Belonging is longing, a longing. For migrants to live in a land they have chosen to settle themselves in, to be(long) or not to be(long) is a crucial question. It depends on what they long for: Is it a temporary abode for short-term benefits before packing up and going home, a permanent enclave on its own or a (second) home where they feel they truly belong or want to be long in? This paper seeks to examine issues of belonging for first and second generation mainland Chinese migrants in a post-malticultural Australia where the idea of multiculturalism is being rendered increasingly obsolete, becoming almost ‘mal’ as in the sense of malfunctioning. The discussion will be based on three books, Wang Hong’s novel, jile yingwu (Extremely Happy Parrots), Shen Zhimin’s novel, donggan baozang (Dynamic Treasure Trove) and Leslie Zhao (Zhao Chuan)’s photographic novel, he ni qu ouzhou (Going to Europe with You).
‘I should never have come to Australia, I should never have left my country’
Wang Hong, born in Shanghai in 1962, is a Chinese woman novelist who stayed and studied in Australia from 1990 to 1992 before her return to China in 1993. Apart from this, there is little biographical information on the dust jacket except a curious little note at the end of her Chinese novel, jile yingwu (Extremely Happy Parrots), published in September 2002. The note goes, in my translation, ‘Sixth draft 2000/12/8’. One can work out from this that it must have taken her seven years and six drafts to finish writing the novel; further, it must have taken her about two years to find a publisher and get the novel published, nine years after her return to China. It wouldn’t be a far-fetched conjecture that the novel bears some parallel to her own life in that the main protagonist, Ma Lan, returns to China after her failed attempt to stay in Australia through a fake arranged marriage, first with an Italian, then with another man of unidentified nationality by the name of Ma Er Fu (Marf?). True to the synopsis on the back cover of the book, the novel has a ‘wonderful sense of poetry’ and, in my view, presents a haunting image of Chinese student lives as if caught in a time warp, a vacuum created as much by their own blind, obstinate attempts to stay as by Australia’s indifference towards their fate, and worse, by Australia’s philistine acts to make a buck by fraud through the performance of characters like Ao Lie Fo (Oliver) and his family.
jile yingwu is a painful novel to read. It traces Ma Lan’s short sojourn in Australia as grape-picker, orange-picker, lemon-picker, cleaner and hospice-carer, in places ranging from Red Cliffs on the South-Australia and Victoria border to Westfield in Sydney. In China, this university graduate ‘tried her best to learn English…in order to chuguo [out the country, meaning going overseas] one day.’ (23) After she finishes her studies in Australia, she has to extend her visa but lacks the money to do it. In order to stay, she borrows money to pay Oliver to secure her a partner in a fake marriage. When this does not work, she enters into an arranged marriage with Ma Er Fu in an attempt to stay but decides to leave for China after she aborts her baby. The day she leaves, Ma Er Fu says to her:
You are right. Why must you live in this country in the southern hemisphere? There’s no reason why. I can’t see any reason. I understand you. Like you, I also suffer from homesickness….I have left my home far too long. I feel that my inner heart has lost this strength. Living is a habit. The past has been severed and so it is impossible now. I am not living. I am only surviving and hoping that one day I may live better. If I were you, I would perhaps do the same. As long as you believe that huiguo [return country or returning to your home country] makes you happy, you should huiguo.’
In the extreme circumstances in which she finds herself, deep in debt from both her own family in China and the Oliver family, Ma Lan has to scrape a living by doing the hard labor as a fruit picker, getting paid 0.39 cents for 10 kilos of grapes picked (6). When she marries Ma Er Fu she has only ten dollars in her account (98). She has to rely on superstitious belief for solace. For example, when Oliver’s mother dies and is about to be shipped back to her gutu [native earth or native land], Ma Lan thinks aloud to herself:
One person leaves Australia.
One person enters Australia.
The matter of the world is indestructible. This person who enters should be her! (14)
She also willfully persists in her other superstitious belief that she is somehow from the Jewish stock that is ‘distinctly different from hanren [Han people or Chinese people]’ (20) and that it is because of her ‘unresearcheable ancestry-Jewish or tujue [Turkish] merchants’ that she has ‘come ten thousand li at the end of the century to the southern hemisphere to tie the knot of marriage with someone originally from there’ (187), that someone being Ma Er Fu.
All Ma Lan ever manages to do in Australia, though, is, as she says, ‘living abjectly-for a green card’ (175), a life that is ‘finished, dead’, and she feels that if she does not sum it all up, ‘what shall arrive is only an extension of death’ (176). Here, one can’t but recall Ouyang Yu’s contemplation that ‘living in australia is living after death’.
Other Chinese students fare hardly better than Ma Lan: Yang Fan does not speak English, thus rendered deaf and dumb ever since his coming to Australia (94); Lao Yan writes a letter containing his first-time payment of 100 Australian dollars that will never reach his wife in China (27), which act repeats itself to a painful degree; and Qin Yue foolishly persists in her fantasy that only by studying hard could she somehow hope to change her fate (71). Their names are ultimate symbols of irony and terror, Yang Fan meaning ‘setting sail’ and, as part of the phrase, yangfan yuanhang, implying he’s someone setting sail for a distant voyage with great hopes; Lao Yan hinting at Old Devil; and Qin Yue, Qin Moon, a woman from one of the oldest stocks of the Chinese civilization, right back to the Qin Dynasty (BC 221-207). The place names are also imbued with a sense of the macabre as the Murray River is transliterated as mai lei he (Wheat Tears River) or deliberately mis-spelt in an English poem written by Ma Lan as ‘Marry River’ (85).
Added to this is a host of other characters, most of them immigrants whose nationalities remain undisclosed, including the fraudulent Oliver family who lose two members in 10 days, giving false hope to Ma Lan and Qin Yue; Ma Er Fu whose Jewish or Turkish stock is vaguely alluded to and who wonders if he should ever have come to Australia (284); and Steven, an Australian-born Hungarian who plays the role of a Chinese in a play in which no Chinese are allowed (225), the only one who does not have a guishu gan [a sense of belonging] when he goes back to Hungary. He says, ‘when I look at them [Hungarians], I am looking at completely foreign people. Secretly, I even think people there look ugly’ (225). The interesting thing here is that Ma Lan does not identify with Steven. She ‘looks at him, without curiosity, without polite concern’ and ‘her silence bears out that his appeal is rather affected’ (225).
Throughout, there is not a single mention of words like racism or multiculturalism. Only in one scene, Liz, an Australian patient, is heard to speak sharply to Ma Lan and Xiao, a Pacific Islander. ‘ “You, you Asians get out!” The old lady tells them ferociously. “Get out of our country!” ’ (275). What follows is a quite unusual musing about happiness by Ma Lan when Liz’s son in a ‘fine’ suit asks her where she learnt her ‘good’ English:
Ma Lan’s voice sounds flat. She goes out of the room. She is weary of the way others look [at her]. Nothing will change because of the conversation. He wears a fine suit and thinks he can take pity on her because she speaks English with an English accent. She is a civilized person from an ancient, savage land. She has given all her life to learn English. However, here it is the air everyone breathes. If she had learnt something else, if she were a senior staff member in a transnational company, would her life be worth more? When she worked in a big company in guonei [inside country, meaning China] and also wore a fine suit, she didn’t feel superior to people, she didn’t feel happy.
Happiness is so rare it can only come from the inner heart (276).
Where does Ma Lan belong in Australia? One can only gauge by where she situates herself in relation to Australia. In Sydney, ‘she feels like walking on the edge of this city, this city on the edge of the ocean, the continent that this city belongs to being surrounded by the blue sea water, turning around the edge of the planet in which they were born’ (258). Australia means nothing to her. At best, it is a place for her to be ‘walking through’, ‘without leaving a trace (278)’.
Interestingly, in an unlikely place, Rose, Tom’s mother in Tony Ayres feature film, Home Song Stories (2007), has said the same thing as expressed by Ma Lan that she ‘should never have come to Australia’.
san yuan se: the three original colors
When Shen Jiawei, normally known as Jiawei Shen, the Australian-Chinese artist, did a portrait for John So, Lord Mayor of Melbourne, he combined three major elements in the painting: John So’s Chinese face and his Aboriginal attire dealt in oils, an artistic style that originated in the West, read white. Interestingly, more than a decade ago, prior to this portrait executed, in the early 1990s, when The Ancestor Game by Alex Miller was published, there is description of a harmonious relationship between Chinese, Irish and Aboriginal people, as exemplified by Noonan, Feng and Dorset, which was actually based on a goldfield painting by Joseph Johnson, featuring a Chinese, an Irishman and an Aboriginal person playing euchre that was supposedly a reflection of early harmony existing among these very different peoples before racism set in and wrought a havoc that has cast a long shadow over Australia. It may sound exclusive towards people of other nationalities and ethnicities but this concern with the three original colours has been an age-old one with people from as diverse backgrounds as Scottish (Hume Nisbet), Hungarian (David Martin) and white Australian (Xavier Herbert), to whom Chinese play a linking role between the black and the white. In donggan baozang (Dynamic Treasure Trove) by Shen Zhimin, the combination of the three original colours forms the basis of the novel, in which an Aboriginal boy, a Chinese boy and a white Australian boy go hand in hand in search of Australia’s Aboriginal origin, symbolized by the shangxin zhi di (heart-broken place or heart-breaking place) where a massacre had taken place 200 years ago involving many Aboriginal deaths (227), and, in the process, discover themselves. It is a much happier novel than the ironically titled, Extremely Happy Parrots, in that the three boys choose to live an outcast’s life by roaming the country, casting their sense of belonging to the four winds.
The stories of these three boys roaming the country in search of treasure, spiritual and otherwise, are less important than the idea that lies behind the construction of the novel. This idea reflects a significant realization, albeit limited, on the part of the author that the key to racial and cultural harmony in Australia is a blending of the three primary colours and it is based on this realization that Shen assigns roles for the three boys to play. What is more intriguing is the fact that two of the boys come from disreputable family backgrounds, tang mu si (Thomas), illegitimate son of a conservative MP who commits suicide after his affair is exposed and Gao Qiang [meaning High Strong], son of a corrupt Chinese company director. When these family tragedies occur, Thomas and Gao Qiang become homeless, straying into Redfern where they befriend tu gu [meaning Earth Valley], the Aboriginal boy, and fight together against the police in the Redfern Riots. It is obvious that an echo to Australia’s convict past is implied in the family background of Thomas and Gao Qiang in that both have come from a disgraced family background and a defiance of Australian police, symbol of state control and power, is shown through their fight in the riots. Despite rather stereotypical portraits of the three boys, e.g., Tu Gu as someone who does not care about money (89) and who identifies strongly with the wandering spirit of an eternal traveler ge lan te (Grant) (125), Gao Qiang as someone overwhelmingly concerned with money (89, 129) and Thomas as someone ‘the most brainy’, full of intelligent ideas (135), the novel nevertheless reveals a darker truth about Australia as a place not fit for Chinese to stay. After all their adventures involving fights against a rascal si di mu (Steam), their musical band going places and their search for gold, etc, Gao Qiang ‘is going back to China’ (318). The novel ends with Gao Qiang saying, in response to the questions from Tu Gu and Thomas as to why he is going back, ‘You forgot. Didn’t I say that I was going to run a trading company and come to Australia to do business? When I make money and make a fortune, I shall invite you to have fun in China.’ (318)
It is worth noting that, by comparison with Wang Hong, Shen’s message is upbeat about his three fictional boys, as reflected in a remark made by Grant, an erstwhile bank manager who gives up on his work in favour of traveling alone, having been traveling on the road for 25 years, without family or kids. He says that after he gets on the road, he ‘thinks of wanting to go home less and less’ (125), that it’s only on the road that he ‘feels whole’ (127) and that, for him, ‘there is always a home by the side of roads’ (128). What I can recall from this is the story James Chang (Zhang Zhizhang), a Taiwanese-Chinese writer, told in the 1994 Chinese-Australian Arts Festival of an old overseas Chinese who said that the minute he sat down in his seat on a plane he felt at home and that’s where he belonged.
There is an early echo to Dynamic Treasure Trove in Shen Zhimin’s novella, titled, bian se hu (The Colour Changing Lake), which I published in Otherland (No. 2, 1996) as editor. In that story about the difficulties Chinese students have when they first arrive in Australia, it is Aborigines who befriend them, not white Australians. In fact, white Australians are terrible racists. When Jiang Hua, the name meaning River Flower or River Chinese, the protagonist, is playing erhu in a small town, a ‘tall white woman’ rushes in and tells him off, ‘like yelling at an animal’; she calls Jiang ‘a beggar from the East and a heathen’. Jiang has to leave even though he thinks that ‘their behaviour does not correspond to God’s spirit.’ When Jiang Hua is detained by the Immigration officers, it is niao (Bird), an Aboriginal elder who comes to his aid with his men and gives the officers and policemen a talking-to, ‘We have been living here for hundreds of years thousands of years tens of thousands of years. We are really master of this land. We should decide who is or is not an illegal immigrant. This Chinese is my friend. He can stay as long as he likes. It’s got nothing to do with you. If you don’t like it, you can go back to Sydney or elsewhere. Or you can go back to your old home in Europe.’
In Shen Zhimin’s novella, there is almost a visible determination not to give whites their due but to insist on a healthy dose of ethnic mixture. None of his heroes or heroines are white Australians. Born of an English dandy father and a Gipsy mother, Weiduoliya (Victoria) is a street artist who becomes Jiang’s friend. Bird, the Aboriginal elder, is of Aboriginal and Chinese parentage because his grandfather was a Chinese gold-digger who escaped from ‘white persecution’ to live with Aborigines and married an Aboriginal woman, Bird’s grand-mother. Even the two Immigration officers bent on taking Jiang prisoner turn out to be migrants themselves, one a Jew from England whose father had escaped there from Poland in the Second World War and the other is originally also an illegal immigrant from Yugoslavia. It is these ideological underpinnings that made Shen’s novel and novella read more like political fables than truly realized fiction.
Possibly related to Australia
he ni qu ouzhou (Going to Europe with You) is not an Australian novel; it is written by a hyphenated Australian. Leslie Zhao (Zhao Chuan) has indeed lived for many years in Australia since 1990 but, after he became an Australian citizen, he decided to return to Shanghai in or about 2000, coming back once every year, according to him, to lodge his annual tax return. In this roaming novel, interspersed with photographs, from Madrid through Saville, Bacelona, Napoli, Sicily, Rome, Florence, Venice, Geneva, Paris, Avignon and London, enacted entirely between ni (you) and wo (I), through a series of email letters or interior monologues, Australia is virtuely non-existent. The only Australian is a girl by the name of da fu ni (Daphne) that ‘I’ met in a Shanghai-based art exhibition (61), who grew up in a Melbourne beach town and is a girl of ‘innocent and natural Australian qualities’ (66). When they meet in Barcelona, Daphne asks ‘I’, ‘You go out alone this far. Do you want to escape? How far do you want to go?’ (66). ‘I’, who does not have a name, says in a philosophical remark that sounds like Grant in donggan baozang, ‘Travel seems to give me more opportunities to catch things that almost drift past my body’ (67).
A novel of lacuna in which Australia does not exist, by a Chinese-Australian who now prefers to make his home in Shanghai, ‘the most Westernised city in China’ (19), is perhaps more telling than otherwise, more Australian than un-Australian, or should I say, more Australian in being un-Australian. What is not expressed in the fiction finds expression in the non-fiction, in the houji (Postscript), in which Zhao Chuan describes why he wrote the book. ‘The reason why I had that desire to write is probably related to my having lived for many years in Australia. It is a migrant society where people from different cities and different cultural experiences have to live together. We are curious about each other; our mutual interaction is ongoing but is never somehow fitting. We live closely together: working in the same place, separated by buildings or walls or we scrape our shoulders as we walk past or are even sleeping in the same bed. However, our memories are probably far apart, hard to be pulled together (230).’
More than Leslie Zhao’s novel, Hongchen jie (Doomed to Red Dust), a recent novel by Ying Ge, based in Australia since 1989, completely abandons Australia in its narration, featuring instead a Chinese-American in Lin Wenlu, who gives up his well-paying job in an American company and chooses to stay in Beijing. It is not hard to find that this homeward bound attachment has already been foreshadowed in his first novel, chuguo weishenme?—laizi dayang bi’an de baogao (Why Go Overseas?—report from the other side of the ocean), in which an old Chinese man muses on the significance of overseas Chinese in these words:
Wherever I go, I remain a Chinese in other people’s eyes. Chinese are a heavy nation. (339-340)…But, I think, whatever circumstances in which they find themselves, Chinese people have a thought that co-exists with their hearts. That is: I am born on yellow earth, I am a Chinese, I should do something for my zuguo (ancestral nation or motherland) and I should do something for my nation….(341)
This is of course didactic but didactic in a way that makes sense. If multiculturalism is meant to keep peoples apart, so that ‘one cannot possibly dance the Russian ballet to the accompaniment of Aboriginal instruments nor can Western ways of singing match Asian folk tunes’, they cannot but keep harking back to their zuguo (ancestral nation) as their only way out, as Ying Ge says on the back of his first novel, ‘However far they go, they remain sons and grandsons of Yellow Emperor, born on Yellow Earth.’
If there is any home to belong to, it is perhaps in the fiction that Zhao Chuan creates, one that is ‘ready to get lost, to encounter strange crowds and to turn into another direction after an exchange of a few words’. (231)
The most poignant remark is made in a recent editorial in huaxia zhoubao (The Weekly Chinese) newspaper, in Melbourne, in celebration of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival (25/9/07) when the editor says, after describing Australia as a ‘migrant country’ full of peoples from all over the world, ‘You’d be dead wrong if you think this country is like China where there are “fifty six nationalities, fifty six constellations, fifty six flowers and fifty six brothers and sisters that all belong in one family”. Respecting each other like guests is all superficiality, formality, politeness, distance, strangeness and non-intimacy; it is hard to mix like oil and water.”
Greg McLaren is a poet, critic, editor and amateur risotto genius who lives in Sydney. His books are Everything falls in, Darkness disguised and The Kurri Kurri Book of the Dead.
Kek kek kek kek kek –
startled on the edge of a deep sleep
by panicked plovers.
The commerce student
looks up from his PS2
at the crescent-moon.
Enraged by poetry,
I circumambulate my flat
like Frank Webb in CallanPark.
The raven vanishes
into the under-storey of brush
across the Hawkesbury.
Walking around Petersham
under the full moon –
what? it’s dawn already?
In the thunderstorm,
mid-arvo, currawongs gossip
between the lightning.
Horse and cattle bones
in the overgrown paddock –
the grass and cutting wind.
I walked for miles
and when I stopped,
red frangipani blossoms.
Hugging my knees,
squat on the ground, grieving
for my friend the priest.
The raven on the wire
all day in Petersham,
pining for Petersham.
Chinese poems After Han Shan
(from Burton Watson, 100 Poems by the T’ang poet)
A bedsit is home for this country boy:
cabs and buses rarely drop off passengers:
the street-side trees so still that crows roost here,
the gutter full of cigarette butts and frangers.
I go chocolate shopping on my own,
smoke joints in the park with my girlfriend.
And in this little flat? Books piled high
on my bedside table with the Chinese landscape print.
Fark! Bookshop wages and a constant cough,
stuck alone without friends or family.
There’re hardly any potatoes for the pot
and I boil dust in the Coles brand kettle.
Cracked tiles in the roof drip tumours of rain,
my bed sags in the middle – I can’t sleep.
And you’re surprised I’m so thin?
A mess like this would send anyone spare.
I slaved my arse off over Joyce,
poring stupidly over Finnegan’s Wake.
I’ll be checking bookshop stock figures til I’m 80 –
a mong scribbling away at invoices and returns.
When I ask the I Ching, it says, Look out –
my life’s dictated by bad horoscopes.
If only I was like the river red gums,
a pale shade of green even in drought.
I was born more than forty years ago.
Ten thousand or more miles, I’ve been driven,
alongside rivers thick with willows,
across the reddened border of South Australia.
I drank Jim Beam in hope of acceptance,
read the poets, and Manning Clark’s History.
But now, I’m back here in Kurri, head
on an old pillow, fouling my ears with home.
Last year, when I was so poor,
I counted money for cretinous brothers.
So I decided to work for myself
digging out crystals or something.
A smiling foreign critic wrote to me
and wanted to laud me in his Review.
I offered him only what I could,
Mate, you couldn’t afford poems like these.
Judith Beveridge has published four books of poetry: The Domesticity of Giraffes (Black Lightning Press, 1987), Accidental Grace (UQP, 1996), Wolf Notes (Giramondo Publishing 2003), Storm and Honey (Giramondo Publishing 2009). She has won many awards for her poetry including the NSW Premier’s Award, The Victorian Premier’s Award and the Judith Wright Calanthe Award. In 2005 she was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for excellence in literature. She is currently the poetry editor for Meanjin and teaches poetry writing at postgraduate level at the University of Sydney.
Then the path wound down
to a browner place, to a river
where rain-grey herons slender as rushes
drifted off like camp-smoke.
I’ve only seen their colour
in a few opals baked deep in clay country.
When they stared, it was as if
their eyes carried on
One stood so peacefully
as if it saw and heard the single
far off, crystal note;
slender, rag-thin bird we called
blue Gotama. We crumbled a mushroom—
all we could call
sacred, yet common:
but they looked past all hungers.
So we trod quietly back,
left them sitting above the long
brown earthworm of the river
and our pile of useless
vegetable soil. They were
beautiful as blue veins in the wrists of monks
fasting for perfection.
On the headland to the lighthouse,
a brown detour of caterpillars
crimped end-to-end across the road.
Poke away the pilot and the line
would break up, rioting,
fingering for the scent.
Put him back, they’d straighten.
You could imagine them humming
their queue numbers.
I’ve only seen such blind following
in the patient, dull dole queues,
or old photos of the Doukhobors,
the world’s first march of naked people.
I watched over the line for hours
warding off birds whose wings, getting close,
were like the beating of spoons
in deep bowls. I put a finger to the ground
and soft prickles pushed over,
a warm chain of hair.
This strange sect, wrapped in the sun
like their one benefit blanket
marched in brotherhood and exile.
Later, a group of boys
(their junta-minds set on torture)
picked off the leader.
Each creature contorted,
shut into its tight burr.
I could only stand like a quiet picket
and watch the rough panic.
I remember them, those caterpillars,
pacifists following their vegetable passion—
lying down in the road and dying
when they could no longer touch each other.
Occasions of Snails
They slide out of the light
leave a chrome stain through shade on the brickpath.
Their excreta are milled like censer ash
as they wander aisles, scented paths,
crawl over ageing grasses,
bask in warm mud like the terribly poor.
They wander the earth
as if looking for St Francis of Assisi.
So many anonymous buds—
a bucketful from the lettuces and roses.
The colour of autumn’s loose litter—
they are aimless, evicted,
itinerant for the velvet luxury
of the orchid and lily.
The evening is cool, a cricket’s call
fills the ground like a slow cistern.
I bend close to the earth, watch a tiny snail
rock in the crib of a leaf.
A trail just visible where spiders are tooling lace.
It works the abrupt edge.
It is a couturier cutting away.
It will quickly feather this leaf.
As a child I squinted for their script.
I searched the vast twin prayeryards
of sunshine and wind.
I watched for their headlines
as if they were notices for the arrivals
and departures of angels;
as if they were the proof—
beautiful and brief—of anonymous flights
scrawled across the house-walls, down ditches,
on uncut grasses, on a splintery fence;
as if they were the tinsels of a local moon.
Now I am a gardener.
I make their landscapes deadly.
I make Golgothas in the garden.
And I have laid my poisons—
the mockery of diced stems.
I have pressed them to the earth.
I have trowelled them into the soil.
I have riveted their pastel to the bricks.
I have denied them soft altars, plush roads,
these trackers of unattainable softness,
these evacuees of needle-thin tracks
who never look back on their painstaking silver.
But look how they go—
beseeching the deities Gloss
and Lightheadedness; how they stroll
amongst mucilage and essences
as if in mystical consortium
with nasturtium and rose—
how they find the sane bewilderment
of a child wandering in her garden
with a rose in her head.
She curses her brothers
who drop them on cactuses,
turn them into sludge
and laugh them into sad weak bubbles.
Still, she remembers the hiss
of so many tossed into the ash.
Those winkled from their sockets by twigs.
Sometimes, when I hold them,
when they are immured
and smelling of lavender;
when they turn their dibbled heads
from my palms, I remember
those soldered paths
and this world’s exotic itinerary.
Again, I track their rubbled passages
(to the roses, to the compost).
They have crawled into eggshells
as if into temples, as if into light.
How to Love Bats
Begin in a cave.
Listen to the floor boil with rodents, insects.
Weep for the pups that have fallen. Later,
you’ll fly the narrow passages of those bones, but for now—
open your mouth, out will fly names
like Pipistrelle, Desmodus, Tadarida. Then,
listen for a frequency
lower than the seep of water, higher
than an ice planet hibernating
beyond a glacier of Time.
Visit op shops. Hide in their closets.
Breathe in the scales and dust
of clothes left hanging. To the underwear
and to the crumpled black silks—well,
give them your imagination
and plenty of line, also a night of gentle wind.
By now your fingers should have
touched petals open. You should have been dreaming
each night of anthers and of giving
to their furred beauty
your nectar-loving tongue. But also,
your tongue should have been practising the cold
of a slippery, frog-filled pond.
Go down on your elbows and knees.
You’ll need a speleologist’s desire for rebirth
and a miner’s paranoia of gases—
but try to find within yourself
the scent of a bat-loving flower.
Read books on pogroms. Never trust an owl.
Its face is the biography of propaganda.
Never trust a hawk. See its solutions
in the fur and bones of regurgitated pellets.
And have you considered the smoke
Yet from a moving train? You can start
half an hour before sunset,
but make sure the journey is long, uninterrupted
and that you never discover
the faces of those trans-Siberian exiles.
Spend time in the folds of curtains.
Seek out boarding-school cloakrooms.
Practise the gymnastics of wet umbrellas.
floating yet, thought-light,
without a keel on your breastbone?
Then, meditate on your bones as piccolos,
on mastering the thermals
beyond the tremolo; reverberations
beyond the lexical.
at describing the spectacles of the echo—
but don’t watch dark clouds
passing across the moon. This may lead you
to fetishes and cults that worship false gods
by lapping up bowls of blood from a tomb.
Practise echo-locating aerodromes,
stamens. Send out rippling octaves
into the fossils of dank caves—
then edit these soundtracks
with a metronome of dripping rocks, heartbeats
and with a continuous, high-scaled wondering
about the evolution of your own mind.
But look, I must tell you—these instructions
are no manual. Months of practice
may still only win you appreciation
of the acoustical moth,
hatred of the hawk and owl. You may need
to observe further the floating black host
through the hills.
Something’s dead in that stand of trees.
Vultures circle and swoop.
Flies fresh from the herds
hum around my head.
I watch the maggots rise, cooking up.
Ants in tiny rows keep convoying
Even the moon can’t keep itself clean:
soap soiled by a dung-collector’s hands.
The carcass is a spotted deer’s.
Only yesterday, perhaps,
it was grazing among the trees,
its hide so much the colour of the trunks,
it would seem to be hardly there.
How many years have I journeyed?
Time. So much its own colour.
Death in every stand of trees.
In the Forest
So long in this forest—I hardly remember
my home. Though sometimes when I see
the pink reach of lotuses—I remember
the underside of my mother’s hands.
And sometimes, when I see a scorpion
jack up the green stinger of its tail,
do I think of my father’s lithe thumb,
gesturing. Sometimes the wing of an
insect, weighing no more than two
layers of lacquer, will make me count
how often I saw Yasodhara’s face
under the sky’s veneer. I’ve seen so
many lives born outside of reason; little
antennas poking through their cocoons.
Now, a praying mantis strokes the air
with a casual feeler, then tenses its legs
against the weather. How long will it sit
folded in upon itself, brave petitioner?
All day I bow to these creatures—
those who wait their cycles out more
devoutly than moons. But sometimes,
watching a butterfly emerge, I sense
my own eyelids flutter in the strange
puparium of a dream. O, I don’t know
if I’ll ever wake, changed, transformed,
able to lift on viridescent wings.
But as I watch, I feel my mind enter
a vast space in which everything
connects; and a grasshopper on a blade
of grass listens intently with its knees.
At dusk she walks to the lake. On shore
a few egrets are pinpointing themselves
in the mud. Swallows gather the insect lint
off the velvet reed-heads and fly up through
the drapery of willows. It is still hot.
Those clouds look like drawn-out lengths
of wool untwilled by clippers. The egrets
are poised now—moons just off the wane—
and she thinks, too, how their necks are
curved like fingernails held out for manicure.
She walks the track that’s a draft of the lake
and gazes at where light nurses the wounded
capillaries of a scribbly gum. A heron on one leg
has the settled look of a compass, though soon,
in flight, it will have the gracility of silk
when it’s wound away. She has always loved
the walks here, the egrets stepping from
the lute music of their composure, the mallards
shaking their tails into the chiffon wakes,
the herons fletching their beaks with moths
or grasshoppers, the ibis scything the rushes
or poking at their ash-soft tail feathers.
Soon the pelicans will sail in, fill and filter
the pink. Far off, she can see where tannin
has seeped from the melaleucas, a burgundy
stain slow as her days spent amongst tiles and
formica. She’s glad now she’s watching water
shift into the orange-tipped branches of a
she-oak, a wren flick its notes towards the wand
of another’s twitching tail. There’s an oriole
trilling at the sun, a coveted berry, a few
cicadas still rattling their castanets. She loves
those casuarinas, far off, combed and groomed,
trailing their branches: a troupe of orang-utans
with all that loping, russet hair; and when
the wind gets into them, there’s a sound as if
seeds were being sorted, or feet shuffled amongst
the quiet gusts of maracas. Soon the lights on
the opposite shore will come on like little
electric fig seeds and she will walk back
listening to frogs croak in the rushes, the bush
fill with the slow cisterns of crickets, her head
with the quiet amplitude of—Keats perhaps,
or a breeze consigning ripples to the bank;
the sun, an emblazoned lifebuoy, still afloat.
We heard the creaking clutch of the crank
as they drew it up by cable and wheel
and hung it sleek as a hull from the roof.
Grennan jammed open the great jaws
and we saw how the upper jaw hung from
the skull. We flinched at the stench of blood
that dripped on the fishhouse floor, and
even Davey – when Grennan reached in
past the scowl and the steel prop for the
stump – just about passed out. The limb’s
skin had already blanched, a sight none
of us could stomach, and we retched
though Grennan, cool, began cutting off
the flesh in knots, slashing off the flesh
in strips; and then Davey, flensing and
flanching, opened up the stomach and
the steaming bowels. Gulls circled like
ghouls. Still they taunt us with their cries
and our hearts still burn inside us when
we remember, how Grennan with a tool
took out what was left of the child.
I’m sorting out the hooks in Grennan’s big old tackle box.
I pick one from the box. It has a sliced
shank, a rolled-in sports point, a wide gape and long bite.
I like the ones too whose points lie offset from their shanks
and those with sinkers like fisheyes
moulded onto them. This hook with a corroded point
and rusting suicide barb I name wild-beaked bait-giver.
This hook looks like the neck
of a little egret when the wind lifts a wisp of feathers
from its nape. This hook has a kinked shank and sickle
curve, so I call it ibis leaning
over the shallows. These two forged-silver, light-wired
bait-holders brazed together beautifully I call greenshanks
in flight. I know Grennan and Davey
would think I’m silly naming these old hooks, but what
else is there to do when you’re stuck in a boathouse, no fish
running, when the hooks’ real names
Sproat, Sneck, Big Bend, Model 20R are just not poetry.
I have always loved the word guitar
David St. John
I have never been bumped in a saddle as a horse springs
from one diagonal to another,
a two-beat gait light and balanced
as the four-beats per stride become the hair-blowing,
exhilaration of the gallop.
And I have never counted the slow four-beat pace
of distinct, successive hoofbeats
in such an order as to be called The Walk.
Or learned capriole, piaffe, croupade in a riding school,
nor heard the lingo of outback cattle-cutters
spat out with their whip-ends and phlegm.
I have never stepped my hands over the flanks
of a spotted mare, nor ridden a Cleveland Bay
carriage horse, or a Yorkshire coach horse,
a French Percheron with its musical snicker,
or a little Connemara, its face buried
in broomcorn, or in a bin of Wexford apples.
I have never called a horse Dancer, Seabiscuit, Ned,
Nellie, Trigger or Chester, or made clicking noises
with my tongue during the fifty kilometres
to town with a baulking gelding and a green
quartertop buggy. Nor stood in a field while
an old nag worked every acre
only stopping to release difficult knobs of manure
and swat flies with her tail. And though I have
waited for jockeys at the backs of stables
in the mist and rain, for the soft feel of their riding silks
and saddles, for the cool smoke of their growth-stunting
cigarettes, for the names of the yearlings
and mares they whisper along with the names
of horse-owning millionaires – ah, more, more even
than them – I have always loved the word appaloosa.