Sabrin Ahmed is a 17 year old Somali girl currently held in Australian Immigration Detention. She has published in The Arrivalists. Her work has been read at poetry gatherings. She is currently writing her life story. She is an honorary member of PEN International.
surroundings of sadness
i see nothing but a fence of tears
young and old are a shadow of life
i can’t go back to the world i once lived in
where bullets and bombs were shared
where many mothers lost their first born
and last born
where many girls were raped
by several men
where many children become orphans
where i lost my dear mother
where my life was threatened
where days and nights my tears came pouring
where i didn’t have a choice but to run away
with out any guidance
where I put my self in a humble boat
my life at risk again
where i thought i was heading to the right place
at the right time
where my thoughts were full of hopes
and happiness was knocking at my heart
i did not know that i would be locked up in detention
for so long
what have i done to deserve this situation?
is seeking asylum a crime?
what i was looking for is peace and freedom
but now it is far from me
it is like the distance between earth and sky.
Dear Bird Send My Message
Send my humble greetings and love
to people who are struggling
days and night,
who are in every street
who are moving earth and heaven
just to help us.
Dear bird send my message.
Send an image of my eyes-
are rolling like a river,
send my heart
full of sorrow,
send my mind
full of thoughts,
send him images
of why I came.
Dear bird send my message.
Send my emotions
who is enjoying my pain,
who does not think
that I am a human being
that i am just a number
the waste of population.
Dear bird send my message.
Send my appreciation
to lawyers who fight
for my freedom,
who give me hope
I will be able
Vesna Goldsworthy (1961, Belgrade) lives in London and writes poetry in English, her third language, as well as her native Serbian, in which her poetry is much-anthologized. Aged twenty-three, she read her poems at a football stadium to an audience of thirty thousand people. She moved to Britain soon afterwards and did not write a line of poetry for over twenty years. Her Crashaw Prize winning debut poetry collection in English, The Angel of Salonika (Salt, 2011) was one of the Times Best Poetry Books of the Year.
Everything in the world is really beautiful, everything but our thoughts and actions…
A.P. Chekhov, “The Lady with the Dog” (1899)
After they made love that first time
She still felt distant enough to use the formal you
In the first question she posed.
He contemplated the heavy Japanese scent
He helped her choose the day before.
Something less overwhelming, with more zest,
Would have suited Yalta better, now he knew,
Than the red spider lily.
That flower grows, so legend says,
Along the path on which you meet
Someone you will never see again.
He was still naked when he got out of bed
And sat down at the table to cut a slice of watermelon.
His testicles rested on the chair.
The lacquered wood felt pleasantly cool.
They stayed like that for thirty minutes at least.
Her little Pomeranian dog was there too
Watching his mistress, then him,
As he chewed the red flesh in silence.
The two pairs of eyes
Seemed similarly moist in candlelight.
If she were not naked – or not shy –
If she could only fling the window open,
Would they still hear the crashing
Of the waves
In the darkness below,
Like earlier that evening,
A century ago?
I am old enough to remember
The appearance of Akhmatova’s Requiem,
The ambiguities of Brecht, Brodsky in his prime,
The Wall before it fell, the sound of planes
Taking off and landing. Nearby, another country.
On our long ride to Potsdam
We carved a crescent, a Cyrillic S,
In the first snow of the season,
As we wound our way across
The white spaces on the map,
Along the streets which echoed in Russian
And smelled of coal, cabbage, and wool.
It took years to reassemble
The memory of winter love-making
Undone on the parturition table,
In the encounter of metal and flesh.
The nurse returned with a pack of wadding.
It will cease in a day or two, she said
As though you were, already, absent. Do rest,
Drink some Georgian red, forget.
She straightened the shawl on my shoulders.
Under her uniform, the smell of sweat
Was just like mother’s, the night she was taken.
Our bicycles remained padlocked at the gate.
The brushstrokes of white powder
Emphasised the elegance of bars and chains,
A trail of lines in virgin snow,
To but not from, never returning;
So much blood and nothing
Conceived from so much love.
Of all that betrays us, the gentlest is memory.
Leaving the Party
We walk in silence bearing westwards
Along the towpath, against the current.
The Thames slithers and shimmers
On its slow way to surrender
Exhausted and spread-eagled on the sands of Essex.
Bicycle lights approach and frame us
In milky stills of gelatine silver.
Runners pound by in sweat and lycra,
Their footfall like strange amphibians’ heartbeat,
Mosquito buzz of music rises from their ears.
They give a wide berth to the couple of elderly clowns
In dinner jacket and sequins, carefully treading
With patent leather shoes unsuited to water’s edge.
At one point this evening we seemed unbearably close.
I raised my right hand to touch your temple.
Your hair, your fine hair, your fine white hair
Moved towards my fingers in static electricity.
There again was that question I was about to pose.
Then something behind your unquestionable goodness
Suddenly scared me, like ormolu and woodworm.
The cup of my palm still carries that faint fragrance,
The smoothness of black silk where the hand fell in defeat,
The soft woollen cloth, the white cotton underneath,
All those conspiracies of loom and thread
Expensively constructed to shield and to protect
Your skin, your warm skin, in all its unfamiliar creases.
Mine always feels porous, a layer to be shed,
Though I forever shiver — needing a cover, a shawl, a shelter —
Like some short-lived species of insect, a devil’s darning needle.
The darkness grows. The heat’s abating. I’ll hold myself together.
Louise McKenna was born in the United Kingdom and studied at the University of Leeds where she completed a joint honours degree in English Literature and French. She now lives in South Australia. In 2010 a short poetry collection, A Lesson in Being Mortal, was published by Wakefield Press. In 2013 she co-edited Flying Kites, a Friendly Street Poets anthology, also published by Wakefield Press. Her poetry has appeared in Mascara Literary Review, Cordite Poetry Review, Red River Review, Eureka Street and Poetrix. Her work has also appeared in Light and Glorie, an anthology of South Australian poetry published by Pantaenus Press. This year she was longlisted for the Fish Poetry Prize and she was shortlisted for the same prize in 2013. This is her first published piece of fiction.
Fall of a Bird
The bang makes her spin round as the bird hits the paving stones outside her lounge room window. It’s a honeyeater, tiny and beautiful in its gold and black plumage. Jen goes out into the yard and cups the insensate bird in her hands. It’s warm as blood and she can feel the rapid vibration of its heart. There is no time to nurse it. She feels a pang of guilt at the thought of leaving it, but she is running late already. She lays it in the shade.
Its wings have made a ghostly impression on the glass door. Strange, how this draws a tear from her. She does not normally weep over such things; having worked as a nurse for ten years has shored up some emotional ballast, yet this small tragedy moves her. Her mug of coffee sits on the kitchen top, but she feels a sudden repulsion for it and slings it in the sink. Another wave of nausea breaks over her. She feels depleted, a little down. This is a virus taking hold, she thinks, although she’s been like this now for over a month. She hopes her GP will shed some light from her blood results on Monday.
She glances down at her fob watch. Ten to six: that sparrow-farting, heart-sinking hour on Saturday before the early shift. Passing the open door of her daughter’s bedroom, she glimpses Polly, one arm splayed across the doona, the other thrown back on the pillow, the way she used to sleep as a baby. In a week’s time she will be four. Despite the celebration, Jen will silently grieve once more for the anniversary of the day she was told that no more children were possible. When they opened her up and lifted Polly out, there were ripples visible on the uterine muscle. She was told her uterus had been about to split apart, that it was perilously frail and inelastic. Then it failed to contract after Polly’s birth, resulting in massive blood loss.
During those first ten, sacrosanct minutes in which they worked to stem the haemorrhage, Jen prepared to face death, and she clung desperately to the edge of consciousness, determined not to fall into a pelagic darkness where she would not find her baby or partner. Afterwards they told her and Mark how Bandl Rings were the cause, the phenomenon indicating impending uterine rupture, first discovered by Ludwig Bandl. During those weeks of slow recovery, Jen had googled the nineteenth century obstetrician, and learned how he had spent his last years in an asylum. Her specialist had been straight with her. She remembers his eyes, bloodshot from too much work, or alcohol, when he recommended sterilisation. A rare problem. Very rare, her womb was dangerously thin, he said. Another pregnancy might kill her.
There is a violin case propped up by the door, and she thinks of Mark, how he will be up in a few hours preparing Polly’s breakfast in time for Dora the Explorer. His career as a music teacher allows her to work weekends for the penal rates that come in so handy. He’d played some Beethoven for her last night, the notes spiralling off into the room with a mellifluous sadness.
‘God, you look as white as one of those sheets,’ Sue tells her at the nurses’ station. They’ve just finished handover and are waiting for an eighty-four year old with a fractured hip to come in. Sue sets some tea before her on the desk before Jen feels her world tilt again, black snow dotting her vision. She sinks on to the chair and waits for it to thaw.
‘Have you got an appointment yet?’ Sue asks, searching her colleague’s face.
‘Yes, on Monday.’
‘Good.’ That is all Sue has to say, and the word trails in the air as she goes off to her duties. Jen has to delete an unbidden image of a tumour slowly rotting her away.
After her appointment late on Monday, how does she open the car door in the health centre car park, turn the ignition key and manoeuvre out? How does she drive home through the city’s craziest hour? She pulls up behind a ute, a demonic looking dog menacingly dripping strings of saliva over the tailgate, and vomits into a supermarket bag.
She arrives home almost disorientated. Her limbs move mechanically, as if her brain no longer communicates with her body, and she is swimming through air. She takes a shower. Afterwards, naked and dripping, she stands still and drinks in the emptiness of the house.
Mark’s text still shows on her phone: At Woolies, hope everything OK xxx. She throws on some clothes then walks through to the lounge room. Polly’s pink blanket is spilled across the sofa. There are two of her books on top of it. An arrow of grief enters her.
The bird is still there, motionless, under the garden fence. She walks out into the yard. The impossibly small engine of its heart ceased, perhaps hours ago. Its eyes are glazed and soulless. She kneels down, takes it once more in her hands. This time it is cold. She sees honeyeaters almost every day, darting back and forth among hedges and power lines, where they briefly arrange themselves like notes on a stave. She takes a trowel from the shed, scoops a hole in the humus beneath her roses and gives it a burial she hopes is deep enough to deter the neighbour’s cat.
Come and see me next week, her GP advised her. He spoke with some emotion, being fully versed in Jen’s medical history. How could she have known, that as an afterthought, perhaps acting on professional instinct, he had called the lab and requested a pregnancy check in addition to the other tests? So now it is on paper, the report confirming the incontrovertible evidence from a few millilitres of blood. Nausea, overwhelming tiredness, spells of dizziness. Not the symptoms of a tumour, but an eight-week old foetus struggling to make its presence felt.
A very small chance of pregnancy. She remembers signing the consent form for the sterilisation, the smaller print insuring the hospital against all those highly improbable risks and complications. A very small chance. All life needs. She has a week to think things through; another week while the baby grows, swimming in the warm dark.
As she steps back inside the house, she sees herself in the glass door and above her, a perfect cloning of clouds in a blue sky, the same forgery of heaven that tricked the bird. The print of its wings is like the spread, phantom fingers of a minute hand. She reaches for a cloth.
Gabriel Don received her MFA in Creative Writing at The New School, where she worked as the chapbook and reading series coordinator. Her work has appeared in Westerly 58:2, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Brooklyn Rail, The Saudade Review, The Understanding Between Foxes and Light, Yes Poetry, A Minor and Statorec.com. She has appeared in visual poems such as Woman Without Umbrella (vimeo.com/55691171) and Unbound (vimeo.com/54545554). She started several reading-soiree series including Pies and Scribes and Dias Y Flores in New York City and is editorial staff at LIT. She is a #bookdress and can be found on Amazon @ tinyurl.com/aq9ll8c.
The Chicken Coop
The chicken coop was outside, to the left of the house, down the side stairs, tucked away in the corner, opposite to the downstairs sliding glass door, that opened into a big room with grotty carpets and piles of oil cans, old tools, across on the other wall a topless poster of Pam and a door to where I slept on a water bed with my dog Scar. Dad liked to keep chickens. He installed the large wired cage as soon as we moved in. We got our eggs daily and chopped and roasted a chook for special occasions. We didn’t live on a farm or nothing. Sure, it’s not the biggest town in Austra’ia―it wasn’t something people did, keep chickens. If they wanted chicken meat or eggs, they’d go to Coles. Dad was just like that.
His dream was to own a prawn trawler. When he eventually saved up enough to buy one, days laying brick, digging holes, slabbing walls, he took it out on the river and got sick as a dog. Ah nooooooo. Mate, it was gross. He turned green and spewed for days. He chucked a sickie from work and spent the rest of the week at the pub drinking ginger ale and beer. I was working with him at the time and since I wasn’t old enough to drive the truck myself, I sat next to him, bony legs dangling over bar stool, sipping on a fire engine. I was eleven when I dropped out of school to work with Dad. We woke up at the crack of dawn and climbed up and sat down in the only seat: one long bench with three seat belts, up the front of the ute. Dad and I would argue over the tape deck. He wanted to listen to Kenny Rogers. I wanted to play ACDC. Best way to wake up mate, on a long drive to the work site. We’d go back and forth, until we’d stubbornly, cutting off our noses to spite our faces, listened to AM radio. The truck didn’t have FM.
The floor was filled with rolling stubbies, beer cans, soft drinks, bottles of old and hot Lift, greased wrenches and parking tickets. After Dad picked up the boys, I’d be squashed into the middle with the gear stick shifting between my legs. Boz, Dad’s dog, a beautiful black Doberman, was on the back, wagging her tail and slobbering her tongue into the wind. Dad didn’t want me to be a bludger. Had to earn my keep. I was always waggin’ school anyways, so Dad reckoned it was best I just tag along with him. Once, not even four years old yet, when my parents were out at a dance, all dressed up, I dismantled the living room cupboard with a screwdriver, all by myself. Mum threw a hissy fit. Dad looked proud.
When I was a youngin Dad would disappear for days, not come home. Mum would say he’d gone walkabout. Shrug it off, like it was normal. No biggie. She’d tell me to put my togs on and we’d go to Maccas for breakkie. The one that was right on the beach, yeah mate, it’s gone now. It was always full of surfies in boardies and no shoes, not even a pair of thongs. Mum looked like a movie star. She was in her early twenties, her black hair permed and her eyes hidden behind her big purple sunglasses. We’d eat pancakes, bacon and egg McMuffins and hash browns and spend the rest of the day at the beach. Slip slap slop. Mum would lie on her purple towel, sunbathing, reading a book and I’d body surf and climb rocks. Chase the bush turkeys. Sometimes she’d walk around the cliff hills with me. She’d show me the hidden waterfall and sing me a song to remember the colours of a rainbow. She had a song for everything.
Eventually Dad would find his way home, with a gutful of piss, stumbling and swerving, telling Mum he’d been working on a house in Brizzie, the words barely making any sense slurred and Mum would spit the dummy. She hadn’t even wanted to marry him, she’d cry. He chased her and chased her. He pursued her till he caught her, like a fish he’d throw back after he’d hooked it. I would sneak out the front door, run away from the smashing plates and loud screams, down the stairs on the side of the house and sit with Boz, his head in my lap, my legs curled and bent, my back leaning against the wall, looking at the chooks. They were funny little buggers. I’d watch them squabble, bobbing their heads up and down, pecking each other, fighting for a feed. Their cage, covered in shit, hay and rust, was always in need of a clean. Sometimes Dad would send me down there as a punishment with a slopping bucket of soap and water.
I remember the first time my Dad caught me and my friend Ben smoking. We had a nice big bowl of mull on my bedside table. We were lying in bed, vegging out, in our trackie dacks, playing video games, punching cone after cone. I thought Dad was away living on a building site while he did their renovations. Mum never told us off for getting high. She didn’t like confrontation or maybe she didn’t notice. Dad liked his grog and all but he down right hated pot. He came home early and smelt some smoke sneaking up the stairs. Mate, he was spewin’. I heard him punch a hole in the wall upstairs and tip over the television. Bloody oath. We could hear his heavy steps down the stairs and mate, we took off as fast as our legs would carry us. Luckily my room has a door into the back garden so we escaped outdoors and up the stairs and hid under the truck. He looked for us for ages, screaming he was going to kill me when he found me. We held our breath and nearly passed out from fright. I’m not a wuss and Beno is the biggest guy on our rugby team, a giant Polynesian who can tackle anyone on the field but Dad’s mental. We just hoped and prayed Dad wouldn’t get into the truck and drive to the pub for a schooner. We were under that truck till sunset when we finally, slowly and scared, popped our heads out and checked to see the coast was clear and legged it to Beno’s, where his old man didn’t care if we smoked.
I inherited my temper from my Dad. Poor Mum. She’s the sweetest, gentlest woman you’d ever meet and she had to deal with us drongos. I reckon in another life, without us, she could have been a prime minister or done something special, you know? She didn’t get a fair go. Mum loved to go to our club’s member’s draw every Thursday night. She was always hopeful, this was the week, she would win the large cash prize. Better than staying in, cooped up in the house. I loved driving in the car with Mum when I was little. She’d just take us for a trip, in any direction, no particular destination. She’d have Dolly Parton turned up to the top volume, singing, “I will always love you.” Or Tammy Wynette spelling out, “Our d-i-v-o-r-c-e becomes final today.”
We’d drive alongside the concaves and curves of the rivers, along the coast, past mangroves, through eucalypt forests; the thick smell of the gum trees entering the car. We’d venture into the middle of nowhere and in Austra’ia that’s not far from anywhere. If the car broke down, we’d be fucked. Not a light in sight. I’ve been taught since kindy what to do if I ever ended up stranded. How to gather condensation on cling wrap for water. Never drink from the ocean unless you want to go mad. The call that echoed: Cooee, Cooee, Cooee. It’s heaps dangerous on the roads. Wild life made their way across the highway, unaware the car had been invented. Kangaroos, especially, at night they become hypnotised by headlights and a big beaut of a thing, built like a boxer, not able to move, in the car’s path. It’s not that people care about killing a kangaroo, they’re hunted like pests here, cheapest meat you can pick up at the supermarket: a kangaroo can total a car and hop away. I’ve never hit a kangaroo, mind you. Worst accident I’ve ever had was when me and the boys were bored shitless on a Saturday so we decided to drive to the Bottle-O, fill up the esky with long necks and throwbacks and head upstate for a barbie. We got heaps smashed. My truck at the time didn’t have a door on the left hand side, next to the passenger’s seat, where I was sitting wasted on the way back and I rolled right out onto the road. When they got me home, I had to sit in a bath of Dettol, my whole body grazed.
My oldies kept at it―the screaming, the violence, the tears, the door slamming―my whole childhood. By the time I was bringing girls home, Dad had moved out. Mum and Dad weren’t divorced but Dad lived in an apartment on the main street of Coolie, above the pie shop, with a bogan, who had flabby arms and several chins, named Sharon and her daughter, Liana. He’d met Sharon at the pub. She sat with him, red nose with red nose, every day till closing. Mum was on the road a lot for work so I lived by myself most of the time. Only saw Dad at work. He’d invite me to join him and Sharon for dinner at the pub but I felt sick every time I’d see her. Once that bitch saw Mum sitting up at the bar with her friends at the Clubhouse and―so lucky I wasn’t there, Dad wasn’t there either―she went up and started talking shit and then pushed Mum off her seat. Poor Mum. Sprawled out on the blue carpet, in her finest clothes and jewellery.
I reckon people in our town are jealous of Mum. They like to cut down tall poppies. Flock together. Mum is smart and a looker too and she always behaves like a lady. She was just raised that way. She doesn’t think she’s too good for you or anything. She never got angry with me, not once. She’s not the type to speak her mind. I think after Dad, she got scared to. She’d rather walk around things, tell white lies. Hide up a supermarket aisle from workmates because she hadn’t answered their calls. Tell everyone what they wanted to hear. She never told me off for being a wally or bringing a different woman home every night. Even after she walked in on us having a pash. She was polite to them. Made them cups of tea. Invited them to go shopping at the mall. Even remained friends with them long after we’d broken up, when I wasn’t on speaking terms with them. The girls in town were nuts for me. I had to fight them off with a stick. Treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen.
At work, among the Bobcats, trucks and dozers, Dad and I got along just fine. Installing swimming pools, fixing floors, mending roofs. Drilling holes, swinging shovels, holding levels, watching the bubble move. On our smoko we’d sit together by the water and puff on a rollie, eat our meat pies with tomato sauce and drink a nice cold one. No need to talk about nothing. If it was a slow day and we had lots of boys on the job, I’d take off my big brown scuffed up CATs and have a snooze. Piece of piss. Dad would still come home with me sometimes. Have dinner with me and my sheila, Mum too if she wasn’t travelling. I’d go downstairs afterwards and watch recordings of RAGE with my girlfriend. Mum and Dad would chat upstairs: I could hear their voices murmuring down through the floorboards. When I went up to the kitchen to get another bottle of cordial and some snacks, I’d see them curled up together on the day bed, sleeping with the news on the telly. Dad wrapped around Mum, his arms around her waist, together, curved like a backwards c.
Sharon broke up with Dad and Dad came back to Mum. She was so happy to have him home but then we found out he was sick. One day Dad couldn’t walk straight, sober. He lost his balance. He was falling all over the place for ages before Mum and me convinced him to see a doctor. We thought it might be an inner ear infection or something. Turned out a lot more serious. Dad wouldn’t even tell me himself: he made me ring the doctor to find out. Sharon found out Dad was sick and wanted him back. Only when she knew he was dying. When Dad got sick, he deteriorated fast. One moment he was a capable man, working, driving, drinking; the next he was overweight, dribbling, swollen, in a wheel chair. Incapable of eating. Incapable of anything. That’s the worst mate. My hero. My dad. Not capable. Couldn’t do his hair, no more James Dean coif. Dad was vain. He wouldn’t have liked to go like this. Just wasn’t right. Lost the cheeky twinkle in his crystal blue eyes. When they started chemo his hair fell out. He’d been so proud of his hair. He used to tell me and Mum how his hair had been straight until he’d gone through puberty and then it went curly. I never believed him till I had children of my own and it happened to them.
It was hard for me and Mum to visit Dad in the hospital or talk to the doctors. Sharon was always there, the bulldog, pulling strings. That’d be right. When I did get the chance to see him, sit next to him, lying there barely conscience, it was hard. No one wants to see their dad like that. I hate hospitals. The whiteness. The smell of Dr Pepper. Adults turning back into babies, being rocked around in cots, being fed through sippy cups. Strangers forced to share rooms during intimate moments, birth, sickness and death. Doctors talking down to you. Pretending to care, scheduling you in so they can rush off to their golf game. Angry overworked nurses. Paying for parking. I got so many fines visiting Dad. I don’t think he even noticed me. He wasn’t there most of the time. Still I felt like it was my duty, to be there till the end. The hospital couldn’t do anything for him anymore. So we took turns taking him home, depending on his mood. Sharon insisted on keeping Dad’s new dog, Boomer, at her house. Wouldn’t let us keep Boomer at our house and Dad loved that dog. Sometimes more than me I reckon. So he’d go home to her apartment to see the dog.
Now Dad couldn’t come to work I was at the top of the pecking order. I’d oversee the boys on a job. Dad would have me fill out his cheques, forge his signature. Still trying to run the business from his sick bed. Pay for building materials. Sharon was the one collecting his social security cheques, taking all the money. I had to sneak him packs of cigarettes and a bit of money every time I visited him. Sharon’s sister was over during one of my visits and she said, in front of Dad, “Youz don’t worry. He’s not going to last much longer.” When Sharon found out about the cheques she tried to have me thrown in jail. Mum went and visited a solicitor and they said even though Dad told me to do it, it was still illegal. Sharon tried to convince Dad I was stealing from him. I never took one dollar off Dad. I only ever paid suppliers or contractors like he had told me to. Sharon was the thief. Mum had bought Dad a new wardrobe to replace his tattered shirts and pants. All brand new. Still had the labels on. Sharon returned them for the money. I confronted Sharon in the pub and told her she better not press charges against me. If she did she’d better watch out. She’d regret it. Sharon got all up tight and started whining to Dad, “You’re gonna let your son talk to me like that?” Dad said, “My son can talk to you however he wants.”
I didn’t know then but that day she’d taken him to the solicitors. He’d signed over everything to her. The land he bought with Mum’s money. He’d convinced her early on in their marriage to sell her shares in the family farm. With the money they’d bought a large plot together. Every year Dad had a new scheme of what he was going to do with it. Hadn’t done nothing with it yet. In his condition, Sharon had convinced him to change his will. A man who couldn’t even go to the bathroom by himself or remember our names. That was the worst part of hospital for Dad, he had told me they took a woman to the bathroom with him, in a group, the nurses took them all into the toilet. A lady had to go to the bathroom in front of him. He kept telling me how terrible it was. He would call me sometimes from Sharon’s and say it’s the milkman or a pizza delivery. Sharon was always there hovering and wouldn’t let him talk to me too long. She gave away the dog as soon as he died. To someone else. I don’t know who. I tried to look for Boomer but never found him.
Mum was away when Dad passed. I’m sure she would have been there every day by his side, taken time off work: if Sharon wasn’t there, growling and biting. After Dad died, everything was a blur. I’ve blocked most of it out to tell you the truth. He was only fifty-five. I was twenty-four. The funeral took place not too long after. I went with Mum and she was hysterical. All her incubating pain, at last hatched. I didn’t cry. Didn’t want to be a sook. Mum was still his wife when he died: they had never divorced. He was being cremated and Mum ranted on and on about her aunt’s cremation when she was a little girl that she still had nightmares about: a dead body on a conveyor belt, being rolled towards a curtain, dropped into an incinerator. Mum, who is a devout Anglican, summoned images of fire and brimstone. I wasn’t very useful to Mum at the ceremony. I got wasted and high and ended up at a brothel or strip club. Can’t remember.
When Mum found out about the changed will, she did nothing. She could have easily had it overturned. Easily have had the new will annulled but she wouldn’t. When I went to pick up Dad’s things from Sharon, the things she hadn’t wanted, the things that weren’t worth anything, she’d already thrown them all out. At least I had his truck. I went and picked up Dad’s ashes. Sharon didn’t want them either. It had always been Dad’s wishes to be sprinkled into the Tweed River, at its mouth, where it meets the Pacific Ocean. I walked out, along the rocky peninsula, alone with Dad’s ashes and began to release them into the wind. The second my fistful of ashes was released into the wind, the wind changed and I got a mouthful. I was pretty upset for a moment but then I saw the funny side. I reckon Dad would have laughed.
When I bought a house of my own and moved in with my wife and baby girl― finally out of Mum’s hair, she’d let us live with her, after I got married, after I had my first child―I built a chicken coop underneath my house, in the backyard, next to the pool. I finished building it real good; a bloody ripper, then I had a coldie next to their cage and watched the chooks. Funny little buggers. They’re fond of company, have their own little community in the chicken coop but they get real aggro every time I put a new hen in, have to be real careful, otherwise they beat the poor chook up. They’re real stubborn too. They like to sleep in the same space and if another chook took it, they just lay right on top of it. Once a hawk swooped down and picked up one of the roosters having a stroll around the yard. No joke mate. Picked him up and flew away. That rooster was the leader of the pack. The rest of the chooks got all confused after that. Took them a while to return to normal.
Sam Langer was born in Melbourne, in February 1983. He lives in Berlin. He edits Steamer and has published a chapbook, Law You Can Eat, with Munted Beyond Press. A second chapbook, Topaz, should come out in 2014. Recent poems have appeared in Otoliths, Southerly, and Outcrop. Contact: samuel underscore langer at yahoo dot com dot au.
Horizon Drinkers (after Pierre Reverdy)
Venomous dregs girt by sea jails
Vicious pearlers in boated collars
these men who shut their eyes in the warm cruise blood
these suspect men whose love lives on water
their eyes open like cages
staggering under blokeish cenotaphs
they go home in hollow bungalows
they hide themselves
and exile and bile and boredom share out
their hearts and minds like overripe fruit
The warm breaths on porches at thresholds
against the boulevards and the currents of night
the ports and beaches
the dead adventures
the flame badge detaches itself, ferments, and is rotting
the nostrils full of savage aftershaves
unseen agonies in the table shadows
the Tummies rolled under these tomb plaques
the ear sagging with obese words
and too beautiful names
under the frozen forehead arch sharp arrows of desire
this evening the spirit was troubled by an irritating task
to book departure
the world’s blank verso on freshly constructed roads
on hopeless quayside strips toward sudden returns
to leave this type of leaf, always to leave
Chris Wallace-Crabbe is an octogenarian metaphysician whose generous accolades include participating in a reading series with Iraqi poets Fadeel Kayat, Jamal Al-Hallaq, Sudanese poet Afeif Ismail, and Chilean poet Juan Garrido-Salgado. Thereafter, he was anthologised in a ground-breaking transnational collection, Poetry Without Borders Ed Michelle Cahill (Picaro, 2008). Having conferenced with the legendary likes of Andrew Motion, Alastair Niven as well as Mulk Raj Anand, Kamala Das, Raja Rao, Eunice de Souza, G.V Desani and Raj Parthasarathi, he describes himself as a post-colonialist with history being the ultimate arbiter. Carcanet published his New and Selected, while his latest collection is My Feet Are Hungry (Pitt St Poetry) and Afternoon in the Central Nervous System is forthcoming with Braziller, New York.
Well, yes, I’ve always been intoxicated by India,
a rich Everywhere which can’t possibly resemble us
(except in playing cricket, either straight or bent),
let alone the notorious gravity of beer-drowning Belgium and Wales,
being a technicoloured macro-country of hill station and spice
plus devilmaycare characters like Babur and Kimball O’Hara
and at best reminds me of every adventure I relish,
not excluding the nursery land of green ginger which
may well have been Cathay.
It could be that India is a collective subconscious,
but I can let that one go through to the ‘keeper
tricked out in glorious silks and golden bangles.
My dad lived there through years of war;
I love the way they sustain the English language,
though why we call it that only the Krauts will know,
(bespectacled, growing esteem among literate historians);
a tongue that tricked wryly past Norman bastardisation
holding hands with a lovely Latin of inkhorn learning
in order to produce dinky-di oxbridge Australian
or laboured essay prose from catholic schools,
but which in their spicy landscape is melodiously
delivered from high up the oral register.
On my very first visit to those curried shores
I flicked my passport open to an inclining clerk
who cut to the paper chase quickly and demanded,
“Who is the greatest English poet?” and when
I roundly demurred at Shelley, proffering Shakespeare,
He could cope with that, riposting blandly,
“He was not for England , but for all mankind”.
He passed me on to the dodgy taxi-drivers, Hanuman
and Petrolpants, into the southerly smileage of Madras
with pluncake in Spencer’s emporium.
Back in those days even when the street beggars laughed
and our hotel drummer wanted to eat the cook; no,
it was the other way round, like sari-bright India:
that bulky chef was devoured of all. Whatever
passed by meltingly became him: or her.
and I suffered only once from Akbar’s Curse,
but that was in a posh quarter of Delhi,
not on the elephantine Great Trunk Road
in some lean-to-café with hot sugary tea.
I filled the shower with shit for a couple of days.
Trivandrum was another story again,
literate, breeze-laved, anticipated from childhood,
a southwest version of rapture’s roadway far,
while necklaced with glinting lagoons.
Seal-life Entangled. Love Activism combines art, photography and fashion to create awareness about the plight of animals. Photography and Body Art by Jo Ranck
Issue 15 is edited by Michelle Cahill. Special thanks to Gemma McDonald, University of Wollongong, Creative Arts
New and Selected Poems
by Chris Wallace-Crabbe
Reviewed by CASSANDRA ATHERTON
On the eve of his eightieth birthday, it seems appropriate that Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s New and Selected Poems offers readers an insight into his rich oeuvre and the opportunity to remedy, at least on a small scale, what Michael Sharkey (2007) has argued is the ‘few [who have] systematically read his works….from the first publications through to the most recent’. Wallace-Crabbe has published twenty-five books of poetry, from The Music of Division (1959) to the recent publication New and Selected Poems (2013). He has another book, My Feet Are Hungry, forthcoming from Pitt Street Poetry, as well a New York collection, Afternoon in the Central Nervous System, currently in press. Wallace-Crabbe’s first Selected Poems was published in 1975 and a second, entitled Selected Poems 1956-1994, appeared in 1995. With Wallace-Crabbe’s prodigious oeuvre ever expanding, it seems that his selected poetry collections never quite capture his most recent work. However, the inclusion of new poetry in this selection makes it more up-to-the-minute’ even if, with Wallace-Crabbe and poetry, it is a New York minute.
While many critics and reviewers have prioritised Wallace-Crabbe’s larrikinism and playful use of strine in his poems, this praise is often at the expense of any analysis of the poetry’s gravitas. In this way, Wallace-Crabbe’s appeal to the Kunderanian light/heavy dichotomy of ‘being’ is often overlooked in the trickster moments where comedy displaces gravity:
You flip out of anyone’s grip
like a wet watermelon seed…
there you are…
In this way, in comic guises, such as ‘The Joker’, ‘wet watermelon seeds’ are used as a diversionary metaphor for the slippery self and Wallace-Crabbe’s nod to Pessoan heteronymic writing.
Indeed, reading Wallace-Crabbe’s poems chronologically lays bare his many ‘performances’ over time. In an interview with Barbara Williams, he stated:
One of my main areas of concern has been what I want to call psychomachia – finding different ways of dramatizing how the part of self…of one’s identity, sit down together, war with one another, interact…I invent topoi. (1987)
The internal dramatic movement of his poems leads to some sophisticated game playing and the biggest game, at the heart of his oeuvre, is the enticing way Wallace-Crabbe invites readers into the puzzle of his religious beliefs (or lack of them) and then, with a kind of prestidigitation, draws readers away, again. Indeed, tantalising statements are scattered through poems across the years, perhaps culminating in the new poem, ‘An Autumnal’ with lines such as: ‘When I come back to this garden after my death…I wonder just what my airy after-self will find…But I’ll be dead’.
I like to think that Wallace-Crabbe is amused by the critics’ determination to pin down a belief system in his poetry. In his own words, he is ‘not a religious man, but not an atheist either’ (2000). To readers, interviewers and critics he is a transcendentalist, (anti-theologian), agnostic, existentialist. Indeed, perhaps as a response to this obsession, Wallace-Crabbe ends the first section of his new poems in this selection with a juxtaposition of ‘The Poem of One Line’: ‘Whatever Christ meant, it was not this’, with his more wondrous and lonely ‘That Which Is’. One of Wallace-Crabbe’s personal favourites and a poem which he stated, at his symposium last year, defines his new poems, ‘That Which Is’ foregrounds ‘a brave form of ontological inquiry’ (Koshland, 2014):
Admit it, then:
We are surrounded by the prodigious being,
By the isness that may be everything
Here and there,
Such universe of proffered being
Into which we are all of course plunged,
And it’s no bad thing,
Given our wayward, hungrily wafting minds,
To have been granted extensive something
To take a firm grip on. To smell.
The way in which the narrator is ‘plunged’ into ‘isness that may be everything’ is a sublime moment. The poet experiences divisions between parts of himself, resulting in a Kantian focus on the way the senses produce the world: ‘To smell’. It is a weighty moment that complements the lightness of the ‘hungrily wafting minds’.
Thirty-six new poems provide the opening text of New and Selected Poems (2013). I would have liked these poems to appear at the end of the book, rather than at the beginning, largely because it would have created the feeling that the poet is still writing and that there is no end to his new poems. However, it is interesting to read the rest of the book through the frame of the new poems; it offers a true retrospective on his previous collections of poetry. It is a shame that every poem doesn’t begin on a new page. While I understand this is costly and may have prevented as many poems being included in the book, it does compromise poems such as ‘The Secular’ which is a 17 line poem beginning at the bottom of page 63 after ‘In Light and Darkness’ and ending at the top of the following page before ‘Wind and Change’. It appears squashed into the leftover space, rather than celebrated as a compelling poem on the ‘abundant secular’.
New and Selected Poems contains the best poems from fourteen of Wallace-Crabbe’s books of poetry. From the Nabokovian ‘The Amorous Cannibal’ with its focus on lust, language and the cheeky play on oral sex:
Suppose I were to eat you
I should probably begin
with the fingers, the cheeks and the breasts
yet all of you would tempt me,
so powerfully spicy
as to discompose my choice
to, ‘The Domestic Sublime’ with its opening image of the deodorant ‘rolling into an oxter’ juxtaposed with ‘clubbable and promiscuous coat hangers’ and the ‘ripe sex’ of the garlic clove. ‘The Domestic Sublime’ is one of Wallace-Crabbe’s poems that has been set to music by Katy Abbott as a song cycle for a soprano (I believe Greta Bradman, Donald’s granddaughter, was the soprano who first performed it). Linda Kouvaras has also composed ‘Three Settings of Poetry’ by Wallace-Crabbe.
However, it is the poems about Wallace-Crabbe’s oldest son, written across the years, that I always find most devastating for their torturedness. In a kind of quaternion he includes ‘An Elegy’, ‘Erstwhile’, ‘Years On’ and ‘Oh Yes, Then’ in this selection. In ‘Oh Yes, Then’, which ends New and Selected, Wallace-Crabbe muses on what will become of his family when he is ‘rotting patiently where/my eldest, Ben, now lies’. In the final stanza, he states:
Where will you be, the flamingly
joyous hearth of my heart?
I can’t get the answer, no matter how
I tune up the shawms of art.
The moment Wallace-Crabbe’s longing for his son ends, the torture of being without his lover/soul mate begins. It is the eternal riddle that Wallace-Crabbe cannot solve; the double bind that love and death presents.
Wallace-Crabbe will, no doubt, have another Selected Poems published in the next decade. However, this New and Selected is ‘unbearably light’ and, in the end, a wonderfully weighty volume of poetry.
CASSANDRA ATHERTON is the editor of Travelling Without Gods: A Chris Wallace-Crabbe Companion (MUP, 2014).
by Geoff Page
Reviewed by LINDA WESTE
‘Innovative’: the characteristic imputed to a recent prize-winning verse novel  that left prose novel competitors on the short list, prompts one to ask: what determines innovation in a form whose conventions are not widely understood?
Geoff Page’s 1953 is a notable exemplar of temporal innovation in the contemporary verse novel. In its unique arrangement, this collection of poems about life in a small town called Eurandangee rejects the conventional linear unfolding of narrative events in a chronological and causal sequence. Each poem presents a different character in a different location within the storyworld, and each of these characters is participating in events that are taking place at the same time, half past two on Tuesday 17th February 1953.
Page is circumspect as to whether 1953 actually is a verse novel because it breaks with temporal conventions of the verse novel form: “In anything that’s got the word ‘novel’ attached to it, you’d expect forward narrative momentum,” he contends, “but with 1953 you get this diverging off in different directions, all these separate stories that are connected” (Interview). To assist understanding of narrative arrangement in 1953, Page uses a metaphor of yam roots to convey “a whole lot of horizontal stories that are interconnected” (Interview). This spatial metaphor may over-simplify the temporal dynamics of the narrative, and in particular, understanding of its continuity. The poems’ typography and consecutive page layout means that the narrative sequence comprises “parallel phases” (Ireland 107) of co-occurrent events. That is, each new poem is “placed after a given sequence, though on the level of events, the reader is meant to assume [that the present phase of events] occurs parallel with that sequence” (107).
While writing 1953 Page had a number of templates in mind, including Our Town, Dubliners, The Spoon River Anthology and even Under Milkwood, “a number of different sorts of works whose pre-existence enabled (him) to think of doing a local contemporary version of life in a small town”, even though, he maintains, “my idea is a bit different” (Interview).
Indeed, temporal parallels contribute an important difference in 1953: since the destinies of most characters diverge rather than converge, the narrative arrangement serves to thematise small town isolation. The pejorative use of “small town” to convey a place and people limited in outlook and in opportunities, however disparaging, conveys a kernel of reality for each of the forty or so characters. Their particular circumstances may vary, yet each character has a sense of being constrained.
Page brings attention to this limitation, to show his characters in a difficult situation, experiencing a “sense of stasis or flight.” He explains: “A lot of the characters would like to flee. Some characters are locked in a stasis and don’t know how to flee, and others don’t realise they need to flee. A few are completely happy in their life … but a lot don’t realise the extent of their unhappiness” (Interview). Thus among the characters are Stan, the town clerk, who “wants his life to be / one long re-reading of the files” (8), Pete, who “did not get out although he did the Leaving [Certificate]” (71), and Peggy who is “stuck here sadly married to / this half-arsed wizened little town / just big enough for real estate, / the wrong end of the line” (11).
The onus is on the reader to adduce not only the chronological sequence of story [“and then?”] but also the causal relations that link events, the plot causality [“why?”]. The events themselves are not bound together with a trajectory that culminates in a resolution. Readers may attempt (or not) to reconstruct a plot in the absence of an obvious narrative sequence.
Other distinctive temporal features of 1953 are its anachronies. Many poems contain one or more retrospective evocations of an event, or events, that took place prior to those happening in the “narrative now”. These analepses are apparent to the reader as s/he reconstructs or reconstitutes the chronological sequence in which events supposedly occurred, especially as these vary in order of presentation from the main narrative. By providing background, analepses suggest causal links between characters already introduced, rather than advancing events. Analepsis in 1953 varies in duration; in how long it departs from the narrative now. It can last to almost the end of a poem before a return to the narrative now occurs. For instance, in “XIX Sheena”, reference to the narrative now begins at line seventy-two, just seven lines before the poem ends: “Right now, today, at half past two, / he’s back there in the office” (53). In other poems such as “VI Sandra” there are regular shifts between analeptic references to past events and the present narrative now.
The temporality of 1953 utilises prolepsis, in allusions to future events, such as “There’ll be a convent and two schools, / a café that we don’t see yet” (2); and “I see a day not too far off / when it and I’ll be stretched and tested” (53). Prolepsis can also suggest “how one incident led to another, or underline the future relevance of specific events” (Ireland 104). It can entail “anticipatory hints” (106), “deliberate artifice” (106), or hypothetical, “fantasy projections” (106) which the verse novel need not actualise. In poem “VIII”, for instance, Pete Smith speculates about his prospects of marrying Sandra, the doctor’s receptionist:
He thinks to take her to the flicks,
A four-square hall with simple seats
its owner calls the Palace.
But that’s a move that’s still too far.
He’s seen the way her parents watch her,
protectively, with expectations,
though no great show of force.
They know the market for her looks,
Their daughter, they have made it plain,
will marry into business or
a homestead with five thousand acres.
Sheep or wheat, it doesn’t matter.
A minor clerk, for all his pension,
would need to argue hard,
assuming he could ever get
(as he has, so far, failed to do
her serious attention. (20)
Since it is through our knowledge of temporal conventions and their violations in fiction that we recognise temporal innovation, it follows that innovative verse novels depend on their conventions being widely understood, separate from novelistic conventions, and not too narrowly upheld.
This is not to suggest determining innovation in verse novels is uncomplicated, as 1953 illustrates: its non-linear temporal ordering of events, arguably uncommon in verse novels, is by contrast, so well-recognised as a strategy for representing time in the prose novel, that many theorists consider it conventionalised, particularly in postmodernist fiction.Such theorists already acknowledge a range of temporal variations in fiction: “retrogressive temporalities (in which time moves backwards); eternal temporal loops; conflated time lines or chronomontages (which yoke different temporal zones together); reversed causalities (in which, say, the present is caused by the future); contradictory temporalities (which consist of mutually exclusive events or event sequences); and differential time lines (in which inhabitants of the same storyworld age at a different rate than others)” (Jahn 3).
Page is modest about 1953’s innovation: “I don’t think of myself as a very experimental poet. In some ways I’m very retrograde,” he maintains. Rather, he considers 1953 a “genuine experiment” (Interview).
Entirely suited to the experiment is the use of iambic rhythm: this alternates unstressed syllables and stressed syllables, and in 1953 lends a pulsing rhythm to the narrative. Page has a facility for iambs, and believes his poetry in the last 20 years or so, has “definitely become more iambic.” Now he prefers “to hear everything in a clear iambic tetrameter or trimeter” (Interview). The threes and fours — the metrical length of lines, the number of feet contained in each line, “give a sense of formality that I like”, he admits.
Page views the interplay between poetic and narrative strategies as fundamental: “If you make it too compressed, too lyrical, then you can’t get the forward momentum, and if you make it not sufficiently lyrical, then it’s not very different from prose, and then you have to ask, well, what’s been gained by writing the novel in poetry? You have to strike this balance and that’s the hardest thing about writing any verse novel” (Interview).
Five other verse novels, two novels, two score of poetry books, and several non fiction titles, translations, and a biography currently comprise Page’s prolific and significant literary contribution. In 2013 alone, Page published three titles: 1953, Improving the News (Pitt Street Poetry) and New Selected Poems (Puncher & Wattmann). For his efforts Page has won several awards including the Grace Leven Prize, The Christopher Brennan Award, the Queensland Premier’s Prize for Poetry, and the Patrick White Literary Award.
It would be fitting if future accolades were to recognise 1953 as a verse novel of innovative means.
1 The Marlowe Papers: A Novel in Verse by Ros Barber, winner of The Desmond Elliott Prize 2013, Great Britain.
2 E. M. Forster’s ( 1993) distinction between story and plot.
3 I acknowledge the considerable differences of opinion among theorists regarding reader-response theories.
4 Chatman’s term in Story and Discourse.
Alber, Jan. “Unnatural Narrative”. In: Hühn, Peter et al. (eds.): the living handbook of narratology. Hamburg: Hamburg University. URL = http://www.lhn.uni- hamburg.de/article/unnatural-narrative
[view date:2 Feb 2014]
Ireland, Ken. The Sequential Dynamics of Narrative: Energies at the Margins of Fiction. London: Associated University Presses, 2001.
Page, Geoff. Interview by Linda Weste, 6 December 2013.
—. 1953. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2013.
LINDA WESTE is a poet, editor and teacher of Creative Writing. Her PhD, completed at The University of Melbourne, researched late-20th and early-21st-century verse novels. She is currently writing her second verse novel.
The Pillow Book
by Jee Leong Koh
Math Paper Press, 2012
Reviewed by TIFFANY TSAO
In taking its title and opening epigraph from one of the first masterpieces of the zuihitsu tradition—the pillow book written by Sei Shōnagon in the tenth century—Koh’s own pillow book seems to invite close comparison. However, as the pieces that follow the epigraph unfold, one after the other, it becomes apparent that to yoke The Pillow Book too closely to its namesake would be to miss the point entirely. The book is a playful meditation on the liberating, not binding, aspects of similitude—the ability of many objects, people, places, moods, and moments to share and even multiply and nuance sameness without being reduced to being the same. The lists that make up a good portion of the chapbook are exercises in drawing together the disparate. Under ‘Well Organized Things’ we find:
‘A dictionary. A rainforest. A supermarket.’
And categorized as ‘Sharp Things’ are:
A clever child.
Magnetite in a homing pigeon’s beak.
Like all zuihitsu, the book is the same exercise carried out on a slightly larger scale: miscellaneous lists, thoughts, observations, and memories gathered in a series of pieces that could itself be a list titled ‘Things to do with Jee Leong Koh’. ‘In the year I turned thirtythree,’ Koh tells us fairly early in the collection, ‘I moved to New York City to find out if I was gay and a poet.’ And though this is the stuff that Bildungsromane are made of, the pieces roam back and forth through Koh’s life in a non-linear, desultory fashion. Thus told, experiences one might think wholly dissimilar instead yield resemblances. The two years’ of mandatory army service as an adolescent in Singapore are contiguous with his sexual encounters in New York:
‘Once, the guys carried up a popular mate, spreadeagled him in the air, and split his crotch against a pillar. It was done in jest but, oh, how excited everyone was, now I see!’
Moving overseas has also meant not moving overseas:
‘working in a rented room in Queens I write by the light of Singapore, a tall yellow streetlamp with its cloud of flying insects.’
Embracing Christianity in youth mingles with his sexual awakening:
‘A tree shot up from the broken ground. It raised a crown of leaves. It rode as rigid as a sceptre. Its name was Good and Evil. Its name was I Am Alive. Its name was Frangipani.’
‘In the New American Standard Bible, which I owned then, Jonathan loved David as himself. That was how I loved Darren when I turned twentyone.’
Past and present, here and there, comradeship and sexual intimacy, spiritual and emotional and physical enlightenment—all are folded in on each other, variations in different keys in different passages on something that is ineffably one thing that can never (should never) be reduced to being just one thing.
Even the central object of the book’s charming opening piece—the eponymous character, the pillow—is not just one thing. It is the bolster of his first thirty-three years (‘the long pillow held between my legs and hugged to my chest’), which by association is also the other long thing between his legs. It is a substitute for a woman, asserts his handsome English friend Darren, who does not suspect that he, not woman, is the object of the Koh’s affections. The pillow returns at intervals throughout the book. It surfaces surreptitiously in ‘When I Go Home with Someone’ as Koh sleeping in the arms of a lover (‘He presses me against his chest’). It reappears by a stretch of the imagination in the similar-sounding ‘pillar’ that splits the crotch of the armymate. It announces itself in ‘Japanese Things’: ‘Hugging pillow, also called a Dutch wife.’ Dutch wife, Japanese hugging pillows, pillar, Jee Leong, Darren, woman, penis, bolster, book by Singaporean man in the twenty-first century, book by Japanese woman in the tenth century—a series of things like but not equivalent.
One is faintly reminded of Michel Foucault’s account of similitude in The Order of Things, where he describes the mode by which Western knowledge operated prior to the sixteenth century: ‘the face of the world is covered with blazons, with characters, with ciphers and obscure words—with “hieroglyphics”, as Turner called them. And the space inhabited by immediate resemblances becomes like a vast open book; it bristles with written signs; every page is seen to be filled with strange figures that intertwine and in some places repeat themselves. All that remains is to decipher them….’ The Pillow Book is a poetic account of a similar mode of knowing, experiencing, and living in the world. Yet the truth of its testimony does not rely on grand overviews of human history, but on the bits and pieces that comprise one individual—the trivial, the subjective, and even the petty: his list of ‘Hateful Things’ includes ‘Small talk when I have not had a drink. Squeaky voices. They are especially unbearable when they read poems.’
These occasional moments of ungraciousness punctuate The Pillow Book, and though they never overwhelm, they counterbalance the vulnerability and self-aware wit that characterizes the collection overall. At one point, Koh weighs in on the morning-after etiquette of lovers: ‘sometimes it is charming if he will not leave me but walks me to the train station. It is definitely not charming when he leaves with me in order to do laundry.’ There is also an sly haughtiness in the observation, ‘When one could show up the ignorance of a loudmouthed enemy, but refrains, that is delicate too.’ But then again, The Pillow Book never pretends to be anything but an unapologetic baring of all of the poet’s self. To quote Koh’s quotation of Sei Shōnagon’s pillow book: ‘I was sure that when people saw my book they would say, “It’s even worse than I expected. Now one can really tell what she is like.”’
TIFFANY TSAO is a poet, academic and critic whose work appears in Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (Puncher and Wattmann)