Alan Gould: from The Poets’ Stairwell

 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.




The Mudda


Poets are born, they say, not made.


            By the time of my own birth I was an over-cooked baby, having dallied in the interior of The Mudda for week after overcast week beyond the normal term.  After such dalliance, little wonder my hankering to recover enchanted time.


            So I, Claude Boon, begin by imagining The Mudda in that interval of my pre-birth. As my embryonic presence swelled her usually neat, Flemish frame it grew ungainly as a washtub, and needed to be hauled, ah, upstairs, uphill, upfront and upsadaisy, onto double-decker buses and into small black cars, and she, Boon-buoyant, Boon-weary, with the burden of me. Did she complain? I believe not. If she sat at table, I was a round under her grey smock like a great cheese remembered from the plenty of pre-war Holland. If she returned from wet Woolwich High Street where she had stood half an hour in the queue for a ration of sausages or liver, she felt my presence as a grapnel on her every fibre. Her patience, her resilience, were entering my character, as were some of the qualities of her Brabanter forbears, my clean complexion and open forehead, my good-natured nose and my eyes a little too trusting of the world, perhaps.


            And if I pushed out my fist or my foot, how do I evoke the strangeness of her sensations? Here, did she sense it, was a live butterfly fluttering against the interior of a balloon, here was the gear-stick of a small black car pushed back and forth against her inner fabric?


   ‘Nou, we zullen zien wat er gaat gebeuren,’ she said, first in her own language to mask her impatience, then, to show politeness to the borough maternity nurse, ‘We must see what comes, of course.’


            If the Mudda’s patience was sometimes tested, I appeared at ease with the situation. Through those weeks of the British winter and early spring I hunched in the placental tree-house, stem-fed by her magnificent system. Into my future flowed those exact proteins and vitamins she could extract from the spam, the herring, the dried egg of that tin-food era, the orange juice, rose hip syrup and extra allowance of milk allowed for this pregnancy by her green ration card. While the Pa beavered among his memos at the British War Office, I spent the day, either rocked asleep by the Mudda’s internal rhythms, or dreamily pushing that exploratory gear-stick against her womb wall.


            Do embryos dream? Did my own lifelong attachment to reverie begin in the treehouse with some aural/maternal-fantasy? Is this where the protozoa of poems originate, for the muse is said to be a mother-figure.


                 Beglub-beglub pumped the Mudda’s heart, gloink, her intestinal plumbing eased itself, purrr, slid her blood along its Flemish conduits. Is it possible my proto-intellect was actually wired to the maternal dreaming during her final weeks of pregnancy in the Woolwich army quarter? From some trace-memory I possess, here is Mrs Boon dozing during the February afternoons, tiaras of raindrops agleam under the telegraph wires, while the scenes behind her eyelids show the imminent Boon, a spiked coronet on my round head that must surely tear her as I leave her. Then, in this phantasmagoria of a woman-with-child in a monarchic nation not her own, she watches as I grow away from her wounded body, recede to some altitude above her head like a gargoyle leering from the façade of one of those decorous, overbearing English cathedrals that her Englishman husband had shown her during his intervals of wartime leave.


            Week to week, cell on cell, morula, blastocyst, trophoblast, from fertilised ovum to gargoyle I grew. Ears, limbs, testicles popped from me like mushrooms. Blood went beading along my arteries and capillaries; insulin was secreted; teeth aligned themselves below the gums in preparation for their future troublemaking. I gained the full human kit with the apparent exception of the will to move on from that original tree-house welfare state. So complacent was my attitude to being born, it was decided three weeks after my term I would need medical help to be induced into the world. Poeta nascitur, non fit.




 While The Pa Read Milton


In fact I was not my parents’ first child, for there had been an elder sister, born at Dehra Dun in India in ’47 who survived only a few days.  To safeguard my own emergence into the world therefore, it seems the Pa had arranged, at some expense, for Harley Street’s Sir John Cue to be at Mrs Boon’s side. Five months earlier, this obstetrician knight had assisted at the birth of the heir to the British throne, an attendance thought to give me an improved chance of safe arrival.


            This may also account for the Mudda’s fantasy of my coronet, and in the longer term my sense of self-regard, this egotism materialising, as it were, at HRH favour.


            My birth occurred at supper time on a March Friday in 1949 at one of the delivery rooms of the King’s College Hospital.

 ‘Hah, hah, hah,’ gasped the Mudda, who was a modest woman trying to recover her composure after a bodily event rather more public than she preferred. ‘Ferry kint, dank u wel.’


                London’s Bow Bells did not ring for me, but outside the hospital window I gather the Thames sky did ooze a typical drizzle for this future minor Australian poet of the latter twentieth century. The 1949 streets were slimed with moisture as London families (like the Lucks of Third Avenue, Ilford) sat down to meals eked from whatever those green ration cards permitted; the spam, the rabbit pie, the dried egg scrambled to the insipid yellow of institutional soap, parsnip and cabbage boiled to a quattrocento artist’s corpse-pallor, or some originally orange winter vegetable similarly transmogrified.


            On this, my opening night, the Pa sat halfway down the long corridor leading to the delivery room. He was, we must guess, without his supper. A well-thumbed, leather-bound volume was balanced on his knee and he looked up from his page only when he heard an ‘Ahem,’ and found the KBE with his case of medical instruments standing uncertainly before him. Having come directly from his desk at The War Office, my parent was still dressed in his service uniform, the tunic buttons glinting under the neon lights. Promptly he rose to attention in order to hear the obstetrician apprise him of the facts of my birth.

   ‘Colonel Boon,’ Sir John apparently chose his words, ‘You have become the parent of a somewhat serious-minded young fellow, if the first five minutes of a life are any guide.’

   ‘I am obliged to you,’ replied The Pa.

   ‘May I ask what you are reading?’ asked the knight.

   ‘I am reading the incomparable Milton.’


             Keeping his finger in the page, the planet’s newest father held up the gold lettering on the spine of the book that it might be seen. The volume had accompanied the Pa during his war service with 43rd Division from Normandy to Bremerhaven so the tooled red leather of the cover was scarred by items, military and otherwise, that had chafed against it in one haversack or another during those eleven months of attritional European warfare.

   ‘I understand,’ replied the knight. ‘One is mindful at such moments as this of the need to touch the sublime.’

   ‘My feeling exactly,’ said the Pa.

   ‘Your wife is a foreigner, I see.’

   ‘Mrs Boon is Dutch, from Breda in the Northern Brabant.’ 

   ‘Just so,’ replied Sir John, (who perhaps felt he must disarm the Colonel’s tendency to over-explain when rank was an uncertainty in conversation). ‘Of course your son will be entitled to call himself a Cockney if he wishes. Earshot of the bells and so on.’

   ‘He will undoubtedly turn himself into something.’

   ‘Do you have in mind a name for the child?’

   ‘We have agreed on Claude Evelyn Boon.’

   ‘Claude from Claudius, just so. You have chosen stateliness there, I think.’ The knight rocked contemplatively back and forth on the balls of his feet. ‘And Evelyn!’ Sir John considered these syllables next.   

   ‘As an obstetrician, you see, one takes an interest in names. Evelyn, Aveline, your choice here derives from the French word for the hazel which was a nut denoting wisdom in olden days, did you know?’

   ‘I did not. I am obliged to you for informing me.’

   ‘May I wish the very best to the three of you?’

   ‘You may indeed.’

At this the knight apparently took a step or two, then paused in his departure.


            Let me pause to consider him. This person’s hands were the first to touch my own person. For some moments he would have cradled me, perhaps cleaned me, weighed me, and many years later, when I was intrigued by the remotest and smallest influences present in the formation of character, I was led to wonder what quiet influence those hands might have conferred upon me.


            This was not altogether self-regarding whimsy on my part. Twenty-eight years later, in an encounter that was extraordinary for its casual coincidence, Boon, the babe now grown to youngish manhood, would meet and receive kindness at the hands of his obstetrician. That meeting must await its place in this story, but it would allow me to know that Sir John possessed a pleasant face, more that of a pastrymaker than a knight perhaps, and the upshot of this is that I am pleased by the thought of having come into the world where my first contact was a kindly stranger. The spring of natural charity in people has mystified me, and I will meet a diversity of kindly strangers in the travels that these pages record.


            Now the knight, whose head would tremble a little as he struggled to express a perplexity, was confiding to the Pa. ‘And yet, you see, Colonel, if one only knew what that ‘best’ might include in these distracting times, Iron Curtains, atomic bombs and such palaver.’


            The Pa, I should mention, was a staunch Cromwellian in outlook and therefore in the habit of providing answers that were to the purpose. Here before him was a figure of social rank who had mislaid that vital self-assurance proper to rank, particularly when it was needed to sustain morale in nuclear times. 

   ‘One strives,’ the Pa delivered his view, ‘to give each child opportunity to discover such interests as may match a livelihood and that this match should please a commonwealth.’


            Did this grandiloquence belong more to the floor of The House Of Commons than a chat in a hospital corridor? My Pa was perhaps more parliamentary than colloquial in his relations with both me, and all his acquaintance. His work in military education, and his papers on disadvantaged learners lay behind this conviction.

   ‘Just so,’ Sir John shifted on his feet.


            And now there was an awkward pause, as of two men who might strike up an acquaintance could they fathom each other’s tone.  Then they shook hands and Sir John receded down the corridor while the new father stood under the icy lights wondering whether he might now put aside the incomparable Milton to visit Mrs Boon.  Along that corridor there may have been other delivery rooms producing other 1949 children, but no one intruded upon the colonel’s own small dilemma on that spot of linoleum.


            For my Pa was a gentlemanly colonel, divided between his knowledge that there were matters to face and his decent uncertainty as to whether it was proper for the paternal person to end the mother’s privacy quite so early after that mysteriously female event of a birth. Resolving against doubt, and slipping Milton into his briefcase, the Pa set out for the door to the delivery room.


(from The Poets’ Stairwell, a picaresque novel-in-progress.)

Stephen Atkinson reviews Borobudur by Jennifer Mackenzie


by Jennifer Mackenzie

Transit Lounge

ISBN 978-0-9804616-6-4

Reviewed by STEPHEN ATKINSON     


Journeys, actual and metaphorical, geographical and spiritual, and the cultural exchanges they facilitate, are at the heart of Australian poet Jennifer Mackenzie’s epic Borobudur, in which the pilgrimages of Borobudur’s priest-architect Gunavarman are a reflection of the writer’s own travels through the region and the writing process. For Mackenzie, wandering and poetry are in many regards the one thing, both conducted along similar trajectories and according to the same states of mind. Of the creative process of writing Borobudur she has said that, ‘texts, my own travels and experiences pointed in a certain direction and I followed’. Along the way she came upon the poets of the Javanese epics, and Kukai, the peripatetic Japanese monk in whose poetry, to her delight, Mackenzie found echoes of the voice she had worked hard to establish for Gunavarman.


            Soon, we are in lockstep with the poet and her guides, feeling the path beneath the soles of their ‘iris-dyed sandals’, embarking on voyages and alighting in sometimes unplanned destinations, hoisted on palanquins, and treated to the hospitality of princes, sages and scribes. The mandala-like structure of the 8th century Buddhist sanctuary of Borobudur was itself designed to be walked, successive clock-wise circumambulations allowing novices to ascend to progressively higher levels on the path to enlightenment, and so the figure of the journey acquires another layer of meaning, welding the experience of space to the rhythm of steady footfall, and to meditation, movement and poetry.


            Thomas Stamford Raffles, who governed Java for the British over a brief period from 1811 to 1815, is said to have been sitting in his stately residence in Semarang on the Java Sea when he first heard stories of an immense ancient wonder that lay part buried near the plain of Kedu in Central Java. Borobudur, though the subject of lontar texts and folk tales, and clearly known to people living in the immediate vicinity, was nevertheless shrouded in a mystery maintained by a curse: for members of the Javanese nobility, to visit the site meant certain death. It is said that a young prince, who determined to see for himself the ‘warriors in cages’, vomited blood and died shortly after his return.


            Raffles was a product of the English enlightenment, a linguist and scholar fascinated by the cultures, history and antiquities of the places he was assigned to govern. After hearing these fantastical descriptions, he summonsed the Dutch superintendent of historical monuments, Hermann Cornelius, who gathered a team to begin the task of locating Borobudur and disentangling it from centuries of obscurity. After months of steady labour, the extent of the structure and the technical and artistic virtuosity of its creators were revealed. This was almost fifty years before Angkor Wat was hacked from the jungle by a team led by Henri Mouhot, and so constituted Europeans’ first glimpse of the elaborate splendour of the Southeast Asian civilisations that predated their own. Such discoveries could have unsettled some of the presuppositions of superiority that increasingly came to underpin the whole colonial project, but the relatively new field of archaeology, and other disciplines like ethnology that busied themselves with the collection of artefacts, data and knowledge, at the same time constituted another form of conquest.


            Mackenzie’s project in some ways runs counter to the task of archaeology because it is more concerned with the limits of knowledge, the restitution of mystery and a return of some of the dust so assiduously swept away. If archaeology undoes the work of time, Borobudur reaffirms it. Central to all investigations into the past, though often unacknowledged, is the matter of mortality. And if Borobudur has something to teach us, it could be that we are all, like everything else, subject to the same processes of transformation, and that the change inherent in movement and time has somehow to be embraced. While staying with a family of dancers in the Indian Buddhist centre of Nalanda, Gunavarman learns ‘that stone and dance could be equivalent’, and


that in the weathering of stone

I anticipated my own weathering

in the elegance of the gesture

I could traverse that weathering like a god (65)


            While Raffles’ caretaker administration was short-lived, the West’s fascination with Borobudur and structures like it continued, scented with a romance and taste for the exotic not satisfied perhaps by the more austere relics of Europe. The nature of this continuing fascination, Mackenzie’s included, is interesting to ponder. In part it seems to be a case of sunlight and climate, a brightness and clarity that shimmers, sensual and fragrant, and Mackenzie’s verse is full of allusions to colours and light that fill the eyes to aching. Take for example, the sibilant whisper and crystal stillness of:


the lake’s transparent water

luxuriant with lotuses

the blue mountain’s snow-capped

summit moves easily

on its surface (p.62)


            Here, what is more, is a striking image of a time before time, before the white noise of the present, and core to the affect of Borobudur is its concern with time’s passing, with the difficulty of grappling with either eternity or mortality, and with the poignancy of grand endeavours to achieve posterity that tumble into pointlessness, leaving, at best, an enigma, whose meanings are spent and purposes lost just at the moment of their realisation.


            Borobudur gathers together lifetimes lived more slowly and with more conviction, to when journeys embarked upon in the pursuit of wisdom and higher learning could easily stretch to decades. A feature of Borobudur’s strength as a work of poetic cross-cultural interpretation is that it progresses through an engagement with, and imagined dialogue between, the lives, travels and works of the old Javanese poets whose witness offers another glimpse into Borobudur’s historic and cultural significance. In addition to her debt to poets such as Monaguna and Kertayasha, Mackenzie draws inspiration and insights from Prapanca, a documenter of the Majapahit Empire, whose fourteenth-century Negarakertagama makes reference to a Borobudur already long abandoned. That these writers were not all contemporaneous allows Mackenzie to eschew the tyranny of chronology to explore what we mean by timelessness, that is, what we mean when we describe a monument like Borobudur as timeless.


            Borobudur can be read as a companion piece to more conventional guidebooks and histories: one that sets out to complicate as the other explicates, to obscure as the other reveals, to propose dimensions less measurable, to replicate Borobudur as it condensed in the mind of its architect, to explore the conditions of its conception, and to remind us that stone is as ephemeral as the people who shift, shape, and attribute meanings to it. Mackenzie renders it all lyrically as clearly as Gunavarman choreographed his epic dance of stone. It presents a Borobudur that visitors today might not immediately recognise as they pay their admission and run the gauntlet of souvenir vendors, but which lingers in the atmosphere, in the evidence of the chisel, in the favourable aspect of the site, and in the spectacular views and blossoming trees that led in part to its selection.


            While the poems in the remaining section of this slim, beautifully designed volume, ‘Angkor and other poems’ arrive via different routes, they are similarly the product of Mackenzie’s personal engagement and fascination with the region and they also explore the relationship between wandering and poetry, people and nature, the material and the ethereal, time and disappearance. The haunted final poem of the collection, ‘The Botanist Lost at Lake Maninjau’, suggests the existence of portals to realms outside of time, asynchronous and invisible. For Mackenzie, to be lost in the jungle is to cease to exist or to have entered a world of disappearances. It ends:


he entered this light-filled canopy

walked ten minutes

broad leaves coalesced, undergrowth clotted

the air streamed with the inky curlicues of vines

the matte white of a sketch pad appeared iridescent


he turned around. the exit had disappeared.




Brook Emery reviews Motherlode and Not A Muse


Motherlode: Australian Women’s Poetry, 1986-2008


Jennifer Harrison & Kate Waterhouse (eds)


Puncher and Wattmann, 2009





Not A Muse

Kate Rogers, Viki Holmes (eds)

Haven Books, Hong Kong 

ISBN 978-988-18094-1-4 


Reviewed by BROOK EMERY





               What are my credentials, or lack thereof, to review these two anthologies of women’s poetry?


            Despite an androgynous first name, I am a sliced-white-bread, baby-boomer male. Husband not wife. Father not mother. I am also instinctively uneasy with categorisations that assume difference based on gender. Boys Book, Chick Lit – leave me out. Men analytical, women emotional; men aggressive, women nurturing – stop it! Men’s movements re-discovering the bear or hunter in themselves, women learning to be assertive – how sad. Single sex schools – indefensible, an admission of failure. Once, after a reading, I was told by one poet that my ‘sensibility was very feminine’ and, almost immediately afterwards, by another poet that my ‘voice was so masculine’. What to make of this? (That difference is in the ear of the beholder?) What to do? (Shrug and laugh?)


           But biology and evolution cannot be denied, and neither can social conditioning, nor entrenched beliefs and prejudices, and historically, politically and culturally it was, and, unfortunately, maybe still is, important that spaces are made for ‘women’s writing’, though something will have to be done about such a term because it implicitly defines itself not just against the non-existent term ‘men’s writing’ but against ‘writing’ .


          Perhaps it’s not so strange that I should have felt compelled to question my reviewing credentials as, in their own ways, the editors of each book exhibit a little nervousness about the reception of their projects and feel a need to position their anthologies within the history of feminism and so-called post-feminism. Harrison and Waterhouse write in their joint introduction to Motherlode:


We have been asked whether this is a feminist book and it undoubtedly is, if feminism is defined as that which women know and strive to make known.


         They acknowledge that much has changed in the lives of women as a result of feminism but identify the enduring experiences as:


the realities of fertility, pregnancy, birth and the bonds between mothers and their mothers, daughters and sons.


          The editors of Not A Muse: the inner lives of women are more political. Kate Rogers writes that the book explores,


how we define ourselves as women. Are we living our lives honestly, completely true to ourselves? If we choose an unconventional life, what are the costs? Not a Muse is, in part, about our choices. How we define ourselves as women and poets. How we define freedom.


          Viki Holmes asks rhetorically, ‘To what end an anthology of women only in this post-feminist era? Shouldn’t we be looking beyond divisions of gender in the 21st century?’ She doesn’t really answer these questions specifically other than to assert a right, or need, to speak and occupy the foreground:


Woman as mysterious, retreating Other; an enigmatic figure retreating in the distance, inspiring and intriguing – and silent. But what happens when the muse speaks? Not a Muse began as an attempt to redress this relegating of women to be sources of inspiration rather than creators. The voices in this anthology speak eloquently, reflectively, and with certainty, about the roles women have chosen for themselves – perhaps enigmatic, certainly inspiring and intriguing – but never in the distant background.


          In a preface, ‘On Reading Woman’, the Indonesian poet Laksmi Pamuntjak tackles possible objections to the anthology even more directly. She asks:


Aren’t the days of being jumpy at the very mention of the word ‘female’ or ‘feminine’ finally over, because women have advanced by leaps and bounds to assert themselves as a subject first and foremost, of which ‘woman’ is only part? … Hasn’t women’s liberation gone to such amazing lengths that many modern-day feminists now even believe that the very concept of woman is a fiction, thus raising the possibility that the concept of women’s oppression is finally obsolete and feminism’s raison d’etre has fallen away?


More pertinently: do we still need an anthology of women’s writing? Does it not seem an endorsement of the gender polarisation that women have fought so long and hard to batter down?


         Her answers to the last two questions are unequivocal: ‘yes’, then ‘no’. They rest. in part, on an undeniable political truth: ‘ in many parts of the world where women have no voice, no discourse, no place from which to speak, defining the ‘feminine’ is a luxury that cannot be corralled into the collective’.


          Really, neither book needs an apology or a theoretical feminist defence. The impregnable defence of both anthologies is just that they are artful, interesting explorations of human experience. Each one demonstrates the power of good poetry to engage people on emotional and conceptual levels not easily accessed by other means. How much more powerful, subtle and informing these poems are than shelves full of theory, therapy or self-help.


         Motherlode is a great title playing as it does on all the resonances of exploration, mining and discovery, of richness, abundance and centrality, while gently ghosting the homophone ‘load’ with its connotations of weight and burden. With 125 poets, 172 poems, and at over 300 pages it is abundant indeed. Published by the innovative and relatively new Sydney publishing house Puncher and Wattmann, it is also a beautifully produced book, attractive to look at and to hold. The cover is flexi-case which is closer to traditional hardcover than soft cover, there is a headband at the top and bottom of the spine, and even an attached bookmark ribbon. The binding is stitched, the paper gorgeous, and it is sharply printed and laid out: the packaging does justice to the content.


            The focus of Motherlode is clearly defined and circumscribed. It is dedicated to ‘our mothers’ and is not designed to include all shades of female experience but to explore the experience of motherhood and to make this accessible to the general reader. The anthology is divided into twelve sections: nature, icons, pregnancy, birth, infancy, sons and daughters, daily grind, loss, old wives tales, mothers and grandmothers, the world, this last retreat. 


            The editors suggest that the anthology be considered as a collective narrative and they invite us to read it sequentially as one would a novel. This can work, as poem after poem seems to be a conversation with and a departure from the one preceding it. To read it thus is, perhaps, to impose a narrative consistency and might lead to the temptation to construct archetypes corresponding to the section headings. Thus, to take for example the section heading ‘Birth’, the reader might move from ‘I am waiting / for what emerges / from the white edges / of catastrophe’ (Alison Croggon), to ‘Prostaglandin spreads like cold honey / my cervix ripening, as an avocado in brown paper’ (Kathryn Lomer) to ‘The next pain / takes your spine apart. / Pelvis gags / some kind of thing with horns / in its throat’ (Rebecca Edwards), to ‘Out from you as if in a continuum / is she still yourself? Finally she is not / She separates calmly, not crying’ (Phyllis Perlstone), to ‘This is the first thing I want you to know. I am your mother and you arrived in me and from me. You arrived not “child as other” but as the child of my centre, the child of grass and orchards, of mulberries in summer’ (Jennifer Harrison) to ‘Early this morning, when workmen were switching on lights / in chilly kitchens, packing their lunch boxes / into their Gladstone bags, starting their utes in the cold / and driving down quiet streets under misty lamps, / my daughter bore a son’ (Margaret Scott), to ‘At Bindawalla, the hospital / where only Aboriginal babies were born, / the nurses laughed as they put me in a shoe-box / and gave me to my mother; she cried’ (Elizabeth Hodgson), and finally to Rosemary Dobson: ‘Eight times it flowered in the dark, / Eight times my hand reached out to break / That icy wreath to bear away / Its pointed flowers beneath my heart. / Sharp are the pains and long the way / Down, down into the depths of night / Where one goes for another’s sake’. 


           There is nothing wrong with this way of reading unless the reader imposes unwarranted  generalisations rather than paying attention to the particularities of individual poems; to the way in which the same subject and similar experiences provoke such different responses and voices. Perhaps, though, just as profitably one can dip in and out of this collection reading each poem as poem and not worrying about its place in any sequence, jumping from, say, Jan Owen’s ‘We have no tender name / for you, small being, / drawn awry by some sad chance / as though you thought to play / too early with earth’s creatures, / fish, fowl, seal’ to J S Harry’s ‘I am mrs mothers’ day / I will hire myself out to you / for the 364 other days / I will not be satisfied by / 1 plus 364 / grottybunches of whitechrysanthemum / you choose to offer me snottynose’. Either way the reader will find lively poems which refuse to be shaped to fit any theory – one of the strengths of this anthology is that the editors, while elegantly shaping the collection, have not sought to impose boundaries.  


          Motherlode’s timeframe is restricted. The book concentrates on poems published between 1986 and 2008 and aims to be as representative as possible of the range of poets writing in that period. 1986 is chosen as the starting date because that was when the groundbreaking  Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets was published and, although comparison is not intended, inevitably and valuably, Motherlode will allow readers to consider what changes and continuities they can detect over this period. Motherlode publishes a number of poets (Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood, Faye Zwicky, Judith Rodriguez, Margaret Scott, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Bobbi Sykes and Rosemary Dobson among them), and a few poems, which appeared in the earlier anthology but it also gives space to newer and younger poets including Rebecca Edwards, Morgan Yasbincek, L K Holt, Petra White, Elizabeth Campbell, Jane Gibian, Esther Ottaway, Lisa Gorton, Judith Bishop and Francesca Haig. The editors say that, to make their selection, they read over 500 books of poetry (plus print and on-line journals).  One of the excitements of this generous and generous-spirited anthology is to discover the number of Australian women poets writing now and the strength of their writing – from my own reading I’d hazard a guess that among the emerging generation of poets it is the women who are the most numerous and impressive. Opening the anthology with Gwen Harwood’s ‘Mother Who Gave Me Life’ and closing it with Judith Wright’s ‘Woman to Child’ provide powerful vantage points from which to view the achievement and consider the evolution of the tradition.  


            If Motherlode is a big book, Not A Muse, at over 500 pages, is huge. It features 114 poets from 24 countries. Ten of the poets (Pam Brown, Michelle Cahill, Suzanne Gervay, Margaret Grace, Tanya Hart, Jayne Fenton Keane, Laura Jean McKay, Kate Middleton, Leanne Murphy, Katrin Talbot) are Australian and, of these, only two, Pam Brown and Michelle Cahill, appear in Motherlode, and six were previously unknown to me. Perhaps the lack of crossover can be explained by the selection process – as I understand it the poets in Not A Muse were chosen by submission rather than by reading the available literature though, perhaps, some of the more well-known poets (Margaret Atwood, Sharon Olds, Erica Jong, Lorna Crozier, Laksmi Pamuntjak,) may have been invited to submit. This selection by submission does mean the quality of the poetry is a uneven and representation might be a little unbalanced but I don’t want that to sound like a serious criticism as I found much within these pages to enjoy and much that was new to me. The many countries represented allow for speculation about what might be thought universal and what culturally or personally specific.


          Not A Muse is dedicated to ‘our mothers and sisters’. Its intent can be guessed by the politically and emotionally charged ‘sisters’ and it’s conceptual scope gauged by the sections into which it is divided. Each is conceived as an aspect of female identity, so each heading, bar the last, is preceded by the words ‘Woman as’: creator, family, archetype, explorer, myth maker, home maker, landscape, lover, freedom fighter, keeper of secrets, keeper of memories, ageing. It is tempting to read Not A Muse, more so than Motherlode, as a single, multi-voiced argument, as chapters in a developing thesis. The title is a rejection or a negative definition, specifically of Robert Graves’s conception of woman as poetic muse. The collection overtly celebrates woman as subject and agent, active, outspoken, central to the creation of her own life and the life of others. Here the section headings really do read like archetypes and could be said to be imposing limits on the conception ‘woman’. Can you imagine a collection with headings like: homemaker, housekeeper, spouse, companion or, indeed, muse?


            This last question is not intended seriously. Poems on my imagined subjects do appear in the anthology and, indeed, ‘home maker’ is one of the headings. Individual poems in this anthology escape the confines of any characterisation even when they are at their most political and assertive and as I was reading I kept mentally thinking this poem could equally appear under this heading or that one. Try fitting the following excerpts under their assigned headings (answers appear, in order, at the end of the review):


Inside me, an Eastern European poet

is trying to get out. He’s killing me,

and I, with my recurring ear infections

and job, am slowly stifling him.

(Joan Hewitt)


I’m not getting up

when you call

I don’t want to

do your bidding


I’ll just lie here

chase some flies

with my eyes


You can be


(Kavita Jindal)


Like a river feeding itself to the ocean,

Child, I continue to give myself to you

Until I become undone – scattered pockets

Of primitive earth, peeled bare.

(Tammy Ho Lai-Ming)


Because, like a poem, the city doesn’t know where our feet will

take us, we walked, unseeing, inaudible, heart-shaped. Too

many signs to follow. But there was a delight in being lost,

and rivering along took care of that until our voices

grew shrill and words


        in the air

(Laksmi Pamuntjak)


imagine your mother

down on her knees

and sucking cock

and understand you will never really know her

(Nicole Homer)


I have not swept the floor – the Amy of Now

must pass that task to the Amy of Tomorrow

along with folding the clothes

and taking the garbage out. Tomorrow’s Amy

may not mind, she might open the day

eager to eat chores with a fork

(Amy Maclennan)


The black of Radha’s hair is cow dung

and soot

Her arms of yellow

tumeric, pollen or perhaps

lime and the milk

of banyan leaves

   (Nitoo Das)


One day she will put her hands out, fingers long

like yours

and she will

hold you

play you


and she will find the words that will turn you

into a cunt

(Sridala Swami)


A funnel has been shoved into my mouth

through which I am force-fed the sky.

I have eaten thunderheads, slaughtered angels.

And now they are mashing up the stars

into baby gruel.

‘You can eat anything,’ the doctors say

(Pascale Petit)


a Kurdish woman sang me a lullaby,

she said bab meant gate,

she said I know no poems

but I can sing to my dead child,

will you listen? And I think,

the whole world is listening,

you just don’t know it.

(Kirsten Rian)


I open my hand, see wrinkles, cold marks

of God’s anger upon my flesh. In these veins

runs depleted blood, returning capillary

by capillary from the centre of this rot.

Once, when I was a girl, I stood at the edge

of the sea and was tumbled over

by a rogue wave. What would it have been like

to glide on the undertow past kelp gardens

and coral reefs …

(Carol Dorf)


Who wants to hear about

two old farts getting it on

in the back seat of a buick,

in the garden shed among vermiculite,

in the kitchen where we should be drinking

ovaltine and saying no?

(Lorna Crozier)




           The differences between women (writers) are as great as the similarities. The similarities between men and women (writers) are as great as the differences. The particular disproves any generalisation but generalisations persist. The strength of both these books, on social, political and artistic levels, is that they give voice to similarities and differences, to the particularity and generality of female experiences. These are poems by women from women’s perspectives about women’s experiences but they are not just for women. It would be a terrible failure of  sensibility if a male reader were unable to imaginatively and enjoyably live within the poems in these two valuable collections. Both books belong in all public and educational libraries and would certainly augment a private collection.


(Answers: Creator, Family, Archetype, Explorer, Myth Maker, Home Maker, Landscape, Lover, Freedom Fighter, Keeper of Secrets, Keeper of Memories, Ageing.)


Roberta Lowing

Roberta Lowing recently graduated with a Master Of Letters from the University of Sydney. Her poetry has appeared in Meanjin, Blue Dog, and Overland journals. For the past four years she has run the monthly PoetryUnLimited Press Poetry Readings and Open Mic Competitions in Sydney. In 2007, she edited PULP’s Ilumina Journal.






The past is only just now reaching us
and the last perfect place of exile

is another gateway to the dead


Even when we smelled the blackened hands

of the officials abandoning the capsized tanker

we kept applauding those who cut arteries of rock

and severed the ocean’s silver-scaled veins


We lived at the heart of the crystal

surrounded by ice roses and frosted fossils

we thought we could merely open another door to another north

and the devil would rush by


When the shadows appeared out of that first bruise-coloured dusk

(bird-shaped, seal-shaped) we didn’t listen to the cracking

from the battles of past winters     we didn’t realize

our black pages would never be white again


As the graveyard pools washed up on shore

our cliffs were reduced to midnight silhouettes

tendrils of shotgun smoke froze above the slumped bodies

ropes hung rigid from wooden beams in the boat houses


In other places

the land is knocked down by noisy winds

or it murmurs in resignation

as it swells into blurriness after the winter storms


Places that die every winter

are revived by the returning sun

but in Cordova Alaska

there are no new beginnings


We must stand glistening like chandeliers

crystal knots of tears on our cheeks

as the snow

falls burning on our hands




The Country Behind Us


Strangers who drove through Badourie in 1938

must have thought the war already happened: 

the bomb to end all bombs had bitten into the flat plain

and hissed out a grey wind, red around the edges.


It must have been more than the sun that bleached

the splitting fences and the cattle ribs that hugged the fissures,

chiselled out the wooden blades of the windmill

so it frowned, gap-toothed, over


the crumbling wattle-and-daub houses, the absence

of children staring from doorways, dogs

rolling their tufted yellow bellies

into the cleft shadow of the rotting porch.


In bullock-breath weather,

the ice gripping the wooden teeth clicks

as it turns under a sky as thin and white

as chalk smeared by a falling hand,


the birds remain blurs on the horizon,

the ground leans away to the summoned faces.

The windmill grimaces as the days descend

with their hammers of sun.   




you lie on your back

 in your jeans and headscarf

on your new bed of blue asphalt and red lace



when I rock the developing tray

your arms flail through the wet yellow smoke

under the crimson globe


lapping water is the only sound in my darkroom

but your world reverberates

with beating garbage tin lids


defiant cries from rooftops  

the soft hiss as the air divides

for stones flung by desperate students


we are satellites apart – the chemical smell

that bites my nostrils comes from your world –

but as I place the tongs over your heart


it seems we are the ones running through smoke

chased by razor-wielding men

in black helmets on black unmarked motorbikes


my hands are still

but you keep moving

sending out your indissoluble ripples



Rob Riel reviews Andrew Slattery’s Canyon


by Andrew Slattery

Australian Poetry Centre
ISBN 978-0-9804465-7-9
PO Box 284, Balaclava, VIC, 3183


Reviewed by ROB RIEL





             Canyon is a handsome chapbook, the cover stylishly sewn rather than stapled to the text. Publication in this form is a valuable initiative of the Australian Poetry Centre, similar in scope to the Five Islands New Poetry Series, and with very much the same objective: to encourage newcomers to the poetic craft. 

            Like Ron Pretty’s earlier enterprise, workshopping of new poets’ manuscripts is a central element of the program.  If publication is the carrot, a week-long intensive residential workshop at Varuna is the stick used to beat a good manuscript into a winning one.  It’s a proven formula going back to 1994; the vetting process works, and the list of successful applicants is distinguished.


            Without question, Andrew Slattery merits inclusion in 2009.  On the back cover, Peter Porter describes him as ‘an archaeologist of the Natural World.  He invents a Joycean script.‘  Slattery’s poetry is large, his voice original, his craft sharp.  When he is on song, he’s up there with the best.  That said, his wordplay tends to that excessive exuberance common to talented new writers — which is to say, he can’t pass up a chance to impress.  Hence a few über-Joycean passages in the style of Ulysses and Finnigan’s Wake might be described as overworked. This minor flaw can be willingly dismissed in a manuscript of such promise.


            Canyon is a rewarding read, not necessarily an easy one.  The first four poems employ a richly Arctic motif.  William Empson’s Ambiguity Type 1 involves detail, which is effective in several ways simultaneously, and this is one of Slattery’s strengths, as in ‘Arctic Circle, Sweden’:


… In the distance a bull elk

lay across one track; the brown slump of weight

rolled into the ground with a span of antlers


like petrified angel wings.  When Dad tied them off

with rope at my back, I walked the way home,

but it was like I could fly, with wings of bone

lifting me over the rocks in the midnight sun. 


            Two pages later, the title poem Canyon shifts the stage underwater. Here, Slattery limns the vast depths and utter magnitudes of ocean ex ungue, leonem; from the squid, we may fairly observe and admire the whole sea:


The giant squid spools along canyons

cut from the ice age — movements


aggrandised over time, its organ pipes

roll the sea bed with solitary rills,

hear its weight unlying the sea.  


           It’s a strong poem, and none the worse for having appeared elsewhere under the title ‘Bathey Pelagium‘ — identical text, albeit with different (and, to this reviewer’s mind, superior) line breaks.  At least three other fine poems in this 24-page chapbook (‘Lithographone’, ‘Post Office’ and ‘The Rural Piano Rescue Project’) have also been previously published, some as competition prize winners.


            Slattery moves on to a more recognisably Australian landscape in the second half of the collection.  ‘Somniform’ has some impressive sequences …


Calf and cloud and their cummulant fill

unfurl its new tongue and slup a cloud.


The other cows and their dark, bowed heads.

The poppy deflates the balloon in your chest.

Lay on my back, suck slow on the clouds.

The whole world made of stupor.


           … though I stumbled somewhat over ‘cummulant’; it’s a statistical term, usually spelled with one ‘m’, and probably chosen for its sound — Slattery is a closet sound poet, which benefits his work when he doesn’t carry it too far.  A few lines later, though, he consults Joyce once too often:


This disturbance will uncope the heart.

Poppyblood, white noise, metal sweat, dry brain.

A black oil from boiling the feet of cattle.

My limbs are bound with malevolent sleep.

A pink baby curled up inside each poppy.


              This is a higher order of Empsonian ambiguity, the sort of thing emerging poets take great delight in, and which established poets take pride in reining in.  Still, ‘Somniform’ is an impressive piece.  So also ‘Tryptych’ in which the three stages of execution by lethal injection are entwined with beach imagery in a successful extended metaphor:


2. Pancuronium bromide (100 mg)


Only the fated know when

there are minutes left.  Tied to a plank

at sea, rising over troughs of swell,

the land disappears with each drop.


            Slattery is strongest when he harnesses his exuberance to a narrative thread.  ‘The Archaeologist’ is a powerful evocation of childhood and its implications.  ‘Lithographone’ demonstrates his impressive capacity to winkle wondrous imagery out of simple, straightforward, colloquial Australian English.  So also ‘The Slake’:


Dad said his back was too stiff


to bring in the dead lambs, so we went down

and opened the carcasses for the foxes

to come in after dark and take their hubs.


               He’s at his weakest with nonsense verse like ‘Dancey Miscellaney’ …


The ladybug does the Boston waltz,

the lobster a high-kicking cancan.


             where the poem is not much more than a vehicle for amusing himself with interesting words like  farandole”, “catsrap”, “sarabande”, and “volta.”


             Canyon finishes with ‘The Rural Piano Rescue Project’, a long eight-part piece which plays to all of Slattery’s considerable strengths:


1. Structure


They used the 1912 Esterman upright

to plug a gap in the cow-yard fence.  A yellow

jessamy vine covers its back that faces out

like a dirty gold tooth along the white boundary.

From the other side you can see someone’s kept

the keys glint-clean.  We imagine stock workers;


left to bunk under the stars, spilling drink on the keys

as they sing the cows to standing sleep.


              This is the sort of poem which can win a major competition, establish a strong reputation, and convince readers to buy the poet’s next book. 


            Andrew Slattery is an exceptionally talented new voice in Australian poetry.   He has the craft, the sophistication, and the energy to compete with the very best. Canyon is an impressive milestone, and a worthy contribution to the literature.  At this point in his career, a full-length collection is the anticipated next step.  May it come soon.





Anne M Carson

Anne M Carson is a Melbourne writer who is most happy immersed in creative projects.  She gave up social work to write, teach and produce visual art.  Her prose and poetry have been featured on local and National Radio and she has curated two PoeticA programmes on Radio National.  She has been published in a range of literary journals and anthologies including Best Australian Poems, 2005.  




The Hearse

All around us rude life swirls.  Our guests

mill in the vestibule, spill onto the footpath,


sharing grief and reminiscence.  No-one notices

the hearse pull out from the curb, the lead man’s


measured pace.  The air holds its breath –

an undercurrent shivers out like an eddy


stirring just a handful of leaves.  It brushes

my mind, prickling.  My sister notices too. 


The sky like a lid on a box, lowers.  Underfoot,

the bluestone is hard.  Death has us in a press. 


We turn in slow synchronicity, each sealed

in our own sling of sorrow.  Time opens,


draws us into a pocket of pain and departure. 

We watch the hearse move away with our father’s

unaccompanied body.  Around us, inside us,

molecules rearrange, adjust to his dying. 



Green Is The Colour

Wilson’s Prom 2009

Cloaked in convalescence, the landscape without foliage

resonates with loss.  Once forest, now individual trunks

stand out, painted the black of cinder and mourning. 

I know the theory – bush regenerates after fire, birds


return, rise from ashes.  But the burn here is heartbreaking

hillside after hillside – stubbled with match-stick thinness,

like the poor head-hair of chemo patients.  In some places

recovery is obvious.   Eucalypts have put on sleeves –


pressure bandages on burns victims you hope protects them. 

Elsewhere a moss poultice covers the earth, blanketing harm. 

No regrowth yet in the banksia forests – sounds are broken

and brittle.  Seedpods remain silent.  Their mouths will open


eventually, articulate with seed.   I’ll trust seeds’ eloquence,

their tumble into the waiting ashbed – kernels of thought

into earth’s imagination.   Green is the colour when

the regeneration wheel turns.   Shoots will appear, new ideas


nosing their way into life.   Already the grass trees thrive. 

From burnt beginnings, single, solid spears rear into space,

fields of lingams insisting on existence.  The tale of recovery; 

I want to be told it again and again, until I have it by heart.


Corfu Asklepion 
Beds align on the north-south axis.
Feet face out, heads in, a corridor between
Pods where we wrap ourselves,
Compose stories of the day before sleep.
We are the stamen round which our night
Petals furl; the stem where dream fruit grows.
Like the tundra wants rain, the wound wants the dream.
Salamander flare, lapse into sleep.
Let the Asklepian dog lick your lesions
The dream serpent bite you back to health.
Unwind the petals, the linens, the wings
Over wounds in the clean wind of night.
Dream on while the Dream Master
Walks the corridor between beds,
Walks between sleep selves, bestowing dreams.
Homoeopathically, just a little dream will do.
Asklepius was the god of healing in ancient Greece. Patients visited his sanctuary, slept in the Asklepion and hoped for a healing dream. He was said to appear as a dog licking or a snake biting. 

Form and Fashion in Stephen Edgar’s Verse: Michelle Cahill reviews History Of The Day

History Of The Day                                                    

by Stephen Edgar

Black Pepper Press, 2009

ISBN 9781876044626




             History of the Day is Stephen Edgar’s seventh collection. Acclaimed for his formal virtuosity, the painterly style of his images, and an objective, pondering engagement with his themes, his work stems from the modernist tradition for which temporal, aesthetic and moral categories are ordered into a wholeness: that which Stevens refers to as a “blessed rage for order,” and Adam Kirsch describes as “its unequivocally positive character.” But how relevant is Edgar’s quiet insistence on aesthetic and ethical authenticity in the discursive climate of postmodernity? His formal music might seem to be mannered, anachronistic, or elitist even, in its positioned detachment from the real. Reading History of the Day, might seem a foreign experience, rather like learning a new language, Edgar’s work being labyrinthine and at times recondite. His polished cognizance, his formally oblique and elaborate praise of things ordinary defies a trend in contemporary poetics. Seemingly removed from the lineage of Rimbaud, Lowell, Plath or indeed Adamson, his poetry is, if challenging, deeply satisfying for its clarity, its faithfulness to measured forms of language and thought.

            History of The Day is a collection of modesty and harmony. An outward sign of its grace is reflected in the book’s structure. Each of three sections are inspired by the epigraph taken from Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar so that we move from poems which encounter the intimately personal, to the those of historical irony and philosophical inflection, followed by the last sequence, a miscellany, in which poems are addressed to other poets. Edgar’s acknowledged influences include WH Auden, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, as well as the Australian poets Gwen Harwood and Peter Porter, among others. His sensibilities are refined, at times overwrought; his preoccupations are with the relativity of time, space, destiny and history. A poem such as “Space” is a fine illustration of Edgar’s themes and style. Here, he takes a single image of a Treasury flag flapping in the breeze as an instance of the physicality of space as it exists in the mind’s eye. The images are visceral. They emphasise a perspective in which the flag is central: the way it “writhes” against the “muscled” breeze, the “distortions” of matter within “a moment’s frame”. The tangential observer, aware of time elapsing, journeys on towards the “day’s blue, contested edges.” Broken into stanzas the poem derives its form from the Italian or Petrachan sonnet, with some license exercised to the rhyme scheme in the octave. The beguiling simplicity of its subject, the elasticity of its iambic metre, and its refined contemplation are hallmarks of Edgar’s most impressive lyrics. It’s a poem that reconciles image, form and thought effortlessly, turning adroitly from minimalism to perceptual complexity.

           Space-time distortions are a principal concern for the poet. In many of the poems Edgar takes a phenomenological interest in experience and how it is structured consciously. His attention to the detail of these processes enables him to amplify scenes, embellish their dimensions and surfaces, so that time is almost warped, slowed down to the shimmering speed of thought. We hear this echoed in the marvellously speculative poem “Dreaming At The Speed Of Light”:

And every thought would undergo
This rallentando, every word
Would grind down to a halt
Midsyllable, interminably heard,
But charged with full intention even so,
And purity of tone,


            Quantum ironies resound within the poem’s weave of internal assonance and simple rhymes. Such poems exemplify the liberating and quirky possibilities of Edgar’s formal music.

            The situations and figures are often more emblematic than realistic, creating the mildly disturbing effect of defamiliarisation, so that we are excluded from the engendering of illusion. The subject matter, however benign, is nuanced with a disenchantment that falls short of defeat. This kind of alienation is modernist in its impulse. There is an almost Brechtian distancing effect which along with the historical referencing of many of the poems, imbues them with complex ironies.

            In “ Out of the Picture” Edgar dramatises the dual perspective of an Impressionist painting. On the one hand is the “unnoticed, unmissed” feminine figure who “saunters between/The poplars” out of the picture towards a forgotten ending. The last stanza suggests an alternate perspective of the painting’s observer, for whom it is

As pointless to depart as to delay:
In either course is folded the same space.
In Istanbul next year or here today:


            The attention given to the placement of figures, and to the spectator perspective with its minimalist interaction emphasises divisions between the viewer’s world and the picture space or the scene depicted, whether it be through a photograph of lynching as in the powerful evocation“ Those Hours Which Grew To Be Years”, through a dream, as in “Dream Works” or through a camera lens, as in “The Swallows Of Baghdad.” As a war poem, one could argue that “The Swallows Of Baghdad” pursues its ethical argument tentatively, leaning towards a tactful, aestheticised vision of war’s brutality. The swallows with their “flickering wings,” who dart through a “ruined roof/To perch on dreadful engines,” are twice removed from the observer, being reminiscent of  “a scene from Attenborough.” Edgar’s instincts are always on the side of aesthetics, though one feels the tension  between this principle and what is being represented. Moreover the poem attempts to eschew complacency in its ending lines:

A camera reeling in that chamber follows
Their lit flight, where—too recently to show—
The cameras turned to darkness for their proof.


             The framing of scenes and narratives is one aspect of the poet’s architectonic finesse but it’s also a lens through which history and memory can be purposeful; intensifying and correcting time. This is beautifully realised in the book’s opening poem “Golden Coast’, in which natures’s ravages are compared to those of love. Edgar’s diction juxtaposes the idyllic with the hideous, as overdeveloped skyscrapers “make their mark, /Their ulceration of the golden coast/ whose beauties they would sell, Under the settling sediment of dark.”

            Metaphysical in its dialectic and reminiscent of Herbert or Donne, the poem illuminates how memory operates within a dimension that transcends time. The idyllic moment of love’s intensity is preserved :

This day unknown to time will be there when
The light drifts through the shallows like a ghost
And dies of hours, the skies
And earth fall down and chaos comes again.    


             How many contemporary poets would dare voice such painterly abstractions, such affirmation? A reader who might resist a title such as “Golden Coast,” is convinced by the thoughtful accuracy of Edgar’s diction, which describes how “lights as laggardly as sound/ Struggle to make the passage of the gloom.”

             Like a Hopper painting, many of the poems play with a symbolic use of light and shade, and the careful placement of figures within a given scene. This attention to topographies and symmetry is distinctly metaphysical, an ordering principle pleasingly realised in “The Earrings”. The central conceit of a deceased lover’s earrings, gifted to a living spouse, play on the spherical as a symbol of nuptial unity, destiny, and the amatory universe. With adroitness the poet is able to reconcile loss with recovery, the ironic with the ardent, to unify

All of the properties,
           The pain,
Pleasures, desires, memories
That nothing will appease,
            Nothing detain,


             Chronological time does not correspond to memory, dream or to lived experience as the portals between past and present are traversed in language. Mystical encounters are celebrated: the dead speak, a doppelgänger contradicts himself, entering not a boardroom, but a museum “of lost antiquities”, the “mortared ghost of locomotion surges” in the sculptural form of a train. In the poem “Nocturnal,” Edgar’s prosody echoes a Keatsian ode in its iambic rhetoric:

Who ever thought they would not hear the dead?
Who ever thought that they could quarantine
           Those who are not, who once had been?


            The reader is moved and surprised by the poet’s wit. The discrepancy between the recorded and real voice of the poet’s deceased partner is metonymic of the breach between memory and presence, an impasse into which the poem enters.

            History of The Day is a book of Escheresque passages rendered by the effects of recollection, repetition and doubling: The past is “Undeleted,” Edgar writes, “What happened is embedded and repeated.” Speculative, ekphrastic or historical, the poems duplicate and tease semantic possibilities which we encounter in poems like “Parallel Worlds” or “Interior With Interiors”. This latter poem, inspired by a Ramon Casas painting depicts a scene where a woman and man are mutually abandoned to each other: she “self-absorbed”; he perhaps dreaming of bliss, a ‘total consummation” from which he might soon enough be dissatisfied, “wishing to be elsewhere.” The  artefacts of realism: coffee pot, milk jug and vase become little more than props, or “servants liveried to be ignored,” as the text, painting or poem opens to the world of boundless interiors.

            With idiosyncratic flair, Edgar probes the inner milieu. Yet a stronger dialectic between the individual and history than we have come to expect from him is voiced in this collection. The extrajudicial mob violence of white American supremacy is powerfully depicted in “Those Hours Which Grew To Be Years”. Here Edgar critiques the historical lens in his appalled response to photographs of Frank Embree’s and Rubin Stacey’s lynchings. The naked Embree is “stripped/And scored with the judicial script/Of whips,” but the poem returns a Christ-like dignity to his “composed face.”

             Here, at his most outraged, Edgar turns poetic style to indictment. He scrambles the metres. Rarely do we see him mix the insistent accents of dactyl with the iambic and anapaest in his prosody:

      Take him away
      Airbrush him out,
And all these men who stand about
In the clean light of day,


            In another poem from the sequence, a young white girl’s voyeurism is depicted with uncharacteristic and intended vulgarity:

Her hands crossed, mimicking his handcuffed hands,
On her frocked crotch, her naked face intense
And lit up with a half-embarrassed leer,           


            These are poems in which the observer’s perspective, regardless of his nationality, class or race exceeds that of witness. Edgar brings into focus the crisis between the social juggernauts of supremacy and a humanist conscience.

            Whatever subject his poems address, no matter how grand or horrific, Stephen Edgar elegantly affirms an objective displacement, sometimes theatrical or emblematic, as moments of recollection, history, art and culture are revisited and referenced. This self-imposed distance renders him faithful to his aesthetic and ethical ideals. Repeatedly, in History Of The Day, what is beautiful is sustained by loss, to become the property of memory. The ravages of history are, at least partially, restored to dignity. Here is a work which dares, in a postmodern, Microsoft era, to entertain serious aesthetic contemplations. The speaker encounters notions of reality that are fragile, provisional and constructed within the infinite domains of space-time as he attempts to order

Dimensions at the heart of matter,
Immensities wound up, that mind

Cannot conceive?





Adam Kirsch, The Modern Element, WW Norton, New York, 2008, p 10


Dona Samson Zappone

Dona was born in Malaysia of Sri Lankan parents. She migrated to Australia in 1981. Her work has appeared in Poetry Without BordersSun and Sleet Zinewest, Reunion WEA Poetry Project, Auburn Letters Zinewest, She has exhibited her artworks and design, and has a short film and a play to her credit.







Muddy River (Malaysia)



a crocodile slides through the muddy river,
sampans glide with commuters
each stroke of the paddle closer and closer to shore
mangrove trees, their branches grasp like giant octopus
dance against the muddy river banks.
the river flows swiftly gathering dead branches
rubbish, household items, timber, gliding with the tide
this river once our childhood haven of mudcrabs and fishing
shimmers in the early morning sunshine
boats tied against the docks
now bob up and down in the murky water
an old wizened man sits, smoking a cheroot
watching fascinated, reminiscing the wonders of the river
a tourist boat advertising, ‘api-api’ tour of the mangrove swamp
is getting ready with his preparations for the night tourist
a shopkeeper is wiping down the outdoor tables and chairs
while Chinese music from a radio kills the serenity of the peaceful day
its just another day on the river in Kota Tinggi of my childhood.


api-api: fireflies        sampan: canoe


a ragged group of refugees
stood on a high roof waving a white sheet, like a flag-
‘freedom, freedom!’ they chanted in Persian, Dari, Urdu
Pashto an Africaan, in Indonesian and Vietnamese
 some wrenched the metal bars apart
others threw blankets over the razor sharp fences,
they climbed and squeezed through
to jump and hurl themselves into the crowd and run
from the arms of the waiting police
sewing their lips in protest
on hunger strikes for several days
queue jumpers, illegals, rejectees,
they were herded like animals
easier controlled and forgotten
they were locked away, questioned, watched and punished
long months of being detained inside this barred prison
                                                it had taken its toll
                                                brave, desperate, lucky?
                                                they risked all to find freedom
now stateless without a future
did they have a right for their freedom?
just because they spoke in tongues
did they have to be locked up like criminals?
there were women, children, young and old 
waiting for release from a nightmare called
‘W o o m e r a’


Brian Park: The Return of Jack and Johnny

Brian Park was born and raised in New Jersey and graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s in English Literature.  After graduation, he moved to Seoul, South Korea where he currently resides. He has travelled throughout much of the last few years, which is the basis for the stories he has written.



The Return of Jack and Johnny

Serena and I parted over a cup of Lao coffee. She was going to stay in Pakse and I was going to get on a bus to Stung Treng, Cambodia.  My trip was nearly at an end. I only had five days left.

            We sat there talking about Lao coffee, about the plateaus where it came from, the high and misty jungle villages she would soon be visiting, and found ourselves staring at the grounds at the bottom of the mug with nothing else to say.  I told her she would have a great time in Pakse and she wished me luck in Cambodia and a safe trip back to New York.  I picked up my bag and hoisted it over my shoulder again.  Here was our fork in the river, so we watched each other float away laughing.  So goes another goodbye in the morning. 

            An hour later, I was riding in the back of a covered-truck driving towards the southern border of Laos and Cambodia through the flat plains and fields of yellow-green grasses.  The back of the truck was lined with two benches on either side so we could ride facing each other or lean out to watch the countryside pass by.  The women covered their heads and their faces with scarves so only their eyes were showing.  The school-children sat silently, patiently waiting, speaking in secret conversations amongst each other, riding hours away from home for whatever reason, something in the city.  At some rest-stops along the way, brief as they were, the sides of the truck would suddenly become filled with food and hands and down on the ground the eyes and faces of girls trying to sell the little bundles they had.  I bought plenty of food to eat along the way.  Sticky rice rolled in bamboo was essential.  The chicken a godsend.  The lychee branches a much needed touch.

            And then sometime around noon, when the sun was high in the sky and burning its intense yellow light over the lush fields of green, the truck stopped and I was motioned to get out.  I was one of the last ones left in the truck.  Where the rest of them would go, I did not know.  Where I was, I did not know.  All I knew was this was where one ride would lead to another, and then another, until at the end of the day I would finally get there.  I had done this all before.  I knew the system well.  There was a motorbike parked at this small crossroads in the middle of nowhere and that’s where I got on.  I waved goodbye to the kids left in the covered-truck and then got on the back of the motorbike.  We rode through the fields and then took a shortcut through an emerald green forest down one long dirt path in the middle of the woods.  I was having flashbacks of falling but feeling peaceful for the trees surrounding me.  And then we arrived at the border and the peace stopped.  Here were the complications.

            The guard sitting at the border was a rough intimidating character, a person who seemed like he hated his job.  Perhaps he was angry over the little amount of power he had in the destiny of the world and had to compensate by controlling the destinies of those who came to his gate.  I had come to the wrong gate, he told me.  I had to get a visa at the other gate. 

            “How much is the visa?” I asked, even though I already knew, just to see if he would jerk me around.

            “Twenty-five dollar,” he told me with that hard look on his face.

            “How am I supposed to get there?”

            “You figure out!  There are driver over there,” he yelled and pointed.  I felt my blood rising and struggled to suppress Jack Bauer.  Nobody yells at Jack Bauer and lives to yell again…

            “Ok, take it easy, Jesus Christ…” I muttered and walked towards where he was pointing.

            The border consisted of the guard shack, the roughly built wooden office, and a small family-owned restaurant with a wooden overhang where currently five or six boys and girls sat quietly in the shade playing on the dirt floor; the two drivers, one with black sunglasses and the other with a blue-striped polo shirt, stood about laughing and talking with the motorbike guy who was apparently a friend of theirs.  The fish had begun to fry.

            “Hi, how are you doing?” I said amiably, concealing my suspicion.  I could already see a three-pronged effort on the cooperation of these drivers to try and shake me of what precious bills I had left.  I was down to my last hundred-dollar bill.  Besides that, I had a handful of kip which would soon be obsolete.  In Cambodia, the currency is riel, but like Laos, dollars talk the loudest.  Prepare for the ugly surprise.

            “Hello,” the one in the blue-striped shirt said.  “Do you need a ride?”

            “Uh, yes.  Apparently, my driver,”I said nodding my head towards the dirty and deranged motorbike driver, now looking like an escaped mental-patient with his helmet off, “took me to the wrong border.  So I need a ride to the visa office and then to Stung Treng.”

            “Stung Treng,” blue-stripes guy repeated thoughtfully.  “Stung Treng, maybe we will do for fifty dollar.”

            “FIFTY DOLLAR?!” I shouted. 

I hadn’t meant to lose my cool so early.  My plan was to, with calm and Oscar-worthy hustle, ask their price and then pretend to lose interest saying, “I guess I’ll just walk there”, or “Eh, nothing to see in Cambodia anyway.  Well, thanks anyway fellahs,” ever so casually walking away whistling a tune as they called after me asking me to name my own price.  But the shock of his first price was so great, I nearly lost it.  All I could think was, “Oh my god, what if it really is fifty dollars?  I’m screwed!” 

I quickly regained composure, the little boys and girls and the puppies and the soft yellow chicks now looking at me from the cool dirt floor.  And then blue-stripes guy added,

“And you must pay the motorbike… (He conversed in Lao with the motorbike guy)… ten dollar.”


They were quite curious about my reaction.  “These foreigners sure do have quick tempers”, they must’ve been thinking…

I was pacing back and forth now, calling the only one I could rely on in a situation like this.  It was time to resurrect J.C… Johnny Cochran!!!

“Now hold on, hold on, hold on just one minute.  Let me get this straight gentlemen,” I said walking before the jury of children, puppies, and chicks, “let me make sure I’m clear.  You’re telling me, the ride to the visa office is double the amount of the visa itself?  Preposterous!  And you,” I said, now addressing the motorbike guy, “it seems rather curious that you would take me to the wrong border, just where your two friends happen to be standing around waiting.  Tell me sir, how long have you known these two gentlemen?”

Motorbike guy gave me a puzzled look and looked to blue-stripes guy for help.

“We work together for many year,” blue-stripes guy answered for him.

“Yes, I’m sure you have.  Bringing people to the wrong gates and then SKYROCKETING THE PRICE!  Gentlemen,” I said leaning in now, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do.  I’LL TELL YOU WHAT I’LL DO,” I said making a big show for the children, puppies, and chicks who now stared at me with wide-eyes,

“I’m going to forget the insult of that first asking price.  I’m going to PAY THIS MAN,”I said loudly so all could hear and bear witness as I counted out wrinkled bills of kip into the bewildered motorbike guy’s ripped and dirty glove, “I’m going to PAY THIS MAN the amount that I feel HIS SERVICES earned him this day.  Now let’s see, we rode on the dirt road for about thirty-minutes, at about fifty miles per hour… who’s good at math here?”

“Sir,” blue-stripes guy said stepping in, “that is not enough.  Do you have dollar?”

“I don’t know… do you have a car?”

He looked at me with a puzzled expression. 

“Alright, let’s end this.  I don’t have all morning,” I said, even though I really did.  “I’ll pay you fifteen dollars.  That’s fifteen,” I said showing them the hundred-dollar bill (I didn’t have change), “good old greenback Americana.  What do you say?”

“AND I’LL PAY THIS GUY,” I added motioning to the dirty and confused motorbike driver, “five bucks, which HE DIDN’T EARN, but just so we all go home happy?  Ok?”

They talked amongst themselves for a minute.  The children and puppies and baby-chicks looked at me with wide-staring eyes as I apologized to them silently for being such a jackass.  “The world made me this way,” I mouthed silently to them, but they didn’t understand.  Not yet anyway…

“It is too small,” blue-stripes guy said.  “Not enough to even pay gas.  Stung Treng many kilometer.  Take two hour driving.”

“What?  Hey, come on.  I could drive on twenty dollars easily in America!  Are you telling me—”

At that point, the-angry-guard-who-hated-his-destiny came up and began getting involved after hearing all of that yelling; deciding to take care of the small zone which Providence had left in his control.

“You must pay driver!” he yelled.  “You come to wrong gate!  You buy visa, then you go to Stung-Treng!”

“Stay out of this you goddamn deputy!” I snarled.  Jack Bauer was beginning to rear his larynx-cracking head from beneath the muddy waters…

            “WHAT?!  I’LL KILL YOU!!!” the guard screamed and grabbed his machine-gun as I quickly dived to the ground and pulled the revolver out of my ankle-holster, squeezing off three shots before hitting the ground…

            Just kidding.  That’s not what happened. 

            What actually happened was the guard came over.  We drank some tea and worked out our misunderstandings.  And it turned out that I was right, he really was unhappy with his destiny.  Who knew on that early afternoon on the border of Cambodia and Laos, two grown men would be crying in reconciliation…

            “You have to be tough in this business, you know?” blubbered the angry guard, “Do you know how many pedophiles and child molesters and drug addicts come through those gates every day?  You think I don’t want to smile?  You think I like yelling?  Every day, I wave these bastards into my country so they can corrupt and molest and destroy the innocence of my children, our children.  I have to be tough!  I have to be mean!”

            “I’m so sorry,” I said sympathetically, “If only those sons-of-bitches in Washington… It’s just this war keeps dragging on and on… and that lying son-of-a-bitch Johnson!”

            “Why do we do this to each other?” he asked with tears in his eyes.  “Why do people always destroy the things they love?”

            At about sunset, the ride to Stung Treng was complete.  I paid sunglasses guy the $20 we agreed on even though I knew I was being ripped off.  The motorbike-guy got $5.  That meant I had $75 left for five days.  Plenty of money for a short stay in Cambodia, as long as there were no more ugly surprises.  But there were always ugly surprises.  They grew everywhere like daisies concealing Africanized-bees hidden inside with itchy stingers on their asses.  And I was trying to stop and smell as many flowers as I could before that plane ride back to winter in New Jersey…

            Stung Treng is a small town built with wide-open streets and no traffic, dilapidated buildings that offered nothing.  In the centre of town was a small street-market which sold bootleg clothing and other knick-knacks.  There were small shops selling cigarettes and soap.  Barrels filled with ethanol where motorbikes would stop to refuel their small gas-tanks.  A few barbecue stands with no meat stood waiting along the sidewalk overlooking the blue Mekong River offering warm cans of beer and soda floating in coolers filled with water.  As far as the good old distraction of commerce was concerned, that was about all that I could see happening in Stung Treng.

            I was dropped-off in front of a guesthouse on a street near the city square and street-market.  The guesthouse had an open entrance into a sort-of lobby with some books and computers that didn’t work, some tables with dusty homemade menus.  It was an old rustic sort of building, the kind that didn’t instil much confidence or expectation, but instead simple resignation, a deep breath saying okay, how dirty is it going to be?  Fortunately for me, the room wasn’t the dirtiest I had been in so far, though it was certainly the ugliest.  The bed was a dingy thing with speckle-white sheets, a mirror on the headboard so I could I watch myself having sex with invisible hookers, rusty-brown stains of blood coagulation, the remnants of someone getting their head blown off while watching themselves having sex with invisible hookers.  The only upside was the bathroom didn’t smell like evil piss.  Be thankful for what you got.

            Before I wandered town till night, I decided to sit down at one of the wooden tables outside with a view of the river and the people walking around, playing hacky-sack in the street, and otherwise sitting around gambling and smoking and talking, riding by slow.  The menu was written in Chinese, English, and Khmer.  I wasn’t that hungry and was more or less just ordering food and a beer for the activity of eating and drinking and smoking and watching the golden glowing twilight of the river and the sunset streets.  What else was there to do?

            As I sat and waited for my meal to come, I looked at the message board on the wall next to my table.  It was mostly just flyers for other guesthouses in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.  I took note of one for Siem Reap called something Gardens.  I didn’t bother writing it down.  I was sure I would have no problem finding it, as if there were no other guesthouses ending with something-Gardens… 

            And then as my eyes continued to roam, there was one flyer, which caught my eye, as it was clearly graphically-designed to do.  It said,

“PROTECT OUR CHILDREN FROM SEX CRIMES!!!  IF YOU SEE …” and featured a shadowy photograph of a grown man and a little girl… in any case, it was subtle and illustrative.

It was similar to the big sign I had seen at the border.  The sign encouraging people to report pedophiles if they saw any.  They’re everywhere in Cambodia.  Everyone knows that.  It was only months ago, platinum-selling British-pop has-been Gary Glitter was reported in these parts, a frequenter of the Indochinese region for the young pretty girls.  They kicked him out.  But many more less famous than he still roaming.  Report suspicious activity… as if it was that easy…

But then as I rolled my tongue in a mouth full of skepticism, I glanced at a table on the other side of the room.  They were the only other people at the tables at that time, four middle-aged white men sitting by themselves waiting for their food.  I saw them when I sat down obviously, but now something inside me stirred.  I began to look at them with a deep burning passion of justice in my eyes.  I felt The Diplomat rising…

Four middle-aged white men in Cambodia?  Just taking in the sights, eh? Cut the crap.  You make me sick…

It was the pancakes that convinced me.  When they received their food, I stayed watching (secretly) the skinny one methodically slice and chew his pancakes.  Drizzling the pancake syrup in slow perfect lines like the commercials, his knife pressing against the soft dough in perfect symmetrical triangles.  It’s well-known that pedophiles are neat-freaks and control-freaks.  Abusive child-hood, often abused for being messy as children… they hate filth, they hate it!  Love giving children baths, the fucking perverts… 

I watched him eating his pancakes slowly, chewing robotically, his eyes focused with the flavor of the maple syrup, the fucking bastard.  The rest of them carried on casually as if thinking nothing of the shameful wrongs they would commit against innocent children to fulfil their dark desires.  Coming to this land because of its weakness for money, its desperation, and the renowned beauty of its children.  I wanted to choke the pancakes out of that motherfucker until Aunt Jemima came and slapped me two times.  And even then I wouldn’t stop…

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I had to say something.  I couldn’t just let these sick-fucks come into this country and defile the innocence of children.  I wanted to smash the plates on their table and feed them the shards, the bastards.  So I stood up and said something.

“You guys think it’s fine?  Eh?  Dinner’s good?  Enjoying your dinner, eh?” I said transforming into The Diplomat, rounding their table, fingering their plates, dipping my fingers in the syrup and tasting it crudely in their faces.

“How are you guys enjoying your stay, hmm?  Everything is nice?  These shitty bedrooms holding up for you?  Watch yourself fuck any little boys and girls in that mirror yet?  Not before dinner, eh?  How nice,” I said my hands now on their shoulders. 

“I’ll give you guys five seconds, to get the fuck—”

Before I could finish my ultimatum of a proper Diplomat delivered ass-whipping, their wives came into the guesthouse and looked at me curiously, probably thinking I was the waiter.  The Diplomat was shot; he was crawling on the bathroom floor, a trail of blood as the urinals overflowed…

“And, I recommend the soup!  It’s excellent!”

I left before my food arrived.

         I couldn’t return to the guesthouse until nightfall.  I had arranged for a bus to Phnom Penh and then Siem Reap early in the morning.  As long as they weren’t on the same bus, I would be spared the humiliation and blubbering apology that would surely follow.  I spent the rest of the evening down by the river.  There were lots of people there, cleaning up for the day.  There were chickens tied up together and clucking under woven baskets.  Small silvery fish laid out on piled lines.  On the blue river, where the sun was now setting, the entire sky became blue twilight, and the river an even brighter shade of blue despite the depth of the sky.  In the water was a man washing his motorbike with love and care, making sure it was polished, bright, and clean so he could ride with pride through these defeated streets.  And then there were some naked boys dancing in the water, their mother giving them their bath in the same waters as the motorbike, the waters that gave them the silvery fish, the same waters that gave this small town with nothing just a little bit of something, that something that they had always had, that something that they would still have when everything else is gone. The old man sings of rivers…



And Then They Were Gone, by Rofel G Brion

Rofel G. Brion, Ph.D. is professor of interdisciplinary studies, literature and creative writing at the Ateneo de Manila University. Baka Sakali. Maybe by Chance, his first book of poems, won the Philippine National Book Award in 1981; he has published two more poetry collections since then.  He has been fellow at various literature and writing festivals, among them the Berlin International Literature Festival (2005) and the Mildura Writers Festival (2009).




When I was in grade school, I would wake up in the middle of the night and ask either  my mother or my father to sleep beside me.  I knew what frightened me.  I was afraid one of them would die.  I was afraid I would die.


            Even in college, I would take the bus home and be scared that I would perish in an accident, or I would come home and see either my father or my mother in a coffin in our living room.   Sometimes I even imagined a friend’s funeral.  Or mine.  Who would be there?  Who would cry?  Would anyone be happy?  Would anyone wish they had died with me?    


I’m afraid death fascinates me. 

            Maybe it’s because death has come too often to greet me.

            But part of me dies with every death I see.

            And that part I now try to recover with these stories. 





I imagine her supervising my birth, Lola Guelang, my mother’s mother.  I was, after all, born on her bed.  It was the only bed in the house my parents had built a year before I came.  My coming was quite an event, I am told, and I see Lola Guelang telling the midwife what to do when she couldn’t get the placenta out.  They had to call in Mamay Dudoy, my father’s uncle, our family doctor, who ran from his house two blocks away.  He had stood as principal sponsor at my parents’ wedding.  A few months before that, Lola Guelang had fainted when she found out that there would be a wedding.  She didn’t like my father then because she had heard that he gambled. After the wedding, however, she saw how hard he worked when she allowed him to take over her rice dealership, a business she had began by trading rice from Bulacan, her home province, to San Pablo, my father’s home town, and had single-handedly turned into the largest rice store in the San Pablo public market.  And when my father asked her to move in with them in the new house, Lola Guelang declared to everyone that she had found a new son.


She always liked drama, my twice‑widowed Lola Guelang, even when it wasn’t her own.  Every morning we listened to soap operas in the only radio in the house; this, of course, my father put in her room.  So I stayed in Lola Guelang’s room all the time, watching her comb her long, grey hair, mend her kimonas, or cry over the fate of her soap opera heroines.  When I was old enough to read, she listened to my stories about my comic book heroes as I pretended that I was swimming on her bed.


It was a large bed with a very firm mattress, perfect for diving from the windowsill.  I did that over and over again the night they took Lola Guelang to the hospital.  I see myself now, ten years old, too short for my age, jumping on her bed, worried sick, not knowing exactly what was wrong.  I found that out for myself later on, when they took me to see her in the San Pablo City Hospital, then later at the San Juan de Dios along Dewey Boulevard.  I knew she had cancer by the time they took her back home; they cleared our living room and put in a hospital bed.  I watched relatives, friends, and strangers stream in and out of our house.  Some of them slept on Lola Guelang’s bed.  I didn’t care; I had grown tired of swimming on it.


One morning, I woke up to the sound of muffled sobs from the living room.  Lola Guelang was saying goodbye.  My mother took my hand and led me to her bedside.  I stood beside Ate Minda, my cousin whom Lola Guelang had sent through medical school.  When Lola Guelang saw me, she made Ate Minda promise to take me with her to the States so she could send me through school.  Ate Minda did, and my mother cried.  I don’t know if it was because she was grateful to Ate Minda, or because she was sad that her mother would go at any moment, or because she was afraid she would lose her only son.    


Lola Guelang didn’t leave us that day.  She lived for a few months more.  Long, very long, months.  I went to school every day, afraid that she’d be gone when I came home.  Sometimes I’d catch her laughing with her visitors and I would begin to believe that she could be well again.  But one afternoon, she finally left us.  I watched as her children, my sister, and our cousins surrounded her bed.  I couldn’t join them.  Nobody held my hand to lead me to her.  I was scared to come on my own.  I didn’t say goodbye.


Twenty years later, I wrote this poem on my own bed, in my own room, in a much bigger city, away from home:





Grandma wasn’t home

So I dove and I swam

All over her huge bed.


They had taken her out

Very early that day In a big white van.


But she was very soon back

So I sulked as I sat

At the foot of her bed.


She lay and she smiled

As I sulked and I sat

And wished for my waves.


Then one sunny day

They came in a black van

And took her away.


I smiled through my tears

As I dove and I swam

All over her big bed.





When I was five, Tiyo Lauro came home with a gift for my sister.  A doll’s eye.  It scared me terribly, but everyone else laughed, including my sister who for months had begged him for  a walking doll.  It took me some years to understand that it was a joke.


You see, Tiyo Lauro, my mother’s younger half‑brother, a bachelor who lived with us on week‑ends, worked at the Bureau of Customs in Manila.  My family knew another man who worked in the same place and this man was rich.  He brought home imported chocolates, battery‑operated toys, sweaters and shoes and bicycles, everything a child could ever wish for; we knew all this because he was the father of the wife of one of my first cousins.  Tiyo Lauro brought nothing home but his dirty clothes for our maids to wash.  Well, sometimes he would give me White Rabbit or Haw Flakes, or even a couple of apples in December, but nothing more than that.  And yes, that doll’s eye for my sister that everyone else found funny.   My mother asked him once why the other customs man had so much while he had nothing but he said nothing.  He was like that.  He usually said nothing.  And when he said something, it was to tell me not to do this or that without even telling me why.  I didn’t really like him.


I didn’t really know much about him.  When I was seven, I discovered some of his secrets.  He left his closet unlocked one Sunday‑‑he woke up late and rushed off to Mass‑‑and I found some girlie magazines inside it, along with some bullets and a periscope and a huge camera with a big flash.  He loved taking pictures of all sorts of things.  Once I saw his pictures of the World Boy Scout Jamboree in Los Banos and of a bullfight held somewhere in Manila.  He also had pictures of our relatives who lived in Mindanao; he visited them often and came home with all sorts of strange things‑‑a deer’s skull, horns and all; a monkey’s breast, cut‑up and salted; a plaque full of miniature swords. 


I can’t forget what Tiyo Lauro did one election period.  I was eleven and precocious, as my father always put it, and while everyone else in the family campaigned for Macapagal, Tiyo Lauro insisted Marcos would win.  The more I begged him to vote Macapagal, the more he praised Marcos.  He said Macapagal had done nothing for the country and Marcos was smart and young and was the hope of the land.  We ended up with me shouting at him and him laughing at me.  I decided then that I hated Tiyo Lauro.  On election morning, however, he called me into his room and showed me his sample ballot.  It had Macapagal’s name on it. 


Marcos won anyway but Tiyo Lauro and I never fought again.  I don’t even remember being mad at him after that, although I don’t really recall having a good time with him either.  I just know that I stopped hating him. 


One midnight, two years after Lola Guelang’s death, I woke up and found my mother crying beside my father who was talking to someone on the phone.  Tiyo Lauro had been shot.  Dead.  It was a hold‑up in a jeepney, my father was told.  But when Tiyo Lauro’s flag‑draped coffin came to our house for the wake, we discovered the real story.

Tiyo Lauro had been a customs secret agent all along.  That was why he never brought anything home.  He was about to bust a smuggling syndicate when they did him in.  The night he was murdered, he took a jeepney home, as he had done every single night.  He sat beside the driver, and a man came up behind him and shot him through his left shoulder.  The bullet, just one bullet, went straight to his heart.


We found out something else, or at least we still think of it as something, the following afternoon, when some people who introduced themselves as his office‑mates came to the wake.  One of them, a woman in a grey dress, spent a long time looking at Tiyo Lauro.  We, my cousins and I, spent as much time watching her.  When she lifted her dark glasses and wiped her eyes with a handkerchief, we knew we were  on to something.  No one, of course, dared to ask her who she was.  Not even my mother.  She was too busy grieving.


I had not seen my mother cry as much as she did then.  Not even during Lola Guelang’s funeral.  I found out why when we laid Tiyo Lauro to rest.  When we got to the family plot, my mother sobbed over Lola Guelang’s grave.  She asked for her mother’s forgiveness; she should have watched over her younger brother more, she cried over and over and over again.  Even as a soldier gave Tiyo Lauro a gun salute; even when a bugler played taps. After a few weeks, I saw a picture of my mother, puffy‑eyed, standing with their siblings in front of Gate One of Port Area, under a huge sign that read, "Agent Lauro de la Cruz Gate".


Many years later, and thousands of miles away from home, I paid my own homage‑of‑sorts to Tiyo Lauro, in a poem about, of all things, my father’s gun.  I’m sure Tiyo Lauro, silent and absent as he often was, will see some humor in appearing unnamed in an‑almost‑parenthetical remark in a rather long poem written by a nephew he knew very little about and who knew very little about him.



HALINA                                                     THE LURE


Kinagisnan ko na                                           I grew up

Ang baril ni Itay.                                            Knowing my father’s gun.

Nakatago ito                                                 He kept it

Sa makapal na supot                                     In a thick cotton bag

Kasama ang mga kahon                                With boxes

Ng maliliit na punglo                                      Of small bullets

Sa kanyang aparador.                                   In his closet.

Kung minsan                                                 Sometimes,

Kapag may nabalitaan                                   Hearing of a robbery

Siyang nakawan kung saan                            Somewhere in the city,

Itinatabi ni Itay                                              My father slept

Sa pagtulog ang baril;                                    With his gun;

Ilang araw iniiwan                                         For days he’d leave it

Sa ilalim ng unang                                          Beneath the pillow

Madalas kong dantayan                                That I loved to hug

Kapag naglalambing ako                               Everytime I snuggled up

Sa kanila ni Inay.                                          To him and my mother.


Madalas kong panoorin                                 I often watched him

Ang paglilinis ng baril‑‑                                 Clean his gun‑‑

Isa‑isang tinatanggal                                      He’d remove the bullets

Ang mga lamang punglo                                 One by one

Saka pinupunasan                                         Then wipe it clean

Ng nilangisang tela;                                        With an oily cloth;

Pagkatapos sandaling                                    Then for a few moments,

Ipadadama sa akin                                        He’d let me feel

Ang kinis, lamig                                             The smoothness and hardness

At tigas nitong baril.                                       Of this cold gun.


Tuwing magpapalit ang taon                           On the last night of each year,

Itinututok ito                                                  My father aimed the gun

Ni Itay sa langit                                              At the sky

At mabilis na pinapuputok                              And quickly fired it

Nang anim na uli;                                           Six times;

Isang Bagong Taon                                        One New Year’s eve

Pinahawakan ni Itay                                       He let me hold the gun,

Sa akin ang baril,                                           He made me aim at the sky

Pinaasinta ang langit                                       And told me to pull the trigger;

At pinakalabit ang gatilyo;                              Just once, he said,

Minsan lang, sabi niya,                                   But I did it

Ngunit inulit‑ulit ko.                                       Again and again.


Nang magbinata ako                                      When I became older

Inalok ako ni Itay                                           My father offered me

Ng sarili kong baril;                                        My own gun;

Mabuti raw na pananggalang                          It would be a good shield

O kaya’y babala                                             Or a fair warning, he said,

Sa may masamang tangka.                             To anyone who meant bad.

Hindi ko tinanggap                                         I refused it

Dahil hindi ko malimutan                                 For I could not forget

Ang umagang dumating                                  The morning when I saw

Sa aming tahanan                                           In our own home

Ang mga damit na duguan                              The blood drenched clothes

Ng kapatid ni Inay                                          Of my mother’s brother

Na kinitil ng punglong                                     Killed by a bullet

Tumagos sa kanyang puso;                             That penetrated his heart;

Samantalang humihikbi                                   As my mother sobbed

Binuklat ni Inay                                              She unfolded the shirt

Ang kamisadentrong                                      With a hole on one sleeve.

Sa manggas lang ang butas.                            It was a clever assailant,

Mahusay ang salarin,                                      I said to myself;

Sa loob‑loob ko,                                           He knew by heart

Kabisadong‑kabisado niya                            A bullet’s chosen path.

Ang hilig ng punglo.                                        But up to this day,


Subalit hanggang ngayon                                Everytime I open the closet

Tuwing bubuksan ang aparador                      Or lie on my parents’ bed

O hihiga ako sa kama nina Itay                       I am tempted to pick up

Natutukso akong damputin                            My father’s gun,

Ang kanyang baril,                                         Feel the cold,

Damhin ang lamig, kinis                                  And the smoothness and the hardness,

At tigas nito,                                                  Fit my finger around its trigger

Isukat ang hintuturo                                        And once more

Ko sa gatilyo                                                 Pull it very hard.

At muli itong kalabitin

Nang mariing‑mariin.




DORIS, 1988


"Doris of Paris".  That was what one Jesuit called her, not just because she lived and studied in Paris for several years and spoke what native French speakers said was impeccable French, but also because she seemed to have brought Paris home with her.  At least that’s what our friends who had lived in Paris, too, used to say.   I had only been to Paris once, for a few days, so I wasn’t sure I knew exactly what they meant.


I was sure, however, that Doris was no Parisian when I first noticed her.  I remember the moment well.  My girlfriend and I were in the Ateneo faculty lounge sometime in 1980 when she made me aware that there was a Doris Capistrano teaching Math in the college.  "There," she whispered, referring to a thin, young woman with long, black hair, and a very long, frilly dress, lining up for lunch in the college cafeteria.  "Isn’t Doris attractive?"  No, I whispered back to her, and meant it.  She looked much too conservative to be attractive, I added.   


Things changed, however, after Doris had received her masteral degree in math in Paris and I had broken up with my girlfriend.  Doris came back to teach in Ateneo and we ended up in the same circle of friends.  She was definitely attractive and not just because she wore her hair and her skirts short‑‑her eyes lit up as she talked about Paris and math and food and poetry. She was enthusiastic about almost everything, and she showed it not only as she talked but also as she walked and jogged and did almost everything else. 


I eventually saw her doing almost all sorts of things when she moved into the campus and became a prefect in the dorm next to where I lived.  I helped fix up her room and she spent a lot of time in mine.  We watched television and listened to tapes; she cooked while I ate and washed the dishes until she decided I should cook, too, so we suffered through some dishes together; I introduced her to my younger friends and  she told me about the boyfriend she left in Paris‑‑a young flautist who played around a lot.  Yes, I listened to her heartaches.  And she listened to mine.  


We never cried to each other, though.   We almost always laughed together. We went out with friends who loved the same things we did‑‑movies, parties, food, concerts, travel, clothes.  Yes, clothes.  Dressing up, for Doris, was an art, along with sketching, painting, designing, sewing, making patchwork wall hangings, all of which she also did, and did quite well.  Everything had to be right, and to be right, it had to be different.  And she made sure people appreciated her art.  Once, during a faculty party, she made me guess how many ribbons she had on her.  I guessed and missed two; they were embroidered above the heel of her black stockings.  Yes, her art was also a game.


For Doris, even work was a game.  She enjoyed math immensely and she even managed to make me understand how high math was much like literature‑‑you create imaginary worlds with their own laws and, well, world views.  She did her work diligently‑‑she taught and studied math, tutored some high school kids, gave private lessons in French.  But every time she had to work she’d say, "Well, I’ll have to go and pretend to work again".


She couldn’t pretend that she was fine, though, when she finally realized that the flautist had found another woman.  She kept to herself and wouldn’t tell me how she felt.  I worried about her, but there was nothing anyone could do for Doris if she didn’t want them to do anything for her.  Doris was stubborn.  That part of her I didn’t like.  But I waited.


It took some time, but she finally got over that man.  It was partly because she met another‑‑a young Belgian consul.  At once, she knew, and we, her closest friends, knew, that they were perfect for each other.  He even knew how to court her friends.  He drove from Makati to jog with us around Ateneo; he took us out of town in his car; he gave parties for us in his house.  Most of all, like Doris, he showed interest in what we did, how we felt, who we hated, who we loved.  


One Thursday evening, after judging a contest in the dorm, Doris and I shared some beer in my room; the consul had some diplomatic chores.  She and I had not talked for some time before that evening, and she began by asking me about my young friends, naming each one as she did.  After I told her what they were up to, she asked me how I was.  I told her I had a cyst on my back and that I would undergo a minor operation that coming Saturday; I confessed that I was scared‑‑after all, the cyst could be malignant.  She laughed that off and said, "So, what will you leave me if you die?"


I asked her how she was, how she and the consul were, and if her parents knew about him.  She said she felt he loved her and she loved him too, and that they had talked about a future together, but nothing was definite, so she had told her parents nothing about the relationship.  Her mother had seen her through her last heartbreak, and Doris didn’t want her to be anxious again.  Not that early, anyway.


That weekend, while I nursed a punctured back and worried about the biopsy result, Doris drove with the consul to Taal, to meet some friends and motor to the volcano.  I came back to Ateneo on Monday and found a note on my door.  The head prefect wanted to talk to me about something.  But before I could see him, a friend called.  She told me Doris had been murdered.


She tried to explain how it had happened but I couldn’t even listen.  I rushed to the bathroom, I don’t know why, but I did, and I remembered how I used to wash the dishes in the sink after dining with Doris, how she wouldn’t allow her boyfriend to shower in her bathroom after jogging so he had to use mine, how she made fun of my "nervous bladder".  And I cried.


I rushed to the morgue and found Doris on a stretcher, her face bloated for having been under the sun for hours after she died.  Our other friends were there, too, discussing what Doris would have wanted to wear for the very last time.  We knew, as we grieved, how important that was to Doris.  It would have to be the brown suit her boyfriend had given her.  But it couldn’t be.  Her mother wanted her to wear an embroidered gown, something we all knew Doris wouldn’t be caught dead in.  But we also knew that Doris would have laughed  that one off; after all, a funeral could just very well be another game for her‑‑she could say she was just pretending to be dead.  Just as she could say that she was, all along, just pretending to live.  It was as if she knew how her life would be so short; everything just had to be a game, everything just had to mean joy.            


We never found out why Doris was murdered.  She had been shot from behind, just one bullet  piercing her chest.  Later, I saw a picture taken a few hours after she had died, why it was taken I never really knew for sure.  She lay on a cart; she wore a light blue chambray shirt, deep blue denim pants, light blue sneakers, and shocking pink socks‑‑so very Doris.  Her face showed no sign of pain.  Thank God, I thought, she must have heard that shot and thought that someone was just bird‑hunting.  She might have even wished she could join their game.


That did not console me, however.  I remember crying many, many times for Doris‑‑during the wake in the college chapel; during her funeral; during the afternoons I was alone in my room, imagining Doris calling out my name from outside.  No friend had died on me before, I told everyone, and I never imagined it could bring such pain.   I cried as I read the many poems written about her, for her, by the people she loved, by the people who loved her.  I couldn’t write one myself, even if, after only a few weeks, I found myself returning to the usual run of things‑‑waking up, eating, teaching, having fun, playing all sorts of games, and doing all sorts of things as if Doris had not died. 


After a year, when I found myself very much alone, during a very cold spring many miles away from home, not too distant from the city that Doris loved, this came:



Kay Doris                                                                                For Doris


Nang yumao ka                                                When you died

Nang biglang‑bigla                                           Rather suddenly

Naghinagpis ako                                               I grieved

At lubhang nangulila                                          And longed for you deeply

Ngunit pagkaraan                                             But after

Ng iilang araw                                                  Only a few days

Mabilis na nakabalik                                         I quickly returned

Sa nakagawian nang                                         To the usual                 

Takbo ng buhay.                                               Run of things.

Sandali ko                                                        This alarmed me

Itong ikinabahala,                                              For a moment,

Tulad ng saglit                                                   Like the brief anxiety

Na pagkabagabag                                            About my thinning hair

Sa pagdalang ng buhok                                     When I look into the mirror

Sa aking tuktok                                                After I wake up each morning.

Pagtingin ko sa salamin

Tuwing ako’y gigising.





Yes, there were others after Doris.  They passed away in very quick succession, not even leaving me enough time to grieve in between.  I know it may be too early for me to write about their deaths, but I can not stop now.  I will not. 


I want to write about Kuya Nelson, his mother’s favorite son.  The beautiful one, she bragged.  He grew up to be a pretty boy, so pretty girls couldn’t resist him.  He had girlfriends anytime, and everywhere.  At nineteen, he was forced to marry his teacher, after her brothers caught them making love in their classroom.  She eventually left him, and he took up with a younger woman, fathered her children,  lived in different homes with other women, and ended up with so many children no one even tried to keep track of how many they were and where they stayed.  At forty, he lost the woman he lived with to a couple of farm workers who hacked her to death because Kuya Nelson had treated them badly.  He, too, suffered deep wounds in his chest and legs, but lived to take in another woman.  Once, when she gave birth, one of his other lovers came to care for her and her baby.  Later, Kuya Nelson began an affair with a soldier’s wife; he also "exported" female entertainers and dabbled in local politics.  Three years ago, Kuya Nelson and his eldest son were riddled with bullets as they approached the gate of their farm.


I want to write about Tiya, my father’s eldest sister.  She who quit school to support her brothers and sisters.  She who opened a store, traded all sorts of things from all sorts of places, and sent her nephews and nieces to school for she never had her own child; she who watched over my sister when she left San Pablo to study in Manila; she who was too old to travel when it was my turn to live away from home.  Tiya’s wards all left her, some she proudly sent off to America and Canada, some she drove away from her house in rage.  She ended up alone in her house, waiting for visits and dollars and whatever little love came her way.  I sometimes made her smile, with a wave, or a gift, or a kiss; often I just ignored her for she had become bitter and nasty and cruel.   But she lived on, until she could hardly hear, until she could hardly walk, until she could hardly care whether or not anyone else cared about her. A few months ago, a stroke took her life.  During the wake, relatives and friends filled her house.  The ones she loved most, the nephews and nieces she had proudly sent off to America and Canada, couldn’t come.  They sent dollars instead, and instructions on what should be done to whatever Tiya had left behind.


I want to write about Berms, my friend, the one who treated me like a brother for he never had a real one.  We went to college together, lived in the same dormitory, had the same set of friends, shared each other’s clothes and food and home and secrets and dreams.  He wanted to be a politician.  Through college,  law school, government service and private practice, he made and lost all sorts of friends.  But he was faithful, very faithful, to some‑‑we he played mahjong with, we the victims of his practical jokes, we the godparents of his children, we he opened his home and his heart to, we who stayed with him until the very end. We discovered he had cancer a month before he died.  He knew immediately how sick he was; there was nothing you could hide from Berms.  We saw him hope he would survive his illness and travel with us again.  We saw him eventually accept the inevitability of death, trusting his God to keep him and his wife and his children in His care.  Later, we saw him question that same God and reject whatever consolation we tried to offer him.  And then one evening we saw him make peace with the same God, and make sure that we‑‑his wife, his children, his mother, his cousins, his friends‑‑were one with him in meeting that God and one with each other in living through his passing.  But this could not diminish the pain his leaving left us.  Left me. 


I am still in pain.


I have not recovered the part of me that died with him. 


I have not recovered the part of me that died, too, with Lola Guelang, Tiyo Lauro, Mr. Ongpin, Doris, Kuya Nelson and Tiya.


I don’t know if I ever will.


                                                                                                                    Loyola Heights

                                                                                                                    22 September 1994