Laura McPhee-Browne is a writer and social worker from Melbourne, Australia. She is currently working on what she hopes will be her first book, ‘Cooee’, a collection of echo stories inspired by the short fiction of her favourite female writers.
Wet Towards the Waterfall
for Silvina Ocampo
We fell in love quickly, he and I. That was certainly my way, to dive in without testing the water with my toes, to sweep up the consequences, later murmuring, “well at least I lived”. For him I could sense that it was an abnormality; that he was in above his head, that he was used to taking months where we were taking hours. But there was never a question of stalling, of taking our time. We were mad, and it was a river washing over us, dragging us wet towards the waterfall.
We started looking for a house to live in within days. I was unhappy in my large, grimy share house and he was essentially homeless—spending his nights on his studio couch or at friends’ houses in attics or spare rooms trying not to snore. It suited us both to move in together. The first place we looked at, on Jaggery Lane, was perfect. We thought it was perfect anyway, and danced in the kitchen holding our hips in when the real estate agent left to answer her phone. It had natural light and a double bed on stilts, and was small like our sighs as they echoed in the night time.
It was only after we had moved in that I wondered who he was. I knew his name was Badi, and that Badi meant wonderful, marvellous, brave. I knew that he had skin the colour of my grandmother’s hessian couch, and that when I kissed it I could taste what I imagined to be a clean and hairless animal. I knew that he loved to paint, or that he wanted to love to paint, and that he spent most of his time looking at big books full of sad paintings of naked men and trees. I knew he slept sideways, diagonally across whatever bed we shared, and that he liked me to wrap myself around the parts of him that were immovable. I knew that he was tangible, and that around him I was seen. But I started to have dreams that he was reaching towards me with a small knife, planning to slice at my throat while I was sleeping.
I couldn’t tell Badi that my subconscious believed he was trying to harm me. I had started to feel in my belly that he was superstitious; in the way he stacked the dishes upside down and locked the door and opened it six times each day before he left the house. He told me too, on our seventh morning in our new home, that he was scared of most things and dubious of everything, and that I was the first thing he had ever touched that hadn’t deceived him.
I asked myself in bed, feeling the rhythm of his breath in my throat—how did we meet? I couldn’t quite remember. He told me when I asked that we had walked past each other and locked eyes, but I knew that I looked at the ground when I walked, to avoid destroying those tiny sprouts of grass that sometimes grew. He didn’t seem to care why I wondered, didn’t question why I couldn’t remember how it had begun. This made me scared, made me keep my eyes half awake even as I fell down the well into dreams, and I saw his hand holding a butter knife just above me over and over, though I knew it was only for protection.
In our seventh week together, our sixth week of living together and eating toast together and wiping the toothpaste from the edges of our mouths together with soft towels, we received a letter in the mail. Well I received it, for I had taken some time off from work to make sure I could sleep. The letter was enclosed in a small, cream-coloured envelope and written on crêpe paper with a pencil. It read,
To Veronica (for Veronica is my name),
Don’t you know that Badi without the I is just Bad?
Someone who knows the consequences of seeping fear
After I read it, I left the letter on the kitchen table and went to the bathroom to sit on the toilet a while, with the lid down, feeling the cool plastic against the backs of my thighs. Who had sent me this letter? Who knew Badi better than me? What seeping fear did they refer to? I imagined it was Badi’s fear of everything: his terror at being watched when he was in public, his insistence that we check the gas stove and the iron over and over before leaving the house, the jumping at noises in bed at night that shook the very mattress. I felt a little sick in my stomach to know that someone was watching us, that our little life might be someone else’s game.
I began to have Badi followed. His routine was simple; get up hours after I had left, leave the house for his studio, leave the studio sometime later for home. All this told me was that he was ripe with boredom, for the detective followed my advice and watched him through a studio window one day, only to find that he lay on the couch in the corner for eight hours, not even flicking through a magazine or opening his eyes occasionally. Knowing that Badi was bored, was uninspired, did not quell my love for him. If anything, it made it grow fatter inside of me, for now I knew how much I was needed. But I was still scared, and every night would dream that Badi was somewhere in the room apart from beside me, often above me with a weapon. He always tried to kill me in my dreams.
One day I was at home from work, languishing in the bedroom, when the doorbell rang. I had never heard the doorbell. We never had visitors, and neither Badi or I had ever forgotten our key. I wondered who was out there, who would want to speak to me at such an hour, at any hour for that matter. It felt ominous, as everything did at that time. I pulled on my dressing gown (the need to impress or pretend that I was coping had left me) and answered the door, quickly, before I lost my nerve. Standing there on the nature strip was a young woman, a woman about the same age as I was at that time. She was beautiful but weary, with dark circles under her eyes and hair that had not known a brush in weeks. I was annoyed: she was too beautiful and too wan to be anything good, and I wanted her to go away.
I asked her what she wanted.
She continued to stand on the nature strip, staring straight ahead, not at me but through me, into the dwelling I shared with Badi.
“What do you want?” I heard my voice break on the end of the last word, as if I didn’t know myself what it was. This woman made me feel silly, I could already tell. I wished so strongly for her to leave that I could feel my fingernails breaking against the skin of my palms where they were wrapped up against them, my hands in fists ready to fight.
“Did you get my letter?”
The woman was looking at me now, not just to the side of me. Her eyes were a deep black-brown. I never usually noticed the colour of eyes but hers demanded attention.
“Yes,” I answered, wanting to ask her why she had sent it and what she had meant by it but stopping myself. I did not want her to know that she had scared me, for that had clearly been her aim.
She kept watching me, and lifted a hand to play slowly with the end of a piece of her dark, knotted hair. I wanted to pull at it, to break it off and stomp on it and make her disappear. Who was this woman to Badi? Why had he never told me about her?
“I meant what I wrote. You must listen to me. He is dangerous.”
“What do you mean?” I would not let her know that I was scared. Badi was the only thing I had.
“Badi! I know him. I know him better than you do and I want to warn you. I tried to warn you with the letter but I can see that you did not listen, that you are still living with him here in this tiny place where he can easily get you. I am telling you to leave, from one woman to another!”
Each word she spoke was faster and more urgent than the word before, so that at the end of this speech she was talking so quickly and so loudly that I was overwhelmed, and had to place my hand on the edge of the doorway to steady myself.
“I don’t want your letters, your warnings!” I stood back and saw the young woman’s face become sadness as I pulled the door shut upon her. I would try to smudge this finteraction in my memory; the letter too, and its insinuations. I could not be alone again. I needed Badi.
That night he did not come home. I waited in the softest armchair in the kitchen, pulling at threads on its arm until one whole elbow unravelled. I wasn’t hungry, but I strained some white beans in a colander and poured vinegar all over them, eating them one by one at the sink and letting the acetic acid bite the inside of my mouth. Badi did not have a phone; he did not like the idea of people tracking his calls and had no money to pay for a bill. I couldn’t call him, and I couldn’t leave the house to check his studio because I was scared and tired and unsure I could have him anymore. The young woman had been so beautiful, and so wild in a way I could never let myself be. I knew that he must still be in love with her, perhaps violently. I imagined them making love against the ladder going up to our bed in our little terrace house and I couldn’t banish the picture of their rubbing flesh from my mind.
At an hour past when I should have been sleeping, the doorbell rang again. It was a well known tune, and I hummed it as I walked towards the front door, feeling as if I might be floating, or that the floor had sunk and I had not descended with it. When I opened the door I saw standing there the young woman again, but this time she was crying, and in her hand was a leash that lead down to a small, black, topsy-turvy sort of a dog, with a thick pink tongue hanging from its mouth.
“Here, you take it then!” She yelled at me, thrusting the leash in my direction and turning to walk away down Jaggery Lane. I was utterly confused, and repelled by the small dog’s excitement.
“Wait!” I yelled back at her. She did not stop or look back. “Whose dog is this? I don’t want this dog!”
She turned around then; the terribly pretty woman with the hair like forest after fire.
Before I could reply, before I could even understand what she had said, she had turned back and started running, away from me down the narrow pavement towards the heated traffic of the main road that forked Jaggery Lane. Even the way she ran was beautiful, I remember thinking on the doorstep, with the black night air against my cheeks.
The dog was his. I believed her, despite Badi never mentioning a dog, or any other animal, or professing to owning anything at all since we had met. The idea of him was coming apart much quicker than I could believe. At least the beginning of his hands and his feet in my mind were fraying threads. The dog was whining and wagging and licking at my slippered feet and I wanted to drop the lead and leave it there on the concrete and not bother with its shaggy body, but I couldn’t do that. We went back inside the little terrace house together and I sat on the couch and the dog sat near my feet and looked up at me, so much hair in its eyes I could barely tell if they were trusting. I was tired, despite the excitement, and my eyes drooped as the dog panted and wagged and circled its body around the tiny living space filled with Badi’s scribbles on scraps of paper and my grubby bras and lipstick cups rusted with Milo. I let myself fall into sleep, and patted my lap for the little dog to join me.
The next morning was bright with sun and smelt of the little dog’s saliva. I woke with a start on the couch and saw that Badi had returned; I knew because he had left his boots near the door of the room and his jacket on the floor beside them. He must have seen me lying there and not woken me, even though he had been so late home. The thought was loneliness in my pelvis and stomach and groin, and a slickness in my throat.
I got up slowly; the little dog was still sleeping in a puddle on the floor at my feet and I did not wish to wake it. Fondness circled my heart for the creature, particularly now that Badi had begun to move out of my chest. I could hear movement coming from the kitchen and could smell bad vegetables, or lentils cooked too long, mixed with something young and sweet. Badi often prepared strange meals at odd hours, and I hoped he was not too busy chopping up a root or grinding inexplicable things into a paste to sit down and talk to me.
What to say? How to ask whether he was deceitful? Would a smile or a frown or a perfectly blank expression be the right way to approach him, this new version of Badi I was trying to understand? I gathered myself—,patting the dog hairs off my thighs and smoothing down my hair.
When I walked into the kitchen he had his back to me, and I did not think he knew yet that I was there. His back moved just slightly as he washed something in the sink, his shoulder blades flying like the wings of a slow bird. Anger shot out inside my torso as if sperm, or bile, and I wished him peace no more.
He turned, slower than I wanted him to, and I could see that he was washing strawberries, though it wasn’t summer and he had never eaten them in my presence before.
“Darling,” he answered me, his eyes softening as he took in my rumpled body and my creased face.; as if he had not been out all night, as if he did not own a dog and had not had a girlfriend I had known nothing about. As if he was still mine.
“Where have you been Badi? Where have you been!”
My hands were shaking now, and I wanted to tell him what had happened and to sit down on the couch with him and cry, to have him kiss my head. I wished he was not the enemy now, as crossed lovers often do, but I could not pretend the wild beautiful woman and the little dog were not real.
“I told you darling. I stayed at the studio last night. To work on an idea that needs space and time.”
It was true that Badi needed space and time when he had an idea; something that had not happened since we had known each other but that he had told me about, and that I now remembered. But I did not remember him telling me that he would be gone, and I had the little dog to prove his lies.
“No you didn’t Badi! I waited hours last night for you.”
“Oh my darling,” he answered, and I could not look now at his eyes, for they were soft and warm and etched like always. All the words I had imagined saying to him and the hair of the wild young woman and the smell of the dog’s small body were swishing around in my head and down my neck into my chest and I couldn’t get them to stop. I held on to the top rung of a kitchen chair and felt almost dizzy.
“And a woman came to the door and gave me your dog. She wrote me a letter first, warning me about you! Then she came and gave me your dog, she didn’t explain it but it’s yours! It’s your dog, Badi! And she was your woman, too!”
I stopped myself there and took a breath, waiting for Badi to be angry, or shocked, or to feign confusion. My chest was heaving, and the dizziness lingered behind my cheeks. Badi stood there, the strawberries still in his dripping hands, and I could smell them and their fleshy sweetness. A pot bubbled on the stove but the strawberries were what I could smell and it occurred to me that he must have been bruising them slightly with his hands, so that the smell could really come out. He was shaking his head, and his brow was pushing his eyes almost closed. Then he spoke.
“What woman is this? I have no dog, no other woman. Darling, you must be mistaken.”
I turned and opened the door to the living room, calling out for the little dog.
“Pup! Pup! Little pup! Come in here!”
The little dog did not come.
I walked away from Badi into the living room but the little dog was not anywhere I could see. It must have got out somehow, into the hallway and perhaps into our bedroom, where it was probably snuggled up on the bed right now, its black hairs sticking to the unripe apricot-coloured blanket.
In the bedroom I could not find the little dog, or in the bathroom, the toilet or the sunroom the size of a tall coffin at the back. I could not understand it, and my head was starting to thump. Badi followed me around the house, as gently as a sparrow below a table covered with crumbs. I turned around in the sun room, empty of sun and colder than it had ever been before and saw that he was crying.
“It was here. She brought it here. I am not lying.”
As we stood together in the little death room I started to shiver, and Badi came towards me with his wet face and wrapped his brown arms around my body.
“There’s no woman. No dog. You’re ill,” he said, his pupils big and black and fearful. He moved his hands to my shoulders to hold me still. I felt ill, now, all of a sudden. As if I needed to lie in bed for days, with a strange version of the flu.
“It’s okay,” Badi told me. “You’ll be okay.”
I could see the young woman with her wild snake hair behind my eyes. She might never go away, but I was safe, for now, and the little dog was safe too—no longer with her or me, but somewhere beyond us both. I didn’t have many options, I had always known that. But I still had Badi. Now he reminded me with his hot breath on my neck, his warm hands closing along my spine.
Paul Dawson’s first book of poems, Imagining Winter (IP, 2006), won the IP Picks Best Poetry Award in 2006, and his work has been anthologized in Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013), Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse 1888-2008 (Puncher & Wattmann, 2009), and the Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology, 2016 (Hunter Writers Centre, 2016). Paul teaches in the School of the Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales.
The Wreck of the Heartland
You have chosen your compass for this voyage.
It is not the fixity of the astronomer’s chart –
the neck-craning gaze of the brilliant night.
It is not the arrow that aligns itself to those
distant winters in your palm. It is the ebb-tide
below you, the bloody chamber that tells you
with each rushed second that you are alive
for now. It is constant in its fickle desire.
You will pursue this course beyond the
wreck of the heartland, into the spittle of the ocean
into the blue eyes of the horizon, the slaughtering
waters beneath you. Good night,
good morning, and good night again, you say
because the electricity that sundered the sky
that once, that dawn, is enough, and all.
TJ Wilkshire is a Brisbane based artist and writer. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and English Literature and is currently completing a Master of Arts at The University of Queensland. Wilkshire’s poetry has been published on Peril, Writer’s Edit, and Uneven Floor, as well as winning the Kingshott Cassidy poetry scholarship and being shortlisted for both the 2016 and 2017 NotJack Competition. Wilkshire’s works, both creative and academic, are inspired by birds and feelings of displacement.
“I am half a soul.”
I roll the words around my tongue
And slip them down my throat.
I say them again
And I see your face,
like a Kingfisher.
The car pulls up next to yours,
the child inside is three months old.
You know we are there.
The woman’s gaze is piercing,
No, not like ice.
Like a lover.
And yet your eyes do not shift.
And yet you drive away.
And the woman tastes no more of sweetness.
And your child will not know your sweetness.
And yet you drive away,
taking it with you
leaving two women
to become hard like marrow.
At morning –
I mistake the sunlight’s
skittish movements on the ceiling
for Yellow Turks, flying.
they are dancing.
Looking for something
to sweeten my headache,
I peel myself from a deflated air mattress
that through the night
eagerly reunited itself with timber floors.
I meet with my friend’s father
in the hallway.
Eyeing empty bottles and cigarette butts,
he raises his eyebrows.
I notice they are like his daughter’s,
and I wonder where my curls came from,
though I already know.
So instead, I wonder what you look like.
Annie Blake is an Australian writer who started school without knowing any English. She has been published in Verity La, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, About Place, Australian Poetry Journal and Cordite Poetry Review, forthcoming in Southerly and GFT Press. Her poem ‘These Grey Streets’ has been nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize. She is excited about the process of individuation, research in psychoanalysis, philosophy and cosmology. She is a former teacher who lives in Melbourne with her family. She blogs at annieblakethegatherer.blogspot.com
The Sun Was As Yellow As Her Wash Soap
Sometimes I feel glad no one
knows me. I can sit on the floor in front of the glass doors
and stare into my yard to watch the white
linen flap on the line. I think of my Borderline
mother and how I used to pass over the clothes and pegs — I was young
enough to think that all mothers knew how to love. This was our bonding
time — the time to tell me secrets even adults could not
be trusted with. I look at the sun now and I pick up the scent of her washing soap
and I see her hands which were always older
than her face. She used to leave the soap harden until it formed shards
on the wash house sill. The sun was as yellow as that soap. An impenetrable hard
yellow that would not dare dissolve through the first layer.
I remember our small weatherboard house and how my dad painted it green so we could save money. After lunch, the dog barking would mean the mail
had come. A letter from a relative’s slow writing and maybe even a photo.
It is good when no one is home to watch how you remember
things. They were the days I thought my mum was God
and I smile when I think of how I used to jump up for the line and spin around so I could fly.
Jessica Dionne lives in North Carolina and is currently pursuing an MA in Literature from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She recently presented poems at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association annual conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and her work has been featured in The Longleaf Pine, Luna Luna Magazine, and Pour Vida Zine, and is forthcoming in The Mayo Review, and Rust + Moth.
are for realizing. The slightest song, will
bring you back, ignite
other days are brittle and who can say I’m
sorry and me too on a Tuesday?
That inexact release. Clavical, a look, my mouth, your brow
all pulp-hearted and heaving towards something less shivery.
The truth is, we’re truceless. And we tend it
like some living thing,
although, wispy like baby bird bones
wrapped in paper mache’.
Easing into feelings of forgiveness but still remembering
that doctored way you cut me out.
We wrap up in the same blanket and no one’s toes are cold,
but tomorrow is Monday.
Exhibits of the Sun
by Stephen Edgar
ISBN 978 1 876044 88 6
Reviewed by DAVID GILBEY
‘… the sinople eye of a butterfly wing …’ Sarah Howe
Edgar’s poetry is like that – detailed, deceptive, minutely crafted, significant and changing – implicating both the watcher and the watched. In Sarah Howe’s ‘Two Systems’ lecture at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute last year, speaking of her own poetry’s slippage between different cultural and historical referents, she cited Heather McHugh’s dictum ‘All poetry is fragment … shaped by its breakages at every turn.’ Edgar’s is like that too: shardish, provisional, ‘hispid’ (to poach one of his clever, obscure words).
In the Old Century, and before it became unfashionable, we might call his poetry metaphysical – for its blend of complex thought, vivid imagery and iconoclasm. I can imagine Samuel Johnson complaining ruefully that Mr Edgar ‘… doth tempt … not with the softnesses of love but … with nice speculations of philosophy’ as well as Helen Gardner’s (and Yeats’) praise for his poetry’s ‘passionate intensity’ – though maybe Edgar’s steady iambics regulate passion to an intellectual pace …
And there are other voices in/behind Edgar’s finely-wrought surfaces too: Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Hope, Slessor, Stewart. So Edgar’s poetry is steeped in literary echoes, producing a richness of reference and tone belied by the elegance and lightness of his touch.
There are, simply, so many terrific poems in Exhibits of the Sun – this is ‘great’ poetry in that traditional sense of grand in scope, significant in thematic preoccupations, supply-artificed and multiply-perspectived. In the first section alone ‘Off the Chart’’s playful Australian metaphysics (a rotary hoist mirroring the planetary cycles) is framed by ‘The Representation of Reality in Western Art’ (playfully interrogating Proust and Magritte) and ‘Steppe’ (a virtuoso poetic essay in tercets conjuring a universal figure in a landscape as an image for poetry’s sublime possibilities). These poems hold and play with the reader’s mind and imagination – telescopically and microscopically.
One of Edgar’s persistent concerns is how poetry can see and know. Take ‘Morandi and the Hard Problem’ with which Edgar begins his third, and final, section in Exhibits: focussing on the objects, planes, arrangement and light in Morandi’s paintings, Edgar writes:
Nothing’s more abstract than reality,
These surfaces propped up against the day
To hold the light.
This is the paradoxical heart of Edgar’s poems – a koan becoming a conceit. The ‘hard problem’ is what we might call the ‘sentience of objects’: ‘what process could endow / Mere matter with the power to wake and feel.’ (p.49) The poem plays ekphrastically with Morandi’s paintings, displacing the human viewer as the centre of perception in favour of the objects’ capacities
… to see behind
The facile complications of event
… and view
What lies below the shining incident.
The poet/perceiver is a product/victim of his experiences and watches the sun’s power to ‘[shift its] abstractions once again’.
Edgar’s poetry echoes Coleridge’s thinking styles, especially the Conversation Poems (on the Imagination and Pantheism). There are echoes of Coleridge’s phrasing (‘esemplastic’, ‘pictures / shine in those walls’ etc) time and time again in Exhibits and there are pervasive hints of Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ as well as the thinking and feeling of The Prelude. And we are held by the imagery, the cadences of the verse – this is poetry that persistently claims, implicates and apostrophises the reader.
‘The Trance’ begins with a dramatic, sustained conceit of a ‘gale kept feeding through the canopies / Like timber through a mill’ (p.21), becoming more like a conversation poem as it links this to a remembered childhood experience which is then framed ‘organically’ by the mother’s death. ‘Euroka’ too – camping near Glenbrook – repositions a Wordsworthian sense of place:
… the trees
Which reeve the boulders to the sky, the wide,
Light-dusted river that’s about to stall,
So slow its downstream glide:
You’re spellbound by inaudibilities.
Edgar’s (Miltonic) scope and tones can be seen admirably in ‘The Angel of History’ for example, with which he begins his second group of poems. An extensive prefatory note (thankfully) directs us both to Walter Benjamin and Klee’s Angelus Novus so we can get the picture/references as we need. The poem opens with an epic sense of physical and spiritual stress: ‘agape’, ‘mingled fascination and alarm’, of being in the middle of an ‘impending’ and harmful dilemma: ‘He reaches out as he is forced away’ (p.25) – the iambics enforce the paradoxical weight of the problem. The angel sees all humanity’s particular and collective histories
strewn out – achieved or botched, or incomplete –
Along the road’s
Unravelled pageant …
Like Himalayas hurled before his feet.
– the scope of the simile is impressive. There is a sense (again, Miltonic) of the regret the angel might feel in surveying the scene but he is compelled, ‘swept’ (by the imminent problems in Paradise) to leave – his back to the future, facing the past, ‘his task and vice, / But to record, not to restore, the toll’ (p.25) – a kind of allegory, reprising the traditional debate articulated by (amongst others) Sir Phillip Sidney in his Apologie for Poetrie about the essential conservatism and limitations of history (in contrast to both philosophy and poetry).
By contrast, the final poem in this section, ‘Pictures in the Water’ (is ‘this interlude and idyll’ a painting or a memory?) antiphonally focuses on a particular moment that might have been seen by the Angel of History. Reminiscent of Slessor’s yachts/harbour, the poem, echoing the preceding ‘Vantage Point’ and ‘Saccade’ (‘Its constant sense being constantly unmade’, p.43) proposes the frail significance of the micro against the inevitability of the macro.
Edgar’s opening poem is the justly praised 2011 Dorothy Porter Prize joint-winner ‘All Eyes’ – a clever, conceptually enthralling and linguistically transforming poem. The image of Saturn as a ‘ghostly Ferris wheel frozen in space’ is arresting enough but the subsequent lines ‘with all its shattered rings of icy lace / Exquisitely beyond repair’ (p.3) accrete and multiply understanding, giving what FR Leavis might have called a ‘felt’ seriousness. The brilliance of this poem is partly in positioning the reader with Saturn’s moon Titan, as a both close and distant perspective (the terms stretch to almost meaninglessness in a ‘felt’ sense) from which to (try to) contemplate what can’t actually be seen in deep space:
Who knows what sown and pullulating planet
Has come and gone, an ark of evidence
Interminably circling where it cannot
Be salvaged by the optic nerve?
Edgar’s resonant and charged adjectives in the first line above give way to a jostle between science and religion, resolved by a Miltonic sense of a lost paradise which cannot be physically perceived. This is a poem full of seeing (Saturn is juxtaposed with fossils found in shale/slime and sunflowers whose ‘yellow is the synonym for Look’) and brings the reader back to a fallible, challenged anthropocentrism (‘Was it for this the aeons fashioned us?’) displaced by a valuing of the intricacy of a ‘moth’s wing’ and ‘the fleck of matter in the nucleus’ which, in a dextrous twist, Edgar turns into a metaphysical compliment: ‘Your face which never fails / To show me what I cannot know’. (p.4)
In ‘Moonlight Sculptures’ Edgar contemplates another Saturn, apostrophising his partner asleep in their stifling moonlit bed: she is exhibited as an object seen from different perspectives – disembodied and fractured ‘intermittent anaglyphs’ – so at times she is a ‘swathed mummy’ or an avatar of Eve, or (affectionately and voyeuristically) ‘The world’s unspoken origin, / So openly depicted by Courbet’ (p.5). The poem becomes an aubade praising the different selves of his love, produced in a night of exhaustion for/by the moon, now eclipsed by its living creation.
‘Man in a Boat’ continues Edgar’s flickering essay on epistemology, focusing on the hyper-reality of the acclaimed Ron Mueck sculpture and, similarly to the Morandi poem, is concerned with the impermeability of the objectified (or painted) other. Edgar explores the defiance of art/image and the corresponding impotence of the beholder, an ongoing tension in Exhibits. The poem compels us to acknowledge the poet’s anxiety and recognition of his essential passivity – like the Angel of History, he can only record, not change, though perhaps, by another Coleridgean trope, the poet as Aeolian harp can hauntingly express what he imagines and constructs.
‘Paris’ too is about representation and its impossibilities – comprised of three quite separate stanza fragments, under Daniel Dennett’s whimsical epigraph ‘a film can be about Paris but Paris is not about anything’. Beginning with an exploration of Beraud’s Entrance to the Universal Exhibition, 1889, Edgar’s images cascade through the lines to arrive at
“…What’s it all about?”
Come on. No Jokes. Don’t say: “It’s about to snow.”
Don’t tell me it’s about three forty-five.
There is such pleasure in the playfulness of language and his own poetics. Stanza two recalls Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation lecture on Romanticism and Beethoven’s music:
… outcrop of dark rock
Juts minimally, intermittently
From masses of sea swell …
The final stanza begins ‘Across a fissured butte in Arizona / A wingèd shadow glides’: another Angel of History (or ‘Haunted Pane’) – something presaging harm? In this instance Edgar’s agnostic optimism is modernist rather than Romantic.
‘The Transaction’ and ‘Clues’ focus particularly on the different (masculine and feminine) nuances in comprehending past encounters and relationships. In both poems, Edgar is pointing to barely noticeable signs of trauma ‘Like an infection floating on a cough / Or swimming on the lip gloss of a kiss’ (p.33). ‘They found in her their metamorphosis’ sounds like the two understandings correspond but ‘she’ is an anarchic signifier pointing to the inevitably irreconcilable versions/views. His memory is sexual:
Still hidden like the blue tattoo
Of a hummingbird that flutters underneath
Her restless skirt.
Hers is of violation: ‘Knowing that rogue survives to gloat’. ‘The Transaction’ ends with a troublingly ambiguous image of masculinity.
Almost as a comment, ‘Peony’ explores the difficulty/impossibility of making sense of memories (and perceptions) ‘You have no sense that they make sense’ but its final image is of the peony’s generative power:
… in a garden bed
More wounding than a work of art,
The peony’s packed, swollen buds, which hold
Whole galaxies of red
And forces too immense to be controlled
Wait quietly to tear the day apart.
Many of Edgar’s poems play with the ways words create, fracture, problematize and reposition perception. ‘Grand Canyon’ (p.61f) and ‘Cinéma Vérité’ (p.66f) play masterfully with perspective. The watcher is watched. The poet is an ‘Ibis trying to prise apart a tub / of salad’ (p.66).
And I must not forget the butterflies – eg. in ‘A Scene from Proust’ (also ‘Govett’s Leap’) – Edgar’s miniaturist and imagist subtleties propose (echoing Douglas Stewart?) a minute signifier which the ‘whole of history has unravelled’ (p.65). Like Fuyue Anzai’s famous one-line modernist poem (a haiku without the line breaks?), 1929: ‘A single butterfly passed over the Tartar Strait’, Edgar has managed to grasp the world in fists of words.
Occasionally there are grandiloquent awkwardnesses such as ‘self-unfolding zone of plenitude’ and ‘thrumming potencies of un-ness’, both in ‘Exclusion Zone’ (p.51) but for the most part, these ‘exhibits’ are absorbing, subtle, beautifully crafted conversations.
In the final poem, ‘Rembrandt with Seagulls’, the last lines celebrate stillness, beauty and the (Brennanesque? Slessorian?) eye of the beholder:
Luminous and remote
Under the strobe-lit passage of the day,
The circling seagulls float
Somewhere that you can only see from here.
Exhibits of the Sun is poetry of glittering fragments and multivalent complexity, its fissuring and layering conjured up and held by Edgar in his ‘artist’s isolating eye’.
DAVID GILBEY is Adjunct Senior Lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, and President of Booranga Writers’ Centre . His most recent collection of poems is Pachinko Sunset (2016, Island Press).
We Need New Names
By NoViolet Bulawayo
Reviewed by HAYLEY SCRIVENOR
We Need New Names is a work of literary fiction about hunger of all kinds. Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel begins in Budapest. Darling, an eleven-year-old girl, runs with her friends through a community of gated houses (named for the Hungarian capital) in an unnamed country in Africa. Darling and her friends have come to these gates and the large, clean houses they conceal to steal guavas.
In Paradise (the incongruously named shanty town in Zimbabwe where Darling lives), she and her friends Stina, Godknows, Chipo, Bastard and Sbho play games like Find bin Laden, Andy-over and the country-game. Success in the country-game is dependent on what country you are assigned before the game has begun. The friends vie to be the USA or the UK. No one wants to be countries like North Korea and Ethiopia. No one wants to be the country that they all live in either: ‘who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart? (49). The bulging belly of Darling’s friend, the eleven-year-old Chipo is a constant reminder of the threat of violence, sexual and otherwise, in Paradise—we are told in passing that ‘somebody made her pregnant’ (2). A scene where Darling, Chipo and a girl named Forgiveness ceremoniously prepare to ‘remove Chipo’s stomach’ is understated. The children imagine they are playing out a scene from ER. Forgiveness bends a rusty coathanger out of shape. This ‘play’ abortion (which is cut short) is a reflection of the realities that the girls have heard or know about, but do not really understand.
Darling’s descriptions are startling and often, quite funny. She describes economic collapse, poverty and political unrest with child-like concern for detail: the impossibly appetizing smell of baking bread, a grandmother who counts her money ‘like somebody told her it lays eggs overnight’ (22), the ‘o’ formed by the lips of a dead woman like she was ‘maybe interrupted in the middle of saying something’ (17). Most pressing is the constant hunger the children feel:
We shout and we shout and we shout; We want to eat the thing she was eating, we want to hear our voices soar, we want our hunger to go away (10).
Darling has been dreaming of ‘Destroyedmichygen’ for a long time. The promise that her aunt (who lives in Detroit, Michigan) will send for her sets her apart from her friends. The process of getting to America is deftly described as ‘harder than crawling through the anus of a needle’ (240). And yet, Darling’s journey from Paradise to the USA is not is the focus of the book. Indeed, the physical journey from her home country, away from hunger and guavas to American excess and a new kind of poverty is barely touched on. Instead Darling (already in America for a period when the book takes up her story again) invites us to ‘come here where I am standing and look outside the window’ (147) as she turns her frank gaze on her new life in America. Darling’s migration is, at first, perfectly legal. She attends high school, works part time jobs. When her visa expires she joins the ranks of undocumented workers, at one stage working as a housecleaner for someone her Aunt knows. In America, the memory of a faded orange Cornell t-shirt worn by Bastard, Darling’s playmate in Paradise, is thrown into sharp relief by the beautiful daughter of Darling’s employer who attends Cornell, but refuses to eat:
I just kill myself with laughter. Because, Miss I Want to Be Sexy, there is this: You have a fridge bloated with food so no matter how much you starve yourself, you’ll never know real, true hunger. (268)
And yet Darling own hunger doesn’t end when she leaves Paradise and arrives in Detroit. It’s only exchanged for a new hunger, shared by outsiders everywhere. Darling’s unease and dissatisfaction are sharpened by thoughts of her home, the friends she has left behind.
While most of the story belongs to Darling and her distinctive impressions, there are a few significant point of view changes. The passage below employs the third person, adding depth to Darling’s story of leaving her home country:
Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, quitting, flying, fleeing—to all over, to countries near and far, to countries unheard of, to countries whose names they cannot pronounce. They are leaving in droves (p, 145).
One of the most interesting chapters in the book is ‘How They Lived’, a chapter told entirely from a collective point of view using the first person plural. Instead of Darling and her friends, this ‘we’ seems to consist of a range of people who have left their countries to come to the USA:
Because we were not in our own country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. When we talked our tongues thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to say remained folded inside, trapped. In America we did not always have the words. It was only when we were by ourselves that we spoke in our real voices. When we were alone we summoned the horses of our languages and mounted their backs and galloped past skyscrapers. Always, we were reluctant to come back down. (240)
Although the first person plural could be accused of wearing away the individual edges from the narrative, these sections told using ‘we’ broaden the book, make it about more than one girl’s journey. As Darling bemoans in the novel, Africa is often thought of by the people she meets as one place, with one story. This book joins others like Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Taiye Selesi’s Ghana Must Go that are complicating those assumptions while exploring the experiences of characters who leave their homes to travel to a new reality.
Viktor Shklovsky said of Tolstoy that the writer ‘describe[d] an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time’. The small details recorded and defamiliarised by Darling are the real strength of this book: a slice of pizza described by someone who has never encountered one—slices of pepperoni ‘the color of burn wounds’ (6)—and a calendar Jesus who ‘has women’s hair and is smiling shyly, his head tilted a bit to the side; you can tell he really wanted to look nice in the picture’ (23). There’s also a friend from Darling’s high school who’s ‘got this chest like she’s going to breastfeed the whole of America’ (220). When Darling misses her country, she describes a sky ‘so blue you can spray Clorox on it and wipe it with a paper towel and it wouldn’t even come off.’ (151). More than these details, it’s Darling’s even gaze, her frankness that stays with the reader. We Need New Names is a visceral, embodied book where hunger is more than a motif. It’s a book where hunger—for food, for love, for home—and the experience of being alive are inextricably intertwined. As people continue to move across the globe, playing their own version of the country-game, carving out new homes in places often hostile to them, We Need New Names is a book that helps us see these migrations on a human scale.
HAYLEY SCRIVENOR is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong, Australia where she also lectures in creative writing. Her research areas include the first person plural and empathy. She is the director of Wollongong Writers Festival, held annually in November www.wollongongwritersfestival.com. You can find more of her writing at her website: www.hayleyscrivenor.com.
CB Mako is a member of West Writers Group and art student at Footscray Community Arts Centre. In 2016, she won the Grace Marion Wilson Prize for non-fiction. was a panelist at the Emerging Writers’ Festival’s ‘Late Night Lit: Fandom’, and read her non-fiction piece at the Melbourne Writers Festival’s ‘Storytelling at the Dock’. Her works were published in The Suburban Review, The Lifted Brow, The Victorian Writer, and Pencilled In. CB Mako can be found on Twitter as @cubbieberry and Instagram as @cb.mako
My Twitter app chimed a reply. ‘We’re called “caregiver” here in the USA.’ My American friend couldn’t understand the word I used when I chatted with her online. She was a caregiver to her eleven-year-old child with autism.
Later, a blogger-parent from the UK—who has an eight-year-old daughter with Down Syndrome—tweeted back, ‘We’re called “carer” here in London.’
While in the Huffington Post Australia, carers of young children were simply called ‘parents of children with special needs.’
Carers Victoria defines carers as ‘diverse as the Victorian population.’ The definition continues: ‘The work of unpaid carers contributes enormously are disadvantaged [sic] regarding health and safety, holidays, work, leisure and financial security … Many carers and the people they care for are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and experience additional difficulties.’
I am a mother, a carer of a child with Down Syndrome. My six-year-old daughter had open-heart surgery at three months of age, which was followed by a cancer diagnosis when she turned eighteen months old.
Exhausted from caring for my daughter during her eight months of chemotherapy, I barely knew how to get through the day. Meditation and mindfulness therapies didn’t work anymore. As my last resort, I went to see a psychiatrist, and was prescribed antidepressants.
Having two children born in Australia, my husband Chris and I—both migrants—have no immediate family to turn to in an emergency or in times of need. While it was said that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, our own migrant community was wary of us and we were wary of them. Not only were we new migrants, we also bore a child with a disability. We didn’t follow the highly expected migrant story—fully employed, owned a large, well-furnished house in the suburbs, with more than one car. We didn’t give our parents back home the opportunity to brag to their “amigos” and “amigas” about their progeny overseas.
Whenever we attended familial or religious gatherings, there were two kinds of greetings. At the onset, they would say that our daughter was lucky to be born in Australia, with its universal healthcare, excellent paediatric cardiac surgeons, and Melbourne’s brand-new, state-of-the-art Royal Children’s Hospital. But their furtive glances gave away their strongly-held traditional, superstitious beliefs that we, as parents, were cursed because we disobeyed our parents, and we were being punished by God.
Were these simply imaginary interpretations and conversations in my mind? Were their furtive whispers actually their clumsy attempts to start an awkward dialogue about disability? Whatever they were, any future attempts of amicable discussions remained futile. In our reshaped, post-cancer lives, we found ourselves avoiding visiting old friends and relatives.
Online, it was difficult to assert myself as a carer. I only had one week—during National Carers Week—to rally to the cause for carers, and safely express my thoughts on social media. As Roxane Gay (2014) contends, ‘This is the modern age. When tragedies occur, we take to Twitter and Facebook and blogs to share our thoughts and feelings. We do this to know that maybe, just maybe, we are not alone in our confusion or grief or sorrow or to believe we have a voice in what happens in the world.’
However, on that same week, news broke about a migrant family from Colombia, South America—with two young children with autism—who had committed filicide.
On social media, disability advocates raised their angry voices, asking why news reports assumed that the family’s deaths had anything to do with autism?
I took a step back and observed the tweets and who tweeted them. The online critics were women. But were they white women or women of colour? Were they women born in Australia or were they migrants? Did these angry women have families and friends nearby to support them in their time of need?
As a migrant woman myself, a woman of colour, and a carer, the questions I wanted to ask were different: Was there help given to the migrant parents? Were the parents of these children—disconnected from organic, migrant communities—having a difficult time as carers? Was the mother the primary carer of her two children? Was she alone most of the day? Did her local council provide her some respite care in order to take a break for a few hours a week for self-care?
As Melanie Cheng writes in Meanjin (2016):
Migration is hard. To a great extent, the smoothness of the transition depends on the circumstances in which the individual migrates … The relationship a migrant has with their adopted home can an extraordinary complex one. Unfortunately such complexity is rarely explored in the media today. We tend to hear rags-to-riches tales about migrants who are eternally grateful or—at the other extreme—stories of radicalisation and extreme hatred.
Coming from a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) background, there was no direct translation for the words ‘mental health’ or ‘depression’ in my country of birth. The closest translation to the word ‘depression’ in the Philippines was ‘crazy’. Eventually, I learned that in other cultures as well, it is taboo for women to discuss or admit they have had mental health issues.
I woke up to a stark realisation that other forces—outside of caring for a child with a disability and cancer—had re-written our family’s story, altering the course of my narrative. The universe had a unique sense of humour. Apparently, not only was I cursed with bad karma, and punished by God; I was also crazy.
As a carer and a woman of colour, with mental health issues, where did I fit in?
I once enquired about applying for a writing group about disability and the first question they asked was, of course, ‘Do you have a disability?’
I paused, unable to reply. Should I openly admit that I had mental health issues? My deepest fear in admitting that, ‘yes, I am taking antidepressants and was clinically diagnosed with depression’, was that my children would be taken away from me.
This fear reminded me what Khalid Warsame wrote in Overland (2014):
I wanted to write a story about the “immigrant experience” but I didn’t want it to be a story just about the immigrant experience, as if that were the only kind of story someone like me could write. The reluctance came from a place of fear. Somewhere along the line, I accepted that how I see myself is intimately tied up with how I perceive others to see me … But the question remains: if one is scared to write one’s own story for fear of writing … too consciously, then what else is there to write about?
When an Australian literary journal put out a call for submissions on the topic of disability, I wondered if a carer’s narrative would be included in their special printed issue. Were there carers like myself, looking after their children with disability? Did they have disabilities themselves? Eventually, my piece about the carer’s voice was not accepted.
In Australia, whether on parenting websites or in literary magazines or literary journals, when mental health stories revolve around women and children, the stories are those of white women and children. An article in The Saturday Paper, despite being written by a person of colour, featured a white woman with postnatal depression from Footscray, an inner-west suburb of Melbourne. Didn’t Maribyrnong Council tweet last year that their city was the second most diverse city in Victoria?
Where were the people of colour who had mental health issues or disabilities? Why was there no representation of intersectionality in these areas? Were we too complex, too complicated to be part of the mainstream narrative?
In The Victorian Writer, Maxine Beneba Clarke (2016, p12), argues that:
the current dialogue around women’s writing in Australia is biased and stagnant. Few commentators seem game, engaged, or interested enough, to ask the uncomfortable questions … But we are so afraid to complicate things. It’s just too hard. Perhaps there’s a fear that highlighting this lack of diversity dilutes the primary cause of advancing women’s writing in general. White Feminism has operated on this basis for time immemorial. Perhaps there are some inconvenient truths. Perhaps we are those inconvenient truths.
Was writing about the narrative of the carer of colour an inconvenient truth?
Carers Victoria. ‘Carers in Victoria – the facts: Fact sheet’. Carers Victoria, http://www.carersvictoria.org.au/
Melanie Cheng. ‘Our Lucky Country: Finding home in a new land.’ Meanjin, vol. 75, issue 2 (winter 2016), pp. 132-133.
Maxine Beneba Clarke. ‘Inconvenient Truths.’ The Victorian Writer, (June-July 2016), pp. 10-13.
Roxane Gay. ‘Tragedy.Call.Compassion.Response.’ Bad Feminist, (2014), p. 297.
Khalid Warsame. ‘The Authentic Writer Self.’ Overland, issue 217 (summer 2014), pp. 3-7.
by Antigone Kefala
Reviewed by DIMITRA HARVEY
Stark, radiant imagery; lean punctuation; the slightly disorienting effect of the syntax; an imaginative vision of sensuous waking life enmeshed in subterranean realms of memory and dream, struck me on my first encounter with Australian poet Antigone Kefala’s work: an English-Greek bilingual edition I stumbled across several years ago containing selections from each of her then published collections, The Alien (1973), Thirsty Weather (1978), European Notebook (1988), and Absence (1992). Fragments (2016) represents Kefala’s first collection of new poems in more than twenty years. Like those earlier collections, Fragments effects Banksy’s famous maxim, that ‘art should…disturb the comfortable’.
The voice of Fragments travels across countries – cities and shorelines, edgelands, bushland, and dream – as it attends to states of grief and aging, to the intricate entanglements of sensory experience, memory, and imagination. Kefala’s attention to these entanglements disrupts what theorists Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch conceived as the ‘political-cultural construct’ of modernity – the ‘seamless continuum’ of rectilinear time (Seremetakis 19-21). Oriented towards the past, rendered ambiguously as ‘a coolness / we thirst for… / a poison / we thirst for’ (7), and by which the present is constantly interrupted, judged, made sense of, and ‘reimagine[d]’ (75) – the collection resists the future-orientation of setter-colonial society, its practices of’ ‘concealment’ and ‘amnesia’ (Rose 16, 11).
Kefala engages the senses with startling vividness. Fireworks pour from the Sydney Harbour Bridge as ‘a rain of stars… / crushing against the polished / marble of the waves’ (25). The eyes of kangaroos are ‘large sequins / splashing in the night’ (31). In the divers of ‘The Bay’ (26), we meet ‘strange amphibious creatures / with black rubber skins / wrestling the waves’. Throughout Fragments, the interplay of sensuousness and memory evokes non-linear temporalities. In the opening poem, ‘the sound’ of a voice thrusts from memory to synaesthetic presence: the speaker feels her ‘veins full of ice’ as the voice ‘travel[s] / at high speed / releasing fire’. The sensory-emotional cascade ruptures unilinear time as the speaker observes ‘this return / the past attacking / unexpectedly / in the familiar streets’ (3). Akin to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s concept of time-knots, which identifies ‘a plurality of times existing together, a discontinuity of the present with itself’ (in Rose 25), in Kefala’s poem we witness the past violently rupture the present – ‘return[ing]’, resisting closure – and implicating the experience of time in layered, cyclical trajectories.
Trajectories of return permeate the collection. In poems such as ‘On Loss’ (40), remembering the dead embodies the ‘contradictory, equivocal, and ambiguous’ return of exhumation (Danforth 69). As anthropologist Loring Danforth points out, ‘the return that takes place upon exhumation should be an occasion for joy. But an exhumation is not a joyous return…The exhumed remains are above ground, no longer separated from the world of the living, yet they are only bones’ (66-69). In ‘Letter II’ (4), the ‘light…clean as if made of bones / dried by a desert wind’ reminds the speaker of the ‘you’ she addresses. The implication is clear: that person is dead, the body decomposed. The poem pivots on the paradox of being a letter to one who is no longer alive to read it – reminiscent of poems such as Donald Hall’s ‘Letter with no Address’ (103); however, in Kefala’s poem, the crystal hardness of the imagery generates the aura of a rite. Light exhumes memory even as it returns knowledge of total separation: ‘nothing will bring you back’. Like the ‘hard white bones’, evincing ‘[t]hat which has been separated so painfully cannot be rejoined… and the contradiction between our lives and our deaths can never be resolved’ (69), the speaker in ‘Letter II’ acknowledges that there is ‘only this light / falling… / in an unbearable indifference’.
Kefala links the seasonal cycles with aging and death. The title of ‘Moon Wolf’ (33) reverses the Native American seasonal term, specifying the full moon of midwinter associated with death vis-á-vis extreme cold and scarcity. The speaker sees the moonlight ‘aiming at [her], swooping down / a bird… / its hollowed eyes / pencilled in crimson / its incandescent tail… / searing through the air / …closing in / burning the ground’. The sense of the speaker as prey and her awareness of her mortality crystallise in the image. In the suggestion that the speaker has approached the ‘winter’ of her life, the threat and proximity of death is intimated as both material fact and something that preys upon her mind. This is unnervingly intensified in the final observation of the moon’s light stalking ‘at [her] feet’: ‘the white wolf / the tense arch of its back / blue phosphorescence’.
The cyclical trajectory of aging emerges within poems such as ‘Letter to Chitra’ (42), where the subjects take on the appearance of pre-adult states: ‘Our friends are… / holding themselves / in their emaciated bodies / exposed faces that have acquired / the look of adolescence’. In ‘Birthday Party’ (67), ‘she was waiting on the couch / very pale, white dusted / incredibly small now… / not coping with her glasses / that had grown / to a giant size’. Much of Fragments meditates on the physical and psychological impacts, as well as social alienation, of aging, in a culture that largely dismisses its elderly; ‘a culture’ – as Dmetri Kakmi points out, ‘that has set a taboo on ageing, and makes a cult of youth and the inordinate preservation of the body’ (103).
The biting poem ‘The Neighbour’ (43) lists the actions carried out after an elderly woman dies:
On Monday, she said
they took her away
the dog was put down
the furniture went.
And poor bob
still at the Resting Home
that nice place
the walls white, the bed covers red
and he sitting there in his pyjamas
unaware of the maple coffin
and she lying dead
and all the lovely flowers.
The noting of perfunctory tasks trivialises the woman’s death, reducing her life to material fragments, easily dismantled. The casual, conversational tone amplifies the brutal apathy of the failure to notify the nursing home-bound husband, making the poem a pointed critique of neglect.
In ‘Day by Day’ (75), cycles and seasons correlate with backwards and downwards trajectories that gesture to moral accountability. The speaker’s observation of ‘another spring / the peach tree in flower again’ spurs the looping verse of the second stanza: ‘backwards me turn / we turn backwards / measure our failures’. ‘Day by Day’ contests the ‘deflection of responsibility’ embedded within what Deborah Bird Rose describes as the Australian settler-colonial ‘paradigm of progress’. Oriented to the ‘future that will emerge from, and will be differentiated from the present’, as the present was from past, and through which ‘current contradictions and current suffering will be left behind’, ‘progress’ encourages ‘us to turn our backs on… social facts of pain, damage, destruction, and despair’(16-18). Yet for the speaker of ‘Day by Day’, the past appears as neither closed nor disjunctive with the present. Retrojection enables her to ‘measure our failures / with infinite patience’. Kefala traces the past underfoot as well, with pigeons ‘assiduously tapping the earth’ alluding to the underworld and the dead who become soil where the peach tree sets roots. In order to ‘reimagine the times’, we also must ‘assiduously’ touch, tap, turn up, examine the past. Kefala resists the notion that we should ‘accept an account of history that enables us to feel “comfortable and relaxed”…[or that] amnesia should surround that which causes discomfort’ (Rose 11).
Poems such as ‘The Snake’ (48), ‘The Fatal Queen’ (50), and ‘Pilgrim’s Tales’ (51), also offer resistance to these paradigms, embodying the ‘post-mythic’ storytelling mode explicated by anthropologist Nadia Seremetakis (31). The speaker of ‘The Snake’ situates herself and an accomplice – possibly the reader – in the narrative: ‘Dusk, the two of us / waiting in silence / at the waterhole’. She describes a failed attempt to seize a powerful, ancestral-like being, evoking the ‘substance and fragments of myth’, and fusing them to the present. The omission of the verb ‘to be’ (i.e. ‘are’ or ‘were’) in the first stanza, as well as the final stanza, ‘We still at the edge / watching the water’, makes the tense ambiguous, inferring and enmeshing multiple temporalities, creating ‘passageways between times’. ‘The Snake’, and others like it, interrupt contemporary ‘myths’ which quarantine the past from the present and portray them ‘as separate homogeneities’ (Seremetakis 31).
Kefala’s critics over forty years have almost obsessively characterised her poetry as ‘foreign’. A great deal has been made of the fact she’s a migrant, and of her writing’s (non-Anglo-Celtic) European, and apparently therefore ‘un-Australian’ sensibilities (Duwell in Radford 200; Page in Gunew 210). But perhaps these characterisations demonstrate more the insularity of the hegemonic white literary landscape. These characterisations enable Kefala’s critics to cauterise the disruptive ethical and cultural implications of her work, which remains firmly rooted in the modern Australian condition.
Dandforth, Loring M. The Death Rituals of Rural Greece. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press 1982. 66-69.
Gunew, Sneja. ‘“We the only witness of ourselves”: Re-reading Antigone Kefala’s work’. Ed. Vrasidas Karalis & Helen Nickas. Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey. Melbourne: Owl Publishing 2013. 210.
Hall, Donald. The Selected Poems of Donald Hall. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015. 103.
Kakmi, Dmetri. ‘On Poems – a bilingual edition in Greek and English’. Ed. Vrasidas Karalis & Helen Nickas. Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey. Melbourne: Owl Publishing 2013. 103.
Radford, Kristian. ‘Antigone Kefala: Alien Poet’. Ed. Vrasidas Karalis & Helen Nickas. Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey. Melbourne: Owl Publishing 2013. 200.
Rose, Deborah Bird. Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press 2004. 11, 16-18, 25.
Seremetakis, Nadia. The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1996. 19-21, 31.
DIMITRA HARVEY has a Bachelor of Performance Studies from the University of Western Sydney and a Master of Letters in Creative Writing from the University of Sydney. Her poems have appeared in Southerly, Meanjin, Mascara, and Cordite, as well as anthologies such as The Stars Like Sand and A Patch of Sun. In 2012, she won the Australian Society of Authors’ Ray Koppe Young Writer’s Residency.
Hasti Abbasi holds a BA and an MA in English Literature. She recently submitted her PhD thesis on Dislocation and Remaking Identity in Australian and Persian Contemporary Fictions. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Antipodes, Southerly, Verity La, AAWP, and Bareknuckle Poet Journal of Letters, amongst others.
A woman as thin as a shoelace is standing next to a tripod aluminum tripod easel. On which “Iranian Film Club” is engraved. “Hi, welcome,” she smiles. “Hi, thanks,” I say. The door in the southeast corner of the hall leads to a big room. A flat-screen TV is mounted on the wall. There are a few people standing around a table, each holding a mug of tea.
A robustly handsome, black-haired man scratches his nose, approaching us. “Hi, I’m Shahab, I usually manage the group discussions after we watch the selected movie. Welcome to our club.” Going by the wrinkles on his forehead, he is at least forty.
“Hi, I’m Celin, and this is my husband, Saeed.”
“Welcome to our club,” he says as the corner of his mouth quirks upward, creating a dimple.
Shahab explains to us, considerately, that there are both tea and coffee making facilities in the kitchen area.
“I’ll grab a mug of tea; would you like one?” Saeed asks me, looking quite sheepish.
Everybody takes a seat. I take the middle seat in the second row, next to a beautiful girl. Her white jacket is appropriate for the cool night air. “Hi, I’m Sara,” she says. “Hi, I’m Celin.”
She appears to be in her late twenties, a decade or so younger than me. “Which city of Iran do you come from?” she asks.
“Lovely. I love your skirt—red’s my favourite colour,” she says. I feel sexy and confident. “Which flight did you take? Emirates or Etihad?”
A pounding in my head starts on the left side and goes up to the top and down the bottom, and very quickly I feel my heartbeat in my neck. Emirates or Etihad? Which one is better? These people have all gotten on and off planes.
“I’m a gynaecologist. What do you do?” is her next question.
“OK dear friends, let’s play the movie. I hope you will all enjoy it,” Shahab says.
Somebody turns off the lights.
What a relief.
Runner. That is the name of the movie. The setting is Abadan, an Iranian port city. My whole body misses this flat salty plain, its sandy and dust storms, and grimy railroad stations. My hometown.
A young boy is enthusiastically shouting and waving at an oil tanker that is disappearing slowly through the mist.
The day I told Mum about our plans, she sat down on the steps silently, flashing me a wan smile as she struggled to keep in her tears. “The sea is bottomless; you will regret what you are sewing when the storms rage.”
The movie is about how a young boy, Amiro, sees the world. In his struggle to survive the adult word, he collects floating bottles from the harbor, and sells cold water. A man on a bicycle rides away without paying for the water, making Amiro run after him for a long time. Why should a young boy fight so persistently for what is rightfully his? Does he know that he is deprived of the most basic rights? Just having the desire to fight is what matters to him, the desire we killed in our son the day we chose the apparently simplest way to fight for our rights.
I feel uncomfortable. I wish I could stop the movie or at least leave the room, but I might distract others if I walk past them. I slowly lean back in my chair and shut my eyes tightly. I will not watch the rest; neither will I think about anything.
I realize the movie is finished when the audience breaks into thunderous applause.
The gynaecologist turns to me, probably to ask further questions. I quickly get up and walk towards the table. A number of curious eyes stare at me as I stretch out my hand for a small biscuit.
A woman with an impressively high forehead approaches us. “Hi, I’m Kimia.”
After realizing that we are new to Brisbane, Kimia smiles and says, “I’ve been in Australia for twenty years. I’m a graphic designer, but I used to be an electrical engineer.” She adds that Iranians living in Brisbane are kind and welcoming, always ready to provide information and support. We, as new immigrants who may have a lot of struggles in the beginning, can ask for their support. “Any time,” she declares.
I shove a hank of my dark hair out of my face. “Thanks.”
People sit in a circle: Nine men, six women.
“OK, friends. Thank you for your attendance. It’s always more enjoyable for me to watch a movie with you all. So, what did you think of the movie?” Shahab asks, “Let’s start with Maryam.”
Maryam did not like the story. That is all she says sternly. Her pullover sweater and striped pants look good on her slim figure.
“I believe the director is expressing his dissatisfaction with the structure of the society, the rich and poor condition of Abadan,” a clean-shaven man says.
They are all talking; one after the other, each giving an example of the new wave in their defence of why they think this movie is a personal and biographical reflection of the director’s childhood rather than a pessimistic representation of Abadan.
“Do you have any idea, Celin?” Shahab asks me.
“No.” I say, waving my hand self-consciously.
I never let the slightest ray of intelligence get in the way of my stupidity. I think an IQ test would come back negative if I did it.
“Give your mind a rest,” Saeed whispers in my ear a few minutes later. I am happy I did not let another child have him as his father.
After they finish discussing the movie, we say goodbye to them, and walk out and down the street towards our car in a swelling silence.
Saeed seems to be concentrating on something. Time for his introvert party. Keep thinking; you’ll come up with a silly question soon. “Were you shy or something?” There you go.
“Why?” I ask, as I get in the car.
“You didn’t say anything when they asked for your opinion.”
“Don’t know,” I say, looking out at a fat, gray-haired pedestrian with a jacket slung over his shoulder. He presses the crosswalk button.
Yes, I was shy. I was embarrassed to sit in a movie club freely while my brother is developing suicidal thoughts.
When we arrive home, I take off my clothes and lie down on the couch. Five minutes later, the door opens and Armin comes in, his mobile in one hand and a Domino’s pizza in the other. As usual, he is wearing his ripped grey jeans and a plain white t-shirt. I explain to him that we have Fesenjan for dinner and he replies with a cold “I don’t like Fesenjan.”
“I’m thinking of going swimming tomorrow,” Saeed addresses Armin. “Would you like to join me?”
Armin does not favor his Dad with a reply; instead, he pulls a long string of gum out of his mouth.
The lunch dishes are still piled up by the sink. I wish we had a dishwasher.
“Mum?” Armin calls me.
“I like your hair. Have you had it cut?”
“Yes, thanks,” I say, as I fill the sink with soapy water.
“I wish you were dead,” Armin had said, looking me dead in the eye when they were taking me to the Nauru hospital. “It definitely is the best way to stop carrying the responsibility of making us more miserable than before.”
Do it again; throw yourself under a car, he whispers in my mind. At least I think it is a he. I mean the ghost who follows me everywhere I go.
I sponge the dishes and rinse them with hot water, heat up the Fesenjan, and set the table.
“My armpits smell so bad recently,” Saeed says as he comes out of the bathroom.
“It’s time you stop having garlic and onion in every meal you eat,” Armin says, with a grin. He takes the pizza out of the microwave. He usually has pizza, fries and soda for dinner.
“I will, and it would be great if you stop eating junk food.”
Armin sits at the table.
“Did you get your tablets?” Saeed asks me, scratching his head in confusion.
What’s your confusion about? You little man. Why didn’t you ask me on our way home?
“Yes,” I say.
He screws up his face in a concentration.
“How much did you pay?”
Armin squirts ketchup all over the pizza.
“What about the rest?”
“They will deduct twenty dollars from my account next month.”
He likes the fact that stupidity is not a crime.
Armin’s lips twist into a satirical smile.
“How’s school going?” I ask.
“The same,” is his response.
How did your meeting with the social worker go today? Did she talk to the principal about the money you are supposed to pay for the textbooks? I desperately want to know.
“Try some Fesenjan,” I smile a quick smile, “you’ll love it.” He gives a mock shudder. “I’m fine, thanks.”
Saeed drops a ladle filled with Fesenjan into his plate. “This is the best Fesenjan I’ve ever had.”
I will call the social worker tomorrow and ask her about the meeting.
Armin makes himself a coffee. “Good night,” he says, stirring his spoon in slow circular motions.
Give me a kiss. “Sleep well,” I whisper.
Armin bestows upon me a kind and generous smile and goes to his bedroom.
Saeed washes the dishes. I take my allocated four pills and go to bed, recalling the night when two officers held my arms, dragging me into a room.
Why are you sleeping? Your brother is so cold he probably can’t breathe, the ghost softly whispers to me.
My brother is subject to twenty-four-hour observation by guards in a camp where the only thing people encounter every day is never-ending insecurity and uncertainty about every moment of their lives.
I moan and grunt and push him away as hard as I can. “Go away.”
I close my eyes and visualize the brutality of the sea and the slap of water on the rocks. Armin is standing on the edge of the boat, gazing out to sea, tall and thin. Saeed is standing above, holding something in his hands. He follows my eyes, discovering my concern. “Armin! Be careful,” he says loudly. Armin turns around and looks straight through me. He walks towards me. “You’ll be fine, Mum, we’ll be there soon.” He takes my hand, and kisses me on my forehead with quivering lips.
In the distance, I hear the shrill of an ambulance. I open my eyes, smelling the insulting sea and its hostile moving water. The ghost appears again: you don’t deserve to be alive.
“Leave me alone,” I plead. He seems to be expecting a response from me. “It was your fault my baby died. You made me take twenty Panadols. Go away, you bastard.” I say, feeling like I am drifting back to the sea.
Sorry about your loss. Sometimes death happens the same way life just happens. But soon you’ll be able to spend some good time with your baby in the other world, he says.
“How do you think I should do it?”
Cut your vein.
Are you silly? You don’t want Armin and Saeed to see you do it, do you? Wait for tomorrow when they both go out.
Saeed opens the door. The ghost disappears. “Talk to you later,” I murmur in my mind.
“It’s your Mum,” Saeed says, handing me my phone.
“Hi my beautiful daughter, how are you? How are Armin and Saeed?”
“We’re all fine, thanks. How are you? Is Dad OK?”
I can hardly hear her. She’s in a noisy place.
“Yes, he’s fine. Have you talked to Kamran? I’m so worried about him.”
“Yes, I talked to him in the morning, he’s doing great,” I lie.
“If only I could hug you and Kamran once more, I wouldn’t ask for anything from God. It’s all I want before I die. Is there any news about when they might send him to community detention?” she asks on the other end of the line, thousands of miles away from me. The woman who held me in her womb for nine months and did her best to raise educated children is now wishing for a simple hug. Just a hug. I hate myself.
She is crying. She has been crying every day for four years. Yes, he’s joining us tomorrow. I’ll make him Ghorme Sabzi, his favourite food. I will protect him forever. I wish these were the things I would tell her. “No news yet, but I’m sure he’s fine and will join us soon.”
Armin is screaming. The phone flies out of my hand as I run towards his room.
He is sitting on the edge of the bed, burying his face in his hands.
“Did you have a nightmare?” Saeed asks as he hands Armin a glass of water.
Armin is stunned. Truly traumatized. I do not know what to do, where to look. “What were you dreaming?” I ask.
“The same dream,” Armin says, locking his hands behind his neck.
“You’re fine now. We’re here,” Saeed says.
I am on the verge of tears. I leave the room.
“Is he asleep?” I ask Saeed when he comes out about ten minutes later.
You shouldn’t have left the room, his look says. “He’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Wash your face and stop crying. Please,” he says, putting a reassuring arm around my shoulder.
“You sleep; I’ll watch a movie first.”
I want to know what happens to the hero of the movie, Amiro. I play the movie. His friends ask him to play football with them. He gives them a wonderful smile. One of the most impressive ones I have ever seen. He is crying because his only friend departs to work on a ship.
“I did not know I was pregnant,” is what I keep telling my social worker. But the truth is that the baby would need a predictable and safe environment, a dream world I never thought possible. That is why I took the pills.
I stop the movie, and get up to look through Armin’s bedroom’s half-open door to make sure he is asleep.
I turn back at my mobile’s message tone.
“Hi, this is Shima. We met in Nauru detention. How are you? Are you awake?”
Oh my God. There is definitely something wrong with my brother. Why else would somebody I don’t even remember message me from Nauru? My head twitches. Saeed, I want to shout. I can’t. I have a knot in my throat.
I call back the number with a feeling of constriction in my chest.
It rings. My heart is being grabbed and squeezed. Nobody answers. I call again. No answer. I want to walk towards our bedroom, but my legs feel weird. I feel like water is running over my feet. “Saeed, Saeed,” I whisper. I open the door to find Saeed faced down naked with his hands flat, next to his shoulders, with only a tiny towel slung on his hips. I hear the running tide and the call of the sea. A sea of blood. “Saeed, Saeed.” Saeed opens his eyes. “Are you OK?”
“Read this message.”
Saeed reads the message, looks at me, reads it again. “So what?” he asks, sounding confused.
“There must be something wrong with my brother. I haven’t talked to him in the last three days.”
“Calm down,” Saeed says, dialing a number on his mobile. “Hello, Yes, this is Saeed. Listen, Celin is very worried about Kamran. Do you have any news about him?”
Saeed lowers his eyes from me, a worried expression creasing his forehead.
What has happened Saeed? Please place the phone on speaker, what’s he saying? Damn you, say something.
“What is it?”
Saeed doesn’t raise his head. “OK,” he pauses, as if to reflect. “Yes, yes.” He ends the call.
“Is Kamran OK?”
“He’ll be fine,” he says, nodding.
“What do you mean he’ll be fine? What’s happened? Has he hurt himself?”
Saeed’s mouth is moving around frantically. For what seems like hours, I can hear nothing but the sound of my teeth being pressed together. The indignity and the most embarrassing moments of my journey all march in front of me, one after another, like a series of flashcards. The wave is about to capsize our boat, and take it down. Armin falls off the boat. He is floating on the sea. People are shouting. Kamran dives into the water and pulls him out. He turns Armin’s head to the side and then back to the center, breathes into his mouth. He then checks his pulse in the deafening silence that follows. Everybody is staring at Kamran. Afraid, shocked, upset. “He’s alive,” Kamran smiles and then cries his longest, loudest cry.
I open my eyes to the sound of Saeed. “Kamran will be fine,” he says, breathing hard. Saeed lets out a sigh and removes a half-smoked and dead cigar from his mouth.