What is our crime?
What have we done to be punished like this?
We know we came by ‘illegal way’ but then we didn’t have any choice. If I could have stayed in my country I would never have left my family.
I left my country for safety and thought I could make my family safe later.
I came by boat but my child did not. She was born in this country and every child deserves to be protected by the country she or he is born in.
I want to be able to go back but I cannot take my child to that terrible life.
Some people say to me that it is luck that has meant some people were able to stay on Christmas Island and we sent to Nauru. I don’t believe in luck. I just believe in justice.
We are human beings and we deserve a safe life like other human beings.
When I came to this country immigration sent me and others to Nauru. But now I am in this country because there is no medical care for people in Nauru. The Minister said that people who came after the 19th of July will never come to Australia but I am here and my baby was born here.
Why do we have to suffer like this?
Sometimes death is better than life.
I only live for this child here.
What do we have to pay for this painful life we live every day, not knowing what will happen to us and our children?
This country has made me more afraid even than the sea. Every minute I am scared. Believe me, I have never been scared like this even in the sea. If I only had a country to go back to I would have gone.
When they knocked on my door at Christmas Island at 5am and threw a garbage bag in and told me to pack I asked them, ‘Where are you taking me?’ No-one would answer me. Then when we were all put in the one room and searched and waiting until 6pm that day finally they said ‘You are going to Nauru’. I said: ‘Why are you taking me to Nauru? I am pregnant.’ No-one answered me. When they forced us in the bus to go to the airport we had to walk into the airport between 2 lines of security officers both sides of us. Did they think we would escape? Where would we run?
What was our crime?
It was a 9 hour flight to Nauru; most of us did not eat for 2 days. There were 2 of us (asylum seekers) and 1 security guard in each of the rows of 3 seats. I didn’t cry in the sea but I cried when they took me to Nauru.
When we reached there, you can’t imagine the heat. You can’t imagine the tents. I was sick all the time. I was dizzy all the time. Many people were sick. You can’t imagine the heat. You can’t imagine not having enough water. You can’t imagine that when you need a nappy or some food for your child or anything at all you have to ask an officer, you have to line up; it is so hot. We can’t do anything for ourselves. Not shower, not wash the babies clothes.
You can’t imagine.
I grew up in a Refugee Camp but I have never seen it like that one.
Now each night I am waiting for them to knock on my door and throw in the bag to pack.
I am so scared.
What is our crime?
‘L’ is a mother who is to be deported from Australia to Nauru with her Australian-born baby.
There are 25 babies born in Australia – and their siblings – (making up 44 children) who are to be deported to Nauru as determined by the recent passing of the Migration Bill by the Senate.
Hani Aden is a young Somali asylum seeker and writer who spent 11 months on Christmas Island. She lives in community detention in Sydney. She writes in English, her third language.
Photograph by Nicholas Olle
This Old Somali Mother
“This Somali mother she arrived in Australia 15 days after the policy changed last year. She came from the horn of Africa. She crossed all the way to find peace and a better life in Australia. She was on the ocean for eight days and through the journey she was sick and got so many medical matters. She lived half of her life in Somalia where horror becomes people’s daily work. She just didn’t know where to go so she coped with it and survived. She used to work hard to find food for her family living inside the war which is hard as women working inside violence. She got more damaged in her head as people beat her during the civil war. She lost many members of her family and some became disabled and still they needed assistance from her. Some of her nieces and nephews turned out to be orphans too, as everyone knows in Somalia no one cares about young and old, many mothers become widows. The last years of her life, it became too hard to live in Somalia with so many reasons like her safety as a woman, and many others horrible situations, which when she explained, her eyes were full of tears. At her age it’s hard to travel but she didn’t have a choice except to leave her husband, her own son and family to look for peace and to help the rest of her family.
But the Australian government didn’t care about her awful past and they put her in detention. She became so stressed and sometimes she collapsed. She became so desperate. She got so many medical matters. She had eye disease; also all her body was swollen. The IHMS GB told her it was because of stress and she asked them for a medical check-up and treatment. Their response was we are responsible for your sickness and they said to her:
“We will send you to Nauru soon.”
She told them “I can’t live there.”
The reason was because she is sick and she is alone too but they didn’t show her any human heart but only sent her away to off-shore detention where many people are still in captivity for years and years.
She made up her mind and decided to go back to horror. She spoke with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). They told her we can’t take you back because Somalia is where we lost so many of our staff so we can’t send you back; it’s against the law. But the Department of Immigration thought it was a good idea to send her back to the horror.
They forgot that they published her private testimony on a public website. Anytime she returns to Somalia her life will be in danger, 50/50, so they told her to be ready. They would send her back but it took five months to send her home and on 12 of August they sent her to her home where she got more and more desperate and got a little bit of mental problems.
The Australian government should help those who look for protection from them; those who don’t have anywhere to go even if the policy has changed there is a lot of other human ways they can treat people. ”
Graham Akhurst is currently in his last semester of a Bachelor of Creative Arts in writing at the University of Queensland. Prior to this he completed an Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts from the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts where he studied music, and wrote and co-created several performances that were held at QPAC. Graham is of Aboriginal descent and hails from the Kokomini tribe in Northern Queensland. Graham currently resides in Brisbane, and has ambitions to further his study at the University of Queensland as a postgraduate student in writing.
The wind crept through in the early morning, blowing a gust by the time the sky was blackened. Dust etched its way into everything including the protective goggles I was wearing. It was impossible to stay clean in the desert. Our journey had led up to this moment, darkness in the middle of the day. I wondered if the couple of thousand people around me felt the same way I did. Awe at the beauty and scope of the natural wonder, but also a sickening for humanity.
We’d left Brisbane a week earlier, and we were proud of the Queensland license plates attached to the banged-up Mazda 323 we were traveling in. Others from our state were not so keen to traverse almost 2500 kilometres to go to a festival in the middle of nowhere. After two days on the road, all three of us had our right arms blistered, burned, and tanned from hanging them out the window as we took turns driving. We had all grown up together but travelling the long distance by road gave me a sense of freedom and solitude. The roads emitted a wave of heat that reflected the sun, which became hypnotic after a time, and seemed to conjure conversation with more substance than what we had been used to. The nights were peaceful, cold, and the clear sky and stars provided a reflective end to a day’s drive.
We were on our way to a small town called Lyndhurst, part of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. It’s home to one pub, one hotel, one house, and is surrounded by a desert so dry and unforgiving that each member of our party suffered from heatstroke. The symptoms of dizziness, fatigue, vomiting and confusion gave our travels a barbaric edge, and we developed a man versus nature attitude. We were lucky enough not to all come down with it at once, so that each time others of us could help the fallen. I must admit though that a lot of this danger was rightly avoidable. If it weren’t for the copious amounts of drugs and binge drinking, I wholeheartedly believe that we would’ve been completely fine. But don’t get me wrong, it was hot out there. Really hot.
The year was 2002. The eclipse was due on the fourth of December, and a festival had been organised. Over fifty international and Australian DJ’s were to perform. The Flinders Ranges evoked a nothingness that was both haunting and beautiful. The festival itself was a violation of this.
We arrived in the late afternoon of the second of December, and needed to scalp some tickets. Matt, my friend from high school, wandered off with five hundred bucks and returned three hours later, drunk, broke, and with three tickets that would have originally cost 75 dollars each. He spent the rest of the money on various forms of drugs that we took over the next three days.
The festival campsite was a cesspool. It consisted of gluten-free, wheat-free, overindulgent, drug-taking, fire-twirling, vegan people to the far left of any political scale, so far left it was almost to a fault. They were dirty, but that couldn’t be helped; we were all in the same situation when it came to cleanliness. I’d never before or since gone so long without a shower. There were three-pronged barbed bindies everywhere; each barb an inch long. To walk around barefoot was not to be advised. There was no safety in wearing thongs, as the barbs would go right through them. Our daily dress was solid shoes, shorts, and long-sleeved shirts. We started to soak t-shirts and wrap them around our heads like turbans for some small relief from the elements. Then, as night hit, we would put on layers upon layers. The temperature dropped incredibly quickly as the sun faded over the horizon.
I talked to an old Aboriginal man who was camping next to us. He played didgeridoo, and tried to teach me circular breathing – which I failed at comprehensively. He told us he had great knowledge of the land, although he was not from this area. He was adamant to assure us of this, which made me doubt it. He knew of the traditional owners of the land, the Adnyamathanha, which means ‘hills’ or ‘rock people’. I sat with this man, and drank beers with him under a tarp, dust floating in from the incessant wind. He became very quiet after we passed around a joint, and we listened to the thump of techno floating in and out with the direction of the breeze.
The ancestor spirits from the dreaming stories took on human form, and as they travelled the land they would create rocks, animals, lakes, rivers, plants, and all forms of life and geography. They created the relationships that groups and individuals had with the land and with each other. Once they had created the world, they took on the form of trees, rocks, stars, and other objects. The places that they now rest, in whatever form they have taken, have become sacred.
People danced, some naked except for sturdy shoes, in the marketplace at the centre of the festival. They were most obviously on drugs. They bounced around to thumping beats coming from a 10-foot-high sound system, and they worshipped a young man with long hair who would throw his arms up, and twist a knob on his DJ equipment every so often.
We walked past the marketplace on our way to the pub, stopping first at a mobile food stall to grab Chiko rolls. It was run by a smiling Greek lady, who was either that way naturally disposed, or excited by the riches coming her way. The line for her stall ran for 30 metres. We’d been lucky to get in line just before the long-haired DJ’s set had finished. As we were being served the line grew, and we overheard praise for the music in a fanatical tone. A religious experience was had. There was a swollen appreciation and joy for the thumping beats, made larger by narcotics. The faithful were now lining up for V drinks, lollipops, and hot chips.
The pub was not immune to the festival either. The festival crowd went to buy cartons over the counter, or take refuge in the one place accessible to them with air conditioning. There were locals present too. It was odd to watch so many young liberal-minded people darting between and around the small group of local barflies. All had worn skin from hard work in the desert, and from years of heavy drinking. We had walked in just as a raucous clamour went up in the pub; all eyes were on the small television above the bar. The inhabitants of the pub were on the screen being interviewed for a news piece about the festival. Their reactions to all this attention, given this isolated part of the world, was the focus of the story. I observed their surprise as they saw themselves on television; the embarrassed smiles, the jabs, the humorous remarks about having become famous, and the pride they exuded at the partisanship of being so unique in their remoteness together. To see their faces so alive in the midst of an expedition in which I was a witness rather than a participant felt fake.
We grabbed a carton and climbed up to a ledge overlooking the festival. We weren’t the first to seek out this viewpoint. There were empty bottles and refuse scattered around as evidence of that. Security patrolled the rock faces adjacent to the festival; it would be a dangerous prospect to venture out there without the proper equipment. They were there to monitor, as well as to remind us of the world we had left behind.
We settled and watched the sun set. It was the most vivid sunset I can recall. Sunsets are not things you remember. But the surrounding events forced this particular sunset to the top of my consciousness. I remember my growing disillusion, made stronger as I watched a man in black survey the land with binoculars. The temporary city bustled in front of me, to the soundtrack of my brother vomiting behind a rock. It was his turn to have heatstroke.
The next afternoon, people slowly gathered atop a long, man-made dirt wall, which acted as a barrier between the festival and the camping grounds. All were holding protective goggles for the eclipse. It became awkward on that hill. People were waiting to be awed. But such events take as long as they take, and the crowd was becoming restless. It reminded me of public transport. Then, as the eclipse slowly revealed itself, I felt anguish and a panic initiating. I wondered if the people around me felt the same as well. The pulling away from reality, the confusion of the mind, the nagging of identity. By the amount of yahooing, and the drugs being passed around, I doubted it.
I had never really thought about being Aboriginal, about really being Aboriginal until this moment. On a desert plane, upon sacred land, amongst a city of tents with a bone-dryness in the air, the weight of my ancestry cemented itself in the form of the dust enveloping me. This was such an affront. A sea of liberal-minded people, most of whom would have supported Aboriginal rights and freedoms, were themselves unthinkingly using Aboriginal land to take drugs and party, while watching a natural wonder at the cost of nature itself and the sacred element of the dirt beneath their feet. Each head tilted upward, each eye focused skyward was an admission of guilt. Just before the sky went dark, I turned my head away from the eclipse; some small gesture of rebellion against a sea of diminished respect.
Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s latest collection is My Feet Are Hungry (Pitt Street Poetry). His American volume, Afternoon in the Central Nervous System, is due from George Braziller, New York, early in the new year.
Taking No Prisoners
How do you write about the condition of joy? In present
participles, I guess. Not fun, nor merriment, nor a state of
optimism: simple joy, persisting through an afternoon. It
is as though a dusty world has been suddenly cleansed
of all worry, all shadow of pain or loss. In a moment of
benignity or absentmindedness, St Mike has thrown the gates of
Eden wide open. The naughty verbs have no direct objects.
Windows give onto sheer pastoral, onto that soothing excess
of green pigmentation and fretwork foliage. Cumulus and
drizzle cease to be part of our company. Over the dark wine
we laugh like immortals. This tale is Olympus; it has become
the Great Good Place. A condition like this could now be
described as erotic, yet it utterly transcends the sexual. As
an impression, everybody near at hand is suddenly, quietly
laughing. Our smiles are solar. The shiraz winks at us. So
this is joy, nor am I out of it. Even the clock appears to have
forgotten us. And now the sun surveys everything from its
low, picturesque angle. Time out.
By Tony Birch
University of Queensland Press, 2014
ISBN: 978 0 7022 4999 0
Reviewed by MARGOT McGOVERN
A father mourning his dead son spends solitary afternoons ‘raking fallen leaves and weeding the garden … on [his] knees, sifting through the rose beds with [his] bare hands’. A widower cannot rest in an empty bed, and laments that with his wife dead, ‘A good night’s sleep was hard to come by.’ A car park attendant sits alone in his kitchen where he can ‘hear the loneliness of the house’ after his girlfriend leaves, and drowns the noise with an old record his parents once danced to. Each of these characters in The Promise by Tony Birch has been brought low and exists in that moment when grief and anguish pass and hope returns. The Promise is a collection of twelve such stories of hope lost and faith restored—stories that hinge on moments of change, in which the characters do not so much encounter turning points as leave their old lives behind and begin anew.
The Promise begins with a quote from Revelation, 21:4: ‘There will be no more mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed.’ In the title story Abraham dreams of starting a church in the back room of the house he spent his life saving for. When he dies before he can gather a congregation, his grandson, Luke, promises to ‘build his church and fill it with believers,’ and though Luke develops a taste for drink, fate holds him to his word. What Birch promises through each story is a salvation of sorts. However, the redemption he offers is often hard won. Birch’s narrators are lost boys and men, weary sinners haunted by their past and by their failings. Birch beats them down, sees them unstrung and broken before pulling them from the smoking wreck of a car, an alcoholic bender, their deepest moment of heartache, and extending his small tokens of hope.
The characters move towards a homecoming, a solace. At the end of ‘China,’ the first story in the collection, ex-con Cal, who has been hopelessly seeking his high school sweetheart, finds a new guiding light, spying a radio tower beacon on the road, ‘pulsing a beam of red light across the sky’ and drives toward it ‘as if it were the star of Bethlehem itself.’ Similarly, in ‘Refuge for Sinners’ a grief-stricken man is called from a grey, Melbourne afternoon by ‘the ringing of church bells above the noise of city traffic,’ and inside the unfamiliar church finally finds a place to rest:
Feeling weary, I rested my head against the back of the pew and looked up at the timber paneling in the ceiling above the altar. The inlay of each oak panel had been finished in brightly painted gold stars on a blue background.
In ‘After Rachel’ university dropout Stephen is at a loss after his girlfriend Rachel breaks up with him ‘in a Dear John note scribbled on the back of a gas bill she hadn’t bothered paying’. While Rachel removes her possessions from the house, Stephen comes untethered from his old life, ‘walking the streets until I suddenly realised that I’d managed to get myself lost.’ He lives in an empty house, subsisting on ‘black coffee, cigarettes and toast’ until a kindly neighbour offers to pick the olives from a tree in Stephen’s backyard. She returns to his doorstep a fortnight later with the marinated fruit and a kind word: ‘Enjoy the olives. They bring peace.’ The neighbour appears as a suburban incarnation of God, The Gardener, and the olives are the biblical symbol of peace that the doves brought to Noah after he’d drifted for forty years at sea. Similarly, in ‘Distance’ Peter, a teacher from Melbourne, finds himself adrift, confiding, ‘I had no idea which way to head, but didn’t want to let on that I was lost before I had even started the search.’ He takes the train to a small town to seek his absent father. However, it is his mother’s family, relatives he has never met, who invite him to ‘Come with us. Up home.’ Through these simple moments Birch acts as preacher, singing his sinners home to the Promised Land.
However, Birch’s god is not a wholly benevolent figure. While at times the divine appears in the form of a guiding light or a jar of olives, at others it manifests in Gothic visions of sublime terror. In ‘The Ghost of Hank Williams’ a dying alcoholic is moved to make a change in his destructive lifestyle after a disturbing dream:
The sky was full of thunder and scratches of white-hot lightning. I could hear yabbering above the racket. It was two fellas chuckling. One of them was chewing on something. It was my old liver. I looked down at my belly and saw that my guts had been ripped open.
Similarly in ‘The Promise’ Luke is saved from a car wreck, and, after an eerie bush baptism, returns to town to make good on his promise to found his grandfather’s church.
I went out through the door and started walking the road, free of pain… When I reached the town, I walked straight down the middle of the street. People stopped to gawk, coming out of the stores and standing on street corners watching me. The red dust had settled on the hem of my gown and it looked as if my bottom half had been dipped in blood.
While many of the stories follow characters who move from anguish to hope, Birch also considers that ‘the old order of things has passed’ through the passage from boy to manhood. In ‘The Toecutters’ two friends egged on by one boy’s grandfather, believe a Melbourne gang have sunk a body in the river where they swim. The river is the site of a new infrastructure project and the landscape of their childhood is about to be reshaped. The menace of the gang looms large, like the bogeyman. The boys have one last summer. One last game. Similarly, in ‘Sticky Fingers’ an inter-housing estate marbles tournament is all consuming for four friends. However, as they move closer to the finals, new pleasures creep in, and the boys’ sexual awakening compromises their performance in the marbles ring. In ‘Snare’ an elderly neighbour gives a lonely, stuttering boy purpose by teaching him to trap and kill pigeons and, when he learns the boy is a victim of bullying, he shows him how to stand up for himself with a homemade pipe gun. For the boys in these stories the time has come to put away childish things and to navigate a new world of sex and violence.
Birch writes from the margins, seeking out his sinners from the overlooked places in the Victorian landscape. He veers from Melbourne’s storybook laneways to linger in cheap motels, council estates and 7-Eleven car parks at midnight. He squats in weedy backyards behind peeling weatherboards in deep suburbia, and ventures down the train line ‘through empty factories and bombing stones into the oily channel running next to the line’ until he arrives at the graffittied husk of an old bowling alley. He travels country back roads and immerses himself in the towns where tourists don’t stop. Like his narrators, his Victoria is a broken landscape, battered and dejected as its inhabitants, and ripe for resurrection.
Birch’s prose has a strong Australian accent: blunt, yet musical, fleshing out characters with a simple turn of phrase: a drug addict who’s led a ‘rock-hard and ruinous life’ who can make a guitar ‘weep like a mother who’d lost a new born’. A girl who once dined at a café with her lover is later seen heartbroken: ‘walking with her head buried in her chest carrying a sad-looking sandwich,’ and a school bully is given menacing life with ‘a wild Mohawk hairdo that he’d done himself and an ugly scar below one eye; some said from a knife fight.’
The Promise is grubby and gruff but also fragile. Reading each story is like shucking an oyster, breaking through a knobby, hardened shell to discover something tender within. While the tone is unfailingly masculine, these aren’t stories the blokey protagonists would share down the pub. Rather they are tales so strange and unlikely the characters revisit them in private moments, unsure if they happened or were just a dream. In the ‘The Money Shot’ a thug brings his baby daughter along to a blackmailing scam when he can’t find a babysitter, while in ‘Keeping Good Company’ a man and his elderly neighbour stave off loneliness by piling their pets in the car and going for chocolate ice cream in the middle of the night. Birch uses this inner tenderness and fragility to round out his characters and make them human, firmly grounding his urban fables in a real and recognisable world.
The Promise is at times ugly, violent and frightening. Birch’s characters wail and gnash their teeth, lost in deserts of grief and loneliness. But ultimately Birch’s message is one of quiet hope—a reminder that there is always someone, whether a divine being or a neighbour, watching out for us, and that even in our darkest hour we do not walk alone.
MARGOT McGOVERN is a freelance writer, editor and reviewer. She is also associate editor of Ride On Magazine and holds a creative writing PhD from Flinders University. For more about Margot visit www.margotmcgovern.com
The Secret Maker of the World
by Abbas El-Zein
University of Queensland Press, 2014
Reviewed by TESSA LUNNEY
How strange, my love. In Baghdad, death and murder fall from the sky, always faceless, known only by the trail of destruction they leave behind. In Dilwa, death and murder have a name and place of abode. (173)
Good short stories contain a life within a moment. The narrative stretches and contracts, extends to novella length then snaps back to a single page. But the central idea, the pivotal moment, holds an entire life, its purpose, its joy and its mystery.
Abbas El-Zein’s The Secret Maker of the World holds just such stories. They sit in the moment of change, a tense yet fluid place where all that used to be might disappear. Sometimes this moment is extended – the week before fleeing war, or the last month before a lover returns. In other stories, this moment is tight and contained – before the narrators reach their destination, their future will be decided.
El-Zein’s stories move from contemporary Australia to medieval Persia, from first person to third, from men to women, from young to old. This eclectic description belies a tight focus on the dialogue between the West and the Middle East, and the various ways and places this dialogue can take place. Sometimes the dialogue is clear – in Natural Justice, a Lebanese man, who now lives in New York, flies to Dubai. Sometimes this is subtle, lying beneath the surface of the text, in how the plight of 12th century cartographer Yaqut Al Hamaoui speaks to the 21st century reader of English. To this reader, it speaks with a bloody lyricism, a poetic turn of phrase that cannot turn away from incessant violence.
The best story in the collection is the last story, the title work The Secret Maker of the World. An interior monologue of a deaf teacher who addresses her absent lover, it is in turn sweet and brutal, funny and elegiac – and as it is written in first person, this applies to the character as well. Alia, bright and bipolar, lives in Baghdad during the most recent war. She yearns for her lover through her diary. The diary is her intermediary, an extended love letter, and our access to the way her inner and outer worlds slip, trip, and slide into each other. Her deafness and diagnosis are no more an impediment to her life than the lack of electricity, a restrictive government, or the war. They are her frame for the world, and within this frame she shows us a place of hidden rhythms and the truth just out of sight:
Isn’t speech always an expression of sanity? Isn’t everything we say and write tinged with hope, mutilated by anticipation?(162)
We see this again as she drives through the Iraqi desert to a small border town:
We drove slowly through the dead streets, scraping together what visibility we could. The windscreen was crisscrossed with fissures – every Baghdadi sitting in his car had his own visual perspective on the fault lines of the city. Slowly, the fog eased and the sun loomed behind the pink clouds, its golden colour faded, a pale imitation of its real self.
…my dread had found its home, free at last to fly into its element, slipping quietly into the vast emptiness it had always craved in the suffocating architecture of its Baghdad prison, as it bounced off concrete ceilings… I did not go to sleep: I nuzzled the underside of my consciousness. (171 – 172)
This is a voice I rarely hear, and as such, this story is necessary. I hear from people like Alia only in the news reports and soundbites, their experiences paraphrased. A personal, particular, subjective experience is either framed within another set of values or disregarded altogether. How Alia thinks about her life is her life. The material facts show little of its purpose, its mystery and its joy.
I felt the same way about the narrator in Respect. How else could I hear the voice of an itinerant Afghan worker, desperate to leave Indonesia and get home for his son’s wedding? His story may be recorded by aid agencies and NGOs, by lawyers and by company men, but if so, it is often stained with propaganda – however hard these organisations strive for objectivity, they have a purpose and mission statement to fulfil. What is the mission statement of a short story? Only, perhaps, to show a life within a moment, to help the reader understand what might happen to the desperate in the middle of the literal and metaphoric jungle:
What’s two years in an office in Sydney? Or was it Melbourne? That’s no match for an Indonesian jungle. You must have fooled them by acting tough. You don’t fool me, Mister.
Fifth gear. Do not give up on me. What’s wrong with fifth gear? Not clutching on. That’s what’s wrong. It must have gone soft like everything else in this Asian Amazon… this terrible noise the gear makes like sheep about to be slaughtered. (62)
Mohammed is not a bright, shining person like Alia, but a man forced the make the most out of almost nothing. The urgency of his journey is conveyed with taut half-sentences, and his invective towards his Australian company boss is the necessary flipside of what can usually be found in the Australian news. But it is his memories of his early life, the necessity of becoming well-travelled in order to live, that provide the story’s core. His current fear as he drives through the wet jungle reminds him of other, deeper, fear:
Fear for the past. The kind of fear that can wrench your guts out at three o’clock in the morning. The kind of fear that only mothers have for their children. I have become a mother for the child I was. (71)
Each character has insights such as these. In His Other Cloak, a vicar in 19th century Newcastle, NSW has been recalled to England. The time period is indicated only by the action of the story and the language the vicar uses to address himself – it could just as easily be early 20th century, just past federation. As Father Drake’s mission in Australia closes, he thinks about the significance of skin:
He slips into his solicitous self, his other cloak, the one closer to his skin, almost inseparable from it. Inseparable all the same. All too inseparable alas!
Sometimes he sees himself as a hierarchy of skins, of garments. The blood in his veins, the swarm of cells in the muscles, the flesh, the self, the cotton shirt, the cassock, the heavier gown. So close together, so deceivingly bound with each other, like a most delicate organ, membrane upon membrane. (81)
This understanding of skin is more than just meditation, but equal parts compulsion and resistance to the idea of self and other, of black and white:
Savvy suddenly rolled over, peeling off his own skin, making a squelching sound. He caught himself wishing his arms were as delicate as Savvy’s, his skin was as black… He censored the thought swiftly in his mind, but it left a trace, a haunting image. (94)
A slippery self can also be seen in a river man on the Yangtze, who gathers the drowned for the families to collect. The second story in the volume, Yellow River, the bereaved Wei Han continues the work of grief:
He is watched over by resentful bluffs on either side, the sky as bare as a desert – remote, turned inward as though afflicted by an abomination of which men have no inkling. He is patient with the drag, glancing occasionally at his catch. He laps at the water softly as if it can feel the tug of the wooden bat on its skin, ripples travelling in consecutive circles, like a short-lived longing for perfection. And the river talks to him and he listens because he knows that, as his father told him a long time ago, if he listens hard enough he can grow ears for the water.
No ache is permanent, no wound too deep to heal. (34-5)
Although this is not the direct address of either Mohammed or Alia, the narrator voice is so close to Wei Han that it is easy to make the narrator’s voice Wei Han’s own, only distanced to third person by sorrow.
These stories must be earned. The opening piece is distant. A story of guerilla violence in Lebanon, it is the gaps and failures of the main character’s devotion that invite the reader in. Yellow River is the second story and also creates distance, and then fills it with the lyrical rhythm of the river. By the time we meet Mohammed in the fourth story, the reader is in the centre of a world where politics, faith, love and hope collide and fight and flee. But not from the reader, and for this, it is a place worth earning. It lets us stand with Alia, and the lyrical intensity of her insight, as she declares herself to be the Secret Maker of the World.
TESSA LUNNEY completed a Doctorate of Creative Arts last year, looking at silence in contemporary Australian war fiction, and has been awarded an Australia Council ArtStart grant for 2014. Her poetry, fiction, and reviews have been published in Southerly, Contrapasso, and Mascara, among others, as well as Best Australian Poems 2014. She lives in Sydney.
Maxine Beneba Clarke
Sydney, NSW, 2014
Reviewed by HEATHER TAYLOR JOHNSON
Sometimes we read prose – a novel, perhaps, or a short story – and we think I bet this writer is a poet, too, and then we turn to the page that tells us of the author’s past publications and awards and, more often than not, we reward ourselves with a silent and motionless fist-pump because yes, the writer is a poet. These things we do not know; these things we can hear. And so it goes with Maxine Beneba Clarke and her collection of short stories Foreign Soil. Turns out Clarke is the author of two collections of poetry and is a spoken word artist. This, you can hear. Listen:
‘She had a shiny cherry-red frame, scooped alloy Harley handlebars and sleek
metal pedals.’ (1)
‘Harlem legs it from the job shop soon as the sour bitch pushes the button for security.’ (16)
‘The driver Mukasa had booked had gone to look for a luggage trolley and Mukasa was busy speaking in Luganda to the woman behind the customs desk, so Ange decided to go and look for a toilet.’ (60)
These are the opening sentences of three stories from Foreign Soil, a collection that gives voice to those living as Others in a world where ‘misunderstanding’ is sometimes just the easiest therefore most acceptable route to take. Clarke takes us to places as far-reaching as London, Jamaica, Uganda and Sri Lanka, while also showing us our own Melbourne neighbours. And the voices are strong. Just like the prose, they have rhythm and sass. Clarke has signed each page with true spoken word-confidence, and it’s the first thing that drew me into the collection.
Foreign Soil opens with two fast-paced, high-hitting stories: ‘David’ and ‘Harlem Jones’. Both highlight the plight of the first-generation migrant in opposition to their migrant elders. While one offers a resolution of finding, unexpectedly, a common ground, the other accentuates a dangerous anger, ingrained from centuries of racial hurt. Yes, the language is stylized and addictive in a hyper-urban sense, but if you sit with it long enough to grasp a plot, you’ll find that there’s more to appreciate in the telling than how it sounds. I found that I cared about the two women in ‘David’ firstly because I could hear them, but then because I could see them. I cared about the indignant youth in ‘Harlem Jones’ because I know him (however from afar) through the broadcast news. Luckily, I am wise enough to know that, despite old George Dubbya’s efforts at convincing me otherwise, no one is inherently evil; the ‘evil’ wrong-doer is just a normal person with a damned interesting story. It’s something I had to remind myself of when I got to the title story, ‘Foreign Soil’, where a Ugandan man living in Australia respectfully conforms to Western ideals of gender equality and class sympathy, then reverts to emotional and physical bullying of his Australian ‘wife’ and long-suffering servants once returned to his home country. I’m thinking of the old adage that ‘you can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy’ and I’m intrigued at Clarke’s challenge to its nursery rhyme-like meaning. The story suggests that we are not only shaped by our cultural surroundings – which leaves room for malleability and amalgamation – but informed by our cultural surroundings – pointing to a more rigid, rule-abiding conformity. In this story, as in others, there is a hero and there is a villain, and neither deserves to be heard more than the other; they both have stories to tell. Clarke is giving everything she has to make sure they’re told. I suppose here is where I point out that this collection is passionate. That might fall back on the poetry, once again, or it might fall back on the Australian author’s own Afro-Caribbean descent.
Clarke is sure to point out that anger comes in many forms, as does racism, and sometimes anger is incredibly confusing. In ‘Railton Road’, anger is not so much felt but deserved. In ‘Shu Yi’, where racism is taught through peer pressure, anger is not felt, but it is assumed, as if it is a birthright. With Foreign Soil, Clarke opens up the wounds that each of us carry inside, where racism lay either dormant or ready to attack, and we are the white fearing the black, the black fearing the white, the black fearing the black who loves the white, or the white fearing the multi-coloured state that our world is.
With ‘Gaps in the Hickory’, the author goes beyond race, beyond ethnicity, and moves toward gender. What if the person caught in ‘foreign soil’ is a woman in a man’s body? The inclusion of this story in the collection is an important one as it presents different concepts of ‘alien’ and ‘Other’, though I wasn’t entirely convinced of the narrative voice. The black Louisiana-born Ella speaks the same as the white Mississippi-born Delores. True, they are both from the Delta in the Deep South, but there are nuances between white and black races that make the language different. The tenses, for instance: both might say ‘He done gone to heaven,’ but it is unlikely that a white character speak in the same way her black neighbour does when saying, ‘He the one who left.’ And Ella is ‘six going on seventy’, so Clark does try to explain her precociousness, but no six year old I’ve come across has the capacity to think, let alone talk, in the same way as this one does. If I am going on too much about minor points it is because there are very few minor points to go on about and I’m going to focus on them while I can. So I will also say that the longer, fifty-page stories in the collection meander quite a bit compared to the more succinct under-twenty page stories. I hope this is rectified in due time as I would like to be one of the first readers to buy Clarke’s debut novel (fingers crossed there will be one) and I would like to slam it down after finishing it with a triumphant ‘fuck yeah,’ which is a fitting hyper-urban term, and one of which I think the author would approve.
I must mention two stories: ‘Hope’ and ‘Big Islun’, which are embedded in Jamaica and do not venture outside Jamaica, making them anomalies to the collection. Both reach toward Anglo-lands, such as England and Australia, as idyllic dreams rather than geographical realities, and the final punch is that we, as readers, have by this point read enough of the collection to know that the characters should certainly not migrate. ‘Big Islun’, written in a severely challenging vernacular, tells the story of a discontented Nathanial, who sees a photograph of famous cricketers in a magazine and thinks perhaps he should seek a new life in a new land:
Long beach is stretch out behind de cricket team, waves breakin gainst de juttin rocks, like dem could easy-easy swallow up de roof ov de two-storey buildin Nathanial now sittin in. It nyah look like de same sea dat Nathanial pass every day. Look rough, an wild, an capable ov anytin. Look exciting, dat sea, an like it a different body ov water altogether. Nathanial survey de faces ov de cricketers. Look like dem in paradise, dem so delirious-happy.
‘Wat country dis, dat offah such reception te black West Indian man. Treat us like we kings!’ im whisper citedly te imself. (189)
It is Australia, and Clarke so deftly decided to place the story of a Sri Lankan boy in an Australian detention centre directly after it.
The final story is a journey into meta-fiction, as the author positions herself as the main character: single mother struggling to meet the financial needs of her family with an emerging writer’s freelance income. Next to her computer is a printed-out email referring to the story ‘Harlem Jones’:
We are enamoured of your writing. Your prose is startling poetic. We have not seen work like this for quite some time.
Please could you send some more of your writing, maybe on a different theme….something you’ve written that deals
with more everyday themes. Work that has an uplifting quality….Think book club material….Unfortunately, we feel
Australian readers are just not ready for characters like these. (257)
Australian readers are characters like these, so well done to Hachette Australia for recognising this; well done to the judges of the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award for recognising this; well done to Maxine Beneba Clarke for proving the ‘fictionalised’ letter-writer wrong. This is an important work, where anger is lyricized and racism is tested and, not only that, it sounds fantastic.
HEATHER TAYLOR JOHNSON is a US-born, Adelaide-based poet, critic and novelist.
The Last Candles of the Night
by Ian Bedford
Reviewed by SUBHASH JAIRETH
The Last Candles of the Night opens with two epigraphs. The first in Persian: two lines of a verse by Ali Sher Nava’i of Heart. The second comes from an Urdu poem by Zaheer Kashmiri, which has the words, ‘… the last candles of the night.’ These words also become the title of the book, as well as of a crucial chapter in the first section. The book ends with two glossaries. One of them lists Indian names and the other provides translation of Indian words (Arabic, Hindi, Persian, Telugu and Urdu). Thus, translation, as a mode of being, seems to be one of the major thematic anxieties of the novel.
In a round-table on translation, collected in his book, The Ear of the Other, Derrida underlines the double bind, which every act of translation is faced with. ‘Translate me,’ he notes, ‘and what is more don’t translate me. I desire that you translate me, that you translate the name I impose on you; and at the same time whatever you do, don’t translate me, you will not be able to translate it.’ Although in the above citation, Derrida is more concerned about the special status of a proper name, of its translatability and untranslatability, it seems a similar anxiety permeates our global culture, in which words and languages travel faster than people who speak and hear them, write and read them, act and be acted upon by them.
There are several narrative tensions, which drive the narrative in The Last Candles of the Night, but the one that seems most significant to me is the untranslatability; not only of words and languages, but also of the lived life and its memories; and of the world, which we find ourselves thrown into, of our own will or just by accident. In ‘real’ life, accidents can remain unexplained, uncomprehended, and even misunderstood but in a novel their occurrence has to be justified. Accidents and coincidences are potent narrative devices. Their real import is clear to a writer from the beginning simply because she is the author, but a reader requires persuasion and inducement. Like a stubborn child she needs to be coaxed to swallow a bitter pill or to endure the sharp prick of a needle.
It is perhaps a mere coincidence, or an act of fate, that Phillip Chalk, a young Australian teacher from Sydney finds himself teaching in a one-teacher school in Warangal, a small town in the princely state of Hyderabad. The year is 1948 and the army of an Independent India is ready to invade the Nizam’s Hyderabad. In Warangal he meets Anand, a member of the Congress Party, and Ragini, the communist daughter of a music-loving landlord. The love-triangle that develops between the three will leave indelible marks on their lives. This constitutes the past time of the story casting its shadow on the present time, which unfolds in Sydney, where a seventy-year old Phillip has returned to make some sense of his past. The Australia he has returned to is John Howard’s ‘Tampa’-time Australia.
In Sydney Phillip finds refuge in his childhood house where many years earlier he had left his wife Jenny, who he had brought from India. But return isn’t easy. He can’t escape the hostility of his daughter Nora, who wants to know why Phillip had abandoned the family, and returned to India. She also blames him for the death of her sister, Tilley. For Jenny, the question is irrelevant. She has reconciled. However, a little residue of bitterness still remains. ‘After all,’ she tells Phillip, ‘I have to thank you for very little. For rescuing me once. For a mission of rescue. For a proposal of marriage. For seeing what was wrong. For bringing me to Australia, which as it’s turned out is a kind of blessing. For deserting me here.’ Phillip is aware of the pain he has caused and is keen to explain. ‘All that long absence,’ he says to Jenny, ‘I imposed on your life – it was all on your account, yours and Anand’s.’ He is clever, isn’t he?
The past is recounted in flashbacks; the recounting both embellished and corrupted by the capriciousness of memory. Although flashback as a device allows easy traverses between present and past times, it can lead to pitfalls. It isn’t enough to declare how unreliable or made-up the memory is. The skill resides in representing its tricky fickleness. Not many novels achieve this with grace and facility. The most common and simple device they use is to recount the same event from two different viewpoints, either of the same protagonist or of different protagonists. The Last Candles of the Night opts for the second option, and achieves the objective deftly. The two sections of the novel, entitled Phillip and Jenny, represent two different vantage points. Strangely, the viewpoint of Anand remains unspoken and unheard. I would have loved to read his account of the turbulent events.
The blurb describes the novel as ‘… lyrical and moving …’ Moving, it surely is, but lyrical elements only appear in the second section, shorter and crisper than the first. The novel shows its best writing in the final few pages. It is a fitting finale of a good story, imagined with care and told with graceful skill.
As I mentioned earlier, the title of the book comes from the verse of an Urdu poem, which forms the second epigraph. Zaheer Kashmiri is a wonderful Pakistani poet, who has remained largely untranslated into English. I hope the epigraph persuades the readers to find out more about him and his poetry. His phrase, “Hamen khabr hai ke ham hain chiraagh-e-aakhir-e shab,” has been translated as, “We have heard that we are the last candles of the night.” I like the translation. It reads and sounds well. However, my translation will be slightly different. It will read like this: “I know that I am the last candle of the night.” In my version I have replaced the first person plural ‘Hamen’ in the original with first person singular ‘I’. This is because in Urdu poetry, poets often use first person plural when they refer to themselves. The second translation, I readily acknowledge, sounds dull. More importantly, it doesn’t sound in consonance with the thematic rhythms of the novel. Because the last ‘candles of the night,’ in this intriguing novel are three: Ragini, Anand and Phillip.
SUBHASH JAIRETH was born in India, spent nine years in Moscow and moved to Canberra in 1986. He has published poetry, fiction and nonfiction in Hindi, Russian and English. His book To Silence: Three Autobiographies was published in 2011. Two plays adapted from the book were performed at Canberra’s Street Theatre in 2012. His novel After Love was published by Transit Lounge.
Transactions of Belonging
by Jaya Padmanabhan
Reviewed by JESSICA FALEIRO
The word ‘belonging’ evokes a strong feeling of connection to place, person, thing or feeling. In her debut collection of short stories, Jaya Padmanabhan explores these facets of belonging to whom, to what and to where, by making us wonder about their cost.
Each story is a meditation on different types of belonging, as promised in the title, and connects with one’s own personal sense of that word. Padmanabhan’s stories bear witness to what lengths and compromises people will go to in order to belong to a person, a state of being or a place. Manu, in ‘The Fly Swatter’, is attached to his powerful status as a politician, a husband and a father, which leaves no place in his life for his attraction to men or for human compassion. In ‘His Curls’, a mother moves from trusting in the fact that her son belongs to her, to watching him outgrow the only physical characteristic that links the two of them together – the curls in his hair, at which point she believes that he has become far removed from the person she dreamed he would be and has turned into a terrorist.
In ‘The Blue Arc’, Shona, who comes from a cultured family background, ends up as a prostitute in a brothel due to tragic circumstances. She holds on to her past in the form of a family photograph and a diary, and is only able to accept her fate after her madam burns these things. She then looks to gain a sense of belonging through her friendship with a brothel tenant named Shiva. In ‘The Little Matter of Fresh Meadows Feces’, we see how three generations of an Indian family cope with different forms of dislocation as the grandparents visit their daughter and her family in America, all the while missing their neighbourhood back in Bangalore. Meanwhile, their daughter and son-in-law are immigrants struggling to make a world for themselves in the United States and their grand-daughter is stuck in between a way of life she is expected to adopt and one that no one in her family has ever experienced before. She rejects her Indian culture as a coping mechanism, as she tries to carve out a new, unknown path for herself in America.
Each of the twelve short stories in this collection is an emotionally charged vignette that captures the universality of human nature, even as it relates to the Indian context. Padmanabhan’s simple style is revealing; the force of each sculpted word hitting the reader with more punch than its diluted flowery counterpart would.
Padmanabhan is experimental with form, presenting ‘The Little Matter of Fresh Meadows Feces’ as an epistolary story and ‘Indian Summer’ as a one-act play. These departures appear to be just that, explorations by the author in flexing her writing muscle, as the form changes re-enforce the individuality of the stories and do not add anything to bring the collection more closely together.
While some will connect with the word; more likely others will discover new meanings of their own understanding of belonging. There are some exquisite lines delivered with a practiced hand such as, ‘He is at home most of the time. He wakes up mid-afternoon and eats through mountains of food. Then he puts on his outside clothes and walks out of the house. He comes back late in the evening and demands food again. I spend my time waiting for his disappearance and reappearance and dreading both’ (‘His Curls’, 87). With just three words, ‘…and dreading both’, we are pulled into the dynamics of a mother-son relationship straining at the seams. In another example: ‘Then he leaned forward and poured that first pink plastic mug of water over his body. It was bitterly cold. Despite bracing for the water, the cold knife like chill of the water made him shiver involuntarily. The second mugful was always the hardest. There was absolute certainty in the second pour’ (‘Strapped for Time’, 61). The attention to detail reveals a subtle beauty in mundane acts and the author takes care to reveal such acts in all the stories, colouring them with an eerie presence that alerts one to something dark and violent just around the corner.
Even more interesting is how each story is tinged with violence, portrayed as a fact of life and presented in myriad forms, some more subtle than others. ‘In a dirty minute, he’s reached for his own box of matches and lit one of them. While the live bird sits within his grip, he applies the match to the splint. The bird goes up in flames. “There, I’ve solved your problem!”’ (‘Curtains Drawn’, 79). Here we see the capacity for cruelty in a father towards his son by killing an injured bird that the son cares for. We are witnesses to every form of violence from an MP’s cynical dismissal of a poor child’s death by paying off the family with a colour TV in ‘The Fly Swatter’, the burning of a prostitute’s treasured personal possessions by her madam in ‘The Blue Arc’ and the spousal abuse behind closed doors in ‘Curtains Drawn’, to the more subtle violence caused by hurtful words, gestures and behaviours between family members in ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘The Little Matter of Fresh Meadows Feces.’
While we’re on the subject, ‘The Little Matter of Fresh Meadows Feces’ was a refreshing story that depicted the author’s playfulness at large. Her deft weaving of food and feces into this short story is something that not only takes vivid imagination and a steady hand to deliver but creates a story that will not easily be forgotten. In one instance, the granddaughter refers to her grandmother’s dish of ‘pongal’ as something that smells and looks like shit. The mention of feces in the letter exchange between neighbours at ‘Fresh Meadows’ represents the corruption of Indian politicians who promise cleaner, greener, safer neighbourhoods in order to gain votes and then don’t change anything for the better once they are in government. Food and feces become a writing device of contrasting symbols that are part of the same unifying life process, bringing together the generations and class distinctions portrayed in this story. It is food that unifies a grandmother’s pongal receipe with the salad that her granddaughter prefers to consume, and shit that unifies the residential colony of ‘Fresh Meadows’ across continents, even as the middle class residents complain of their ‘slum neighbours’ depositing their shit on the edges of the apartment colony.
The author is not afraid to lead us steadily into those dark places that haunt many and her stories pique our interest enough that we go willingly, to uncover what’s ahead. Everything is given meaning – the curling wisps on a baby’s forehead grow into the estrangement between a mother and her son, the drawn curtains of a house taken on an ominous meaning especially when one discovers the abuse occurring behind them. Even the memory of a dead mother becomes a dangerous thing. The stories take you down a path where you know there’s something unexpected coming up ahead, but you’re still surprised by the force of what arrives. In bringing together beauty in the mundane things of life and drawing out the violence simmering underneath, the stories reveal how both are part and parcel of life.
I admit that I was left confused at the vague endings of some of the stories, though this may have been the author’s intention. By leaving the stories open-ended, readers are left to imagine what happens next and about the emotional landscape of the characters. The author gives us a detailed look at their inner lives and leaves us curious, which is evidence of the poignant, evocative and emotionally absorbing stories Padmanabhan has created in this collection.
JESSICA FALEIRO is the author of Afterlife: Ghost stories from Goa, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Kingston University, UK. She has also published fiction and non-fiction in Muse India and tambdimati.com, written travel pieces for the Times of India and op-ed articles for other newspapers. For more, see: http://jessicafaleiro.wordpress.com/about/
by Paul Magee
John Leonard Press
Reviewed by BONNY CASSIDY
A short poem, “Swimming in Minus”, lies at the centre of Paul Magee’s Stone Postcard. Positioned here, it makes a statement about the collection; the kind of poem that a more predictable writer might have placed at the book’s opening:
Still dark at seven in the morning,
Melbourne winter, and the St Kilda ocean
separates me from my skin-wrapped bones.
Like Descartes, who refused
to believe his body
The thinking words in his mind were him.
Deserving the property title that is cogito.
If I can think then I’m still alive.
Indeed, the poem is an opening of sorts, as it begins the second of the book’s halves. Perversely, Magee delays this little song of survival until we have completed the first part: a series of unflinching, expositional poems on the birth of a son, separation from a partner, and death of a father.
Magee’s poetry has never shied from trauma, nor from reconciliation with mortality; in fact, both his first collection, Cube Root of Book (2006), and Stone Postcard seem to thrive upon traditional relationships between poetic expression and kinds of loss. He worries at loss and losing with a tough, philosophical morbidity. In this sense, Stone Postcard continues the elegiac mode and pensive tone of Cube Root of Book. Now, however, the notes of his poetry are less constrained by the minor scale: Magee’s poetic line is lifted by brevity, and his droll optimism peppers this collection, particularly characterising its second part.
Whereas “Swimming in Minus” takes a reflective perspective on experience, the very first poem in the book tries to represent it proleptically. As its title suggests, “Later” is haunted by knowledge – represented by ominous “shadows” – of events that are to arrive in the following poems. Magee pushes this knowledge to the poem’s unfinished periphery, its form and imagery insisting instead upon the naivety of a baby and the dazed wonder of a new parent:
Our shadows lengthen.
Rupert is four now,
in days, though to him here and there
must seem quite the same.
Day and night will come later, then years, and
metaphors for the new, immense visions for the eyes to see by.
Empty shoes on the floor mark places where their
stepping, then slept.
The house is a map of last movements,
books put down on page three-three-four,
flowers, a balloon,
‘It’s a boy!’
The book’s first part chronicles how the simplicity of the child’s consciousness is gradually paralleled by the complicated break-up of his parents. Magee represents that duality simply through the sequencing of his poems. After a suite of emotionally earnest poems such as “Song”, “Break” and “Ten Houses”, Magee will insert the fleeting and pointless fun of child’s play as exemplified in “Lions in the Beach”. Consider the tonal contrast between these lines:
Just broke up,
in point of fact.
Four years from sudden love.
I’ve lost a life
which was hers. (“Ten Houses”)
Rupert punches policemen in dreams, then blinks
at the beach,
out of sleep leaping and spinning
around in his underpants […] (“Lions in the Beach”)
Magee avoids artificially reconciling or framing such tension, instead dwelling in its awkwardness. Through these stark tonal shifts he is performing the dissonance of beginnings and endings, of course, but this sequencing is also a technique to heighten awareness of light and dark separately.
It’s also an essential relief from poems in which emotionally earnest can become cloyingly confessional. This mode expresses itself in some hyperbolic metaphors: “like kissing/on New Year’s Day over No Man’s Land./Perhaps this truce could last./ […] A trench is no place to be letting go” (“Song”); “Broken homes are what we try to house” (“Break”). In the title sequence, lyrical flourishes are traded for a more urgent voice. The effect reads as stylised therapy:
Here’s your fucking rock, my actions said
to the psychotherapist who had requested
from my six months’ travel in Tierra del Fuego
I bring him back one […]
Actually I was crying a mouth full of grief
an earshot of anger
saying people in glass houses
are obliged to throw stones (“Stone Postcard”)
Magee seems to be deliberately working confessionalism into a poetics of authenticity; as just two comparisons, John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan have also pursued this approach, albeit to different thematic purposes. Giving oneself over to this style will be more or less challenging depending upon Magee’s reader. For me, Magee’s poems deal most memorably with emotional difficulty when it is distilled into imagery: “the distantly approaching,/her face severely/then a smile that melts” (“Red Square”). The epigram “Thought & Fort” contains another example of this:
train of thought
light of thought
carriage of thought
take off armour
A few other, discursive poems in the book’s first part also have this quality. They are not witty in the sense of glinting wordplay or fancy rhetorical footwork but, rather, they have an airy, sketchy quality. Poems like “Here and Now”, “Painting’s Flatness” and “Tautology” see Magee practice quite a different poetics to his expositional mode; often, they are no less sad than his chatty, head-on approaches to pain and rage, but they are less ponderous. They leave space to bring us in:
Rosella bursts out of the tree like a flower.
I want to live in that time spiral.
These jasmines overhead, flying by
and everything else
is black. Behind the sky. (“Here and Now”)
Given the dark path that Magee treads in the book’s first part, it is no coincidence that Virgil appears repeatedly throughout Stone Postcard. He hovers; not only in literal form as a translated voice, but also as a guiding device which functions to illumine Magee’s thematic concerns. In the first part, Magee concentrates on Virgil in pastoral mode. His translated excerpts from the Georgics bring a voice of comfort, a lullaby in which mythic order and practical wisdom make a reassuring pattern:
The instant old Deucalion’s hurled stones
hit the earth and turned into snarling men,
who flung at life remain a stone-hard race,
Nature imposed law on the land. Up then,
turn earth, start early in the year so that
the many suns of Summer ripening
to full force can bake the dusty soil.
In contrast to Magee’s confessional poems, his translations of Virgil represent a relationship outside of personality, a realm tangential from immediate experience and yet rich with feeling. Virgil’s command, above, signals a turn in the book’s focus – from the world within the self, to the self within the world. This shift characterises its second part. If the first half is a brave descent, the second is a hopeful climb. There is still turmoil and grief in the second part of the book, but these are treated as studies; politicised and essayed, they see Magee experiment with a satirical and free-wheeling poetic voice.
Observing the world as a stranger – visitor, traveller, fish out of water – Magee is frequently astounded at the weirdness of daily encounters. His responses range from outrage to bemusement. A run of tart didactic poems, for example, echo the political barbs of Catullus and Ovid. A highlight is “Payable Thinking”, an embittered but concise opinion-poem about academic research pressures:
This would be a pampered little gripe,
but universities are a common house for a while
to four in ten of our children.
While Magee is careful to preserve musicality in his translations, elsewhere he values directness of voice over rhythm. While this tendency marks weaker points in the book’s first part, Magee’s loose line and plain diction are used to good effect in a set of impressionistic poems stretching from America to Australia. In one, “Coney Island”, an occasional ode to a hotdog eating contest, he echoes the din of the coliseum (“This is life and death”). Elsewhere, a series of suburban Australian scenes include a Salvos employment workshop (“… ployment, Inemployment, Unumploymnt”) and a misconceived church group display of fruit, “gayer than Satan’s butt” (“Brisbane Royal Exhibition”).
In this second half of Stone Postcard, social satire creates a cumulative sense that civilisation is founded on chaos; history on forgetting. This is particularly clear in Magee’s juxtaposition of his poem, “Smudged Newspaper Photo”, with a final translation from Virgil – this time from his jingoistic mode in the Aeneid – which Magee titles “Turnus Decides”. In “Smudged Newspaper Photo”, Magee contemplates a news report so horrific his speaker does “not know how to read”; Virgil, however, shows him how war can be aestheticised, as well as familiarised, through poetry:
Like huge brands of flame thrown into a woods
– the laurels in there crack as they catch light –
or seething rivers, which suddenly flood
smashing out from the sheer mountains to charge
the fields and plains, Aeneas and Turnus
devastated everything in their path.
Magee’s translation seems to relish the particularly bloody and cinematic nature of this passage, which acts as a climax to the book’s progression through trauma, as Turnus resolves: “The battle is mine/ to win or lose” (“Turnus Decides”). This war cry, which leads skillfully into one final, peaceful poem by Magee, stands far away from the wan voice that opens the book.
A “stone postcard” could mean a number of things. The image of writing in stone is commonly meant to indicate permanence, an indelible action. These are themes in Magee’s book, to be sure: the undoable mark of death upon the living; the hurting memory of a failed partnership. In the title poem it’s a literal rock brought home as a souvenir, as well as a metaphorical rock of anger to peg at somebody, anybody. In light of other poems in the book, it might also be understood as the weight of life that is lovingly transferred from a father to the son (tabula rasa) who is repeatedly addressed in the book’s first part; or, it could refer to Virgil’s epitaph, which Magee translates (“Over Virgil’s Grave”).
Considering the collection as a whole, however, the stone postcard comes to signify paradox: it is both heavy and light, anchored and moveable. The stony harshness of pain is leavened by a sense of the ridiculous; the poet declares himself, but does so with an informal poetic line and the great palimpsest of translation. The book’s two parts represent two faces, but if Magee’s voice can be characterized by one feature, it’s intensity – a word also used in the book’s cover blurb. Magee’s poetry is intense because he refuses to entertain the falsity of synthesis. A stone postcard is the tension between memory and freedom, between experience and the poetry that briefly contains it.
BONNY CASSIDY‘s second poetry collection, Final Theory, was published in July by Giramondo. She teaches creative writing at RMIT University and is feature reviews editor for Cordite Poetry Journal. This year she is a guest of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, and the Australian Poetry Tour of Ireland.