William Russell, born in Victoria, has been published in journals and anthologies in Australia and overseas, including: This Australia; Meanjin; Borderlands; Antipodes;and Paintbrush—and Inside Black Australia; Spirit Song; and The Sting in the Wattle. Poems like Red, God Gave Us Trees To Cut Down, Blackberrying and Tali Karng: Twilight Snake have been included in international anthologies and education curricula. Peer poet-playwright Gerry Bostock spoke of him as someone really up against the odds: “a blind, ex-serviceman of the Vietnam era, with PTSD, a fair-skinned Aboriginal male—and, worst of all, a poet.” William draws from defining and extraordinary life experience, disability and deep cultural roots to create a diverse repertoire of poetry.
This fella here…
king, king, king, king…
White fella call him Bellbird—
Yeh, he sound just like little bells—
We call him King.
White fella loves these bellbirds—
king, king, king, king—
All day singing like every tree
Is hung with bells whose random toll
King, king, from every quarter.
Bellbirds: they are liked by the White fella
Because, they are just like the White fella.
They march into a country king, king,
And chase all the other birds away.
All their king, king, kinging is them talking
About where all their land is…
king, king, kweek…
They farm lerp on leaves for food,
And soon enough, all the trees die.
King, kweek, dtjak, dtjak, dtjak.
This forest changes—another habitat—
Another ecology. No bells today,
Something new tomorrow…
The wind sighs through the forest
And branches sway…
I prefer tongue-tied knowledge to ignorant loquacity.
—Marcus Tullius Cicero
In the earliest hours of winter
My mind commands adamantine
Thoughts as sharp as the frost
Yet my tongue is marled tight
In my head and the keen words
Are as lost as the leaves of trees.
Eggs, over easy, on a bed of chili and fried potato,
washed down with Mexican hot chocolate:
breakfast in Santa Fe.
The moon wears a shadow-shawl
over her bright-silvern head
and tied beneath her protruding chin.
She is attempting to enter the window
past garlands of dried red chiles
to the chocolate and watermelon.
Frost enters the casita with the moon.
An owl sighs in the stark tree of the court;
it has eaten, and now watches the moon’s
progress through the window toward the chocolate.
Stars rain in a clear black sky, and a coyote
howls—demanding the moon’s attention.
Juniper and piñon smoke marry
to fly with the silent owl
over adobe and around flakes of snow.
The moon kisses the chocolate
but the frost is thwarted by a fire.
And the coyote moves further up the cañon.
the moon has tasted the chocolate;
I have slept late and now am hungry
for a simple, warming breakfast.
Under a turquoise sky and a dry straw sun,
the adobe has the color of ripe persimmon.
The air is chill and barely moves.
There is a long, deep and descending crack
in the wall of the courtyard outside my casita—
filled with iced snow and a feather of an owl.
I walk up Galosteo toward the shops.
Piñon and juniper incense drifts—no,
sidles along the calles like a cursed dog.
Eggs, over easy, on a bed of chili and fried potato,
washed down with Mexican hot chocolate:
breakfast in Santa Fe.
He shovels food into his mouth
like a stoker stoking coal;
fingering every morsel
as though the tips of his fingers
are preliminary taste buds
assaying the grease and grit
of his hamburger and chips.
He quaffs the dregs of his beer,
snorts like a pig at a trough,
then delicately dabs his lips
with the corner of his napkin—
every inch the epicurean.
James Byrne is a poet and editor, born near London in 1977. His most recent poetry collections are White Coins (Arc Publications, 2015) and Everything Broken Up Dances, Tupelo Press 2015. Other collections include Blood/Sugar (Arc 2009) and Soapboxes, a pamphlet of political satires (KFS, 2014).
Byrne is a translator and editor. He co-edited the first anthology of Burmese poetry to be published in the West (Arc, 2012, Northern Illinois University Press 2013) and Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, an anthology of poets under 35, published by Bloodaxe in 2009. Since 2002 he has edited The Wolf, an internationally-renowned poetry magazine.
His poems have been translated into various languages, including Arabic, Burmese and Chinese. In 2009 he won the Treci Trg poetry prize in Serbia and, as a result, his Selected Poems: The Vanishing House was published in Belgrade. He was the Poet in Residence at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge and a Stein Fellow of New York University where he completed an MFA in poetry.
Currently living in Liverpool, England, he teaches poetry at Edge Hill University.
They said I came out with a thorn in my foot—
hillcloud child who spoke with a large name,
blossy among broken hedges and molten fields.
When the house hellbelled I retouched an image
of hyaline mists gridlocked to corn. The memory
of sky over Pankridge Farm held like a salve.
I listened to the beginning patience in a voice
until it was clamant, exasperated to pure nerve—
‘Home’ it repeated. ‘Home. Come home’.
from ‘Economies of the Living’
Yeats in his psychopomp. Blavatsky
a lion among quadrapets. Similitudes.
As if accolades were lofty as cliffs.
Maud Gonne pursued, but as worthy
conquest? I would rather be a falcon
or rook, with mischief to provoke her.
Brother, remember how we cast ourselves
as children carried off by Scottish eagles.
Found affrighted but reclaimed by parents.
Hazelnut. Feathered black, brownish and
green. Traitor to the flower press, luxuriant
but uselessly sportive, uselessly fluttering.
Female’s the architect. Male: a panicked
fetcher of cottoned twigs, vegetable fibres.
Skivvy for cloudhouses suspended in air.
A family of silken music caged by Labat
for rats. We are purposed for pleasure.
Touch the wings to kill its instrument.
Europe’s incommode: it is not free
to roam continents like the horse did.
Tack, yield, never knowing winter.
Turnstiled like prisoners of the sedan.
Tractable and familiar. The Bedouin
shares his tent with foals, surrenders
his courser mare to the French consul.
The things a horse has traded for gold.
Closely farried, shockpools for eyes.
Brute like us. Brute of the woods.
Sternly countenanced then maligned
like cracked hutches of the counselled.
Epitaphic, ritualized buriers and so
larger than most men. Upwards of you
unfolding a napkin and as Buffon said:
fond of comfits but, unlike the baboon,
clever to show a man where the door is.
Trained servants, able to work as we do.
from ‘Rimbaud Villanelles’
14 Rue Nicolet
What is wrong with the ex-pats and the French?
Only two of us show up for The Rimbaud Walk
despite the ballyhoo: A 5 Mile Drift on Absinthe.
Sure, there’s a grin in the wind, but what prudence
nowadays; no surprise the UMP still shun a plaque
for 14 Rue Nicolet. What is wrong with the French?
Rimbaud, at sixteen, arrived here from the Ardennes
for havoc in the house of Verlaine’s new stepparents,
and for Verlaine himself, who was gone on absinthe.
At night, they stumbled home under the low-lit lamps
surveyed by Verlaine’s jilted chanson, Mathilde Mauté,
who despised the bad manners of these mountain French.
It is a house too prim for bohemians or boy peasants
agreed the in-laws. Lice-ridden, Rimbaud slept on the lawn
naked in the sun, peeled to his ribs, popeyed on absinthe.
Mathilde saw her life slide away whilst pregnant.
Verlaine threw little Georges at the wall and walked.
This house is a shamed house, censored by the French.
Before Rimbaud, Verlaine was hooked on absinthe.
Selected from White Coins, Arc, 2015
Variations on Darkness
‘How slowly dark comes down on what we do.’
Theodore Roethke, from “In Evening Air”
If you drink from the shuck of the storm
you will always be tainted by its darkness.
The lacquered surface of the canal at night
is darker than the darkest shroud of Jesus.
One thing darker than the roses’ shadow
—the cold fire of the roses after thunder.
Far murkier than possession—the shiphold
shackled to the hells of human darkness.
When the rusted machete cut back the cane
it sharpened darkly in the emperor’s silence.
Amnesially waiting in the cinema’s darkness
—it cannot be separated out from loneliness.
The panmongolist was so afraid of the dark
he asked to be buried in a candlelit coffin.
A death-pecked cry darkens the entire city
and is hoisted through the shrieking world.
Fragments for Ali
lend me a syllable
from Assyrian ash
from the ashes of Ishtar
unruffle my birdsnest ignorance
you who brothered me there
like a son and bronzed silver
into figures of amity
in the desert path above Tartous
through salt tides
and toothsucking sand
the bell of your name
hardbreathing of pebblestones
lost to the iron-shore sea
the upturned hulls
of fishing boats
wet with life
as if hope struck
and was bundled out by the sun
winter ices the weathervane
in the Alawite district
where your ailing mother lives—
reproach of the tank’s eye
tingling the museum gates
and somewhere beyond the pocked wall
and somewhere beyond the General’s spyglass
among shelled-out newbuilds
and frail city stanchions
your son walks
the herded miles
blood in the jasmine
sweat of death
how do new buds grow
from beheaded flowers?
families hide out for months
in their homes
betrayed by the dark
and the painted
irreality of television
in windows purloined
of the old familiar faces
where in these Mallajah hills
is the lamb of your niece?
sorrow of the olive grove
bones that conspire in the Queiq river
where the villagers
cannot be sure
of the informers
from the mob
stare out from
pillars of rock
to the distant
mesh of Europe
to speak is a game of chess
terror in the telephone
where no one appears to
dread of breath
silence that roars
The National Park
Imperious eyes of the trained killer
draped in a white flag, who would
maculate us with the venom of his clan.
Here, where death is the stone inside
a rotting fruit; what would they ask
if not turning away at the final demand,
which is speech? They enter the gable
of the national park and do not tell us
and are with themselves and are gone.
Selection from Everything Broken Up Dances (forthcoming from Tupelo Press, USA)
by James Byrne
ISBN 978 1908376 47 3
Reviewed by CYRIL WONG
White Coins by UK poet, James Byrne, is a collection that operates zealously across the rich surfaces of semantic interconnectedness and imagistic playfulness. Not unlike more conventional lyric and confessional voices, perhaps, the poet here begins at “a ransacked house” or a home from the past, serving as a familiar starting point for segues across time and dimensions of meaning. The first poem, “Historia,” as the etymology of the title also suggests, is a concerted attempt to gain new knowledge or renewed insight through poetic investigation. There is a vulnerable acknowledgement of once being “six and made of violins” or having experienced how “love blunts.” But there is also a rejuvenation of perspective, such as when a singular leaf becomes a “scapel-like finger”, simultaneously revealing the speaker’s humility at not taking credit for a space of lofty detachment (the leaf “not pointing towards a balance-act”) but yet achieving (“balancing”) that serendipitous equipoise, nonetheless, between an intense emotionality the past evokes and a present opportunity for imaginative reinvention.
The following poem, “Economies of the Living,” a series of dictionary-like entries of aspects of our world refracted through a surrealist lens, furthers the strategy of sustaining a balance between startling description and emotional expressionism. From lyrically sweeping comments on violent mothers, word-portraits of animals to imperative statements about eternity, Byrnes reveals himself to be aligned with the Romantics in their connection to nature and in that yearning to rejoin the spiritual sublime. In the section addressed to “Immortality,” for example, the speaker promises: “I will watch the raked light of sunset over Shardeloes and find you via memory.”
But first and foremost is the poet’s faithfulness to an unceasing concatenation of expansive associations and symbolisms. Take these lines from “River Nocturnes,” for instance:
labyrinth trails in a sonical stormlash
pronged overexposure of lightning
a skybull stamping out spherical thunder
Byrnes’ priority or clear sense of artistic glee is clearly in the description of the thing. Personae introduced through the poems are more ideas than characters, even if they include family members, as the sustained strategy across the poems is to paint an enriching textual layer that generates ever-revealing semantic outcomes. A deliberate emphasis on descriptive playfulness does not, of course, mean that deeper and ethical urgencies are absent. As the poems progress, the experience of which is analogous to moving through a museum of surrealist art, laser-like criticisms regarding political and social ills can unexpectedly arise. In this section (“To Measure Another’s Foot By Your Own Last”) from the long poem, “Phrase and Fable,” the writing becomes denser with meaning or more compact with moral urgency, without at the same time losing the rhythm of the poet’s imaginative segues already generated elsewhere:
Like politicians first-footing on humanitarian issues,
foreign policy is a butcher, reflective as its blade.
Hide history’s measuring tape, the battlefield chemists
and dioxin hotspots, the attics of clumsy gas masks…
Foreign policy dictates to always find one’s own feet
before putting the boot down upon the neck…
Later in “Soapbox” during the part of the book now marching towards including more implicit to explicit social commentary, Byrne breezily sums up, mockingly decries or satirically categorises metonymic objects or ideas that point to fundamental human fallacies, pairing each object or idea to a specific country in both provocative and evocative ways. This is executed with verve and vim bordering on delirium and the comic. But the poet still manages to seduce the reader into pondering meaningfully over every liberating rapid-fire connection:
Egyptian chevrons / Saudi princeships / Kazakh autocracies /
Greek dawns / Russian hooliganism / Burmese chalkboard /
Singaporean spyglass / American liberties / Israeli intifadas /
Nigerian Shellsuits / Japanese waterworks / Chinese whispers
Imagist, social commentator or symbolist, the poet acknowledges and pays stylistic tribute to literary influences from symbolist poets, Verlaine and Rimbaud, to Ashbery in the poem, “Rimbaud Villanelles,” by revealing next-to-nothing about his literary heroes (only that Rimbaud “popeyed on absinthe” or that Ashbery’s Illuminations go delicately on Scarborough”) and focusing instead on banalities, sense-impressions, the passing gossip and white noise of urbanity these poets must have confronted to fuel their work, etc. Surrealist painters and symbolist poets repeatedly subvert expectations to demonstrate that truth-making is never certain (thus permitting endless possibilities for meaning across the canvas or page) or that there is always room for an unusual interpretation. But one must be reminded that play, in such artistic contexts, is never just play. Byrne demonstrates, for instance, that the grumblings of one’s political conscience can–or should–be woven (consciously or otherwise) into any bewildering tapestry of symbolist presentations challenging the knowable through aesthetic subversion and reinvention.
Quoting ironically from Jeremy Paxman at the start of “On the Ordinary” about how poetry has “connived at its own irrelevance,” Byrne proceeds to show how his own brand of poetry, even in its seeming “irrelevance”–interpreted here as literary jouissance at the level of aesthetic effects and imaginative flourishes–can quickly turn “serious” or “relevant” when hard-hitting questions float to the surface of the poetically meandering mind: “How do an entire people lose themselves?” A more implicit answer might be (in my own mind): “By allowing oneself to be easily categorised.” And as Byrne writes in his poem, half-quoting, half-asserting: “Art is not the ‘fixed or regulated sequence…customary; usual’. We are mysterious to ourselves.” It becomes a matter of conforming to social class and elitism, from which poetry should break away in order to wrap itself authentically around our deepest mysteries, the unknowability at the core of existence. The poem ends with this: “All people are either ordinary or extraordinary maniacs.” It is clear which the poet prefers to be. To be a “maniac” in this case is to forge one’s original poetic voice while still remaining reflective (even as the primary stylistic urge is to deflect, subtly destruct, delight in disorder) of humdrum to harsher realities.
At the same time, however, I keep returning to an earlier sense that after the enjoyment (for both writer and reader, I’m sure) of unpacking or merely delighting in startling word-play and the sometimes mysterious connections between ideas, I am still moved centrally by that Romantic imagination operating (I’m convinced) behind this scintillating surface of ever-shifting language. That quiet acknowledgement of the Romantic sublime as presented through nature is evident throughout the book, waiting just beyond the unceasing layers-upon-layers of meaning; as if given a chance, nature provides not just a boundless source of metaphors, but also respite and a curiously embracive calm beyond human-made uncertainties or semantic fragmentation; as when the book closes with a line like this to remind the reader of that which is all-encompassing already abiding in us all:
all these lives of sea
filling out in our ears
CYRIL WONG is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of poetry collections such as Unmarked Treasure, Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light, The Dictator’s Eyebrow and After You. He has also published Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me and Other Stories and a novel, The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza. Cyril has served as a mentor under the Creative Arts Programme and the Mentor Access Project, as well as a judge for the Golden Point Awards in Singapore. A past recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award for Literature, he completed his doctoral degree in English Literature at the National University of Singapore in 2012. His poems have been anthologised in Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W. W. Norton 2008) and Chinese Erotic Poems (Everyman’s Library 2007).
Born on Wakka Wakka land at Barambah, which is now known as Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve, Lionel Fogarty has travelled nationally and internationally presenting and performing his work. Since the seventies Lionel has been a prominent activist, poet writer and artist; a Murri spokesperson for Indigenous Rights in Australia and overseas. His poetry art work and oral presentation illustrates his linguistic uniqueness and overwhelming passion to re-territorialize Aboriginal language culture and meaning which speaks for Aboriginal people of Australia. In 2012 he received the Scalon Prize for Connection Requital and his most recent collection is Mogwie Idan: Stories of the land (Vagabond) (Photograph by Tony Robertson)
For Him I Died — Bupu Ngunda I Love
For him I loved
For him I became a dove
For him I tamed a game
Why has he taken my love
Wine as shaking my dine
Woe who outer my dinner room
What great sound he calls
What graving sound it gave
Wrap sapping his heart
With dem he got sung
For him I loved
Forgive the tearing
four faces he has seen
Funk hunk drunk
For him I lived He been in a body
I been in a bottler
Since once he send me
Sin onto me
Now sinly I surrender
Sewer poorfully I adore
For him I loved Swear back just to glad
sweet birds just to grand
sweeping fights just to game
a one lone feels his sex
a two cone feeds his senses
a three owns feeds his sick
For him I loved
his silent liniment myths
his sires searcher meek in me
his resting bees many inner tests
even I forward his happy wills
even I forever his papa ills
even I forever his everlasting tills
For him I loved.
He bin in behind my soul
He bin in beloved mindness
He bin in beggar meanness
Why has he taken my lying
Win who in the taken winds
Will be bless my love my love giving
For him I love For him I loved
What great sound he calls calls
For I Come — Death in Custody
in a jail.
Even a Murri wouldn’t know
if him free
The land is not free
Dreamtime is not free.
No money needed.
See that scarred hand at work
that’s cutting away
Jail not for me
but a lot of my people in jail
White jail are cruel
Set up the family, stay away
come to see your Murri
look big and grown
in learning, of our gods teaching.
What they give you in here?
Away from the corroboree
In the fuckin’ jails
Murri get out, so we can fight
like the red man has done
Lord them a come.
My brother die there
in white custody
And I hate the way the screws patch up
and cover up.
He died at the white hands
it was there, in the stinkin’ jails
up you might blacks
Him not free
For when white man came
it’s been like a jail
with a wife and a family
black man can stay in jail
like its home.
Fuck, they hung us all.
Love…walk with me
Love…waken with me
Love…is a black newborn
Camp fringe dwellers are my love
Love is not seen in cities
Love is my Father
Love is my Mother
Scrubs are hid in bush love
and we say
Love is alive and received.
Love is a kangaroo
Love is an emu
Love is the earth
Love is the love of voice
Love is my friend.
And what about us
who has no love?
Well, love smells.
Us Murris knows
It’s love in bad love
Give us love. Give us love.
Our Dreamtiming is love.
Catch my love over a fire
Fire of love.
Culture is our love.
Culture is ourself in love.
The school don’t give love
so we black power give you love
Proud and simply
love is the love
to our lands love.
Love walk with me
Love awaken with me
Now give us the true love.
from New and Selected Poems, Hyland House, 1995
Walk white fellow, as you all can’t write
Our battle just at your sunrise and night sigh ties.
The noble note runs in our native modern now from then.
Black resistance is every were now on written,
Face books there door mat roof an in-laws.
Walk white fella, you all can’t rights us.
First lovers black and loving came and stays
No fables dreams stop our mountain eyes,
Bodies for the dirt tears can’t ours, pains can’t our pens.
Resistance with us makes no trance but struggle over struggles,
The black diligent are our gent, believe it ladies.
We appreciative our fighter of these times
Awaken white vital man physical to a black world women’s call.
They’ll find renewed upsurges.
Continuing the non-silence is what we about
Lazy exterminator in their policy’s
Will fall to a decolonisative voices powered by our master race.
Wall up white fell, as your impediments will not combined.
Our men sang weak walk on white fell as meant economic
Are seen to wider our children’s fight.
The continent still not there’s even in numbers contribution historical upheavals
Walk in sleep, walk in lifeless is still,
The dreamer’s white man men made
Under Over the Rainbows
It’s fair we have charcoal colours people
Being black child skinned by past.
It’s fair we have European cloth
But our art black not lacked.
We have darkest blue-eyed baby
White with complexion from a dark race.
It’s fair physically to keep love in own
Race speaking singing English or not.
We may material all thing white parentheses.
Yea but caste is half fullest to all human mentally black people.
They mightn’t mine old bludger sex anymore, the naked began to swim.
Bones blooded addicted spirit gave fair care a drug voice so alcoholic.
Better being of black sky light morning night never being palmed by lies.
Moon sliver peace just us now,
Sun redden please just us now,
Stars umbilical scalpel surgical the sterilized.
Wind dwellers purest those selectivity,
Specimens blanket enlighten burden of those rich unwittingly on arrival.
Its first race wills keepers to the lasting are not seen touched or spoke on toiled.
It’s benediction of Father Mothers smoke fire cherish sweetness symmetrical our souls campfire said wrote now painted.
Precision your blackfellas now babes
The race of your birth did know colour.
It’s fair when we black people off the charcoal not mined
I abstract salt: pans
I am we to the river in sky before the rain fell from the ground.
I am softly in wild nest in the city decent as veins land cut over devils dust
My gum mouthed washing cling all mountainsides.
I am those Australians snow hugged in the hot aerial elaborate systems.
I am wombat ready and the fight plains were roads kill them every day.
I am all killed no spirit police men’s,
Yes millennia soled guarded man off a tribe not colour-blinded.
I am dispossession in style baring about by possessions
Now artist concentric they motif privy were divulge boomerang the intriguing features.
Well a marsupial beliefs is not beliefs when not a leafs.
I am in account in gorges absorption,
Yes paws and print head somnolent are ancestral travels.
I am the Pop art and the pointillism for resemblance I will identifiable all broken families.
I am notion even central people heard my speaking,
I am broadly at your enterprises.
The Country Anywhere Race On Races
Racist are not children’s
Racist are not Mothers
Racist are not Fathers
Give unity peace a chance
Racism is a sick disease
As a place for Non humanity
Racism as no race in Australians
For the first race is the only race.
Racist are instil by cheaper cap chaps
And those that joke on slip mouth are drops of sin bad food bad bodies of all ages.
Racism owned up changes the pace off no space
As the ship code to learn.
The ray of the sun shines for all under on solar.
The earth equally birth human
Yet the world’s laws class those poor minds backwards,
When a racist sit with a first Australians proud
Of one race made a lace to lust we all comes from women’s
Mogwie-Idan Stories of the Land
by Lionel Fogarty
Reviewed by TIM WRIGHT
Arguments for the importance and power of Fogarty’s poetry have been made by a number of writers since the 1980s. Some prominent examples are: the forewords to Fogarty’s first two collections, written by Cheryl Buchanan and Gary Foley respectively, Mudrooroo’s early critical attention and championing of his work, Philip Mead’s comparative reading of Fogarty (alongside ΠO) in his study of Australian poetry, Networked Language (2008), John Kinsella’s statement in the 2009 Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (and quoted by Ali Alizadeh in the introduction to this volume) that Fogarty is ‘the most vital poet writing in Australia today’, and Stuart Cooke’s reading of Fogarty’s work in his recent comparative study of Australian and Chilean poetry, Speaking the Earth’s Languages (2013). At almost 160 pages Mogwie-Idan announces itself as a major collection. It is also a generous one, containing the poems of the earlier published chapbook Connection Requital along with the 50 poems of Mogwie-Idan, and a susbtantial selection of Fogarty’s drawings.
The range of subjects Fogarty’s poetry deals with is informed by his many years involvement (since the mid-1970s) in Aboriginal activism, and direct references to this history appear in poems such as ‘Tent Embassy 1971-2021’. About the subject matter of his poetry Fogarty is unambiguous; in an interview with Michael Brennan he says, ‘Deaths in Custody is the most important subject in my poetry, as well as Land Rights and general struggles of national affairs.’ Political matters such as these are entirely personal for Fogarty, as they are for many, perhaps all, Aboriginal people. One need only read Fogarty’s author biographies to learn that state repression has been a part of his life. The most extreme manifestations of this would be the charges made of conspiracy against the state, as part of the ‘Brisbane Three’ in 1974-75 (the three were acquitted), and the death of his brother, the dancer Daniel Yock, at the hands of police, in 1993. As has been described by himself and others, the protest of Fogarty’s poetry is taken into the fabric of English; it can be seen as an attempt, as he has said, to conquer, or crush, English.
The poems draw from Munultjali dialect (for which a glossary is provided), however the poetry’s most radical linguistic element is its frequent a-grammaticality, its torquing of conventional English syntax such that, for example, nouns are rendered as verbs and vice versa, or ‘wrong’ verb forms are used. Sabina Paula Hopfer writes that in reading Fogarty’s work she is ‘made to understand what language genocide feels like rather than what it means in abstract terms.’ She writes that Fogarty’s words, referring to two of his early collections, ‘pound down on the non-Indigenous reader like hail stones, so that the reading experience is one of complete exhaustion and despair.’ I have remembered this description of Fogarty’s work since I first read it nine years ago. While I believe the metaphor of hail is an accurate one to carry the force of Fogarty’s poetry, I now to think that Hopfer’s reading of it risks overemphasising the response of despair. What about the exhilaration of reading the poems/getting hit on the head with hail? I would want also to emphasise the potential dialogic space that is created by the linguistic complexity of Fogarty’s poetry, one that a reader is required to work towards. Michael Brennan argues that Fogarty’s manipulation of English obliges reciprocity of the reader, and so, the possibility of dialogue, writing that his poetry ‘can be seen not simply as a counter discourse but as an integrated, less dialectically defined, reconception of English – literature and usage – wherein a reciprocal biculturalisation is demanded of the colonisers.’
‘Connection Requital’, the opening sequence, is a blast of nine poems written entirely in capitals. Fogarty’s formal decision to use capitals only in this sequence appears to mark a new degree of urgency in his work – significant given the sense of urgency his poetry has always contained. In ‘Mutual Fever’ the tone is almost biblical – or bushfire scene – in its intensity and imagery:
A WATERLESS SEA OF ASHES
FIREFLIES ROARED LIGHTS AROUND A SMALL BUSH
BLAZING CARCASSES MOANED TO BE DREAMT
PRE-DAWN STAGGERED WITH ONE MAN
WHO DRANK GLOBULES FLOODED WATERS PURE AHAHAH
The longest poem in the book, ‘Wisdom of the Poet’, is for the Chilean-Australian poet Juan Garrido-Salgado. It demonstrates the strategic function inherent in Fogarty’s songman and spokesman roles. In this case, the poem is a message of solidarity across different cultures. But it is more than this – ‘Wisdom of the Poet’ moves breezily between the ancestral, and aspects of the current political and economic situation of Aboriginal people. We read reflections on the Mabo judgement, questions of law and culture (‘White women playing our digeridoo instrument / Can’t do nothing, they’re protected by the government’), of Australian Aboriginal history (‘Only 40 years ago / My race of people were suffragettes’), of Aboriginal leadership and media overload (‘TV’s black leaders selling out / zonked out with a sore head / ‘cause watching TV left my brain dead’), and advice to younger generations (‘black people need to be educated white man’s way / so we can know what they write and what they say’). There is much else in this poem that is not as easy to categorise; the second half moves into a different realm entirely, of the personal and spiritual. The final lines return to economics and specifically to the question (still hardly dealt with in Australia) of financial compensation:
We had civilisation before they came
so us know the way to a future
Chile Mapuche we are with you to liberation
The day will come
when all rich classes must pay for crimes
of past and present
You may think this is silly
but we really want compensation
The poem ‘Conducted at Native Religion’ begins with an epigraph from the former Premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh, during the 2011 Brisbane floods: ‘We are Queenslanders, from north of the border. They keep knocking us down, but we keep getting up. . .’. The mawkish ‘battler’-ism of Bligh’s speechwriter’s statement is highlighted when pulled into the context of Fogarty’s poem – as is the irony of Bligh taking on the Aboriginal discourse of survival for a comparatively minor threat to existence (that is, compared to colonialism): ‘Even a full supreme court illegals our public ears / Let injustice be in the hand of those political ‘nit wits’’. An older poem, dated May 1990, ‘Overseas Telephone’, details beautiful collisions of sense, ‘Few always joined with your / intermittent distance / like seasons are intense with / the sun’s radio’. The first half of the poem is in tones that are humorous, chatty, flirty, loving; the images in the second half are violent and extreme:
I’ve been given a violent
But I never panic when you
I am the peaceful liberty love
of political prisoners
Your raped sounds burst
explosions of speeches
Everything endured by me
will inflict my sadness to
love melancholy dart eyes
My silence is not an absence
Your power vultures more despair
I see your horrified voice
You are patriotic to filth
and drink urine mixed with cement
A later line in the poem, ‘I am murdered ten million yesterdays’, might resolve in different ways: ‘I murdered ten million yesterday’ or the very different ‘I murdered ten million yesterdays’ or as two discrete statements ‘I am murdered’ ‘ten million yesterdays’. Ten million yesterdays works out to around 27,000 years. Speaking of time on these kinds of scales is frequent in Fogarty’s work; he is not the modernist poet obsessed with the illuminated ‘moment’. Rather, Fogarty’s diction is often world-historical in scope. Western calendar years flash up throughout the collection, in a parody of chronology: ‘Living here in 2020 sometimes / gives me the 1920’s even 1770’ (‘2020’). The consciousness of history is clear in the title of another poem in the collection, ‘Past Lies Are Present’, which perhaps says enough, though its specificity to Australian politics is clear in the first lines, ‘Past lies are present / A fake sorry is given’.
The poem ‘Decipherer’ is one of the more abstract in the collection:
Uncharted activated waters
reveal unflushed originators.
My true darling breath of exhilarating
vision is acute in testifying customs.
I am I, charted in deliverance by black myriads
codified relations comes of purification.
Global psychic energies only will mark
awareness by Aborigines’ new ages wildfire.
Uncharted harmony and I get accent
ingredients to equivalent windswept.
Reveal flourished in our astrological eyes.
Herd warriors worry no more
History unbalanced kept me ‘dead’ indecipherable.
Future ballad themes honour me
chilly little crystal humour ‘Ha, Ha, Ha’.
To decipher is ‘to turn into ordinary writing’. ‘Decipherer’ may be in part addressed to the reader or critic who would handle Fogarty’s poetry as a kind of cipher or code for which there existed a key that would unlock ordinary writing (whatever that might be). This would be opposed to those understandings of it described earlier by Brennan, as constituting a ‘reconception of English’, and thus requiring the reader to move outwards, further towards the language, rather than trying to draw it closer to her or him. One approach may be to read Fogarty’s poetry guided by a term he has used in interviews, the mosaic: ‘I am mosaic in reading, I nitpick readings. I often read back to front, similar to Chinese’; ‘Most of the time I use words in mosaic of catalysing . . .’. Thus the repeated phrases of ‘Decipherer’ – ‘My true darling’, ‘History unbalanced’, ‘uncharted’/‘charted’, ‘wildfire’ – might be analogous to differently coloured fragments, generating a pattern of concepts or ideas that the poem explores. The mosaic is suggestive too of the way sense is sometimes, as in ‘Decipherer’, ‘scattered’ through Fogarty’s poems, such that they resist line by line interpretations, yet at the same time are held together by their sonic patterning:
Between sound and colour ‘I am a bit’
Between music strangely I’m beyond white time
Affirmation give techniques limitless in my
Plain chant transfiguration musics
Fogarty’s torquing of syntax is also at work in this poem. In the earlier line ‘Reveal flourished in our astrological eyes’, ‘reveal’ can be read as objectified, a quality which ‘flourished’; or, we may read ‘flourished’ as an adjective – ‘with flourishes’ – the object of the verb ‘reveal’. Considered this way, the function of both ‘reveal’ and ‘flourish’ are turned outwards, enstranged. ‘My true darling breath’ is in a Romantic diction that may be parodic. It is immediately torqued, in that, where a reader may expect a noun, following ‘of’, there is an adjective – ‘exhilarating’ – which can be read as enjambed, flowing onto the next line, ‘of exhilarating / vision is acute in testifying customs’, or as a discrete line. Where a rest or the consolidation of an image might be expected, we find the ground hasn’t appeared yet and we have to keep moving. Stuart Cooke, writing of Fogarty’s poem ‘Heart of a european . . .’, describes evocatively this mode of reading that Fogarty’s poetry calls for:
There are portions of grammatically correct English here, but no sooner do they appear than they have dissolved into a kind of word-music. Consequently, those intelligible phrases have the effect of punctuating the swirl of rhythm and rhyme with moments of clarity, which the reader “clings” to, as if stopping at the occasional water hole to rest before moving onto the scrub.
Reproductions of Fogarty’s drawings are throughout the book, and arrive like gifts. While I am aware that these drawings contain meanings for Fogarty and his community not known to me, I attempt here a necessarily limited description. The drawings contain recurring ideas and motifs: mandala-like circles, or wheels; shields, boomerangs or boomerang-like shapes, tendrils or vines and straight ruler-drawn connecting lines between bodies. In many, there is a sense of suspension, of subtle yet firmly and intricately maintained connection between otherwise independent bodies. There is a sense of both organic and mechanical motion; each drawing appears to be a complete system of articulated, or in some way engaged, parts. In the drawing ‘Gauwal (Far away)’ a cord emerges from an orifice within a blob that could be muscle-tissue; half-way down the picture surface this splits into two strings, and from inside the cord another line emerges, resembling rosary beads or a chain. At the base of the picture a solid log is suspended by the cord which divides the picture surface vertically, and on which or within which are various insignia: egg-like shapes connected as if within an intestine, circles, a diamond striated. The drawing is one of the more minimal of Fogarty’s works, most of the picture surface being blank background. The bodies are ‘far away’, as the English part of the title says, yet undeniably connected. Including the image used for the cover, there are twenty drawings in the book, which are each printed to the edge of the page, unframed. The effect is that the drawings come to be placed in a more equal relationship with the poetry, interleaved not supplementary or illustrative.
A Southerly issue of 2002 contains facsimiles of Fogarty’s poems in manuscript, his drawings intertwined with the words of the poems. In Mogwie-Idan the poems and drawings are on separate pages, but there is a broader sense of written word flowing into the drawing and back out again. This relation between word and image is set up in the opening of Mogwie-Idan, which literally invites readers in – ‘Jingi Whallo / Hello how are you all?’ – and goes on to acknowledge the traditional people, ending on an ellipsis which ‘leads’ the eye directly to the drawing on the facing page, ‘Burrima (Fire Man)’. Throughout the book the reader is able to consider analogies between the fully articulated, holistic systems of these drawings and those same qualities present in the poems.
The book ends with the extraordinary poem, ‘Power Live in the Spears’, a kind of chant, which in its insistence recalls one of Fogarty’s influences, Oodgeroo Noonuccal; the cumulative effect of the lines becomes an incantation:
Power live in the spears
Power live in the worries
Power air in the didgeridoo
Power run on the people heart
Bear off the power come from the land
1. Johnson, Colin, ‘Guerilla Poetry: Lionel Fogarty’s Response to Language Genocide’, Westerly, No. 3, September 1986, pp. 47-55
2. Brennan, Michael, ‘Interview with Lionel Fogarty’, Poetry International, http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net, July 10, 2011
3. Hopfer, Sabina Paul, ‘Re-Reading Lionel Fogarty: An Attempt to Feel Into Texts Speaking of Decolonisation, Southerly, Vol. 6, No. 2, 2002, p. 60
4. ibid, p. 47
5. Brennan, Michael, ‘Interview with Lionel Fogarty’, Poetry International, http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net, July 10, 2011
7. Ball, Timmah, ‘An Interview with Poet Lionel Fogarty’, Etchings Indigenous Treaty, Ilura Press, Melbourne, 2011, pp. 129-135
8. Cooke, Stuart, ‘Tracing a Trajectory from Songpoetry to Contemporary Aboriginal Poetry’, A Companion to Australian Aboriginal Literature, edited by Belinda Wheeler, Camden House, Rochester, NY, 2013, p. 104
TIM WRIGHT has poems included in the anthology ‘Outcrop’ (Black Rider Press, 2013). He recently constructed a chapbook, titled Weekend’s End.
Sudesh Mishra was born in Suva and educated in Fiji and Australia. He has been, on different occasions, the recipient of an ARC Postdoctoral Fellowship, the Harri Jones Memorial Prize for Poetry and an Asialink Residency. He is the author of four books of poems, including Tandava (Meanjin Press) and Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying (Otago UP), two critical monographs, Preparing Faces: Modernism and Indian Poetry in English (Flinders University and USP) and Diaspora Criticism (Edinburgh UP), two plays Ferringhi and The International Dateline (Institute of Pacific Studies, Suva), and several short stories. Sudesh has also co-edited Trapped, an anthology of writing from Fiji. His creative work has appeared in a wide array of publications, including Nuanua: Pacific Writing in English since 1980, The Indigo Book of Modern Australian Sonnets, Lines Review: Twelve Modern Young Indian Poets, Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia, Sixty Indian Poets, The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry, The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry, The World Record and Concert of Voices: An Anthology of World Writing in English. Sudesh is working on a fifth collection of poems, a collaborative project on popular Hindi cinema (with Vijay Mishra) and a series of papers on minor history. He is currently Professor in Literature, Language and Linguistics at the University of the South Pacific.
Photograph by Semi Francis
Every day straggler word-bees fly up
His nostrils to swarm in the cold bone-urn
Of his skull; and all winter they settle
On the atomic flower of his brain
Which radiates no light the hue of nectar,
Dry and dyeless as a reef in a book.
So drinking of desolation they die
With a shudder of wings on the bone-floor,
And although their ashen remains swirl up
In a wind that is no wind of nature
To serve him an apparition of spring,
He’s sly to the artifice in its art
And waits for a sudden trick of season
That lures with light the vocal survivor
To tropics that ignite beyond his skull.
And sighting a reef of nameless flowers
It lands a name on all that namelessness,
Sipping at alphabets, making honey.
Amid the swish and buffeting
Of archangels’ wings, the city
Of angels left behind, howling
At the pact between god and man,
I lost faith with the force of faith
And cried to be a child again,
Striking out at the stars striking out,
A fever driving my fevered chalk
Through points of skyfall light,
Up and right and left and down,
Reverse, transverse—all night.
Until there you were, my Father,
A most furious constellation
By the bitter furies composed.
The phone leaps to unbead
The rosary of sleep
Before you pick it up
On the other side of
Dreaming. We sink deeper
Into cool valleys
Of pillows, snuffing out
The crunch of dry gears
And convulsing light
That gives notice of
Your night errant to streets
Of hurting and dying,
Of unsleeping houses
Where Pain makes faces
Like a spoilt child.
You’re Delivery Man,
Shuttling flesh from house
To hospital to house,
But taking no man’s wage,
Though rouged Capital
Tries chatting you up
At every traffic light.
No, never commodity,
Your compassion runs
Like a seam no miner
Dare harvest nor priest
Baptise as Religion.
And when prodigal you
Return to cool valleys
Now overrun by trolls
And ogres, like us they
Too suffer an alchemy,
Turning into songbirds
On boughs of groaning fruit,
And all the terrors burn
Like music in our ears,
As mangoes in our grip.
When you surfaced,
Cub of the ocean,
We were ruminants
Startled out of ourselves,
The deliberate, alluring hunger,
The browsing on interior lives.
My rubbery periscope,
My submarine voyeur,
How you nod from left to right,
From right to left,
Now as you did then,
Wet brat of inspiration
In a crestfall of whiskers.
I hold you a moment,
Then let slip,
Squeezed dollop of oil,
In a growling mill
That never shuts down.
Who could ever endure
Even as you vanish
Without sound or slick
Beneath coupling waves
To sprout, aeons later,
Sooty sapling, turgid root,
Your tail a swivelling T
Against a furious dusk:
Turner. Template. Tree.
Dryad of metaphor,
You struck me
Before I could strike you,
A marine fever
That respects neither mind
But bewilders the heart
In the quiet of arid places,
A recrudescence of happiness.
Like flocks the dust flew off the timbered hatch
When she sprang the hasp on the dowry chest
And plunged in, elbow-deep, her hand a perch
Swimming in mothballed waters, now a guest
Where once it ran host, rummaging for things
That keep slipping the fingers: a fawn brooch,
A ruched scarf, a blouse raging with sequins;
Until it gleans her wedding saree, scorch-
Ing as that day she left home in a spray
Of pulse and flower, the tears soldering off
Her cheeks and her father looking away,
His eyes drilling holes through a stubborn bluff
Estranging like this stranger, drift-boned, shy,
He handpicked for the apple of his I.
Now swatch by torrid swatch, I feel the dream
Unwind in her hands to be wound again
Years down the track by aunts who tack and seam
And smother her girlhood in silk, the skein
Reeling in their present as the past un-
Reels in mine. Amid the insinuating
Chatter, the laughter, I watch her snag on
A doubt, the future a nightmare drifting
Like crockery on a pitiless shelf.
How I want my dumb art to scream, to say:
‘Mother, swim out into your doubting self.
Plunge in against the current. Go astray.
I will your life to heave like a Van Gogh
Brushstroke, like verses, like poplar leaves. Go.’
Though it runs over the island in leaps
And bounds, no islander says what it is.
‘Prison bars,’ says the resident farmer
When pressed, his tone uncrimped by irony.
Others who grind the mills of prophecy
Talk without pause of molasses, bagasse,
Of all it’ll be when it’s not what it is.
Then there are the outsiders, the townfolk
Not in the know-how, who will compare it
To a phalanx, having read their history,
To an eclogue, having read their Virgil,
Although some among them will disagree,
The builder because he thinks of pillars,
The teacher because she thinks of margins.
But they too must lose it to some other—
Say a girl whose giggle makes it survive
In an orchard of desire, beyond itself
And that literal need to mark itself out.
An idle clasp, a relaxed swing, his arms
Snatch and heft the axe over his shoulder
Till, meeting the eye of itself, it turns
Ounceless as a wraith. Then it’s a boulder
Outsprinting eye, mind, his very muscles
In a downward run that smashes through sky
And estranging hill, and glazed apostles
Canonized for wresting brutes from the sty.
‘What lacks root?’ says the rippled sycamore
As the fanged axe splits it down the middle,
Splays it out like a moth. In the uproar
Of sparrows and chips, he cracks the riddle:
‘A stranger estranged by his own strangeness.’
Yet writ on your palm my wood’s graininess.
Ancient wood: cumbrous, hewable, cured hock.
Massive arboreal tome, how I love you—
Your alligator’s bark, your wrestler’s torque,
Your bailiff’s gravitas and breath of zoo.
Let them love the hot in you, the telos,
And hoard their bones against your bones, let them
Appraise a house, a hull, a Trojan Horse
In praise of you, but let my love affirm
What’s always forever to no purpose—
Like zephyrs vetching through a mortuary,
Like Greek myths related to Odysseus,
Like bonesmith’s art in a boneless country.
My love’s of your ancient venerable stock:
It goes right through the head to ring the block.
Woodflakes are flaking off like tuna flakes.
Axe droppings. Hot leftovers and leavings.
Chipped sunlight, terracotta. Exhumings.
You crouch amid ruins, remains. Your hand rakes
Up an art that shirks endings for random
Gleanings. Now here’s an ivory toothpick,
Late Ashanti. There, sheeny as garlic,
Some Renaissance tidbit, a severed thumb
By Cellini. Further, writ in magma,
Polynesian petroglyphs. To your left
Flotsam from a wreck. To your right tuna
But all at once you’re bereft.
Leonidas is berthing. The light’s in gold.
Sixteen dead spartans in the tuna hold.
After a glut of heresy
We are believers again.
We worship mud.
The slick swerving run
Of the floodcat
But simply adore
The lumbering trudge
Of the mudox.
Was a thing of marvel
That abides in memory.
Whereas the mudox
Neither runs nor roars
But dumbly pours
Its fat protean bulk
Into wretched dreams
And exhausted boots
And open graves,
And champagne glasses
Crammed with gold dentures.
Is a smother of mudlove:
A sprig of rose,
Sixty bolts of excellent linen,
And this town of course,
A muddy tract of skin
Which is the tract of memory
Composed of silt and silage,
A luscious, impervious heaven
Refuting the blasphemy
Of a single raindrop.
A Wishing Well in Suva
Let the tsunami come,
Let it come as an ogre in grey armature,
His forelocks in the sky.
To this town let it hum
A gravelly tune, and break
In the sound of wind through screes
Over and over and over.
Let it come exactly
At twelve, now or in the future,
When the trader is dealing a lie
To the worker; and the rake
Is drumming a lay on the knees
Of a gazelle who answers to Pavlova;
And the Ratu is consigning
All wilderness to woodchips
Over a hopsy lunch with a lumber
Baron from Malaysia;
And the Colonel is admiring
In a circus mirror his shoulder-pips;
And from his drunken slumber
A tramp is urging the tide to come in
Like scrolls of euthanasia,
Obliterating a lagoon
Where the egret grows sick on toxin.
O but let it come soon.
Let it flower like the 4th of July
And wipe out everything,
Except perhaps a tuft of fern
Adorning some crevice or crack
Where once the tern
Wove a nest from sea-wrack,
And an egg shook the world
(O shook this entire beautiful world)
With an inner knocking.
Everything weeps. This nib weeps.
The moon weeps. Weeps moonlight.
A hill weeps. As does the sky.
That blade of grass? It weeps.
It weeps in secret, tonight.
My earth weeps. Earth in my eye.
Pardon this grief. I have nothing
With which to sway your mind.
No wit, no image that leaps
And astounds with its leaping.
Just this grief, just this blind
Leakage of heart. A stone weeps.
I: Albert Park, 1928
He’d shaved a thermal lather off Hawaii
When they got wind of his mad intention
And felled trees, teak, kauri, the great ivi
Under which Degei pondered his creation,
Coiled in the lacework shade, a fossil of
Himself, bats fruiting in the boughs above.
The knolls were graded, apertures filled in,
Telegraph poles lowered for the approach.
Then they waited, planter, taukei and kin,
Twelve coolies, the Governor in his coach.
Around noon a nymph jabbed her parasol
At the sky and down she came like a swift,
Shearing a few trees, blowing up a squall
That stank of brine and carbon, and of myth.
At the royal ball, dog-tired, goggle-eyed,
He ignored nymphs mooching about his wick
Like stricken moths, but nursed a gin and tried
Not to smile when they toasted his epic
Voyage in accents clipped and sedentary.
Later, he slipped out into the moonlight,
While a Planter’s wife murdered Tchaikovsky
On a church organ, and pondered the height
Icarus reached before he got waxed. Then
It struck him that all follies were classical,
Though one were both Smith and Antipodean,
Though one always verged on the cynical.
Next day a maid counting plumes on his bed
Saw him in the sunlight, half-man, half-bird.
diaspora and the difficult art of dying
The way of writing is straight and crooked
in the end is my memory of the beginning, a mixed brew of history and hyperbole, the sun’s chakra breaking up the earth of basti into six million jigsaw pieces, and the bo-tree catching fire at midnight by itself, and the koels pecking out the eyes of brinda the milch cow, and pitaji standing among the ruined fields of channa, weeping, and maji bent over the inflated moons of roti, weeping because he wept, and the immemorial debt to a greasy man of crisp dhoti and castemark whom we called maibaap, and my sister nudging the age of dowry, and i the eldest of three sons, sixteen years old and already corroded by despair, stealing away from home and village and province, never once looking at the moon grazing on the thatch of my nostalgia, walking by night and sleeping by day, until rivers no longer gave up their names nor roads their destinations, how many times i yearned to return to my village, ask me how many times my legs faltered during that terrible flight, but then i remembered the scorpions crackling in the wells of basti and the mynahs dying in the skies of basti, and that nightmare drove me towards i knew not where, maybe i sought work in a modest village, maybe i desired to fall off the edge of the world, maybe i was questing for ayodhya, shangri-la, el dorado, maybe, maybe, there are maybes ad nauseum, but my destiny was an arkathi with a tongue sweeter than shakkar, who sold me a story as steep as the himalayas, and his images had the tang of lassi and his metaphors had the glint of rupees, so that two days later i was on pericles, hauling anchor in the calcutta of my diaspora, and india slipped through my fingers like silk, like silk it slipped through the fingers of three thousand seven hundred and forty eight girmityas, and many things were lost during that nautical passage, family, caste and religion, and yet many things were also found, chamars found brahmins, muslims found hindus, biharis found marathis, so that by the end of the voyage we were a nation of jahajibhais, rowat gawat heelat dholat adat padat, all for one and one for all, yet this newfound myth fell apart the moment we docked in nukulau, because the sahibs hacked our bonds with the sabre of their commands and took us away in dribs and drabs, rahim to navua, shakuntala to labasa, mahabir to nandi, and my lot was a stony acreage of hell in naitasiri, where i served the indenture of my perdition, seasick, as if the earth here was no more than an extension of the sea, you must understand that nothing else bothered me quite as much, not the coolumber and his whoring with our women, not the fifteen hours of drudgery in fields that offended horizons, not the miserly rations of stale chawal, not even the sadistic lashes of sirdar ahmed kaffar ali, no, none of that bothered me quite as much as my illness, which came and went in purple swirls of nausea, and then one day i saw chinappa retching his innards over a bed of marigolds, his feet clearing terra firma by twelve feet and at once i knew we shared a secret fever, a month later twenty girmityas of uciwai had soared beyond the canefields to the utter dismay of the overseer, who ordered them back to the plantation with the aid of an inflamed crucifix, then docked their wages for trying to levitate all the way back to india, in fact my fever had turned into an epidemic of sorts, travelling from fiji to mauritius, from mauritius to trinidad, from trinidad to surinam, but though a platoon of experts was consulted in three continents and two hemispheres, though a flock of dispatches flew with the grace of carrier pigeons from csr to governor gordon to colonial office to india office to viceroy and back again, and though every quack in the empire came up with the placebo of a remedy, no antidote was ever found for mal de mer, and i was still defying gravity, then one night adaam aziz hanged himself from a rafter in bhut len, the soles of his feet were a tangle of cankered roots, a week later badlu prasad stowed away on british peer to the kasi of his memories, haunted by the putrefied soles of adaam aziz, but i was no devotee of yamraj and my dreams of india were marred by a brood of scorpions, and between the hell of girmit and the hell of basti was an ocean of alchemy, yes i stayed back because i had endured a sea-change and was no longer the i of my origin, what more is there to say, i served the girmit of my misfortune and leased a bhiga of land from the company and married sundaree, who in less than one year retched up all her memories of krishnas and tulsis and neems and diyas, thus letting the past stray from her mouth to form the present, so that in the end she no longer felt the surf rolling beneath her feet, while in contrast my sickness grew worse by the minute, which was odd since this was the great age of our communal imagining, tazia in fields and holi in streets, puja in mandirs and namaj in masjids, samajis in labasa and sanatanis in ba, maybe in my heart of hearts i knew we were imagining ourselves against the sahibs in order to supplant them, and around the taukeis in order to ignore them, maybe that was why my condition grew steadily worse, then one morning of pitchfork rains and slapdash winds i met ratu ilisoni viriviri, the tui-ni-vanua who roamed the margins of my land, my house, my vision, but who said i roamed the margins of his land, his house, his vision, thus began the shitty history of our misunderstanding, he was blind to my illness and i was blind to his terror of my illness, yet for the first time that night i dreamt of degei who scribbled fiji on a parchment of waves, and the gata of creation said that to be rid of my affliction i had to die into the vanua, the land, but like all muses the vanua accepts only those who invoke it by name, hence dying is an art like living, procured in the ripeness of time, safe to say i took his advice to heart and shaped from it my life’s philosophy, even as the plough struck the clods of freedom in the colony of our despair, and learning the art of dying i began to live through all my senses, they were the great years of my life because i began to discover what was already discovered, to name things as they were already named, i’d see but not hear a turtle dove until i said kurukuru, then its liquid-glass throat would bubble in the reeds of my soul, i’d smell but not taste an oyster until i said dio, then it would deposit the pearl of a flavour on my tongue, i’d hear but not feel the breeze until i said caucau, then it would stroke with a royal plume the castle of my skin, i’d savour but not smell a fish until i said ika, then it would fill my lungs with the breath of oceania, i’d feel but not see the storm until i said cava, then it would strike with lightning the domes of my eyes, so it was that little by little i went through another sea-change as my discovery of an oceanic present leaked into my memory of an indian past, until a time came when i could no longer think of machli, for instance, without thinking of ika, it was as if machli as word and idea and culture had never existed prior to ika, prior to my life on this archipelago, and yet one was forever inside and around the other, in short my act of invocation had made me visible and the island real, yes in the end i recognised the country of my banishment, i knew for instance that the third tide after the full moon brought in the king walu, that a hurricane was imminent when the doi flowered in march, that the flesh of niu karawa was more succulent in the dry season, with the result that i suffered less and less from my ailment and seldom left terra firma and then only by a few inches, and it was about this time that i sprang a taste for kava and shared mine with no less a foe than ratu viriviri, together we’d sit on a pandanus mat in the twilight of our decrepitude and he’d point to a flame tree and say sekoula and i’d point to the same tree and say gulmohur, and he’d reflect on what i’d said before conceding yes yes that is a better name, and i’d wonder if the names from my past were altering his present in the way that the names of his present had altered my past, o yes that year i ought to have died into the vanua, but instead we—grower and harvester and mill-worker—struck against the company and the sahibs sent in the native sepoys in frowning khakis to break up the hartaal, and hobbling in their midst was my friend ratu viriviri, yet i begrudge him nothing for they had us both bamboozled, taukei and coolie alike, yes it may be true that he joined the valagi to protect his vanua, it may be equally true that i fought against the latter to secure my freedom, but truth is a fickle sheikh in a seraglio of memories, so let me say that what happened happened, and afterwards i felt the land uncoiling beneath my feet and the surf growling in my eardrums, and realised that everything had changed and yet nothing had changed, and all at once i knew that i’d come to the end of my tether, and yet i’d never been further away from dying, and so it was that two months later, in the mercurial season of canefires and the sky a vulture swarm of black confetti, i dissolved into the grey rodent flesh of my only child mahadeo, and sundaree looked for me everywhere and then assumed that a madness had sent me back to the basti of my genesis, but all the while i was there in the hearth of her affection, learning to be unlike my runaway father, so that i grew up with an intense hatred of ratoons, you see, unlike the girmitya of my former avatar, i ascribed my condition to the whole damnable history of sugar and to the stolid gull of a peasantry, in a word, i switched professions and became a carpenter, yet i admit that mine was no potluck decision but one taken with a firm millennial end in mind, i had resolved to build a house that would withstand the oceanic tremors of my island, that would give me respite from my long and giddy life, and i remember on the day of my resolution as i dismantled the shack of my serfdom, kanti the trader arrived all the way from surat, his body trigged out in yards of homespun tornado, his feet shod in scarlet chappals, and he had a limp saffron jholi draped across his shoulder and an ashen moon thumbed on his forehead, and he asked me about my desires from under the shade of a raintree and i told him all, as if he were the shaman of my salvation, and he dug into his gunny sack and pulled out bolts and planks and beams and roofs, and in return i gave him the earnings from my bygone pastoral life, and once a month he came by to watch the wood grow into a bungalow, his jholi glowing with the materials of my slow addiction, and i thought he envied my lot in life while it was i who envied his self-assurance, his breezy gait and blustery talk, his freedom from mal de mer, his genius for six languages and feeling for one, and much more besides, then one day he took off his chappals and showed me his feet which were smothered in a network of ingrown roots, alive and squirming, as if sustained by some dark visceral logic, and i knew then that his sickness was worse than mine, that he was little more than the contents of his jholi and that, in less than one year, he would forsake the radha of his life to marry a stranger in the surat of his myopia, but that is the stuff of a different story, meanwhile i had moved into my new house with sundaree, my wife, my mother, who expired on the night i wed amrita, the daughter of a market vendor, but who refused to burn until her corpse had been duly sprinkled with gangajal, thus dying into india without acknowledging fiji, but unlike sundaree i lived on in the flesh of my undying self, sheltering from the sea in the fortress of my seclusion, then the theatre of war erupted somewhere beyond the horizon and i auditioned for a part, thinking that i may yet die into the vanua, the land, but i was escorted from the stage by a special force of berets in a state of delirium, and later amrita told me about my great relapse, how i had turned the colour of offal and droned out a mad litany of demands in exchange for my service, equal pay for equal worth for equal risk, independence for fiji, india, africa, expulsion of the csr from the known universe, unconditional access to valagi hospitals, clubs, schools and playing fields, crash course on imperialism for the local taukei, secure land tenure for peasant farmers and the like, and when many years later the grandson of ratu viriviri alluded to this moment of my treachery to justify his coup d’etat, i set about blaming my illness instead of probing his logic, in any event, i went back to the lair of my refuge after the shame of military rejection and pottered around the house while amrita sold dog-eared cabbages from a backyard garden to keep us afloat, then one dawn she found the lease of our undoing inside a dowry box and by noon a squadron of termites had invaded the house, and they shed their wings and chatted through the timber, and for some twenty years i heard the rumour of their carpentry, until in the end the house was reduced to a midden of talcum powder, but by then i had melted into subadra, my only daughter, and amrita had eloped to england with the cockney of her infatuation, yes amrita had shared my illness but felt that the remedy lay in physical motion, in not staying put, she was convinced that if the sea was the cause of her malaise then it was also its cure, that in time the caravel becomes the cradle so long as we stay afloat, but i was in love with the island of my torment, and so after the termites ate through my lease and ratu viriviri took back the land of his ancestry, i wandered from village to village for what seemed like an eternity, until one day i arrived in suva where everyone had my illness, even the taukei, but not a soul suffered from it, and it struck me that the denizens of the city had no need of roots because they had smothered the vanua in steel and concrete, thereby making of their illness a wondrous virtue, and they floated through the streets with a lightness of being and they chewed their food with a casual dispassion, and they had no need to stray from the city because the world came to them on trucks and ships and planes, and they procreated and laboured and expired as citizens, as those who were defined by what they had created and not by what they had inherited, and though i saw the moth of capital alight on the few and not the many, and though i understood its great sleights and feints and evasions, i was nonetheless attracted to its erratic flight through the raucous bazaar of my fascination and to its raw magic that transformed the humble lemon seller into a lemonade tycoon, but most of all i was attracted to the way it first made and then forgave the rootless soul, and so i settled down in the city of my third avatar and joined the local bank as a clerk, and that year when the sahibs departed with their union jack, i met and married the civil servant of my stability and together we worshipped the twin gods of thrift and industry, and together we built a house on the freehold of our dreams, and together we sent our son abroad to learn the ways of other cities, i thought i’d at last found respite from my long illness, i thought the city by its nature belonged to all citizens, but they came on the may of our unforgetting to claim for themselves the city we had all made, kaindia and kaiviti and kaivalagi, and once again i witnessed the miracle of mass levitation, though this time not in the remote plantations of girmit but in the desperate streets of suva, as teachers, toy-makers, lawyers, panel-beaters, civil servants, physicians, wholesalers, plumbers, tax agents, engineers, beauticians, batik-printers, among others, among many others, lifted clear off the ground and drifted across the reefs to the lands of their new diaspora, america and canada and aotearoa and australia, and i too felt the asphalt yield under my feet and saw jagan, my husband of twenty years, beckoning furiously from the streets below, but nothing could entice me back to earth, not my husband, not my city, not my history, nothing, and, in a few seconds, i’d breached a cupola of clouds and rounded the towers of sydney and dissolved into the body of my son, rajesh, who sat at his desk writing the first of his many stories about the island of his nostalgia in the hope that some day, when no one is watching, he will die into the acreage of his prose.
Citations: this selection of poems appeared in Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying, Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2002.
Mila Kačič, acclaimed Slovenian actress and poet, was born on October 5, 1912, the illegitimate child of an impoverished teacher in Ljubljana, Ljudmila Kačič, and a rich property owner, Herbert Mahr. Mahr’s parents objected to this relationship and arranged for the child, at only a few months old, to be put in foster care with a poor family named Kovačič, where to all accounts Mila had an unhappy childhood. After completing primary schooling she was enrolled in a private civic school, earning enough for her books and other school needs by working during weekends and school holidays. She studied singing and drama at the National Conservatory in Ljubljana, and later at the Theatre Academy. She made her first, amateur appearance on stage at sixteen, and a year later began working in radio. She joined the Ljubljana opera in 1941 where in the four seasons before the Liberation (1945) she took part in forty-two performances. She subsequently became renowned as an actress for stage, television and film, performing over 120 roles as a member of the Ljubljana Drama Theatre ensemble between 1945 and 1970, and receiving numerous awards for her film and television work, including a Golden Arena award at the 1978 Pula Film Festival, the premier such festival in the former Yugoslavia, for her role in the 1977 film To so gadi (Real Pests). She published her first collection of poetry, Neodposlana pisma (Unsent Letters) in 1951, and four others over the next five decades: Letni časi (Seasons, 1960), Spomin (Memory, 1973), Okus po grenkem (A Taste of Bitterness, 1987), and Minevanja (Passings, 1997). Her great love, and one of her most consistent subjects, was the sculptor Jakob Savinšek (1922-1961). She was deeply affected by his early death, and later by the death, in 1990, of their son David. She died on March 3rd, 2000. It is felt by many that she was neglected by critics, for the simplicity and directness of her verse, and for her preoccupation with desire and disappointment, love, motherhood and death. The 2005 publication of her collected poems, Skoz pomladni dež bom šla (I Will Go Through the Spring Rain), however, has gained her a wide and enthusiastic readership. Apart from one or two poems in isolated anthologies, these are the first of her poems to appear in English language translation.
in the green brightness
at the first
breath of Spring dreams
a tiny blossom.
in the velvet dark
in the midst of sunburnt fields,
like two enamoured knights,
their first fruit.
in the golden glow
gone for an early dance with the wind
into the azure, silently
of sweet surrender
have vanished in time
the late glow of a scarlet dawn
An echo somewhere
but it’s my voice no more
that dove of pearl
no longer eats from my hand.
into the bottom of a sinister evening
A night heavy as lead
is covering my heart.
You say nothing to me
You say nothing to me but I know
our arc has broken asunder.
Wherever you and I go
we don’t join hands any longer.
Why should we? Touching disturbs you.
Why should I block your path
when I know so surely from which other
comes that scent that you nightly gather?
There is nothing more you want from me
nor anything more you could expect.
The dawn chases you off each morning.
Every evening you are stranger.
Never before this evening have
I felt such coldness from grey walls,
tearing into my flesh like a knife,
the dark door like an open grave.
My stare follows your steps through the window
as they vanish into a gale as cold as ice
cutting a narrow line into the blanket of snow
where our star is gilding the universe.
I wish that a tear like the one which just now
dropped onto the cold, white sheet
would no longer so searingly cloud my sight.
I wish that my hot lips could find you
and like chords of music at last vibrate
as an echo only to your song.
has already banished the grey of dusk
and the moon’s ray
is kissing the surface of the lake.
The white birch
like a sweet, virgin bride
has silently leaned
into the arms of the restless elm.
From the gentle lotus
to the poor, skeletal nettle
whatever is able
wraps itself in alluring dreams.
To its mate, the titmouse
is warmer than ever before
See? on nights such as this
the meanest heart can be at peace.
The world can’t afford
into which to chisel
all the yearnings
And you have just two hands
and only one heart.
on the pane of my loneliness
are your greeting.
All that remain
of the promised flowers.
Austere, in neat lines,
like unbribable swords
keeping guard between us.
I watch them from a distance
lest they are driven off
by my breath.
Close your eyes, Spring,
when you walk by.
Under your stare
there will only be weeping
lost in silence.
In my thoughts, after you departed,
I sat the whole long night beside you.
Past the last of our cottages, the iron beast
rushed us into foreign lands.
The spring morning, waking from night,
has hidden the horizon in a woollen mist.
Far, far away beyond it is the sea
And, farther than the sea, the sun and you.
Now I seek you down unknown roads,
staring into strange, unkind faces
and feel wretched. When it’s worst
I find you buried in my dreams.
A note about the translators
Bert Pribac was born in the village of Sergaši near Koper in Slovenia in 1933. As a boy he was caught in the turbulence of WWII and later in the traumatic events of post war Yugoslavia. At fifteen he was enrolled in an intensive course in journalism and began writing for local newspapers. In 1955 he began university studies in Ljubljana and completed them in 1959 before forced by politically adverse circumstances to leave Slovenia. He arrived in Australia in 1960 as a refugee, working at first as a hospital cleaner. In 1966 he began work as a library officer at the National Library of Australia, and became subsequently Chief Librarian for the Federal Health department, travelling widely and leaving behind over 50 reports and articles on library technical and management issues. After early retirement in 1988 because of a major car accident, he became more active in literary work. He returned to Slovenia in 2000. He has published several collections of poetry, and translations both of Australian poetry into Slovenian, and Slovenian into English, most notably, with David Brooks, The Golden Boat, an extensive selection of the poetry of Srečko Kosovel (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2008).
David Brooks (b. Canberra, 1953) spent much of his early childhood in Greece and Yugoslavia where his father was an Australian immigration attaché and later consul. Returning to Australia he spent a year in late high school on an exchange scholarship in the U.S.A., and after an honours degree at the A.N.U. returned to North American for postgraduate studies at the University of Toronto. Since then he has taught at several universities, most recently the University of Sydney (1991- ), edited numerous literary journals (most recently Southerly [1999- ]), and established a reputation as a poet, essayist and writer of fiction. He lives in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, and for a portion of each year in a village on the coast of Slovenia. In 2011 the University of Queensland Press published his The Sons of Clovis: Ern Malley, Adoré Floupette, and a Secret History of Australian Poetry, and in November 2012 his fourth novel, The Conversation.
The one-time Marxist philosopher of religion and culture, Régis Debray wrote Religion: An Itinerary, a book on religion in which he worked by a series of staging points, an itinerary, as he called it. For me too, in considering Sudesh Mishra’s poems, a tour of sorts is at stake – and in this respect, this is less an article than it is an itinerary. Despite the hesitation many feel about the critic as mediator, it would seem that the work of one of Australia’s – and indeed, the Pacific’s – finest poets, requires a guide, one to check off the tour points, to make sense of the landmarks, to act even as curator (which in its Latin original concerns caring for, as well as being guardian of, in this case, the artwork).
Mediation is also at stake in the verse. For Mishra is a mediator of words and worlds, a shuttle driver of ideas and of textures. The locations, the key political milestones, the literary forms he uses, the major religious frameworks: these are the things that we need to check off as we proceed through this particular selection of verse, one generous in its amplitude and in its variety. There are, indeed, more poems here than I will, or wish, to discuss.
The ending is, so to speak, at the beginning. The ending is also a sending. An envoi is a poetic ending, the concluding line – or lines – to a ballad. And those who know Mishra, or who read him carefully, will find not just references to music, but also, sonic dimensions to the poetry at every turn. In his choice of forms, as we shall see later, such as the sonnet, he invents new sounds in old genres – but does so in light of a rich and complex heritage of Fijian and Indo-Fijian, and Australian/European legacies.
And as Mishra’s allusive habit operates, envoi is also a French word, the basis of English envoy. It is also a heading in Jacques Derrida’s time-play book on the impossibilities of writing and of legacy, The Postcard: from Socrates to Freud and Beyond. The ending is at the beginning, and, as he puts it elsewhere, “So the snake devours its tail/And so the third-eye on itself prevails” (“Feejee,” Tandava 12). So, as Derrida might have put it, a (s)ending, something in flashback tells its end before the beginning.
The poem, “Envoi,” itself is about the sending and the ends of poetry – from its creation to its reception. Yet the poet is an artificer, he tells us. The “atomic flower of his brain/which radiates no light the hue of nectar,/Dry and dyeless as a reef in a book” (“Envoi”). “Drinking” on this art, the bees die. The end comes at the beginning as in Kagaaz ke Phool, the flawed and terrifying film by Guru Dutt, whose final song concerns, and flashes back to abandonment, but first (last) explains that aspiring youth should flee the fakeries of the cinema, that birds will not find nectar in the “paper flowers” of the cinema, that none of it is real. And yet, Dutt made the film, and Mishra wrote the poem, adding that while the poet is “sly to the artifice in its art,” he nevertheless waits and expects that the poem will find an audience, and thereby life….because poetry “lands a name on all that namelessness” and therein lies the value, the honey.
3. On Death
There is much to say about death, and Mishra’s poems do deal with it in many oblique ways. In “Fall,” for instance, there is an intense symmetry between a child’s loss of faith and the fall of the Archangel, Lucifer. But then there is the more prosaic angel of mercy, the ambulance driver.
In “Ambulance Driver,” the poem opens with a domestic scene, a sleeper evoked, shown stumbling over the crinkly cords of the telephone, while the rest of us sleep on. The poem’s trajectory of travel from home to hospital to home offers a view of emergency workers not just as service workers, but as secular agents of compassion. In this respect, they displace the clergy’s role, as they minister in practical ways, to the sick, the elderly and the dying. The miner does not “dare harvest” this seam, the one where the damaged need help. In its closing lines, the poem suggests that the ambulance driver do not always work, but rather, in their days off, they live among us, in cool valleys – and they fear what we fear, as in the midst of plenty they feel “terrors burn/Like music in our ears” (“Ambulance Driver”).
Death of course is not only harvested. Death is also deferred – and in terms of the desire for death, it affords also a terrifying politics. In “A Wishing Well in Suva,” Mishra’s most apocalyptic epiphany of Fiji, he lets forth a torrent of subjunctive and jussive declamations. At the head of both of its two stanzas, he opens with lines like these:
Let the tsunami come
Let it come as an ogre in grey armature….
O but let it come soon…
And wipe out everything,
Except perhaps a tuft of fern
(“A Wishing Well”)
The desire for utter annihilation, something also evinced in the title of his Tandava collection (with its evocation of Lord Shiva’s dance of death), is also a desire for cleansing, political cleansing. Such terrible desires arise from the legacies of Fiji’s many histories, and especially its histories of coups, of the corruption of culture and of people – and of land:
And the Ratu is consigning
All wilderness to woodchips
Over a hopsy lunch with a lumber
Baron from Malaysia;
And Colonel is admiring
In a circus mirror his shoulder pips.
(“A Wishing Well”)
The Ratu is a title applied to distinguish those with chiefly status from indigenous commoners. The Colonel, of course, was Sitiveni Rabuka. If the situation of coups and government has changed, the legacy of 1987 and the trauma of the Speight coup in particular, remain.
4. Diaspora, Colonisation, Memory
Many who write of diaspora do so in a way that seems to suggest that it is the riddle that holds keys to identity, power relations, and history. In fact, it is only a small part of that riddle, something Mishra’s own critical work has amply demonstrated (see especially, his book Diaspora Criticism). The interface of gender, class, and diaspora collide in his two part sonnet sequence, “Dowry.” In the first part, a complete sonnet, the dowry scene is presented, but not in simple terms. Many Hindi films show a father with tears in his eyes as a daughter is married, taken to the son’s parents’ home, handed over in a rite of Hindu celebration and tradition. Yet these are modern times – with memories in parental minds of marriages long ago – even if these are mixed with filmic representations.
In the poems themselves, the logic of arranged marriage, of dowry, and of domestic sorrow converge as a history. This is the story of parents, and of generations bearing witness to them. In this memory, the father is shown grimly turning his face aside from the scene he has helped create:
…she left home in a spray
Of pulse and flower, the tears soldering off
Her cheeks and her father looking away,
His eyes drilling holes through a stubborn bluff
Estranging like this stranger, drift-boned, shy,
He handpicked for the apple of his I.
In the second poem, however, a vision of courage, of what can happen when the threads of a marriage unravel, emerges, and the poet, silenced by his own histories, nevertheless has the urge to cry out for her to leave:
How I want my dumb art to scream, to say:
“Mother, swim out into your doubting self.
Plunge in against the current. Go astray.”
Behind her of course, things are not so easy: the “insinuating chatter” makes her life a misery.
Public history, of course, is quite different in nature. Mishra does not dwell particularly on it, but it turns up as part of the weave of the present and of memory. This is the effect – and pattern – of European colonisation. Few who visit Suva can fail to miss Albert Park as they travel, perhaps en route to the Suva Museum (for an itinerary of a different kind of cared-for-memories). At Albert Park (named for Queen Victoria’s beloved), a memory of European history is sketched subtly with the evocation of the scene of the landing of Kingsford-Smith at the park, as the poem says, in 1928. The poems on the aviator are by turns jesting, by turns serious, yet shows how colonial life marked Suva and Fiji more generally. The excitement of the arrival of the aviator led to them felling trees,
…teak, kauri, the great ivi
Under which Degei pondered his creation,
Coiled in the lacework shade, a fossil of
Himself, bats fruiting in the boughs above.
The knolls were graded…
(“Albert Park, Kingsford-Smith”)
The destruction of sacred histories, not to mention great and ancient trees gives a darker note to the levity. Mishra writes that the “planter, taukei and kin” and “twelve coolies” were all on hand: these were to some extent the superimpositions of the colonial and colonising imagination. The planters are the colonial owners of farmland; the taukei are the indigenous Fijians. And the plane landed of course – blowing up its own storm that “stank of brine and carbon and of myth” (“Albert Park, Kingsford-Smith”). In the second part of the sequence, a comedy of the kind Homi Bhabha, would acknowledge as salient unfolds: the colonial society tries to entertain the guest, and the “Planter’s wife murdered Tchaikovsky/on a church organ” as the hero himself is imagined as wondering about the society in which he found himself, as well as about his adventures like Icarus (and their risks). But to all who witnessed it, there was an effect, including on the maid who “counting plumes on his bed/Saw him in the sunlight, half-man, half-bird” (“Icarus, Kingsford-Smith”).
It is rarely remarked, but Mishra writes often of nature. Sometimes, as in the passing reflection on forests being woodchipped by greedy landowners, it is a lament. At other times, it is mediated through other art, as in his poem on Gauguin (with a fascinating meditation on rotting fruit, something that is unavoidable anywhere, but which is very much in evidence in the tropical heat of Nadi). However, one of the most beautiful dimensions of Mishra’s work, from his earliest collection, Rahu (with its encounter with horses on the road between Nadi and Suva) is his attention to nature of all kinds. In this collection, there are many poems that deal with trees and plants, but perhaps the one that is most striking in its attention to nature is the poem, “Seal.” While it is not made explicit, the poet’s engagement with the seal is punctuated with a slap from its tail (whether harmless in the ocean or against the poet’s body is unclear). The poem, written on Kangaroo Island, reflects on the characteristic look and movement of the animal:
Your tail a swivelling T
Against a furious dusk:
Turner. Template. Tree.
Despite the tumult, and the fact it “bewilders the heart,” the encounter with the seal engenders a “recrudescence of happiness” (“Seal”).
The poems on plants, however, are the most striking dimension of Mishra’s attention to landscape and environment. Sometimes the relationship is indirect, as in “Grain,” where in a series of sonnets, he meditates on the transformation from tree to wood to product. These three poems mix classical references to the Trojan horse (made of wood) with the timbers of Fiji, and indeed of its history: as at the end of the sequence he is brought back to the shocking memory of the ship, the Leonidas that brought the first indentured labourers to Fiji:
But all at once you’re bereft.
Leonidas is berthing. The light’s in gold.
Sixteen dead spartans in the tuna hold.
Why Spartans? The ship itself has a name that clearly is more pompous than its station: its name comes from the Spartan king.
In his nature poems, too, he frequently depicts a powerful relationship to human behaviour and history. This is especially true of his reflections on plants like sugar cane which are etched into the classed history of indenture. In his poem, “Cane,” it seems he will write only in light-hearted way of the sugar cane running “over the island in leaps and bounds” (“Cane”). However, he quickly rejoins this with the context of indenture:
…no islander says what it is.
“Prison bars,” says the resident farmer
When pressed, his tone uncrimped by irony.
Sugar has inscribed itself into Fiji-Indian indentured consciousness, and Mishra’s poem makes sense of this legacy in just these terms.
Mishra has a fondness for technical experimentation. Even in his most free form poetry, there is a powerful sonic sense, as in the poem, “Flood,” where the tragedy of flood is given life with the image of two animal forms responding to it. The catform is one: running in the rain, deftly dodging puddles and muck; the other is the ox, plodding, dragging itself through the sludge, oblivious to what lies beneath its great bulk – and what it destroys as it walks. The poem itself is a free verse poem, but is filled with sonic cues: Flood and mud rhyme endlessly and without structure throughout the poem; and the “Mudox/Neither runs nor roars/But dumbly pours/ Its protean bulk/ Into wretched dreams” (“Flood”). The only thing that survives all this is, in one sense, everything: the town itself, captured in a series of sibilant sounds that suggest its very defiance and resilience (“Flood”).
Just as often though, Mishra toys with forms – the ten syllable pattern of the sonnet is a particular form that recurs. This has been evident since his Tandava collection, where in the opening “Feejee” sequence there are a number of sonnets, and where the collection closes with the ten-sonnet set of “Sonnets for a Valediction,” some of Mishra’s finest poems. In this collection, too, we find the form recurring, as in the poems discussed already – the poem sets on “Dowry,” on “Grain,” and on “Kingsford-Smith.” The poems that are not so tightly circumscribed, however, also have form, as Mishra plays with striking syntax and acrobatic wordplay (and vocabulary). His poems may at times have direct themes, but their sonic force, and their imaginative brilliance are a tour de force of the capacity of poetry to challenge and to confront.
Perhaps the best example of this is the well-known prose poem that I (and others) have discussed elsewhere. It is the title poem from his collection, Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying. The entire poem consists of one sentence. It narrates the history, the complete history, of the diaspora in Fiji. It starts with the recruiters, the voyage (on which everyone became jahajibhais – shipmates), and the landfall. But then, ingeniously, by means of a conceit of sorts (a bowdlerised Hindu tradition of levitating Gurus), Mishra imagines an illness that makes the entire Fiji Indian population lose connection with the earth, and float mysteriously above the ground. The ingenuity of the idea gathers together a culture by synecdoche (Mishra elsewhere in the prose poem points out that “chamars found brahmins, muslims found hindus, biharis found marathis” (“Diaspora”), and has them disconnect from reality – or at least the land – together. The poem ends in pessimism in some ways, partly in indictment of the diasporic population, for this very disconnection. But there is also sympathy for the histories that led to this, especially in terms of colonial historical segregation and class warfare.
7. Itineraries: Of Travel, and of the Heart
Mishra’s work mediates worlds, and I have tried to suggest this without recourse to the obvious: Mishra is a traveller. Analysis of his work could take the form of a literal itinerary. He has lived not just in Fiji, but also in Australia, and for a time in Scotland. Not only has he travelled widely, but also, in many of his poems (including some here) he has reflected on these travels. His travels are reflexive, and he dwells on poets like Garcia Lorca murdered in the Spanish Civil War, and on painters like Vincent van Gogh or Paul Gauguin. Yet they are also always local, paying attention to what is at hand, and in many ways, the sheer variety of his reflections may appear to require an itinerary of sorts.
Even so, this is not the kind of itinerary I have sketched. For me, the itinerary that is the most difficult to trace is the one that I find most challenging, and interesting, in his work. He offers an itinerary of the heart, as someone who feels the forces of nature intensely, as someone who senses the tragedy of its destruction, as someone who writes of injustice whether historical or current, whether of his own people or of others (witness his shocking and often-requested poem, “Palestine”). And he does so in a way that weaves words into a force of their own.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
Débray, Regis. God: An Itinerary. London: Verso, 2004.
Derrida, Jacques. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans Alan Bass.
Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1987.
Dutt, Guru. Dir. Kaagaz ke Phool [Paper Flowers]. Motion picture. Twentieth Century
Fox/Guru Dutt Films. With Guru Dutt and Waheda Rehman, 1959
Mishra, Sudesh. Tandava. Melbourne: Meanjin, 1992.
—. Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying. Otago: Otago UP, 2002
—. Rahu. Suva: Vision, 1987.
—. Diaspora Criticism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2006.
JOHN O’CARROLL is a researcher in the fields of Australian and Pacific Literature, as well as aspects of social and cultural analysis, currently working at Charles Sturt University teaching English. He has published many articles on literature, both in Australia and in the Pacific. With Chris Fleming, he has also recently published a chapter in Kafka’s Cages, a book on modernity and Franz Kafka’s Trial. He has also written books, one with Chris McGillion on the lives of priests, and one with Bob Hodge
on Australian multiculturalism. Apart from his present position at Charles Sturt, he has worked also at James Cook University, Murdoch University, the University of Western Sydney, and the University of the South Pacific.
John Yau has published many books of poetry, fiction, and criticism, as well as contributed essays to art monographs. A book of poetry, Further Adventures in Monochrome, is forthcoming in 2012 from Copper Canyon Press. The recipient of fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, Ingram-Merrill Foundation, New York Foundation of the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, he teaches in the Visual Arts program at Mason Gross School of the Arts (Rutgers University). He and his family live in New York.
In the film, before the hero’s train is intercepted and parboiled by hoary hooligans, a woman in a white chiffon dress is seen ascending the marble stairs of a casino in the resort town of Deauville, which, as many cinephiles know, is the name of the little station where a French writer, who was possessed by dubious habits, was scheduled to disembark at the beginning of each summer, ready to author a succession of hand-painted postcards for the amusement of his friends stuck in menial jobs back in Paris.
The bandits’ costumes ran the gamut, from mid 19th century aristocrats with swords to a Hollywood Chinaman’s get-up, complete with rifles and binoculars taken from dead cavalrymen, complete with yellow bandanas. (The color provides a crucial clue to the sequel).
The leader wore a stovepipe hat festooned with black lace. He had a wooden leg, which he placed on the chair beside his bed when he slept at night.
Once the cast of characters is introduced, the water rises further, and the train crew battens down the hatches, and the flooding of outside influences takes hold. Clearly, they had started the wildest leg of their journey, and, from now until they reach what some scholars conveniently designate as the terminal departure point, the situation becomes increasingly fraught with potential disasters.
The suspension bridge with its missing slats and frayed rope would have proved a welcome distraction, but it was, sadly enough, inserted rather early in the first reel. All was in turmoil. Entire villages and towns cursed the night and whatever else befell them, including rust and unharvested grain. Blame was assigned, and firing squads were dispatched to all parts of the fading empire.
The bank’s doors are stamped CLOSED. Money becomes a source of shame, which the young woman finds amusing as she lights a cigar with a greenback.
Outside the window, volcanoes stir their vats of inoculated pyres.
Fires race down the mountains, eager to embrace their guests.
He was part of the first wave of immigrants to climb the rope ladder they – and “they” will always be called that – dangled down the moss-covered wall of success. They said it was slippery, but that is only the tip of the iceberg, what gets put down on paper, the tales taught to children so they will accept disappointment and believe they deserve their fate.
I sometimes refer to him as my “father,” but that only serves to indicate a biological relationship. There are many kinds of bonds, and these have been dated and preserved in the appropriate places, such as the magazine rack in corner drugstores. It’s not that this story is different. It’s not even that this story is the same. About the rest, I will not say more.
She was raised to be in the background, but its flowers did not suit her. If you need be told, she is (was) my mother. Dead now and part of the wallpaper with a floral motif interrupted by disasters, sickness, and war.
After winding its way through the lower Alps, the train descended the slopes and began chugging through the rainforest until, after many days, the fog parted and the coast became visible. That, the engineer thought, is where the beaches are, and where I first saw my bride-to-be standing alone under the sun. Unbeknownst to the passengers sitting in their compartments, Eugene Boudin was at the beach that fateful afternoon, and his painting has become known among a select few as The Engineer’s Dream. This group is not universally recognized because, as a minor character in the author’s masterpiece points out, it was too big and unselective to be memorable.
Things turn out very differently, which is a necessary condition of starting out, though this sticking point is never mentioned in any contract.
Amidst the beginning of an era, end of an epoch, turning of the steering wheel.
We declare these groups and groupings to be self-evident, which preoccupies later generations of scholars and judges, some of whom carry shotguns under their robes. If there is any doubt, your reaction is all that is needed.
Seeing eye to eye is fruitless since mine are crossed and one of yours is missing.
Shot In The Documentary Mode
I sit on a scarred wooden bench in an olive-colored bus with rows of other shoeless boys. A bird with black feathers studies the bus’s inhabitants. The tarred blue road on which our vehicle has been placed, vanishes at the blue horizon line, leaving the passengers perplexed as to what happens next.
Tonight the moon is made of pearlescent paint and gum arabic.
Tonight the moon is a crow with one red eye
dangling upside down from the ceiling.
A machine-made voice announces that we are a herd of cows on our way
to becoming cowards.
The clouds temporarily obscuring the moon reflected in a boy’s eyes are interrupted by an omniscient narrator, who tells the audience that the evening’s itinerary includes being transported to the outskirts of the mortal sky, its carousel of gilded horses surrendering to the pink and green clouds.
This is the legacy of being born in another century.
Before electricity is collected in jars.
Before colors had names like Scarlet Lips and Whiplash Watermelon.
Before a man immerses his skinny legs in baggy shorts
and picks out his favorite polka dotted shirt.
Before melancholy, mellow, and memorable are removed
from the approved adolescent vocabulary.
The bus rolls through small towns pockmarked with faded signs staring down from dusty brick walls. Red dust settles onto the window ledges.
Angry that a busload of children are passing through their town, smooth-faced adults stream out of diners and drugstores, howling and wildly throwing debris at the gleaming, riveted dirigible.
Meanwhile, we are taught that hag collectors have become increasingly difficult to identify. First, in a world where everyone wears gloves to ward off germs, you have to find someone with gnarled hands and a predilection for warts, but after that everything gets hazy, and those who have ventured into these ghastly woods have seldom returned.
Someone in the back says we are having a dream, that the lessons we are learning are discarded by-products of bad poetry, which children have been forced to memorize for years.
Someone else says that by sitting on our hands, and acting dumb, we can learn to sleep in a deeper cave, where dreams are unable to penetrate.
But for others – the ones who read poetry in the dark—these answers only make matters worse.
Noisy cloud cover dissuades us from bubbling over.
After we pull into the truck stop, get off our camels, and enter the pinball arcade, the air slims down to a silvery glimmer.
The three men in blue uniforms should have warned us of the consequences, but, according to the instruction manual, their sole function is to greet and direct strangers down the path, leading to the warehouse of hidden treasures on sale. On polished stones fitted together, like gears, we pass blue pediments embalmed in hair, a row of empty barracks.
Tom, Dick, and Harry––their shirt pockets were embroidered with a message of subtly increasing size. At first, we didn’t think anything of this warning sign for the hazards of infinity, but the worms they spawned grew under our skin.
Our group leader, Hermes Trismegestus, pointed out that each path leading into the arcade was lined with identical rows of lampposts, and that all the paths radiated from a central marble arch, while retreating neatly toward the gold leaf horizon. It was as if a man with an inverted glass eye had invented this perspective.
What happened next to the crystal orb remains a mystery, which is why it is the subject of numerous late night television documentaries devoted to separating half-truths from complete fiction. Some of us are intrepid travelers in the labyrinth of half-truths, while others prefer to be enthralled by complete fiction, its various branches and outposts, including the ones overrun by bougainvillea. But such differences should be expected among those who guide wooden tubs to their demise for a small but earnest wage.
Sinbad’s interpretation revolved around an alchemist who first became famous in Baghdad for the invention of a garden that fit easily in a young girl’s tattooed palm, but which contained examples of flowers so rare that there is no record of them having been seen elsewhere. At dusk, herds of yellow deer emerged and munched on leaves, assiduously ignoring everything that was shiny but wasn’t colored green.
A warm, well-modulated voice calmly interrupted him.
I am not actually doing any of the speaking, but it is my voice (in its new guise) that I hear clattering outside my head, rather than just rolling around inside it, like a ball bearing in the maw of a broken machine. I have become the unwarranted object of a ventriloquist’s attention. This is how I fell out of the sky and landed in the parking lot of a truck stop that ended with the letter, “a” (Arizona, Montana, and Samoa). Since then, many months, moons, mopeds, and morons have scooted by.
Butterflies continue feeding on the corpses of old statues.
Foxes sit around and recount tricks they played on humans.
Regrettably, I have settled into a routine that includes waiting for my friends to catch up with me or, in some instances, leave me behind, alone in a forest presided over by an owl with one eye, its semi-solid mass of particles moving surreptitiously through time and space’s bumpy terrain.
A poet and sports reporter, Thanh Thao was born in Quang Ngai Province, grew up in Hanoi, took a degree in literature from Hanoi University, and now lives once more in Quang Ngai. He was a correspondent for Vietnamese Army Radio in the Southern campaign of the war with the United States. He became famous for his long antiwar poem “A Soldier Speaks of His Generation,” which was sent directly from the heat of battle to his hometown newspaper in the North. He is a member of the Vietnamese Writers Association and poetry committee and president of its branch in Quang Ngai province. Even though this position usually comes with Communist Party membership, he is not a member, the first such exception in history. Winner of the National Prize for a Lifetime Contribution to Literature in 2001 and two National Book Awards—for The Footprints Passing a Meadow in 1979 and the book-length poem The Waves of the Sun in 1996—he is one of the most popular contemporary poets in Vietnam. An admirer of the Russian poets Boris Pasternak and Sergei Essenin and the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, Thanh Thao has grafted the early modernist style of western lyric to his own. The publication of individual poems in the 1970s and his collection The Rubik’s Cube,1985, stunned the quiet world of Vietnamese poetry. He has published at least fifteen poetry collections and several other literary works.
The following poems are translated by Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover, and will be anthologised in a collection of Contemporary Vietnamese Poets called Black Dog, Black Night forthcoming in 2008 by Milkweed Editions.
his face turned to the past
turned to a sigh
turned to hopelessness
a man flew through the treetops
leaving behind a woman, a thin trail of smoke
the ships searched for a place to rest
the stars searched for a place to be seen
crowding into a puddle of water
where it gives birth to the sky
as the poems searched for their flames
comes a faint sound of women selling rice cakes
on my birthday
it makes me remember
a packet of rice
a bowl of dried sweet potato mixed with molasses
a mother thin as the morning light
and laughter beside a heap of trash
now I have become my thoughts
and love what I lack
on my birthday a boat floats to an empty space
a lonely street in which some leaves are rolling
a wood-burning stove is poked, its fire like a whisper,
echoes from fifty-six years ago
a day as pale as today
that no one cared about, no one remembered
a little puppy is dumbstruck looking at a lonely street
a boy with country blood was born in a town
in a quiet time before the storms and flames
it was a childhood rippling with dragonfly wings
and fireflies whispered at night
in front of the house, the river where I had swum since I was six
not with an otter’s skill
but in the natural way of kids
to sink or to swim
some of them weepy and some with hiccups
I have almost forgotten them
like a fisherman with the fish netted
how can I burn fifty-six candles
in the wind
if only in my life I could save a single one of them
but I blow them out instead
This poem first appeared in New American Writing 23
Andante for the Millennium (2000)
When I circle myself,
the way a dog marks its place by pissing,
that’s when I break through,
because the high trees are calling,
the stars loudly call,
small bits of nothingness whisper,
a colorless beam of light
passes into my mind,
a woman pushes a trash can as if beating the drumhead of evening.
These are signs to me
to quickly clean up my mind,
be on time collecting the trash,
put the all away in the all,
to be perfectly clear.
That’s the time,
as a star disappears,
when word after word appears.
The wind blew me
a sideways look.
I crouched like a mimosa
looking at its thorns
which are the tears of a tree
gazing at a dump where the moon is bright as milk.
A festival of dogs
barks at the moon and laughs.
They can smell tragedy,
call out with the same emotions
of those who search the night –
a job, a hope, a refuge,
all that the dark night promises.
With two pens,
I’m going to look for the source of water
slowly and quietly.
Look, the pen is a little nervous,
breathing with every stroke.
I know I’m in a drought;
go slowly and silently.
When I was young,
I spent my time like rain sinking into sand.
Now I add leaf to leaf
on the branch,
save a box of matches to keep warm in winter.
The old box can’t be recognized by its cover.
In childhood I held a black cricket.
Now at five in the morning, a kid is learning to walk on crutches,
a truck vomits black smog into the new millennium,
a mentally ill woman with amnesia runs beneath a street light,
behind the sunrise
the mayflies cease for a moment
all their searching and finding.
I already know
that other worlds
are no different –
a bird that tries to love its cage
has no need to begin singing.
Up and down a fishing rod
to fish dreams of the past,
of snatching shadows from under the green sadness
of water hyacinths.
I come again to my father and mother’s home
where a newly planted yellow plum suddenly blooms
like a spotlight on a flood plain,
like my mother’s eyes
staring from the garden’s corner
where custard apple has a pure greenness.
I come again
to the well,
its perfectly rounded sky,
and the tree’s oblique shadow
like my mother’s shape,
the faint sound of bells
and the rainy bells of the leaves
twinkling as they watch me;
childhood’s crystalline cloud
I’m silent as a coconut palm
that doesn’t know why it bore fruit!
To Suddenly Remember
like someone beating a drum, the rain dropped on my waterproof army poncho
which was torn and badly needed mending
my friends were like forest trees, diminishing day by day
the war cut them down
like an electric trimmer
but now they’re all at peace
I remember also that evening, as a child,
the sweetness of the banana in my mother’s hand,
even sweeter when she carried me on her back!
the road over the dike echoed the soul of the river
dark brown sails and bamboo shadows floating slowly
a bridge where an older man got tired
and lay down to rest but not sleep
the room where he keeps only the barest necessities
the ripe smell of bananas
some old chairs
and a small ancient teapot
the aged sunlight
an evening of summer rain
and the bomb’s echo from the Duong bridge that sounded like rolling thunder
my parents lived there in a home
a ten-square-meter country
but because of our greater home
my parents didn’t prevent me
from going into battle
not hoping for a brave death or “rainbow”
I’m the hand on a compass
that only turns toward our room
where everything is old
Note: In Vietnam, the word for “rainbow” also refers to an honor or glorious achievement.
This poem first appeared in New American Writing 23
I saw you, Mi, run around the moon’s back
you were the best of dogs
you could outbark all the shadows
had footsteps like clouds
you still console me on the hottest of days
when someone loudly calls my name
I always depend on your eyes
which were brown as the earth
when the wind was gathering wave after wave
and the light of sunrise waved up and down
you flew past on four feet
in a good mood on a sad day
your ears twitched gently toward darkness
haven’t seen you on a staircase
haven’t seen you in the air
our home was suddenly vast
with the faintest sound of your steps
you moved through the walls
your muzzle rubs against my heart
the night bursts into tears
a green tree will hand me a leaf
inscribed with unclear words
as we are closely related
lonely and silent at night
miserable by day
it will have something it wants to say
Following me are sad dreams
in which my dying mother’s face appears,
like nights of worry as the rough sea drones.
Mother, so lovely, where did you vanish?
How do I turn time back to the past? How?
For all of my life, two shade trees have consoled me.
Whose footsteps remain
on the village trail?
What lights are in your eyes now that the rain has cleared?
Now the small stain of a star rises deeply,
a horizontal line that separates two sufferings,
but still leaves the spicy, fragrant smoke of our stove
in the garden with its dark green banana leaves –
from morning to night you still walk back and forth there!
And You Wake Me Up, Ginsberg . . .
And you wake me up, Ginsberg, where I sleep on a log like a dog that sometimes speaks in sleeping, waves its tail
and howls with smoldering anger. And you wake me up with an owl in front of a forest, a drop of morning haze,
the sound of a person on the street recovering his previous life, the wind shredding newspapers, a series of drafts
extolling the mass media, and a bicycle rolling and flickering on a hot day. And you wake up me, a suppressed
kid, a miserable, homeless man; all untruths are listed under my name; my success and prosperity are confirmed,
recycled most likely from waste. But no one can recycle the pain and tears, although they want to create literature.
You wake me up as roughly as a cop rouses a beggar dreaming on a park bench, rubbing his eyes as he thinks
about dreaming another dream. The paths I have been walking, both long and short, are meaningless; however, I
wait and, while waiting, I sink into the newspapers, throwing word after word, all those miserable words, in
exchange for a few pennies by the never-green leaves. This summer is so hot; I’m really tired. But you wake me
up, Ginsberg, I stand up as the morning rises, a howling rises, the green of never-green leaves rises. We live
without limits, but who knows what is best to do in these heavy times. The howling in blood, the rebel cells, isn’t
strong enough to become a tumor, but it doesn’t matter. I know someone who gives people immortality pills or
secretly puts mines of expectation in their chests; they will make this world shiver before it sinks again in their
sleep. Their mission is like a fly in a bowl of soup. I’m sick; please turn the sunlight blue until it’s salvation. You
wake me up in time, which the sun confirms by raising its hands in my direction. And now I’m as immovable as a
dusty plastic sunflower.
This Is Usual
You tell me that I’m melancholy, but what the hell is it if I’m healthy as you,
and what is your power based on?
In a rainstorm we hear the sound of sighing – we can’t say
what we think or try to say what we don’t know.
The river is as puzzling as breath; it decorates its voice.
You don’t talk, but the way you are silent
speaks more than speaking.
I have experienced many holes, many rains, which crash into the shade
through leaves and branches,
which are in shock.
I lean on time to catch the time that doesn’t run out.
To ignore the land is to be old, dry, lean, and thirsty.
You persuade me by lying down in my cocoon then searching
for a way home, looking calmly at a catfish that gives birth
at the top of a banyan tree
in the summer-fool-crazy rainstorm.
A daydream takes me; I go into the private darkness of light.
The darkness differs significantly from reality, but it is still the reality
of a cow chewing the sunset; on one side is the yellow sunrise, on the other the darkness of sunset –
the faint border between
reunion, separation, reunion.
We have lived by suddenly moving, freely and easily,
from this area to another.
The lonely one who travels only with his mind
on unending hallways
to meet relatives who passed away
is as happy as any tourist
with blocked views.
don’t dig any holes that will break my journey!
A truck. The dark, nasty night. Losing direction. Trying to climb down in order to climb up. Can’t see that
truck. Can’t see the way home. Fences. Strangers. Another truck. But not the one I was looking for. That’s
probably Truong Son. There must be another war. But no. The truck. My “brother” the driver vanishes. I’m
suddenly very confused. Can’t see the goal. Where do I go? The night is like a cocoon. Pictures flicker. There are
human beings, but I’m unable to speak to them. No way home. No address. A stair slopes increasingly
up. Slipping. Down is easier than up. Slipping down then vanishing. Trying to talk louder by remaining
quiet. Trying to speak without a sound. All that remains are the views skimming along in the side mirror.
Note: Truong Son is the longest mountain range in Vietnam, running from north to south; along with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it serves as the border between Laos and Vietnam.
If I Knew
Drawing the bow intensely then suddenly releasing. No arrow. But feeling little pain. Maybe the arrow secretly
shot back, but I don’t know. Sometimes I choke when I swallow something. Don’t know where it runs to. A heat
between my chest and my belly. I have been neither waiting nor expecting very much. But how come that arrow
still comes back? The darkness flows into secret corners. I crouch like a rock or root. Someone sits on me,
mumbles and spits then leaves. The night gnashes and grinds. I don’t want to be alone, to be the bare branch
waving alone, like a cow or buffalo waves its tail. I want to say something for someone. But no one is here, or
they are here but I didn’t know. Don’t know what to say. Everyone counts their steps on their own separate
path. The sound of counting makes it a path. I don’t know how to count or I count wrong. Do I have no path? Here
are the breaking lines on the dike where my self is flooding. Why do I stand on the bank of my river life,
frightened to jump into it, even just to get wet? Who doesn’t dare to swim doesn’t dare to sink!
A Soldier Speaks of His Generation
The day we leave,
the doors of the passenger train open wide.
There’s no longer a reason for secrets.
The soldiers young as bamboo shoots
playfully stick their heads from the windows.
The soldiers, young as bamboo shoots,
in uniforms too big for them,
crowd together like tree leaves on the stairs between the cars.
The train whistles too loudly
And too long, as if broken,
like the voice of a boy who nearly has his man’s voice now.
In our generation,
that train whistle is a declaration.
The generation in which each day is a battle,
its mission heavier than the barrel of mortar 82
that we carry on our shoulders.
The generation that never sleeps,
that goes half naked and patiently digs trenches,
that is naked and calm in its thinking,
that goes on its way as the past generation has gone,
by ways various and new.
In the forest, names are quickly engraved on trees.
The canteens are engraved with the letters N and T.
Each backpack contains a uniform,
some dried fish sauce, and a small lump of steamed rice.
The camp’s woodstoves flame on the stone bank of a creek,
above which hang tall cans of sour soup
made from Giang leaves and shrimp sauce.
What we have,
share on the ground
To enemies, we spend all we have in battle.
To friends, we give until all we have is gone.
If you see that our skins are black from the sun,
our misshapen bodies seem older than they are,
and you can count the calluses on our hands
along with the war medals – still, nothing quite describes us.
Oh, the clearing in Dau forest with its dry, curved leaves!
Every footstep crackles like a human voice.
In the night as we march,
several fires suddenly flare on the trail,
our generation with fire in our hearts
to light the way to our goal.
One night when rain lashes on all four sides,
We’re in Thap Muoi with no tree to hide us.
As the swamp floods, we have to push our boats against the rising tide.
The horizon lies behind whoever drags himself ahead,
Silhouetted by the flash of lightning.
Our generation has never slept, walks every night in the flood.
Mud covers us thickly from head to foot.
So our voices are those of cowboys,
and our gazes are sharp as a thorn,
because the fire that can burn in a bog is the true fire.
When it flames up,
it burns with all of its strength.
What do you want to tell me in the hazy night, Quoc,
as you sing passionately the whole flood season?
The Dien Dien flower raises its hot yellow petals
like the face of a hand that sunlight lands and stays on.
Our country comes from our hearts, simply,
Like this Thap Muoi that need no further decoration
and is completely silent.
Stronger than any romance, this love goes directly
to any person
who doesn’t care about the limits of language.
Unexpectedly, I meet my close friend again.
We both lie down on a My Long trail,
on an army coat under the dark sky,
where just this evening a B-52 harrowed the earth three times,
where for several years the bomb craters are uncountable,
where I suddenly speak a simple dream:
“When peace truly comes,
I will go to trail number four, spread out a coat and lie down
My friend gazes
at a star rising from a water-filled crater.
His eyes look so strange; I see
they contain both the star and the crater . . .
A vortex spins on the roof of an ancient forest.
The wind whistles a long time inside the empty shells of trees.
The bats flicker in and out of sight.
A flattened place in the cane grass smolders.
We have passed the limits of the dry season,
passed the rainy season, the long limits of the rainy season
when every night our soaked hammocks hang on Tram poles.
Our boats move across the river under the faint flares of the American army.
Sometimes, in awe of the skyline filled with red clouds at evening,
we forget we are older than we are.
Our feet walk in rubber sandals across a hundred mountains,
but our shadows never walk ahead of our futures.
Battles of come again in memory.
Rockets explode against the sky in a mass of smoke.
Our hearts beat nervously in our very first fight.
Our army-issue canteens smell as they burn
on the roofs of the trenches.
And the garbage cans lie strewn all around.
In the silence and deafness between two bombings,
a hen’s voice suddenly calls
from a small, ruined canal.
Our generation has never lived on memory
so we don’t rely on the past’s radiance.
Our souls are fresh as Chuong wind,
our sky the pure blue of a sunlit day.
The transport boats sail the crowded Bang Lang canal.
That evening rockets attack,
bending down the Binh Bat trees.
Sunset covers both banks like blood.
The canal turns white from the flow of toxic gases.
Suddenly I see my face on the water’s surface,
among those poisonous mists,
on which floats the Binh Bat fruit,
on which floats our breaking country,
and I see
also floating the faces of many people,
some of them friends and some I have never seen.
They are so very young
as they flicker along on the stream
into a distant meadow
on an endless evening.
They’re the people who fought here first,
twenty years ago as one generation,
and also the ones who will come later,
twenty years from today.
on the small canal
artillery attacks and flowing water.
How clearly you can see
the faces of
This poem was very controversial in Vietnam after it was published in Hanoi’s largest literary review, Van Nghe, and was prohibited by the government until 1988, when Vietnam reconstructed its economy and politics.
This poem first appeared in New American Writing 23
Giang is a wild vegetable, sour to the taste, which North Vietnamese soldiers used in soup.
Dau is a kind of tree commonly found in the forests of southwest Vietnam.
Thap Muoi is a swamp where one of the largest North Vietnamese army camps was located.
Quoc is a nocturnal bird that sings “quoc, quoc, quoc“; it also means “country.”
Dien Dien is a wildflower.
My Long is the name of a trail in Thap Muoi swamp.
Binh Bat is a kind of tree that can be found in Thap Muoi swamp.
Chuong is a kind of southwest wind.