Jake Goetz lives in the southern suburbs of Sydney. He has also lived in Munich, Germany (2011) and Graz, Austria (2013) where he studied on exchange. His poetry has appeared in The Sun Herald, Rabbit, Voiceworks, Jaws (Austria), Tide and Otoliths. He completed a Creative Writing Degree at the University of Wollongong, receiving an Asiabound fellowship to Sun Yat-Sen University in China. He is a fiction editor for Mascara.
… still dreaming
of Russian Pacific seas
sprouting Swedish palms
and a Peruvian woman
with lorikeet eyes
as breathing – the morning
like a border-less idea
wie in einem großen kreis angeordnet
aber mit anderen namen
wind carries the sound
of a train to my door
and i think of waves forming
only to fold like impatient arms
in the local medical centre
and how unnatural it is
to look at the self
in the mirror
tree stump sits on brick ledge
wet from rain, dew hangs
from iron fence, could be watery eyes
peering into the late-morning
but it’s mostly dew and a Cockatoo sounds
cigarette burns, feet rest upon pebbles
as shade separates the yard
and a plane moves like a container
of consciousness, banking left
over the Royal to tip out into the city
The Poets’ Stairwell
by Alan Gould
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
First, a disclosure. I have known the poets Kevin Hart and Alan Gould, the “real life” protagonists of this autobiographical novel, for more than forty years. While this must inevitably intensify the pleasure I take in the work, it should not necessarily undermine my judgement that The Poets’ Stairwell is a first-rate creation which can travel well in any company. It is also something of a coup for its relatively small Melbourne publisher.
Among the work’s numerous merits is that it operates as several sorts of novel at the same time. It wears the term “picaresque” in its subtitle and there is no doubt that it comprises a journey with humorous episodes — a “road movie”, if you will. It is also, however, a novel of ideas, comparable to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain in which each of the major characters cleverly embodies a way of thought popular in the nineteenth century. Given that it presents a comprehensive and searching portrayal of two very different temperaments, The Poets’ Stairwell can also be called a psychological novel. Gould’s talent is that he can keep these three potentially diverging ambitions in the air simultaneously without mishap.
At one level, the narrative of The Poets’ Stairwell is quite simple. Two young Australian poets, Claude Boon and Henry Luck (both of them London-born, as it happens) are on their backpacking “Grand Tour” of Europe in 1976. Henry, a few years Claude’s junior, is prodigiously well-read and sometimes unbearably sure of himself — intellectually at least, if not socially. Claude, or Boon, as he prefers to be called, is the novel’s narrator and perhaps something of its Sancho Panza (though Henry Luck is a little more worldly than Don Quixote).
Together, they make a low-budget tour of Europe which includes London, Ireland, Paris, Venice, Florence, Assisi, Rome, Istanbul, Athens, Vienna, Prague and Rotterdam in roughly that order. Henry is a good deal less adventurous about accommodation than Boon but, with a few crises, they manage to travel companionably throughout. While Boon, more than a little under the influence of Nietzsche, is becoming increasingly aware of his historical muse, Luck is, in effect, converting to Roman Catholicism.
As with all picaresque tales, a cast of diverting (and somewhat emblematic) characters is encountered. These include Luck’s long-distance London girlfriend, Rhee, and her friend, Eva, a talented dancer and fervent Marxist. Another character, Beamish, the anarchist, represents a more reckless and self-destructive alternative to the relatively sedate lives the poets envisage for their later selves. A few of these characters re-appear, somewhat coincidentally, at various points in the poets’ wanderings. Others pop up for one or two chapters only.
Paradoxically, Luck, the younger poet, seems to be the more mature intellectually and perhaps even morally, having a clear (if overly precise) idea of what he wants and what he doesn’t want from life. Boon is much more open to new experiences. Luck is inclined to close himself off from them, sometimes with disdain. He does, however, display some vulnerabilities and it is a sign of Boon’s developing maturity that he is able compassionately to take these into account.
Though there is much talk of “finding one’s muse” the adventures and aesthetic discussions along the way are of wider relevance than the novel’s subtitle may at first suggest. A sense of vocation, as opposed to a money-spinning “day-job”, is by no means a rare thing these days — though the vocation may take some years to emerge clearly (with perhaps one or two false starts along the way).
A recurrent thematic concern in this context is embodied in the Latin proverb “poeta nascitur non fit” (“a poet is born, not made”). Enough of Boon’s and Luck’s earlier lives is given to support the “made” half of the maxim while the temperaments displayed on their travels reveal a good deal about the “born” side. Clearly, as Gould makes plain, there are different muses and different sorts of poets. It is a sign of both young men’s growth that they come progressively to realise this about the other — even if that progress is not always evenly made.
Such realizations give rise to many of the more affecting moments in the novel. One is Boon’s early decision (suggested to him by a drunken, if aristocratic, Irishman) not to leave the somewhat annoying and inhibited Henry in the lurch and go off on his own. Another, much later in the novel, is where Luck, without even trying or fully realising what he is doing, contrives to set a female American plumber, Martha, on the way to a new life and career in philosophy and academia.
Boon’s account of her departure for the U.S. is also an example of the novel’s sharply focussed yet relaxed style:
‘This has been the best day of my life,’ she managed. ‘I’ll write you,’ and showed in her notebook where she had taken down Henry’s Brisbane address. Then the door closed with a pfffft, and she was gone.
‘She seemed moved,’ Henry looked puzzled.
‘She was moved’
‘I’ve no idea what I did,’ he looked genuinely helpless. ‘ I just rattled off what any book could tell her. Why was she so moved?’
By the book’s denouement, Gould fictionally varies what is publicly known of “Henry”’s (or Hart’s) subsequent career but the twists, at the psychological level, may be insightful even so. The rather anti-climactic update on the Boon-Luck friendship provided in the book’s last paragraph is sadly convincing. Boon writes to Rhee, who has stayed in London and remained in contact with Henry long past the end of their relationship, saying merely: “If you see him, wish him well.”
Henry and Boon’s “Grand Tour” has served its necessary and important developmental purpose. There is no need for a postscript updating us on the poets’ fortunes after they emerge from the “stairwell”. The novel is sharply focussed on key events in their parallel and interacting lives as young men. Anything more would be material for other, very different novels — one of which Gould has, in effect, already attempted in The Seaglass Spiral.
GEOFF PAGE is a Canberra-based poet and critic. He is editor of The Best Australian Poets, 2015.
Prithvi Varatharajan is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, and a freelance producer of literature and arts programs for ABC Radio National. He is writing his PhD thesis on the radio program Poetica, which aired on ABC RN from 1997 to 2014. He has published scholarly, critical and creative writing in various Australian and overseas journals and books. His article on a Poetica adaptation of John Forbes’ poetry is forthcoming in a special issue of Adaptation titled ‘Adapting Australia
the streets are wide open
leading you through a bleak
and beautiful future
rain slakes down,
slashing at the jacket
you hold dearly
by its sleeve, your chin
we leg it over the bridge
to a dimly imagined
lights of the park,
brilliant in their unreality
glisten as we pass
their globes hold pure warmth
that ebbs into the night
like a promise of happiness
Country. Car Window.
division of road,
its sleek black skin
the white, a crumb-trail
to a near horizon
the white, the pulse
above the road
shabby in a tree
rogue hay bales
on a field
so vast the eye
blurs at its edges
and a fence of slouching steel
lengthens to a darkening
with apparent ease.
Lưu Diệu Vân, born December 1979, is a Vietnamese poet, literary translator, and managing editor of the bilingual Culture Magazin. She received her Master’s Degree from the University of Massachusetts in 2009. Her bilingual works have appeared in numerous Vietnamese print literary journals and online magazines. www.luudieuvan.com. Her publications include 47 Minutes After 7, poetry, Van Nghe Publisher, (2010), The Transparent Greenness of Grass, flash fiction, Tre Publishing House, co-author (2012), Poems of Lưu Diệu Vân, Lưu Mêlan & Nhã Thuyên, poetry, Vagabond Press, co-author (2012).
Michael Brennan is a Tokyo-based writer and publisher. His most recent collection Autoethnographic was short-listed for the Victorian Premier’s Award and won the Grace Leven Prize. He established and runs Vagabond Press, one of the most prolific publishers of poetry in translation from Asia Pacific. His first collection translated into Vietnamese translated by Lưu Diệu Vân is forthcoming from Hanoi-based AJAR Press, and a second collection in Japanese, titled アリバイ, translated by Yasuhiro Yotsumoto and in collaboration with Korean artist Jieun June Kim was released in July 2015.
You’re a message in a bottle cast into the
ocean forty years ago at the end of a great
conflagration in a country no one cares much
for anymore. Drifting in that ocean of yours,
there are the great things to ponder: sky and
ocean, and you between with the message
you carry that no one has read. It’s all so
heartless in its ways, this mystery that was
halfway through when you awoke. Even if
you knew the beginning you doubt it’d make
much sense and somehow know now the end
will be a let down compared to the horrors
you’ve been imagining in the quiet moments,
which are many. Still, the sky is endless and
the ocean deep and its warm here inside the
unnameable. When you drift back to the
haste in which you were written, that long arc
of inertia that sent you out into the breakers
and the days heading out to open ocean, you
feel a little teary with everything that’s
passed and the hope that started it all. Some
nights, rocking on the waves under the stars,
you remember being in pieces on the shore
and her hand quickly scribbling you into
being, the distant cracks of gunfire bursting
distance, the night sky bright with burning
buildings and those rough voices getting
closer, when she stuffed you in your glass
cell and sent you on your way. It’s true you
will never get out and so you’re left to
wonder what witness you bear: an
accusation, a plea for mercy, a suicide note,
perhaps a last ditch love letter.
Noah in love
‘If one of us dies, I’m moving to Paris.’
That’s how it started, love, liquid and light,
no escape clause, no pre-nup, a cardigan and
fluffy slippers and the refrain of per capita
happiness indexed against inflation. #2+2=5.
LOL. It’s a business strategy, gimlet, not a
song! We’d friended on Facebook. I’d been
distracted, cruising drunk, hoping for just a
little disambiguation, to be fluently human as
YouTube. Then the fateful day she updated
her status and a little part of me died. I’d
followed their relationship for months,
lurking on the edge, thrilled by the
singularity, of love posted, cascades
intoxicating, distant and sweet. I learnt
French, then tried my hand at Java, PHP,
HTML, wanting to slip under the skin of
things, to get to grips with the apparent
devotion, the lack of context, the ease of
emotion. Think of it, Wherever US is, WE
are!! I’ve downloaded everything, I’m
learning every move she made on the
Boul'Mich' late last summer. I’m a study in
readiness, the promise of reincarnation.
Mi là mẩu tin trong chiếc chai bị ném vào đại
dương bốn mươi năm trước vào điểm cuối
cơn đại hỏa hoạn ở một đất nước chẳng ai
màng biết đến nữa. Trôi giạt trong đại dương
của mi, ngẫm suy bao điều to lớn: bầu trời và
đại dương, mi lẫn ở giữa cùng lời nhắn mi
đeo mang chưa ai từng đọc. Quá đỗi vô tình,
điều huyền bí ở khoảng giữa lúc mi tỉnh dậy.
Ngay cả khi đã biết điểm khởi đầu mi cũng
hồ nghi liệu điều ấy có ý nghĩa gì và cớ
chừng bây giờ biết rằng điểm cuối kết sẽ là
nỗi thất vọng so với những ghê rợn mi đã
tưởng tượng trong những phút lặng im, rất
thường. Thế mà, bầu trời vẫn bao la và đại
dương sâu thẳm, và nỗi ấm áp bên trong điều
không thể gọi tên này. Khi mi giạt trở lại lúc
mi được viết nên trong hối hả, vòng cung lê
thê của sự trì trệ ấy đã đẩy mi vào những con
sóng lớn, và trong những ngày trôi ra biển
rộng, mi rưng rưng nghĩ lại tất thảy những gì
đã qua và niềm hy vọng đã khơi nguồn mọi
thứ. Nhiều đêm, lênh đênh trên sóng dưới sao
trời, mi nhớ thuở còn là những mảnh rời trên
bờ và bàn tay nàng thoăn thoắt những nét chữ
thành hình mi, tiếng súng gãy vỡ lạnh nổ dòn
từ phía xa, đêm rực cháy những tòa nhà và
những giọng nói nặng nề càng lúc càng dồn
gần, khi nàng nhét mi vào nhà tù thủy tinh và
đẩy mi đi. Sự thật là mi sẽ không bao giờ
thoát khỏi, nên mi chẳng thể làm gì ngoài
việc tự hỏi mi đang cưu mang nhân chứng gì:
một lời kết tội, sự cầu xin tha thứ, tâm thư
tuyệt mạng, hoặc có thể là một tình thư tuyệt
vọng cuối cùng.
Noah đang yêu
‘Nếu một trong hai ta chết, anh sẽ chuyển tới
Paris.’ Chuyện bắt đầu như thế, tình yêu, chất
lỏng và ánh sáng, không điều khoản lối thoát,
không hợp đồng tiền hôn nhân, một chiếc áo
len và đôi dép bông cùng sự kiềm chế của tỷ
lệ hạnh phúc trên mỗi đầu người tính theo chỉ
số lạm phát. #2+2=5. LOL. Đây là chiến lược
thương mại, mũi khoan, không phải bài ca!
Mình đã kết bạn trên Facebook. Tôi lúc ấy
rối bời, chuếnh choáng say, hy vọng dù chỉ
một chút gì sáng sủa, để nhuần nhị con người
như YouTube. Rồi đến cái ngày định mệnh
nàng cập nhật trạng thái mới, trong tôi chết đi
một phần. Tôi dõi theo quan hệ của họ hàng
tháng trời, ẩn mình bên lề, phấn khích với
tính chất độc đáo, của tình yêu được công bố,
say sưa như thác chảy, xa cách và ngọt ngào.
Tôi học tiếng Pháp, rồi thử cả Java, PHP,
HTML, mong muốn ngụp sâu vào mọi sự,
gắng thấu hiểu sự thành tâm hiển lộ, sự thiếu
ngữ cảnh, sự thanh thản của cảm xúc. Nghĩ
xem, Nơi Nào có HAI TA, thì MÌNH ở đó!!
Tôi tải về mọi thứ, tôi tìm biết từng chuyển
động của nàng tại Boul’Mich’ vào cuối hè
vừa qua. Tôi là đối tượng nghiên cứu của sự
sẵn sàng, một hứa hẹn của hóa sinh.
sweetened in coals
by Phillip Hall
Reviewed by JANETTE DADD
Jacques Raubaud, at the Sydney Writer’s Festival of 2014 made the observation that poems differ from novels in that if they do not stir a memory then the poem will not be successful. The poet has precious time to invite the reader, to establish rapport and empathy. It has to be, by skill of the writing, a quick strike.
This might be a problem for Phillip Gijindarra Hall in his book sweetened in coals. Hall writes about place with a gentle passion; in fact he writes about three places. His subject is the bush, the people of the bush and the place where his heart finds peace and encouragement, within his family.
Hall is known for his work with Aboriginal Australians, and has been honoured by members of different ‘countries’. He is a long distance endurance bushwalker working with Aboriginal communities and the youth of these places. It is from this background and the obviously strong family ties he has, that his book of poetry springs.
Therein lies the problem. It is well known that most Australians are urban dwellers and coastal inhabitants. This makes Hall’s task hard. How can he stir memories for his readers if these readers have never been to the bush nor had exposure to its sounds, scents and creatures? Also, there are many Australians, especially people new to this continent, who have no understanding of the outlook, the cheeky humour and philosophy of the Indigenous people of our land. Hall quickly lets his readers know his position on, and passion for, a different telling of Australian history in his first poem, Carpentaria Running the Flag, its finishing lines being …….
landscape where a charged sphere percolates
Know this writer invites you to open yourself and learn more about the First peoples of our continent.
The book itself is comprised of three sections – Dwelling, Praise and Home. I found the section Dwelling the most powerful of the three parts for two reasons.
Firstly, it is in this section that Hall subtly reminds us of the story of Australia before European settlement. In poems such as “Palimpsest”, “Dystopian Empire” and “colonial heads“, Hall invites us to look beneath the surface and behind the history of white settlement Australia. He invites us to see just how clever, ingenious and nuanced Aboriginal culture is.
Secondly in poems such as “Habitation” the poet stirs memories for me with his descriptions of remnant rainforest on steep edges of farms……..
A green catbird forages ahead yowling
from a tangle of vines
You break in on a stand of
ironwood and turpentine.
These are images that take me back to living at Comboyne. Our farm was on the edge of the escarpment above Taree. I can practically smell the bush when I read, but I have a memory Hall has touched, so the poems have place for me. Would they work as well for an urban- dwelling Australian? I am not so sure.
“Dwelling” is an important piece of writing that slowly and meticulously reveals the history before ‘history’. It is important because people of British ancestry and our more recent new settlers need to know this history and move towards the respect that should be shown for this ancient place and its people. Perhaps then, the attitude of begrudging assistance can be changed and the different views and philosophies of Indigenous Australia be upheld as valid and important.
The second section, Praise, has a wholly different tone and presentation. It is as if Hall is enjoying a time of rest between his strenuous walks. Here are short descriptive poems of different Australian fauna. Again, because of memories stirred, I find many enjoyable poems. “This Creation” is an example of Hall at his best, capturing a natural vision with few words but with each carrying a great power to stimulate the mind’s eye:
leathered angels seeding
a Daintree, gallantly reclaiming
Then there is “Creative Tension” where Hall compares a spider’s web construction to a radio telescope, each facing skyward to track movement. “Willie” is a cleverly set-out poem, line breaks devised to mimic the movements of the Wagtail. It’s a successful poem.
The third and final section of sweetened in coals is titled “Home”. As the name implies there are poems here for his family – well, really poems dedicated to family and friends are scattered throughout the book. I especially like “A Humble Fire” – for his son Aidan, nearly three – which I thought a rather predicable poem until the last line.
Finally Hall is however, back in the bush or his Borroloola Class and maybe this is the most telling part of all. Here is where this writer is most at home, in the bush, walking, observing and recording. Back in his element, his joy, his love, his sense of meaning becomes apparent.
Hall takes us and drops us in many different places. His top-end poems I relate to less than when he is in NSW, especially the Southern Highlands. He is in my country then and I know the land he talks of. Is it important to know where we are? At one level – no – as the words are powerful and evoke images easily, at another level – yes – because knowing the place can add extra meaning to the reading. It is important to make use of the reference notes available for some poems. The added depth of meaning and knowledge is worth the flick to the back.
Hall has an unerring respect for the bush and its people. For some readers, with little experience of Australia outside of our slick urban scenes, this work will perhaps not be successful. There are no memories caught in his words. However, there is another audience who would enjoy the work, cover to cover. There are people who do not truly breathe until they have their sacred bush around them. I know people I will share sweetened in coals with; and I know they will relish Hall’s ability to capture, in words, what they experience as one of life’s great pleasures.
JANETTE DADD has had two books published with Ginninderra Press: Early Frosts in 2013 and Eve’s Tears in 2000. She has also had work published in various anthologies. Janette is a performance poet, presenting her work at venues on the South Coast of N.S.W. She is presently studying for a Bachelor of Fine Arts through Curtin University.
On Manannan’s Isle
by Usha Kishore
Isle of Man, UK.
ISBN: 978-1-304-14507-9 (PB)
REVIEWED by Sutapa Chaudhuri
On Manannan’s Isle is Usha Kishore’s debut collection of poetry. The fifty-six poems included in this collection are multicultural in nature and present a ‘chiaroscuro world’ (‘A Spoonful of Indian Sky’). Intertextual and multilayered, these poems build up, as Kishore writes, ‘an in-between space’ (‘Multiculturalism, Postcolonialism’). Like Kishore, an Indian-born British writer from the Isle of Man, the poetic self in On Manannan’s Isle experiences life as an amalgam of the East and the West, of Ganesha and Manannan, of Indian monsoons and British autumns. In ‘Monsoon Nights’ Kishore writes,
… The smell
of sand perfumes the air in a trapeze of fireflies
and a courtyard quivers in the lap of a pale moon,…
Those monsoon nights rising from a fond letter
are drowned in cups of Darjeeling chai,
as a Manx morning wakes up to a tiger sky.
Poems like ‘Ganesh Utsav’, ‘Monsoon Nights’ or ‘Moddey Dhoo’ too consciously build up ‘an allegory of exile’ (‘Women Like Me’) through the use of mythology and intertextual allusions, especially through the figure of Shakespeare’s Caliban as in ‘On Teaching The Tempest’:
… Caliban rolls
in the dark recesses of my heart,
an accident like me, taught
to moon-worship in an alien tongue.
On Manannan’s Isle explores mythology— both Celtic and Indian— apparently in an attempt to connect the East and the West through myths and legends. The opening poem of the collection, ‘Ganesh Utsav’, seems to serve, for Kishore, as a point of entry into the alien culture. In this poem Kishore’s invocation: “Come Ganesha, bathe in the Irish Sea…” tries to put the spirit of the Celtic deity who permeates the whole collection, Manannan, the guardian of the Irish Sea and its inhabitants, vis a vis the Hindu deity Ganesha. This seems to be a preamble to Kishore’s later attempt to assimilate the legendary Celtic guardian spirit, Manannan, as an integral part of the poetic persona’s exiled identity and resilience in an alien land. In ‘You Manannan’ Kishore writes:
But, you Manannan,
drag me by my sari tip
into your greenish depths
and imprison me,
my verses and all
in the barnacles that grow
on your rocky ledges.
Kishore’s poetic language in On Manannan’s Isle incorporates the signifiers of two different cultures, not only crossing cultural borders but also giving rise to a heterogeneous ‘mottled culture’ in which the meanings of the borrowed words are ‘translations of fabled history’ (‘Multiculturalism, Postcolonialism’). In this assimilative multicultural language, English, Celtic and/or Indian words or phrases are placed side by side. This hybrid language contains elements as discrete or as heterogeneous as
accent, my Sanskritised Puritanism, my love
for Browning’s sardonic quips and Hopkins’s
sprung rhythm … my lingering love
for Tagore, my idioms sprinkled with French
and Latin, my sunburnt Malayali metaphors, as
old as Parasurams’s axe or my calling to equality
Creative use of poetic language in this debut collection also shows Kishore’s affinity towards enjambments and broken sentences, used together with unconventional rhythms and a multicultural lexicon as in the title poem ‘On Manannan’s Isle’:
Gathering legends in a sibylline sunset,
the exile fills her wandering rucksack
with fairy fables that wing across time, …
The exile whispers: Vayu? Varuna? Indra?
Which of my thirty three million gods, are you?
I am but one more – cloak yourself in my swirling mists,
hear my laughter in the crashing waves, feel my power
in the roaring winds and say my name!
or as illustrated in poems like ‘Power’ or ‘Waiting for Autumn’ :
Your moon, cloaked in mists, serenades
my chakora spirit with fragrant madrigals
and leaves his rays on the edge of my sari.
(‘Waiting for Autumn’)
The imagery in On Manannan’s Isle is evocative and lyrical as in depictions of ‘the jasmine coloured moon’ (‘Power’) or her portrayal of the sights and sounds, the colours and cacophony of a typical Indian bazaar in ‘Teaching Between Two Worlds’:
…jalebis frying in ghee, alphonso
mangoes in cratefuls, baskets of jasmine
flowers. Chikankari saris in sapphire
and emerald map the skies with threads
The poem ‘At Janet’s’, on the other hand, uses colour codes and cataloguing to portray the studied monochrome of an urban and sophisticated First World:
Even the conversation is black and white, crisp vignettes
from stratified layers of glossy magazines, effervescent
as freshly brewed coffee, biting into the tongue, like
The striking visual quality of Kishore’s images in illustrated in lines like ‘serpent kite sings/a cruel blue song’ or ‘With blood on their beaks, the cackling/hordes rise in a flurry of possessed white’ from the poem ‘Blackbird Chased by Seagulls’, a poem in this collection memorable for its dramatic quality.
Special mention has to be made of the eight ‘The Bones of Time’ poems in On Manannan’s Isle that evolved as part of an ekphrastic project with the British artist, Carola Colley. These poems are close renditions of Colley’s plein air canvas, and they too carry on Kishore’s theme of assimilation, and points towards, as Kishore writes in ‘Meayll Circle’, the concluding poem of Kishore’s collection:
An infinite meld; there is
no vanishing point, just
a harmony of hues…
a palimpsest of time and tide…
border crossings into an ancient,
The poem talks of migrant journeys and home comings — the ferrying across of souls — to adapt one of Kishore’s phrases in the same poem, reflecting a blend of experiences and colours in an ‘abstract landscape’:
…My eyes cannot
fathom this abstract landscape, but a blissful
tranquillity draws me into your float-mounted,
Kishore’s poetry in On Manannan’s Isle attempts to analyse the notions of Otherness and integration, displacement and exile and in that process interrogates the definitions of home and the boundaries of homeland. On Manannan’s Isle thus projects Kishore as a contemporary poet of the Indian diaspora with a strong, distinct voice — assimilative of the two cultures yet retaining its own tenor.
Sutapa Chaudhuri, is Assistant Professor of English, Dr.K.L.Bhattacharyya College, University of Calcutta, India. She has two poetry collections — Broken Rhapsodies and Touching Nadir. My Lord, My Well-Beloved is a collection of her translations of Rabindranath Tagore’s songs.
by Nicholas Jose
Reviewed by GAY LYNCH
Nicholas Jose explains his take on the term ‘Bapo’ in the introduction of his collection of short stories of that title:
an unusual kind of Chinese painting that tricks the eye into thinking it sees a collage of fragments. The word literally means ‘eight broken’, where eight is a Chinese lucky number and broken (damaged, worn) suggests that luck has run out, and if it has, that there’s another kind of luck in simply surviving… (1)
Bapo offers Jose an effective metaphor – ‘a kind of writer’s reprisal’ – for his eclectic selection of stories published over two decades. His introduction suggests that the Bapo technique enabled him a more writerly flexibility of ‘sketchiness, (and) sentiment’. The Bapo metaphor is slippery enough to incorporate others: performance, weaving, and the opening of a painted fan to reveal a book – a breath of air. While not arranged chronologically, the stories bow to various generic conventions. Apart from a few in the second half, all of them channel China. but it would be foolish of me to enforce too much thematic linkage. Going by the journals listed in acknowledgements the stories have been gathered together as a retrospective of Jose’s short fiction.
Having studied Chinese modern history in my late teens, I valued the concept of intellectuals slaving like peasants, despite such human industry breaking creative spirit or inviting accidents. I thought myself a Maoist but had no idea about the great man’s excesses. Years later I visited my daughter in Shanghai. She had been working on engineering projects, shoring up buildings as they sank into the River Pearl/ Zhujiang/Yangtze delta. I fell in love with the city’s historic precincts and the quiet dignity of Chinese people; but I saw old men in back streets of the French concession, bent double, trudging, step by agonising step, towing heartbreakingly heavy pallets of bricks. In fact, I saw many elderly people with abnormal gait, untreated osteoporosis, congenital dysplasia in China. How does one feed, house and educate the largest population in the world? For years, we shrugged off this question because we didn’t know the full Mao story. Burdened like the West with retiring Boomers, China will soon need babies, to work in factories within fifteen years time. In Bapo, Jose captures the fallout from China’s turbulent twentieth-century history and its impact on twenty-first century artistic expression.
Jose is a kind of bapo in persona, a collage built from experiential layers, reminding us of his rich life as a scholar, visiting professor, chair of creative writing, editor of Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, public intellectual, translator, Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing from 1987-1990, and in situ activist in Tiananmen Square. His diverse interests cluster around some common ones: China, outback Australia, art and academia. Many of his themes interpolate narratives that evolve in disparate settings (Adelaide, Beijing, Borrolaloola, Hong Kong, Lake Mungo, Melbourne, Sydney, Taipei). I don’t know if he’s laboured in the fields.
Bapo is divided into two sections but, interestingly, not into eighths representing the eight artists he writes about who formed a collective, The preface refers to ‘eight broken’ people: ‘people on the road, remembered, imagined, forgotten almost’; shards indeed. Some narrations showcase ficto-critical playfulness and others are almost totally omniscient. Most of the stories are narrated in third-person limited or selective, but some from first person (singular and plural), or second person perspective; most are set during the 1990’s, a dramatic period of Sino-Australian history, particularly for Jose who experienced the Tiananmen Square mow-down first hand, offering shelter to artists, musicians and political activists at the Beijing Australian Embassy.
Part One begins with ‘Donkey Feast’, a meditation on a black and white photo taken five months after the massacre. It tells of eight survivor artists distinguished in the story by the initials of their names, who form a collective. The story is narrated twenty-four years hence by ‘Plus one’, an expat Australian – I’m the one who took the photo’ – whose education takes place ‘in Adelaide in the 1960’s’ (11, 17). The authorial voice and some shared biographical details suggest some slippage between memoir and fiction (41-42).
Jose sets the Beijing scene in seemingly authentic detail and offers ironic accounts of the artists’ personal travails after Tiananmen; the impact this has on their health and their loved ones. Their hardworking women are out of the shot, a practice that has historical veracity. It is well attested that communist comrades carried the patriarchy with them on their shoulders. This story touches on many of China’s problems: lost and stifled art, rebuilding, endemic cigarette smoking, pollution, food scares, an ageing population and rejuvenating traditional practices, and its post 1990’s relationship with Australia. The closing image of the artists ignoring an injured man feebly waving a hand from an overturned donkey cart speaks volumes (21). Invisibility enables survival. Many Chinese writers and artists have been silenced by imprisonment, a fact confirmed for me when writing letters supporting the release of Chinese dissidents for PEN.
‘Ha-ha-ha!’ begins with the protagonist’s ninety-five year old grandmother’s observation that ‘in a crisis governments always make the wrong decision.’ It ends when the artist-teacher turns the tables over a game of Go on government officials’ artistic interference (21). It plays with Eastern ideas about loss of face and truthful utterances. The twist also relieves the plot’s building tension. Several of Jose’s stories show this satisfying symmetry: ‘Kong: Fossil’, for instance, begins and ends with the placing of a fossil in a child’s hand.
I am especially taken by the middle section stories. Most of the stories contain intertextual links signifying that the author is a man of refinement, interested in the fields of music, art and literature but the references are not gratuitous, and commonly anchor the Chinese settings in the book. This is particularly so in ‘One Fine Day’, its title a quote from a Noel Coward play, circa-1930s, Shanghai. Madame Butterfly and The Mikado are mentioned (42); Marjorie Flack Kurt Wiese’s The Story About Ping (43). In fact, Jose takes Ping’s name for his girl protagonist. He moves naturally from one story to another, embedding some within frame stories: for example, Ping standing at a bus stop reluctantly listens to another girl’s life story that resembles Madame Butterfly’s (44). The main story ends with a melodramatic teaser that fits his opera theme (50): ‘jumping from the balcony was not the right answer’. Jose quotes Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans), Australian Sino-scholar, and he references Lu Xan, Macbeth, Dorothy Sayers, William Blake, and Tosca. Some stories are more densely intertextual than others. References come easily to the author, often providing structure for his plots in an allegorical way.
A moody evocation of places suggests that he likes layers of meaning. He offers no simple answers to complex questions even in domestic dramas. ‘Marriage Bonds’ features a household of three, a ménage à trois with all the excitement, longings, and destructive jealousy that accompanies such groupings. As a counter-sexist ploy, in ‘Empress and Shaman’ he dramatises the story of two ruthless competing women who double-cross each other after a lifetime of friendship (81-104).
For Jose, aesthetics plays an important human function in the face of national trauma. He writes eloquently and figuratively, using deft and culturally appropriate similes: ‘long black whiskers and a mane like Genghis Khan’ (11); ‘New artistic influences came in, which he digested with an iron stomach, like the strong man who chomps his way through engine parts. Cubism, surrealism, constructivism…’(22). Simple metaphors are effectively applied such as, the rain ‘polishes fat ducks’ (136) or ‘The severed plait sat in her lap like a fish.’ (219). Metaphors are also used in a reflexive way to inform the writing: for example, ‘how to decide which pronoun to shelter under’ an idea he sustains over a long paragraph.(197).
Jose frequently applies complex metaphors as conceits. On seeing desperate beachcombers scraping shells from rocks, an international studies academic muses:
He had chipped away, scraped and deposited his own buckets and bags of shell grit…
In the morning when the tide came in and the rocks were covered again with the lapping waves of the sea, no one would even wonder whether the surface of the rocks below had been changed by anybody’s scraping.’(72).
Black humour enlivens the text, underlining important political issues – ‘He married, not the Vietnamese girl, but a pale-eyed white woman who got pregnant from a drop of rain.’ (39); documents smuggled out of Hong Kong are ‘stuffed inside a gift of silk underwear for the Minister’s secretary,’ in a diplomatic pouch (92); ‘an Aboriginal man played a Chinese folk tune on a didgeridoo and a noted Shanghai bird-imitator whistled Waltzing Matilda.’ (98) The narrator’s voice is adept at double speak – and irony: we learn there was ‘little difference between an appointment and an ambush in Hong Kong,’ (85); about ‘hope that takes its toll.’ (65); a ‘bumper harvest’ is juxtaposed against ‘Clouds of pesticide’ (63-4). In ‘The Old Socialist’s Last Song’, conference delegates become bi-partisan, especially after the announcement of the Chernobyl disaster, united over the world’s absurdity. They joke about the irony of capitalism ‘thriving in China’ (73).
Powerful metaphors illuminate meta-texts: ‘Then democracy bred change, reform, freedom. Like a great whale surfacing, a hidden fellowship of the people declared itself, and in millions repossessed the city.’ (37); [Kong: Fossil] ‘the lines on his face, were as light and ghostly as the fretting of dead leaves.’ (40); ‘China was a kind of glue.’(55)
Sexuality is evoked with sensuality and cleverness – ‘A pair of bicycles couple against the wall. Under the bridge two men shelter from the rain, the penis of one thickening between the thighs of the other, who flutters like a moth.’(105) At other times it is explicit: ‘Working his thighs, he was able to milk the White-Haired Pig lovingly, to squeeze the flesh as if every ounce was gold. He longed for gold rings to put through those tough old nipples.’ (107)
For the most part, the prose is sure-footed and bold, as one would expect from a Professor of Creative Writing and well-published writer. A range of plot devices, including the encapsulating of character in group-photos is used (67). On several occasions Jose gestures towards ficto-criticism: ‘let’s call him Robert’ (146). He sometimes uses allegorical conventions for convenience: ‘the son’ as protagonist…. (36). An occasional bounce in point-of-view distracted me and undermined my identification with the protagonist (39, 156).
Narratives are focalised through men and women, old and young, Chinese and Australian. In ‘Marriage Bonds’ the first-person narrator addresses an author’s freedom to write in any setting and from any perspective, thereby offering a fleeting glimpse of himself.
Jose depicts character in a variety of ways. Insightful sketches in ‘The Old Socialist’s Last Song’ enliven the text, while deeper studies frame complex psychological interplay, for instance in ‘Angled Wheel of Fortune’ (135-142). The playful start to Martha, Arthur and Robert’s ménage à trois in ‘Marriage Bonds’ is soon underscored by deeper and darker themes: ‘He was given at twelve as a toy to his father’s boyfriend,’(148).
Each chosen register fits its protagonist in attitude and idiom, suggesting restraint on the part of the author: for example the pragmatic free indirect style through which we see ‘the son’ in ‘Kong: Fossil’:
‘Little sisters, sometimes two to a room. He had to clean up the sheets and towels after the clients had gone. Sometimes he had to heavy the men, to handle their passion. Occasionally he had to slap the girls, or bash them, or dry their eyes. He also cooked them rice.’(38).
Jose’s mastery and cultural understanding of China is profound and he curates a mass of local knowledge and historical material with great humour and an engaging authorial voice. I noted his distinction between northern and southern Chinese people, China being a large country comprising many regions and ethnicities.
The collection develops a kind of elastic cohesion with the exception of five short pieces in the second section: ‘George’, a story about a cigarette smoking orang-utan, telegraphs an Adelaide childhood with trips to the Zoological Gardens; ‘After the Show’ about a young man and his partner in Rome and his memory of time spent there as a boy as companion to his grandmother; ‘The Aunt’s Garden Story’; ‘The Disappearing Book’ the poignant story of a literary agent with dementia; and ‘What Love Tells You’ seem off-subject and strangely out of place. ‘Diamond Dog’ a story about a Chinese Sydney girl saving a dog from a python completes the suite suggesting that people need to inhabit or create narratives before they belong in a place. Jose belongs in this way to China, having inhabited and created narratives–more than most expats– bringing him a larger stake in the place. If the previous four stories offer only echoes of China or illumes a national ‘way of telling’, the last completes the circuit.
Australia now owns a close relationship with modern China. Not only do we share regional interests but also Chinese people constitute our second largest group of émigrés. The country has become an important trading partner in mineral resources, primary products, tourism, real-estate and popular consumer goods. A Chinese/Australian relationship can increasingly be secured with ren – ‘forbearance of give and take’ – as the story ‘Loving China’ shows. Jose’s truthful but compassionate voice enacts his ren in Bapo because the collection bears expert witness to a particular historical period in China. In addition, these lively, intelligent and engaging stories furnish readers with a colourful retrospective of Jose’s shorter literary works.
GAY LYNCH is an honorary research fellow in creative writing and English at Flinders University. Her main interests lie with Australian settler-history, contemporary literature, and creative writing pedagogy. She has published papers on these subjects, as well as Apocryphal and Literary Influences on Galway Diasporic History (2010), Cleanskin (2006), an adult novel, short stories in contemporary anthologies and educational children’s texts. She is presently taking a break from teaching to complete an historical novel.
by Sheng Keyi
translated by Shelly Bryant
Reviewed by JENNIFER MACKENZIE
He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined
Paul Celan ‘Death Fugue’ (1)
Sheng Keyi has taken Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’ as the title for her new novel, which has been translated by Shelly Bryant. The novel, which lightly disguises its connection to the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, begins in the city of Beiping, capital of Dayang, where the sudden appearance of a tower of excrement precipitates civil unrest and violence. Subsequently the main character, Yuan Mengliu, a doctor and former poet, finds himself in the utopian society of Swan Valley. There, language is employed in the service of the state, a state which is a eugenic meritocracy, a meritocracy eerily similar to the Dayang activist poet, Hei Chun’s book The Genetic Code of the City-State (82/3), with poets being granted supreme status if their verse is eulogistic. In an earlier novel, Northern Girls (2), also translated by Shelly Bryant, Sheng demonstrated her debt to the ribald comedy of the traditional and contemporary Chinese novel, but has in Death Fugue developed it into a refined satirical allegory depicting a society satiated with extraordinary wealth and which has become so pacified that its citizens can accept and justify any restriction on their freedom.
Although the connection in the narrative between the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the violence in Round Square, home of Beiping’s Wisdom Bureau, is what strikes the reader initially, it is the connection between political activity and writing, or poetry in particular, which lies at the heart of this enthralling, and at times confronting novel. With its intense focus on nature, the novel reminds us of the centrality of landscape in Chinese literature, and is in many ways a provocation on this subject. Place and emotion are inextricable elements of this literature, and in ‘Death Fugue’ the land of Swan Valley, as a site of allegory encompassing political philosophy, emerges as less of a place than an emanation of Mengliu’s state of mind, as a full-blown nightmare registering trauma and pain.
Death Fugue begins by introducing the principal character, Mengliu. He was once an acclaimed poet, a member of the revered group, known as the Three Musketeers. After the trauma of the massacre in Round Square, he gave up writing poetry and trained as a doctor, finding some solace in medicine. World-weary, he is essentially a romantic and a libertine, aware of and disturbed by his unknown origins. His orphaned state comes to haunt him every time he plays the chuixun, an instrument left to him by his unknown father, and which he successfully employs to seduce women. He pines for his lost love, Qizi, who disappeared at the time of the unrest, and rather like a character from Kundera’s novels, finds a way to be at a distance from current society, while ironically observing it through random seduction.
Objectification and distance, however, are not working for Mengliu consistently. Memory, trauma and guilt accompany him through life, and his playing of the chuixun reflects that refrain. Central to this state is his abandonment of poetry, which generally fits into his new image as a man of medicine in a depoliticised society. The central figures in his consciousness are the poets he once associated with, and their lovers. Through these figures, Sheng Keyi presents her central theme: what should poetry be? These poets either died as martyrs like Bai Qiu, whose rousing poetry he took to the grave, developed uncompromising ideologies like Hei Chan, or became traitorous like Jia Wen, a mole and trickster who Mengliu happens to fatally confront in his hospital operating theatre. Abandoning poetry has resulted in Mengliu paying a huge price ontologically, but he continues to value writing as an ethical calligraphic act.
How Mengliu continues to value poetry can be seen when he is mysteriously transported to Swan Valley. Here, all is beautiful on the surface, a wonderland of nature. This idyllic environment perhaps has its origins in Sheng Keyi’s experience. In an interview with Jane Perley (3) she discussed how her childhood village had a lush natural environment when she was growing up there, but now ‘all that has gone, replaced,’ she said,’ by factories that pour poisons into the river and smelly ditches filled with trash’.
In Death Fugue, this lushness of nature is eroticised, particularly through the character of Juli, (with whom Mengliu lives and attempts to seduce.) Juli appears to be almost a plant herself, surrounded in her home by an abundance of flowers so dense it is almost comical. Nature is also politicised; for example bird-shaped flowers seen blooming abundantly are considered to be ‘the spiritual blossoms of Swan Valley’, standing for ‘liberty and independence’ (51), and this is also connected with the violent suppression of protest in Dayang:
A faint smell of blood was detectable, sometimes seeming to come from the flora and fauna, sometimes from the sewer, and sometimes from a certain class of people who couldn’t seem to rid themselves of it no matter how often they bathed… The water in the moat there a violent scarlet stream. (20)
Mengliu in Swan Valley notices ‘the screech of birds as they whizzed by like bullets’ (21). When Juli’s red hairpin catches the light, ‘it was as if the sky was on fire. There was gunfire, fighting, killing, blood, tank-trucks rolling, and smoke (77).
As can be seen from the above examples, in the first section of Death Fugue, the narrative moves between Beiping and Swan Valley, and it becomes apparent that Swan Valley is a projection of Mengliu’s turbulent consciousness. The lushness and beauty, the extraordinary wealth and harmonious existence of the citizenry are all there to conceal the ugly truth from these same citizens of a society proclaiming freedom but in fact enforcing a totalitarian eugenic agenda. By providing a fermented tea which induces loss of memory and fosters acceptance of social rules we can see that Swan Valley’s social organisation illustrates the novelist’s take on contemporary society, where wealth fosters political passivity:
All of us born in the 60s were born with a sense of responsibility…those who came after us were more individualistic with nothing inside them except a desire for material gain. … It’s only natural that the people felt they had nothing to worry about. (83)
For Mengliu however, the beauty of the landscape is constantly blown apart by images of the massacre. At the site of a waterfall, ‘the sound of the water falling from that terrible height reminded him of the rumble of the tanks as they lumbered towards him. (38) And on a walk through a forest:
The fear of not being able to get out of the forest enveloped him. The forest at night reminded him of the scene so many years before, when young people grew like trees in Round Square, waiting for rain to come and cleanse them. The forest was silent and furious, bearing great sorrow and helplessness… (197)
This disrupted visual space can also be seen in frequent references to the traditional sage of Chinese poetry, writing and meditating in a remote and beautiful location; Swan Valley then, and nature itself, appears as a trope for the act of writing, and by its very absence in that society, writing as ethical field. The citizens constantly urge Mengliu to return to poetry, but as he complains, writing for them is a tame affair:
Esteban [a citizen of Swan Valley] had invited Mengliu to watch the rice-planting ceremony. The scenery as they walked along was glorious, and Esteban urged him to compose a pastoral idyll, in the hope that he would slowly recover his identity as a poet. Only the people of Swan Valley had the idle time to treat poetry – a bold and powerful mastiff – like a pug. Poetry was a raging fire not a rhetorical game. (99)
Part Two of ‘Death Fugue’ dwells on the consequences of the sedation of the population of Swan Valley, although some do break free of the spell, even if inadvertently. Horrors burst through the surface of beauty, revealing a society practicing ruthless natural selection, giving them at the age of 50 the promise of a nursing home with every facility. However an anonymous note discovered by Mengliu reveals the nursing home to be in fact a crematorium:
‘I’m sorry, but I have to tell you a harsh reality. The truth is, you are living in a sheltered society where the truth is hidden… The nursing home is an execution ground for the elderly. Living people are thrown into ovens, as if they are burning pieces of wood. Please break open the gate of the nursing home and have a look inside. You will find no one there, only ghosts.’ (302)
Sheng Keyi, in ‘Death Fugue’ has composed a work which is bold, humorous and tragic. The second section of the book loses some of the focus of the first, with unnecessarily picaresque longueurs, which detract from the serious revelations which appear almost incidental as a result. Swan Valley, as Mengliu comes to realise, is a product of Hei Chun and Qizi’s utopian ideas. The novel ends with a scene of sham cultural production, with Mengliu seen on a boat, celebrating the shooting of a film called ‘Death Fugue’, while his former lover, the anaesthetist-turned-poet Suitang’s voice, ‘amplified to fill the room, was brimming with an embellished beauty.’ (375)
1. ‘Death Fugue’, Paul Celan, trans Michael Hamburger, www.poemhunter.com
2. Northern Girls, Sheng Keyi, trans Shelly Bryant, Penguin 2012
3. ‘Chinese Writer Tackling Tiananmen, Wields ‘Power to Offend”, Jane Perley, New York Times,A4, Oct 11, 2014
JENNIFER MACKENZIE is the author of Borobudur(Transit Lounge, 2009), republished in Indonesia as Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, Jakarta, 2012). She has presented her work at many festivals and conferences in Asia, most recently at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Myanmar (supported by the Australia Council for the Arts) and at the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators Conference in Singapore
The Two Rivers of Granada Descend from the Snow To the Wheat/Los Dos Rios de Granada Bajan de la Nieve al Trigo.
by Juan Garrido Salgado
Reviewed by JANET GALBRAITH
On opening the envelope that contains Juan Garrido Salgado’s latest offering of poetry: The Two Rivers of Granada Descend from the Snow To the Wheat/Los Dos Rios de Granada Bajan de la Nieve al Trigo, I initially experience this collection as felt rather than seen. It is the texture of the thick paper against my skin that I notice first. Like this handcrafted book, these are not flimsy or flighty poems; they are layered with felt histories held in bodies, in countries, poetry and waters that connect across cultures, languages and time. The cover images, photos taken by the poet whilst on his travels in Spain and Greece are of the old bridge that crosses the Guadalquivir river at Cordoba; of a fissure between two rocks that lead to the sun; of Granada, and of the poet clasping his notebook (or is it dictionary) standing on the ancient bridge that crosses the water way. These images wrap the poems almost as though they are folding in on each other. I cannot open this book in the same way I would most others. It requires a different approach.
I allow the poet to speak
To sing and cry
‘who will say that water bears
A vain fire of screams’
(Federico Garcia Lorca)
Water and the indefinable character of it pervades this collection. Even the layout of the longer poems seem to flow. The text is aligned to the right. Bordered by a straight line they meander to the left. They are not contained by the borders of what I, as an English reader and writer expects. I am reminded of the notebooks I have received over the past years, hand written in Farsi or Arabic, read right to left, from people who have become political prisoners of the current Australian regime, writers and poets seeking asylum in an era obsessed with the making and remaking of borders.
The title of Salgado’s collection is taken from Lorca’s poem ‘The Little Ballad of the Three Rivers’ and, I suggest, can be read as an ‘intimate dialogue’ not only between Lorca, Salgado and the river but between a present history, between Spanish and English as they lie beside each other, between Chile and Australia and as an intervention in the making of borders that demand closure. Rather than framing the collection – providing a beginning and an end – Lorca’s poem is embedded throughout the book. It speaks to the reader as the memory of water, like the ‘verses and wounds’ that Salgado finds ‘drowned’ in The River Guadalquivir in Cordoba :
‘Federico was killed’
The water is telling me
Now when my eyes channel its lament.
Here is the body of the river, the body of poetry, the body of Lorca, of history present. Salgado continually brings the reader back to this, not allowing us to indulge in a nostalgia that would recall a static and disembodied past. ‘The river is not a Museum’, begins the first poem ‘The River of Guadalquivir in Cordoba’.
The bridge is only survival
Screams of wind and birds of death in 1936.
The horror and sadness of Lorca’s execution near the river in 1936, the Spanish Civil War and White Terror are immediately present and the deep abiding sadness of this saturates collection in a way that creates a sense of suspension. That is, the poetry immediately connect the reader with the lived effects of history without the possibility of endings and resolution. The poetry, like the river, holds these wounds that will ‘wait until/ five moons embrace the sky and earth again/And no longer tyranny be part of life’(5).
The space in which Salgado writes is concerned not with consolidating borders but in witnessing the spaces between. He writes in his final poem Waiting for the Train to Granada: ‘we are stuck between the border’(15). This poetry inhabits this space between, inviting the reader into to some uneasy spaces.
I find you poet
I read your verses
From the translation of Ernesto Cardenal.
You find me Marcial
…We are between the fruits of Gods and water.
These uneasy spaces are often where history sits in the body.
His poem Toledo opens
An ancient gate to enter and exit the city
Our steps were wandering.
Steps that led me to history
Then goes on to speak of the city as a maze that seems to embody a living history:
death whispering colours…
rivers of pods and holes…
walls of shootings…
inquisition of sight and flight…
And finally a space is opened where the visceral presence of history is firmly placed:
In a corner of absence a verse flowers within me
A shot falls deeply into the animal skin pain.
Salgado is a poet living on Ngarrindjerri land in Adelaide whose lived experience has been defined by borders and spaces between. He was formerly a political prisoner of the Pinochet regime in his native Chile, arrived in Australia as a political refugee, and works as a poet exiled from his homeland, at the same time attaching to and finding a space for himself in this land where First Nations people are also experiencing exile from their own lands. It is an uneasy space he occupies but made all the more important as he is able to articulate it, own it and create a dialogue through which more space is opened. ‘Our adaptation to a new life in Australia has remained unfinished ever since we met its Ngarrindjeri people’.
Throughout this collection I am reminded of the unfinished business of violence. These wounds are not healed: ‘This locomotive is a sick animal(15)’. Salgado returns again and again to the reality of the continuity of violence, especially State based violence. The poem Death Sentenced Republic cascades from 1937, White Terror and the Spanish Civil War, to 1973, the killing of Allende and the rise of Pinochet in Chile, and finally to present day Australia: ‘In Australia asylum seekers detained/at Manus Island/ & Adriana Rivas a Former Secret police Agent/ And torturer’ of the Pinochet regime that has imprisoned and tortured this poet, now living in Sydney ‘as a citizen’.
Our wounds are reopening
Our wings of eternity have a name: dignity and courage.
Our flight is timeless.
When I send this poem to a man incarcerated in Manus Island Detention Camp his slow reply seems to echo the river’s lament: ‘Our sadness. Our sadness
Language of water
Falling from the soul of the three cultures
In this wheel of centuries
That feeds us.
Salgado stands on a bridge between two pieces of land, looks out at the reader inviting us to enter this intimate dialogue between country and water, language, history, violence and bodies.
I am sure Guadalquivir is an old poet
reading the rain within the fish dream
at Cordoba last night.
Rich with cultural and historical reference, written in Spanish and translated into English, The Two Rivers of Granada Descend from the Snow To the Wheat, invites us into unfinished spaces where bodies and histories matter. At a time when the refiguring of borders continues to close some in and others out; when the sacrifice and torture of particular people for politics and profit is further normalized; when publishing companies bow to sales and state-sanctioned stories, this handmade book, a limited edition of poems is a nourishing intervention.
1. Juan Garrido-Salgado ‘I have Three Wounds: of Live, Love and Death, Cordite, 1 November 2012.
2. Name withheld
The Deep North
by Bronwyn Lea
Edited by Paul Kane
Reviewed by ANTHONY LYNCH
Think of the north, and in Australia we might think of Queensland, in particular the far north of that state. Or, we might think of the northern hemisphere – Europe, North America. Or Australia’s most immediate northern neighbour, Papua New Guinea. The north also suggests extremes of heat or cold. Having lived in Queensland, the United States and Papua, with time also spent in Europe, Bronwyn Lea has inhabited parts of all these geographic and cultural spaces. The Deep North comprises selected poems predominantly from Lea’s two major collections to date, Flight Animals (2001) and The Other Way Out (2008), but includes also a number of poems published subsequent to the latter collection. This ‘Selected’, the second volume of Braziller’s series of Australian poets (the first was Robert Gray’s Daylight Saving), draws heavily from Lea’s time in these various locations.
We need not of course read Lea’s title so literally. The title after all plays with an inversion, given we more popularly associate ‘deep’ with the south, particularly in a North American context. The north here represents a range of imagined ‘elsewheres’, physical and mental. But Lea’s poems do derive strongly from engagements with place and the people and relationships that have occupied her. Reading poems as ‘personal’ can be fraught (as well as nostalgically humanist), but certainly Lea offers in part a confessional mode while never lapsing into the maudlin rumination this might suggest.
Despite including poems written over a ten-year period, this selection pursues certain themes. The superb opening poem, ‘Born Again’, sees the narrator’s/poet’s ex-husband arrive out of the cold desert in North America – a visitor less welcome than the sparrow nearby scratching for seeds in snow. After a year’s absence he has returned, having found god who ‘forgave all of his trespasses’, though the narrator has not similarly forgiven: ‘My heart has a long ledger.’ The ex has come to collect the couple’s daughter. The narrator gathers a few belongings for the daughter, makes him wait outside. When she comes back out, her ex is kneeling in the snow, which has collected on his shoulders, the backs of his shoes, his upturned palms. The moment brings an unexpected ‘intimacy we never shared’. The poem closes: ‘Sometimes grace / comes like that, it falls like snow.’ (3).
This poem lays the groundwork for others that follow. The figure of the former lover in particular, recalled with tenderness and wit, recurs. ‘The Photograph’ retrieves the same setting (in an earlier period) as the opening poem, the narrator and man on the ‘dusty porch’, dog curled at the man’s feet, the couple’s fingers entwining as they reach for their beers. There’s a rare hint of nostalgia, and of rue: ‘In the photograph / we don’t ever let go.’ (32).
Such a subject can easily lead to a voice of bitter regret, vindictiveness, or maudlin self-pity. Lea resists all of these, and writes instead with mature reflection on the nature of intimacy and of memory itself. In this, she shares common ground with Tracy Ryan, whose Unearthed (2013) also measuredly, assuredly, addresses a former spouse. Lea shows how language is both helpmate and obstacle in conducting a relationship and in conveying its provenance. ‘Driving into Distance’ is a meditation on the tension of between ‘I’ and ‘thou’ and the strange beauty of ‘little losses’ (67).
Lea’s is very much a poetry of what’s observed and felt ‘in the moment’. There is no particular indication here that Lea is a self-declared Buddhist, but aspects of Buddhist philosophy – observance of the present moment and of the natural world, acceptance of change and adversity, the retrieval of grace in small acts – are often present. The selection in fact ends with ‘Hand of the Bodhisattva’, an observation of a first century AD Indian statue, and perhaps a gently ironic counterpoint to other poems dealing with feet – the most playful of which is ‘Standing in Bette Davis’s Shoes’, composed of lines delivered by Davis from her most famous (and famously feisty) roles.
Lea is also on the front foot in ‘Orthograde’ and the sequence ‘Seven Feet & Where They’re From’, the latter responding to John Forbes’ ‘Four Heads and How to Draw Them’. Reflecting on the position of feet in cultures including Greek, Chinese and Aboriginal Australian, this sequence is also an eloquent metapoetic play on the foot (we might of course think of metrical feet in verse), most strongly in evidence in the seventh poem, ‘The Etymological Foot’, in which the foot’s place in adage is gently subverted.
Most poems are told from an implicitly or explicitly female point of view, but ‘The Cairn’ and ‘One of the Horses at Marly’ are told from non-human perspectives. Both cairn and horse address humans who are moving from one place to another but barely able to locate their own selves let alone navigate their environment. As series editor Paul Kane observes in his introductory note to this ‘Selected’: ‘Travel, of course, is always displacement and it functions here as an image of inward dislocation’ (ix). Or, in the words of the horse from Marly: ‘O // human too dizzy to see, you shoot / an arrow & it stabs you in the back’ (56). By the end of ‘The Cairn’, we discover the one being addressed is ‘Bronwyn’, continuing the exploration of self that began earlier with the poem ‘Bronwyn Lea’, in which the arrow is as much emblem of injury as it is of Cupid’s love: ‘My name fits me perfectly as the arrow fits its wound’ (9).
The wound is a recurring though not overworked motif in this collection, most often manifesting as a sense of loss following the absence/departure of the lover. Longing, including sexual longing, is a hallmark of absence, but, as in ‘Found Wanting at Zen Mountain Monastery’, female longing is often experienced differently to its male counterpart:
Desire or craving, he says
(he means to say thirst),
is the cause of all suffering.
(He is the one who will not remember me more,
the one who lets my face fall
without shock like vapour
from his mind.) (72)
Not that, thankfully, the female is a victim without agency:
So the woman fired up her motorbike,
rode through the hills to the monastery,
left her credit card with the office monk
and walked into the zendo. (73)
Many of the poems, including those dealing with the past, are written in the present tense, giving personal history an immediacy. Lea also demonstrates her quiet attention to form, moving from free verse to unrhymed couplets, tercets and quatrains, with occasional forays into haikus, most notably in the excellent ‘A rush of butterflies’, which deftly builds on themes addressed earlier in the book:
By my foot, a skink
fixes an eye on me – more
devoted than you. (77)
Longing and loss never manifest as self-indulgence. As Kane notes: ‘Lea has that capacity to imagine and identify with the other, even (with “fierce tenderness”) those who have caused her pain’ (xi). And absence, as experienced by the narrator or others, can be sensual:
as the Japanese woman
turns her nightgown inside out
to dream of her absent lover –
constructs of seams and loose threads
facing the world, the seeming seamless
elision of silks against her flesh
in daylight she watches her body age (‘The Nightgown’, 26)
‘The Poet’s Bed’ might remind us of Donne’s ‘The Sunne Rising’, sans lover:
The sheets have been changed
since she lay here, maybe even the mattress,
but the frame remains the same: (27)
And sometimes the abandoned marital bed is a liberation, as in ‘Women of a Certain Age’ who are:
waking to the sound
of their breathing …
… The dawn will be theirs to hold
a little while – its lightness – they will forget
some of what they have experienced
and remember what they were born with, (12)
In the deep north of memory, Lea nevertheless recalls, with eloquence and tenderness, some of the experience she has gained. And, without bitterness, some of what she has lost.
ANTHONY LYNCH is author of the short story collection Redfin and the poetry collection Night Train. His reviews have appeared in a various publications, but most often in The Australian and Australian Book Review. He is the publisher for Whitmore Press (http://whitmorepress.com), which specialises in poetry.