Nathanael O’Reilly reviews Letters to My Lover from a Small Mountain Town by Heather Taylor-Johnson

Letters to My Lover from a Small Mountain Town

by Heather Taylor Johnson

ISBN 9781921869662

Interactive Press



While searching online for new collections of Australian poetry in 2008, I came across Heather Taylor Johnson’s debut collection, Exit Wounds (Picaro Press, 2007). As an Australian residing in the United States, I was immediately intrigued by Taylor Johnson’s bio – she is an American who moved to Australia in 1999, married an Australian and is now raising children in Adelaide. As an Australian living in America, married to an American and raising a child in Texas, I sensed that I would find much to connect with in Taylor Johnson’s work. When I read Exit Wounds, I was pleased to find a collection of wonderful poems about expatriation, family, loss, belonging, acceptance, distance and establishing a new life in another country. When given the opportunity to review Taylor Johnson’s second collection, I was eager to discover how her poetry has developed. 

            Letters to My Lover from a Small Mountain Town addresses many of the same themes as Exit Wounds; however, the new poems are set in the United States rather than Australia, focusing on experiences, events and relationships during 2010, a year Taylor Johnson spent with her family living in Salida, a small town in Colorado. The collection contains forty-eight poems, some of which have appeared previously in journals including Mascara, Transnational Literature, Five Poetry Journal and Page Seventeen. Taylor Johnson’s poetics favours personal poems less than thirty lines in length, although she also composes the occasional prose poem. She experiments with stanza and line length, sometimes adhering to a specific pattern, such as the eighteen couplets of “Everything is Possible Today,” at other times incorporating stanzas and lines of varying length, as well as spaces within lines, as she does in “Ladies’ Night at the Vic.” Taylor Johnson often employs punctuation minimally, but it is never totally eschewed. The overall result is a style that is casual and playful, yet not highly experimental. Taylor Johnson’s diction favours the vernacular and is always accessible; her poetry invites and welcomes the reader into her world, never excluding or pushing away.

            The physical environment in Colorado, especially the Rocky Mountains, plays a major role in Letters to My Lover from a Small Mountain Town. The opening poem, “Salida,” establishes the focus on nature: “You have always been – / when the sun rose / as the trout swam / before the Rockies had a name.” Throughout the collection, the poet and her children, husband and friends are frequently depicted outside enjoying nature, marvelling at the mountains, playing in the snow, riding bikes, swimming in waterfalls, being caressed by “a sexy wind” (“Amongst It”) “while lazing outdoors, always outdoors” (“We Are All Consonants”). Thus, Taylor Johnson combines nature with the personal in a manner reminiscent of the British Romantic poets. The collections’ title highlights the personal focus of the poems, many of which are love poems to Taylor Johnson’s husband. The poet repeatedly celebrates love, joy, beauty, motherhood and family life.

            In “We Are All Consonants,” Taylor Johnson mentions Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman, and she also quotes Angelou in “Morning After,” while Rita Dove and Erica Jong are both named in “I will give you soup.” The acknowledgment of the influence of feminist writers is not surprising, especially for readers familiar with Taylor Johnson’s previous work. Taylor Johnson’s poetry celebrates many aspects of womanhood, including the physical, intellectual, spiritual and emotional. Additionally, the acknowledgment of Angelou’s influence points to the inspirational aspect of Taylor Johnson’s work, which can be clearly seen in “Ladies’ Night at the Vic” and “I will give you soup.” Inspirational poetry is disparaged in some quarters, and the challenge for a poet like Taylor Johnson is to write about such topics without doing so in a manner that is trite, overly sentimental, or simply uninteresting to anyone who does not know the poet personally; whether or not Taylor Johnson’s work crosses the invisible border is purely a matter of the individual reader’s taste.

            The engagements with the issue of expatriation in the new collection reveal an evolution in Taylor Johnson’s poetics. Rather than the exit wounds of her debut collection, the poet’s expatriate status is acknowledged and accepted, but not lamented. In the humorous prose poem, “An Ode to American Microbrews,” the speaker describes her accent as “hybrid” and “hemispheric,” signalling recognition of a changed identity and suggesting that the new hybrid status is an addition rather than a subtraction. In the same poem, the speaker declares “I love my country,” referring to the United States, but plans to mail the labels steamed from the beer bottles “back to Australia.” In “Love Poem,” an American flag is “torn to shreds” by the wind while the Australian flag flies solidly beneath it, perhaps suggesting that a choice has been made regarding allegiance. Throughout the collection, Australia is positioned as the permanent home of the poet, and America is presented as a temporary dwelling-place and former home. Nevertheless, the dark side of the expatriate condition is never far below the surface; in “Distant Cousins,” a poem about visiting relatives in Aberdeen, Washington, Taylor Johnson writes:      

Sadness catches in my chest as I inhale Pacific mist
wonder if we’ll see each other again,
Australia so far it bends even time.
At our age we think about these things –
            family, mobility, the hesitation of each day.
            Funerals also too easy to imagine.

            Despite acknowledging the dark side of life, Letters to My Lover from a Small Mountain Town is an overwhelmingly positive collection. Taylor Johnson obviously enjoys and appreciates life and has the admirable ability to find joy in the everyday. Her ability to experience simple pleasures, rather than merely observe them, is evident in “I ♥ California”:

Cold patches in the lake
and oh, the water, how we drank
the runoff of the Sierra Nevada
how we caught it from the river

(The phrase “oh, the water” seems to be borrowed from Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me,” in which the phrase is used repeatedly.) The physical pleasure of engaging with nature is also declared in “Love Poem” when the speaker exclaims “it’s this sun my god licking me / I’ve been drunk on it all day.” Taylor Johnson also clearly derives a great deal of pleasure from reading, writing and publishing poetry. In “Book Launch,” the speaker declares, “Poetry / you move me to silence / … / I wake with you, all day / mine, others, friends, those dead / all day you, and the rest is life.” The poet’s joy is abundant in the final stanza of the poem:

Oh the bound book! The published collection!
The reason to wear my frock!
Poetry, you sly unspoken pearl,
tonight I wear you like a necklace.

            For her second collection, Taylor Johnson has moved from one fine publisher of Australian poetry to another. Interactive Press has produced an eye-catching colour cover featuring a photograph of a turquoise flower with pink and red leaves lying in the sand. The back cover is adorned with a photograph of a smiling Taylor Johnson and blurbs from Chris Ransick, Jill Jones and Libby Hart. Interactive Press are to be commended for producing a beautiful book, but the choice of font, especially the cursive style of each poem’s title, strikes me as lacking gravitas. Similarly, I found Taylor Johnson’s use of spaces and forward slashes within lines distracting and affected. The spaces may encourage some readers to pause a little longer between phrases, but the forward slashes do not seem to add anything to the poems, appearing more decorative than substantive. Nevertheless, it is the content of the poems that matters most. I particularly admire Taylor Johnson’s willingness to write honestly about the personal and her ability to develop her own individual voice without regard for movements, trends or critical snobbery. Taylor Johnson has produced another fine collection of contemporary poems that deserves a wide audience and multiple readings.



NATHANAEL O’REILLY is the author of two chapbooks, Suburban Exile: American Poems and Symptom of Homesickness, both published by Picaro Press. He teaches Australian, Postcolonial, British and Irish literature at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.

Christine Ratnasingham

Christine Ratnasingham is a Sydney based writer and poet, who was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in England and Australia. She has had her poetry published in conversations, Extempore and Hypallage, and was awarded the HB Higgins Scholarship for Poetry from the University of Melbourne.



The Foreigner

Like a little bird, one you’ve never
seen before, who appears to have accidentally
flown in
           through a slightly open window
           and into an enclosed installation, enlarged
with people busily pecking at their own
and other people’s lives – flocking, talking, necking
          oblivious to what has just
          happened. You’ve seen it, but you’re
paralysed with hopelessness. What can you
do? She’s too fast to catch, filled with
           of panic, then stillness. And you watch
           her, realising that now, only seconds later
this furiously flapping bird
once frightened, now seems … okay, quite happy
in fact
           exploring her surrounds, making the most
           of the situation – nibbling at crumbs
jumping around feet, moving along with the crowd
blending in, and it seems that even if you
          to help her back outside, you may
          frighten her more, and perhaps
even be going against her will, and so
all you can now do is simply watch, slightly
          who’s to say she doesn’t belong
We all do
          don’t we?


Dark skin

I forget I have it, until I remember my childhood
when nearly every student felt they needed
to remind me that I was not of their whiteness 

I forget it clothes me, until I leave home
and catch photographic glimpses in bus windows
and ad hoc reflections, reminding me 

I forget it owns me, until I’m asked where
I’m from, for I can’t be from here?
But from somewhere else, a place I don’t really
know and that has forever branded me

I forget its beauty, until I see it on other
bodies that carry it with dignity
or when they are clothed to celebrate
their difference

Only one of my many parts, yet mostly, the first
one you’ll see when you look at me

I forget, then remember
I own my

dark skin


Diane Fahey

Diane Fahey’s The Wing Collection: New & Selected Poems 
was published by Puncher & Wattmann in 2011, and was short-listed for 
the John Bray Poetry Prize in the Adelaide Festival of Arts Awards, 
Diane has been selected for Australian Poetry’s Tour of Ireland in 2013.



Four Black-Winged Stilts

At the Barwon Estuary

As if linked by elastic thread, they lift,
trace a soundless arc across the river–
botanical, somehow, with their tapering
leaf-wings, their stem-legs. They forage
then rise as one again, drift through adverse
winds back to their spot in the shallows,
touching down at the same instant. 

Stilt hatchlings – brown-flecked heads and wings
sturdy legs half their height, fine bills a pointer
of things to come – are most easily found
in field guides, a dab of light in each inky eye.
Their future is to frequent marshlands,
make brisk forays across the water –
sometimes, with soul mates in triplicate. 


Eastern Rosellas

In a troupe they arrive one misty day
to give a musical tirade upon
the cherry plum’s bare boughs.
The lilt of their speech evokes the cries
of children at play – piercing, tremulous
 – and those of ancient scolds shrilling
what’s what in no uncertain terms. 

The primary force of yellow and red
is finessed by the gold-edged black lace
down their backs: such solid apparitions
they leave after-images in the air;
their speech, as I later recall it,
marked by swoops and lifts so giddily swift
they could only be voiced by those who fly.


Red Dirt by Fikret Pajalic

Fikret Pajalic came to Melbourne as a refugee in 1994. He has a BA Photography from RMIT and for years he used images to convey a message, only to realise that some stories are best told in words. He won equal first prize at the 2011 Ada Cambridge Short Story prize, has been highly commended in the 2011 Grace Marion VWC Emerging Writers Competition and in the 2011 Brimbank Short Story Awards. His work has been published in Platform and Hypallage magazines and Wordsmiths of Melton Anthology.




I felt the dust devil in my old bones before it formed on the paddock. The swirl of hot wind on my neck and the drop in air pressure sent a signal. Only a body like mine that spent a lifetime working the land could sense the imperceptible sign from nature.

Mack feels it too and he barks into the red dirt, taking a step back and glancing at me. I motion for him to sit and he does, uneasy and unsure. His tail hits the ground raising clouds of dust. There is something restless in the air. Something that raises the hair on both man and beast and it is best to avoid it like a dissonant tri-tone in medieval music.

‘Not of this world,’ my wife would say, urging me to stop work at noon on a hot day. She would mutter some words of protection in a language not spoken for generations. Neighbours mostly stayed away and spoke of the ‘family flaw’ that sticks to his wife’s womenfolk like a burr. Doctors talked about genetics, but I knew my wife as quirky. She spent her life trying to follow old superstitious tales only to die at childbirth while giving me twin boys.

‘May the black earth lie lightly upon her,’ said her mother after we lowered her shrouded body into the grave.

Her mother suffered from the same affliction as her daughter and possessed a myth, a legend or a tale for every occasion. She was convinced that her daughter, my wife, must have stepped over a buried body, an unmarked grave, somewhere in the field ensuring her death and marking my newborns for early demise. Now, all these years later, when my sons are long gone and their graves unknown, I think that the old woman wasn’t crazy after all.

The dust devil takes an upward shape and it moves wildly left and right across the thirsty ground. It loses momentum briefly, only to come back stronger seconds later. Mack finds new courage and rushes toward the column that stretches vertically, leaving marks on the earth like a giant pencil moved by an invisible hand. He barks and snarls and looks back at me searching for guidance. He feels that he must react, but is noticeably relieved when I call him back.

Above me the sun is sitting at noon having a short break, observing the world below, and the sky is without a cloud. It is for scenes like this that people invented the word surreal. The stillness stretched across the landscape as if someone froze the hot summer’s day. Only the dust devil danced to a soundless tune.

I put my gun back on safety and return it to its holster. The old bull will have to wait a little longer for his deliverance. I knew better than to make vila, Lady Midday, angry. Not in the old country, and not here in the red country. I kept the memory of my wife alive by following a couple of folk beliefs that she always stood by. For that reason I don’t touch the swallows’ nest that’s been in my roof for the past three years just in case they really are the guardians of good fortune.

Back in the land I was born in, it was said that Lady Midday roamed the fields during summer dressed in white. She would trouble the folk working the fields at noon causing heat strokes, aches in the neck and back, and sometimes madness for repeat offenders.

While I chew on my sandwich I watch the old bull. He is slow and cranky and he’s got cancer in one of his eyes. His hide is the colour of red cherries and his horns are grey. He is my first stud, my first buy who provided me with a steady income over the years and he helped me increase my standing with the local farmers. Not an easy thing for an outsider. He doesn’t know that he has only minutes to live.

In moments like these my thoughts always run together. I think about the old bull and his imminent death and his predicament inevitably reminds me of my two sons. They would have been forty in December had they lived. It is an irony of life that the old bull’s death will be the same as my sons.

After lunch, the dust devil is gone, dissipating in the air, but the feeling of disquiet stays with me. Mack helps me muster the old bull into the holding pen. He is a true working Kelpie and my only companion. He could run for days in the blistering heat or freezing cold. He works the cattle tirelessly by running across their backs, dropping down and expertly avoiding being stomped on. Mustering, yard work, droving, he does it all.

Mack is wise in the way of bush and stock. He trots while working and never gallops. Alert at all times and with serious expression until our work is done. He carries his tongue up against the roof of his mouth, not dangling like most dogs.

Mack and I once drove a mob of two hundred head of cattle from Dimboola to the abattoir on the edge of Geelong, losing none. We worked from dawn till dusk, my backside numb from riding and his paws hard as rock from running. His only reward was a good dinner and long pets from me.

Yet with all his apparent desire to please Mack was always able to think for himself. That’s how all Kelpies were bred, I was told. He knew how to pace himself and did not appreciate being driven too hard. There were a few occasions early on when he simply said ‘stuff you’ and walked off. But very quickly we got in tune with each other, the cattle and the land.

Those nights on the road we slept together, keeping each other warm. I would look at the stars above, pinned to the night sky in the shape of a cross, while my mind wandered to another lifetime. Tears would escape my eyes and Mack’s monotonous breathing and his warm body would send me to sleep with my heart forever full of pain.

After sleeping under the open sky we would wake with the first sliver of dawn light on our faces, damp from each other’s breath. The sun would rise in the outback reminding me of our collective smallness and my own insignificance. The greatness of the open spaces was at times overwhelming. I felt like I was drowning in the dry. After a time the land accepted me. My roots in it grew bigger, deeper. Its vastness and the work with cattle helped the pain. Days rolled into months, months into years.

More than half a century ago, when a bullock team did tillage and chemicals were found only on the apothecary table, my grandfather took me out to our fields for my first lesson about the land. It is a peculiarity of my mother tongue that we use one word for both the land and the Earth. Hence, all the lessons I was given, and they were only a few as my grandfather departed shortly after due to a weak heart, were the lessons about the Earth itself. And every life lesson is only a chapter in the book of death.

We knelt together on the ground and both grabbed a lump of black soil. Moist and clumpy, it stuck between my fingers. I cupped my hands and clapped them together. The sound coming from them was soggy and succulent. I put my dirty palms to my nostrils and smelled the soil. ‘Earth like this’, my grandfather said, ‘will give you all she’s got,’ and he beamed with joy. Somewhere in that same black earth, the remains of my sons are buried.

After arriving in this pancake flat part of Victoria my compatriots, refugees like me, and locals from Dimboola shook their heads in disbelief. Both sides said that ‘the country life is not for a foreigner.’ I had doubts too but kept them to myself. I had my own pain to carry and had nothing left of me for others.

Thankfully, my neighbour, an old man with thick white hair, but still straight as a pine tree, who lived on the station next to me didn’t agree with them. A day after my arrival he stopped by to introduce himself, bringing two legs of lamb and two kilos of steak.

He expressed his amazement that someone bought the land and told me that the first thing after getting a ute I needed to get a dog. He spat on the red earth and said that he would make a true-blue Aussie farmer out of me before the spit dried. ‘Or my name is not Pop McCord,’ he radiated with sincerity.

‘You only have two breeds to consider out here,’ he continued nodding at the vast expanse in front of us. ‘It’s either Heeler or Kelpie. Them little buggers are worth ten men easy. And they’re smarter than them too. Mark my words.’

I could not decide and told him that both looked very cute. I was about to elaborate on that and tell him that Heelers look like canine pirates with those dark patches around the eyes. Lucky for me Pop interrupted.

‘Cuteness got nothing to do with it, mate. Out here,’ he pointed with his thumb over his shoulder, ‘dogs aren’t pets. They’re workers. I reckon,’ Pop rubbed his stubble, ‘since I got a Kelpie bitch you get yourself a healthy Kelpie pup and next summer you and I will have some puppies to take care of.’

I nodded in agreement and Pop put an arm around me like we’d been friends forever and said ‘fan-fucken-tastic, I’ll pick you up at six sharp.’

The next morning we were on our way to Casterton where I picked Mack, a black-and-tan pure working Kelpie from a breeder for $900. At the time I thought that to be an outrageous price to pay for a dog only for Mack to prove himself later as invaluable. Just like Pop proved to be the best teacher a newbie in the outback could wish for. Everything I needed to learn about my new country I learnt from Pop and Mack.

As I walk toward the bull I see a cloud of dust billowing in the distance. Briefly I think it is another dust devil and later I wish that it were. Soon I recognize a motorbike heading in my direction. The feeling of disquiet returns and overwhelms my whole body like a tsunami hitting the shore. The postman is a new bloke, young and with skin complexion too fair for this part of the world. He looks like he’s been carved out of giant block of feta cheese and sprinkled with ground paprika.

‘G’Day Mr. Shmmm…,’ and he stops unable to pronounce my surname. I wave at him indicating that he should stop twisting his tongue. Years ago Pop would get annoyed with people who got my name wrong. That was until I told him that ‘they can call me a jam jar, for all I care, as long as they don’t break me.’ The young postie handed me a slip to sign.

Moments later I was holding a registered letter from International War Crimes Tribunal postmarked from Hague, Holland. It has been many years in coming. I walk over to the sparse shade of the mallee bush and open the letter. After I read it I fold it in half and put it in my shirt pocket.

I climb up the metal bars of the holding pen and sit above the old bull. We look at each other briefly. His brown eyes betray the last traces of hope. He starts thrashing, his eyes rolling in panic. He senses the end. If this old bull knows that there are only seconds left to live then my boys must have known too. I see their faces in the crowd of beaten men. Their scared eyes are searching for me.

As I point the gun between the horns, the crisp paper of the letter is rustling in my pocket. The envelope is whispering to me, telling me again everything I just read. It was a letter I was hoping never to receive but knew that it was coming. I was like a child who heard a bedtime story about the big bad wolf and then met one for real.

The monsters could not look them in the face. They shot them at the back of the head. Their hands were tied with wire and they were taken to the forest in pairs. Did any of three hundred and twelve men try to run? Did they cry, plead for help? Or did they collectively resign themselves to their fate? I imagine that hopelessness spread like wildfire among the condemned men. It is said that is common when collective fear grips people and paralyses them.

Which one of my boys fell to the ground first, while the other listened to the bullet bursting through the head, cracking the base of the skull, exiting on the other side and smashing the facial bones to pieces.

My finger is frozen on the trigger. In my mind I see the bullet leave the chamber and travel through the barrel. It enters the bull’s brain and continues down his spine rendering him dead in one precise hit.

The bull falls sideways and his heavy body hits the dirt raising red dust. There is a moment when I almost expect the bull to stand up and say to me defiantly ‘one bullet is not enough for me mate’. But it’s never happened. I have done this many times and my hand, despite my age, was always steady and my eyes sharp. There is a skill to killing an animal this way. And every skill is just a matter of number of repetitions.

Afterward the thud and the gunshot reverberate through my body and the whiff of gunpowder streams through my nostrils hitting the most hidden chambers in my brain, momentarily putting me on a high.

Mack would always look away during these moments. When I am done he would give me one of those stares with which he asks me if the same fate awaits him when he becomes old and decrepit and not able to run. Later I’d whisper to his big ears that we all are going to end some day.

This time Mack does not take his eyes away from me. He is surprised as I am. There is no shot, no gunpowder and no thud of 700-kilo bull. I climb down and let the bull out of the pen and he runs with a furious step, nostrils snorting.

Pop told me that he used to cut the carcasses of his dead cattle into fist size chunks and inject the meat with poison 1080. The meat would be scattered around the edge of the paddock in a five-kilometre radius.

‘We believed it to be the only way to protect the stock from packs of roaming wild dogs that tear the faces off calves before they eat them.’

He said that he stopped doing that when he saw a poisoned dog contorting in agony. While he talked about the damage this poison does to other animals I switched off and wondered if there is poison number 1079 and 1081. How many poisons did we create to subjugate nature?

‘It takes those wild bastards a whole day and night to die.’ Pop interrupted my thinking, shaking his head and not looking me into eyes. We both now have electric fencing and Pop keeps saying that we ought to get some livestock guardian dogs.

‘Bastard or not, no one deserves to die like that.’ Pop concluded. 

But Pop was wrong. There are demons in the shape of men out there that deserve to die a death just like that and a thousand times worse. On their knees twitching in a cold sweat while poison tears through their insides, frothing at their mouths and bleeding from their eyes for days.

Pop’s ute is an old Holden with a bench seat and column shift. We’ve been travelling for a couple of hours and the landscape to Melbourne is gradually changing from red to green. I look back at the sweep of blue gums that we are leaving behind us and like an orphan child I find myself missing the mother who adopted me.

Mack is sitting in the middle with his head on my lap. He knows something is up and he’s been quietly whining since we started the trip.

‘You’ll be all right with me for couple of weeks Mack, won’t you mate?’ Pop asks him to reassure both Mack and me. He then changes the subject and tells me about the bull.

‘The vet said that the eye operation went well. He reckons he removed all the cancer from the eye. Evidently the bull’s crankiness went out together with cancer.’

I manage to open my mouth and thank Pop.

At the airport I kneel down and talk softly to Mack. I can hear the spongy blinking of his eyes through the commotion of travellers.

Before we say goodbye Pop hands me a jar full of red dirt. I look at him, unsure.

‘So your boys always have a piece of you with them.’ He says and hugs me. As we embrace, Mack protrudes his muzzle between us and lets out a soft bark.



Soft Things by Sushma Joshi

Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker from Nepal. Her book The End of the World was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. Her short film The Escape was accepted to the Berlinale Talent Campus. She has a BA from Brown University.



Soft Things

Date: October 23, 1998

Location: Kamathipura

Black mounds of trash outside buildings that are crumbling, peeling. Punk and blue shutters and iron grilles in every balcony. Six balconies on each floor. What I take to be four storey houses, on closer inspection, have grilled openings above doors and between floors, with shadowy figures of women combing their hair with long, brisk motions. Little girls in frilly pink dresses pace back and forth.

“Children are good to have sex with,” says Kalu, with his weasley smile, a smile sticky with apology, promise, deception. “Their minds are not formed, so you can do whatever you want with them.” Kalu sits in a little wooden laundry shop on the 14th Lane in Kamathipura. Kamathipura, the city of love. Our translator and guide, Shailesh, has taken us to him, promising us that Kalu is a well-known pimp who can procure us the child prostitute that we are looking for.

“We are looking for some komal maal,” Sailesh says. Sailesh, a journalist from the local newspaper, who’s been recruited to take us along and act as our guide in the redlight district. In the words of international journalism, he’s a fixer. And that’s precisely what he’s doing right now—asking for a soft thing with the casual inflection of a man used to asking for soft things. I don’t think he necessarily frequents child prostitutes. But his tone makes it abundantly clear that whatever we are after, he’s willing to procure for us—and if it’s a soft thing, he’ll get us a soft thing. He is big and solid, dressed in casual clothes, speaking the local dialect like he’s one of the locals.

I try to act cool and go along, although every nerve in my body is telling me to move away from these people who are on their quest for a child prostitute.

Of course, the two women who I am translating for have an excuse for their vicarious glee when Kalu says he can find us many komal maal. The two women are in Asia to write a story about child trafficking. One is an award-winning photographer, and she urgently needs photographs. One is a writer—she urgently needs stories. They have been sent by the biggest, most important newspaper in London. They are both desperate for a child prostitute. I, their gullible translator who has flown in from Nepal on my own expense to accompany them, look at their greed and hunger and feel a physical sickness.

Perhaps it is the methodical way in which journalists try to get to their subjects, rather like hunters tracking down prey. Or perhaps it is the impatience that the two women are exuding after being stuck for a week in an expensive hotel in Marine Drive, with one fixer after another promising them girls that haven’t materialized. Perhaps it’s the combination of both, mixed in the Mumbai heat, that makes me feel the way I do.

Why am I here with them, you may ask. The reason is simple. A hard-smoking, hard-drinking friend of mine named Vidhea  had called me one day and said to me: “Sushma, there are two journalists here from the UK. They need a translator. Are you interested?” I was at that time employed by the Harvard School of Public Health, and I had made several trips already to Mumbai, where I had visited the red-light district and come to know of the situation of Nepali women there. When I said “yes,” it was more out of scholarly curiosity than the  need for employment.

Besides, Vidhea said, the two journalists were about to visit the famous rehabilitation home of Anuradha Koirala, who some had likened to the Mother Teresa of Nepal. Mother Teresa had recently received a group of girls rescued in a high profile raid from Mumbai. The raid had been done by one Balkrishna Acharya of the Rescue Foundation. These girls were now at her home. The only problem was that she didn’t like Nepalis to visit the home, but foreigners were very welcome. This, I thought, was a very good moment to see what was going on inside that institution. Mother Teresa had also recently received a million pound grant from Prince Charles to do her work, so British people were especially welcome.

Sometimes luck favors the bold. We had arrived an hour early. “Can we start our interview?” Mary asked. Mary, as the writer, felt sidelined by Olivia’s constant need to get her photographs, and the reminder that: “A photograph is worth a thousand words.” A young man there, with a rather militaristic demeanour, frowned, but he decided to bring one young girl into the room anyway. She was young, shy and fair. The interview started off well. The girl started to tell us about how she had been taken to the border, how she had been sold, how she had ended up in the brothels.

Then Mary broke in and asked a sympathetic question. “Did you know the man who was selling you?” she asked, flirtatiously. It was girl talk and girls knew how to get confidences out of each other. At the moment, I rather admired Mary’s interview skills.

The girl blushed. She was all of fourteen. “Yes, I knew him,” she said. “We went together. We were in love.”

“Ah, your boyfriend?” Olivia asked. “Boyfriend” sounded radical in this small room, with Anuradha’s man frowning from behind the chair where the little girl sat. The concept of “boyfriends” don’t exist in Nepal. It is as if people only get married at an appropriate age, and any relationships before that is considered non-existent.

The girl giggled.

The man stepped in. In a rather harsh tone, he said: “No, she didn’t know this man who took her,” he said. “She didn’t know him. He was a stranger.”

Anuradha Koirala’s institution soared to the skies telling the world Nepali girls were carted off to India by criminals offering them drugged mango Frooti drinks. The fact that adolescent girls may be having relationships with men and getting sold through the trust factor would besmirch their image as innocent girls in the hands of great danger. The young man left the room abruptly. We continued our conversation with the young girl. The young man returned and said very stiffly to Olivia: “You have a phone call from Anuradha.”

Olivia blanched. We were clearly in trouble. She left the room. When she returned, she was very agitated. “She screamed at me over the phone. Who is that Nepali? She asked me. We have to leave immediately.”” And this is what we did.

This was Kathmandu in 1998, where even the idea that teenagers may have had sexual relationships with men was an unthinkable idea. Young women could be virgins only, innocent victims of criminal gangs, never individuals with desires to travel the world, get jobs, take care of their families or have boyfriends.

It is often these desires, and the ways in which they cannot fulfill them in a safe manner, that land girls in bad places, even now. Fourteen years later, young Nepali women can now be found in Lhasa nightclubs, instead of Kamathipura. But I have no doubt those in the rehabilitation business are still insisting that women are being drugged rather than going of their own accord.

Now lets go back to Kamathipura, where we are still seeking our Nepali child prostitute.

“Hah, hah,” says Kalu. “I’ll bring her out to a hotel and you can do whatever you want with her. Whatever you want.” His “whatever” falls along a continuum of rape, defloration, torture and photography. You can do whatever you want with her, he promises, allowing the women perfect leeway to violate virginity, body, and privacy with equal access.

The negotiations continue. Olivia is willing to go to the guesthouse to see the girl. She says she cannot go back with the photographs she has—they are useless. I raise my eyebrows, and try to tell her, without opening my mouth: Maybe we should be careful. Kalu, with his knife scar, his greasy laugh and his assurances are not a guarantee I want to trust my life with.

Kalu sees my raised eyebrows. He turns to me and addresses me directly: “Ahhh.” He exhales his breath, considers me, pauses. I look at him, defiant. “Where are you from?”

“America,” I lie. I try to hide behind my glasses and my American accent. I am not one of these Nepali girls he is used to selling for a hundred dollars. I am different, I think in panic.

“You should take off your glasses,” he says. “You’d look pretty without them.” I don’t want to take off my glasses. Without glasses, my vision blurs and I feel helpless. I glare at him.

I take a deep breath, try to look intimidating. Inside, I feel the dreadful sinking of fear. Olivia looks at me with scorn, as if to say: toughen up. He’s just a pimp. If we can deal with him, so can you.

“Here,” he says, getting up to get what looks like a plastic album down from a ledge in the rafters of the wooden box. “I have many college students like you. Many college girls who are available. All kinds. Very well educated. English speaking. They are available, with photos. If you ever want to work, leave your photo with Kalu.” And he grins that khaini, tooth-rotting smile. He flips open the album. Photograph after photograph of women in pretty kurtas and college outfits peer out.

“Okay,” I say, trying to hold on to my last bit of cool. What answer is there for a pimp who’s just offered you a job as a low-paid prostitute? “I don’t think I’m interested, though.”

Kalu gets interested now. “Ohhhh… Memsahib,” he says, smiling some more. “This is Kamathipura. Its united. If we didn’t like you, you can enter here and never leave again. Nobody would ever find you again.” He looks at me directly in the eye, making sure I have understood what he’s just said.

I give an offhand smile, and pretend I haven’t understood his threat. I smile, I shrug. I move slightly away, suddenly aware of the slit in the back of my dress, the blue and black flowered dress that I had bought in Colaba and which had seemed so innocent, and now in the heat and stench of Kamathipura suddenly takes on sinister connotations. I take out my Konica, and fiddle with the lenses. My big fat solid Konica, which I’d bought for a hundred bucks in Providence, Rhode Island, and which had stood me in good stead for so many years. I pray I won’t have to use it as a weapon.


Last night, we have just been taken to a tour of Kamathipura by a flamboyant man who has taken a fancy to us, and wants to act as tour guide. His name is Ramjee, and he says he’s a local. We find him at an open air building where he’s taking an afternoon nap, along with other well-oiled, scantily clad men. It looks like they’ve all recently had a massage–their bodies glisten with oil. The male energy is palpable—I wonder if this is the local version of a gay club.

“Do you know where we can find a young Nepali prostitute?” Olivia asks with brazen desperation.

And he looks at them, sees the white skin, gets up slowly, and enunciates: “Hello Madam.”

Ramjee is pleased, indeed, almost happy to see us. He sees the two British women and instantly his demeanor becomes grand and flowery. He starts to declaim. He demands that he be allowed to take us around. He insists. Somehow, somewhere, he asks the questions: “Are you in any way connected to the British Royal Family? To the Queen?” It’s a setup, but we play along.

Almost flawlessly, as if to fulfill this deception that we all know we are participating in, Mary, the smoother one, says: “Yes, we are sent by Prince Charles. He’s very interested in stopping child trafficking, you see. Yes, we are sent by the Royal Family of England.”

That’s all Ramjee needs. “Madams, tonight,” he explains, “is Laxmi Pooja, the night of Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth. All the brothels, by a stroke of luck, must keep their doors open tonight so that the Goddess doesn’t feel offended by the close doors. We can go wherever we want to go.” The women look at each other and shrug, trying not to show their glee. “Yes, please. We would like a tour, thank you,” they say, as if this is not something they had not been dying to do for the last fortnight. This is a rather staggering stroke of good luck for journalists who’ve flown thousands of miles and spent a helpless fortnight trying to enter the infamous but inaccessible brothels.

Ramjee takes us from one brothel to another, all the while announcing that we have been sent by Prince Charles. “These people are representatives of Prince Charles!” He announces in big florid accents each time we enter a brothel. The transvestites on Lane C welcome us with open arms. They are putting on their makeup when we make our way up the narrow stairs to their room upstairs. There is a gaity and festivity in the air.

As we walk through the crowded streets, a transvestite in a red blouse and silver sari tries to pull Olivia along with her. “Sweetie, come,” he says. Olivia resists with a smile and a tough: “No, thank you, darling.” “I’m used to the streets,” she explains to me, when I marvel at her apparent coolness. “This is the same as my neighbourhood in London.”

We walk up and down narrow staircases of a dozen brothels. Ramjee introduces us in his florid accent, in each instance, as Prince Charles’ envoys. In many places, we get scowls and angry looks. In many brothels, we are ignored. In one brothel, a madam with a classic Nepali face looks down, see us and slams the grilled door in our face. As the grilles shut, I can see young girls scampering to get out of sight. Olivia, with her big camera, seems not to notice. In her head, she has this ideal child prostitute, and it seems that she doesn’t see the young girls who litter the brothels.

There are fifteen hundred brothel owners in Bombay. They are ready to kill the people who come and tear apart their stables of young girls. Many of the top ones are Nepali, women who worked their way up and now own their own stables, as they are called.

In one brothel, we we enter a green vinyl and mirrored disco room where the Nepali girl, only twenty-four, tells us that she was sold by the man who married her after her Bachelor’s degree examinations. “I was deceived,” she says, as if being deceived was the most normal thing in the world. “I didn’t know he would sell me, that I would end up here.” She is from Darjeeling, and has the sweetest accent. As we walk out, we see her a twelve year old girl looking at us as we walk out. The girls are everywhere—hanging out in familial packs, doing girl things, playing with dolls, plaiting hair. Just being little girls.

At the very end of the evening, we enter a gigantic brothel that looks like it has a thousand women living inside it. The brothel’s entrance is covered with shit as a broken sewer overflows the entry way. We jump over the yellow liquid and walk up warren ways of passages in which iron bunk-beds have been put in every corner. There are women inside the curtained bed-frames, whispering, smiling, laughing, talking. There are men dressed in humble outfits, walking in like they are there to buy their daily bread. The women in their blouses and saris look only slightly tousled, as if they have been caught in their homes entertaining guests rather than clients. Some of them look indifferent. Others look like they are enjoying moments of intimacy. Mostly, they look businesslike and practical, as if its all in a day’s work.

We are on a quest for a Nepali prostitute, Ramjee explains. Ah, a Nepali. The women, chattering and curious, escort us to where the Nepali woman lives. Her name is Radha.

Radha is thin. She looks tired. She has a smile on her weary face. Radha says: “I pay Rs. 80  a day rent for this place.” She waves her arms around the small three feet by six feet cubicle balcony, with a small bunk that rests halfway up. Her room is open to the elements—there is a roof but not much else. I sit on the broken ledge and listen to her tell her story—how her husband sold her to the brothel, how she can’t work much now since the accident, how she wished she could send her son to school—all this with the calm detachment of an ordinary woman telling an ordinary story. As if, in her mind, this is how life is supposed to be.

“I can’t work much now since the accident,” she says. A lorry came up behind her and hit her. Now she walks with a limp. She is in her thirties. She has a three year old son who she had with the man who sold her after he married her. She takes a few clients each day these days, but her clients are drying up because of her disability. She fetches a small price, but its still enough to live on. She looks at me with those eyes and asks me to take her son to Nepal where he can go to school. The small boy pretends not to understand his mother’s entreaties, and looks down as he plays, all with the intense self-conciousness of a little child eavesdropping on important talk.

On our way out, Ramjee stops at what looks like a wooden box in the middle of a dark passageway. This, says Ramjee, is where another Nepali woman lives.

We see the girl as she comes in—big, dark, perhaps a Dalit. She doesn’t say a word as she disappears into the box. Its like she doesn’t see us. We are appartitions, we don’t exist in her numb mind. The wooden box, shaped like a telephone booth in London, looks like it’s big enough to hold a human being upright. That’s her home? I ask. That’s where she sleeps, a young man says, eager to show us around the brothel. The man, I realize, must be her owner.

We are back in the sunlight. Radha, dressed in immaculate pink silk, comes down for us. She rests on a pole outside Kalu’s laundry shop. I know that inside that poise her legs, the legs that got run over by a lorry driver, by a drunken lorry driver, is getting tired… Olivia clicks, and clicks, and clicks. She takes a thousand photographs.

Kamathipura, I think with a shiver, is about death, the death of trust and the death of illusion.

Kalu goes back to bargaining with Olivia and Mary. “Nepali girls,” he says, “are very fashionable. They are like film stars. They wear good scents. Men come to them for fashion. For sex, they go to South Indians. They go to Nepalis for fashion. For honesty. Even if the wallet fall out of his pockets, the Nepali girls keep it for them so they can come and get it later. It happened last week with one customer.”

Olivia checks her digital camera, and realizes that she still doesn’t have photographs she came to get. “But I don’t want any Nepali girl,” says Olivia impatiently. “I need a little girl. One that is eight or nine.” She has two more weeks before her editor recalls her back. If she goes back to London with photographs of teenaged girls, she is screwed. She is depending upon this money from the story to pay her mortgage. She has already wasted two weeks visiting brothels and seeing the women in it. They are all too old for her.

“Ahhhh…” Kalu closes his crafty eyes. “Too many raids these days, Madam. Many little girls have now been moved to Surat, across the border into Gujrat, because the madams in Bombay are too afraid to keep them here. They lose too many of them. So they are all hidden away in Surat.”

Finally, they agree on a deal. At night, Kalu will bring a little prostitute to the Oberoi Hotel for us to do as we please.

I will not show up for this event, because it sickens me. Later the women will tell me the girl came but she was a disappointment. In what way, I cannot tell. Perhaps she wasn’t sexy enough.

The shutter speed is slow, closing, capturing the light. I look at Radha and see that look of betrayal in her eyes. The look of someone who thought they’d seen a friend but instead seen just a camera.

Kanchi, the first prostitute we met in Kamathipura, sitting outside in the threshold of a one storey brothel, had given me that same look of betrayal. The men had stared at us as we walked into Kamathipura. Hundreds of men, just staring at us with big eyes. Then we’d seen her, sitting in that little threshold on a bamboo stool, just waiting. All dolled up, waiting for her first client.

And the clients were us. Sailesh, moving towards her like a hunter who’s seen his first prey, had whispered to me, “Talk to her, distract her!” So I, numb, panicked, distracted her while Olivia took her photographs. Click, click, click! Each photograph a violation, taken without permission, without due diligence, without notifying the subject where her image would end up. She had looked at me with that remote, detached face, the beautiful young woman who knew once again that she was being betrayed and told me: “My name is no longer Kanchi. After I came to Bombay, I became Hasina.”

Then as the cameras clicked, she told me: “I used to have a lot of clothes, a lot of jewelry. But now I no longer want them. I give it to the beggars who come to beg. I gave it all away.” And I sit there, feeling the reproach, knowing at once that I am the beggar, and again she is giving me all that she has, over and over. Her image. Her face. Her youth. Her beauty. All this will appear in a magazine in a faraway place, and make money for other people. She knows this.

Hasina lives in a stable with her brothel-owner, who trusts her now not to run away. She’s too broken down, too dead, to run away. She has no possessions. She wants nothing. Her best friend, Aarti, looks at me with beautiful eyes and purple marks of melanoma on her arms. She will soon die of the dreaded disease, like all the rest who went before her. “There were many of us here,” she says simply. “But many of them are now dead.”

After she was done taking photographs of Hasina, Olivia, in the glee of snagging her first young prostitute, went to the bazzar and bought the cheapest makeup kit she could find. I tagged along, suddenly exhausted by heat and depression. I’ve talked with Hasina for the last half hour. She’s treated me like a visitor from far-away, someone who she’s trusted with her life’s story. She ran away with a friend when she was sixteen, ran across the border to India. After she paid her debts to the brothel-owner, she decided to set up her own shop here in this little threshold, and not be owned by a madam. No she is never going back. Yes, she had another name in Nepal, but in Kamathipura she is known as Hasina.

The two journalists know nothing about her other than her profession.

Only one quid for all this!, Olivia said, marveling at the cheapness of the makeup kit.

The makeup kit was a big red plastic case filled with garish powders and potions. Silver letters say: Hasina on top. Something in me screams “No!”, but Olivia is implacable. Sailesh says: “Yes, these women like makeup.” We take it back, and I am pushed forward to handover the gift. Olivia beams, pleased by the cheap deal, and pleased by her own gesture of making a prostitute happy.

With the greatest of embarrassment and sickened fury, I hand the box to Hasina. She extends her hand and takes it without a word, neither happy nor displeased. She looks at the Hasina embossed with silver letters on top. I don’t know if she can read, but she looks down at the letters for a while. Then she puts it down, gets up and enters the building. She vanishes in silence, as if she is happy to be released from our presence.


Madeleine Slavick: a photographic essay



Texas takes twenty-four hours to cross by train. ‘Under The Tree Bob’ tells me there is more drinking in this state than in other southern places. Bob has been sober since 1 December 1979, when he sat under a palm tree and made that decision. He is moving to Tucson, where he says there are good AA meetings. Says only the weak can stop drinking: it is they who will ask for the help they need.

But I am happy with a drink on a Saturday night, and go to the Lone Star Saloon, for live country music, for fiddle and mandolin and slide guitar, for that pitcher of beer, for the dancing in his-n-her jeans, cowboy hats, studded belts. To hear the drawl.


Trophies, near Houston, Texas

At bayou-like lakes, we see lotus, deer, duck, egret, catfish, cormorant, bald cypress, Spanish moss hanging down like soft beards, alligators hibernating, maybe two million chattering small black birds and one huge hawk with white-tipped wings. By the time we leave the scenery, the moon is fat, above farmland, prison, refinery.

In the morning, students pledge to two flags: USA and Texas. A ten-minute walk from school is fast-food Mexican, Chinese, fried chicken, and Fountain Firearms, a shop with military weapons and cowboy guns. There are manicures next door, and in the parking lot, a man tries to sell perfume out of the back seat of a car. I see no pedestrians all day.

Many of the new homes in Texas, and across the South, and maybe across the USA., are in large, look-alike communities. Gated, fenced, with names like Grand Mission, Waterview, Bella Terra. I am staying in one of these homes and open all the windows to the warm and the wind and say to myself, this could be tornado land.

We hear a story of a boy who has never seen a mountain. East Texas can be flat as flat, and the car a center. Train lines have been proposed between San Antonio, Dallas and Houston, but have been fought by car and gasoline conglomerates. Whataburger has been serving since 1950s, and Sonic serves burgers on roller skates, direct to your car in the parking lot.


                                  Preservation Hall Jazz Club, New Orleans


In this city, there are three-hundred-year-old trees and the older Mississippi River, neither Creole, Black, Cajun, White. 

We read a Black newspaper, read about policemen burning a Black man just after Hurricane Katrina. They laughed as they burned. A city with much poverty and crime, with or without a hurricane, and in the few days we are here, there is a murder. And one late night, we see a man run off with another person’s wallet.

Music and food and booze and church and sport and sex. They seem to heal some of the people some of the time.

We meet a clarinetist who was mentored by some of the jazz greats, all Black. He says he is one of the very few Whites to have had this privilege, and during Jim Crow time.


 Mural in Ward 9, New Orleans

We meet a man who has been a driver for fifty-one years. I like the way he talks, slow, a little extra time between his thoughts, and I could listen all day. He says that out by The Lakes, it’s been hard to put life back together. ‘The Lord. He takes the time He needs.’ He says he likes Dixieland music best, that he’s been with it for a while now. Fingers tap the steering wheel.

We meet a vocalist who dances with shoulders, hips, fingers, as she sings: her whole body in the sound. Muscle-toned and white-haired, she slaps her right thigh in beat, and does a quiet, slippery hand-wave clap. The hostess who guides us to front seats says she herself is a student of the vocalist, wants to sing as joyfully. We drink a beer called Lazy Magnolia and I think just maybe I could stay in this city and change into someone like her too. Music can make us brave.



But I leave. Travel coach class. Live for forty-six hours in my seat, observation car, snack car. Two times I pay so that I can also sit in the dining car, with its long low windows. I choose the last shift, so I can stay for a long time, reading, writing, thinking, feeling, humming.


 New Iberia Train Station, Louisiana


Over one meal, a man who works with the train company tells me a story. A couple is traveling home, from Seattle to Chicago. The man dies in his sleep, and the woman keeps him dead, under blankets, for two days before she notifies anyone. Not wanting to inconvenience, she says, or wanting to grieve alone, or using the service of the transportation of a corpse. These are her rights.


 Near Antonio, Texas

I listen to a different language on the train. ‘You hear what I’m saying… Whatcha saying, girl, that don’t make no sense… Don’t you mess around with me, boy, I got you figured out…’ There is guts and directness, empowerment and assertion. The man a few seats away talks like this non-stop with his wife and family. I find this language so alive, so certain, but I leave for a while and find, make, different sounds.

I meet a security guru of the computer world in the snack car with a stiff knee, a replacement knee, of metal. Out of kindness, he calls me his daughter. I meet a woman from Florida who wants to talk with me and her sister, suddenly a sort of family. A guide tells us about the land, in English and Spanish. The javelina is the only wild pig in the country. The Chihuahua is the largest desert in North America. Livestock are fed the ‘blind’ kind of nopal, the prickly pear cactus with minute spines. The road runner runs about twenty miles per hour.

The passenger beside me says this is her first train trip and that she is scared. She stays under her Pittsburgh Steelers jacket-blanket and only leaves her seat once during the long train ride. She is missing several teeth and slurs some of her words so we cannot always be clear in our conversations. She grew up in East L.A, and as we come into that part of the town, she looks out the window and says she knows each street. Graffiti is on almost every vertical surface, and one long wall reads: H-U-R-T-S.

‘Someone from Rehab will pick me up,’ she says, and when we arrive, we walk to Alameda Street, where she waits, holding a small piece of paper with a name and telephone number.


 Downtown Los Angeles


Cold morning, grey, many people homeless. We see one man being handcuffed. He is shaking at the curb.

I stay in a home near Universal Studios. Fifty-inch TV, security system that beeps as you walk down the front path, a telephone that identifies the caller and says the name aloud.

Outside, bougainvillea, jacaranda, palm, lemon, smog. The river on the other side of trees may be a freeway.

                                                                                                 Lookout near Hollywood sign, Los Angeles

Many of the buildings on the main streets are stucco, with bars on the windows: do not enter, do not jump out. The green crosses at shop fronts mean: here is marijuana for your healing.

Then I stay in a Chinese part of town. That large television again, the telephone that screens, the home alarm system, and in the family room, a table ready for mah jong and many framed photographs, including of a wedding.

A social worker tells me the state is going bankrupt. She has lost her eight-hour-a-month job; the community agency had no budget. She used to take the Blue Line to work, and along the way, a man would pop out his glass eye, ask for coins, then pop it back in.

It has been 23 years since I lived in the U.S.A., in Los Angeles, the city where I began as a writer, where so many people come and try themselves. About 21 boxes had been stored in a garage for this time. The books, LPs, memories, intact, with the super-dryness of this semi-desert city.


                                             Office table, Los Angeles


Maybe poetry is one of the best places in this country. The yearning. The clarity and courage and optimism, particularizing.

Otherwise, when I return to the country of my birth, I see loneliness. I see the sense of entitlement. I see the automobile, the home, and the other self-enclosed, purchased, spaces. Protected.

The train is a place where, for a while, this loneliness seems less. Space shared, trusted. Public.

Later, on the plane, a Marine, 21, sits on my left, a widow of a Marine on my right. They know a different language. Bulldog is mascot. Motto is Sempre Fidelis. C.O.P. protects the rifle from dust. She says his shoes are also dustless and ‘Dress Blue Charlies’ the most elegant uniform.

Shrapnel from a landmine was never removed from her husband. One eye sightless, one ear silent, he would wake shouting for years. I tell her I have campaigned against landmines, against violence, against misgovernment, but she seems to believe. Sempre Fidelis, Always Faithful, she seems to be thinking. The 21-year-old boot camp graduate says, ‘Yes, M’am’ to everything I say.


 Found graffiti, Monterey Park, Los Angeles


Madeleine Marie Slavick is a writer and photographer. Her books include Fifty Stories Fifty Images (prose and photography from Hong Kong, 2012), Something Beautiful Might Happen (poetry published in Tokyo, 2010), China Voices (a study of farmers, women, migrant workers, ethnic minorities, elderly and youth; with Oxfam, 2010), delicate access (a bilingual edition of poetry with Chinese translations, 2004) and Round – Poems and Photographs of Asia (1997). She has held exhibitions of her photography in Egypt, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and the United States. She is based in New Zealand, where she maintains a daily blog:



Notes on a Drowning by Laura Woollett

Laura Elizabeth Woollett lives in Melbourne. Her work has appeared in Contrary, Mascara (#9), Page Seventeen, and Wet Ink, among other publications. She studies at the University of Melbourne and is a fiction subeditor for Voiceworks.




Notes on a Drowning

Death is beautiful when you are a virgin.

Death is beautiful when you are aggrieved.


What does a maiden know about fucking?

What does a maiden know about…anything?


‘Let me lay my head across your lap’, he said, in the floodlit theatre. The show had not yet begun.
My modesty was pink as ham, eglantine, lady-parts. I caught his mother’s eye.


Some things are never quite right. Some flowers are destined to grow the wrong way.


My dress blazes white. Sun strains behind the clouds. I am liquid like white sun, lilting dream songs under pale skies.


‘She always liked mermaids! She always smelt of fish! Oho, a veritable fishwife!’ (Horatio)


Under dream skies. In sepia woods. I am sun-bleached, unplucked. Plucking flowers like I know what it is all about.


Art criticism: ‘Mr. Millais’s Ophelia…makes us think of a dairymaid in a frolic’ (The Times). ‘Why the mischief should you not paint pure nature, and not that rascally wirefenced garden-rolled-nursery-maid’s paradise?’ (John Ruskin).


Tumbled like a dairymaid. My white skirts spread wide. Afloat on a sea of grass, I watch the starlings skimming. In my half-open hand: a tangled prize.


Hug me, Gertrude, I have no Mommy. Kiss me, Gertrude, I love your son.

Air-tide ripple. Post-meridian dim. I rise from one dream to plunge into another, watery and willow-swept.


‘O, my philia! Stars burn in my codpiece! Hear my celestial groaning!’ (A letter from the dirty prince)


Poor Lizzie has caught a chill! In the artist’s studio. Look at Lizzie Siddal: pale-lipped, wet-browed. Ophelia in a claw-foot bathtub.


‘If I must die, let it be by water, that most poetic of elements’ (The author at nineteen).


To my eyes, all flowers have the look of sea foam. My eyes, swimming in sweet salt tears.


When a victim is submerged at the time of death, it is normal for their eyes to maintain a glistening, lifelike appearance’ (A forensic science manual).


I fill my lap with floating seed, tufted daisies, nettles, and dead men’s fingers. I gather them up in my robe, close to my womb, and sigh for the proximity.


‘My daughter? She is daisy fresh! My daughter? Blue blood. High rump. Lovely skin. Like porcelain! You can touch, sonny lord, but don’t you break it’ (Polonius, before he is stabbed).


Famous deaths by drowning: Virginia Woolf, L’Inconnue de la Seine, Rasputin (NB: after being poisoned, shot repeatedly, castrated, and badly beaten, it is water that gets him in the end).


Brown brook bubbling. Toilless. Untroubled. Clogged with thick weeds, summer green algal blooms. Here and there: grasping reeds, lily pads, nenuphars. A weak Babylonian willow, grey-leaved in its old age, overhanging.


Nymphaea, the largest genus of water lilies, is home to the common nenuphar, or European White Water Lily, which is said to resemble a floating virgin. More exotic species include Nymphaea pubescens (Hairy water lily), named for the pubescent fuzz along its undersides and stem.


Lizzie Siddal is nineteen when she models for Millais in that bathtub. A consumptive copperhead with widely spaced features and an antique dress. She has a penchant for poppies.


Bloating and discoloration can be expected. The abdomen becomes greenish or purple, and distends as the cavity fills with gas. Features may swell to the point of obscuring the victim’s identity’ (The same forensics manual).


Highgate cemetery. West. Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti (née Siddal). Tangled gravesite. Leprous stone angels.


They call me The Wild Rose. But my name was Elisa Day’ (Kylie Minogue).


Elsinore cannot hold me. I have a yen for the forests of my forebears, overrun with bracken, sphagnum moss, black leeches. The blue-black bodies of sacrificial victims. In my head, I hear snatches of Old Norse, Viking lullabies.



Age: Nineteen

Race: Nordic

Sex: Fair

Hair: Elizabethan Red

Lips: Blue as frostbite, perennials.

Possessions: various garlands, love letters, Rasputin’s penis.


‘Say what you will, she died with a song on her lips’ (The priest).


Silver Plums by Ankur Agarwal

Ankur Agarwal is an poet, translator and teacher from India. His poetry has been published before in “Paper Wall”, “Barnwood Poetry Magazine”, “Cha: An Asian Literary Journal”, and “Halfway Down the Stairs”, among others, and his haiku have appeared in “A handful of stones”. This is the first time he has written prose fiction. He loves playing card games, especially sheepshead, polignac and gin rummy, and learning new ones. He also reviews cinema, primarily European and Indian, at



Silver Plums

Stars died the night I was born, they say. I always grew up believing that, and often as I gazed up into the sky, I searched for vacant spaces, as if like lines of destiny they would tell me something about myself. People go to palmists or fill up questionnaires that claim to reveal their personalities to them, but all I had was the alignments of those celestial bodies: their mysterious twinkling filled me always with alarm, that the world will suddenly end and I will not have fulfilled my destiny. For you see, destiny meant a lot to me.

The monsoon sky told me one day that I will have a lover soon. 

1. The merchant

गंगा आए कहाँ से, गंगा जाए कहाँ रे1

Ganga, from where does she come, to where does she go

Every year, when the rains came, also came new faces, of hope and unknown stamp, and that time was the time when we forgot all our miseries: the jagirdar2 forgot how much grain is stored, the rebari3 women forgot how shallow is their well and I used to forget how constricted was my world. Crossing those long ravines whose many hiding places the local warlords and their gangs inhabited, a caravan from the world outside came every year at this time, the only moment when we came face to face with the world beyond the ravines and the desert. For on one side lay those passes bristling with danger while behind us lay a desolate land which no one had crossed alive, and even after that, there were only paid servants employed to kill each other for these scraps of the concept called land. But this is all as I write today: then, when I was merely nine or ten, all I knew that I was always at the grounds where the caravan set its base for two weeks before they set forth again, those eternal gipsies. This was my only means of knowing the world.

It was his loud haggling but always in a pleasant, laughing voice that first drew me there: the largest of crowds was there and he had the choicest of wares. Dates from Iran and chilgoza4 from Afghanistan were what everyone had: but he had intricate wooden elephants, he had lamps built like lotus petals, and he had bangles shimmering in red and green like no one else had. But soon my gaze was drawn from his wares to his face: maybe thirty-five, with a fine moustache that did not seem too silken and a voice thicker than most boys here, his eyes were what struck me. I had never before encountered such eyes in my life and never again will I on any other face. Fiercely burning, those eyes had no heart in all the commerce the man’s voice was so busily conducting: they were far off, as if they were still travelling over the various lands from where he must have bought and traded these goods. They pierced right through men and women as if these were made of transparent stuff; neither kind nor unkind, they seemed indifferent to the very concept of kindness, but rather made way to something as water does, whether it is given a way or not.

I stood transfixed for several moments, and then I picked up the courage to talk to this adventurer with steel-like eyes, this interloper of many worlds who yet could burn. I was fascinated by his eyes as I never was by anything, and to understand them, to know what lies in their depths, I was willing to do anything, to go anywhere. I waited till the crowd thinned, as the evening hour came and many became busy in evening prayers.

“Have you travelled long?”

“Far longer than you have lived.”

His reply and his assured smile did not please me: he did not know how long have I lived. Who knows if I were someone with some illness that made me appear a child? But I continued:

 “To sell and buy?”

“Yes, souls.”

“Souls? What are they?”

“When someone comes to ask me a question, I buy her soul. What I give her shall haunt her all her life, and only I can break the spell.”

“Ah, so you’ve already mine. And sell? Whom do you sell to?”

“To those who collect them, for I am a mere intermediary. Those who are not content with the world, but also disdain it, sneer at it, and keep collecting.”

“Why do they collect?”

“To touch the sky – to enjoy many finite forms; to try to prove the formlessness of a world that is glistening with forms and their temptations.”

“And you? You are content? 

Before the man could reply, two women with ghunghat5 a foot and half long came, and I became uncomfortable, and I asked him if he had a payal6 for my size. He said no, but he might have to look in his stores, maybe he will have one for me tomorrow, and I said thanks and left him with a twinkle of understanding. But for several days I watched him, gaily conducting his business and yet again far off in a space of his own, and all that time I was thinking of what did he mean by forms and formlessness. Before long, for I knew the caravan would not be staying forever here, I found him while he was eating his simple dinner by the fire. But this time it was he who shot a question at me.

“Have you killed?”

I shuddered at his words.

“No! What do you mean? Have you?”

“Did you not kill the desire to talk to me all this time? Is it not killing? Is it sinful?”

“One cannot do always what one wants. One is not permitted to.”

“Or you allowed the restrictions to rule you. Why do you? Food, water, these?”

He shook a pair of payals in his hand as he said these, and in the half-clouded moonlight, the thick chinking hit against me, as if them and I could never be in one place together.

“You don’t? Why do you trade?”

“You don’t want these?” He ignored my question.

“You know I don’t. Are you content?”

“I am no friend to words, even if you see me use a lot of them during the day. What do you mean?”

“Are you … happy?” I was confused.

“Yes, I am.” He smiled and offered me two closed fists.

I was disappointed by his reply. I don’t know why.

“Choose one,” he said.

“I cannot. You must show me what they contain.”

“As you want. I wanted you to choose your fate blindly, for then you can’t be reproaching yourself, but if you want to do it deliberately, so be it.”

With that he opened his fists: in one palm were lying a couple of something red and beautiful that I had never seen, and in the other were beautiful lifelike imitations of that thing in silver.

“What is it?”, I asked as if entranced; I felt as if he was offering me an untold treasure.



“Yes, have you ever heard of them?”

I shook my head.

“When you eat them, your mouth is filled with a heavenly juice, it seems that it will make your whole body fragrant. Their sweetness is not crude like sugar nor apologetic like pomegranate, but they seem to master your body and spirit and take you to another level of experience, another quality of yearning. It is as if you are kissing all that is good in you.”

I remained silent and gazed wonderingly at those blotched red fruits, not so small but not at all big, and I wondered in whose bowls they lie filled to the brim, which lips taste them and kiss each other, and who are the people who watch and tend over them and pluck them: are they also as beautiful?

“They come from the mountains and it is no wonder you have never known them. I have only two with me and here they are for you.”

I stretched out my hand for them and hereupon, just when I was about to touch them, the man put up a warning gesture.

“Remember, you could have only one of the two. The silver ones or these fleshy ones.”

I thought long: the silver ones were beautiful and they looked completely the same if only for the colour.

“Can I ask you one thing before making a decision?”

“Go ahead.”

“Are there fruits more delicious than these?”

“Not according to me.”

“Then I will take the silver ones.”

He gave me the two silver plums, reflecting faintly the clouds above and the fire beside. I caressed them longingly, and then said:

“Before I go, can I ask you one more question?”

He nodded.

“What did you mean by forms and formlessness?”

He laughed, for long he laughed: his laugh was like ice being crushed, with a thousand voices speaking in his laugh. He held his head back and laughed, like a man who decides to do a long and thorough gargle. 

I kept looking at him all the while.

“Do you like mangoes?”

“Not much.”

“Well, you could imagine eating plums instead of mangoes, and then the forms of mangoes won’t matter.”

“But do I know how plums taste and feel?”

“No, you don’t. So now you are also in search of the formlessness: you seek to know plums without having anything to do with them.”

“You are sure I seek that?”

He nodded.

2. Jabbar

इतना न मुझ से तू प्यार बढ़ा
कि मैं एक बादल आवारा

Don’t fall so much  in love with me
For I am but an errant cloud

“Why don’t you understand me? Life – I can barely bear it. There is something that calls me from somewhere, and I don’t feel it to be of the world. It is outside me and yet inside me, not in those shapes I know, not in the voices that speak to me. How can I rest till then, how can I forget?”

Jabbar had come into my life when I wasn’t even expecting it at all: I was nineteen maybe, and I was busily planning to graduate in a couple of years and go out into the world, to feel the actual world with a real job, all kinds of people from everywhere, a different existence. I wasn’t expecting Jabbar, and like a storm shakes up a tree but leaves it intact, he had done the same to me. And maybe the storm isn’t affected much, not that much as one tree is.

I looked closely into his eyes, as if eyes could frame an answer. His eyes were strangely limpid but also very kind: there was something swimming in there and I could never figure out exactly what. His eyes did not go well with what he was in person: of a strong imposing presence with a big chest, muscular arms, and tall build, he was someone who felt effortlessly strong. Yet those eyes were that of a gentle, almost crybaby creature, and yet there was no sickliness or pity-taking in them. They were just – well, fluid. Which would be an understatement.

I pressed his hands in response and let out a sigh – it was true that I who loved life so much and yet had known everything that he had, the same narrow world of ours – it was true that I could not understand him. Or maybe I did, but could not bring myself to it. I just took his hand in both my hands and pressed it with my warmth.

I had met Jabbar when he was singing the story of Pabuji7 in one of the jagrans8 as the winter had waned but had not yet gone completely. Though he was only among a group of singers and only occasionally sung alone, his voice enthralled me: it had something that this place, or the desert, had not. It was a rich voice, but nothing more about it as a singer: but for me there was something that felt unknown in there. The bright colours that people wore to defeat the desert’s overarching solitude had taken another shape here: bright strands of rebellion, not against a system nor society, but against himself, an anxious struggle to repress himself and as if be a part of the sun-worn sands. He was an orphan, and his parents had been known singers, so singing had been handed down traditionally to him: but from the emotion-packed melodrama of Pabuji’s life, he had created a lament that went against the grain though the listeners were not intelligent enough to detect it. They were deeply moved, rather. A lament that asked why from the wind, not the man.

Jabbar and I spent a lot of time in each other’s company: otherwise always taut as if on some kind of leash, he felt always strangely relaxed in my company, and I felt some kind of world in him that I could not name but which felt to be my world even though I was an alien to it. He was maybe a year younger than me, but for a long time we were unconfessed lovers, each clinging to his and her dream a bit longer because of the other.

“And you? What will you do?”

“What can I?”, he laughed bitterly. “I cannot go anywhere unlike you, for it is here my destiny is to be played out. They say crossing the seas is a sin; do you know why do they say that?”

I knew what he would say, but asked “Why?”

“Because you switch your destinies then. Which is like cheating.”

“And why’s cheating wrong?”

“I am not saying it’s wrong. It is just running – running like that man you told me about for more and more land and never able to return before the sun set. Just like that man. I don’t care about running.”

I took a long time to respond, I kept on thinking. I loved him so much and yet sometimes I wanted to be far away from him, to have never even known him.

“And me?”

He emerged as if from some kind of reverie with some kind of shock, or as if that had never occurred to him, though I cannot tell what had not occurred to him – the question of me or that I would ask him this. Or maybe it was not even this, but he was simply trying to think of me in all this in a new light.

“Yes, me?”

“What about you? You like running – you like the exercise. You do not feel suffocated by this incessant scampering back and forth, you are like a river that flows on and on, giving forth and never ceasing to question.”

“But you hold so much love – and hate – in you. You can also give so much, Jabbar.”

“Maybe, but I am like the sea: I only give what I get, I keep throwing up dead conch shells. Even one day is too long for me: the sun comes up, it plays with a million rays on my blue and green waters, and then it will set in orange splendor shining over me, but I remain where I was, forced to wait for the sun, still and simmering with little waves.”

“But isn’t it you who has chosen stillness?”

“Yes, you are right; but it is not because I have chosen stillness, Ruqaiyya, that I am the sea: but because I am the sea, I have to suffer, I have to remain.”

As the evening faded into night, with hardly a sound except few peacocks’ calls, he asked me: “Tell me, can rivers and sea marry?”

I smiled wryly, “Not until the river loses its character and merges into the sea.”

He insisted, “Not even if the sea can touch the sky?”

I shook my head.

That evening we had our first physical contact. It was the first time both of us had explored another person’s body, and yet we did not have the wild excitement that one would think to be associated with the first loss of virginity. Rather, we made a thorough survey of what each had to offer: a silent and joyful acknowledgment of the pleasures and equally silent passages to more difficult and painful rites. It was as if this one thing remained for us to do, and now each was forever etched in the other, each water, but distinct as river and sea.

When the night deepened, I left Jabbar, I left university, and I left home. I never came back. The merchant’s words had returned to me about those soul collectors who can touch the sky: and it was the merchant who had bought mine and I refused to let it be sold to anyone else. The only possession I took with me besides some money was the two silver plums.

3. Ruqaiyya

हमने देखी है उन आँखों की महकती खुशबू
हाथ से छू के इसे रिश्ते का इल्ज़ाम न दो

I’ve seen the sweet-smelling fragrance of those eyes
Please don’t accuse it of a  relationship by touching with hands

A thousand turns of life had left me now a teacher in her forties in a small village in the Himalayas: I had experienced as much of life as I could seek, I had met hundreds of people, many had professed to love me, there were many whose opinions I respected, there were the good friends and the useful acquaintances, and I had been a successful editor of a newspaper that indeed did something – till one day I felt as far from what I had started for as that night when I had left the merchant. I had met impressive men and women who had done brave and great things; I had met all shades of people from the lowly to the highest, from the thinker category to the practical no-frills one, and yet never had I again seen the like of those eyes that first led me to ask: who am I? where is my home?

I had never found that home, for home to me is beyond comfort, beyond refuge: it is the place where I find refuge with myself, not from myself. And all the homes I had found were of the latter kind: hadn’t Jabbar said I was always running? From myself or something, I didn’t know. And now, I was buried deep inside a small, remote mountain village since the past seven years: no one knew me here, and I was able to slowly persuade myself that this indeed was my true home. I had no contacts left from my old worlds, and I had no keys to my house: it was always unlocked, and I had forsaken the feeling of possessing as freedom. Yet, something lacked, something gnawed. There was yet a missing link.

One snow-clad night, when you wouldn’t even bet on a jackal roaming outdoors, I heard a knock on my wooden door; a knock that had no permission in it, but simply information. Whoever knocked wasn’t saying “May I” but instead “I am going to.” My initial thoughts didn’t land up there, though; at first, I thought who could it be in such weather. A lost traveller? But hardly anyone knew of this region and no trekkers ever came here. None of my schoolboys would venture out from their homes right now. I took the lantern and pushed the heavy wooden door.

Outside was a Buddhist monk with his shaved head and maroon robes.

“Could I rest in your cowshed?” For I kept a cow since a year.

As the man spoke he looked directly into my eyes, and I instantly recognized them: they were the very same eyes, and no other eyes could be these. I was completely unnerved, and my lantern fell and almost went out: I regained my composure a bit, and then studied his face for some time before answering. He had changed greatly, and but for the eyes I wouldn’t have recognized him: a kind of innocent smile played on his face, which had sunken-in cheeks now, and his eyebrows, once thick like his moustache, were almost nonexistent, as was his moustache. He had aged greatly, and he looked much older than what he must have been. Yet, he was firm on his feet and nimble as just any man: it was only his face that had so aged.

“Come in”, I smiled, “please come in, you can have a rest certainly, but I can also prepare you some rice.”

“Thanks, child; if it does not give you any trouble.”

“Surely not.”

He came in with his quite big sack kind of bag slung on his shoulder and as he was readying to sit on the floor, I offered him a chair: I didn’t know if monks can sit on chairs or not, but he didn’t refuse it.

“You’ve got a few scratches below your knee there,” I said.

“It’s nothing, just some thorns: it was so dark and the path was very narrow.”

“Very well, I will grind some charoli9 and it should be better by tomorrow morning. Are you passing through here?”

“Yes, and you?”, he asked with a smile. The full-fledged smile hadn’t changed: he still retained a certain fondness for turning your question on you.

“Me, too, though I don’t know to where.”

“Can anyone know that?”, he wondered. I nodded.

I gave him the ground charoli, and as I prepared the rice, he applied it slowly on the bleeding marks on his leg. In between, though I didn’t think there would be a probability of that, I brought out the two silver plums and kept them on the table before him, but he didn’t seem to take any special interest in them.

Outside was the noiseless noise of falling snow, and the smell of rice tainted with camphor and cardamom slowly swirled inside and became one with the wooden-hued habit of the monk, as like sought like. Apart from me, everything seemed living and un-living at once: the flickering of the fire made monster shadows out of us and it seemed to be the only being outside the realm of animate or inanimate there. Something to whom the concept of animate doesn’t apply.

He ate slowly but he seemed to appreciate it. I ate nothing, and we kept silent gazing at each other. The very same adventure was still in his eyes: the only difference was that now he seemed to be at the same place where physically he was, unlike in the past. Or, rather, he seemed unreal: thus even physically he wasn’t here. He was and was not. He was like a ghost, but a ghost who ate rice and who had wounds made by thorns brushing against his legs.

“Have you found what you sought?”, I asked.

“I cannot answer that.”

“Why? I won’t understand?”

“No, child; it is that I do not seek.”

“Then why do you live? Or, how are you able to?”

He smiled and remained silent for a long time.

“I am indifferent to living or being dead. In fact, I don’t even know what am I, alive or dead. However, I have distinct memories, which tell me I am alive, perhaps. Perhaps.”

“I meant, what takes you to the next day?”, I again asked.

“To see the new sun”, he smiled. “I am curious. Or not curious – I cannot choose the word. I am no friend to words.”

Then, after a moment’s silence, he said:

“I will sleep in the cowshed, child. Thank you for the meal. You have good hands. I have not much to offer you before I take your leave. Winter has already come, so you might not be having these now: I have only some with me, they are for you.”

With that, he brought out some damask plums from his bag and kept them on the table in front of him. As he kept them there, he took back the silver plums and smiled:

“You can taste the real plums finally.”


1All section opening Hindi quotes are fragments/refrains from Hindi songs.
2Recipient of jagir, a land grant/land taxes.
3Also spelt rabari, cattleherders who traditionally were nomads but in modern times it is rarely the case.
4Pinus gerardiana seeds.
5Veil worn by primarily Hindu women in certain Indian communities.
6Ankle bells, worn around ankles, as the name suggests. A must for the traditional Indian dance of kathak today.
7Name of a god revered by certain communities in northwest India, in particular by rebaris.
8Hindu custom of all-night worship; it can be organized for one to several nights in running.
9Seeds of Buchanania lazan; popularly called as chironji in India.


Jal Nicholl reviews The Red Sea by Stephen Edgar

 The Red Sea

 by Stephen Edgar

Baskerville Publishing

 ISBN 978-1-880909-78-2

Reviewed by JAL NICHOLL


What a peculiar thing the meditative lyric is. How different in spirit from Basho’s instruction to poets: “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn.” Of course, Western art has generally been practiced in a more “Faustian” spirit. And as it happens, Stephen Edgar’s collection has a poem which takes Oswald Spengler for its speaker:

The animalcule in a drop of dew—
           And so diminutive
That if the human eye should look clear through
That globe there would be nothing there to see—
Although it only has a blink to live,
          Yet in the face of this is free;
The oak, in whose vast foliage this dot
          Hangs from a single leaf, is not. 

Although the speaker usually resembles Edgar himself (or someone of his generation and nationality), the Spengler poem is typical in that many poems here have as their explicit occasion or premise a scene which is mute in itself – a quiet seascape, as in the title poem – on which the poet projects his recurrent themes.

Lulled in a nook of North West Bay,
The water swells against the sand, 

“The Red Sea” begins, before ending, once more, with sunset:

And sunset’s dye begins to spread
[…] As though hoping to disown
The blood of all the innocents he’d shed
Macbeth incarnate or his grisly clone
Had stooped on some far shore to rinse his hand

Thematically, time and death are everywhere in this collection. Edgar is a poet unafraid to hit the thematic nail on the head: an attitude which, parallel to a use of form that most contemporary poets would rather be gagged and bound than emulate, is what pre-eminently marks Edgar’s style as classical.

Edgar’s syntax forces one to read intellectually. His formalism, often remarked on, is the most obviously distinguishing characteristic of his verse. But on a deeper level he is distinguished by his discursiveness: there are no songs in this book; every poem is a meditation.

 The dominant mood in this volume is of nostalgia – and for more than the just the lost time of personal history but for a “Western” civilisation that now, in the twenty-first century, exists ambiguously between a life and death of its own. We live in a time that is experienced as peculiarly atemporal in the confluence of images mediated by technology. Indeed, the representational power of technology is a theme in more than one poem here. “Man on the Moon,” for example,  televisually recalls Plato’s parable of the Cave:

Crouching in Mr Langshaw’s tiny flat,
The whole class huddled round the TV screen.

 “Living Colour”, similarly, deals with

Torch-haunted rallies conjuring the tribe,
The pavements lined
With adoration’s awful unison;
And the corpses piled like clothing, 

a mere four lines fully disclosing the deterministic mediation that was already lurking in the final line of the first stanza:

This Munich, underneath the flawless blue

The poem is hereby located self-knowingly within a genre of cultural representation in which Steven Spielberg outshines Anthony Hecht.

Throughout The Red Sea the reader is stuck by the extent to which Edgar’s language and style, despite their universalistic formality, can be culturally specific to the point of parody. In “The House of Time,” for example, a door opens in some quaint manse of the mind, and we meet

           his aunt
Playing a Polonaise by Chopin
Badly. “Lenore,
We know you think you can, dear, but you can’t.” 

Behind an image, a register and a rhythm (in what is a psychological, rather than an historical poem) it is possible to highlight a potent, though self-effacing cultural specificity of which Edgar, as a late representative of an Anglophillic poetic tradition stretching back through Peter Porter, and A.D. Hope, is perhaps unaware.

Associated with membership of an ethnic group in decline within a given territory goes, understandably, a sense of unease in respect to those on the advance: 

Among the suburbs summer has its way
And foreign scripts on once habitual
Shopfronts flash to remind
The jogging passenger that still today
Continues the old ritual
With a new but undeflectable endeavour,
For all that childhood has resigned

Granting that Edgar is a classical poet, childhood here must signify innocence in the sense of blissful ignorance (as opposed to its romantic signification of limitless possibility). His use of the politically incorrect “foreign” signals a stoic alienation before the changing cityscape—and what are we to make of “endeavour”?!

In an Australian poetry scene to which Ouyang Yu contributes his “Invading Australia” sequence, Edgar’s WASP-ish propriety, his eschatological themes and his persistent tone of alienation and melancholy are surely just as interesting, from an ethno-poetic viewpoint, as minority or immigrant perspectives.

But it may be that the ironies and implications to which I have just pointed are more in the nature of complicities. Edgar is, after all, a kind of literary Velasquez, whose Las Meninas is the subject of “Diversions of a Painter”:

But art begins here to bamboozle.
What seemed a portrait on the wall
At first glance is, on close perusal
Really a mirror after all.

In the same way, Edgar’s are always flowers that have the look of flowers that are looked at. Take, for example, this characteristic likening of the natural to the artificial, the real to the representation:

You stood beside your gloved and hatted mother,
An undeciphered pictogram
You’d almost take to be another
Ghosting the grainy footage.

The end of this insidious process, in which, perhaps, Spengler’s philosophy of technics plays a supporting role, is that –

You’re caught between
Quotation marks, your heart’s beat an allusion. 

By description after description the human subject recedes, as though rendered obsolete by technological advance, and the classical reserve of Edgar’s style threatens, at least in principle, to morph into something as de trop as Ashbery’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”:

From “Midas”:

And truly it was out of him they came—
Too soon not at his bidding, precisely where
And when and how he wished each one to tease
The nerve of his delight, but ever more
Autonomous, unchecked, incontinent. 

A poem like “Midas” possesses as much autonomy as, perhaps, it is possible for a linguistic artifact to do; one probably wouldn’t describe it as unchecked or incontinent, however!

Alan Watts, in The Wisdom of Insecurity,  speaks of ‘the confusion of Ouroboros, the mixed-up snake, who does not know that his tail belongs with his head.’ This condition, Watts suggests, is characteristic of civilised humanity as such. Edgar makes reference to many myths and mythical beings in The Red Sea, and though the autophagous snake is not among them, ‘Midas’ quoted above, may have a similar point. What it is, I will not be so earnest as to make explicit, except to say that Edgar is a civilised man – and he knows it. As for his classicism, Edgar doesn’t make what is difficult look easy; his strength is to make it look exactly as hard as it is.


JAL NICHOLL is a poet whose work has appeared in The Age, Cordite, Mascara and elsewhere. He lives in Melbourne and dreams of escape.

 The editor notes a review of  Stephen Edgar’s poetics, which does not emphasise an ethno-poetic reading, appears in issue six.


Issue 12 – November 2012



Hyat is an Hazara refugee in Medan, Indonesia.
He spent twelve months in Pontianak detention, Kalimantan.

Issue 12 of Mascara is edited by Michelle Cahill