Prasanta Das

Prasanta Das is Professor of English at Tezpur University in the northeast Indian state of Assam.  He was born in Shillong, Meghalaya where his mother still lives. He is a two time Fulbrighter (Cornell and Harvard) and his poems and short stories have appeared in Kunapipi, Indian PEN, New Quest, and Out of Print.

 

Mr Deb’s Shop

“You must go to the cremation,” my mother said. But I had already made up my mind to go. Mr Deb had been my father’s friend and our neighbour for years. For as long as I could remember he had owned a small shop in Police Bazaar in a lane that was a couple of minutes walk from where the newsagents had their stalls. My father had always gone to Mr Deb’s shop when my brother or I needed a new pen or my mother wanted her brand of hair oil. As a small boy, I often accompanied my father on these trips. Sometimes our whole family would go to Police Bazaar. My father and mother would sit on little stools in Mr Deb’s shop, talking and laughing. Mr Deb would order tea and, when the boy brought it, he would emerge from behind the counter to courteously serve it himself. Later when I became older I was sometimes sent to do the shopping but I never went to Mr Deb’s shop. I preferred the bigger ones.

I was in Hyderabad when my father had died suddenly one afternoon at our home in Shillong. Mr Deb had got myHyderabadaddress from someone. He had broken the news to me gently, speaking with genuine feeling. I managed to reach Kolkata in the evening. But there wasn’t a flight to Guwahati until the next afternoon. The cremation was over by the time I reached home. Now, less than a year later, Mr Deb himself was dead. Attending his funeral would be a little like attending my father’s funeral.

Mr Deb became our neighbour when he bought a house near ours. This was after the hill state movement when Meghalaya was created and most Assamese families were selling their houses in Shillong to move to Guwahati. It was a difficult time for my parents since so many of their friends were leaving. In the end, they decided to stay. This was a great relief to my brother and me. We boys loved Shillong and could not imagine a life elsewhere.

There was the usual bickering over a boundary wall and for a couple of years relations between Mr Deb’s family and ours became quite strained. But after my father’s death I began to seek out Mr Deb’s company. It was then that I noticed how frequently he was away from Shillong. When I asked him about his absences, he told me he was building a second house in Silchar. Mr Deb had gone one more time to supervise the building of the house. But this time he had had a heart attack in the bus itself.

They had brought Mr Deb’s body home a little beforenoon. The driver and the conductor of the bus had stood around for a while and then quietly disappeared. In the cramped drawing room, Mr Vaswani, a couple of his tenants, and a Bengali gentleman who worked in the Account General’s Office sat on the cane chairs. I sat on the bed that was pushed up against the wall. Babu, Mr Deb’s son, was much younger than me. He had graduated recently from college. I often saw him in the evenings in Police Bazaar with a group of young men who idled away their time near Mr Deb’s shop. He was a rather quiet young man and now the shock of losing his father had further subdued him.

Mrs Deb entered. A fragrant smell of incense seemed to come from her. Her thin gray hair was loose and hung on her shoulder. She was the kind of woman who rarely left her home. I had expected her to scream and wail but she was almost composed as she received our condolences. “I told Babu’s father not to go”, she said to us. “I told him you are an old man now. But he would not listen.” We did not say anything. But all of us knew why Mr Deb had been building a second house in Silchar. The recent communal troubles in Shillong, the resentment against “outsiders” like us had made him nervous. A former refugee fromEast Pakistan, he wanted Babu to have a secure home. Though Mr Deb had never actually said so to anyone, it was clear that he was planning to sell off his house and shop in Shillong and move to Silchar. Mr Deb did not want Babu to go through the uncertainties he himself had faced when he had come to Shillong as a young man soon afterIndependenceand Partition.

From my place on the bed, I got a glimpse of the next room. I could see a broken harmonium placed on top of a wooden almirah. I wondered if the broken harmonium had belonged to Mr Deb and when he had played it. The house was now beginning to fill up with relatives, friends and other neighbors. Assured that my absence would not be noticed, I left.

I sat on the verandah of our house watching the mourners walk down the sloping road to Mr Deb’s shop. Aged men, some in tweed coats, others in home-knitted sweaters, and their wives were coming from Laban, Rilbong,Jail Roadand other places. As they went past, I heard them talking about Mr Deb in the Bengali they had brought with them forty years ago from their towns and villages in Sylhet. The tin-roofed, wooden-floored houses of my father’s generation needed looking after but Mr Deb’s house had not been painted in years. The roof was dark with rust. The house usually wore a dull, enclosed look because you rarely saw it with its doors and windows open. Today its owner’s death had given it a kind of life.

I sat on the verandah for several hours. When I heard the sound of bamboo being cut I knew they were making the bier and that it would not be long before they carried the body past our house.

I joined the procession when it reached our house. There were nearly fifty men, both young and elderly, in the procession. I recognized a few shopkeepers from Police Bazaar, Polo Ground and theJail   Roadarea. The young men were mostly Babu’s friends.

It was the first time I was seeing the Mawlai cremation ground. Babu’s friends had lost their evening indolence and were full of energy. Some of them went off to the cottages nearby to buy firewood while the men gathered in small groups. I chose a spot at the edge of the ground and sat down to watch the preparations for the cremation. Mr Vaswani, noticing me sitting alone, came over and began to make conversation. He was a tall man of great bulk, a little stooped now because of his age. “Philosopher!” he jokingly chided me. Then he lit a cigarette and became serious. “That boy was here a few days back,” he said, pointing to one of Babu’s friends who was arranging the funeral pyre. “An uncle of his died. He knows what to do.”

It was a shock to see Mr Deb lying naked on the pyre. I remembered how, before he became our neighbor, my brother and I were so used to seeing Mr Deb behind the counter that he looked a little strange to us whenever we saw him whole – as on those occasions when he served tea to our parents.

“At Police Bazaar point,” Mr Deb had replied when I asked him where he had first met my father. My father was living alone in Shillong then. It was the period in his life when he was still sending his salary home to his brother. He had married recently but my mother was at her parents’ house in the village. My father had got into the habit of walking over to Police Bazaar in the evenings after his work at the State Secretariat was over. He would buy a copy of the Assam Tribune and stand reading it near Police Bazaar point. He and Mr Deb had met each other then. After this my father’s evening routine had varied a little. He would go to Mr Deb’s shop to read his paper and chat for a while before going back to his rented house. I could easily picture my father at this time in his life because at home there were a few photographs of him from his early days in Shillong. They revealed a dapper man, handsome despite a receding hairline. When as boys my brother and I had first come across these photographs, it was something of a wonder to us that our father had dressed in nice-looking suits and worn well-chosen ties in the past. But we also thought this was a thing a man usually did when he was young, just as a young man usually had more hair.

In the shop, Mr Deb and my father often talked of owning their own houses. Owning a house was a priority for them as for those of their generation who had left their homes to settle in Shillong. During the early years of his employment my father saved all he could to buy a suitable plot of land. His parents had died when he was small. He had brothers and sisters but how many I do not know because my brother and I never saw them. We did not visit them nor did they ever visit us. When we were children we were taken once a year to visit our maternal grandparents. But we never went to our father’s village. Later on, I came to   know that my father had some land of his own. This was his share of the family property. My mother often complained that his brothers had sold off my father’s land. But I sometimes wondered who had taken the responsibility of educating my father. After all, it was this education that had made it possible for him to leave home and find employment in Shillong.

I decided that it must have been my father’s eldest brother who educated him since on the eldest son would fall such parental obligations. After he had graduated, my father was able to get a job as a government clerk in Shillong. And at some point after he had come to Shillong, my father had stopped sending money home. When my father stopped parting with his salary, his eldest brother would have felt justified in selling off my father’s share of the family land. I think my father accepted this as right and fair because I never heard him express any regret or bitterness.

My father did not like to talk of his earlier life because he had started life anew in Shillong and wanted to forget the past. But Mr Deb enjoyed talking of his past. He had arrived in Shillong as an almost penniless refugee and he had many dramatic stories to tell. As a boy, I envied him his connection with history. He was a small man, an ordinary man. Yet he a connection with history. My father had no such stories to tell. So I clung to something that my mother once told us brothers – that my father’s graduation had been delayed by a year or two because of his participation in the Quit India movement. There was another story my mother used to tell us: when my father graduated, he had become an object of curiosity in his village. This story used to me smile. It was only after he died that I realized that my father too had broken with the past. He too had taken his life in his own hands.

There was a breeze blowing and Mr Deb’s son was shivering a little in his dhoti. Sorrow had given him a chastened look. But he had composed himself and now, like a sincere schoolboy, he was following the directions of the priest. I wondered what he would do with the shop. In his own way, Mr Deb had made something of his life. Babu had received an ordinary education because unlike my father, who had sent my brother and me to the best school in Shillong, Mr Deb did not have much faith in education. He admired our school uniforms but entirely without envy. “Kalita Babu,” I heard him say to my father once, “quite a bit of your income must be going in paying the children’s fees”. My father had laughed, pleased.

The young men were prodding Mr Deb’s body with bamboo poles to make it burn well. They were arguing about wind direction and the placement of wood. Mr Deb’s body had lost its human softness and had become a charred object. Soon it would turn into ashes.

Two weeks after I had attended Mr Deb’s funeral, I took a taxi to Police Bazaar. It dropped me near the tourist taxi stand, where the touts accosted me shouting, “Guwahati! Guwahati!” I walked past Police Bazaar point, past the spot where the newsstands used to be, past the pharmacies, past Bijou cinema till I came to the lane where Mr Deb had his shop. It was open. Babu was standing behind the counter, talking to one of his friends, who was busy installing a photocopier. “It’s second hand,” Babu said to me. “But it’s in good condition.”

He invited me to sit. We talked. “Mr Vaswani came,” Babu said quietly. “He asked me if I wanted to sell the shop. I said no.” I nodded. “My father, my father…” Babu began. Then tears welled up in his eyes and his voice choked. I looked away. When he recovered we talked of other things.

On the way back home, instead of taking a taxi, I decided to walk. As I crossed the road at Police Bazaar point, near the place where my father had met Mr Deb all those years ago, I thought about Babu’s decision to drop his father’s plan of shifting to Silchar. It seemed like an act of disobedience. But I knew it wasn’t. Babu was staying on because he did not think his father’s life had been a mistake.

 

 

Abdul Karim reviews The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman

The Honey Thief

by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman

WILD DINGO PRESS

ISBN: 9780980757040

Reviewed by ABDUL KARIM

 

 

 

In a small village in Afghanistan, a man by the name of Abdul Hussain who stole honey hives was taken as apprentice by the honey hives’ owner because of his extraordinary skills for caring for the bees. It is this story that makes the title of the book, The Honey Thief, a collection of oral stories, which has been co-authored by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman. This follows their successful book, The Rug Maker of Mazar-e-Sharif, set in the Woomera detention centre, detailing the journey of Mazari to Australia.

Robert Hillman is a Melbourne based writer. Najaf Mazari, a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan who arrived to Australia in 2001. Although from such different cultures, their companionship found common thread in the tradition of storytelling. In the breaking down of these cultural barriers an interesting story emerges.

As an Afghan and a Hazar like Najaf who migrated to Australia, I read this book with much curiosity and interest. In the first chapter, Najaf Mazari tells the readers that the stories in the book are the ones he has heard from his brothers and were common in his village, some of which are based on actual events and real characters, some are not. This is not a book about the whole of Afghanistan, the authors reflect on Hazara experience and identity.

‘Perhaps this is because we are a mystery people; no one knows for certain where we came from, and we have been resented for generations by those who live in Afghanistan in greater numbers than ourselves.’

Although the Hazara situation has changed somewhat in the post-Taliban period, talking about past injustices against Hazara is still taboo in Afghanistan.  For example, in May 2009, officials from the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture threw tens of thousands of books relating to Hazara history into the Helmand River because they believed the books would promote disharmony in Afghan society. In Afghanistan, the publication of this book would never have been permitted. The condition of exile has provided Hazaras like Najaf some freedom to speak out without the fear of censorship.

The Honey Thief offers an insight into Afghanistan political complexities that goes beyond the contemporary conflict and particularly the ethnic tension.  The focus on the Hazara experience is an attempt to provide a narrative for the Hazara people, who after many generations in Afghanistan are still considered outsiders there. A good portion of the fourth chapter describes in detail the massacres of Hazara that occurred in the late nineteen century.

‘The great massacre became part of who we are – we, the Hazaras. I say ‘part of who we are’ rather than ‘part of our history’ because history is a thing apart; something that you can study, if you wish, and write books about. The massacres are not ‘history’ in that sense; they have a place in our minds and our hearts from which they can’t be torn. But don’t imagine that it is something we wish to have living inside us. No, it is a burden. It is like the burden of the Jews. They can’t stop being Jews – they are Jews every second of their lives, being a Jew means carrying a burden of grief, because the Jews too had an Abdur Rahman in their past.’

The book is structured into thirteen chapters, so that the reader leaps from fairy tales to real life; from ordinary people to heroes; from rural to city. The last two chapters are about Afghan recipe. In a lengthy two chapters, the authors recount the horrifying story of Abdul Khaliq, a young Hazara boy who killed Nadir Shah, an oppressive ruler in Afghanistan.

‘It seems more likely that Abdul Khaliq decided to kill the King to avenge the murder of hundreds of thousands of Hazara years earlier,’ the authors write in page 62. ‘But it is not Mohammad Nadir he will be killing; it is a symbol of the oppression that the Barakzai family has subjected the Hazara to for fifty years.’

The king assassin, Abdul Khaliq, is portrayed not as a modern martyr going to heaven to meet virgin girls but somebody who stood up against injustice so those he left behind could live in dignity. But it came with a heavy price for him and his family. Although he was alone in the act, he was hanged along with his friends, school teachers, his father and uncles, all of whom who had nothing to do with the killing

Some of stories in The Honey Thief are fictitious -stories about demons, devils and superstitions that are deeply rooted in Afghanistan culture and manifested in the characters’ dialogue and thought. In the second to last chapter, Jawad rescues his parents from the scaffold by delivering gold dug from the hard earth to the doorstep of the Myer of Kandahar. ‘Jawad swung his pick at the hard earth, and again, each time he struck the ground, nuggets of gold came to the surface.’ The book blends facts with fiction in a way that is sometimes indistinguishable.

Some of the strongest themes are about forgiveness and resilience in a country that has been torn apart by war and enmity. In chapter nine and ten, a beekeeper, Abbas was summoned by Abdul Ali Mazari, a great leader of Hazara. During the Soviet Union occupation, Mazari asked the beekeeper to travel to another province in Afghanistan to ask for forgiveness for a dying patient who had betrayed his grandfather during the rule of Zahir Shah. He accepted this mission reluctantly and met the dying patient.  On his returned he was a changed man.  On the way back, he had lost his accompanying friend in a Russian air attack which killed another two bandits – Mujhid (fighters). The only surviving person from the incident was an injured young Russian soldier. The beekeeper nursed his wounds, fed him, saved his life and asked his leader to release him.

Najaf and Robert’s style is simple, following the oral storytelling tradition and yet remaining somehow formal. At times, I wanted the story to be more detailed and reflect the local dialects and lyrical language. But this is probably because of the difficulties of two writers from such different cultures collaborating and also because Robert Hillman, the main writer has not lived in Afghanistan. The stories in The Honey Thief are contemporary stories mostly drawn from personal anecdotes and do not reflect folkloric popular stories that are the most common among Hazaras for example Buz-e-Chini. As a Hazara, I could only relate to the story about Abdul Khaliq but the rest were unfamiliar to me.  This shows that even a small village in Afghanistan is pregnant with so many stories.

Over all this is a compelling read in a political climate where there is little understanding of the Hazara who in fact make up the majority of asylum seekers from Afghanistan. Using the power of storytelling, it narrates the past suffering of Hazaras in Afghanistan in ways that surprises and astound us with insights and interesting tales. They are the first stories to appear in English language and so the authors should be commended.  It also highlights the rich culture that remains so hidden behind the current conflict.

 

 

ABDUL KARIM is a freelance writer based in Sydney and a former refugee from Afghanistan. He has participated in many forums, conferences and media debates focussing on refugee issues. He has participated in the Sydney Writers’ Festival and his articles on refugees have appeared in The Australian, National Times, The Age. A photgraphy exhibiton, Unsafe Haven, has showed at UTS and currently at RMIT Gallery.

Fiona McKean reviews Speak Now: Australian Perspectives on Same-Sex Marriage

Speak Now

Edited by Victor Marsh

Clouds of Magellan

ISBN 978-0-9807120-9-4

Reviewed by FIONA McKEAN

 

As Australia is currently poised to answer the question of whether it will say “I do” to same-sex marriage, it’s difficult to imagine a more topical publication than Speak Now, a collection of essays and creative non-fiction pieces on the theme of same-sex marriage. Since Speak Now was published in October 2011, the Queensland Parliament has passed legislation recognising same-sex civil unions—a compromise between marriage equality and lack of relationship recognition—and the first of these have been registered. Comedian Magda Szubanski has come out on national television for marriage equality, and the Australian Labor Party has changed its policy platform in favour of same-sex marriage. And two of the contributors to this volume, Elaine Crump and Sharon Dane, have dined with Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the Lodge to argue for marriage equality. Debate is intensifying, rather than diminishing. So what does Speak Now bring to the table?

Speak Now is a wide-ranging collection of 35 different essays, memoirs, and personal responses to same-sex marriage. As the content is truly eclectic—varying widely in stance, genre, and style—the entries are organised in alphabetical order by surname, rather than grouped thematically. This makes for something of a “lucky dip”. Michael Kirby’s foreword and Victor Marsh’s introduction provide an appropriate entrée, echoing as they do the most clearly recognisable division—between the more formal, academic and legal essays and informal personal accounts. Marsh’s introduction is particularly welcoming, and reassuring to any readers who might fear the presence of earnest, 90s-style oppression-speak in the pages that follow. After all, weddings are supposed to be fun!

The academic essays are uniformly well-researched, but vary in degree of accessibility. Wayne Morgan’s history of relationship law reform excels at the latter, and is logically structured and clearly written. He demonstrates how legal protection for all relationships in Australia has evolved over time, and how formalising same-sex unions builds on these previous reforms.

In “Christianity, Marriage, Love and Friendship”, Michael Carden provides a detailed historical analysis of marriage and marriage-like rituals, including adelphopoiesis, a formalised recognition of friendship. He examines the roles of patriarchy and capitalism in marriage before advocating a renaissance of friendship rituals, rather than adherence to a narrow construction of marriage.

Academic and activist Dennis Altman dryly questions whether gay people should rush to “buy into the myth of monogamous marriage, whose record is generally not inspiring” (5). Ryan Heath offers the confronting statistic that, on a global scale, “ten times as many countries imprison their citizens for homosexual activity than allow them to marry” (74). In an essay that blends personal experience with research, he uses such statistics to warn against apathy for those who question whether “enough” equality has been achieved, and invites personal involvement.

I can’t remember which Australian politician declared it was the personal stories of same-sex couples that finally altered his stance in favour of marriage equality, but I suspect he’s not alone. It’s in the unique stories of individuals—and the capacity for empathic connection they invoke—that potential for change exists. And it’s the personal accounts I connected to most strongly in this collection. To an extent, these were reminiscent of those in the seminal Word is Out: Stories of Some of our Lives. Decades have passed since its initial publication, but its power lay in the revelation of simple details of the everyday lives of lesbians and gay men. And it was the differences in these stories, rather than any monolithic representation of “gayness”, that enabled readers to identify with their narrators and demonstrated varied ways of living gay lives.

So, too, with Speak Now. The personal stories are narrated by same-sex partners, parents of same-sex children unable to marry, helping professionals and marriage celebrants, and vary as widely in tone and stance as the essays. The very title of Deb Wain’s contribution, “I Got Married, Some Can’t. That’s Not Fair” is both striking and succinct. She is similarly unsparing on religious objections to same-sex marriage:

There are a number of things that the bible says and there are a number of ways in which to quote the bible itself in rebuttal to these arguments. I’m not going to even bother doing this here for the simple reason that Australia has a secular government… The bible has no legitimate place in this argument. (236)

The tone of the personal recollections ranges from Deb Wain’s pithiness, to the sincere—Luke Gahan’s “The Ins and Outs of Marriage (and Divorce)”—to the slightly satirical, as in Tiffany Jones’s “Tying the K(NOT)!” Gahan retains an unwavering dedication to a romantic ideal of marriage, despite a same-sex divorce in his twenties. He speaks of the pressures he experienced in his marriage from both within and outside “the gay community”—from some of the latter, a lack of recognition and acceptance; from some of the former, pressure to accept infidelity and act as some sort of marriage movement martyr or role model. Gahan’s story explicates the reality beyond the fairytale, and debunks the notion that the fact a same-sex relationship may end invalidates formal recognition in the first place.

For me, the two outstanding pieces in this anthology are Donald Ritchie’s “Customs” and Michelle Dicinoski’s “How to Grow a Lawn”. Both are beautifully written accounts of marriages recognised in Canada, but not in the authors’ home country, Australia. Ritchie allows himself to hope that he may receive a positive response to his marriage from a Customs official, or at least recognition: “in that moment I think it may be different this time” (203). But this does not eventuate, and Ritchie observes “somewhere over the Pacific, at thirty-nine thousand feet, I lost a husband” (204). Similarly, Dicinoski retains hope despite the distinctly unneighbourly response of her neighbour, Bob, to news of her marriage. For these writers, gentle humour and controlled use of metaphor accomplish what browbeating never could.

Regardless of the diversity of their stances, none of the contributors seems to wholly oppose same-sex marriage. I found myself agreeing with Michael Kirby in his foreword (xxiv) and fellow reviewer David Allan that the collection might have benefited from the inclusion of some of these contrasting viewpoints. But readers may have been exposed to enough reductio ad absurdum arguments along the lines of “same-sex marriage will lead to people marrying their dogs” outside these pages to be relieved not to be meeting any more here within them.

According to the Speak Now blog, the collection has been criticised for the fact that “it doesn’t speak with one voice on the issue of marriage and that politicians could be ‘spooked’ by the proposal of polyamory expressed by some of the contributors”. But to me, this editorial risk-taking is one of the strengths of this collection. It exemplifies the principles of parity and inclusion that underline the push for marriage equality. To speak “with one voice” might be politically expedient, but it risks enforcing a new, albeit non-heterosexual, orthodoxy. The editor has chosen instead to embrace and celebrate the multi-faceted realities of people’s lives and heterogenous perspectives. To do otherwise would reinforce the misconception that the diversity within these pages somehow stands outside of—rather than is synecdochal of—human experience as a whole.

Because this collection is so eclectic—with variations in genre, exact topic, and approach—it would have benefited from an index. This is not a book to be read straight through. Rather it is one to dip into, put aside for rumination, and dip into again. As the personal pieces often introduce concepts expanded upon in the academic essays, an index would help to explicate these links. For example, Deb Wain’s assertion that marriage “as a concept and social construct … predates the Christian church” (236) could be cross-referenced to the essays expanding on this concept. For those interested in further reading, an index or select bibliography would also help to locate passing references to secondary sources in some of the essays.

The danger with a collection such as Speak Now is preaching to the choir—that it will primarily attract an audience already receptive to, and interested in, same-sex marriage. But the book’s diversity of voices prevents this. Victor Marsh’s admission of his own change of heart in his editorial introduction is not only disarming, it’s canny. By acknowledging his own shift in perspective, he opens up breathing space for readers to do the same.

Speak Now documents an array of different attitudes and approaches to same-sex marriage at a pivotal time in Australian political life. It will make a valuable contribution to queer historical scholarship in Australia. For the newly out or curious, it showcases some of the varied possibilities for living a queer life.  Speak Now deserves a wide, enquiring readership. I hope it finds one.

You can access the accompanying blog for Speak Now at http://speaknowaustralia.blogspot.com.au/

 

Works Cited

Adair, Nancy. Word is Out: Stories of Some of our Lives. Delacorte Press, 1978.

Allan, David. Rev. of Speak Now: Australian Perspectives on Same-Sex Marriage. Ed. Victor Marsh. GayLawNet 20 November 2011. <http://www.gaylawnet.com/ezine/books/speak_now.htm>

“Wendell Rosevear Speaks Now”. Speak Now. http://speaknowaustralia.blogspot.com.au/2011/11/william-rosevear-speaks-now.html

 

FIONA McKEAN is a postgraduate student at The University of Queensland.

 

Bonny Cassidy reviews Furious Triangle by Cath Vidler

Furious Triangle

by Catherine Vidler

Puncher and Wattmann

ISBN

Reviewed by BONNY CASSIDY

 

Readers of a contemporary online poetry journal like Mascara Literary Review are probably among those most comfortable with the idea that a poem can be found or generated in any manner of ways.  We accept that modern poetics has become happily detached from the notion of authorial integrity.  After Surrealism, Ern Malley and John Ashbery – and through their heirs, of which Australia has many including John Tranter and Michael Farrell – we continue to be delighted by automatic poetics of all kinds.  This delight has only been stoked by the arrival of our creature, the WWW; which, when charged, speaks back to us in our own language.

And such delight sparkles in the first full-length collection of poems by Sydney writer and Snorkel founding editor Catherine Vidler.  Furious Triangle is a dynamic combination of poems: electronically generated and found in non-literary material; imagistic lyric sequences; and concrete and typographical poems.  While its selection does not always feel like the strongest possible showcase of Vidler’s skill, the book explores the compelling relationship between these modes within her work.

Its reader is immediately aware of motifs of star and numeral, which come to represent the lyric and abstract poles that guide Vidler’s writing.  Numbers rule her titles, there are several poems about counting, and Vidler’s suite of source code poems is replete with numerals as typographic image and as symbol:

5: define  SF_CENTER  1  # Star at center of image
define  SF_MARK1  2  # Mark stars in first image
define  SF_MARKALL 3  # Mark stars in all images

*

338: / / Consume any number of stars.
while ((c = in.read()) = = ‘*’) 

At first it seems that numerals, like source codes, are an abstract language with which Vidler undermines the lyrical cliché of stars.  But Vidler isn’t merely reminding us that poetic language is also a code denoting a correlative meaning; she’s also demonstrating that any code may be poetic, and does so repeatedly through electronic sources such as OneLook Reverse Dictionary and Google Poetry Robot utilised in Furious Triangle.  A convention that has been most thoroughly exploited by Tranter, Vidler provides notes to the poems that not only allow but clearly invite the reader to research and “source” her poetic process.

However, in its fascination with the seeming consciousness of electronic language, Vidler’s work tells contemporary readers something else about the fallacy of authorship.  It seems to suggest that intentionality isn’t a fallacy at all; or, at least, that we desperately wish for the fallacy to be disproved.  Her source code poems are disturbing, because, for a fleeting moment the code appears to be alive and thinking, as though a voice was speaking out from within.  It’s the combined voices of the poet and reader, of course, which drive the vehicle of language.  This “triangle” is concretely illustrated in “10 two-word poems”:

ellips(is land)mass
va(st ar)dent
fini(sh ine)ffable
gra(sp ill)usory
fla(sh immer)sion
bri(sk y)awning
enli(ven n)exus
ventu(re ad)venture
id(le af)lutter
lea(f ind)ex

The poem literally sets up: the intersection of language, which provides each original pair of words; the poet, who provides the suggestive parentheses; and the reader who enjoys the affect of the third, captured word.  Each of these new or meta-words suggests between-ness, distance and ground, overlap and discovery.  This poem and its counterpart, “20 one-word poems”, is a simple, quiet game one might play with a child – finding words within words.  When I searched Wikipedia for “venn” I was reminded of high school “diagrams that show all possible logical relations between a finite collection of sets”.  Vidler searches for this vortex in the most familiar and banal language codes.

As this poem demonstrates, Vidler’s sensibility as a concrete poet is constantly at work in Furious Triangle.  In the best of her poetic experiments, there’s just enough authorial suggestion to affirm a second reading, and a third, as we arrange Vidler’s lists and lines in potent ways.  She’s in full flight when representing this twisting relationship through image.  The book’s opener, “No stars tonight”, creates a kind of imagistic chiasmus:

No stars tonight,

cloud only,
only cloud.

*

The steaming river
is upside down,

a stun of star-fish
clings

to its hidden floor.

*

But something more,
(I overlooked)

the darkness,

strung
like an old guitar

or a boat;

supple, fantastic, afloat.

In two other wonderfully unnerving poems, “At Taronga Zoo” and “Proportions”, Vidler returns to decoding lyrical habits.  In “At Taronga Zoo” she seems to be playing the strings of metaphor and metonymy simultaneously; using a subject to suggests a literal predicate, which in turn offers a metaphorical description of the subject:

11.       Zebras calmly stand their ground.
12.       Hunched chimps concentrate the heat.
13.       Wallabies loll like an indulgent audience.
14.       Harbour views unwrap their surprises.

In such poems, language is at aptly crossed purposes.  Simile and metaphor are shiny surfaces that catch Vidler’s attention, and she swoops.  Elsewhere in the book, this focus is evident in the echoing forms of sestina and villanelle, and concrete poems of tapering and inversion.

Like Farrell, Vidler reveals herself undertaking live tests of language in front of an audience.  In the ideal poetic scenario the reader’s participation will complete the act.  In too many poems in Furious Triangle, however, it’s a risky business and a weakening rather than strengthening element.  In one instance, Vidler creates her own eye chart using only the letters EYE (made by a website dedicated to the task), and unfortunately this simplistic gag is not reproduced well in the book.  Vidler’s source code “translation” of a digital concrete poem by the Wellington poet, Bill Manhire, looks good but seems to take her earlier experiments beyond readability.  In one of her more conventionally formalist poems, “Ernie and Bert sestina”, Vidler recycles lines from the Sesame Street scripts but doesn’t convey quite enough for the found lines to mean anything.  Uncannily, Ernie and Bert also make an appearance in Farrell’s poem, “Tit for tat”, in his 2011 chapbook, thempark – this is worth mentioning because, through form as much as image, Farrell’s poem transports these familiar and utterly unthreatening puppet characters to a flimsy cardboard “ipod world” of adult desires and frustrations.  His poem makes compelling use of disrupted language, whereas Vidler’s feels like a minor exercise.

Despite its lesser poems, Furious Triangle can be thrilling: its better poems convince me that poetry still has something to do; revealing the secret world inside words, their unseen intentions, forgotten lineages and unexpected bonuses.

 

BONNY CASSIDY  is a Melbourne poet and writer. She has recently completed the Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship for Poetry, and her first full-length collection of poems, Certain Fathoms, is published by Puncher & Wattmann.

Philton reviews The Bearded Chameleon by Chris Mooney-Singh

The Bearded Chameleon

by Chris Mooney-Singh

Black Pepper Press

ISBN 9781876044718

Reviewed by PHILTON

 

 

 

There are poems for the page and poems for the stage. Chris Mooney-Singh is an established live performer. His second poetry collection, The Bearded Chameleon, transposes his performative skills into poetically good reading. Mooney-Singh is a chameleon because his ‘makeup’ stems from two cultures: his native Australia and India where he has mostly lived in recent decades. He is never quite at home in either, his ‘colours’ change according to which country he’s in. His adoption of the Sikh faith, which forbids cutting hair, has him bearded. This theme is encapsulated in 40 end-rhyme couplets tightly presented with perceptive cultural observations (‘village life is one food chain’). India, exuberant and traumatic, contrasts with Mooney-Singh’s other life:

Suburbia was a dumb cartoon:
here, typhoid sweats through each monsoon;

There’s exquisite images of interaction between the newcomer and villagers:

I wet my tongue, pretend what’s best
and they are kind, pretend the rest.

An ‘internal ode’ to the poet’s fauna namesake weaves engaging snippets; the chameleon is ‘prehistoric, spiky, punk’ for whom ‘sun-bathing is the reptile’s art’. ‘Abstract Studies with Monsoon Green’ distils the adopted environment’s fecundity’:

The days of humid blindness are upon us,
the rain has left a steamy haze of green.

The mulberry limb drips into the milk pail,
green are the tears upon the chilli plants.

There’s an innovative reprint of humanity’s footstep:

I follow footprint puddles to the pump.

Mooney-Singh aims to

…learn the way of planting rice:
green thumb, invite the fingers to make friends.

Among captivating images of India there’s a night-driving view of a truck’s decorated rear: ‘Krishna and the milkmaids/ were dancing in our headlights’. ‘Indian Standard Time’ includes ‘eating pakoras and deep-fried gossip’ and ‘yesterday or tomorrow, neither too late, nor too early’ whether that be ‘in this birth or the next’. There’s arresting street-graphics:

the lifters of dead-cows,
cremation-ground caretakers,
collectors of the shit-bins,
bottom-feeders, vultures.

And vivid imagery that could be from anywhere such as this forest-after-rain metaphor:

sunlight opens up its peacock tail

Personal aspects of Mooney-Singh’s journey embrace the evocative pain of witnessing his (first) wife’s death.

I was helpless, a passenger
during the final act of her breathing
that slipped beyond even its coma
as the taxi halted at the traffic light.

Aftermath is poignant:

…I lift your old cup from a suitcase
of last things you touched on earth.
I see the lipstick: two firm petal prints.
I will never clean away the kiss.

‘My Fallen’, images of deaths in Mooney-Singh’s family, innovatively commences ‘These last photos I don’t have’. Significant memories are often associated with background detail and these are captured with powerful brevity:

The strident starlings of 2001
still halo your head on soft grass.

Mooney-Singh produces striking aphorisms including ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is a clear conscience’. ‘To the Dalits’ demonstrates well-crafted rhyme is effective for invocation of traditional Indian folklore. Tradition is also invoked with the ‘ghazal’, a love song comprising couplets with an end-rhyme refrain that usually repeats the same word; Mooney-Singh diffuses the refrain’s monotony by introducing ‘unattached’ prefixes which form cross-rhyme patterns — neither end-rhyme nor internal (within-a-line) rhyme, but constructed on rhyming words appearing within different lines:

Make money, not art, says the plastic rose.
I have no nose for that stillborn rose.

Poetry got divorced from the rose,
yet the New Thing’s still a fresh-worn rose

Seventy million years of the rose:
fossils lime the time-sworn rose.

The cross-rhyme is ‘stillborn/fresh-worn’ etc. Creating effective cross-rhyme is difficult. Kipling, Hopkins and Swinburne were the only poets of whom I was aware to have crafted it well until I encountered Mooney-Singh’s ghazals; in this challenging form he rubs shoulders with the best. Innovation doesn’t always work. Coining neologisms (new words) has potential pitfalls – they can seem forced, too-clever or obscure. A neologism in ‘I Come in Winter to a City Without You’ doesn’t suffer these flaws; the now Australian-based poet and his (second) wife (temporarily in Singapore) communicate by mobile and internet, chatting in ‘glocal tongues’. ‘Glocal’ is an engaging creation: these technologies may be global but they allow for an intimacy which is effectively local. Attractive eclecticism is quirkily reflected in ‘found poems’ of Indian highway-side graffiti including ‘riotous’ examples like ‘HORN IS TO HONK/ PLEASE DO IT ON MY CURVES’.

Mooney-Singh’s India is not all traditional. A woman who dares to reject her violent husband by deserting his family’s home evocatively observes:

To move in public is no easy choice
if you wear divorce’s question-mark
upon your forehead.

With riveting figurative language she urges:

…more women
also swept beneath the family carpet.
Fight! I say…
Never shall we let them make us feel

like wedding ornaments, like nose-rings
returned dishonoured to the jeweller’s shop.

The Bearded Chameleon has a piece de resistance, ‘Another Bhagwanpur’, which opens:

A country village stuck in the buffalo mud
piles up its cow-pats, balancing clay pots
of mosquito water on the heads of women
who wear pregnancy under flimsy shawls.

The metaphorically stuck-in-mud village is personified by its ‘orchestration’ of cow-pats and women’s actions. The stereotypical heads balancing pots become thought-provoking with ‘mosquito’ water — potential drama not associated with the image. Women ‘wear’ prominent pregnancies. We learn much from skilfully packed lines:

The village council of five cannot fight
the school’s wrong sums and cane-learning;
cement walls, white-washed by government,
the young men employed by opium.

There’s doctors who ‘deal in snake-bite mantras’ and this arresting portrait:

…the last Gandhian freedom-fighter
props up old glory on a walking stick.

More transfixing language concludes this village vignette: ‘the night-long typhoid prayers to Ram.’ Sixteen lines have the reader experience a tour de force.

There are flawed moments. If information becomes a poet’s ‘driver’ the poetry usually suffers; this happens with Mooney-Singh’s portraits and some traditional-story retelling. ‘Mr Chopra’ is mostly prosaic description. ‘Apartment of a Bombay Millionaire’ and ‘Mrs Pritima Devi’ are generally similar and include unnecessary didacticism. In ‘Yogesh Meets Ganesh’ and ‘Advice From An Uncle’ storytelling dissolves the poetry. There are moments when things don’t work. ‘A Punjabi Leda and the Swan’ presents an ostensibly good metaphor between the Western myth and a man raping a woman in contemporary India, but there’s awkward passages; the mental wrestling needed to wrap one’s head around these reduces effectiveness — a forced sensibility suggesting the legend doesn’t fit the poem’s context. Sometimes poetically good ‘moments’ are undermined by additional figurations:

Saffron priests say Out!
like big sticks hunting rats
along the temple drains.

The images of saffron priests and big sticks hunting rats in drains are vivid; but the linking simile is not – verbal commands and running with sticks are dissimilar actions. The ‘common ground’ is intensity, a minimal likeness. Since the commands are projected by priests, effectiveness is further reduced; whatever the faith, clerics don’t undermine their authority with doing-the-shitwork frenetics. The collection has instances of overwriting.

I look out into the darkness for you.
Rest is the wraith
that will not let me sleep.

This image’s potential is under-realised with the superfluous ‘out’ and the prosey ‘let me’. Direct ‘ownership’ of the wraith and tighter presentation like (for example) ‘Rest is my wraith that will not sleep’ increases metaphorical impact. ‘I Come in Winter to a City Without You’ is curiously headed by this Mallarmé quotation: ‘Oh so dear from afar and nearby’. What is this quote’s purpose? True, it fits the theme – but Mooney-Singh’s poem says it much better than this (unusually) ordinary Mallarmé line; a redundant epigraph, it may imply credibility is sought through an artificial hitch to the famous. High-profile quotations can be epigraphically effective. But there’s risk that contrast with iconic lines may diminish one’s own and inclusion may appear to ‘name-drop’. If the same poem’s ‘the god of small transactions’ is an allusion to Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning Indian novel The God of Small Things, should this be acknowledged? Or is it a subliminal reference to the novel? Could it be pure coincidence? Of course the reader is never ‘party’ to writers’ thoughts. It’s suffice to say that if Mooney-Singh was aware of his line’s similarity to Roy’s title, it was advisable to not use it and rely on his own words.

There are minor irritants; an alcoholic’s problems are lessened with a cliché (‘all have raised a storm’) and curiously excessive use of colons and semi-colons. These ‘punctuations’ enhance pauses but frequent use impairs poetic flow and produces a ‘boy who cried wolf’ effect – reduced impact of their effective moments. The poem ‘Families’, mostly a prosaic list, has poetry in its rhythm, which leads to the other key feature of Mooney-Singh the poet: performance. It was informative to attend the collection’s launch. Prosey patches were enlivened, reflecting that a not insignificant proportion is ‘poems for the stage’. His performance embraced skilful light/shade vocals and effective nylon-string guitar accompaniment. The Bearded Chameleon progresses strong poetic qualities Mooney-Singh crafted in his first collection The Laughing Buddha Cab Company (2007). To gain full appreciation one should experience the performance.

 

PHILTON’s poetry and short fiction have appeared in Overland, Island, Quadrant, Envoi (UK) and translated into Chinese for Chung Wai Literary Monthly.

Michael Spann : Black Outlaws

Australians love to venerate and immortalise their outlaws as heroes, seeing rebelliousness and the concept of a ‘fair go’ as part of their cultural identity.  Men such as Ned Kelly, Mad Dog Morgan and Jack Doolan have been celebrated in both film and song for sticking it to the authorities and battling for the ‘little man’ but two other non-white figures going back to the first days of colonisation have until recently flown under the radar: John ‘Black’ Caesar, a black African who was Australia’s first bushranger and Pemulwuy, an almost mythical Aboriginal warrior who led the indigenous resistance against the fledgling British settlement.

It comes as a surprise to most Australians that there were 11 black men on the First Fleet in 1788.  Caesar was one of these.  His journey probably began in Madagascar.  Taken as a slave to work in the fields in Virginia in the United States, he became one of the hordes of slaves to take refuge behind British lines in the American War of Independence.  After the defeat of the British in 1783, a fleet carrying many runaway slaves and black loyalists fled to Nova Scotia.  Caesar, thought to be 14 years old at the time, was one of them.  The Minerva then took him to England in the same year, joining an estimated 9000 other slaves who had also left America.

Even though London was unquestionably the world’s greatest city and for some the streets were paved with gold, for most it was an unforgiving place full of danger and vice.  For most of the former black loyalists the situation was dire and some, like Caesar turned to crime to survive.  In 1786 in Kent, he was convicted of stealing money and soon was in the Ceres; a fetid, disease ridden prison hulk on the Thames.  This was merely a precursor to being chained between decks for the trip on the Alexander to that outpost of the Empire, Botany Bay.   

It is impossible to know for certain which black was in the initial work party at Botany Bay, but with Caesar’s imposing stature and immense physical strength (he was thought to be the strongest convict in the First Fleet) it wouldn’t be far fetched to say that he was one of the men sent ashore to try and carve something from the black sandy soil.  Aboriginals from the Eora tribe who met the party must have not only been confused by the white convicts and marines in their strange garb  but also by a pitch black man in the self same get up talking the same language as these otherworldly creatures.  Finding Botany Bay not to their liking the entire fleet moved north to Port Jackson a few days later.

From our vantage point of history it is difficult to comprehend but in terms of European civilisation the First Fleet literally had nothing and the 732 convicts with their inadequate tools had to start from Year Zero.  The rules they worked under were simple and brutal.  Anyone caught stealing would hang.  If they didn’t work, they didn’t eat and anyone trying to enter the woman’s tents would be shot.  Of course this last rule lasted about as long as the ink took to dry and one officer in a letter home to his wife recalled that the woman’s camp soon resembled ‘whoredome’.  The rations supplied to the convicts for their back breaking tasks were too little and in a couple of months were further reduced.  Quite simply, for a man of Caesar’s size the rations were not enough and as noted by the man who would soon to become his nemesis, Marine Captain David Collins, Caesar was always ravenous. As such, Caesar’s first infraction in the new colony was when he was accused of stealing four pounds of bread from the tent of another convict.  Although the surviving records don’t show Caesar’s punishment it is safe to assume he was tied to a tree and given 100-300 lashes.  On this occasion it is also likely to assume that still swinging from the same tree that Caesar was tied to was a 17 year old youth who had been hung for stealing bread.  The savage parameters of the new colony had been set but did little to stop the settlement sliding further into hunger as crops and animal rearing failed and dysentery and scurvy raised their ugly heads.

In April 1789, in what was to become a pattern, Caesar appeared in court for stealing.  This time he wasn’t flogged but received a much worse punishment as his sentence was increased from seven years to life.  Seeing a lifetime of punitive brutality and hunger stretching before him, Caesar made the first of his escapes.  With a stolen musket and cooking pot, Caesar ventured into the great unknown beyond the settlement but was captured shortly after, weak with hunger and offering no resistance. This time, Caesar was sentenced to death. 

The evocative alleged last words of Ned Kelly ‘Such is Life’ now feature on tattoos and on Eureka Stockade flags co-opted by drunken louts on Australia Day, reinforcing Kelly’s status as Australia’s folk hero of folk heroes.  Caesar’s nonchalant reply on sentencing should also be duly celebrated but problems of translation may hinder this.  He told the judge, “if they should scrag him he would quiz them all and show them some gig at the nubbing cheat, before he was turned off.”  A loose translation of this convict argot was that he would play a trick on the executioner and get a laugh for both he and the crowd before he was hung.  Judge Collins, who at various times called Caesar  ‘ a wretch’, ‘a mere animal’ and ‘insensible alike to punishment and kindness’ did not want Caesar to become a symbol of convict resistance, something which may have eventuated if the proposed execution was turned into some sort of theatre.  Instead Caesar, who was not averse to hard work was sent to work in chains on Garden Island, in the middle of Sydney Harbour, from where the settlement’s vegetables were supplied. 

Even though he was allowed to supplement his meagre rations with what he grew Caesar again escaped in December 1789 after convincing sympathetic guards to remove his chains.  Taking a canoe and a week’s worth of provisions he headed into the interior, stopping only to steal a musket from the settlement.  He roamed for six weeks until he was recaptured suffering from severe spear wounds.  Various accounts have been put forward as to how he had come to be speared; from his own unlikely tale that he had been trying to drive a lost herd of cattle away from Aborigines back to the settlement to the idea that he had tried to integrate himself with the Aborigines but had committed a cultural error and was cast out.  The most probable cause was Caesar (who had no ammunition for his musket) would descend on Aborigines when they had anything on the fire, swaggering and brandishing his musket.  The Aborigines who had no idea that Caesar had no ammunition and knowing the power of the weapon, scattered.  That was until he lost his musket and was attacked.  Again given the sentence of death, he was sent to hospital to recover until fit enough to hang.  

Probably realising at this stage it was far easier to get rid of Caesar (in a geographical sense), he once again escaped the noose and in 1790 was sent to far away Norfolk Island.  On Norfolk, with the incentive of more freedom and food Caesar  threw himself into his work and took a wife, Anne Poore.  Making a good go of it, Caesar worked his one acre plot for three days a week, providing not only enough for himself but also his family which now included a baby daughter.  Even so, not all was rosy on Norfolk Island and circumstances were again conspiring to change the trajectory of Caesar’s journey.  When soldiers from the New South Wales Corps (a body of men whose self penned motto of profits over glory attracted a less than desirable bunch) replaced the Marines on the island they demanded land of their own as well as women.  Being a law unto themselves, their demands were taken very seriously and to avoid bloodshed, ‘trouble makers’  like Caesar were sent back to Sydney in 1793.  His family was not permitted to come with him.

During the time that Caesar had been on Norfolk, Pemulwuy had also put himself on the British hit list by spearing John McIntyre, one of Governor’s game hunters.  The spear (used by the Bidjigal clan of the Eora peoples) had been designed to cause a slow and painful death with barbs meant to come off when the spear head was removed from the body.  A reprisal operation took place (interestingly led by another black convict, John Randall) which was supposed to capture Pemulwuy and bring back the heads of another six Aboriginal men.  This grisly operation was an utter failure with no Aboriginals found but Pemulwuy was now too, a marked man.                

A distraught Caesar arrived back in Sydney with the settlement careering towards starvation.  The only thing not in short supply was alcohol, which like most saleable items was controlled by the New South Wales Corps.  Almost as if he had come full circle, Caesar again absconded and following the same pattern was caught and flogged unmercifully.  But like a scene in ‘The Proposition’, Caesar, with flesh hanging from his back and the flogger wiping gore off the cat of nine tails after each stroke, refused to buckle telling Collins that ‘all the flogging in the world would not make him better’.  In the eyes of the other convicts Caesar’s acts of defiance as well as his swift turn of phrase gained him an almost legendary standing amongst his fellows.    

Pemulwuy and the Eora had also become a bigger problem as the settlement spread from Sydney and Parramatta, further encroaching on Aboriginal land and chasing away more game.  In a series of co-ordinated attacks, Pemulwuy’s gang (which included a couple of Irish runaways who helped with information about the settlement and military tactics of the British) raided settlers farms stealing ripening crops and provisions.  The British put these raids down to the Aboriginals having taken a liking to corn, not giving the Aboriginals credit enough for an organised coherent strategy designed to get them out of their hunting lands.  The attacks pushed the settlement to the brink and the British responded by retaliating harshly.  Pemulwuy responded in kind and dead were left on both sides in a series of gruesome attacks and counter attacks.  For a time it looked as though the raids and guerilla tactics would prevail as amongst the British there was talk of abandoning prime farming land and looking for new sites.  One can imagine the British wondering who was the biggest scourge to the new settlement, the Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy or the incorrigible Black Caesar. 

This was especially so when Caesar escaped ‘honest labour’ again.  This time, however he was more successful as like other bushrangers after him, he was able to get arms, ammunition and supplies from the growing number of ex-convict settlers who sympathised with him and his stand against oppression.  Nor was Caesar the only runaway and soon a ragtag gang had formed around him.  The legend of the first Australian bush ranger had been born.  Although death would be the only thing that would make Caesar ‘acceptable’ to the British authorities he achieved a notion of acceptability when he clashed with Pemulwuy.  The swirling miasma of history has obscured the reasons for this clash (some have suggested that Pemulwuy and Caesar had joined forces) but the bloody conflict left Pemulwuy severely wounded with a fractured skull and musket wounds.  At first, the rumours that filtered back to the settlement stated that the feared Aboriginal warrior was dead, cheering the authorities no end.  Judge Collins still considered Caesar as a ‘savage of a darker hue, and full as far removed from civilisation,’ but having removed one of the obstacles to the success of the colony sent word to Caesar that he was ready to cut him some slack.  Caesar from bitter experience had become inured to the broken promises and savagery of the British laughed off the offers and continued on his newly found bush ranging ways.  Caesar’s continued defiance and resulting embarrassment to the authorities led to other offers of conditional pardons but Caesar, echoing villains past and present sent back word he wouldn’t come in or be taken alive.

In January 1796, an official notice was published which made every scoundrel in the colony sit up and take notice.  ‘Whoever shall secure this man Black Caesar and bring him in with his arms shall receive as a reward five gallons of spirits.’  As alcohol was more plentiful than food and more important than money this large reward attracted more than its fair share of bounty hunters.  As  time went by and Caesar was still at large, his legend and celebrity grew until every crime in the colony was being attributed to him and breathless reports built him up to almost invincible proportions.  Alas, this was not the case and on the 15th of February 1796 at Liberty Plains west of Sydney Cove, Black Caesar was shot down in cold blood by an alcoholic ex-highwayman, John Winbow who may have been part of Caesar’s own gang.  An unflinching Collins when hearing the news of the death of the first icon of convict resistance wrote, ‘thus ended a man who certainly during life could never have been estimated at one remove above the brute.’             

If the British thought getting rid of Black Caesar would calm things down they were sadly mistaken as in February, 1797, a fully recovered Pemulwuy managed to attack the small outpost of Toongabbie, five miles west of Parramatta.  With many of the Eora nation’s sub groups attracted to his cause, much of Toongabbie was burnt and ransacked as it became the first town in the new colony to be taken by the indigenous peoples.  Even though this attack sent shivers down the spines of both settlers and authorities alike, it was nothing like March of the same year when the stronghold of Parramatta was attacked in what became known as the ‘Battle of Parramatta’.  Much of the town’s population retreated to the military stockade as many of the farms and houses on the outskirts were hit in the audacious attack.  Fierce battles broke out with losses on both sides.  Much to the authorities embarrassment, this ‘riotous and primitive savage Pemulwuy’ managed to take the town briefly before he was felled, shot seven times.  He was captured and taken to a hospital, near death. 

Pemulwuy, amongst his own people was known to be a ‘clever man’, that is someone associated with being able to harness supernatural powers.  His escape from jail only emphasised these claims as after all how could a severely wounded man in leg irons, get away.  To the Eora, the explanation was simple, he had turned himself into a bird and flown away … The white settlers, some already half believing the rumours that bullets couldn’t kill him (they somehow passed right through him) and that he could be in several places at once became even more skittish after Pemulwuy recovered and resumed his attacks.  This time, his main weapon was a terrifying ally that his people had used for millennia, fire.

Burning down crops and the areas surrounding farms, Pemulwuy sowed seeds of terror and again pushed the settlement towards famine.  Wheat Protection Squads were set up but Pemulwuy changed his tactics again, letting the men protect the crops as he attacked the homes, terrifying the women and children.  Soon, the Protection Squads were useless as the men refused to venture far from their terrified families.  Added to this, the bushrangers Thomas Thrush and William Knight were thought to be in cahoots with him.  Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until late 1801 (and after 11 years of resistance) that Pemulwuy’s name was recorded in an official document  ̶  a sign perhaps of the whitewashing of history that occurred after his death.  The all powerful New South Wales Corps seeing their profits being snatched from them with the continual attacks and fires around Parramatta and its prime farming land, responded in kind.  Every known Eora campsite was to be attacked and anyone found there, killed.  Massacres of children, women and the elderly followed.  Already  decimated due to an outbreak of influenza, the indigenous Eora teetered on the brink of extinction.

Coupled with this was the staggering reward put on Pemulwuy’s head: 20 gallons of spirits, free pardon and two suits of clothes.  In June 1802, Pemulwuy ‘The Rainbow Warrior’ (so called because he wore the various colours of the distinct groups that made up the Eora nation) was shot dead, his head cut off and sent to England for ‘scientific’ purposes.  Even his enemies had to acknowledge, ‘although a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character’.  His son Tedbury continued the fight until, he too, was killed in 1810. 

Although being seen as a heroic figure by the Aborigines, Pemulwuy has also gained recognition in the wider community: a suburb in Sydney was named after him, as well as a park.  Prince William, on a recent visit to Australia was presented with a petition to have Pemulwuy’s remains brought back to Australia.  One can hope that these are the first steps in acceptance being gained by a true Australian hero.  Hopefully the same can also be said of his one time adversary, the giant Black Caesar.              

 


 

Michael Spann is currently trying to piece together the links between Australia and the mysterious German author B.Traven.  He currently lives in Brisbane, Australia.     

Cui Yuwei

Cui Yuwei was born and brought up in Xinyang, a small city with beautiful hills and clear waters in central China. In 2005, she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Central South University, where she studied as an English major. Shortly afterwards, she continued her study in Wuhan University and learned creative writing from Ouyang Yu, a renowned Australian poet and writer. In 2007, she completed an MA in English Literature there. After graduation, she moved to Zhuhai, a southern city in China. Currently, she is an English teacher in Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai, while she takes a great interest in writing poems and short stories.

 

Mother

We sat at dusk.
On the pebble walk we saw a child
toddling,
his watery lips shimmering in the westering sun.
A slim shadow of his little figure
fell like a petal
on my feet.
I heard the lines she said:
One day when I’m too sick to speak,
or kill myself,
I want a lethal injection to end it.

Slowly descended these words, 
as light as feathers;
they brushed by my leg,
twirled to the soil,
as if expecting no one to listen.

 

 

Merlinda Bobis

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

 

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gapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostone

gapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostone

gapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostone

gapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostone

gapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostone

gapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostone

gapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostone

gapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostone

gapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostonegapobatostone

 

-from Pag-uli, Pag-uwi, Homecoming. Poetry in Three Tongues (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, Manila

 

***

93

 

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
of eucalypt.’

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,
pomelo-scented bucketfuls
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
between pulses,

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
to say,

‘Mahal kita, mahal kita.’

 

—from Was A Fast Train Without Terminals  (Spinifex Press, North Melbourne)


Detainee

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

 

***

Five 

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) 

 

Covenant

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,
the arm-kite

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
beyond retrieval?

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
and rectitude

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).

 

 

Jorge Yviricu translates a poem by José Kozer

José Kozer, born in Havana, Cuba, 1940, has lived in the USA since 1960, taught Spanish literature at Queens College from 1965 to 1997, and is now living in Hallandale, Florida. Kozer is the author of 56 books of poetry and his work has been partially translated into several languages as well as published in many journals and anthologies.

 

DIVERTIMENTO (MA NON TROPPO)

La
madre
le
gritaba,
y

él, pato que era, metía la cabeza bajo un ala,

la oía cacarear, a grito
pelado desde lo alto
denostaba excoriando
excoriándolo chillaba
madre al fin que era
y con qué fin quién
lo sabrá, a voz en
cuello hendía y
hurgaba úvula
amígdalas cuerdas
vocales donde, pato
que era, el chico
supuraba, a final
de cuentas era su
madre, ¿no estaba
en su derecho? Él
se arrebujaba más
a fondo bajo el ala,
la madre le volaba
la cabeza, el chico
veía serafines,
húsares, calendas
griegas, oía vibrar
las trompas del
Señor, se santiguaba
a la manera de los
ortodoxos rusos, la
señal de la cruz a
la altura de los labios:
a qué le chillan, por
qué la madre
despotrica, esa
madre vulnerando
sus costumbres que
desde niño, ¿o no
se ha dado cuenta?
después de todo él
es él, a quién molesta
o hace daño, pero por
Dios, que baje Dios y
lo vea, se lo diga a la
madre, si es todo un
muchachón de
nótese calidad
elevada, ved su
gran amor, en
efecto, por la
Humanidad: qué
más pedir, pedirle,
y la vieja dejar de
espetarle groserías,
denuestos, gritarle
tales verracadas,
lo enciende oírla
hurgar y hurgar ahí
do el pecado se
pone más de
manifiesto ah igual
que en el Romance
del Rey Rodrigo, lo
leyeron en clase,
con qué emoción
lo leyó de pie
ante la clase, lo
aplaudieron: algunos
rieron: las chicas casi
lloran: y el amigo de
su amigo le dio un
abrazo a oscuras
que por poco lo
hace mixto lo
apachurra se le iba
la vida cuánta emoción:
y mete la cabeza aún
más bajo el ala, no la
oye chillar sus burradas,
se besan se abrasan
son Uno (fundidos) en
santo y casto Amor
que todo lo vence,
coño, sal de ahí que
te conozco bijirita,
basta ya de tus, a
quién te crees que
engañas: tú, que
nunca podrás
concebir, anda,
ve y hazme abuela,
ve, ven ya palomo
de mamá, cosona
mía, curruca, alba de
alas, buche, cloaca, mi
aguilucho sin destino
conocido, gallina
tragona (por detrás)
cresta (mamá, no seas
vulgar) vaya mota que
gastas hijo mío, ve y
mírate en el espejo,
el ridículo que haces:
sal, ven, besa y
quiéreme, quiéreme
mucho, como si fuera
esta noche y bla bla
bla la última vez,
¿ves?

cómo
y
cuánto
la
vieja,
grita,
te
idolatra.

 

 

DIVERTIMENTO (MA NON TROPPO)

His
mother
screamed
at him,
and

he, silly goose, ducked his head under a wing,

listening to her cluck, screaming
from on high
reviling lashing
lashing out at him screeching
after all she was his mother
to what end who
will ever know, her voice
on high rented the air and
searched uvula
tonsils vocal
chords where, gay goose
that he was, the boy
oozed, after
all she was his
mother, wasn’t it
her right? He
wrapped himself more
thoroughly under his own wing,
his mother blew
his brain, the boy
saw seraphim,
hussars, a month of
Sundays passed by, he heard
the horns of the Lord
vibrate, crossed himself
as the
Russian Orthodox do, the
sign of the cross
at the height of the lips:
why all the screeching at him, why
does his mother
carry on, his own
mother violating
his habits of a
lifetime, or doesn’t
she realize?
after all he is
what he is, whom does he bother
or hurt, for heaven’s
sake, let God Himself come down
and witness it, tell his
mother, he’s a big
old boy of
obviously outstanding
quality, behold his
great love, truly,
for
Humanity: why
ask for anything else, ask him for more,
and his old lady to stop
spitting rude words at him,
insults, screaming
such nonsense,
it stirs him to hear her
digging and digging right there
whence the sin resides
most
apparent oh just
as in the Ballad
of King Roderick, it
was read in class,
with such feeling
he read it standing
before the class, they
applauded him: some
laughed: the girls almost
cried: and his friend’s
friend gave him such an embrace
in the dark
that almost
neutered him squashing his
life away with such
tremendous feeling:
he ducks his head even
more under his own wing, doesn’t
hear her asinine screeches,
they kiss and burn
they are One (fused together) in
holy and chaste Love
which overcometh all,
shit, stop pretending
my little bird,
stop your, who
do you think
you’re fooling: you who will
never be able
to conceive, go ahead,
go ahead and make me a grandma,
go ahead, come here mama’s
big dove, love of my
life, white-throated honey, feathered
wings, belly, cloaca, my
good-for-nothing
eaglet, greedy
hen (aft)
cock comb (mother please, don’t be
crass) what a great hairdo
sonny boy, go check yourself
out in the mirror,
how ridiculous:
come on, come here, kiss and
love me, love me a lot
as the song goes,
tonight and blah, blah,
blah for the last time,
do you see?

how
and
how much
your
old lady,
screaming,
worships
you.

 

Born in Cuba and educated there and in the U.S., after a long career in the teaching profession, Dr. Jorge Yviricu is now Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages at California State University, Bakersfield. He has published criticism on many Latin American novelists and poets as well as his own poetry and short stories. His previous translations include Spanish versions of poems by Sylvia Plath and Marilyn Hacker.