Deepika Arwind, 23, is a poet, writer and journalist based out of Bangalore, India. Her poems have appeared in Indian poetry anthologies and poetry journals. She has also read poetry at festivals like the Poetry with Prakriti Festival in Chennai, and won several poetry prizes. She is currently working on short fiction.
The heart is a child
sings the man with the voice of
a sinking boat. Hear, how water
On the lake-fringe, between us,I am bored –
even with my foot on your crotch and your
lips syncing lullabies of romance.
Our hearts are expanses, not organs
like the Indian railways are an experience,
not a network of trains? you say.
But I’d rather eat up the city’s old charms – than your
clever metaphor –its barrage of baraats, the sound
of tomorrow’s kites in the wind. I’m so bored.
And you, between stomach and thigh are limp.
You begin: But to love is to be –
I listen (as if) unaware of the mild
backlash of our love.
(baraat: marriage procession)
The Studio (I)
Where the riot began
The man I will remember –
dull turban, pleated eyebrows,
black spectacle frames, the eyes that spit
the Bhagat Singh variety of courage, that look –
he ousted the topper of the class
the look that says: I will be alive at 69, because
I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I will only cry when
Saira Banu dies.
Scanty beard of pubescent modesty
with it – the fear of being reckless
the heart through the thin polyester shirt
and pocket-tucked ink pen
the heart through the polyester
shirt, narrow chest, its inevitable broadness
the heart through the shirt
the boyish arm, slim kada,
the heart that knows these are the 60s,
his belly burning with fireflies –
that taut heart ablaze in his eyes.
The man I will remember is agog in
a clear day’s monochrome.
But the man will remember the studio,
much later a cycle garage.
(kada: a religious bangle worn by Sikhs, Saira Banu: a famous Hindi film actress of the 1960s, 70s, 80s.)
It may be Bilaspur. But we may never know.
She sits before a flattened tin of odd things –
safety pins and bottle lids –
in which chocolates were brought to her from Denmark.
(from a member of her feudal family, now dissolving into
the modern-moneyed world.)
Behind her, the ornate wallpaper,
from which she can dress a thousand dolls.
It must be early evening.
Before the jalebis are fried outside the studio.
Before she moves her darting eyes lined with kohl,
she lights up the street for Amma, with the
light of every mosque and sweet shop in this small town,
before she says to Amma, I want to go, but you can’t see,
she is told to run along
she lifts her ferozy frock to avoid
soiling its frayed crocheted piping,
Before Amma screams a murder of crows in high-pitched chorus:
Before the mob sweeps her in a swift moment
leaving behind a small round of ochre and the flies around it.
But we may never know.
(Amma: mother, Jalebis: An fried fried sweet, ferozy: turquoise, “bhaaag!: ruuun!”)
After the torso
comes longing. The odd rocket of desire
that picks up and loses orbit, but not at will.
Do you remember –
how aroused you were when you brought your feet
home, bleeding from hanging too long on bus footboards?
Then we pressed like jigsaw.
(After that we would never be pre-torso.)
is a gentle road. The universe of
the lower limb, the use in desperation to leave to run to come
back fill full circles stretch in love and sun to sweep with slippers
on filth to snake through sand and water.
There must always be afternoon after the torso and the creak
of a bone, sighing, like a novel at its end.
is a deluge of carnivals in the sea, swaying to the
sound of a slow fuck. A tireless hole of cum, its drip,
enunciated by your hips.
After the torso is defiance, a very brief
critique of authority.
Michael Farrell’s most recent books are a raiders guide (Giramondo), and as coeditor (with Jill Jones) Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets(Puncher and Wattmann). ‘word seen from a bus’ and ‘country from a mans neck’ were written during an Asialink residency in Nagoya.
word seen from a bus
Maybe a word i know. But the mountains are covered-in,
different examples-of forest different water reflects. A bittern rises
from the page like a stick &s gone, it was a vision, white
word of childhood myth. Read unread.
Its context, framed Perfectly, the single word was there room or time for another?
a word in the river.
Or the sky: hawk
perhaps. Man woman or sugar
Could be anything.
Its like the midwest,
At home id-know,
Feels like glass,
Lifted by a crane,
With without wings-amen,
country in a mans neck
Happiness in the night, last.
I know where im supposed to take you,
on stage, for a moment.
the tiny venue, the throbbing figures
nothing i can quote, but i approximate
by writing there were lots of toys,
& Nothing like a jimmy barnes oh.
Nothing i can quote, but i approximate,
these notions come from reading books by tanizaki,
The absent pearl earring draws my attention to his dark white neck.
Ive taken off my coat & my popover & remain inactive cool.
halfway home between one & another like an oyster…
a less observant guy than youd miss my thirsty shoe…
(not a better metonym than ass)
‘alluring aspect’ –
(unknown to the uncolonised as scrub)
‘or greenitude’ –
no sun Fell Hard
on my mental verandah
or the mushroom underneath.
The product of short days
Helen Hagemann has poetry published in Australian literary magazines and anthologies. In 2009, her first collection, Evangelyne & other poems, was published by the Australian Poetry Centre in their New Poets Series.
Perth Zoo Carousel
In a cross-section of fairy penguins & café,
a merry-go-round, creaking in the wind,
surges under a crackling switch.
Black & white horses, two abreast, dip & rise
as marionettes might do when pulled & released
from a platform of strings.
This merry-go-round is an instrument of grace;
a diorama of pastels, cut glass, carved figurines.
Music chimes from gilded mirrors, from fresh
blooms of art deco that move with you.
Appalachians in pine twist on brass poles,
gallop towards horsehair tails & stirrups ahead.
At the bottom of the garden, in a final clown roll,
my son wanders to the carousel. His tiny legs
like clappers in his sailor suit, held high
in the turning of this enamoured toy.
At twelve months, he can only watch boys & girls
on the oom-pa-pa saddles, some peering round
mirrored corners, let loose in whinnies & neighs.
At twenty-eight months, we deliver him again
to the roundabout’s ivy mirrors, egrets in paint,
theatre platform, the first white horse he sees.
He will not let go, blazing his boots in the saddle,
my palms resting on his hips. His face pink & close,
he chuckles at each turn, at the fairy-floss man,
says ‘horsey’ & ‘duck’, riding the familiar.
In the final chorus of brass cymbals,
& Wurlitzer, my son clutches Silver’s neck;
his warm tracksuit in a voice of love,
and jockeying devoted hands into place,
whips up the story of a boy riding.
Grandmother & Granddaughter Poem
When my grandmother was frail,
not knowing it was cancer,
we’d sit in bed, facing each other;
two pillows at cornered walls, a toddy beside.
Gran would lift the lid of a brown suitcase,
where apart from a silver wink in her eye,
she’d show fifty-percent of her life.
Nutmeg, cinnamon & ginger bartered in Malay stalls
at Paddy’s Markets, their spicy air arriving.
Tucked in newspaper: textiles, tablecloths, napkins,
slippers wedged together, a finery of nylon hose.
We’d go deeper & deeper, down into the suitcase,
Gran’s fingers tinkling glass buttons, pins, cotton reels.
Unpacking a day’s shopping, she’d lift my lips to sparkle
them candy-apple pink, round my cheeks with a light
touch of rouge; us mouthing ‘O’s’ like clowns in glass.
Gran just had her pills, so she prided herself with a new perm,
how her body warmed under a flannel shirt of her making.
Like those clowns we’d laugh at Gran’s bedside teeth,
coming out like stars. And she’d bequeath me
more of her life. I knew she was happy, passing me
spindles of Ric-rac, ribbon, guipure lace; our hands
aglitter in bells & reindeers woven into braid.
She eased paper patterns from covers, kept material
when a bride. Citron pillow slips from her marriage bed,
now smelling of naphthalene, frayed at the edges;
her pale fingers, lucent as ice, shaking on the perfect
blue satin stitch of forget-me-nots.
Claire Potter was a Poets Union Fellow in 2006. She is author of two chapbooks, In Front of a Comma (Poets Union, 2006) and N’ombre (Vagabond, 2007). Her first full-length collection, Swallow, will be published this October (Five Islands Press). She lives and works in London.
Our Lady Of The Cave
From the ancient tale,
the miniature cries come to me
and I see what the monk saw
in the folds of the woman’s cape:
hundreds of young birds
in a maze of warm silence
and her arms stretching out
into the blue timbre of morning
The woman softly
ushered the birds away, said they were
no longer sleeping, promised the anxious monk
that the swallows would return and fill his hallowed
parish with the credence of vagrancy––
for what is unsettling in nymphs
is celebrated in tiny birds
Three metres apart It’s snowing & tiny fronds of ice zigzag
between us I reach across to you but knock a mirror––
realise you are on my other side turn
right–– you are not there left and you are blue,
from out of the
hand from the mirror takes mine & you reappear
this time dressed in Chaplin frill of dark mist edges you
nicely & I’d like to take a picture but have only an umbrella
decaying flowers, violets of which the bouquet, lest we forget, becomes
an umbrella, and vice-versa: the umbrellas are like bouquets,
and the bouquets are like umbrellas…
Suddenly, loss of order & receding Is, is
as is whatever really right?
Three metres apart but never so well expressed
of open air
O my rose you whisper
tap-dancing to curtain fall
The Tea Leaf Party
My fretting friend & I
we’ll go slow tomorrow morning
not wasting any time––
We’ll trampoline trivial love
off the city pitches, spit
heckle daisies with
ears pressed firmly to the ground
We’ll girdle all bleached
outside the radiation hoops
and below bad-mannered moustaches,
bray in raspy voices
to scare birds who open fire
from diamonds cut from sky
––Francis, come let me cradle
the qualms of your rocking suns
darn your memory pockets
with skeins of tightrope pulled
from a far-off star
and to the banksias who raise their
fiery brushes, the thurifers
will resurrect light
across our barren ground
to a clearing of the Sound
where ribaldry and tea
are taken not instinctively
but to catch leaves before they brown
Yvette Holt heralds from the Bidjara Nation of Queensland, born and raised in Brisbane, Yvette is a multi-award winning poet, academic and feminist. She has lectured on Aboriginal Women Studies and Australian History in an Indigenous Context at the University of Queensland and the Australian Catholic University respectively. Her research has been in Indigenous Australian literature with a particular focus on Aboriginal womens’ poetry, Yvette is also a passionate advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their leadership on a state and national level.
Her prizes include the Scanlon Prize, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing for her collection, Anonymous Premonition, and the 2010 Kate Challis Award.
Always My Lover
my lover the colour of candescent brandy seducing an Indian summer/
my lover the reason I leave diamond kisses scattered across an auburn, morning waist/
my lover, skin sweeter then Belgian chocolate dusted with perfumed spices/
my lover amethyst fingers endlessly melting every breath behind my sigh/
my lover the reason I read poetry to our unsuspecting goldfish/
always my love, forever my lover/
(Dedicated to Cheyenne Holt)
I love my suburban backyard and sharing it with you
lying on the trampoline just mother and daughter
and making funny animal shapes out of the soft marshmallow clouds
then when night falls we begin to count the twinkling stars on our hands and feet laughing at the passing
red kangaroos flying high above our mango tree
I love watching you transplant a leaf from our garden as you impatiently wait for it to grow
sometimes I squint while trying on new clothes in front of her though because no matter what I buy or choose to wear I always seem to
end up looking like a six foot-tall full-figured Barbie doll or maybe even a Ken
I like playing big sissy with you and rolling around on my bed, begging you to stop tickling me until I fall hard
onto the floor then I get all too serious and fed up but you just laugh hysterically and say ‘C’mon mummy that was
fun let’s do it again’
I look forward to dancing with you every Sunday morning and singing ‘I am woman hear me roar’ karaoke style
with my tired and worn-out hair brush
I love calling you from interstate and telling you I’ll be home tomorrow
there are so many things I love about motherhood but we keep it real and have our fair share of difficult moments
too like homework time, always radioactive in our neck of the woods, or asking her to clean out her bedroom for
the umpteenth time because I’m unable to see the carpet
and yes I know I totally freaked out when you told your school friends that Mr. Bean was really your father
because at the next P & C meeting I felt like the black adder
but through it all if motherhood were a mountain then you’ve taken me to the highest peak and if daughters were
flowers growing in the garden
you would always be me one and only sweet
Trippin’Over Your Tongue
The littering of literature fills my living space
I break and enter like a thief in the night
Selling my words on the black market page
Pawning my thoughts for a night on the town
Then peeling the label from a bus shelter wall
Trading my soul for a leather bound classic
Like a crazed butterfly
Embracing your tongue
Before you have spoken
Recycling your dreams
Triggering my pen
Before I commence
Exchanging your whisper
For a reloaded quill
Sifting through texture on
The black poet’s corner
Moulding your ideas
Into something more or less
Bringing to boil
A melting pot of languages
Simmering over time
Sprinkling through the ages
To be or not to be
Obesity of our words
Gathering up the pounds
Charring the midnight ink
“Motherhood” and “Tirppin’ Over Your Tongue” first appeared in Anonymous Premonition, (University of Queensland Press, 2008)
Anne Elvey’s poems have appeared in journals, including most recently Blue Dog, Cordite, Island and Westerly and in The Best Australian Poems 2009 (Black Inc.). Her first chapbook Stolen Heath was published by Melbourne Poets Union in 2009. Her research and writing is supported by the Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, Monash University, and Melbourne College of Divinity.
lacing and unlacing her song
The ear is a window where she transfers
a blue wren. Her song
is a cat’s tail curved
round the air when her fingers
bend to the strings. And her bow
is an oar, striding a river.
She ties up to a she-oak, shakes
its raindrop chandelier. The rest
becomes a body, composed
to chocolate and wine. Bread.
A magpie. Weeds trodden into
loam. A stump
where insects trace their graffiti.
The perfume of fennel. Wild.
Her touch says wood and gut.
At home the frame bends.
With use a string frays.
All night she will play
shadow puppets on a wall.
They disappear when the day awakens
beside her score.
And unlacing her song, she laces
her song with the remembered scale
of her years.
memento: the manuscript under may hand is/not written
The verse etched on a tree selects
a variety of media to represent itself.
On the smooth trunk where the bark has peeled—
such a robust street tree, thick
and rugged, not that I’d lean into it—
is the kind of word this land leaves
on things, neither exodus nor crucifixion,
but a slow tapping into soil, a writing outward
of time that was rock and clay and an everywhere
sky. With its dense foliage this is not a tree
for a clearing. Cars’ fumes create their own
mass and insects travel woody
roads eeking through age, so that I wonder
do they hear the tree as it makes itself?
Dark Bright Doors
by Jill Jones
Reviewed by KERI GLASTONBURY
The titles of Jill Jones’ most recent full-length collections, Broken/Open (Salt Publishing, 2005) and her latest, Dark Bright Doors (Wakefield Press, 2010), have the contrariness of koans. There is something deliberately ‘puzzlingly poetic’ about them, and as in Jones’ poetry language is deployed as a decoy. Part of me resists this residual idea of the poet as a kind of sage, with the reader positioned as an initiate who must work for cathexis, yet I am also conscious that the experience of reading Jill Jones’ work is an active one. The act of reading becomes a participatory force, necessary to re-energise the detritus of language once the poet has left it. If the nervous system is the body’s communication network, then rather than ethereal disembodiment perhaps Jones allows for the synaptic relationship of poet and reader, from one nervous system to another.
A quietly prolific poet in many respects, Jones does seem to embrace poetry as an everyday ‘practice’. In her review of Dark Bright Doors (ABR, June 2010) Gig Ryan refers to the book’s ‘repetitive vocabulary’, and she isolates two distinct poetic modes that Jones employs: one relying on a form of phenomenological gesture and the other more ‘grounded in the everyday’. I think Jones’ poems work best and are at their most experiential when these two elements are combined, realising the chiaroscuro of the title’s Dark Bright Doors and most effectively capturing the duel sense of ‘being-in-the-worldness’ that the poet strives for. Some of the shorter gestural poems read more like philosophical exercises and I preferred the poems that also contain cultural—as much as natural—weathering, or poems where the transcendental image is usurped by a pithy turn of phrase: ‘gulls riding / what’s left of the air’ (High Wind At Kekerengu). While still predominantly a poet of city and suburb any dichotomy between nature and culture is a false economy in Jones’ poetry, with Jones positioning herself as an intermediatry (not afraid to invoke birds and clouds and flowers). It’s as if she won’t allow the so-called ‘school of quietitude’ to have a monopoly over the metaphysical (as is foregrounded in the somewhat cliché choice of quote on the front cover: ‘poetry of unsettling mystery and beauty’).
Last year Jill Jones co-edited with Michael Farrell Out of the Box: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Poets (Puncher & Wattman, 2009) which was notable for its post-identity poetic. I can’t help but read Jones as part of a lineage that would see her partly inheriting and partly resisting the poetry of, say, Pam Brown and Joanne Burns (the poem ‘Esplanade Blues’, for example, could have just as easily have been written by either). Overall, however, I find Jones writes with Burns psychic radar, but less ironic distance and Brown’s interest in the contemporary moment, sans the critical personism. Perhaps the link is as much that all three poets seem to have been recently widely published, with the inevitable risk of establishing individual orthodoxies. That said, of the three, it is Jones who has taken her work into the ‘realm of the senses’ and somewhat changed ‘camps’. Where Burns and Brown remain sceptical, Jones’ work absorbs a recent turn to the language of imagination and ecology. Jones’ resistance to the traditional lyric ‘I’ seems more broadly linked to post-humanist philosophies. This may also have come out of her Doctorate of Creative Arts at UTS with Martin Harrison, another Out of the Box poet whose influence I can read in Jones’ recent poetics, along with the American Objectivists in poems like ‘The Thought Of an Autobiographical Poem Troubles & Eludes Me’:
So I’ve been leaning against
the names of things
not just walls but the very air
the rug, the pen
the silver garbage bin.
and even William Carlos Williams (in poems such as ‘Sorry I’m Late’).
Fittingly for a book published by Wakefield Press (considering Jones now lives in Adelaide) it is possible to read some autobiographical trajectories into Dark Bright Doors, particularly in the poems that refer to Adelaide (however obliquely), New Zealand, Sydney and Paris. It’s a book about movement and distances, but refuses to indulge in direct declamation, as Scott Patrick Mitchell writes in his review of the book: ‘It tetters on the edge of things with a sensual energy’ (Out in Perth). Sometimes I find Jones’ obfuscations too ponderous and in this era of climate change her references to the weather akin to dressing up old poetic tropes as contemporary geosophy. The many shorter poems in this collection, however, build a pressure system much like a weather map with lows and highs, often coming together exquisitely in the more dense poems such as ‘O Fortuna’.
the end is nigh and it’s a faith squeeze, when to be
heterodox, when to hold the line, which comes at you
up front and always, always leaves you past, belated,
but still humid with life at the turnstyles pushing
another weekly into the slot, watching it burst
up again. While folding your damp umbrella
into these sharp hectic hours, you keep appearing.
Jones’ poems are the Dark Bright Doors of perception of the title. This collection continues an experimental tradition in contemporary poetry that refuses some of post-modernism’s past binaries and opens up poetry’s radar as a par exemplar for registering life’s and language’s atmospherics, ensuring (to borrow from another book title) that everything is illuminated.
KERI GLASTONBURY is a lecturer in Creative Writing at The University of Newcastle, her poetry collection ‘grit salute’ will be published by SOI3 in 2011.
Iran: My Grandfather
by Ali Alizadeh
Transit Lounge, 2010
Reviewed by ANGELA MEYER
Iran’s fascinating, in parts beautiful and in parts horrific history is worthy of account: the contextual conflict; religion versus progress; and all the complex in-betweens. So many good intentions, misinterpretations, capitulations, and fluctuations has this country endured. Its citizens have swayed with vicissitudes, standing up and being beaten down, feeling that one thing is right until it goes too far, feeling that the other thing is not right at all. And then big, shadowy players like England, Germany, and the US have entered with their devastating and oft confusing (for the citizens, for the reader) interferences.
Ali Alizadeh’s Iran: My Grandfather, is the history of Iran through the lens of the author’s grandfather Salman Fuladvand. From Salman’s birth in the democratic Iran of 1905, through to his death as a disenchanted man attempting to find peace as a Sufi poet in the ‘70s, Salman witnessed the rise and fall of revolution, injustice; and knew that terror, in the form of the reactionary rise of Islamic fundamentalism, would become worse after his death. Having never been a Muslim, by the time he died, Salman had stopped believing in progress.
Alizadeh begins the book with a moving but not entirely necessary explanation of his reasons for writing the book. All his points are valid: ‘I have read many accounts of what went wrong in Iran, the trouble with Islam, and the like, and yet I am left bored, unsatisfied and disembodied’ (p. 5), but the main, novelistic narrative of the book speaks for itself. The (albeit justified) forthright anger of this front section might alienate some readers – the kind of readers who, perhaps, should be reading this book, the better to understand Iran’s rich history and the bold, destructive interference of Western powers.
The end of this chapter explains why Alizadeh has chosen his grandfather as the lens, and it becomes more evident, throughout the book – as his grandfather’s life was absorbing, privileged and vital, spanning many eras. He writes: ‘His life is not a crystal ball but a mirror. I’d like to see myself, and also you, reader – you and humans like us, in the mirror’ (p. 7). The book is not just a history, it’s an exploration of belief and error, of passion and disappointment, of individual and collective fate – fate sometimes autonomous, and on many occasions forced into shape by some external force.
The main, effective body of the book is written as historical fiction – the author’s grandfather’s life-story is intertwined with the life of the country. The book is never dull or dreary, but passionate (without being as forceful as the prologue.) It’s absorbing and informative simultaneously.
When the Qajar monarch was deposed in 1925 and Reza Khan took over as Shah, Alizadeh’s grandfather, Salman, became a policeman and was required to undertake military training. His pregnant wife, Tahereh, disagreed with the new Shah’s plans for modernising Iran. On p. 35, they argue over baby names. Tahereh wants an Iranian Muslim name, but Salman says: ‘Stop being so melodramatic, sweetheart. I think we should choose original Persian names. Names that Iranians used before the damn Arabs and their Islam invaded us.’ This micro-conflict is representative of the simmering differences throughout the population through many tyrannical, or short-lived, well-meaning, rulers over the following decades. One of the Shah’s impositions in 1935 was the banning of the veil for women, which Salman agreed with – his mother was a feminist and he himself believed women should be emancipated. But an incident is depicted which is very strong in the way it portrays the confusion of the clash between forced ‘freedom’, and choice: A woman refuses to remove her veil and Salman, as is his duty, must remove it by force.
‘He hears the woman whimper as he grimaces and, without looking directly at her, first tears off her face mask and then the long black fabric of her chador. She shrieks as though he were raping or stabbing her. Startled by her reaction, Salman lets go of her. She falls to her knees and starts beating herself over the head.’ (pp. 62–63).
Such a scene is frightening and difficult for the reader. Salman is our hero, and yet, we feel much empathy for the woman, who cannot contemplate Salman’s reasons for baring her – she cannot comprehend the law. This scene is also an emotional precursor, in microcosm, to later violent uprisings against secular laws and secular rule, or any kind of rule or aid that is not Islamic. But of course – there are reactions and then there are outrageous and terrible and fanatical reactions. And Alizadeh lets the reader make up their own mind, or allows them to contemplate the complexity of the chain (and loop) of actions and reactions in Iran’s history.
The ‘Great’ Reza Shah’s ideas and his hunger for power became larger, and as is always the case in these situations, opinion against power was quashed. Salman, in the 1940s back in his hometown as Police Chief, was certainly beginning to question the leader he once looked up to. A Prince being held in the jail of his district is killed without a trial, and Salman asks his Sergeant: ‘Do you think [Reza Shah] is steering the country in an ethically and politically viable direction … Or do you think, as I do, that his modernism is giving way to totalitarianism?’ (p. 80). Indeed the Shah and Nazi Germany were in cahoots, and Salman lost an eye standing up to a German scholar whom he suspected of using construction funds to buy Iranian archaeological treasures for museums in Europe.
After the Shah finally stepped down and Iran was taken for the Allies, the new Shah proved his mettle by publicly doing justice to the ‘perpetrators’ of the last regime. In this, Salman was falsely accused of the murder of the Prince who had been in his custody. He was sent to Qasr Prison – where, over the ensuing chapters, he undergoes much change and resolves himself to accepting a kind of powerlessness, passing through madness, to a shaky kind of peace. The story follows the family’s destiny until Alizadeh himself left Iran with his family as a teenager. It describes the rich, first world Iran of the 1970s, the Islamic uprising, the US involvement in bringing the Ayatollah into power. It suggests why the Ayatollah was accepted as an alternative voice to the people – tired of their megalomaniac Shah and in the absence of leftist/intellectual voices, and it references the Iraq/Iran war, with its horrific death toll. When Salman’s voice has passed, Alizadeh himself becomes the ‘mirror’ for the reader.
The writing itself is absorbing and polished. The structure works, in particular the intertwining histories: the microcosm of a grandfather’s life and the macro narrative of the country. The narrative is also peppered with aptly cryptic translations of Sufi poetry – which is something Salman was comforted by in prison. The complexity, the abstraction – these are things Salman can understand, not reason nor faith. ‘The rose that does not assume the heart’s colour/Shall be mired in the mud of its quintessence’ (p. 165).
One comes away with a feeling of heaviness, sadness and a sense of hope – for the understanding of people, for a diminishing role of greed, for countries of such rich and scarred history to one day be ruled as independently and fairly as possible, and for more books like this to be published and widely read.
by Mani Rao
Chameleon Press, 2010
Reviewed by AMOS TOH
Mani Rao has donned many hats – TV executive, visiting fellow, scholar, critic and performer – but she is perhaps most at home as a poet. Tellingly, her poetry has spanned over more than a decade, leaving a “ghostly trail of a narrative thread about the dynamics of a relationship and a corollary questioning of the self” in its wake (Cyril Wong, QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004). Like her past collections, Ghostmasters evidences an effortless kineticism and a tactile grasp of the language. However, there is also a sense that her restless journeying through love and loss, death and desire has come to fruition.
While Rao’s latest poems retain the freshness and immediacy of her penultimate collection, Echolocation (Hong Kong: Chameleon Press 2003), it also finds deeper satisfaction in the processes of questioning and undermining. Rao’s candid and sometimes acidulous perspective tugs insistently at the pretence of reality so that it tears away to illuminate a world of isolation and oblivion. Her hard-earned revelations enable the poet to shed past obsessions – the oft-romanticised “lovers of the moment” in “Choose”, “the hourglass of my body” and the “fat satin of gluttony” in “Grand Finale” – so that she may come to peace with “the memory of that knowledge by / which we continue to regard as true what we have known to be true” (“q”).
Rao burrows deep into the cacophony of human desire and activity to reveal their transience and therein their futility. She observes, with startling clarity, how want leaves us wanting:
If everything is impermanent why do you want it
I don’t want anything for ever
You will disappoint everyone
Then you will be free
Death and its associations of finality and salvation are similarly probed. The uneasy decorum and “polite timing” of a passing succumbs to the hunger of the living in “Shorts”; however “well-dressed” and “neatly folded”, death still marches to its pointless, facetious conclusion when “the family finds out who gets what / you are finally understood”. Immediately, the next poem “Duet” speaks of an apparently different subject matter but reaches starkly similar conclusions, finding little solace in the musings of wary lovers desperate to feel alive:
Next time check with me first
Drop in any time even if you are not around
You too phone when you have nothing to say
Each utterance struggles to come to terms with the suffocating stasis of a relationship that carries on in spite of itself and a future gone cold.
These are poems that provide neither sentimental consolations nor easy answers, probing the vagaries of love and loss with an unflinching eye to reveal our deepest natures and most intractable fears. Rao’s reflections become intensely personal in “Choose”, where a moment of whimsy while cleaning her ancestors’ graves leads the poet to contemplate the power to bring someone back to life. How quickly she discards her list of nominees – family, lovers, children – is reminiscent of American poet Louise Glück’s customary candour and dark wit:
Father of sacrifice needs no help to draw my pity
That is piteous
Mother of passion reigned over me
I resent that
Brother of empire I would re-instate
Sister of sullenness I feel for
Lovers of the moment I cannot deny
But they did not wait for me
Rao’s bathos is more mordant than trenchant, purging herself of the emptiness of self-righteous sacrifice and self-pity, as well as a love that is ultimately unloving.
Nevertheless, even as life falls away in “lumps and gravy” at the hands of a tyrant (“Pol Pot”) or crumbles to leave “one ragged wing banging in the wind” (“Shorts”), the poet finds something redeeming in the rediscovery of “the opening softening wood of my body”, as well as its retelling. Human emotions and experiences, already in themselves figments of language, are recast as new verbs, directions and destinations:
Pain is a Verb
Death is Not
Wrong is a Place
Love has No Opposite
Perfection is a Being
Rao refutes the absolutist perception that “love”, “pain” or a “wrong” can be ascribed boundaries of meaning or any particular ideal. To be sure, this does not mean her poems endorse “the pit of relativity…comparing this truth with that” (“Writing to Stop”). Instead, they reflect that there is nothing so virtuous or grand that cannot be flipped onto its back to reveal its hypocrisy:
That I think it is not to be feared does not mean I don’t fear it. I used
to be someone. I placed so much value on it I acted humble,
prefacing the admission of my fortune with ‘undeserved’. How
low an opinion I had of myself that I became satisfied.
The poet is now content with merely being, seeking solace in knowing “she is mere / Reflection” that “Stays with the metaphor / Some respectful distance from the sun.” (“Haul”). Writing may provide catharsis, yet that is no certainty in a topsy-turvy world where “language is language and gives away no clues” about its destinations (“Writing to Stop”). However, little does this faze the poet who is no longer afraid to linger on the threshold between desire and the desired, between the dying and the dead. Fittingly, she asks, “If we don’t stop writing love poems, how can we be loved?”, as if defying the irony. This is a poetry that reminds us to stop arranging our lives as a means to an end so that we may start living. It is little wonder then that Rao dedicates Ghostmasters neither to us nor our existence, but appeals instead to our sense of “presence”.
Symptoms of Homesickness
by Nathanael O’Reilly
Picaro Press, 2010
Reviewed by EA GLEESON
With dedications to Conlon and Quigley and geographical cues such as Yambuk, The Lady Bay Hotel and The Moyne, the nomenclature of Symptoms of Homesickness orientates us towards the Irish Australian Diaspora and particularly as it is lived out in Victoria’s South West. Closer reading reveals a wider geographical terrain but the real landscape of this poetry is the cultural and emotional territory explored through childhood, teenage years and young adulthood.
O’Reilly has paid attention to experience and brings it to the reader in a poetry that is descriptive. The opening poem in ‘Deep Water’ places the reader in a childhood place many might choose not to remember.
On winter mornings, the State
Put children to the test
While teeth chattered,
Swimming caps squashed
Ears, testicles retreated.
More enticing to those who thrive on nostalgia might be O’Reilly’s description of ‘Stopping for Fish and Chips’.
the sweaty package
Of butcher’s paper and grabbed hot
Handfuls. Escaping steam fogged-up
The windows. We gripped sleeves
In our fists and wiped windows clear.
More of the poems have to do with burgeoning sexuality, friendship and risk taking.
I enjoy the way O’Reilly plays a situation to transform a seemingly ordinary activity such as waiting in the library for the protagonist’s dad to collect him, into a chance to explore some of the adult magazines housed in the library.
I could not
Imagine the flat chested, uniformed girls
In my class with ribbons, baubles and pig-tails
In their hair developing such adornments,
Shamelessly spreading themselves on car bonnets.
(“Afternoons Waiting in Libraries”)
O’ Reilly’s approach is to tell. This is reflected in titles such as ‘Folk LPs and No TV’, ‘Stopping for Fish and Chips’ and as cited above, ‘Afternoons Waiting in Libraries’. Events are reported in detail.
Evenings were spent at home
Drinking my parents’ wine
Eating thick slabs of cheese
Grilled on toast while watching
Day night cricket matches on telly.
Or if the Austudy hadn’t run out,
Drinking Carlton Draught downtown
In the Shamrock Hotel or the Rifle Brigade…
Events of the heart are often presented in a similarly descriptive style, “oscillating between melancholy and desire” (Anna Karenina in Canberra), with a reliance, sometimes, on the use of adverbs.
She needed someone to hold.
I eagerly took up the task,
Tracing the contours of her
Delicate face with my finger,
Gratefully inhaling her warm breath,
Entwining my limbs with hers…
I think the impact of this can be to emphasise the physical detail at the expense of the emotional impact and hence, to lessen the likelihood of surprise. I found myself sometimes wishing O’Reilly would place more trust in his reader. On the other hand, I was taken with the way he presented some of his ideas so evocatively. His strongest poetry alluded to possibilities. This was particularly evident in some of his endings:
“Saying yes, yes to the unknown” (The Present) or “you showed us the world, then let us go” (Mentor) and the last line of the book, “The Trinity of your Australian Life”.
This final example ends one of the most moving poems of the collection, ‘Requiem’, in which the internationally situated grandson is not able to attend his grandfather’s funeral in Australia due to the pending birth of his child. A poem based on such poignant points of the cycle of life, with the inherent knowledge that this man was not able to hold his dying grandfather and the great-grandfather will never hold his grandchild would have to affect the reader. But it is the details of the grandson that made this poem live for me. Images of the expatriate grandson; opening the package containing his grandfather’s “duct-taped binoculars and dusty green corduroy cap”, being held by his wife “as he sat on the toilet and wept”, of remembering his music and stories and potato crop while he held his newly born daughter. Poetry rich with imagery but controlled by emotional truth is a potent poetic combination.
The title poem “Symptoms of Homesickness” works differently from others in this book, but cleverly. The expatriate protagonist laments somewhat ironically, the aspects of Australian life he misses, and with his musings, the tone shifts from poignant to self- deprecating to funny. So it is a shock when the final lines read,
When the pain is almost too much to bear.
Wondering how much it costs to fly a body home.
Although I would call for a tightening of the poetic technique and editing in Symptoms of Homesickness, it is a work that has me buzzing. Its content is interesting and does the important work of preserving a unique cultural history within the Australian experience. Most significantly, it projects work with a distinctive Australian voice. Elements of the poetry are entertaining, beautiful and frank. I am grateful to the poet-teacher in ‘Mentor’ who “convinced a roomful of teenagers that poetry matters”. The most significant poems have me excited about the future possibilities that we are likely to see from this poet. I will be queuing to buy his first full-length manuscript.
E. A. GLEESON‘s poetry collection, In between the dancing, received the award for Best First Manuscript and was published by Interactive Press in 2008. Anne lives in Daylesford, Victoria where she works as a Funeral Director.