Ian Irvine (also writing as Ian Hobson) is an Australian-based poet, writer and academic. His work has featured in many publications, both in Australian and overseas, and his poetry has appeared in two national anthologies. He is the author of three books and currently coordinates the Writing and Editing program at BRIT, Bendigo. He has also taught social theory and history at La Trobe University (Bendigo) and in 1999 was awarded his PhD for work on chronic ennui in European literature, philosophy and psychology. He lives with his partner, Sue, and their children on a bush block not far from Bendigo. His poem “If You Eat a Pomegranate” is dedicated to our feature poet Thanh Thao.
Soft Breeze of a Temporal Implosion
After the bus trip:
light-green peaks, rice
plateaus and quiet water
As good a place as any
to reconstruct the countries
of the past.
And there is nothing generalist
about the H’mong children
dancing the narrow street below,
the German tourists, pleasantly
drunk on the hotel’s upper
between the present
and the impalpability of memory –
3,300 rupee to the dollar.
16,000 dong to the dollar.
This impulse to quantify comforts
the illusion of time
as something solid.
Like the Dao coin I wear as
a necklace, the seller said ‘1820, Sir.’
Its shape is strange, like
a man without arms, ‘an ancient
unit of exchange’ before the
coming of the French.
The guide whispered:
‘A fake.’ But the shape
and the smooth-rust brown surface,
are all that matter to me
at four dollars US.
And the practicalities of spirit –
those women at the pagoda.
At the entrance –
dark rocks and lush
a giant cauldron-urn, and
just above the entrance –
They loaded us up with free fruit
and hugged our children.
like the men in the white-domed mosques of Java –
bowing, praying whilst
out on the street,
similar densities of
I was thirty then, musical, reciprocating
love – and we’re still together
walking the town of Sapa,
negotiating maps, as always
will to will,
appreciating the flower-banked
lake, exchanging gifts, raving
about the view, caressing
and enjoying the local food.
A pleasant time-warp, like a lost map
to an old intensity of being
Making love in a grass hut in
central Sumatra – her soft
tanned skin, our
And then the day with icing:
as if outside time, and
abnegating the difficulties
of culture shock,
her first poem.
Hospital Cave and the Superpower
The old man is 76 years old
still wears the khaki hat and shirt
of the North Vietnamese army.
He lives less than a kilometre
from the place that defined
his life. He’s
fit and stout and funny not at all
like the devil promised us by LBJ. Carries a
flashlight and knows
every inch of this
During the war hundreds of people –
soldiers, surgeons and farmers –
took shelter in this cave. These days
it’s deserted, just damp concrete
floors and walls beneath
an eroded lime-rock ceiling.
When the Americans bombed and
bombed the island the locals
would crowd in here:
did it feel like
waiting for the superpower?
He shows us the ‘reception’
the doctors’ sleeping quarters
the medical rooms proper to the left and
right of a long corridor, until we arrive
at the ‘lunch-room’. Here
he drops his flashlight, introduces
himself again in Vietnamese
and asks (commands) us to sing
“Vietnam-Ho Chi Minh”
“Vietnam-Ho Chi Minh”
He lets me record the performance
all the war before me, cold chills.
Tonnes and tonnes of bombs
Agent Orange, vast networks of tunnels
in the South, the Tet Offensive, the
fall of Saigon.
I’ve met some Aussie Vets
seen them join the Anzac day throng
still tentative-as young boys
they met their reality match
in quiet Vietnamese determined to
end colonialism once and for all.
Here, just 70 miles from the Chinese border,
I begin to understand.
The digital video is blurry in the cave
(all sorts of shadows)
as the tourists sing and clap (nervously) the echoes
are immense, like 1969, like 200 people
singing, like injured farmers, like jets
prowling the paradise skies – and before us
this old soldier
like a phantom,
38 years among ghosts.
If You Eat a Pomegranate
For Thanh Thao
If, after eating a pomegranate underground,
you manage to return to the surface
it is said that you will have acquired
the ability to see ghosts.
Perhaps I’ve consumed such a fruit
by accident. Things have been strange
for over a month now – began with my
memories of that sunrise crossing
The sun coming up
and all those people on the roads
in the rice paddies, or hanging around
the gravestones or houses.
I’m no longer certain who was alive
and who was dead. As though
another layer of memory-repressed
at the time – has invaded
the ‘realism’ of what I
thought I remembered.
The problem: supposing all memory
collapses like this? What
will stop this tendency invading my
day time consciousness?
And the train,
as I recall it now, moving slowly,
far too slowly
along the tracks,
as though the dead
had engineered some kind of
deceleration – so I could see them,
so I could begin to hear them speak.
Though for the moment
the protection of glass
Who knows where this is headed.
It is said that a spell three times spoken –
especially if by the caster, the
recipient, and an unbiased intermediary –
is certain to work.
Leaning forward across the table
he asked me something in Vietnamese:
‘Why do you think I continue
to write poetry
at my age?’
Despite clear translation
I had no answer, said:
‘I don’t know your work
well enough to say.’
Eventually he replied in Vietnamese – and
after this was translated, I heard:
‘For those who are unable to speak’
But she wished for further clarity, said:
‘He says he writes for those
who have no voice … who are
no longer with us.’
Startled, I asked –
as though struggling to absorb the future –
‘For those who died – for the dead?’
She nodded, said:
‘Yes, for the dead.’
the table went