Born in Ojisek, Croatia, in 1959, Tatjana Lukic studied philosophy and sociology at the University of Sarajevo, and published four poetry collections in Serbo-Croatian while she was still in her twenties. After long-brewing ethnic conflicts broke out into war in what was then Yugoslavia, Tatjana Lukic came to Australia, as a refugee with a young family, in 1992. Poignantly enough, two Serbo-Croatian-language poems of hers were translated into English for the Yale University Press publication, Cross Currents, a Yearbook of Central European Culture, in the same year.
In Cross Currents, Lukic’s poems were published with work by five other women poets from (then) Yugoslavia and the translator, Dasha Culic Nisula, identifed Lukic’s topic areas as “human relationships” and “the relationship of a poet to her craft”. Nisula did not comment on the technique of Lukic’s poems, that not only present an emotional situation, or broader life situation, through evocative details and/ or compressed but telling images, but also submit the subject matter to a detached, critical working-over. Comparison, Buddhism tells us, is always bitter; but the speaker of Lukic’s ‘Measured Units’ balances the inevitable gall (the poem closes on an image of time as “bitter honey”, dripping like water from a leaky tap) with an even-toned valuing of things-in-their-own-right, as she contrasts a poetic and a domestic vocation.
you were pregnant with a son
I was pondering comparisons
time is one
but the hours are different
your clock – a wall decorated
with a barometer, a spoon
a red box for pepper
cinnamon and salt
as a second hand
you tiptoe quickly after a man
while you quiet a child with a pacifier
I erase a title
before dawn I question: should I put a period?
you change diapers
you have your own room –
a line full of clothes
your own midnight next to your husband’s breath
from ‘Measured Units’, translated by Dasha Culic Nisula
Neither the speaker nor the object of her inquiry – sister, friend, neighbour, another self – is overtly a winner or loser; the poem leaves it to the reader to make such judgements, according to need and/or desire. One of the mysteries of the translation is whether the Serbo-Croatian for the English word “period” – denoting the punctuation device – also connotes menstruation. This ambiguity tends to leave ‘Measured Units’, good as it is, floating in a kind of bi-lingual limbo or fog. No such difficulties attend Tatjana Lukic’s new poems, all written in English.
After arriving in Australia, Lukic worked as a researcher and data analyst for various government departments, mostly in Canberra, according to some circumstantial evidence.
east row, mort st, canberra
it started just at the time of morning tea
‘no sugar for me’, one of the fleshy gods said
and emptied his spoon over concrete land
‘it’s snowing!’ at one dash
we all left our desks
and rushed to the windows
‘open, sesame, open!’
just to catch a flake
and we’ll behave well again
staring at the screens till dark
‘open now, it’s snowing!’
but there is no magic fit enough
to move the glass walls of our cell
one by one
we walked quietly back
to our chairs
a dear one
‘it’s snowing, darling, open the window!’
recorded all answering machines
across the lake
la, la, la shows that Lukic’s technique, of which a reader gets tantalising glimpses in the Cross Currents selection, proved transferable into her new tongue. Lukic’s poems join an expressionist impulse – and a warm emotionality – to a disciplined consideration of the place, weight, value of emotion as it “looms” in the world’s “small things” (quotes here are from the book’s epigraph, taken from Euripides’ Ion). The result is surprisingly satisfying, as the “small things” that the poems attend to are actually made to connect with history. The poem ‘1959’ manages this with enviable simplicity and magnificent found surrealism. The poem launches, almost all-at-once-together, a new-born child; the Cuban Revolution; the first marketing of Barbie; a hit pop song (Rocco Granata’s Marina); the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary; and the great Australian post-war immigration boom, as if all the above were so many helium balloons with different faces.
war was freezing in the air, everywhere
lost in a purple patch of a magic land,
the grapes were ripening
when i slipped into the world
before i had time to cry
the red dust swept the olive green
off havana’s streets
the winds were playing over the seas
with a bunch of new flags of all colours
above freed lands
at the back of his new weatherboard cottage
down under, in yarralumla, where the world will end,
a young settler, an italian builder, was planting an olive tree
the earth was circling slowly
getting its strength
even a gipsy searching a baby’s palm
could not guess
Lukic goes in less for knock-out-one-liners, than for the whole poem as multi-dimensional construct. The critical distance that the poems practise towards even the most touching or tender life experience, nudges the reader into the sense that a poem, regardless of its tonal intimacies, is an artificial thing, a feat and also a fiction. The speaker of ‘to a reader’, from the final section of la, la, la, is upfront about this:
how simple it is to trick you, you dear sitting duck
a diddler master takes you for a ride just like that,
a snake in the grass, from time immemorial
grinning at your silly bookish trust
from ‘to a reader’
Perhaps this verbal flaunting and taunting merely shows that flamboyance does not begin or end with Kylie Minogue’s galactic hairdo and mirror-panel dress. Lukic’s subtler showiness makes room for wit aplenty.
he eats roots and leaves
and that’s fine as he eats well
and then quietly walks away
this is not what i complain about
but why like a wombat?
his dull depart is saying
i would and i would not
leave you darling
or: yes i am leaving with no doubt
but see it’s not so easy for me to slide out of
this warm burrow onto loose tracks
or: i am leaving now my love
but you have a very good chance
to catch my leg and turn me back
and if you don’t
it’s not my fault
when our story comes to its tearful end
or: i am not leaving in fact
oh i never do that
i’m just sniffing out a rooty soil
while walking around
what is he trying to tell me
a chubby eater
sneaked into the myth
where i prefer to see the elegant
of a flying beast?
la, la, la is structured around the changes in Lukic’s life. The first section, ‘there’, is mainly a recollection of a Serbo-Croatian past, personal and historical; the second section, ‘here’, from which ‘east row’ and ‘fallacy’ come, offers broad-brush social description of Australian life; the third and final section, ‘anywhere’, contains the book’s most ambitious writing.
Lukic’s expressionism is not trapped in a box of style: it connects with others, remakes itself. ‘anywhere’ includes poems dedicated to Australian poets that Lukic encountered when she started writing again and was once more getting poems published, both here and overseas. Joanne Burns, Margie Cronin and Laurie Duggan are dedicatees of three of the book’s most unconventional offerings. Each is a prose poem: ‘crater’ (for Cronin) begins by associating the great, passionate Chilean Pablo Neruda with “turning fourteen, rosy and tender, each monday falling in love forever”. But Lukic’s speaker provocatively asks herself/ her reader: “how could i possibly love what everyone does”:
nobody ever borrowed this tome? i will, and i will fall in love with these oddballs and dudes, a moment i turned to my side of the bed, my russian lovers were shooting themselves in the head, quiet French men, holding me like a champagne glass and sucking my tongue, gazed at the time past behind my neck…
The speaker honours her sense that she is “turning fourteen for ever”; then turns the direction of the poem towards the internet, to a “petition for a crater on mercury to be named for neruda”, and to Margie Cronin, in a display of verbal fireworks that mingles postmodern playfulness and a fiercer, perhaps more durable modernist commitment to making it new. Managing a generous homage to Margie Cronin’s own complex and versatile poetics, ‘crater’ equally makes it new and plays. The prose works for Laurie Duggan and Joanne Burns likewise engage with the ways in which these writers actually write.
It may be hard for any reader to decide whether ‘there’ or ‘anywhere’ contains the most poignant writing. The first poem in the book presents the “la, la, la” title phrase as what a young mother, walking her baby in a stroller, sings to entertain/ reassure the child in a war, while bombs drop in backyards and an unknown man is seen for the first time “coming out of wires with a bullet in his chest”.
what did i sing?
about a cloud and a bird,
a wish and a star,
la la la,
yes, nothing else
from ‘nothing else’
The book’s final poem, ‘reverse’, takes up the “la la la” phrase in the context of a pleasant but coolly disengaged encounter, lunch in a peaceful land.
when the coffee arrives after the meal
we will sigh and talk about the weather
a lovely day, we need rain
la la la
i will nod and gaze
behind your shoulder
where are you?
i am here,
licking my cream
licking my sugar
That last line sounds the note of solipsistic finality: in peacetime or war, there is no escape from the solitary confinement of self. Yet how lightly the point is made, with a flirtatiousness that mocks, even defies the rather scary recognition embodied in “where are you?”
The book’s final poems are also Lukic’s last: ‘thinking in months’ writes the aftermath of a pessimistic diagnosis.
life was like a tiny colouring book, short and sweet,
returning now to a black and white fight,
the evil cells and the good cells, a simple story
before a long sleep, the only war on terror i am in
from ‘thinking in months’
Tatjana Lukic, a poet of the inner life, but also of the ironies that attend the mind’s to-ing and fro-ing between a given world and a private view of it, has built, using English words, a testament to her life; it is spacious, generous, and as full of joy as it is of sorrow. Lukic’s distancing techniques – her multiple ways of opening a lyric poem to participation in a big, un-lyrical world – relate her to the great Central European poets of an earlier generation, to the Polish Zbigniew Herbert and the Czech Miroslav Holub; perhaps Bertolt Brecht is a common ancestor. We can regret that Lukic is gone, but rejoice that her book takes its place among some of the best cross-cultural poetry written in Australia, alongside the very different poetics of, for instance, Ali Alizadeh, Kim Cheng Boey, Ouyang Yu, Ania Walwicz and the Vietnamese-Australian Xuan Duong.
Autographs, Alex Skovron’s fifth collection of poetry, is a welcome addition to an already well-established oeuvre. Unlike Skovron’s novella The Poet (2005), which was burdened by an unconvincing narrative, the fifty-six prose poems that comprise Autographs are a return to his strengths. Most notably, these poems dwell on the seductions of time and memory, imaginings of the past within the present, and importantly, how these imaginings shape notions of self-identity. Although these poems display the distinct influence of Borges, they carry (to make a fairly lame pun on the collection’s title) Skovron’s own signature.
Having already mentioned Skovron’s novella, it is interesting to contemplate why these ‘prose’ works succeed in a way that The Poet—at least for this reviewer—did not. While these pieces appear, at least formally on the page, to be works of prose, their rhythm and imagery are more closely aligned to ‘poetic’ language. Although such distinctions can be arbitrary and misleading—and on a theoretical level possibly quite meaningless—it is hard not to feel that poetry is Skovron’s form, the genre in which his writing is most ‘alive’. Structurally, what these prose poems allow is a freedom from the linear narrative that characterised The Poet. Rather, the various thematic concerns already mentioned appear in Autographs as recurring motifs, giving the collection a fractured unity.
Autographs is in many ways an extended meditation on the past, a past that is always carried with us, where memory ‘caresses the hidden contours, moments which lived and died, and survive as a chorus of ghosts’ (p36). One of the inherent dangers in this emphasis upon the past, particularly when employing personal memories, is that the writing falls victim to nostalgia. Skovron is clearly aware of this potential pitfall and avoids it by making nostalgia itself one of the thematic concerns of the collection. In ‘Key’ this ambivalence toward personal recollection is directly addressed:
Don’t know why but I keep coming back to those glittering frames, perpetually rewinding the film. OK, call it nostalgia—that glorious pang somewhere between diaphragm and heart. I know I must seem preoccupied with nostalgia. (p31)
And later in the poem we are given an insight into these meditations upon the past, this summoning of childhood memories as a way, perhaps, of coming to terms with self: ‘Because childhood never really ends; it’s morphed into a future it must fill, a replica locked against itself. The key is lost, but you can feel it glinting there, deep within’.
Skovron appears to share Bachelard’s fascination with the poetics of space, so that many of these recollections of the past involve remembered places. A number of poems in the book’s second section, ‘Labyrinth’, such as ‘Room’ and ‘Chamber’, ‘Village’ and ‘Parks’, evoke the rooms and places to which memory faithfully returns, even if the narrator of these poems is aware that ‘some of the details are not quite correct’ (p32). ‘Village’, perhaps, best exemplifies this vivid imagining of place:
Ride down into the village heart, past the cinema screening Cousteau’s marks, where strips of discarded film lie about for small boys to skim. Wheel left into the main stretch, where the buses from Haifa stop, with snub noses, diesel perfume, lever-controlled doors. Past the hardware store with its gadgets, buckets and tools, the shopkeeper couple, your neighbours, whose bespectacled daughter is the friend who will forget you. Past the playground nook where you slipped between the spokes of a carousel, cracked your skull, cried bleeding all the way home. (p 26)
Many of the poems in Autographs possess a haunting quality that lingers long after you’ve returned the book to its place on the shelf. ‘Possession’, the second piece in the collection, is one such poem. Superficially, the poem is the story of a young boy who sees a similarly young girl holding a balloon:
The boy catches sight of the blue balloon. He is standing in the courtyard of a museum. He watches the girl who possesses the balloon. She bounces it along the asphalt, rolls it on the grass, bumps it into the air. The blue balloon fills the sky as it rises and dips. The boy is mesmerized by the balloon, he would like to possess one just like it…from that moment he can think of nothing but the blue balloon. (p4)
While this passage evokes a kind of childlike innocence, a sense of naïve wonder—and it should be said that nothing later in the poem explicitly disrupts this reading—there is a distinct feeling that other, less innocent emotions are surfacing here. The setting of the poem in a museum, with its ‘antique toys and artefacts, illuminated manuscripts, quaint instruments of music, replicas of weapons, photographs of notorious battles, a model torture-chamber, an ancient sarcophagus with its lid ajar’ is perhaps suggestive of a larger historical scope to this seemingly simple poem. There is a sense we are playing out something that has occurred before, something intrinsically human. Or, perhaps more pertinently, something intrinsically ‘male’, for the boy’s ‘delicious dream of the balloon’ may also be heralding the awakening of male desire and its less innocent aspects. Importantly, the poem leaves itself open to varied interpretations, allowing the reader to imagine this scene on a number of layers.
While this textual layering works admirably in ‘Possession’, in some cases it seems somewhat contrived. ‘Neighbours’, for instance, which portrays a petty, yet long-running dispute between neighbours (and appears to be a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) is a little too cute, despite the sardonic humour: ‘In end, after we’d invested our best, sullied utterly each other’s abode—it stopped. They stopped, we stopped (I forget who began) (p13).
The final section of Autographs, ‘Shadow’, introduces us to the fictional character Kezelco, perhaps an alter ego figure to the narrative voice of the previous section. In many of these poems Kezelco acts as a kind of dislocated commentator on contemporary society, in part a participant and at the same time partly remote from ‘things he will never understand’(p41). In ‘Threshold’, where Kezelco purchases a replicant girl, we are treated not only to a fine example of Skovron’s sense of humour, but also a sharp observation on society’s fascination with the superficial:
The skin seems so alive—her flesh virtually glows, pulsates under his touch. He pulls back; scans the instructions in the operating manual, discovers wondrous secrets. Breasts subtly resizeable (‘pert, pleasingly nippled’); eyes digitally tuned (‘photoresponsive, with tracing focus’); the skin resilient (‘firm but not unyielding’); limbs and joints fully flexible, the hands miraculous (fingers ‘autonomous but utterly compliant’); buttocks immaculate (‘warm, superbly furrowed’); the mouth a marvel (lips ‘rich and creamy’, tongue ‘correctly moist’), programmable for gentle suction and/or sound…Kezelco feels he can grow to love this woman. (p59)
In counterpoint to Kezelco’s eccentric musings, ‘Shadow’ also features a number of poems that possess a disturbing, more threatening tone; or, to put it differently, these poems exhibit a sweeping, almost cosmic scope, one that challenges our perceptions of ‘human’ significance. ‘Fermata’ captures this beautifully:
And so the clouds dissolve, the old monuments crumble away, the children laugh at us, creaking in the wind; and December comes, dancing in the afternoon breeze. The light changes, time slithers to a stop, inhales, turns back on itself and is gone. Nothing has really altered, yet the world will never be the same. (p52)
Autographs is an impressive collection by an accomplished poet. One of the great pleasures of this book is not simply reading it but re-reading it, for it is a collection that rewards returning to. Skovron’s achievement in Autographs is to have crafted poems that are at once intimately personal and yet reach beyond this to offer a mysterious vision of the world.
Brooke Linford was co-editor of Egg(Poetry) from 2002-2006. Her work has appeared in several Australian publications. Brooke currently lives in Victoria where she works in Administration and studies Italian.
I loved you at fifteen
days of green cordial
nights of coconut ice
you understood me
or fooled me well
we stole garden statues
drank warm beer by the river
coloured our hair for $3.50
you’re covered in scars now
and I know
you could never love me
the way you did at fifteen
I’m barely here
into the gaps
with irrational insistence
can I love you more
than any frantic grab
I can love you more
and borrowed sheets
tucked into your arm
with a $3 dinner
I don’t care what’s on
in any room
with any view
there are books spread out
a circle of love and heartache – slowly
a drop of red pools
on my top lip
I notice in the mirror how tired
my eyes are
tugging the curls from my hair
using my fingers
using my tongue to taste the difference
Stephen Edgar has published seven collections of poetry, the most recent being Historyof the Day, published by Black Pepper Publishing in May 2009. His book Lost in the Foreground won the Grace Leven Poetry Prize and William Baylebridge Memorial Prize for 2003. He won the inaugural Australian Book Review Poetry Prize in 2005 for his poem “Man on the Moon” and in 2006 was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for excellence in literature. Edgar was born in Sydney in 1951 and grew up and was educated there. In the early seventies he lived in London and, on returning to Australia in 1974, moved to Hobart where he lived until late 2005. He currently lives in Sydney again. He attended the University of Tasmania, studying Classics and English. For many years he worked in libraries but for the past twenty years has made his living mostly from editing, indexing and proofreading.
(Photograph by Vicki Frerer)
Like gazing at some other family
In a fogged window pane,
Or in a mottled mirror that has lost
Flakes of its silver tain:
The four boys head and tail in the one bed,
Their breath turning the room’s
Frigid midwinter to a dreaming kitchen,
With its fug of steam and fumes.
Does such a place exist? Where might it be?
How get to here from there?
But there they are, there we are, clambering down
The bank, our thin legs bare,
Barefoot (it’s hard to credit) in that cold.
My sook-soft soles revealed,
I’m piggybacked by one of my cousins over
The thorns that mine the field,
Till we reach the dingy creek to fish up yabbies
On strings of sodden meat,
And lug back home our squirming bucketful—
Which of course no one will eat.
Over it goes, then, in the yard; we watch
Them spill and clatter away
Through grass and fence and blackberries, back to
Their soupy deep. One day
We ranged the paddocks—to the quarry (was it?)
Across the railway line,
And tightropewalked the daring empty tracks,
Or, listening for a sign,
We’d place an ear down on the sun-cold metal
And think we heard the humming,
That charged vibration borne from far away
Of what was coming.
How formal and polite,
How grave they look, burdened with earnest thoughts,
In all these set-up sepia stills,
Almost as if, embarrassed and contrite
To be caught practising their fatal skills,
They’d stepped aside from slaughter for these other shots.
The American Civil War,
The first war captured by the photograph
In real time. Even the dead
Seem somehow decorous, less to deplore
The sump of blood to which their duty bled
Than to apologize, humbled, in our behalf.
We know how otherwise
It was. They knew it then. The gauche onset
Of murderously clumsy troops,
Dismemberment by cannon, the blown cries
Through powder smoke, mayhem of scattered groups
In close engagement’s pointblank aim and bayonet.
How far from then we’ve come.
The beauties of the Baghdad night still stun
Me: a blue screen where guns and jets
Unloose the lightnings of imperium—
Intense enough to challenge a minaret’s
Aquamarine mosaic in the blinded sun
At noon—and smart bombs fall
Through walls to wipe the city street by street.
Morning, and in the camera’s light
The formal corpses ripen. Who can recall
By day precisely what they watched last night?
Or find the unknown soldier in a field of wheat?
Being surplus, like the killed,
Millions of those old plates were simply dumped.
And in a modern version of ‘swords
To ploughshares’, many were reused to build
Greenhouses, ranged and set in place as wards
Above the rife tomatoes as they blushed and plumped,
While, through the daily sun’s
Pictorial walls and roofs, the long, desired,
Leaf-fattening light fell down, to pore
Upon the portraits of these veterans
Until their ordered histories of the war
Were wiped to just clear glass and what the crops transpired.
(These poems appeared in Lost In The Foreground, Duffy and Snellgrove, 2003)
You can’t see it from here,
But caught up in its business to begem
Some ripple-silvered bay or the crests of trees,
Or just a golf course with its dewed veneer,
The day unfolds its golden auguries
On a charmed sky. A secular congregation
Is out already to revere
The lit east with a helpless expectation.
It’s like a Hopper painting:
A row of figures sitting mute in the sun,
Which by a plantlike, heliotropic action
Their faces and their thoughts are orienting
Towards, almost as one.
And, gazing on that source of benefaction,
They contemplate and inwardly affirm
What lies in store for their acquainting
At the expiration of a certain term.
And even as they stare,
Appraising what the morning rays appoint,
The light that photocopies her crow’s-feet,
The grey encroachments in his thinning hair,
That stiffening hip joint,
Has swept past as though history were complete.
Back in the bedrooms of this white hotel
Their things, wiser than they, declare
No contest in these fancies. Where it fell
An empty shirtsleeve throws
A purely formal gesture of despair
Across a bed, while nothing will arouse
From lank indifference the pantihose
Haunting a sidelong chair,
The disembodied presence of slip and blouse.
Those traveller’s cheques, laid out in a fat wad,
Half signed away, only propose
Their outlays for the briefest period.
The day’s lucid ascent
Has charmed its way in here, it’s true, but lacks
Suspension of disbelief that those outside
Contribute, their frank willingness to invent.
On their reclining backs
They count up the instalments, smile squint-eyed
Into a rushing solar past their sight
Will never stay, far too intent
On what’s to come to see it for the light.
English as a Foreign Language
One day in bed I read Cavafy
In Greek—her favourite: “Ithaca”—
And in return I won the trophy
Of her admiring Ah!
And I was flattered to astonish
That way. It wasn’t much to do.
She put in a request for Spanish
Bedtime recitals too,
Hoping that she might thereby sharpen
Her skills in the language she loved best.
In the event it didn’t happen,
Like most things she’d suggest.
And Pushkin too, a modest portion,
But that was pushing it too far,
Though I taught her “I love you” in Russian:
That’s ya lyublyú tebyá,
A lover’s commonplace avowal,
But rather difficult to sound
In Russian; it can be a trial
To get your tongue around.
But she repeated those words over
And over till she had them pat.
In English, though—well, she could never
Quite manage to say that.
(These poems appeared in Other Summers, Black Pepper, 2006)
I think of you on whom
Shifting between the light and gloom,
Displays in some far room
Its hollow globe.
Small metal worlds are these,
And independent gravities,
Attracting as they please,
Or so you feel,
With their grey weight and sheen.
Were hers. But she, oh she has been
And will no more be seen
By night or day.
They were long lost inside
Of an old jewel box, denied
Adorning: to be eyed,
To be enjoyed.
They had no hooks or rings,
Eyelets: unpolished, useless things
With dormant glimmerings
To be awoken.
I give them then to you.
And yours: all ownings in these two
Now mended spheres accrue,
Blend and combine;
All of the properties,
Pleasure, desires and memories
That nothing will appease,
Inhere in these brief globes,
Rocking, dependent from your lobes,
A gravity which probes
Darkness and light.
Playing to the Gallery
The last scene, and the two protagonists
Go through their studied pantomime in the park,
Obeying all the script’s instructions, playing
For time as though time hung upon it, playing
To that gallery of sun-bedevilled windows
Warping along a wall across the street:
Site of their judges—none of whom, they know,
Is really there. All the performances
Assume an audience—even of one—
To applaud, to laugh, to weep, or silently
Observe with admiration what they share
By faith alone. The scene inside the church,
The bedroom scene, the labour ward, and the other,
Later scenes, in which that chill locale
Will bring to bear the comprehensive weight
Of its resources. Or the scene beneath
The acid drops of starlight and the moon’s
Bland irony. Wait; listen, when they cease,
For what succeeds their final pause.
Far inland, bulks of stone well-versed in sunset
Perform their purple passages on cue;
The ponderous Pacific solemnly
Repeats its monologue on rock; wind, wind,
Playing for time, recites impartially
Leaves, grasses, patterns on the random water
Across the bay, or the daily rubbish, lofting
Like a kite above the telegraph wires
A solitary delinquent plastic bag,
As though it pleased some connoisseur of light,
As though it changed the history of this day.
In the open gallery which adjoins
The station, the installed art of the sun
Projects each day’s obsessive stripes and bars
Of light and shadow over the parked cars,
Each pattern as it’s done undone,
Highlighting and obscuring a few coins
Beside this gearshift; on that dash
An almost empty pack of gum; the Ruth
Rendell abandoned on a passenger seat,
Curling beneath the calculus of heat
And time, a comb with one bent tooth
For bookmark; here an ashtray stuffed with ash
And lip-kissed butts of cigarettes;
The mud-caked boots and other walking gear
Jumbled in the back of a four-wheel drive.
Although each morning many cars arrive
Which every evening disappear,
On these few each day’s sun rises and sets.
Elsewhere a list is being compiled
By the grey process of officialdom,
Phonecalls are tallied and the absentees
Accounted for, the tracked-down families,
For whom photographers will come,
Summoned by sobs, bruised eyes, a blank-faced child.
Elsewhere the helicopter sways,
Casting its shadow over what remains,
Like a raptor idling in its famished weight.
Like scavengers small figures investigate
What residue the wreck retains
Of those who have gone home by other ways.
Those Hours Which Grew to Be Years
(The lynching of Frank Embree, 22 July 1899)
Take him away,
Airbrush him out,
And all these men who stand about
In the clean light of day,
Seem called by duty and with pride
To some urgent address,
Some clear appeal
And honest citizen could not
Refuse to hear and feel.
Who hold their pose,
They fix unflinching eyes in rows
On the unflinching lens.
But there he stands,
His body stripped
And scored with the judicial script
Of whips, his handcuffed hands
Held to conceal
The private place,
His face upheld, composed to face
The lens, and all that’s real.
[ 2: Meridian
It may be nothing but the tree’s
Rubbing against itself below,
But through the leaves
There is a creaking in the breeze,
A bulk that briefly jerks and heaves
To and fro.]
And still they do not look at him
Where he hangs high
Suspended from a maple limb,
But eye to eye
About his blanket-covered thighs
And their raw stripes,
Rehearse, recount, particularize
With lighted pipes.
And nor will he take note of them,
Looks up beyond the hanging stem
As to inspect
Some far-off singularity
Posed in the sky’s
Flecked blue, if such were there to see,
And with his eyes.
The Grand Hotel
for Les Murray
Apart from that, though, I recall
Something you said about the place:
That you could never see it all,
It seems to propagate with space;
Always another stair to climb,
Always another corridor
With other rooms to count like time,
The end of which is always more;
A sort of Tardis made immense
That somehow manages to flout
The laws of sense and common sense
By being larger in than out,
The three dimensions’ mean constriction
Opened, unfolded and unpacked:
A building out of science fiction.
Or, come to think of it, science fact.
For don’t they say if we could shatter
Their shackled forces we should find
Dimensions at the heart of matter,
Immensities wound up, that mind
Cannot conceive? That’s some hotel,
And just the place to take to heart
And contemplate the parallel
World that this world is made by art,
Whose finite limits charge and prime
The senses they unpack, and store
Dimensions beyond space and time,
The end of which is always more.
(These poems appear in History Of The Day, Black Pepper, 2009)
Let Me Forget
You run your eyes across the glossy
Lithography of paradise: the sand’s
White gold, the opaline transparent blue
You’ll soon be lolling in, a sky unmarred
And constant to the limits of the view—
All in your hands.
You take the tickets, pass your credit card.
Behind that door, like Cavaradossi,
If you could hear above your heart’s content,
Blindfold and bound,
A stranger fastened to an implement
Appeals for mercy with the world’s worst sound.
Your wife has bought the extra virgin
Inflected with a subtle trace of lime,
The milk-fed veal, as tender as herself,
The chicken livers, the King Island cream—
It seems a pity to omit a shelf—
The chives, the thyme;
And there’s her shopping voucher to redeem.
Behind that door, it is no surgeon
Who makes the live incision, or instils
Into the eyes
Of some mute animal the caustic mils,
Or monitors its functions as it dies.
So home you both go, your attention
Diverted now towards the holiday
In prospect, now the meal tonight, your friends,
Problems with Chloe, and the arbitrage
Absorbing you at work, on which depends
The tax you’ll pay.
You park the Merc before the locked garage.
Behind that door, past comprehension,
Beyond imagining, the universe;
The laws upon
Whose unknown code the selves that you rehearse
From day to day are based; oblivion.
So much you’ve failed to see or mention.
But you’ve no guilt to own to or dispel.
Each day you take
This anaesthetic and it keeps you well
To face the day you could not face awake.
Omar Musa is the 2008 Australian Poetry Slam champion. A rapper and hip-hop artist, he counts amongst his experiences having swum with piranhas and alligators in Bolivia and teaching Aboriginal children in outback Australia. The Malaysian-Australian baritone has backpacked almost every continent and has a treasure-trove of stories to tell. Raised in the orange brick flats of Queanbeyan, Australia as part of an artistic family, the 25-year old says he wants to “introduce a new level of poetry to Australian hip-hop.”
Musa was a winner of the prestigious British Council’s Realise Your Dream award in 2007 and relocated to London to work in the UK hip-hop scene with grime star Akala and slam poet Jahnell. He has been played on Triple J and has recorded with J Records band 2AM Club in Los Angeles. He recorded his debut The Massive EP with veteran producer Geoff Stanfield in Seattle, USA, of whom he says “I finally felt as if I had found the perfect sound to compliment my lyrics.”
“It is a strange animal of an EP,” says Musa. “Written in London, recorded in the States by a Malaysian-Australian, it definitely has an original feel.” Navigating between underground hip-hop and mainstage performance poetry, Musa’s work is unique.
Musa’s first poetry collection The Clocks was launched at this year’s Ubud Writers’ Festival.
Kirk Marshall is the Brisbane-born(e), Melbourne-based author of “A Solution to Economic Depression in Little Tokyo, 1953”, a 2007 Aurealis Award-nominated full-colour illustrated graphic novelette. He holds a Bachelor of Creative Industries (Creative Writing), with Distinction from the Queensland University of Technology, and a first-class Honours degree in Professional Writing from Deakin University. He has written for more than fifty publications, both in Australia and overseas, including “Going Down Swinging”, “Voiceworks”, “Word Riot” (U.S.A.) and “3:AM Magazine”. As of 2009, he is the editor of “Red Leaves”, Australia’s first (and only) English-language / Japanese bi-lingual literary journal (http://www.myspace.com/redleaveskoyo). His debut short-story collection, “Carnivalesque, And: Other Stories”, will be published by Black Rider Press in 2010.
Suite of Haiku
a strobing head, a cut lip
My blood gloves his fist.
They hug me once as
pillows of breath are wrestled
from my lungs: farewell.
Cities capture light
and reflect them back on streets
slick with midnight rain.
Through the winter he
watches from his register:
I greet him for smokes.
Moon suspended as
she smiles into her scarf and
replaces her phone.
Wolves whine at my door –
On the beach, they chase waves and
devour turtle eggs.
I write, knowing a
succession of dead poets
expect something grand.
He is heartbroken.
She is not. She is waiting.
He is years behind.
She lies amidst reeds:
her nude back is bruised where the
Fog hugs the king’s legs
as he forges through bracken:
a fox turns to watch.
Nathan Curnow’s latest collection, The Ghost Poetry Project (Puncher & Wattmann), is based upon his stays at ten haunted sites around the country. He has featured widely on ABC and with further assistance from the Australia Council is writing a new play based upon convict stories and escape myths.
for inspiration, directing my hosts with a pen’s arrow
from the signs of my splitting headache.Inside
the plane the cabin of my head is rocked by
turbulence.Great sails and anvils are bright
arctic pages, the story of a doomed expedition.
This is the lesson—do not stay with poets
the night before flying out, drinking ensues
and they just want to have sex or complain
about their rejections.I left them moaning,
friends of mine, making love like friends,
bearing all but their vocabularies, competing
in wild noises.Aren’t we all falling, our egos
packed with a plastic whistle to draw attention?
If the plane lands safely there is a rental car
waiting, some compartment I can crash in.
Another brittle booth, certain to betray me
when the impact finally comes.I am cranky
this morning, hurtling toward the chapter of
my decline.But with a pen and a pose I go
to work as if spirited by questions of ‘soul’.
I just want to get off.Go, get fucked.
We are turning into cloud.
Love Note On Serviette
Inspired by an account of the ‘prisoner’ who in 1899 threw a love poem
weighted by a stone over the wall of the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum.
my own fond love
this portion find your path
I feel myself beyond myself
am able to choose this rock
to traffic these words
put your cold on me
gazing forever upward
throw me something
I love you I love you
lavender is making sense
notice the rocks
I have practiced this
promise me yourself
I found a secret passage
beneath the Peppercorn trees
it is forbidden by the Pope
instead he blessed me
with a hole in the wall
I have imagined
that you wave
much like you throw
throw me something
be my gracious garden
your voice climbs over
a lavender ladder
do you want to
hear me breathing
I am feeling myself
the stiff sin of a sinner
the Pope is always watching
The Frame Around Us
Following my night in a ‘haunted’ hearse
again my weight on the edge of your bed,
words fall like empty shells, your ticking clock is
Pinocchio’s face, hands point to alwaysspeak the truth
my up-late brainteaser, I beg you to tell me
but your body is a ruthless mime, signalling all
that you refuse to say, scared the words will turn to flesh
a shrug of your shoulders, you are locked,
it is late, I am so tired of this coming and going,
one day I will tell you of this grand adventure, what it did
and did not achieve, these long road-trips,
a night in a hearse cocooned in my sleeping bag,
I saw shadows spill over the ceiling’s canvas, slide off
above my head, slowly at first, each one fell
the way I have become my poems, retreated to
my cluttered desk, I am disappointing to meet in person
stranded by language, designed for answers,
neat squares on a page of black, filling the boxes
with crude solutions, revising, we are grubby crosswords
down and across, the hands of your clock
trim away the night, as if time decides the rules
of the puzzle, keeps changing the frame around us
just lie down, we are safe for now,
it takes more than courage and words, waiting
to tell you of all I have seen, tonight I will not budge
Alan Gould is an Australian poet, novelist and essayist.His seventh novel, The Lakewoman,was launched at The 2009 Melbourne Writers’ Festival, and his twelfth volume of poetry, Folk Tunes, has just been published by Salt.Among his many awards, he has won the NSW Premier’s Prize For Poetry (1981),The National Book Council Banjo Prize for Fiction (1992), The Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal For Literature, and The Grace Leven Award for his The Past Completes Me – Selected Poems 1973-2003.
Carolyn van Langenburg is the author of three books of literary fiction: The Teetotaller’s Wake, Fish Lips and Blue Moon, published by Indra press. Her collection of poems was published by Picaro in 2007. She has travelled widely in Asia and resides in the Blue Mountains with her husband.
Idea for a Story
Leaves dance in the air.
Dust whirls across the park.
A dog yelps at its tail. Boys run around anything and everything.
A woman’s hands disappear, her forearms disappear. A box draws her in, and then she pulls her arms out of the box and raises her hands high in the air. They dart like pale birds, flit and swoop into the box.
They dart like pale birds…
Paper plates smeared with chocolate icing and the grainy green slicks of tabouli spill out of park garbage bins. Flip flop with chewed chicken wings and an empty pvc bottle that takes off with the wind to have a go at the dog. The dog jumps at the bottle and grovels it as if it were a bone. The bottle, too big for its mouth, jerks and rolls and whizzes.
A woman’s legs walk under a box. Do the legs belong to the woman with the disappearing hands? The dog runs at the heels of the legs. The box bobs and jerks above a body. When the dog races back to the rolling bottle, the box with legs stops.
The head of the woman with the disappearing hands appears as the whole of the woman’s body bends to pick something up off the grass. She holds the retrieved thing high, pinched between thumb and forefinger, fingers furled into the palm of her hand…
No camera can see between the soft pads of her fingers furled over the top of her palm, which they touch. She stands still, holding up something small to examine, the box balanced against her hip. She may be reading a sign. She may be one of those women who look for signs to decipher, one who pinches salt to toss over her shoulder for good luck. Caught in this part of her life, she repeats her daily routine, juggling many banal tasks to keep food on the table and clothes on her child’s back. She may look for signs of future good fortune because money is tight. She worries, or does she, about her son’s performance at school, how much television he watches and how few books interest him. Is he a slow reader? How can the camera tell us anything about the life these two live?As it is, if a camera were to pan this action, it will record that a woman dressed for a picnic in a park carries a box. Her shirt, worn under a sweatshirt, is bright red and her jeans are faded around the knees. She looks dishevelled. What significance will the camera capture in its frame?What message will be decoded by the decipherers of the visual medium of this woman who loses her hands in a box filled with party food? How will they interpret her holding high something pinched between her thumb and forefinger? Is the message portending that, as she is a mother providing a happy birthday party for her son, she will be rewarded in the future with charming gummy grandchildren? Do those who spend their lives deciphering images drive the life out of motherhood, perching it on top of sentimental interpretation that diminishes humanity?
She is a woman providing a birthday party for her son. That’s all, in a snapshot.
The wind tears a feather from the tips of her fingers…
The wind pelts the bottle with stirred up city grit. The wind smacks twigs and empty crisp bags at the bottle. The wind whips the bottle with wrappers and ripped newsprint…
Boys yell and run, dog runs and barks, bottle rolls and whistles…
The woman hoists the box, her head disappears and she stumbles. The box wobbles where her head ought to be, flips open and flap-flaps…
Add a black sky and the drum roll of thunder with a few big drops of rain working up to a downpour and the scene is set.
The woman stands at a picnic table in the park. The dog noses a pvc bottle rolling near her feet. Boys cluster at one end of the table, joking about bullshit and who is full of it. The woman’s hands disappear into a box then reappear. They are transformed into birds that rise in the air, swoop and land on the table before taking off again. Her hands plunge into the box again — her hands become other things like bowls and food containers, escaping her attention. Her inattentive eyes mirror the sky that they skim. Grey, they are, with a tree blackening in front of darkening grey…
Cake rises above box.
Candles under her chin burst into little flames. Boys cheer. They yell a song about a happy birthday to you. A red-faced boy blows out the little flames. The other boys congratulate him for being full of bullshit. Hands become knife, knife cuts cake, boys stuff triangles of cake in their mouths.
The dog’s mouth is never shut.
And so the story begins:
A woman packs bowls and paper plates and empty plastic food containers into a box. She pushes chewed chicken wings and plates streaked with tabouli and chocolate icing into the park garbage bin. The wind hurls the paper plates out of the garbage bin, tosses them to the ground, whips them across the grass where an empty pvc bottle rolls. The wind and the bottle tease the dog that jumps at the bottle and grovels it as if it were a bone. The wind whips at boys, pushing them backwards when they run forwards. The sky is blackening, the clouds rapidly broiling and thickening. Big raindrops fall and the yelping boys take off towards cars parked under big trees. The woman gathers up the box of birthday party things. When the dog barks and the boys shout, her head vanishes.
The park is suddenly dark.
The woman stumbles through pouring rain to one of the parked cars. Her head pops up when the box drops and lands between her breasts and the side of one of the cars.
When the drenched woman sinks behind the steering wheel of her car, she looks into the rear vision mirror.The birthday boy, two of his friends and the dog sit in a row on the backseat, grins wet, panting hard.
Question stops story: Where does dog begin and boy end?
The next thing that happens is natural. Lightning strikes the ground not far from the car and the thunder that follows is deafening. The dog howls. The birthday boy pulls the dog onto his lap and presses his hands over the dog’s ears. All the boys, lanky limbs crisscrossing lanky limbs, talk one over the top of each other about how doggy ears hurt when noises are loud like thunder.
The woman behind the steering wheel pushes at wet strands of hair and sort of smiles. She looks enigmatic, like the Mona Lisa. That’s what the camera records. Being a mother is a state of being, like being Mona Lisa.The image of her as a mother who looks like the Mona Lisa conceals her occupation. She is a writer.
She galvanises the energy to start the car, a story beginning to unravel in her head. It’s about a birthday party that ends when lightning strikes.
[Acknowledgement: Luis Buñuel, An Unspeakable Betrayal: Selected Writings of Luis Buñuel, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2000.]
An earlier version of this story first appeared in Staples, issue7
Kim Cheng Boey is a writer and poet who migrated to Sydney with his family from Singapore in 1997. One could call him a migrant writer. Between Stations, according to one book-description that I read online, is “his first collection of travel writing.” But such a description says very little about a book that is all about the personal and existential crisis of a writer trying to reconcile disparate cultural worlds, as well as one trying to come to terms with his past.
Beginning in India, then passing through the evocative worlds of Egypt and Morocco, Boey’s accounts of sojourns in far-flung places in the world are full of gritty anecdotes about fellow-travellers and impassioned references to famous works of art, music and literature used to magnify and universalise the writer’s constant wanderlust. As a Singaporean, I feel a connection to this ex-Singaporean’s desire to disappear into foreign spaces that resist the vicissitudes of change which are still essential to our tiny country’s survival today—as a Singaporean tells Boey at one point, “Changes are necessary. Singapore is too small. We have to move forward.”
It is easy to see why this desire prevails. The places that Boey escapes into are imbued with an imagined sense of timelessness; they are full of history, art and spirituality. What can Singapore boast of except that it has managed to succeed as a viable and prosperous nation state in just a few decades? Using photographs of long-gone locations and recounting memories about spending time in now-demolished buildings such as the Stamford Road Library, the author reveals how he is rendered distraught by change. Yet he is also quick to remember that a longing for things to be still and for the past to remain the past can be a pointless, self-indulgent exercise. In a chapter about Change Alley, a centre for corporate culture in Singapore, the writer feels “chastened” when he notes how retirees have adapted “so easily to the new Singapore.” He wonders if “the problem is me…I have never been able to be at home in the present; the only place I can feel at peace in is the past.”
A fear of the past disappearing is tied to memories of a father’s abandonment of his responsibilities. A chapter can set off from an exotic location, rich with historical significance and framed within celebrated philosophical perspectives—think Walter Benjamin on memory or Susan Sontag on the photographic image—or aligned with quotations from influential works of literature by the likes of Cavafy or Du Fu. Then the writing segues repeatedly into a memory from the poet’s childhood, full of authentic smells and sounds, in which a grandmother is cooking for the family, or in which a father is taking a walk, or a smoke, with his son. The essays turn increasingly philosophical and poetic during such shifts. They are particularly heartbreaking during moments when Boey sees himself in his own son; in such instances, the poet also sees himself as his own departed father through his child’s eyes. Past, present and future collapse, which was what the author had hoped for all along—to unify what is lost with new memories forming in the midst of the present.
Boey’s fans in Singapore would be glad to learn of the psychological and emotional back-story behind his poems, a few of which are quoted in the chapters. I was personally gripped by the author’s experiences as a counsellor in a local prison, as well as the time when he followed in the footsteps of Mother Theresa’s nuns in helping the poor. The poet-as-restless-traveller has become more three-dimensional to a reader like me who has followed his work since my junior college days. A sense of urgency grips the eponymous last chapter (“Between Stations”) when the writer tell us that as both emigrant and immigrant, he has become “adept at switching between codes:” “You become Kim Cheng Boey instead of Boey Kim Cheng…Kim Boey is accommodating…while Boey Kim Cheng has begun to try to find a way back to the old world…He is still searching for a language to utter himself into being.” Such urgency emphasises the schizophrenic state that the writer has been struggling to resolve throughout this book, particularly when this collection of essays is aching to a close.
The book ends on a plane in which the writer’s daughter is poking him awake while his son announces “Singapore” over and over. On this aircraft that is hovering symbolically and literally between stations, “between home and home,” the author longs to “dwell in an autonomous state, a resting place between memory and imagination.” In this same instant, we as readers, regardless of whether we are Australian, Singaporean, or something in between, cannot help but long for such a place too.