By David Malouf
University of Queensland Press
Reviewed by LUCY VAN
David Malouf lives in Sydney. This banal-sounding fact actually tropes a major concern across Malouf’s works. What does it mean to live in a place? How do spaces inform the duration of a life, and how does time fill the houses, suburbs and stretches of bays that our bodies occupy; that, having lived in those spaces, our memories occupy? A virtuoso of memory, Malouf creates cosmologies around what we normally take to be ordinary spaces, most famously suburban Brisbane in works such as Johnno and 12 Edmondstone Street. One does not simply live in Sydney or Brisbane, or for that matter London or Rome. Translocal, cosmopolitan subjects live in the interstitial zones imagined by global topographies. And through memory one simultaneously occupies the places in which we have lived before, and to which we have travelled and passed through in other times. A certain simultaneity of space and time is prefigured by the title of Malouf’s tenth poetry publication. Perhaps borrowing from contemporary ecological idiom, the title Earth Hour suggests a kind of suturing of global space to global era, and the collection of poetry continues Malouf’s career-long exploration of the flesh of experience that weds space to time.
In her analysis of Malouf’s ‘Bay poems’ the novelist and literary critic Emily Bitto writes of Malouf’s poetic process as ‘a vital act of imaginative creation’ (92). Alluding to the parallels Malouf has drawn between the places referenced in his works and other fully-imagined places such as Dickens’ London and Dostoevsky’s Petersberg, Bitto considers Malouf’s ‘invention’ of the Bay through her notion of ‘spatial memory.’ More than simply recalling the spaces and places significant to the author, spatial memory implies a re-visioning where spaces are ‘repeatedly re-inscribed with new meaning and value until they become mythologised spaces’ (92). For Malouf places become real as sites of imagining and invention, not as ‘embodiments of fact’ (‘A Writing Life,’ 702). Through the spatial memory process a place is doubled. If created with sufficient imminence the imaginary place will replace the original site. For Bitto, Malouf’s Bay poems document the very process of spatial memory. Over the course of Malouf’s career as a poet, the bay transforms beyond ‘simply a “space-time” of the past which the poet can revisit from time to time, [to] a mythical space-time in which some part of the poet always resides’ (101, emphasis added).
Earth Hour opens with ‘Aquarius,’ a work rich with temporal and geographical signifiers that recall Malouf’s previous Bay poems. Breath, light, enigmatic night, expansive time and gilded space converge at a point where excess transmutes into enchantment:
One of those sovereign days that might seem never
intended for the dark: the sea’s breath deepens
from oyster-shell to inky, blue upon blue,
heaped water, crowded sky. This is the day,
we tell ourselves, that will not end, and stroll
enchanted through its moods as if we shared
its gift and were immortal, till something in us
snaps, a spring, a nerve. There is more to darkness
than nightfall. (1)
Bitto’s argument for spatial memory as a process the oeuvre of the Bay poems themselves document finds support in this most recent work. ‘Aquarius’ depicts the speaker dwelling in an ‘enchanted’ temporal zone, a colour-saturated day the inhabitants of the poem tell themselves ‘will not end.’ The speaker’s relation to space as an (anti-) Edenic realm ‘from which we’ve never been expelled’ suggests that this charged memory-space is not one to which the speaker simply returns from time-to-time, as Bitto suggests of Malouf’s earlier Bay poems (97-98), but rather one that functions in a radically continuous sense of mythological, non-linear time. Part of the speaker does not leave this imagined site. This, at the very least, is the fantasy proposed by Malouf’s vital ‘counterworld.’
The mythological resonances – in the title connoting both astrological discourse and ancient Babylonian/Greek knowledge systems, and in the allusion to the Old Testament expulsion from Eden – mark the notion that time once began and from thence could be measured as history. Yet their intertwining, by way of transition from title to final line, suggests also that languages of the past are multiple, hybrid and synchronous in the space of the present. The title rejects specificity of location in favour of an impression of what the act of remembering a sea-space engenders. Aquarius as a ‘water bearer’ hints that the poem itself bears an imaginary site of dreamy potentiality, in which present, past and future mingle in suspended langour. This opening poem successfully establishes Malouf’s sense of time throughout Earth Hour. Time is a play of expansion and contraction: the hour of dusk is opened-out, ‘embellished with all its needs,’ (‘An Aside on the Sublime,’ 22); and conversely, epochs pass unremarkably: ‘waiting is no sweat. Centuries pass/unnoticed here’ (‘At Laterina,’ 48).
In other poems Malouf suggests a specific sense of time and place by deploying titles such as ‘Writer’s Retreat: Maclaren Vale, 2010,’ ‘A Recollection of Starlings: Rome ’84,’ and ‘Australia Day at Pennyroyal.’ Against the collection’s more abstract titles, including ‘Radiance,’ ‘Entreaty,’ and yes, ‘Abstract,’ the significance of this specificity is emphasised, but one might venture that rather than contrast, an unexpected consistency emerges. Across the collection’s poetic imaginings, particular times and places become, if not quite abstractions, then somewhat abstracted, mythologised memory places. In ‘A Recollection of Starlings: Rome ’84,’ one single dusk, cast off from a day that ended thirty years ago, is brought into a lively present as words dart across the page:
of starlings at dusk
of a typewriter
of letters as a poem
gathers and takes shape (38)
The speaker brings two times into simultaneity – the time of the original sighting of the starlings as a cloud of ‘hip-sways in tornado twists above the Eternal/City,’ and the time of memory-assemblage as the poet types. Through the metonymic shift from the spontaneous gathering of birds to a spirited collection of words, distance and time collapse beyond their conventional boundaries. The page represents a coterminous moment, where Sydney and Rome, 2014 and 1984 occupy the same stroke of a key as it scatters across the page. Malouf’s sense of dwelling in a mythological space-time is prefigured through the poem’s reference to Rome as the ‘Eternal City.’ Part of the speaker continues to reside in this imagined Rome of ’84, a presence that presides over poetic staging as the ‘new draft/ of sky,’ merges with ‘A clean sheet/ of daylight’ (39).
Collective Memory Places
Bitto points out that ‘the relation between individual and collective memory is a fraught one’ (101) but suggests notwithstanding that it is both possible and productive to consider memory in Malouf’s poetry beyond the realm of individual experience. Contending that Malouf memorialises the experiences of a wider community, Bitto invites future critics to consider Malouf’s poetry in relation to various collective identities with which he may be associated: people of a particular generation, people of migrant heritage, expatriates, travelers, post-settler-colonial subjects, and ‘the amorphous group of people designated as “Australians,” “Queenslanders,” or “Brisbanites”’ (102). ‘Inner City’ registers a shift in the dominant imagined space of Australia, where symbols of the iconic quarter-acre and Hills Hoist have been replaced by,
A picture-book street with pop-up gardens, asphalt
bleached to take us down a degree or two
when summer strips and swelters. All things green,
wood sorrel, dandelion, in this urban village (20)
The speaker uses conspicuous signs of gentrification in ‘pop-up,’ ‘all things green,’ and ‘urban village’ to describe Chippendale in an era of chai lattes and food miles. But the ‘picture-book’ cheesiness of this contemporary scene is not set up for lampooning, despite the gentle teasing of ‘the soy of human kindness.’ Malouf depicts local space in a mode of planetary awareness, elevating collective belonging in this moment of transition: ‘Good citizens all// of Chippendale and a planet sore of body/and soul.’ Contemporary Chippendale functions as a chronotope, memorialising an age where civic duty seemingly rests with the earnest and playful – the poem records a time and place where the colossal task of planet saving demands colossal optimism. Although this poem inhabits a contemporary scene, it makes strong allusions to the social practice of memory building. The memory place, the imagined Chippendale of the poem, is the culmination of the labours of the collective, the poem tellingly eyeing ants ‘in their gulag conurbations’.
Earth Hour is animated precisely this pursuit – asking what lies beneath the surface of the contemporary. In ‘Blenheim Park,’ the sediment of history fills the earth, where what appears as a green idyll ‘of shade-trees, level grass, cattle grazing’ reveals an entry into a temporal loop:
In fact a battle plan
is laid out here. Thousands
of dead under the topsoil
in High Germany
stand upright still in lines as in the rising
groundfog of dawn (55)
The poem enters ‘the slow mouths/ of centuries,’ layering the time of the untroubled present against the ‘green pause’ of a battalion awaiting their Commander’s order to charge. Anchored by the same green location, this potent moment tumbles into the present as the same pause of an ‘untroubled forenoon.’ Time is presented as a palimpsest, where the present is inscribed with the violence of the past, and the past’s victims are ‘dismissed from history,’ transmuted into the natural world ‘striding tall over the lawn.’
Across this collection not only does history inscribe cartography, it breathes life into the words and attitudes of yesterday’s heroes. But beyond poems after Charles Baudelaire and Heinrich Heine, there’s also particular delight taken in the figure of the aging poet. Who is yesterday’s hero today? In ‘Footloose, a Senior Moment,’ dedicated to Chris Wallace-Crabbe approaching eighty, the text appears unmoored, adrift across the page. The broad spacing of the lines evokes on one hand the tidal glimmer of Malouf’s Bay, and on the other the layered thought-lines that are casually cast when a poet considers time’s touch:
An after-dinner sleep
a bad place to arrive at
The big enticements may be
a matter of memory but isn’t
memory the dearest
and cheapest of luxuries
and of its kind one of our rarest
The footloose present
Not to be going
anywhere soon (8)
Contrary to the singular implied by the title, the poem actually presents two footloose moments. After reifying a certain notion of the present, the speaker examines the body as time’s subject. Suggesting perhaps an impulse to render collective, rather than individual memory, the speaker takes the body, the ‘being still from toe to fingertip’ into a plural realm ‘at home in our own/skin’ (emphasis added). The subject slides into fluidity – ‘unmoored afloat the Bay’ – into a new mode of being ‘[n]either/earthbound nor even maybe/sky-bound.’ The second footloose moment occurs as the delirious consequence of this unmoored subjectivity, exploiting the potential of liminality as the subject travels as an unnamed star, far out in ‘the foggy galaxies.’
By way of conclusion, I draw attention to the fact that Earth Hour is full of musical references. There is the ‘touch of diminuendo’ in ‘Footloose, a Senior Moment,’ ‘Eine Kleine Background Music,’ in ‘An Aside on the Sublime,’ and many others throughout the collection. While never truly residing in the background, classical music is brought especially to the foreground in ‘Toccata,’ ‘Rondeau’ and ‘Toccata II.’ These titles borrow from the taxonomy of musical pieces, with ‘toccata’ quite aptly the name for a virtuoso piece usually for keyboard. Malouf exhibits his technical mastery over the internal rhythms of language, with each line of ‘Toccata’ mimicking the inverted stresses of a Bach exposition:
Out of such and such and so much bric-a-brac.
The thrill of this stylistic declaration matches the aesthetic anachronisms that fill the poem – napkin rings, taffeta, cut-glass atomisers, attic doors. These raw materials of memory are charged as ‘charms, magnetic debris’ by the rhythm of the poem, whose very physicality reminds us that the original meaning of ‘toccata,’ from the Italian ‘toccare,’ is ‘to touch.’
To touch lies at the heart of Malouf’s endeavour, where even in the more abstract poems, the flesh of experience inscribes the words that seduce us on the page. Like music, the enigmatic touch of Malouf’s poetics lodges its listener in a perpetual present, even in obscure or nostalgic moods. Throughout the collection the poet’s technical flair is beyond doubt and nearly beyond delight – the work carries both the whimsy and gravity of mortality with the radiance of a master poet. The endeavour to restore the place of memory to a mythological cast of present would not seem so urgent and compelling without Malouf’s touch recording a multitude of quiet lived experiences: a particular quality of light, the warmth of the dark, the silence after talk. Many writers of prose also write poetry, but rare are the novelists who are also major poets in their own right. It is sometimes forgotten that Malouf’s writing career began in the genre, but this collection reminds us he is a heavyweight of Australian poetry. In its ecstatic totality and stunning execution, Earth Hour is sure to be one of the finest poetry publications of 2014.
Bitto, Emily. ‘ “Our Own Way Back”: Spatial Memory in the Poetry of David Malouf.’ JASAL 8 (2008): 92-106.
Malouf, David. ‘A Writing Life: The 2000 Neustadt Lecture.’ World Literature Today 74.4 (2002): 701-705.
Malouf’s ‘Bay poems’ are the works which over decades continue to focus on the region that encompasses Moreton Bay and especially Deception Bay.
DR LUCY VAN teaches at the University of Melbourne. She is a freelance reviewer.
Merlinda Bobis is an acclaimed Filipino-Australian writer and performer who has published in three languages. Her novels, short story and poetry collections, and plays have received various awards, including the Prix Italia, the Steele Rudd Award for the Best Published Collection of Australian Short Stories, the Australian Writers’ Guild Award, the Ian Reed Radio Drama Prize, and three national awards in the Philippines: the Carlos Palanca Literary Award, the Balagtas Award, and the Philippine National Book Award. She has been short-listed for ‘The Age’ Poetry Book Award and the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. Bobis has performed in Australia, Philippines, US, Spain, France, and China. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong. Her most recent publication is the novel Fish-Hair Woman. About the creative process, she says: ‘Writing visits like grace. Its greatest gift is the comfort if not the joy of transformation. In an inspired moment, we almost believe that anguish can be made bearable and injustice can be overturned, because they can be named. And if we’re lucky, joy can even be multiplied a hundredfold, so we may have reserves in the cupboard for the lean times.’
Minsan Minsan Sometimes
dusong kasinkinis sakit na singkinis grief as smooth
kan gapo ng bato as stone
dusong minagatok sakit na sumasambulat grief that shatters
na sanribong tataramon na sanlaksang salitang into a thousand words
na nawaran nin nguso walang bibig without mouth
-from Pag-uli, Pag-uwi, Homecoming. Poetry in Three Tongues (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, Manila
The widow watches the morning news as she sorts the boxes: what will be used for the case, what will be kept, what will be given away. Last night, she packed all her husband’s possessions — mostly files, papers and more papers, and only two boxes of clothes. Her Jimmy never cared about what he wore. His colours clashed; he thought darning socks was a waste of time. He cared only about his stories and the arguments that went on forever in his head. She could hear him thinking while they made love. Once he mumbled something about an extra-judicial killing, perhaps a line for a story. It infuriated her. His sense of justice was more ardent than his desire. She pushed him away and he murmured, ‘How can I love you if I don’t love what makes us human?’
The news plays again the clip of the mother screaming as she’s wrenched away from her boy.
What makes us human? That mother’s despair, its resonance in my gut. The widow hears herself answering the dead.
The news confirms that the boy was there when her husband was shot. So was an older boy, a street kid, who hasn’t been found, not yet, but they’ve identified him now.
Again and again her hands sweep back her hair, and her eyes gather the room. What makes us human — can she ever sweep this back into place?
The boys sold lanterns together. The mute boy sold her husband a lantern just before the shooting. Was this, in fact, a sign for the assassin? In the boy’s hut, they found blood on his lanterns, possibly the American’s. The investigation continues.
She sighs at the screen. That we can fabricate stories is what makes us human and keeps us at the top of the food chain.
Again the speculation about a terrorist cult, but less incredulous than in last night’s broadcast. And if indeed this cult exists, what happens to the allegations against Senator GB? There’s a quick clip of the senator having breakfast with his family. He pours his daughter a glass of milk, he kisses his young wife.
What makes us human? The widow feels sick to her stomach. She wants to argue with the dead.
—from The Solemn Lantern Maker (Murdoch Books Australia, 2008) (Delta, Random USA, 2009)
Driving to Katoomba
Today, you span the far mountains
with an arm and say,
‘This I offer you —
all this blue sweat
Then you teach me
how to startle kookaburras
in my throat
and point out orion
among the glowworms.
I, too, can love you
in my dialect, you know,
punctuated with cicadas
and their eternal afternoons:
‘Mahal kita, mahal kita.’
I can even save you monsoons,
to wash your hair with.
And for want of pearls,
I can string you the whitest seeds
of green papayas
then hope that, wrist to wrist,
we might believe again
the single rhythm passing
even when pearls
become the glazed-white eyes
of a Bosnian child
caught in the cross-fire
or when monsoons cannot wash
the trigger-finger clean
in East Timor
and when Tibetans
wrap their dialect
around them like a robe
lest orion grazes them
from a muzzle.
Yes, even when among the Sinhalese
the birds mistake the throat
for a tomb
as gunsmoke lifts
from the Tamil mountains,
my tongue will still unpetrify
‘Mahal kita, mahal kita.’
—from Was A Fast Train Without Terminals (Spinifex Press, North Melbourne)
how easily a speck of bird
shatters the evenness of skies —
she peers, stunned, from cell 22
that such dumb minuteness
can shake the earth.
—from Rituals (Poetry collection). Life Today, Manila, 1990
Lengua para diablo
(The devil ate my words)
I suspected that my father sold his tongue to the devil. He had little say in our house. Whenever he felt like disagreeing with my mother, he murmured, ‘The devil ate my words.’ This meant he forgot what he was about to say and Mother was often appeased. There was more need for appeasement after he lost his job.
The devil ate his words, the devil ate his capacity for words, the devil ate his tongue. But perhaps only after prior negotiation with its owner, what with Mother always complaining, ‘I’m already taking a peek at hell!’ when it got too hot and stuffy in our tiny house. She seemed to sweat more that summer, and miserably. She made it sound like Father’s fault, so he cajoled her with kisses and promises of an electric fan, bigger windows, a bigger house, but she pushed him away, saying, ‘Get off me, I’m hot, ay, this hellish life!’ Again he was ready to pledge relief, but something in my mother’s eyes made him mutter only the usual excuse, ‘The devil ate my words,’ before he shut his mouth. Then he ran to the tap to get her more water.
Lengua para diablo: tongue for the devil. Surely he sold his tongue in exchange for those promises to my mother: comfort, a full stomach, life without our wretched want . . . But the devil never delivered his side of the bargain. The devil was alien to want. He lived in a Spanish house and owned several stores in the city. This Spanish mestizo was my father’s employer, but only for a very short while. He sacked him and our neighbour Tiyo Anding, also a mason, after he found a cheaper hand for the extension of his house.
We never knew the devil’s name. Father was incapable of speaking it, more so after he came home and sat in the darkest corner of the house, and stared at his hands. It took him two days of silent staring before he told my mother about his fate.
I wondered how the devil ate my father’s tongue. Perhaps he cooked it in mushroom sauce, in that special Spanish way that they do ox tongue. First, it was scrupulously cleaned, rubbed with salt and vinegar, blanched in boiling water, then scraped of its white coating — now, imagine words scraped off the tongue, and even taste, our capacity for pleasure. In all those two days of silent staring, Father hardly ate. He said he had lost his taste for food, he was not hungry. Junior and Nilo were more than happy to demolish his share of gruel with fish sauce.
Now after the thorough clean, the tongue was pricked with a fork to allow the flavours of all the spices and condiments to penetrate the flesh. Then it was browned in olive oil. How I wished we could prick my father’s tongue back to speech and even hunger, but of course we couldn’t, because it had disappeared. It had been served on the devil’s platter with garlic, onion, tomatoes, bay leaf, clove, peppercorns, soy sauce, even sherry, butter, and grated edam cheese, with that aroma of something rich and foreign.
His silent tongue was already luxuriating in a multitude of essences, pampered into a piquant delight.
Perhaps, next he should sell his oesophagus, then his stomach. I would if I had the chance to be that pampered. To know for once what I would never taste. I would be soaked, steamed, sautéed, basted, baked, boiled, fried and feted with only the perfect seasonings. I would become an epicure. On a rich man’s plate, I would be initiated to flavours of only the finest quality. In his stomach, I would be inducted to secrets. I would be ‘the inside girl’, and I could tell you the true nature of sated affluence.
—Banana Heart Summer (Murdoch Books, 2005) ( Random USA, 2009) (Anvil Manila, 2005)
after you bomb my town
I’ll take you fishing
or kite-flying or both
no, it won’t hurt anymore
as strand by strand, we pluck
the hair of all our women
to weave the needed string —
oh isn’t this a lovely thing?
now hurl it upwards, mister
and fish that missing
arm-kite of my mother
leg-kite of my father
head-kite of my sister
perhaps, they’ll ripple
the blue above your head
perhaps, they’ll bite just right
to grace your board and bed
arm-kite of my mother …
from wrist to halfway
above the elbow curved
as if still holding me,
has no inkling
of its loneliness
when was it orphaned
from its hand that once
completed an embrace
and from the rest of it
before it flew
leg-kite of my father …
it is my father
this knee, calf and half a foot
carved to new design
here, a muscle curlicued
there, a tendon filigreed
almost to perfection
but let me tell you, mister
the butcher at the market
does better art than this
head-kite of my sister …
not that she’s rude
forgive her, sir
my sister just can’t help herself
she has fallen
in love with staring
head-kites are hopeless like that
but they make up for it — see, where the neck
is severed, it is red and blue,
patriotic colours no less
like where you pin your medals on
arm-kite of my mother
leg-kite of my father
head-kite of my sister
rippling the blue
kite and fish or both
but always game
like the greener island to your south
that needs defending
or the white dove roosting
on that scrap of metal
with which you prop
your chin, so it could tilt
at the right angle of honour
how it gleams like hope
streamlined as only metal could be
in the hour of kites
‘Itsy-bitsy Spider’: the tune of ‘arm-kite of my mother … ‘
—Pag-uli, Pag-uwi, Homecoming. Poetry in Three Tongues (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, Manila, 2004) Covenant was adapted by Bobis into a poetic sound drama produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC Radio): National broadcast, 2002-2009.
from Chapter 19
They say I died when I was five years old and Pilar had a change of heart, as if all its little corners had refurbished themselves. Oh, how I wish I had stayed dead. I could have dreamt up life as a perfect coffee grove. But I came back to life, Tony, to dream warily on the page instead. These days, after the act of dreaming a different fate, I always look behind my shoulder at the reader who might tell me what I shouldn’t have written or what I failed to write, or what I so inadequately conjured. Wrong dream, wrong dream, you might say as you push back this page as if it were coffee.
Imagine acres of prime coffee shrubs with heroes and villains brewing together a coffee-and-World-Vision ad — how can I get it wrong? But I can, we all can, even if I try to retell the coffee grove out of its history. That coffee farm was fifty paces away from the stream where I nearly killed Sergeant Ramon on that night of fireflies.
Inside me he wilted as the noose of hair tightened around his neck. All lust arrested, all cum recalled as the distended flesh shrivelled — the reflex withdrawal of a dying snail, one without a shell, one so terrified that there was nothing to shrink into but itself. Then his men arrived, eager to take me to the coffee grove before we head for the river.
But what if I depart from the blood trail? As storyteller I could confuse the soldiers in a new tale. What if I walk them to an unfamiliar coffee grove instead, where they would be welcomed by this query: Kapeng mahamoton o tsokolateng mapoloton? Very fragrant coffee or very thick chocolate? Each man would be freed from his rifle and handed a cup of his choice. The trigger finger would curl around the tin handle, warm and curved like a wife’s languid mood at breakfast after a night of love in another time. But Ramon’s men were lifetimes away from my imagined idyll when they caught up with us. They arrived in the stream where their sergeant was struggling between coming and dying, his neck bound by my hair.
‘Let go!’ The taller man shoved his rifle at my brow.
I dropped the noose.
‘You okay, Sarge?’
Sarge was gasping for air.
The other soldier yanked at my hair, yelling, ‘Putita!’ He knew where to hurt most.
Waves of memory tearing from scalp to toe and spanning the stream, then weaving on, fifty paces away. Putita! Little whore. I heard this before, spoken in hushed tones. I was there when they found the naked body of the church singer Manay Sabel in the coffee grove.
Soldier logic: because she fed and fucked the enemy. Comrade Sabel collected compulsory taxes from the village. She had advanced in social station, a far cry from the time when she hid pork crackling in her pocket. The communist rebels had appointed her to ‘oversee’ the farms in Iraya; a percentage of their produce must be paid to the people’s cause. It was even rumoured that she was the mistress of one of the cadres. So among the coffee shrubs, a spray of bullets three months before the harvest. And the berries crimsoned overnight.
But in my own coffee grove, she will be standing behind a hand-mill instead, alive and innocent and with no pork-crackling scent in her pocket, grinding coffee with Mamay Dulce. Together they will welcome the soldiers with very fragrant coffee or very thick chocolate. And the men will be embarrassed about their rifles, and their embarrassment will cloud memory. Why had they come to Iraya? No, not to purge it. Just passing by, Manay Sabel. They will utter the usual greeting of a stranger to the homes of the seen and unseen. ‘Please, may we pass.’ We called this out not only to the homes of the living, but also to the haunts of the spirits: a mound of earth, a wooded spot, a river. Or a distant land?
Please, dear reader, may we pass — let my memories pass through this page, through your eyes that have seen safer coffee groves. Tony, once you told a story about the coffee street back in Sydney, where friends and lovers gathered over a variety of cups at any time of the day.
‘You not work, Mister Tony?’ Pay Inyo, the village gravedigger and storekeeper, was impressed.
Tony almost laughed.
‘Tell me, please, Mister Tony, tell me about many coffees.’
‘Espresso, caffe latte, cappuccino; thick chocolate too. And tea, various kinds.’ And his tongue remembered.
‘You speak delicious, truly-truly.’ The old man revelled in this dream of beverages, the lilt of strange syllables. ‘Say again, please,’ he urged, hanging on to each word of his favourite white man. ‘Say again so I taste your home, Mister Tony. Only rice coffee in Iraya, see. Or instant from my store, cheapy-cheap. Very fragrant coffee and very thick chocolate? For fiestas and long talks with special-est guests only. But now, no more, no more,’ he apologised, holding out his empty palms.
Very fragrant. English words that Pay Inyo learned from his guest. Like very foul: for later, for the smell of the dead.
Ah, the missed fragrance of coffee. Because there was no time for picking the berries, none for drying them in the sun or toasting the magic seeds, and the hand-mills were rusting with disuse. Time was for survival, for staying small, invisible before the eye of the gun.
‘Up, you little whore.’
The M-16 dug at my temple.
The other soldier grabbed my hands as I rose, trying to cover myself. He leered at my nakedness, giggling about our new destination. ‘The coffee grove is just around the corner, putita.’
They took important women there.
‘No!’ Ramon snapped between lungfuls of air. ‘Not there!’ he said, barely getting the words out. I could see the marks of my hair around his neck.
‘But we’re all in this together, aren’t we, Sarge?’
The blow was quick and sure, even from a half-strangled man. He buckled over. Then Sergeant Ramon asked, ‘Am I not as chivalrous as your white knight?’ passing a proprietorial hand between my legs. I gagged, my tongue thick with despair and self-loathing. I heard him whisper, ‘They could take you there now, but I won’t let them. We’re going to the river — then we can finish the business, can’t we?’
No, we cannot — my own business of rewriting the coffee grove is about stalling for time, hoping it could trick memory. So let me weave an alternative tale about us nice folks brewing this exotic spot with coffee cups on our heads and dancing up a fiesta. A postcard shot if you wish, Tony, so you can quell your shudder with a longing sigh for this village in the East.
Beloved, we will save you in the coffee grove. Here you will feel forgiven with a simple gesture of welcome: Iraya handing you a cup and sitting you down with kindness. My whole village will be in attendance, rapt in the ritual of making very fragrant coffee and very thick chocolate. The soldiers will exercise their gun-weary arms at the hand-mill and they’ll whirr like a swarm of cicadas, promising only the best brew. Then Ramon will arrive in his bicycle with two huge cans of pan de sal, pan de coco and pan graciosa: our welcome breads of salt, of coconut, and gracefulness. And you will break bread with him, for in my new story Ramon was never a soldier, he never held a gun, and he pouted only when the village kids tricked him of an extra piece of pan de sal when he wasn’t looking. And like yours, Tony, his eyes will be clear, oh so clear, they will mirror all the colours of Iraya.
The scene will be picture-perfect: the ‘laid back peace’ of your own home, Australia, will displace our state of war. The river will always be sweet and tasting only of the hills. My village will drink only of sweetness and never know terror or grief or rage in their mouths, and they will sleep soundly in the night, like you. Oh yes, we can conspire. I will not find you in the water, my love. I will not find anyone. I will not even have to be born. Don’t you wish this sometimes? Stripped of its melodramatic timbre, this is plain heart-talk but with such anguish, one is surprised the breast does not cave in: I wish I was never born. Never the hairless child, never the angel of dead bodies, never the village freak turned village icon. I just have to say this incantation. I just have to tell another story. And all will be saved.
But can words ever rewrite a landscape? Can the berries suddenly uncrimson with talk? Can bullets be swallowed back by the gun? Can hearts unbreak, because for a moment its ventricles are confused at the sight of a refurbished coffee grove, besieged by peace and domesticity?
I can dive a hundred times into the river, fish out this or that beloved and tenderly wrap a body with my hair, then croon to it in futile language such as this, but when I lay the dead at the feet of kin and lovers, their grief will just shame my attempt to save it from dumbness. Listen to the mute eloquence that trails all losses, the undeclaimed umbrage at having been had by life. This is a silence no one can ever write and least of all rewrite.
—Bobis, M. Fish-Hair Woman (Novel). Spinifex, 2012: 55-58. Adapted and performed by Bobis for radio (ABC, 2007) and stage (Spain, US, 2009).
Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969 and moved to the United States when she was twelve. She is the author of two novels, two collections of stories, two books for young adults, and two nonfiction books, one of which, Brother, I’m Dying, was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography. In 2009, she received a MacArthur Fellowship. Her most recent collection of essays is Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist At Work. She is the editor for Haiti Noir.
from Brother, I’m Dying
Listening to my father, I remembered a time when I used to dream of smuggling him words. I was eight years old and Bob and I were living in Haiti with his oldest brother, my uncle Joseph, and his wife. And since they didn’t have a telephone at home—few Haitian families did then—and access to the call centres was costly, we had no choice but to write letters. Every other month, my father would mail a half-page, three-paragraph missive addressed to my uncle. Scribbled in his miniscule scrawl, sometimes on plain white paper, other times on lined, hole-punched notebook pages still showing bits of fringe from the spiral binding, my father’s letters were composed in stilted French, with the first paragraph offering news of his and my mother’s health, the second detailing how to spend the money they had wired for food, lodging and school expenses for Bob and myself, the third section concluding abruptly after reassuring us that we’d be hearing from him again before long.
Later I would discover in a first-year college composition class that his letters had been written in a diamond sequence, the Aristotelian Poetics of correspondence, requiring an opening greeting, a middle detail or request, and a brief farewell at the end. The letter-writing process had been such an agonising chore for my father, one that he’d hurried through while assembling our survival money, that this specific epistolary formula, which he followed unconsciously, had offered him a comforting way of disciplining his emotions.
“I was no writer,” he later told me. “What I wanted to tell you and your brother was too big for any piece of paper and a small envelope.”
Whatever restraint my father showed in his letters was easily compensated for by Uncle Joseph’s reactions to them. First there was the public reading in my uncle’s sparsely furnished pink living room, in front of Tante Denise, Bob and me. This was done so there would be no misunderstanding as to how the money my parents sent for me and my brother would be spent. Usually my uncle would read the letters out loud, pausing now and then to ask my help with my father’s penmanship, a kindness, I thought; a way to include me a step further. It soon became obvious, however, that my father’s handwriting was a as clear to me as my own, so I eventually acquired the job of deciphering his letters.
Along with this task came a few minutes of preparation for the reading and thus a few intimate moments with my father’s letters, not only the words and phrases, which did not vary greatly from month to month, but the vowels and syllables, their tilts and slants, which did. Because he wrote so little, I would try to guess his thoughts and moods from the dotting of his i’s and the crossing of his t’s, from whether there were actual periods at the ends of his sentences or just faint dots where the tip of his pen had simply landed. Did commas split his streamlined phrases, or were they staccato, like someone speaking too rapidly, out of breath?
For the family readings, I recited my father’s letters in a monotone, honouring what I interpreted as a secret between us, that the impersonal style of his letters was due as much to his lack of faith in words and their ability to accurately reproduce his emotions as to his caution with Bob’s and my feelings, avoiding too-happy news that might add to the anguish of separation, too-sad news that might worry us, and any hint of judgement or disapproval for my aunt and uncle, which they could have interpreted as suggestions that they were mistreating us. The dispassionate letters were his way of avoiding a minefield, one he could have set off from a distance without being able to comfort the victims.
Given all this anxiety, I’m amazed my father wrote at all. The regularity, the consistency of his correspondence now feels like an act of valor. In contrast, my replies, though less routine—Uncle Joseph did most of the writing—were both painstakingly upbeat and suppliant. In my letters, I bragged about my good grades and requested, as a reward for them, an American doll at Christmas, a typewriter or sewing machine for my birthday, a pair of “real” gold earrings for Easter. But the things I truly wanted I was afraid to ask for, like when I would finally see him and my mother again. However, since my uncle read and corrected all my letters for faulty grammar and spelling, I wrote for his eyes more than my father’s, hoping that even after the vigorous editing, my father would still decode the longing in my childish cursive slopes and arches, which were so much like his own.
The words that both my father and I wanted to exchange we never did. These letters were not approved, in his case by him, in my case by my uncle. No matter what the reason, we have always been equally paralysed by the fear of breaking each other’s heart. This is why I could never ask the question Bob did. I also could never tell my father that I’d learned from the doctor that he was dying. Even when they mattered less, there were things he and I were too afraid to say.
A few days after the family meeting, my father called my uncle Joseph in Haiti, to see how he was doing. It was Thursday, July 15, 2004, the fifty-first birthday of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s twice-elected and twice-deposed president. Having been removed from power in February 2004 through a joint political action by France, Canada and the United States, Aristide was now spending his birthday in exile in South Africa. However, the residents of Bel Air, the neighbourhood where I grew up and where my uncle Joseph still lived, had not forgotten him. Joining other Aristide supporters, they’d marched, nearly three thousand of them, through the Haitian capital to call for his return. The march had been mostly peaceful, except that, according to the television news reports that my father and I had watched together that evening, two policemen had been shot. My father called my uncle, just as he always did whenever something like this was happening in Haiti. He was sitting up in bed, his head propped on two firm pillows, his face angled toward the bedroom window, which allowed him a slanted view of a neighbourhood street lamp.
“Are you sure he’s sleeping?” my father asked whoever had answered the phone at my uncle’s house in Bel Air.
My father cupped the phone with one hand, pushed his face toward me and whispered “Maxo.”
I gathered he was talking to Uncle Joseph’s son, Maxo, who had left Haiti in the early 1970’s to attend college in New York, then had returned in 1995. Though I had spent most of my childhood with Maxo’s son Nick, I did not know Maxo as well.
“Don’t you think it’s time your father moved out of Bel Air?” my father asked Maxo.
As he hung up, he seemed disappointed that he hadn’t been able to speak to Uncle Joseph. Over the years, this had been a touchy subject between my father and uncle: my father wanting my uncle to move to another part, any other part, of Haiti and my uncle refusing to even consider it. I now imagined my father longing to tell his brother to leave Bel Air, but this time not for the reasons he usually offered—the constant demonstrations, the police raids and gang wars that caused him to constantly worry—but because my father was dying and he wanted his oldest brother to be safe.
I write these things now, some as I witnessed them and today remember them, others from official documents, as well as the borrowed recollections of family members. But the gist of them was told to me over the years, in part by my uncle Joseph, in part by my father. Some were told offhand, quickly. Others, in greater detail. What I learned from my father and uncle, I learned out of sequence and in fragments. This is an attempt at cohesiveness, and at re-creating a few wondrous and terrible months when their lives and mine intersected in startling ways, forcing me to look forward and back at the same time. I am writing this only because they can’t.
—- Citation: Brother, I’m Dying, Scribe Publications, copyright 2007, page 21-26
from Create Dangerously:The Immigrant Artist At Work
Twenty-three days after the earthquake, my first trip to Haiti is brief, too brief. A friend finds a last-minute cancellation on a relief plane. Another agrees to help my husband look after our young girls in Miami.
I arrive in Port-au-Prince at an airport with cracked walls and broken windows. The fields around the runway are packed with American military helicopters and planes. Past a card table manned by three Haitian immigration officers, a group of young American soldiers idle, cradling what seem like machine guns. Through an arrangement between the Haitian and the U.S. governments, the American military as leader in the relief effort, has taken over Toussaint L’Ouverture Airport.
Outside the airport, my friend Jhon Charles, a painter, and my husband’s uncle, whom we call Tonton Jean, are waiting for me. A small man, Tonton Jean still cuts a striking figure with the dark motorcycle helmet he wears everywhere now to protect himself from falling debris. Jhon and Tonton Jean are standing behind a barricade near where the Americans have set up a Customs and Border Protection operation at the airport.
Whose borders are they protecting? I wonder. I soon get my answer. People with Haitian passports are not being allowed to enter the airport.
Maxo’s oldest son, Nick, who now lives in Canada, is also in Haiti. He arrived a few days before I did to pay his respects and see what he could do for his brothers and sisters, who had been pulled, some of them wounded, from the rubble of the family house in Bel Air. When I arrive in Port-au-Prince, Nick is at the General Hospital with two of his siblings, getting them follow-up care.
One of the boys, thirteen-year-old Maxime, has already lost a toe to gangrene. Nick was told that his eight-year-old-sister, Monica, might need to have her foot amputated, but the American doctors who are taking care of her in a tent clinic in the yard of Port-au-Prince’s main hospital think that they may be able to save her foot. This makes Monica luckier than a lot of other people I see hobbling on crutches all over Port-au-Prince, their newly amputated limbs covered bys shirt or blouse sleeves or pant legs carefully folded and pinned with large safety pins.
I am heading to the hospital to see Nick and the children when I get my first view of the areas surrounding my old neighbourhood. Every other structure, it seems, is completely or partially destroyed. The school I attended as a girl is no more. The national cathedral, where my entire school was brought to attend mass every Friday, has collapsed. The house of the young teacher who tutored me when I fell behind in school has caved in, with most of her family members inside. The Lycée Petion, where generations of Haitian men had been educated, is gone. The Centre d’Art, which had nurtured thousands of Haitian artists, is barely standing. The Sainte-Trinité Church, where a group of famous Haitian artists had painted a stunning series of murals depicting the life of Christ, has crumbled, leaving only a section of lacerated wall, where a wounded Christ seems to be ascending toward an open sky. Grand Rue, downtown Port-au-Prince’s main thoroughfare, looks as though it had been bombed for several consecutive days. Standing in the middle of it reminds me of film I had seen of a destroyed Hiroshima. With its gorgeous white domes either tipped over or caved in, the national palace is the biggest symbol of the Haitian government’s monumental loss of human and structural capital. Around the national palace has sprung up a massive tent city, filled with a patchwork of makeshift tents, actual tents, and semipermanent-looking corrugated tin structures, identical to those in dozens of other refugee camps all over the capital. The statues and monuments of the unknown maroon, a symbol of Haiti’s freedom from slavery, of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Henri Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and even a more recent massive globelike sculpture commissioned by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to commemorate Haiti’s bicentennial in 2004—these monuments and symbols around the national palace are still standing; however, their platforms now serve as perches from which people bathe and children play.
Outside the nursing and midwifery schools near the General Hospital are piles of human remains freshly pulled from the rubble. Dense rings of flies surround them. The remains are stuck together in two large balls. I wonder out loud whether all these nursing and midwifery students had been embracing one another when the ceiling collapsed on top of them, their arms and legs crisscrossed and intertwined. My friend Jhon Charles corrects me.
“These are all body parts,” he says, “legs and arms that were pulled out the rubble and placed on the side of the road, where they dried further and melded together.” Sticking to several of the flesh-depleted legs are pieces of yellowed cloth-skirts, I realize, which many of the women must have been wearing.
Across the street from the remains, people line up to watch. One woman pleads with the crowd to repent. “Call on Jesus! He is all we have left.”
“We are nothing,” another man says, while holding a rag up against his nose. “Look at this, we are nothing.”
Jhon is a lively thirty-four-year old who under normal circumstances has an easy laugh. He has been drawing and painting since he was a boy, using up leftover materials from his artist father. Later he attended Haiti’s National School of the Arts, and has been painting and teaching art in secondary schools since he graduated. Even though he is at the beginning of his career, he has already participated in group shows in Port-au-Prince, New York, Miami, and Caracas, Venezuela. Jhon grew up in Carrefour, where Tonton Jean also lives. The epicenter of the earthquake was near Carrefour. A week after the earthquake, my husband and I were still trying to locate Jean and Tonton Jean. Their cell phones were not working and, besides, they were both very busy. Tonton Jean was pulling people out of the rubble and Jhon was teaching the traumatized children in the tent city near his house to draw.
In the tent clinic at the general hospital, I find Maxo’s son Maxime, sleeping on a bench near where Maxime’s sister Monica is attached to an antibiotic drip. All around Monica, wounded adults and children lie on their sides or backs on military cots. Most of the adults have vacant stares, while the children look around half-curious, examining each new person who walks in. I try to imagine what it must have been like in this tent and others like it during those first days after the earthquake, when, Tonton Jean tells me, people were showing up at the little clinic across the street from his house in Carrefour, without noses and ears or arms and legs.
In the tent clinic I say hello to Monica. She looks up at me and blinks but otherwise does not react. Her eyes are dimmed and it appears that she may still be in shock. To watch your house and neighbourhood, your city crumble, then to watch your father die, and then nearly to die yourself, all before your tenth birthday, seems like an insurmountable obstacle for any child.
Even before this tragedy, Monica was a shy girl. When I saw here during my visits to Haiti, she would speak to me only when she was told what to say. The same was true when I spoke to her on the phone. Now in the tent clinic, I gave her in the middle of her head, where her hair has been shaved in an uneven line to place a bandage where a piece of cement had split open her scalp.
Before I leave the tent hospital, the blonde young American doctor who is taking care of Monica gives her a yellow smiley-face sticker.
“She’s my brave little soldier,” the doctor says.
I thank her in English.
“You speak English very well,” she says, before moving to the severely dehydrated baby in the next cot.
My next family stop is in Delmas, to see my Tante Zi. Though it had not collapsed, her house, perched on a hill above a busy street, is too cracked to be habitable, so she is staying in a large tent city in an open field nearby. We had talked often after the earthquake, and her biggest fear was of being caught out there in the rain. I had pleaded with her to go to La Plaine, where we had other family members, but she did not want to leave her damaged house, fearing that it might be vandalized or razed while she was gone.
When I reach Tante Zi’s house, some of the family members from La Plaine, including NC, are there too. We are too afraid to go inside the house, so we all gather on the sidewalk out front, which is lined with tents and improvised showers. It astounds me how much more of Haitian life now takes place outside, the most intimate interactions casually unfolding before our eyes: a girl sitting between her boyfriend’s legs on a car hood, a woman bathing her elderly mother with a bowl and a bucket. These are things we might have seen before, but now they are reproduced in some variation in front of dozens of shattered or nearly shattered houses on almost every street.
I hug NC and Tante Zi and six of my other cousins and four of their children. They tell me about the others. The cousin with the broken back may possibly be airlifted out of the country. The others from La Plaine were still sleeping outside their house but through a contract in Port-au-Prince they had gotten some water. Everyone had received the money the family had put together and wired them for food. Through all this, we hold and cradle one another, and while I hand them the tents and tarp they had requested, I start repeating something I hear Tonton Jean say each time he runs into a friend.
“I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad bagay la-the thing-left you alive so I can see you.”
Bagay la, this thing that different people are calling different things, this thing that at that moment has no official name. This thing that my musician/hotelier friend Richard Morse calls Samson on his Twitter updates that Tonton Jean now and then calls Ti Roro, that Jhon calls Ti Rasta, that a few people calling in to a radio program are calling Goudougoudou.
“I am glad Goudougoudou left you alive so I can see you,” I say.
They laugh and their laughter fills me with more hope than the moment deserves. But this is really all I have come for. I have come to embrace them, the living, and I have come to honour the dead.
They show me their scrapes and bruises and I hug them some more, until my body aches. I take pictures for the rest of the family. I know everyone will be astounded by how well they look, how beautiful and well put together in their impeccable clothes. I love them so much. I am so proud of them. Still I ask myself how long they can live the way they are living, out in the open, waiting.
Two of them have tourist visas to Canada and the United States, but they stay because they cannot leave the others, who are mostly children. NC does not have a visa. She wants a student visa, to continue her accounting studies abroad. She hands me a manila envelope filled with documents, her birth certificate, her report cards, her school papers. She gives them to me for safekeeping, but also so I can see what I can do to get her out of the country.
NC, like many of my family members in Haiti, has always overestimated my ability to do things like this, to get people out of bad situations. I hope at that moment that she is right. I hope I can help. I have sometimes succeeded in helping, but mostly I have failed. Case in point: my elderly uncle died trying to enter the United States. I could not save him.
Citation: From the essay, ‘Our Guernica,’ which first appeared in Create Dangerously, Princeton University Press copyright 2010, pp. 162-169
joanne burns is a Sydney poet. She has had many prose poems published, and is represented in The Indigo Book of Australian Prose Poems, Ginninderra Press 2011. Her most recent book is amphora, Giramondo Publishing 2011. She is working on a new poetry collection brush.
so you puff down the boulevarde
huffy and patriotic as the global
village idiot waving its torch
towards zeus your personal best,
o his koala eyes; you can piss
in your lycra if you really have
to, this being the chumpy age
of the celebrity sweatshirt
there’s no way you’ll be
issued a permit for
that chandelier hair of
yours to chill out in
this athlete free zone,
no tent on this phantom
beach is to be tampered
with we are already
somnambulists waiting for
the ufo charter to come
lurching through the waves
postcards from lounge lizard isle
interior decoration runs through her fingertips
like a frisson through a thigh, the way a design
concept flows through the whole envelope of an
apartment, loft style, art deco, or harbourside
highrise, the way lift out self enhancement runs
through the glossy print of a lifestyle magazine;
i can even source the cushions for you she enthuses,
like a soft toy research assistant or an iced vovo
on a tv tray, can transform that tacky 50s 60s
70s rented fibro summer holiday into a sheik’s tent
(say, araby), or a jilly in the cotswold theme
with a little bolt of pretty fabric: titania’s
(make that caliban’s) neo muslin chintzy dream
wind in the willows
a soft time we had of it,
kippers and grilled tomatoes for
breakfast on fine willow patterned
plate, the sheffield rack with its
slices of crisp golden toast lined up
like loyal gurkhas, the silver
service tea vigorous and hot
in delicate bone china cups,
shimmering like wishing wells,
thick cut marmalade with its
royal seal of approval, the
newspapers, like visors or bedouin
tents to camouflage our faces – a
soft time we had of it; and ever faithful
rover to tease with the leather slipper game
if the news of the day was too tough; but now
the opium wars are just another perfume
marketing ploy like the south sea bubble
jacuzzi kit – no after dinner port in
the library picaresques; our cigarette
cases, sterling silver and gold carat plated,
with their faded monograms like gasping elegies
lie vacant, at the bottom of the south
(These poems are from footnotes of a hammock, Five Islands Press, 2003)
it waits on the street in front of the building. you feel its presence mostly when you arrive home rather than when you leave, where, as you step out onto the street a firm mechanism impels you forwards across the intersection and up the hill into the brisk diurnal stream. sometimes it clearly opposes you when you return and try to step inside the front door – it holds you there on the threshold, your finger fiddling on a lip as if you are trying to remember an ancient password, the answer to some elusive riddle, a hereditary code. you pause and turn around but there is nothing behind you nothing in front of you but a glass door decorated with the frosted nomenclature of ‘clairvaux’, a screwed up ball of junk mail spilling out from behind the left column of the portico, and a fine fracture in the worn marble top step. you stand and wait for the air’s temper to shift a little, to offer you some internal passage. today the door is suddenly opened from the inside by the rush of a tennis player in white fresh as a new movie, off to a twilight game. you proceed up the stairs carrying it with you. behind an ear.
perspex at noon
a tiny lull in the conversation
sorrow slips in camouflaged
after all the gossip anecdotal smudges:
celebrity bullfighters chocolate
frogs people who prefer to block
out the world with a pea in an
ear or two the quality of her
pesto sauce an absence of
cravats in harrods (didn’t
dodi wear the last
one in the tunnel of love);
no one says a word about
the recently departed there are
no vacant chairs alfresco the
idea of a walk along the beach
collapses as they pack up
the credit cards the table
lingers in the narrow air
(These poems are from an illustrated history of dairies, Giramondo, 2007)
inside the hermetic bulb
how easily it opens to
the blade, that sharp
sweet sting, mouth and
veins ring with the wash
of mercurial juice from
sheening onion flesh; it
sustained the builders of
the pyramids greek athletes
knew it lightened the balance
of the blood its shapes echoed
eternal life so the egyptians understood:
the onion’s ancient history; but try to
get it in a third millennium sandwich
in a sydney cafe they look at you as if
you’re mad as if they are afraid of it and
anyhow the customers don’t want it; they’d
rather put coffee in a sandwich [toasted turkish]
or even nicorettes, why is onion getting such bad
raps; how the children of israel mourned the loss
of the onion when moses first led them into the
wilderness, just cakes of manna for dinner didn’t
please them then soft mineral and vegetable
crunch into its pristine flesh sip on the exclamation
of its juice this ichor of the gods the mind sprints
alert as an archetype: the music of the onion
as available as breath
it’s always seemed a marshmallow word
‘poppet’ a kind of sloppy kiss word, sounding
alert but soft in affect: ‘my little poppet’; those
plastic beads of the fifties & sixties teenage girls could
make up their own necklaces and bracelets from
poppets, one bead’s round pin fitting into the next
one’s hole a sublimated copulation chain proteins have
been described as a chain of amino acids strung
together like poppet beads and the comic novelist
who commented on the popularity of his lectures on tess
of the d’urbervilles to undergraduates at sydney university
in the sixties said in an interview that in his youth he packed
poppet beads for his family’s business, thirty poppets a necklace;
wikipedia informs that poppet dolls are fertility symbols and
can be made of fruit, corn shafts, potato, that poppet dolls can
be used for ‘magick’; poppets also feature in the lexicon of ships
and lathes, the technology of objects not the craft of demonology;
in arthur miller’s crucible a poppet doll with a needle stuck
in its belly is discovered in the home of elizabeth proctor
after abigail is found screaming with a needle in her guts
screaming loud enough to make a bull weep says cheever
– was it rosary beads that lizzy proctor the good puritan needed
in the aftermath she certainly got shafted, ring a ring a rosey a
pocketful of posey, can poppets make good rosary beads may
the polysemic flower
i clipped on my custom made horse
and trotted up the south head road
like a casual centaur in search of a
moment, the lighthouse looked
too much like a brochure there on the cliff
with its white picket fence, and then the old house,
front to the ocean, back to the harbour, its
rumsmuggler history flaring the nostrils, a ninety year
old woman in the sandstone basement, damp and ancestral,
with her cockatoo general on too long a chain, watch
out for your toes; i clip-clop up to the rooms
of her nephew who believed in good fortune in a walnut
shell, i went to his ‘first night of television in australia’ party he
wrote a book on the subject, brian henderson glowed and
the harbour outside dark as a zoo; you could hear the corps
marching towards the shipwreck, my equine attachment
scratching the floorboards in time for a swim
on the verge of
between cause & effect
a breeze lifts the thought
like the anachronistic dandelion
of childhood information & have you
noticed how much contemporary soap
has come to resemble confectionery
& is there a dental clinic called the tooth
fairy; tootle’s wheels always seemed
like lozenges of irish moss what is the relationship
between lungs and locomotives a question for poets engineers
or the medical fraternity, this word ‘fraternity’
think of a fence of weathered lattice that’s about to snap
leaving the timeless vine on the ground – i am the vine and you are
the branches – didn’t his words make such a pretty picture
how a poem needs stilts
(These poems are from amphora, Giramondo, 2011)
the email said the meaning was in the second room. she was sure of this. she stood in the foyer of the building. a circular space from which five or six corridors radiated. there was no one at the inquiry desk. brainzak tunes pulsed from tiny lights rosed into the ceiling.
at a quick glance it seemed to her that none of the rooms were numbered. she tried to open the second door in each corridor but everyone was locked and no one responded to her knock. she would have to try all of the sixty doors to locate the meaning. and she did. without success. maybe she needed to clean her glasses. or maybe she needed to close her eyes. she tried the second option and walked towards the nearest corridor until she came to the door that felt right. when she opened her eyes the door suddenly fell backwards to reveal a wall sized screen image of a shipwrecked city behind a sign advising ‘meeting this way’. ithaca was rather disappointed at the absence of meaning but glad she could remember how to swim.
in the mood i-x a mood in progress
on the shelf a ball of pale string never unrolled in a venture an adventure sitting tight and neat as the day of its purchase. can this string unwind and travel forth like the trail of a cautious pilgrim or sleuth attached to home base just in case. it would become such a tangle to wind back to its original shape. would it be worth it. this intrusion on its beauty. its pristinity. would the shelf want it. covered in the muck of the world. would you.
a will sat near the window under a paper weight. it had sat there so long it had faded in the light. it had lived much longer than it had expected in those distant days when it had been drawn up. it longed for a light wind to lift it . to give it the will and muscle of a weight lifter. the paper weight was so heavy the will sometimes struggled for breath through its dusty skin. sometimes when the sun burnt through the glass of the window it prayed for its own execution.
the mood lighting knew it was an anachronism. who wanted a room illuminated by all that moody business. it had gone the way of water beds. down the drain. there was enough screenglow to authenticate domestic comfort. and a complementary darkness was embraced. after all mood was a pedantic concept. it was preferable to be enhanced by your surroundings. and stay there.
light spraying through the morning’s shutters like a peacock. a restored moment. the memo pad hectic with telephone numbers. emails carp with duty’s jingles. these colours streaming through your sparse eyelids. you smell them like a pram.
no writing remaining on the exponential wall. a fertility of keener scribble. marking time. a gala of concern. keeping itself to itself. repetition and all its luxurious nerves. only to be guessed at. glib translation takes it on the chin. hi reader. who are you. scrape that primer off your back. the inside of the wall itches for your chaperoned essays. the sea scrolls behind you like another dead pastry.
the chimney on the roof. how long since warm smoke from a lounge room fire rose through it. does its eye glare upwards for answers. does it care. does it need to. television aerials cling to it for all their worth. carting trash of the hot world down below. waiting rooms filled with impatience.
today i praise disposability, diablo of the ecological lexicon. that liberator from poetryscapeology limited. where a simple cup [china clay porcelain] becomes a repository of meaning, enduring the weight of so much memory, so much association, that you cannot lift it to your lips and drink. a one object museum of redolence. you can only admire it from a distance. when you’re in the mood, a dozen breaths away, without thirst. people write poems about cups like this. swoon poems. poems that confuse the sentimental with the sacred. here i have a stack of disposable white cups. one drink cups. and then they go into the bin on their journey to lethe’s landfill. you squeeze them as you dispense with them. they crackle with light relief. glad to be departing for deep caves of earth. where sleeping cups are let lie. and the tea leaves little stain.
i feel like writing. on and on i go. so many false starts, repetitions, extra details. the body grows, skin stretches to fit the words. all those abrasive punctuation marks, confusion of meanings, awkward grammars and clamorous syllables. the underworld of language. my head aches with the load. i feel like writing yet i don’t look like writing. do i like writing. not likely or i wouldn’t be writing this. but what else is there to do when you only have two hands and eyes that have mislaid the world. through the drinking straw i hear the insects swarming.
it was a small message. too small to write down. its language was unfamiliar to me but i knew what it meant. if that’s all i knew i knew that. had known it since my knees hit the floor. had heard it inside the grass. ticking. tenacious. you wouldn’t want to write it down. the soil knew how to cut a long story short.
so often we wash away the evidence. evidence you might say. evidence of ourselves. we hang it up to dry. and then we wrap it round our bodies once again. it gathers so much of our absorbent selves we cannot allow it hang too long upon the rack. for the warm intimacies we have shared to turn rank. is this why we are tempted to abandon it wet and crumpled on the tiles. out of fear not squander.
and so we lift the lid of the machine; engage the suds and their cathartic whirls. our towels must be fresh. soft and empty vessels compliant with our ignorant ambiguous desires.