waiting for the Train’, the sublime takes on surreal qualities on closing as the protagonist is compared to a fly caught in a spider’s web irrevocably breaking free.
Because of the collection’s lingering melancholy, I first wondered if ‘Deadwood’ might be emblematic of Fischer’s method. Behind the poem which evokes Rimbaud through reference to his limp and poetic vision, is ‘a verse that once set me on fire’. Here, the poet sees himself as a fire thief whose ‘text / looks like a poem’ yet ‘is a torch’ and the poets ‘way/into the heart’s subterrane, / a wavering illumination / of its resistant textures’. Here is Prometheus, classical fire-stealer, the characteristic figure held up by the Romantics (especially Rimbaud and Shelley) as symbol of heroic rebellion, the imagination and poetry. The lessons taken from Rilke are integrated in the poem: acknowledgment of time and experience, facing up to dejection as instructive and potentially ennobling, respect for selfhood in all its particularities, paring the language, finding inspiration in the here and now, and allowing sublime intimations to emerge from the profane.
Each poem in this book is an exploration of the creative possibilities of the poem as self-sufficient construct and affecting world. Each poem strives to bring forth contradictions and resolve them through a controlled expansion of imagery along specific paradigmatic axes rather than an accumulative proliferation of random images, which ends with some unexpected juxtaposition or reversal. The ekphrastic poems in particular, display this kind of aesthetics, focusing as they do on lines of flight. Thus despite his interest in paring back the expression to perceived essentials, in toughening the poem’s fibre, there is no doubt that Luke Fischer is above all an image maker. This comes with a distrust of adjectives and yet a paradoxical reverence for quaint or obsolete ones such as ‘subterrane’ and ‘halcyon’, which conjure up other languages, other traditions, other dimensions. This is the case in the third poem of the collection, ‘Horizon of Alps (K)’, in which ‘halcyon’ refers back to classical poetry via the French Romantics. This poem in fact introduces a whole cortege of allusions and shows Fischer is at his best: the theme is fully developed, the vision complex yet sustained, the convergence of poetic traditions surprising and the philosophical inferences sophisticated. The poem deserves quoting in full:
Horizon of Alps (K)
At the Château de Lavigny, Switzerland
Always at the boundary of vision, of thought
even when we look the other way. Though
often concealed in cloud and mist
veiled in haze, we know they endure.
Seemingly impenetrable matter
we sense a hidden truth, that they are minds
absorbed in contemplation.
On halcyon mornings Lac Léman
almost renders them as they are
in an image on diaphanous depth.
Their peaks shorn of vegetation, sheer faces
of stone, absolute architecture, prefigurations
of the crystals they hold.
Frozen tsunamis, primeval modernists
their abstraction rises above the lake and
its scattered sails—white chips in blue paint—
above the foothills’ sprawl of villages, the tangle
of forests and human lives, above emotion.
Resembling a heterodox order of monks
great mathematicians, geometers whose bible
was Euclid, their enlightenment consisted
in continuous meditation on the axiom
of axioms, the formula of themselves.
With a sister order they communicate
in antiphon. Snow imparts: Out of moisture
air and cold we make your structures light,
lighter than the empty bones of the tiny birds
that nest in your pockets. They reply:
We keep you from dissolving, lend
you a feeling of permanence.
At times dark clouds envelop the summits,
tense as the disputes at the First Council of Nicaea.
On holidays the iconostasis opens
revealing Mont Blanc, the hooded high priest,
as censers spread their smoke
around the lower pinnacles.
Still epics, skeletons of mythic creatures, crystal skulls
pure forms, the moral law, metalogic, consonants
isolated from vowels. Your secret name:
the voiceless occlusive
In a gesture reminiscent of Shelley, Fischer answers the old suggestion that poetry is associated with primitive, indeed ‘primeval’ perception and declines with the advance of civilisation. The poem echoes ‘Defence of Poetry’, where Shelley claims an interrelationship of language, perception and poetry such that poets as contributors to civilisation in all manners aesthetic and philosophical are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ (1821). Lingering here is the romantic emphasis on the imagination, truth, beauty and pleasure allied with Shelley’s provocative definition of the relationship between imagination and morality in the form of the good. The poetic faculty creates ‘new materials for knowledge’ and engenders the asynchronous desire for their rearrangement and presentation. Through the emphasis on the paradoxically ‘voiceless occlusive’ in the French ‘blanc’ Fisher deftly suggests that, as Shelley puts it, poetry ‘is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge’ here epitomised by the Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps. He also, and not without irony, suggests that poets are authors to others ‘of the highest wisdom, pleasure, virtue and glory’. The irony pertains to the fact that ‘k’ at the heart of ‘Luke’ is indeed far from voiceless. Besides, after Kafka, the letter ‘k’ is loaded with connotations antithetical to the good. In this poem, the letter ‘k’ goes beyond anchoring metaphoric play: it highlights the classical idea of eternal forms, including the form of the good endorsed by philosophy. It does so only to question and subvert this idea. This is achieved through interplay of semantic binaries.
Diverse in their range and reference, arresting in their statement and wordplay, the poems gathered in this collection are, as ‘Horizon of Alps (K)’ demonstrates, very carefully constructed. Fischer uses the short line and variable stanzaic form with dexterity. The result is a poetry that is conceived with sharp attention to detail, joy in the possibilities of language, and self-consciousness about the seriousness and exhilaration of perception and apperception. This is equally true of the longer questing poems, of the extended ‘Elegy for the Earth’ with its personification of earth as a sleeping woman, and of the shorter inquisitive lyrics such as ‘Glance’, ‘Scene in music’, ‘Anonymous’ and ‘Labyrinth’.
In the poem ‘Certain Individuals’, Fischer ponders what draws us to some people by invoking images rather than traits of character. He begins his meditation proper with the question: ‘But isn’t it that / in one person we sense a clear glinting waterfall / refreshing to sit beside, in another something mysterious / as a fallow field at dusk? I could not resist attempting to qualify his poetry in analogous fashion. Were it a prose poem, or proto-poem, it would be:
Water cascading through a gorge, a pattern of cross-currents forming beneath, around and above stones, causing sudden changes to the water’s flow. The lap and splash of images, nuances, cadences, subliminal rhythms. The attentiveness to form, language and speech: the shapes of words, letters, lines, stanzas. Their resonances, uncanny silences. The larynx’s response to what is heard, recalled and felt, reforming patterns of speech and sense. In winter the snow erases images and emptiness beckons. Calls from the depth of its stillness. Calls for understanding.
With Fischer, the romantic legacy is still with us, whatever modifications are made by changes in cultural perceptions, social institutions, aesthetic preferences and work patterns. In deference to art and in acknowledgement of the metaphoric possibilities of language, imagination allows here for a dialectical interplay of opposite categories that yield a third register. This register bears Novalis’ aphorism : The separation of poet and thinker is only apparent and to the disadvantage of both…’ Here lies the irresistible brilliance of A Personal History of Vision.
NOTE: “The separation of poet and thinker is only apparent and to the disadvantage of both…” –Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) is the key, as it were, that opens Luke Fischer’s website.
DOMINIQUE HECQ is a poet, fiction writer, scholar and literary translator. She grew up in the French-speaking part of Belgium and now lives in Melbourne. Her works include a novel, three collections of short stories, five books of poetry and two plays. Hush: A Fugue (2017) is her latest book of lined and prose poetry.
by Emily Stewart
Reviewed by ROBERT WOOD
There has been an important groundswell of recent feminist poetries and poetics in Australia. As Siobhan Hodge wrote in her review of Bonny Cassidy and Jessica Wilkinson’s anthology Contemporary Feminist Poetry, there is:
…a subtle, cresting sense of activism.
It is there too in Emily Stewart’s Knocks, through its critical, engaged and optimistic hopes that are expressed in specific poems, which together convey a notion of intersectionality conscious of gender. As Hodge herself said of the anthology:
‘There is a reassuring note of solidarity throughout the collection, but a simultaneous celebration of diversity in style, tone, theme and foci.’
One can suggest something similar in Stewart’s collection and which has been noted in different ways by Pam Brown’s launch speech in linked deletions, Amelia Dale’s commentary in Jacket2, and Melody Paloma’s review in Cordite. This dialectical relationship between acute critique and joyful celebration suggests not only that the whole of life is attended to, but also that one can oscillate, converse, play with the variety and possibility of ‘Poetry’ writ large. So what is Stewart railing against and what is she heralding? And, perhaps importantly, where is this leading us and what does it suggest?
To answer those questions is difficult, and it may be more apt to give a summary of what the collection is about in order to gesture at but never arrive at a full understanding of Stewart’s collection. Her voice is multiple, layered, various – there are erasure poems (section two); poems of multiple voices; poems in ordinary plain speech; remixed poems of heightened experiment (section three); poems of repetition (‘Today’). The references are Aussie kitsch, global pop cultural, resolutely local, Anglophonic culture industrial, fun too. This eclecticism of tone, style and reference keeps the volume entertaining, engaging, active. What that means for a reader is that one is being tested and flexed and exercised from page to page in a worthy movement from A to D to Z to B to U and back again all over and through.
There are, of course, personal favourites; poems that resonate, which each reader will find on their own. Needless to say, there are jewels in there that I like too. For example, I responded to ‘Australia’s Largest DIY’, which is a wry listing of commodities, objects, items that could be catalogued from Bunnings or Home Hardware or Mitre Ten. The poem begins:
fencestone, pavers, coloured spit rock
face blocks, colonial cornices, artificial
stone, aluminium step treads, hardwood (18)
Far from being a simple list poem, in Stewart’s hands, it becomes a rapturous sonic apprehension, not a dull rote thing but an event with music in it – ‘fencestone’ goes well with ‘face blocks’, and later on there is ‘urbanite’ with ‘expansion joints’, ‘marble veneer island bench’ with ‘brass compress’. The ordering is such that it makes it plain speech rhapsodic. And of course, one can read into it a post-conceptual politics that would take a found object, retype it and yet slantly embody it with ideological awareness – the phrasing to dwell on in the excerpt above is, of course, ‘coloured spit rock’ with ‘colonial cornices’ and so here and now, we glimpse the shadows of anachronistic Indigenous terms and the images of James Cook, which both come back to haunt the settling mode of the everyday do it yourself brigade. The last line of this poem is ‘how to fix a picket fence’ which not only circles back to the opening word (fencestone) but also allows the reader into a commentary of suburban dreams.
When read with a regard for Knocks as a whole, one notices that Stewart is an adept and able observer of contemporary life in Australia from the criticality of the mundane through to the implications of being here truly. This last sense comes through in the poem, ‘Animal Hands’, that directly follows ‘Australia’s Largest DIY’ though it is there in other, tender if welcomingly ambivalent pieces. Nevertheless it provides a direct counterpoint here, a kind of contrapuntal puncturing of the suburban critique in ‘DIY’. In ‘Animal Hands’, Stewarts writes:
I’ve been unwinding wire
along the serrated edge
of these paddocks for a
long time, pulling it tight (19)
It gives us a sense of engagement with boundaries, with borders, with aging, with process, with education, with tension, and this apparent everyday thinks through feminism, anxiety, and ecology of being with nods to history, emotion and birds. The poem ends with a libidinal and touching, though never sentimental, line:
all I want is your mouth on my neck, wordless and dumb under chilly stars
That is, the knowing poet assures us, all that ‘I’ want – the mouth, object of speech, home of tongue, at the neck, vampiric, teenage, hickies and loving, while the stars, this time chilled not burning balls of gas millions of miles away witness such complicated tenderness. It suggests what might be possible by looking at our immediate surrounds.
I responded to how her gaze falls on the ordinary, the suburban, the quotidian in these poems. This is not the domestic or the everyday or the taken-for-granted, but rather the momentary interruptions of frame against a poetic that is grand, posturing, arrogant. Those moments of defamiliarisation mean we are asked to see the normal anew and that is an important task in bringing to consciousness that which is poetic in the first place. This would seem to be a possibility that Stewart herself is constantly exploring from her writing to her social media, especially her Instagram [link to it – https://www.instagram.com/emstew__/], and which offers one line of productive inquiry that I am very much looking forward to. For this keen reader, the next collection cannot come soon enough.
- Siobhan Hodge review of Contemporary Feminist Poetry Ed Jessica Wilkinson and Bonny Cassidy Cordite
ROBERT WOOD has degrees from University of Western Australia, Australian National University and University of Pennsylvania. In 2017–2018, He will be an Endeavour Research Fellow and Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, and a Copyright Agency Emerging Critic with the Sydney Review of Books.
Claire Potter ’s most recent poetry publications have appeared in The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry (edited by John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan), Best Australian Poems 2016 (ed. Sarah Holland-Batt), Poetry Chicago (ed. Robert Adamson), and Poetry Review Ireland. She was shortlisted for a 2017 Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize UK and she has published three poetry collections, In Front of a Comma (Poets Union 2006), N’ombre (Vagabond 2007) and Swallow (Five Islands 2010). She lives in London.
The Copper Beech
I lie you down, spread your branches wide as wings across the grass
Your leaves flatten like cracked shells, letting the sea out of my ears
Breath has gone out of you
You are at the edge of becoming an object
belonging to the wind
From a distance there is no way of telling your dark fallen leaves
from copper-black feathers––or your red-tongued branches
from a split open nest
I walk amongst purple shadows, I sit within the mess
But in writing this I am not unique, nor
are these feelings. This experience cannot be said
to belong to any obstinate sense of me
There are many more who weep when birds and trees are falling, when
the mauve of dusk slowly tapers and pre-emptively disappears
When the bone-heavy moon
carves an ending and turns its back on the sea
and leaves rattle like pewter shells
returning to the beach.
Three Steps Outside the TAB
Pale steps, concrete and absolute
solid and lengthwise between two pillars and a portico
I am waiting on the blue-grey steps
divided into three parts
The first step is physical such that in this heat
my skirt bandages against my thighs
I’ve sat here all afternoon
in this passage of tobacco, jasmine and beer
and I’ve sung, resting my head on my knees
looping prayer with radio
waiting for Grandpa to swing open the doors
scoop my hand into his
and ruminate about the horses
he’s decided not to back
Shiny cars shuffle
across a weft of bitumen and white lines
the rubber tyres wheeze with kids
springing from car doors wanting ice-cream, sherbet
lemonade through a straw
I watch the beetle-tops glistening in the sun––
inside they’re cooking and the steering wheels warp like liquorice
as though I’m Gretel and everything before me
on the steps of this oven, is secretly made for eating
I’m vigilant, too, about Grandpa’s Valiant parked illegally up the kerb
Cabbage-white body, chrome bumper, single front seat, no seatbelts
in the back, two round side mirrors, black
dashboard, chipped, plastic, and a whickering gearbox
Grandpa wears a white shirt––sleeves rolled to the elbows
elbows dry and flaking. Trousers wide
and tall, hoisted with a thin belt
He agrees with everything I say
and these afternoons at the TAB we foist off as dog-walks
Pete in sagging herringbone and rosaceous cheeks
taps my head and comes and goes
through the double glass-doors carrying
a blue plastic shopping bag full of errands and chores
as if it were against his better judgement to be there
I recognise his slippers, Grandpa
wears the same ones, seaweed-brown tartan, thin brown sole
noiseless as he pads across the shopping centre
as if it were his kitchen
and the TAB his blue lagoon
Sunlight passes through an eye of mirror and I squint at it
and begin crying without reason until Grandpa comes out
wipes my eyes with a handkerchief and says he’ll be done soon
The second and third steps are as cold as a whale might be
and beneath my sandals, they’re dimpled with mica and pore
Had I a pocket knife I could chip into them
engrave a heart cordoned with forget-me-nots
or tally-marked with time etched into tiny bales of grey
But I’ll close my eyes against the stone
imagine the rib of steps belongs inside Jonah’s whale
and I’m a barnacle growing there, perchance
or a mermaid in disguise, battering
the hull of this gambling seadog’s skip
with the weight of a huge emerald tail––
but look, he’s smoking at the door with Pete
his spare hand’s outstretched, he wants to go
he’s ready––he heels out his cigarette into a twist of ash
and off the steps, through waves of smoke-blue air
I skip over my tail
Preparations for Departure
by Nathanael O’Reilly
Reviewed by ZACHARY WARD
Preparations for Departure, Nathanael O’Reilly’s second full length collection, is an ongoing journey in which the poet enters the gaps between home and abroad, contentment and discontent, presence and absence, youth and age, the past and the present. These disparities emerge in a suite of fifty-nine free-verse poems spanning across his formative years growing up in small town Australia, to his most recent years living in America. Reflecting a life spent in diaspora, the poems transport the reader back and forth across oceans to land in cities of ruinous decay, preserved in the poet’s mind; to scenes of quiet urbanity and the endlessly silent screams which pervade; to beaches untrodden, and in which we may now see our footprints forever imprinted; the clatter and squalor of marketplaces and the drudgery of the quotidian. A constantly shifting collage of antonymous sights and sounds, these duopolies are best observed in the author’s mind.
The suite’s first poem, ‘Border Crossings’, observes the conflict of duopoly that is constantly being waged across the author’s thoughts. A round trip through Eastern Europe, O’Reilly paints scenes of post-Soviet squalor and abandonment, though always from the security of a moving train carriage. The reader is afforded a sense of detachment, as the poet is easily able to retreat to the comforts of his compartment and those offered by Western influence. When not ‘sipping a glass of whiskey’, the speaker can ‘listen to Nirvana, U2, Springsteen’, willingly flitting between the scenery outside his window, and the familiar manner of those around him. Outside is the other, the old world, different and dark, crumbling and vacant; the carriage is home to Harry Potter, iPad’s and selfies. O’Reilly is never part of the scenery, and is aware of his intrusion into this world. He is more at home among the comforts of the west, and uses the ever-moving shuttle to shield him from the realities of the world he is passing through. A further exploration of this social disparity is explored in, ‘In the Market Place’. Though not protected by the bulk and pace of a train carriage, a description of the grime and poverty of a Ukrainian concourse is delivered briefly and starkly, conveying a desire to,
… simply observe and pass by,
my needs and survival unthreatened.
To them I am a rich Amerikanski,
an alien from a golden dreamland.
The train carriage is no longer required to define and separate, for his ‘clothes and accent proclaim [he does] not belong and never will.’ Unable to escape his heritage and the legacy of his own home and his ancestral homeland, the poet concedes that ‘in three weeks I’ll be gone, back in the West … living in luxury.’
Back in the West, the author’s reminiscences of his upbringing in Australia unearth a struggle to accept age and in so doing, detach from the past. Though far flung from the shores of home, the patchwork of Australia’s sleepy suburban streets, dry crackling long grass and booming coastal shelves are never far from the author’s thoughts. As from a moving train carriage, O’Reilly can observe his youth; a series of flashing images, just beyond his reach or inclusion. Formative years spent among the quiet nature of urban Australia reveals within the fledgling poet an awareness of the world and a greater understanding of a higher culture that might only be attained by sitting on rooftops and listening to Pink Floyd, hoping to glimpse a better view, in ‘The Way We Saw Ourselves’. Being merely a memory, as intangible as the crumbling iron yards of Eastern Europe, the luxury and comforts of the coach are not present; O’Reilly clearly desires to alight here and reassume the uncertainties and expectations of his younger self,
Years ago now, those days
when the world seemed ours
for the taking, when we dreamt
wildly, full of hope
and our own importance.
O’Reilly’s sense of diaspora is not only temporal, but also painfully internal. A victim of nostalgia and an unwitting tourist in his own youth, displacement perpetually plagues the evading poet. Though still capable of marking the parameters of home in his memory, his identity as an Australian of Anglo-Celtic origin turns his sights away from the antipodean land of his rearing, and temporarily toward the British Isles. One senses the poet’s hope of finding some outcrop of ancient rock to which he may find some purchase, and carve into the old-world soil of his ancestral home his own marking among the scratchings of his literary forbears.
Migration affords O’Reilly a semblance of inclusion, extending the exploration of duality beyond the internal and the temporal; it places the speaker at a spatial variance from his thoughts. Dissatisfaction and aimlessness accompany the author’s musings as he attempts to assimilate a foreign landscape. No longer wishing to play the part of the tourist, the reader becomes acutely aware of the sudden reduction of O’Reilly’s protective barriers; the train carriage has passed and the space between the rooftop and his present self has been traversed. In ‘My Inheritance’, the recurrent invasion of the poet’s carefree childhood is once more invoked. Reminiscently wistful, the reader is escorted further down the halls of the speaker’s memory, stopping ‘by barbed wire fences, scattered with droppings and dung’ to ‘suck in the smell of the sheep and the cows, musty hay, molasses.’ These rustic images, dabbed with care upon a palette of recollections to be disturbed by the slash of the artist’s brush and splashed vigorously across his canvas, hang lovingly upon the walls of these thoroughly ventured corridors. Distanced by years and self-doubt, the reader is reminded of O’Reilly’s self-imposed exile, and the ethereality of such careless days by the abrupt return of time and space in the poem’s final stanza,
In my mind the hot north wind
still flattens the brown grass
and carries the smell of sheep
and earth across the Pacific.
The Pacific ocean evokes profundity, and the depths to which the poet plunges to salvage these images, while its vastness suggests they are forever beyond the poet’s grasp in a muddling of past and present.
The remarkably emotive poems in Preparations for Departure read lightly, yet leave deep and perennial tracings. O’Reilly, in a voice sculpted by the world he has ventured, captures the evasive and eternal nature of the wandering spirit; the constantly restless speaker leaves traces of himself across the pages, carefully crafting an impression of having just come and just gone, leaving the reader one page behind. To keep turning is to accept O’Reilly’s invitation and accompany him on his centrifugal journey forward over oceans and back across pools of thought that trickle into the past. As the speaker takes in the sights, the reader may ponder class, wealth, race and age from the not always welcome security of a temporal and or spatial distance. Though the gaps are ever widening, these poems are able to suspend and preserve observances, which continue to question inherited notions of contentment, belonging and identity.
ZACHARY WARD graduated in a Bachelor of Communications, major in Creative Writing at UTS. His fiction appeared in the UTS Vertigo magazine.
Robbie Coburn was born in Melbourne and grew up on his family’s farm in Woodstock, Victoria. His poems have been published in various journals and magazines including Poetry, Cordite, The Canberra Times, Overland and Going Down Swinging, and his poems have been anthologized. His first collection, ‘Rain Season’, was published in 2013 and a second collection titled The Other Flesh is forthcoming. He lives in Melbourne.www.robbiecoburn.com.au
I often ask for the ending.
blood-soaked white sheets you wake to each night
beneath their betrayed minds abandoned to your care.
I am sorry the body does not decide when.
and that you see me in the hollowed faces and knife-dreams.
not in your duty, all empathy soon becoming misery —
late one night you called through our silence,
a strange voice that spoke as if crying.
your mother was in another town asleep,
your father away at war, further from you than hours could say.
all distance finds loneliness in time.
I often ask for the ending.
no way to reassemble this.
no handbook or tested process written into your tongue.
only this strange voice I still hear
the night shift dragging to dawn
the mercy you breathe.
The Colt’s Grave
I stand at the paddock’s edge
the colt’s grave still visible
where dad has heaped wet dirt.
the ill and lanky body had fallen
several paddocks away, clean wind across the property
drying blood caked to his flanks.
a heartbeat ticking
through the electric fence
that formed a barricade around his small corpse
my father looking on
beyond my interminable confusion
inside my body, something changing
some future trying to enter the landscape.
I walk across the dilapidated horse track
waiting for the rain again.
from the weatherboard house
my breath is carried,
the unmistakable sound of crying.
by Amelia Dale
Inken Publisch, 2017
Reviewed by TONY MESSENGER
Ben Lerner in his 2016 essay “The Hatred of Poetry” reminds us of poetry’s activist, historical participation in politics; “Plato, in the most influential attack on poetry in recorded history, concluded that there was no place for poetry in the Republic because poets are rhetoricians who pass off imaginative projections as the truth and risk corrupting citizens of the just city, especially the impressionable youth.” Sydney poet, Amelia Dale, has taken Australian poetic political agitation to a new level, with her new book, Constitution.
If the etymology of ‘constitution’ is from the Latin ‘constitutio’; regulations and orders, then Amelia Dale has launched an attack on Australia’s political cornerstone; she has trashed the order, challenged the regulations, declinism is rife. As she says, “Being an ‘Australian poet’ with all that entails, it seems to me that the starting point has to be to try, as much as you can, to undo and damage ‘Australia,’ the nation state. This is not to say that I have any delusions that my book will enact in real terms political change. But I turned to the Constitution because to vandalise the Constitution seems like the sensible, the only thing to do.”
Constitution is constructed to mirror the format of the Australian Constitution, with all sections, chapters and parts replicating the format of the foundational document. Consisting of 128 parts catalogued into eight chapters, and with reference to the document establishing “Australia,” it provides an activity recommended for all readers. The “Covering Clauses” in the Constitution, become “So It Is” in Dale’s table of contents or “Overwhelmingly, I Focus on the Big Issues”. In the text itself, the alignment of the political rhetoric to established clauses uses a profundity of knowledge of the defining first national document. (p xi)
Constitution is presented as official Government paper, with the royal blue and coat of arms mimicking an Australian passport, the font copying official Government documents and the paper even similar to legal tomes found in Hansard or departmental publications.
Dale takes verbatim interviews with the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, on the current affairs program “The 7.30 Report”. Having edited thousands of words of transcripts she presents these back in poetic construct. The resulting book subverts the standard media text and political rhetoric;
Well everybody knows that their prosperity depends on the prosperity of their employer. And if they’re working for business, as most people are, they want to know. You see everything we’re doing is going. And I know you don’t want me to refer to the Labor party, but I do have to note that their policies will reduce investment. Well I assume that they – I assume – well leaving aside the – the bellicose metaphors…
As Dale explains “the text is edited transcriptions of interviews with Malcolm Turnbull from the 7:30 report. There are no other speakers. It is all Turnbull. I’ve deleted some words but all the text, the weird phrases, the odd metaphors are all his.” This editing, bubbling a lyrical poetic interpretation of rhetorical political language to the surface, removes the essayistic element, confounding the reader as any good politician would do.
Australia’s current political debate about “recognition”, and Aboriginal Australia’s rejection of “constitutional recognition” in favour of a voice in parliament and a treaty, makes this a timely release. With only 8 of the proposed 44 amendments being historically made to the Constitution, the majority being administrative alterations such as Senate amendments, State debt and retirement of judges, the “bellicose metaphor”, notations, footnotes, and references provide no clearer picture on the original document; the poetic construction mirrors reality.
In the poet’s hands the 1967 amendment to section 51 (xxvi) from “the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”, to “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws” becomes rationalised by “but most importantly by what other countries were doing.” (p 22) The superficiality of these amendments and the construction of a verbose document has been well researched and defiantly debunks “a lot of naval-gazing introspection.” (p vii)
Amelia Dale says “it’s the language of cold neoliberal power” and her masterful construction highlights the confusing, circular, meaningless political speak. Using the interviewer, Leigh Sales, as interlocutor, the condescending, demeaning speak becomes increasingly obvious as Amelia Dale, uses headlines such as, “Leigh, I think you’ll find”, “Well Leigh”, and “I’ll tell you something, Leigh”. The poet explaining “We can all speculate on his own reasons for needing the buffer, for needing an interlude. I just wanted to make the convolutions of his speech visible.”
Politically humourous, Dale’s book also uses visual and textual ploys to entice her readers. The title page lampoons publication details by changing standard text, such as copyright information, and rights reserved text to political quotes;
This is a Liberal National Government. So they’ve got to – so freedom is – the key point. I mean, it’s perhaps a bit simplistic but one way you could say it – you can describe it is that the, and I could make the same point about, we believe that, so – so that’s a fundamental thing. But there are some very key priorities, Leigh, tight now. One of them, principally, is we have to ensure that, how to we maintain that? Well there’s a – with, you know, many more, and that’s very exciting. But we need to be, be need to above all be more innovative.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull advises us, in the text, “The truth is that all of us are a bit liberal and a bit conservative in differing degrees.” Our writer disagrees: “Claims for a sensible or objective “centre,” the idea that the grown-up place to start is compromise makes me nauseous. Turnbull of course markets himself as a kind of socially “progressive” left-of-right figure. We’re supposed to be happy that he doesn’t commit Abbott-level macroaggressions and not be angry that his policies kill people.”
What is next for Amelia Dale ? “I’ve determined that all my poetry for the rest of my life will be inspired by, about and against white male politicians. I’m about to move to Shanghai, so Kevin Rudd might be an appropriate muse.”
As Amelia Dale has shown us, in the current political climate, there is room for poets, passing “off imaginative projections as the truth”, let’s hope the art can continue “corrupting citizens of the just city, especially the impressionable youth”.
CITATIONS AND NOTES
1. Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) p 25
2. private correspondence with the author is quoted in this review with the poet’s permission.
TONY MESSENGER is a Melbourne based blogger who focuses on translated literature and Australian poetry and poet interviews. He can be found at https://messybooker.wordpress.com/ and actively tweets using the handle @messy_tony