Prose poetry is essentially an urban form, although we should do better to refer to it as both essentially and existentially an urban form. A cursory look at the development of the prose poem in mid-nineteenth-century France provides an insight into just why and how this form came to embody the modern metropolis in which it is invariably set and with which it coincides.
As Baron Haussmann’s wave of urban renewal swept through Paris, bringing it—expropriations and all—from the Middle Ages right up to the cutting edge of Modernity, with which it became instantly synonymous, Charles Baudelaire was achieving fame as the author of Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). But even as his fame spread, Baudelaire’s disenchantment with the lot of the poet, and his verses, was leading him towards a new mode of expression. Where, famously, he had previously painted the poet as, inter alia, an albatross, majestic in the air but clumsy on the ground, he now sought to bring poetry down from the abstract objectivity of the Heavens into the mundanity of the city streets. And if he chose to smash the verse form of his art against the cobblestones of Paris, it was precisely because the city was as much beyond his comprehension as his poems were to the man in the street. The Paris that he remembered was fast becoming a mythology as the Paris that met his senses morphed ever faster into a space that was not his. In short, Paris was no longer what it had once been. And yet, of course, Paris was still undeniably Paris, with all that this signified. The new poetics that Baudelaire created captured this tension between the Paris that was and the Paris that was not. It was a poetics to encapsulate this paradox, both overarching it and pulsing at its heart: it would simultaneously present Paris in its everyday, prosaic reality and re-present it in all its poetic associations. The new poem symbolized a new critical stance in relation to the modern world and quickly became the instant-belated lens of Modernity itself: the oxymoronic ‘prose poem’ got both inside Paris (with the close-up of the developing art of photography) and soared above it (like the Montgolfière that adorned posters of the expositions universelles), capturing it doubly, (re)presenting it as the auto-antonymic capital of the alienating new urban experience.
The oxymoronic nature of the prose poem cannot be overstated—it is markedly not a prosaic form of poetry or a poetic form of prose. It makes no attempt to synthesize the binary terms of the albatross’s predicament. Instead, Paris is now both on the wing and on the ground, poetic and prosaic, at the same time. As Baudelaire notes in his prefatory letter to Arsène Houssaye, his collection of little prose poems, or Paris Spleen “has neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, everything in it is both head and tail, alternately and reciprocally”. In this way, every line of every prose poem serves no purpose other than to pose the conundrum of prose poetics, and in so doing to perform Parisian self-alterity. Thus, the poems typically balance on a central axis, ostensibly offering two distinct halves (a poetic one and a prosaic one). But on closer inspection, the poetic half exalts the Beauty of “things” and the prosaic half teems with capitalized Abstract Values; indeed, the central axis itself (marked by a knock on a door or a disingenuous adverb of concession) functions as a problematic limen, both demarcating and promoting transgression.
Nowhere is this structure more flagrantly displayed than in the French title itself, Les Petits Poèmes en prose : Le Spleen de Paris, which lends itself to a chiasmatic analysis. The axis is the colon that separates title from subtitle, and the two halves, thus formed, reference each other across it. Notice how the littleness of the prose poems is elevated by French title capitalization on the one side and how the visceral reality of spleen is identically altered on the other. The initial oxymoron of the prose poem suggests, chiasmatically, that Paris (in all its glory) opposes spleen, but the capitalization of Paris, which cannot be written any other way, simultaneously veils and symbolizes its double meaning. Paris then both opposes spleen in the subtitle and picks up the upwards motion of Spleen (its elevation from the splenetic to the ethereal), tending to overarch the dynamics of the combined title. In this way, Paris equals prose poem, always already. Which means, of course, that in addition to being, always and only, prose poetry, the prose poems are also, always and only, Paris, whether their action is set in a city street, a desert island or nowhere at all. Hence, the famous “Any Where out of the World”, which is all about aspiration to travel and not about travel per se. For, in all the prose poems, intense motion (and counter-motion) is brought back to earth as powerfully as it transcends. This is the centrifugal and centripetal power of the city. And this is why prose poetry is, essentially and existentially, an urban form.
The University of Newcastle, NSW
 For a history of the British prose poem, see Nikki Santilli, Such Rare Citings: The Prose Poem in English Literature (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002)
 Arguably, Paris was not only synonymous with Modernity as it unfolded in France, but the French capital’s ultra-reflexive reappraisal of itself made it metonymic of Modernity worldwide. See, for example, David Harvey, Paris, Capital of Modernity (New York; London: Routledge, 2003) and Patrice Higonnet, Paris, capitale du monde (Paris: Tallandier, 2006).
 For an excellent reading of presentation versus representation (or re-presentation) in Baudelaire’s prose poems, see Michel Covin, L’Homme de la rue : Essai sur la poétique baudelairienne (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000).
 I am quoting here from Louise Varène’s translation of Les Petits Poèmes en prose : Le Spleen de Paris, published as Paris Spleen (New York: New Directions, 1970), p. IX.
 For a more detailed analysis of Baudelaire’s title along these lines, see Covin, op. cit.
Cyril Wong is the author of nine poetry collections and one collection of strange tales.
His last work was Satori Blues (Softblow Press 2011). He lives in Singapore and is the founding-editor of SOFTBLOW, an online poetry journal.
The serpent glided into
an armourer’s shop and
scraped across a file.
In a grievous rage, she
struck her fangs
against it and both her
teeth fell out. She decided,
in the end, to swallow
the insensible thing;
it slid easily down her throat.
And as she slithered in pain
back to her cave to die,
the serpent reminded
herself that a worthwhile
failure was still a victory.
As for the armourer,
how his file had vanished
remained a stupid mystery.
Amazing how it takes the smallest things, like a bus ride,
to transport you to the important issues, such as death
and all its different manifestations. Approaching 7pm,
shadows are already climbing out of the sky to put out
the skyscrapers like candles, ink a river under the highway
to black opacity. You wonder about the years you have
emptied into your present job, the sameness of expression
with which your wife greets you in the evenings, sullen
face of your son at the dinner table, the taste of food
reduced to blandness on your tongue, while the television
in the hall blares forth winners of another game show.
You gaze out the bus window at the moon’s half-grin
and remember that film your colleagues hated, which
wounded you in some deep, unspeakable way, like
the scene when the male lead hesitated for more than
what was only a minute before pushing a knife’s edge
against the taut curve of his wrist, with that sharply
held breath before every attempt, its quivering release
upon failure. This process you are so familiar with,
each hesitation recurring to a lullaby of the same,
these repetitions the invisible blueprint of a life. Stars
perforate the sky, like the eyes of dead people
suspended outside of time peering in, the place where
your soul must have come from, yanked down by ropes
of pure longing. You wonder at the history of mankind,
calculating the sum total of your consequence in relation
to its yet interminable drama. Quickly, you drift on
to happier subjects, like your son, who pointed one day
at clouds rising into houses, pillars, collapsible cities.
You wonder what you were like at that age. In school,
a teacher commented that you had a talent for stories,
a startling gift for description. You recollect the praises
scribbled in blue across the bottom of a report card
that dad signed, then handed back to you without a word
of compliment. You tell yourself you are better towards
your own son: more tender, more inclined to praise.
None of you can account for the exact moment when
that cynicism flew into his face to lock itself in.
You attribute rudeness to his friends, your wife blames
you for spoiling him from the very beginning. You
glare helplessly at desert maps of your palms, at the
paperweights of whitened knuckles pinning you down
to the world. A poet said that all of us are searching
ultimately for our graves. You think about graves, how
your wife was a hole in the ground you crawled into
and remained for so long you forgot what love was.
You complain to yourself about how this bus is taking
too long to bring you home. The road stretches out
like your father on his bed the morning he did not wake.
He looked no different, and religion made you believe
another sort of wakefulness was prepared for him. You
stood there observing him, dwelling upon decomposition,
how the air would dissolve his body, reclaim the space
it once occupied. You glimpse at your watch, this gift
from your son for Father’s Day you found out was really
bought by your wife; this watch that never slows down
for the ecstatic instant, but for boredom’s uniformity.
Last week, you went grocery shopping with your family
at the supermarket around your block, and discovered
you had lost your wallet, or maybe dropped it somewhere
between the vegetables and the dairy section. You heard,
on the intercom, the voice of the one who had found it,
a girl mispronouncing your name again and again. And
you left your wife, your son by the trolley, both turning
to strangers with their unison expression of puzzlement
and mild irritation. You hurried down aisle after aisle,
so eager to retrieve the little you could have lost,
realizing instead you were unable to find the counter.
You kept walking and walking alongside rows and rows
of shampoo bottles pasted with women’s faces cracked
wide open by smiles and that barely audible laughter.
You became convinced there was no counter. That bitch
repeated again what was once your name. You halted,
much to the approval of tin cans of baby powder, images
of babies so cute you could smash a fist into every tin.
Fluorescent lights swelled inside your head to blossom
into a panic: at once unbearable, yet oddly calming,
as you never felt so close to alive, so potentially free.
What death may be: a slow, close-to-weightless
tilt, like a burgeoning foetus turning
slightly in the womb. The engine starts a low
growl like a stomach, the aircraft hungry to
land, to devour the space between its
falling body and the ground, followed by
the slow lick of its wheels against the runway’s
belly: pressing down, then skating forward,
only to decelerate, a sensual slow-mo,
and the plane makes a sound
like the hugest sigh of relief.
The seat belt sign blinks off for the final time.
We rise up from our seats like souls
from bodies, leaving bulky hand luggage
in the overhead compartments, then
begin a tense line down the aisle, awkwardly
smiling at each other, remaining few minutes
alive with all kinds of ambivalences,
or simply relief at having arrived, at long last,
in that no-time zone of a country
without a name except the ones we give it;
weeping, laughing, both at once.
I was a mouse waiting to sing
my poems for other mice to hear.
Another mouse approached me
to ask, “What is your poetry about?”
So I told him, “It is about cheese
or the music of our scurrying
from one hole to the next.”
“Then it is nothing we do not
already know,” he replied.
Perhaps he was right, and mice
have no need for poems.
After he scurried away, I was
left to retreat alone into my hole
and wake up from this dream.
The Men We Loved
The men we loved, the men we had, the men we wanted.
They pass us in the streets. They are going to the gym,
to the park, to the pub, to invisible rooms on the internet.
They cast their lines of hunger for other men now.
The men we wanted who wanted nothing to do with us.
The men we hid our names from and crept away.
They are disappearing into their work, into the rest
of their lives, picking up their phones to answer
another man’s voice and putting them down again.
The men we had now plough the ache of other men.
Time flips them over each other and abrades them
to the bone. These men who taught us to be bridges
on the way to somewhere else, something better.
The men we loved who wiped the disappointment
from our lips with a thumb, a tongue down a throat.
A promise to call again and the promise fulfilled.
Long before the accident, the illness, the overseas job,
a touch turned cold, the averted vision, the other man.
The men we loved, the men we had, the men we wanted.
They have done far worse than fail to miss us –
they have forgotten us. Each is slinking into a cab
with another guy and does not wave goodbye.
These men who once taught us of ourselves
crane to hear the call of new lives now, the call
that is always waiting to be answered, a boy crying
wolf, or maybe the truth this time. This truth
we leave our better selves for, only to find them again
when we least expect it, a face rising like a moon
in the night’s long window, a night we are scaling with
our hearts in our mouths. Then when we reach the top
of the stairs, what luck – the moon has become a mirror.
After great pain, what would the body
learn that it does not already know
of relief? When that fire-truck has raged
past, what do I rediscover about silence
except that I would always miss it?
Do trees mind if it is the same wind
that passes through their heads every day?
After the mall is completed, must we
remember the field it now inhabits
where we raced each other as children?
If my lover forgets to wake me with a kiss
a second time this week, should I worry?
Does solitude offer strength over time, or
is denial of it the only practical aim?
After the earthquake, would it matter
if no one saw two dogs from different
families approaching each other
without suspicion, then moving apart?
As the workers wash their faces hidden
by helmets that beam back the sun,
should they care about the new building
behind them beyond a fear of it falling?
If my mother cannot see how else to be
happy, is it enough that she may lie
in bed, convinced God watches her sleep?
After deep loss, what does the heart
learn that it has not already understood
about regret? When all light finally
forsakes a room, do we take the time
to interrogate the dark, and to what end?
Grapes draped the fox’s mind
till there was nothing but velvety
grapes to consider, nothing but grapes
turned eventually sour, so that this fox,
who was not necessarily stupid,
could rip them from her thoughts,
misery abandoned, and other
fruit to be considered. Years later,
she passed under that same
collection of grapes. By now,
her mental faculty had broadened
considerably, such that grapes
hung in her vision like Christmas
decoration. Even after they
dropped like gifts from a tree,
the fox did not approach what she
had only been able to see.
And began to despise the shape
of her desire, not the grapes
she had so admired. And closed
her eyes while under that tree,
certain there was a place
beyond hunger she would rather be,
outside the window of a fox’s
mind; erase the window
and there is no more mind…
Other foxes came and wondered
if she was asleep. Eyes closed,
she was almost smiling, so
still beside the grapes
rotting at the foot of the tree.
Dead or alive, one of them
prayed, I hope that the lucky fox
will one day be me.
Why I Sing
At the end of an open road
of a teacher’s instruction, I began
to achieve some perspective, able
to pull every possible breath
to the centre of my body, gathering
of strength before that sustained
blow of a note punched free
from between my eyes, angling
a clean path through the air,
as if air was all
the world was made of, or, at least,
the treacherous fog of its concept.
And vision rises out to meet it,
stepping forward into what I dare
call enlightenment – respite,
more like, even mercy –
and those with ears that run all
the way into the emptied
core of them would creep out too
and join me up that track
through air, wide as the crack
loss draws across the back
of a mind, each word in a song
taking us so far from what we are
we find ourselves again,
become lighter than air.
August: time of death, a path opens
to the past like a wind through grass,
the way lit by sparks, flaming paper.
Yet rituals only displace our desire
to mourn. Let us remember the dead,
but more importantly, persuade them
to ensure no harm may visit us.
We leave a row of chairs for the ghosts
to take our places for just one night.
Wayang actors hide their exhaustion
behind painted faces, dusty cymbals
trailing the bright arc of their voices.
We think how the dead would take this –
foibles of a life sung by archetypes,
reduced to grave, inflated gestures.
Would they grumble to each other
in their seats, complain of a lack
of synchronism between the music
and the action, the noise of traffic
eating into their illusion of narrative?
When it is finally over, would they
linger to gossip amongst themselves
about those who moved on to the life
to follow, sighing upon the mention
of the ones who have chosen to stay?
The crane, unashamed of her
ashen hue, rose to the firmament
she had bragged about to the peacock
of the garish plumage and the dunghill.
Yet there was no one here
to echo her song at such an altitude.
Clouds took on the shapes
of other birds, as if to mock
and deepen her solitude. One night,
stars seemed to her like tears
instead of the eyes of celestial cranes
peering in. A moon was nothing
but a dead man’s grin.
And yet the crane knew she could
do no better than to dip and soar
and fall between an airless heaven
and the stony earth below,
a middle-space that was also
its own monotony. Taking it slow,
she leaned into a groove
of air, achieving an amity
with a feeling of void she could
no longer avoid, an emptiness
that was more an acknowledgement
of terror than the arrival of
peace; to call this happiness
would be a certain error.
And yet the crane allowed the feeling
to fill her. It seemed more honest.
Dying would surely be a different matter.
by Cyril Wong
Softblow Press, 2011
Reviewed by CHRISTOPHER PHELPS
Symmetry Breaking in Satori Blues
Phrasally, “satori blues” is a sort of tonal totality that balances enlightenment with catharsis, high with low, insight with outsight. Blue is a color, as well as a state of mind. Satori is an inner lens, as well as the light it focuses. And satori is a bright word, while blues are naturally noctilucent. Cyril Wong’s Satori Blues is a book-length poem that sites the sights it cites, in sound—that concentrates balance, straddles its own meditations, follows its own suggestions, and lodges everything quietly between loud vowels.
The poem begins with five lines that set the table smartly and neatly. We know we’re about to sit, Socratically, at a philosophical love poem:
The way is every place. Love appears
as nothing when we begin to know it,
nothing that is not its opposite, or
whatever opposites mean, in this case—
coming and ebbing, a kiss and heartache.
By a slow collision—spaced by a full stop—the Dao hits love head-on when love “appears” (apt, as a ball in Piaget). Love appears as the nothing we know, then a suddenly new nothing, a kind of koan that characterizes or defines “nothing” (and anything that might partake of nothing): “nothing that is not its opposite,” a key and chord unlocking echoes in all that follows. Nothing that is not its opposite: Doubling the negation back positive, everything is its opposite—nothing’s opposite, and love’s nothing’s opposite—because it is nothing: because every something stands, across the line of existence, as nothing’s opposite; opposed to nothing. “Whatever opposites mean, in this case,” and a dash to say, perhaps more. In any case, the heart’s case of ache is clearest (apt, as an arhat’s bell): what comes ebbs as what kisses finish.
The next ten lines are just as preponderant:
The place where no love waits
is also love. Legs uncrossed, benumbed
but tender, tenderly. Gratified when answers
rose up in a field without questions.
Eyelids lifted like hoods or wings,
then a mise en abîme of eyes
flying open, endless hoods and wings.
Still, a moment’s suspicion that existence
churns on without a doubt, without
significance or beauty. […]
The first course comes as a lyrical feast! Indelicate legs, numbed, but this no-love is also love. One wonders if this statement is also a question—just before the speaker’s address shifts to a past when answers outgrew or precluded questions. Or perhaps the address doesn’t shift; it just illuminates where we’d already been. A flash of love or sex or both that had tasted infinity (or the abyss, which in this French expression connotes the same): This is difficult territory to balance, without falling into sentimentality on the one side, or declaimed but swollen importance on the other. Wong avoids both traps on his path, in his way. Rather than hitting us with a new image, he fledges the same flesh: “hoods or wings” becomes “hoods and wings.” And just as well, by sound alone, “without a doubt” echoes (and countersamples) “mise en abîme”—angel food meets earth salt. Finally, it is not eyes that lifted, but merely their lids. Enlightenment begins with a lift; eyes open on the scene before looking up toward exaltation. Then how long does it last—is it really only a moment’s suspicion (as brief as love or sex) that existence churns on without significance or beauty?
In the coming pages, we discover how the mouth feels mulling that question. Wong’s lyrics turn prose-poetic, and to mentors (like Jiddu Krishnamurti and Shunryu Suzuki), in an effort to challenge the song to find its melody, its prosody, its probity, its self-questioned lack of lack:
until the body registers its extremities again—
almost everything lost but that airy room
of memory. That one expansive room.
All knowledge is but a raft—zoom up
and out—on a sea of the unknown.
The poet focused on the nail-biting void
when a whole rainbow of interpretations
was always nearby. Leaning into air, uncertain
what air is; the body knows, inhaling
its secrets—air is everything we do.
Inhale and that radio is a death-trap,
melancholy unraveling this morning’s calm;
exhale, at last, and melodies are notes
arranged to mimic fissures in a life. Love
has no opposites, after all. How alarming
the impossibility, when reconsidered.
What have I been saying? Fire, windows,
thought, repetition, hardness and love. […]
[…] After immolation, the monk’s heart
stayed intact and was displayed as a relic.
The trouble with things is that we believe
they are ideas made permanent—
bed to my bed, cheek to my cheek.
Love’s nothing having turned into something (capable, despite itself, of opposites), soon the poem turns strikingly into the world we recognize as contemporary. We know the brands of this food (the trans fat, the tribulations):
[…] The revelation stayed
long after the high was gone, that there
is a way to observe each chiseled body
as something foreign or terrifyingly
new. I took part in the orgy, but instead
of being ploughed by lust, I wanted
all of you to abandon self-hatred
for joy. Sometimes love is unfulfilled
vanity: touch me, hold me, fuck me.
He kept checking his iPhone to see if
there was another party in the other room.
Since nothing lasts, let’s rehearse
by saying farewell to this bed;
these curtains that kept nakedness
from view; not forgetting you, you and you.
Here “nothing” changes its play, gestalting between a solid-not and a not-solid, between noun and negation. And starting at “new,” that long u is the sound of a sieve for what is already lost in what is found anew, finishing where that second pronoun—at once singular and plural—repeats, for emphasis, a you that hardly matters which; for want, perhaps, of a you who could bear such emphasis.
Wong’s long u continues for another three pages, catching on “do,” eye-rhyming with “go,” then swan-singing (“To experience means to go / through”) back to “you”:
Stop swinging and the world swings
like a gate into you; the trick
is to move with the gate. […]
And here he does, by a brilliant stroke of sound, in the key of long a:
Rocks and shells have nothing to say?
Why not pay attention anyway?
I think Shunryu Suzuki was trying to explain
that you are that which is sound.
Wind chimes urged us into a sudden
state of knowing. After saying the word
Buddha, the monk rinsed his mouth
three times. An earthquake between
idea and reality. […]
Look away and the way is everywhere.
Is this line the main course, the great way, the Mahayana? If it is, it’s handsome to the eye and pleasing to the tongue.
What follows is a medley, salads and cheeses:
Forgive the past for repeating for it knows
not what it does. No one truly vanishes,
which is the root of every crisis. […]
[…] The difficulty of entering
the oasis of a familiar tree, the sky as sky.
We impose our straight lines upon nature
which is squiggly. Alan Watts describes
Euclid as possessing a weakened intellect
for his simplistic geometrical shapes.
String theorists themselves cannot agree
on which theory best describes
the universe. U.G. apologized for having
“no teaching here, just disjointed, disconnected
sentences.” And emphasized, “There is
nothing to understand.” If you must burn,
burn away every preconception and see
what happens. […]
How our best efforts to straighten order fail; to floss before we’re finished? If science has remade the world, we remain to see it happen?—to note its presumptuousness and notch our own? Wittgenstein’s first proposition in his Tractatus is statically translated as “The world is all that is the case,” and more loosely if dynamically as “The world is what happens.”
Wong continues to retune his examples now; he resets the table with his pastiche-in-progress, using both long u’s and the air from “everywhere”:
[…] Deep breath now,
deeper, even deeper still. Your heart
sails to that old woman pushing her cart,
but what can you do to lift her burden?
To store the present: use, reuse,
abuse; compare, repair, despair.
Don’t overrate your holiness!
Put down the prayer book and gaze
upon your innermost want without shrinking.
Listen, why won’t you listen
to everything that I have to say?
If this is dessert—come early—it’s delicious in its pleading, and in its bittersweet desperation, and in how its self-knowledge self-overhears:
The molester who was arrested had
asked victims to place their hands
on his chest to “feel” his heart.
The hardest part is admitting that no wrong
has been committed. Thank you
for loving me in spite of yourself.
And you wonder anew (all) who “you” is. Then which “I”s:
[…] Eyes saw the leaf
because of that light, but light and leaf
were possible because of the eyes.
Push or pull, the wheel doesn’t stop turning.
What sound does the ego make upon departing?
Soon to these portals’ port! This brandy’s wine:
The dream of a harmonious world
is the reason that I’m always on fire.
Love is not enough when the self
adheres to its core. What I cannot
retrieve mocks me from behind time’s
two-way mirror. […]
me; no time; no time to waste!
What we talk about when we talk about loss
are the catastrophes: walls collapsing
and the terrible flood. What we forget is what
we fail to detect: the line opening like an eye
from one end of a dam to another;
a startled look and the averted vision
at a wrong word at yet another wrong time.
The lids that once lifted singularize into an eye that has both glimpsed and glared. Emerson said that the glance reveals what the gaze obscures. One wonders if he was wrong to choose sides…
Near the poem’s final agon, in the midst of a Whitmanic flourish, Wong asks and answers:
Who says we cannot compartmentalise
heartbreak, break it open and employ
Stars faint from lack, freefalling into
deep graves of themselves, from which
no light may lean away. The future
revealed like an afterlife, which we fight
to occupy and exit with equal
courage and delight. […]
Suddenly, finally, black holes appear as one-way mirrors, anti-beacons: eyes so hungry for light, they take it all. The reciprocal romance of a mise en abîme singularizes into a solitary trap we must acknowledge if we’re to survive with light left in us. Eyes heard, symmetries both broken and reformed, the book ends, a few lines later, with Cyril Wong’s challenge and charge to sing along.
CHRISTOPHER PHELPS originally studied science and philosophy before falling in love with the oldest version of both. His poems appear in The Awl, Meridian, The New Republic, PANK, and in the anthology Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality. He works in a small acrylic-sculpture workshop in Venice, Florida.
Blue Veined Hand
A friend read her poems to me the other day. Beautiful, deft, cultured verses that rippled across my heart. We sat at a wooden table in her kitchen, coffee cups steaming, a sunny cool autumn morning. I closed my eyes, listened. One image especially moved me, evoked the past from nearly thirty years ago: the image of an old blue-veined hand stretching out to reach a delicate vase.
My mother, Fay, her skin so dry, paper thin as she aged. How it would bleed, that skin. One nick seemed to lead to another, like a sombre medieval procession, bright but pained. The ulcer on her leg, near her ankle, cratered, never completely healed. Visits to the doctor, the same one, the surgery set back from the busy main road. Trees out the front, a path winding to the front door. A fine, early blue stone villa. At St Peters, the Adelaide suburb in which we had first settled.
The cancers that had to be cut out from different parts of her body; others burnt off her face, the wounds erupting into pinnacles, volcanoes, she said, turning away.
We’d always been tanned. Days at the beach. Shek O, Deep Water bay, Stanley, names which flow into me still, remembered and yet at times, unmoored. Black and white photographs of my mother on the beach, white blouse, beige shorts, knees tucked up. No hat. Tropical sun unabated. Others of her in China before the War. Wispy, so young, a wiry attractive woman with a sense of flair. Various men smiling, cigarettes in hand, dapper before the unforgiving advent of war.
As a youth I’d sometimes leaf through these photos, seeking my own roots, trying to find the sap that would moisten the sun baked days of Adelaide summers, life on the dry borderlands of a growing suburbia, relentless in its hunger for more land.
We’d come to Australia to avoid what my parents feared would be a Communist takeover in Hong Kong. During the War my parents had been rounded up by the Japanese in Shanghai and interned with other fellow British subjects and their Allies. There they’d remained, malnourished for three years, cooped up, often ill. Conditions in all camps were bad, resources few and stretched. Weight losses of thirty to forty pounds in the first few months of internment were common. My father kept my mother alive by working in the camp kitchen. He learned how to be a butcher. The most honest person I’ve known, he would sneak small pieces of meat that he’d later feed to my mother. There’d be roll calls where internees might have to stand still in the sun or whatever type of weather, perhaps for hours. Daily life was subject to the caprice of guards, to disease and illness, to lack of privacy, stress, boredom, and towards the end of the War, the danger of Allied bombs going astray. Some people lost hope and gave up; some went mad; some were executed in full view of the rest of the internees. Many of my mother’s health problems started here.
In the late 1950’s a number of family friends and my father’s work colleagues decided to leave Hong Kong and settle elsewhere. England was the preferred destination and New Zealand also figured. My parents chose Adelaide in South Australia because of its hills. My mother especially could not bear the thought of living somewhere ‘flat’. Flatness for her meant entrapment in a featureless plain. Mountains and hills could provide a backdrop, a place which could contain urban growth, could act as a way of positioning her in the world. They were landmarks, invitations to move into another world too, the world of fields and trees, the green wonder of nature.
Adelaide was also less densely populated that Melbourne or Sydney. My parents dismissed Bideford in England as too cold and Nelson in New Zealand (the last of their three choices) as too isolated, too far away from what they had known.
My mother and I struggled the most with the Adelaide heat, with our house which became ‘like an oven’ in summer. Then the heat would be unrelenting. It seemed to bore in, swirl, settle like a blanket, at once claustrophobic and dulling. The kitchen became a place of tyranny and burden for my mother. There was no window in the kitchen; the trapped heat thickened. On hot days the back door would be closed as the heat swept in with the hot northerly winds. We’d come from a humid climate where fans might be enough, but here we’d put bowls of water in front of fans. I’d wet a handkerchief and tie it around my neck, put ice cubes in them as well, or rub ice on my wrists, my mother’s forehead.
Her body, increasingly thin, became a whisper of itself. Her dark hair thinned, became flecked with grey. She rarely complained about pain. Some days she’d put on records on our battered record player, or turn up the radio, tilt her head in such a way I’d know she was feeling sentimental. She loved the music of Louis Armstrong, his signature tune, ‘Hello Dolly’, and would click her fingers in tune with his song, or to Perry Como, other crooners. She’d reminisce about her days in Shanghai, the years before the war, the Bund, International Settlements, the all night clubs; hit tunes, hawker food on the way home. Yummy she’d call my Dad then. They’d dance together in our tiny kitchen, swish past the chairs and table, in rare moments of closeness. I’d relax into that, another side of my parents, my father’s tenderness, sometimes join in, dance with my Mum, I, increasingly taller, my mother, just under five feet inches.
Silent stories curled in cigarette smoke drifting across the room.
In later years the pills gathered around her, various medications, some working against each other, bottles of them that she carried from room to room. Stacked up on the coffee table near the sofa where she’d lay, TV on, eyes closed, ashtray nearby.
Slowly, even the booze let go of. No more those regular afternoon drinking sessions, cheap wine, first from casks, then bottles, beginning in the kitchen, moving to the lounge, the inexorable steps towards confrontation, conversations like interrogations.
I’d drink too, join in as I moved through my teens. Beers, bourbon, Scotch; more beers. She’d point at me, cigarette always in hand, stab the air with point after question, question after point. Debates would slide into accusations which became slurred into exhaustion and upset, denial, futile rebuttal. At times I no longer knew who I was, feared what I might be, might become. I learned to be more analytical, sharp, knowledgeable, to thrive on studying History and Politics, turning her arguments back on her. Surviving.
Living in the cauldron, I came to call it. Life through a truth serum.
Or she’d sweep me up, her comradeship, uncanny sense of knowing, look at me with pained eyes, as if she were looking through me. She’d pull out playing cards, gather them, tell my fortune. These were no frills cards, worn from use. She would discard all the two’s through to and including the five’s. The six of hearts and six of spades were kept, the six of clubs and diamonds were left out. I didn’t notice at first, the structure of her pack. I was drawn by the mystery, the strangeness, the different capacity of cards, their ability to hold and reflect aspects of life, to be cards that were normally used for games, yet here, unveiled, to be something so much more.
My mother would clear the table I front of her. Perhaps she’d put down a special cloth. She’d shuffle the cards, cut the deck three times, put them back together again, and then lay the cards out in six sets of three. Shed put on her glasses; they’d perch just above a ‘volcano’ from a skin cancer on her nose, draw on a cigarette, put the cigarette down on an ashtray, exhale the smoke. The reading would begin. Bits and pieces of my life plucked out as if from a dream, rearranged, then reinterpreted. She’d ask questions, especially about any girls I’d was interested in. I’d be diffident, casual, shrug my shoulders, eventually break, smile, say yes, mention a name or two. Sometimes she’d raise an eyebrow, reach out for that cigarette, light another, look back at me, thinking, eyes searching. There was always enough in what she said to keep my saying yes when she offered to do a reading. Some occasions in my mid teens I’d say no; she’d ticker her chin out, ask later, the next day.
One day I asked where she’d learned to read cards. And she’d replied, ‘from Jean, my friend, when we were interned’. From the cards the two of them could follow camp intrigues, discover who was going with whom, she continued, before turning over a card, tell me what I was really thinking.
When I was a student at University I asked her to teach me the cards. Months later she told me their most rudimentary meanings. Slowly from that I began over time to build up my own understanding, basic at first, then gradually, deeper and more flowing.
She was unerringly accurate. When I went to clear up the house after she had died, I found a newspaper cutting on her dressing table. It was an advertisement for the very firm of funeral directors – and their exact location- that I had independently chosen.
There’d be games of Mah Jong too, my wife and I, father and mother, playing all night, betting with small coins, laughing, joking, smoking, drinking, with little breaks every now and then for snacks and stretches. We’d start just after dinner and go all night, sometimes until five or six in the morning. These were unbeatable times, a comradeship rarely surpassed. All of us would enjoy the banter, clacking of mah jong tiles, the building of walls, silence of concentration, strategic pauses. I’d listen for the Cantonese and Mandarin names, smile inwardly at my father’s frustrations when he lost as he banged his remaining tiles down on the table; enjoy my mother’s quiet sighs whether she won or lost, her glances at me, one eyebrow raised, when my father, so competitive, got irksome.
Mah Jong was another link with our Asian past. I was captivated by the dragons, the four directions, the design of the flower and season tiles, the different characters, colours, symbols. They became more and more a moving mosaic of sound, form, poetry for me. And, in a quiet way, they introduced my maternal grandmother into my life. She’d returned to her birth place in Devon after the war, introduced mah jong to a small but loyal coterie of friends in Bideford.
Her presence in England became snagged in my mother’s long, critical comments about my father, what she saw as his failings, the decision to leave Hong Kong, the move to Adelaide, the heat, flies, humdrum food (then). The quaint names of North Devon, like Ilfracombe and Appledore, their softer nuances unfolding with visions of green hills, closeness to the sea, became romanticised as lush natural embraces of nature far removed from the relentless heat of Adelaide summers. That I was born in Bideford only added to this longing.
My parents, increasingly isolated, never developing close, deep friendships in Australia that could sustain and ground them here in our new country- and take the pressure of my sister and I.
Cigarettes, Camels, unfiltered, too many. Nicotine stained fingers. Spluttering lighters; searches for matches, boxes of them, Redheads. Trips to delis. More supplies. The poverty we’d fallen into as soon as we stepped off the boat at Outer Harbour. My parents, running down their financial reserves, staying in an expensive City Hotel too long.
My mother, not yet recovered from internment, nearly dying giving birth to my sister right after the War. Looked like a ‘shrivelled apple’ she said, eyes moistening. My sister, born in Melbourne, all of us born in different countries. My parents, leaving Melbourne, settling in Singapore, then back in Hong Kong.
Walking up and down the High Street in Bideford and across the tors past Northam and Appledore, my mother, making certain she’d be fit for my birth. Refusing pain killers. If I was going to die, I wanted to know I was dying, she told me once.
The click of the silver cigarette case, opening, shutting, the Bideford crest on it; another cigarette lit.
Asking me to play golf with my father, par three courses as he got older, after he had retired. Something for him to do, she said. Get him out of her hair. Upsets when I didn’t call or drop around once a week. Smouldering like one of her cigarettes when I moved to England for awhile.
One day I got her a wheelchair, had it delivered. So my father could take her out. I have to get out of the house, she’d cry. ‘I feel trapped indoors, can’t stand it, like a tomb’.
We come from generations of people who’ve moved around the world. On both sides of the family. Traversing. Different countries, continents, new beginnings, ventures, exits, places of no return. My mother, born in Peking (then). Her father, half Belgian, half Scot, born in Dundee, a man who often spoke German and enrolled my mother in a German speaking school in Peking. He and my maternal grandmother met and married in Bideford before moving out to China before the First World War. A skilled tailor, my father did some work for the Imperial family, took photographs for national Geographic, and resolutely drank himself to an early death. I have some of his photographs, deftly framed, pictures of old China, some of Englishmen wearing topis, women in their voluminous dresses, picnic baskets nearby. My maternal grandmother never came to terms living in China. She didn’t learn Mandarin, knew no other dialects.
My Uncle and my mother, at ease with the Mandarin they learned from the amah, using it to keep secrets from their mother. My Uncle, fluent in Mandarin, Shanghaiese, Russian, working on the borders of China and Russia, somehow getting to Australia, joining the RAN, liberating my parents in 1945.
Years later, his death from throat cancer in Hong Kong, us living here, me listening to my mother crying, my father’s efforts to comfort her, hands on her shoulder. Newspaper cuttings instead of a funeral; no grave to visit, funeral to attend, money to travel.
My father, born in Hong Kong, his father American, mother German, brought up by his Uncle after his parents’ early deaths.
Travelling was in the blood. Now it was trips to K Mart and Target, asphalt parking lots. No more walks around Morialta Falls in the Adelaide Hills nearby or holidays in the Flinders Ranges, time by the coast at Robe in the south east.
My wife and I spending weekends cooking food. Going through recipes, determined and dedicated, each cooking a number of meals, chopping veggies and roasting and mixing spices; sometimes my wife’s best friend would join in. Red wine would flow, stain a recipe book or two. Then the long wash up, the half hour drive from one side of town to the other, the familiar road past suburbs and shopping centres, getting closer to the Hills. Chinese food; curries; Brazillian, Caribbean, Korean, Arabic, we all loved food from different places, cultures, far from the Anglo norm. Meals that could be frozen, defrosted, reheated. Meals my father could manage easily.
My mother, shrinking, shrivelling up. She, so invincible, brave, dulled now by pain killers, other medications she didn’t tell us about. Nodding off.
In May 1982 an immense peace came over me, like nothing I had ever experienced. It lasted for several days. My worries about my mother’s health, my own post graduate studies and work, drifted away like clouds called by a different breeze.
My wife and I decided to take a holiday, to drive up to Queensland to see her family, began that long drive up past hay and Goondiwindi.
While we were away, just a day or two later, I heard in my mind my mother’s voice, as clear as day. My wife was driving, so I closed my eyes, saw my mother’s face, smelt the Devon violets perfume she so enjoyed, listened. My mother asked me what I thought, whether she should hang on or let go, die. Time to go I whispered, time to go. Did you say something, my wife asked. Thinking about Mum, I replied, left it that.
When we reached my wife’s brother’s, I knew straight away from his facial expression what had happened.
The peace I had known just before we’d left had presaged her passing. It began the process of opening up my own clairvoyance, a different path, far from the academic path I was then travelling on, something more my own.
You know, my father told me when we flew back to Adelaide, she pulled off her oxygen mask. That’s how she went.
I open a cupboard door, look at some Mah Jong tiles, touch them, run my finger along them, the bamboos and flowers, hear my mother’s laugh, the cough that would invariably follow. I press a tile against my forehead, the green dragon, my mother’s favourite, smile. I have learned to read Mah Jong tiles, can use them as divinatory and spiritual sources of understanding.
I put the tile back, close the drawer, pick up a vase, a Chinese one. It’s been around all my life. Run my hands over it, feel the texture, remember an old blue veined hand reaching out.
Iain Britton’s poetry is published widely in Australia and New Zealand, but his work is also available in many UK and US magazines. Oystercatcher Press published his third poetry collection in 2009; Kilmog Press, his fourth in 2010. The Red Ceilings Press published an ebook in 2011. Forthcoming collections are with Lapwing Publications and a small collection with Argotist Ebooks.
the psychology of a river
this is only an earshot visual
of a story
of blue cords of flesh
twisting through rapids
water babies being throttled / as if abandoned
a black-eyed Madonna
prays for a mosaic sign of peace
by rubbishing her mortal coil /
for a price
she takes off her clothes
and like a keen carnivore
I’m supposed to be impressed
roll over Shostakovich
I wish you were here
roll over homo erectus / homo sapien
the hunt is on
is ever elusive /
the river starts its plunge
by cavorting with girls
washing their bodies
by hyperventilating about them
sucking their prattle into swirls of foam
pulls at substances
that drag down each day
that clog arterial reflections
on glazed horizons –
in their idolatry
hump against trees
skim flat stones
the talk is about multiple progressions
of one flash flood after another / one tumult
white-wash of inherited gruel
it’s all good / all okay / says the talk
around this colonic sluicing out
of a worm’s full gut
I drown messages
as they come
depending on mood-swings
some are gabbled
some bloody too long –
I push them under
until the gasping is all done
dosing up on daylight
becomes too much
the toxic beverage
of hallowed be thy name
begins to kick in
the river is the extroverted pretender
of this team / the builder of excursions
it fends off the claws of blackberry
under a sun
firing melanomic slugs
it’s about running with the team
and not looking back
at the pillars of salt
of particular people I know
convulses at the idea
of sharing its stench its evolution of fake shamans fake prophets
failed water diviners decomposing amongst rocks
best scenario ever
I wish you were here
to witness this virgin
from her grave
Loh Guan Liang teaches in Singapore. His poems have appeared on Ceriph, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, twntysmthg, and Moving Words 2011: A Poetry Anthology. Winner of Moving Words 2011, Guan Liang is working on his first chapbook of poems, Words Apart.
One look is all it takes for the Uncle to know what I want. Almost as if the shape of my head tells him stories about myself I barely even know, the layers of which he shaves away stroke by stroke. He never asks for my name; likewise I’ve always known him as Uncle.
Sitting there with a cloth round my neck like an oversized bib the customary how would you like your hair cut muttered in Mandarin doesn’t materialise.
Taken by surprise – by the absence of a verbal something prior the dance of steel and flesh.
Throughout the entire session we ask of each other in silences punctuated by his Hokkien exchanges with other uncles. Tales of tepid kopi-oh; pumpkin cakes and glutinous rice at Si Beh Lor; smoking zones at 口福 (the one near my house, not here stupid). I think of falling snow, mechanical droning mirrored to infinity, and practised fingers sculpting dark mysteries on my head.
Si Beh Lor: Waterloo Street, Singapore
口福: Koufu, a local food-court chain in Singapore.
(or Canberra Secondary School)
1. Birds of a Feather
Pointy comb in hand, she pecks at her hair. Out comes a flock of clips dark as night, like blackbirds out of their nest. And in one swift motion they return to the fold, never to be seen again. She sleeps her well-maintained sleep.
The boys cry out across the block, Little bird, little bird, can you hear me? Little bird, little bird, can you see me?
The girl laughs a wordless whisper. Yes I can, but you’re in your cage with the painted boredom & plastic apathy; and the bell hasn’t set you free yet. Better luck next time, little birds.
Having recently completed National Service in Singapore, Jerrold will be pursuing undergraduate Law at University College London in September 2012. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ceriph, Moving Words 2011: A Poetry Anthology, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Softblow, Symbal, the Singapore Memory Project and The Substation Love Letters Project. His debut book of poetry will be released in early 2012.
Walking the car after dinner, hands
unhinged in confidence or the veined
clasp of its insecurity, my parents
spot things they don’t recognise—
hair salons, shophouses, bakeries
bleached in French décor to make
them question if we’ve been living
in the area for twenty years. I trace
their eyes back to the invincibility
of provision shops, when sunsets
clot traffic to a trickle and old men
play chess in silhouettes conjured
by flats they can finally claim
a part of. I believe happiness, this
strange liability perching on tongues.
I imagine her head nestled like an
oath on his shoulder, the hollow
in their hands warming to build a
life together. One of them already
dreams of taking me to dinner, for
me to command the hollow welded
with their palms. They are helpless
in youth, carving all possibilities
out for that wisp of a heartbeat
still blinded by its own miracle.
All this hunger I will never know
is stranded in the script of words
between your father, and
your helpless, adolescent self—
the way children hide in their hands
a bounty of last snow, not realising
the warmth bodies surrender is
also decay. I imagine your neck
arched over papers, arms ready to
flee at the rehearsed moment.
The television splutters its share
of complacent dreams. Your father
swerves into you, doused in a day’s
liturgy of sweat and beer, blares
apart the radio, cursing his wife
for believing education. He hates
the determined curve of your neck,
oil whispering in a cracked lamp,
the audacity of paper choking
his table like guilt. In many ways
I thank him. He alone is responsible
for my happiness. Had he not flung
books off the ledge each night, pages
mingling with the flat’s vocabulary
of unlit rooms like echoes
in Icarian faith—you will not be here
today, your fingertips perched
on my mortarboard, correcting each
tilt like wayward names we agree
to acknowledge, then call our own.
Each morning the neighbour fastens his tie
before driving off, and from your bed
you see gates swinging in step
like that pendant of yours, now culled
from vantage and invisible
in its hollow, mahogany drawer. Light
gathers at the window’s edge, too early
for letting itself in, and the news
arrives by phone, circling like crows, always
a nuisance, news freshly perched
in twin sanctums of your ears, your
eyes trespassing on the neighbour’s yard.
The father of your children is dead, it says,
some ten minutes ago, when curtains still guard
and you have not risen. A wind
ripples through trees, maybe it is finding its way
among distractions, a voice you hear but
cannot see. By the fence, dew on eager leaves
ripening as it disappears, a trade
made necessary by those too long in love, or what
makes love vulnerable, this neck of skin, this
aching after hiding places—your pendant
unclasped, pushed away, or let
go, heard not seen.
Kathleen Hellen is the author of The Girl Who Loved Mothra (Finishing Line Press, 2010). Her work has appeared in Cimarron Review; Frogpond; Hawai’i Review; Japanophile; Kartika Review; Lantern Review; Mythium; Natural Bridge; Nimrod; Pirene’s Fountain; Platte Valley Review; Poetry International; Prairie Schooner; Southern California Review; and Witness, among others; and on WYPR’s “The Signal.” She is senior editor for The Baltimore Review.
In this earthly garden
jay is sometimes hawk
sometimes rusty pump
calling. I am trying to find you
in that hide and seek we do
in which we both are hiding
You, sometimes haughty,
sometimes in your hiddenness, aloof
sometimes scolding. You—
an attitude, like that bobbing thing uh-huh
the lilies do. Like the leaves of
the dracaena waving see-you-later, baby
I was stupid over you
A croton clowning
changing colors up my sleeve to please
the winds in you. I was red I was blue,
hiding my true nature.
I was wandering jew. Trailing
stem and patient as grass
A shadow on the sun-dial of your
if only I had asked, even if doubtful
Come out, come out
Not in white paste flecked with lead
but equally geisha. The wearer’s death
pretending to be flesh. A mask
for the kabuki, affected for the theater
of sorrows. Several husbands gone, fewer friends.
Even children, groomed to never know me,
if they ever knew the nature I repair—
spotted, lined with care— they wouldn’t recognize me.
None have ever penetrated to the skin the nape surrenders
in the rare accident of costume. A cover-up
judged as the foundation to a bare existence.
Base, yes. The essence
of the image of myself reflected in this dressing
room of mirrors. A triptych of pretense
The winter perfume of a doubt
Nanking is my mother
In self, those who are alive and dead
—from the Chandogya Upanishad
What does she want?
to her back
that furious hump?
Pointing to her lips
without the saying
Whisper of a foreign tongue
Cane that coughs a thumping
Should I offer?
On a sidewalk on a street
near the Medicine Shop
She shoves a crumpled dollar
for the trouble that she is
or she is not. The sun
The bus the bus about to stop
A.K. Kulshreshth has had stories published in two anthologies of new writing (Bear Fruit, Singapore, 2009 and Silverfish 4, Kuala Lumpur, 2003) and in Muse India. Another story is forthcoming in Asia Literary Review. He holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in Engineering and a Ph.D. in Management.
He lay on his belly, fifteen feet above the ground. The ants floated down gracefully, some of them drifting a bit with the breeze. They would land on all sixes, take a few seconds to orient themselves and then soldier back to one of the points on their long line.
He was eleven, and this was his favourite spot in their house in an industrial township in the middle of a jungle in East India. He lay still there, not minding the sun on his back or the hard concrete of the roof barely carpeted with tar below him. Once in a while he would cross and uncross his legs. His chin rested on the fingers of his left hand. At random intervals – when he felt like it – he let his right thumb twitch and get out of the way of his middle finger which had been straining against it. Another ant would be neatly dispatched. It was important to do it neatly. There was time.
There was a big guava tree in the backyard which he used to climb up to the roof of the house. There was another route along the ledge which he used to climb down, and then cross over a small boundary wall to the roof of the servant’s quarter. From there he would move on to the big boundary wall separating them from the neighbours behind them and get back to the tree which had grown into their neighbours’ space. It made a nice circuit, and he could spend hours moving lazily along it especially in the afternoons before his playtime.
On some days, like that day, there were large black ants. He used to tick them off the roof and watch them floating down. You couldn’t fool around with the red ones, and the small black ones were no fun. With the large black ones, you had to be careful and get the action right so that they couldn’t bite you. It hurt like hell if they did. But over time he had mastered the art of flicking the ants off the roof, with an action like a carom stroke. They were so small, and they were pushed off firm ground into thin air and made to drift through a distance which must have seemed enormous to them. It fascinated him that it didn’t seem to matter to them. They didn’t get into a group and attack him, and sometimes he used to wonder why. They would just meander a longish distance so that he couldn’t get to them any more. He didn’t ask his parents about it – may be because he didn’t want to tell them about the game he had invented.
He had left his Bata slippers on the ground below him. Only an idiot would navigate the crevices, stumps and holds of that circuit unless he was barefoot. His slippers had worn unevenly, tapering to a jagged sharp edge at the end where his feet had outgrown them. The balls of his feet had ground hollows into them. The hollows were blue like the straps and the rest of the soles were a muddy white. He wore a brown cotton T- shirt which had once been carefully tucked in to his dark blue shorts as he changed out of his school uniform.
He lay at one corner of their roof. To his right, there was a narrow concrete side lane followed by a stretch of domesticated greenery. Here there were trees at regular intervals, surrounded by decorative latticed brick walls which were taller than him, and which he sometimes climbed over when they played hide and seek. Further right there was the road which marked the end of their township. It was narrow but smooth, unlike the roads outside the township which were wider but mostly run down. In the township, the roads were neatly lined on both sides with red gravel. After the road, there were the electricity and telephone lines. Still further to the right there was the storm water drain with gentle slopes. He had navigated his Atlas cycle into it when he rode it the first time without support. He had left behind his cousin who was pushing him and he didn’t know how to get off it. After the drain, there were the remnants of the thick jungle of mainly saal trees which had been razed to make place for the factory and the township.
At the crossing a few hundred metres below his feet, a concrete signpost announced the names of the roads. Long Road. Ridge Road. There weren’t too many roads actually, in that small township, but they were all announced proudly.
To his left, and above and below him, there were neat rows of houses. In his part of the township, they were built on eight hundred square yards each. The company was still doing well, and the houses and signs were kept gleaming most of the time. Every house compulsorily had a neat lawn in front, and a kitchen garden in the back. Their kitchen garden was dominated by the guava tree, but they also had two papaya trees, a lemon tree, tomato plants, the sacred basil plant, curry leaf, peas and a few plots of coriander and mint. Across the big boundary wall, there was an equally diverse garden but it did not have a single big tree dominating it.
To those who grew up in these industrial towns which dotted the country, even those who left early as some factories closed down, the time they spent there has a magical quality. The intervening years have tinted their memories so that they mostly remember the culture as an uber-cosmopolitan, super-civilized one. He doesn’t argue about it, but he’s not sure he wants to live in a “township” with his colleagues.
Anyway, he was up there, and that was when he got the feeling the first time – the feeling you get that someone you haven’t yet seen is watching you. He has got it a million times since then, but for sure that was the first time. By some magic, you choose between all the degrees of rotation available to you and zero in on the right direction to look at whoever is looking at you.
He saw the maid Sandhya who had stopped coming to their place – he didn’t get to know why. She was still working with their neighbours who lived behind them. She had just plucked a few guavas from the tree with a bamboo pole.
The pole was still in her hands and the guavas were in the fold of her green sari. They hadn’t made the thud of landing on the ground because she had got them in to fall into a pouch she made with her sari. He had seen her do that earlier.
There was this time when he had got whacked because of her. He and his friends used to cycle a lot. He had a red-and-white Atlas cycle to start with, and much later a black Sen Raleigh. The jungle at the edge of the township had well-worn paths through it where people and animals had passed through. They cycled through the jungle to reach an abandoned shooting range. The range was a twenty- feet- high brick wall supporting a mound of mud, and a field in front. They climbed the mud hill and found the shells of cartridges embedded in the mud. They went cycling behind the nearby government hospital, and saw a dog carrying a small skull away. These experiences were their deepest secrets, and they whetted their risk- taking ability. The parents didn’t mind, or may be they forgot to tell them. Once they decided on a stretch target and headed for the hill at City Centre. He did the trip when he went back many years later. It is about three kilometers, and the hill is piddly. Back then, it was the farthest they would have been ever, without an adult or a Dada or Didi accompanying them. You not only left the safe haven of the township, but also crossed another township and drove along the infamous Grand Trunk Road. They made it to the hill and back, but Sandhya saw them on the way back. Of course he got whacked by his mother, and so did his friends by their respective parents. They were forbidden to leave the township after that. A child had died in road accident a while back. Sandhya later told him that she had to tell his parents because it just wasn’t safe for him. She stroked his head.
And then there was the other time. She had been bending over to grate some mangos once and he couldn’t take his eyes off her soft curves. It crossed his mind that she had had them all along but he had never looked. He knew he shouldn’t be looking now but he couldn’t stop. Then suddenly she had looked up straight into his eyes. He had felt an uncomfortable flush come over him and the stiffness happened. They looked at each other for a few seconds and then he turned his gaze away, but not before he saw that she smiled at him. It wasn’t a smile of malice or mockery. There was something about it which made him realize that she was amused but she didn’t look down on him. She had stopped coming to their place a little later.
He didn’t actually think about either of these incidents as he lay on the roof that afternoon. But they were a part of him, like a snake and a ladder on the path to that point in his life.
He had been pretty still in that corner up there, with only his head projecting from the roof so that he could watch the ants floating down. She probably saw him when he moved a bit and then their gazes locked. Her eyebrows rose and her jaw dropped. From that distance, he saw furrows form fleetingly on her forehead. Then the furrows disappeared and she lowered her gaze. When she looked up again, she stared calmly at him. They looked at each other for a while. There was the distance between them, and the wall.
He doesn’t know how long the moment lasted.
His face broke into a smile. She didn’t smile back, but something changed in the lines of her face. They became softer. She unfroze and disappeared effortlessly. The green of her sari melted into the trees.
Saal – species of tree found in Eastern India and other parts of South Asia.
Dada – elder brother.
Didi – elder sister
The Monsoon Bride
by Michelle Aung Thin
Reviewed by Paul Giffard-Foret
Politics of Desire and the Colonial Machine
In the much politicised and somewhat romanticised discourse around present Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) in the Occident, Michelle Aung Thin in her debut novel The Monsoon Bride has chosen to explore the nation’s British colonial past instead in such a way that encourages the reader to trace a historical lineage of oppressive power structure between the current Burmese military-based dictatorial regime and the colonial state that preceded it.
Michelle was born in Rangoon, Burma, and moved to live in Canada with her family as a child. She completed her PhD in creative writing in Adelaide under the supervision of Australia’s acclaimed author Brian Castro, and now lives in Melbourne. The Monsoon Bride is the product of her doctorate. Like Castro, her novel demonstrates a strong interest in questions of identity, belonging, and hybridity.
Two of its main characters are from mixed-raced, Eurasian backgrounds. This “third field” of vision is I believe what allows Aung Thin’s novel to distance itself from traditional Orientalist narratives of Burma and the East more generally, as well as from “nativist” discourses of authenticity which in the politically-charged context of Burmese intestine wars is a potential asset and the producer of valuable critical insights.
Chiefly drawing from family tales and personal research rather than memory or the actual experience of living in Burma, The Monsoon Bride is not a historical novel, but rather a fictionalised account of life in Rangoon in an attempt at capturing what Aung Thin herself describes at the time as ‘a very vibrant city [with] different people from all over the world who’ve come to make their fortunes.’
The year is 1930, in an in-between time of ontological uncertainty directly following the stock market crash with the rise of Burmese independent movement and the gradual decline of Britain’s colonial grip over Burma’s internal affairs. Not incidentally perhaps, as Aung Thin commented elsewhere, an earthquake happened in 1930, a year she sees as ‘formative’, for ‘those are the pressures that have created the Burma that is there today.’
In the words of Mary Callahan in her political essay on ‘Myanmar’s perpetual junta’ published in New Left Review, ‘the [British] decapitated the indigenous social order, and instituted a policy of ethnic divide-and-rule – ‘martial’ frontier races against the centre – that was extreme even by imperial standards.’ As she adds: ‘If the military and jurisdictional division of the country had first been imposed by British colonialism, its continuation after independence represented both a political and a moral failure on the part of the Burman-dominated state.’
With such legacy in mind, The Monsoon Bride, like most postcolonial fiction, remains wary of the nationalist project that led to independence. As an illustration, Aung Thin’s depiction of the nationwide Dobama Asiayone, or “Our Burma Association”, formed in 1930 and mainly composed of students and lawyers, is particularly scathing. The association aimed ‘to promote unionization and worker-peasant solidarity [against the colonial administration] and was in the forefront of the strikes and demonstrations of the time.’
So at the start of the novel, Winsome, a convent girl from the countryside recently married off to Desmond, of mixed-race too, finds herself submerged by a seawave of protesters marching in the streets and shouting ‘ ‘we’ (or maybe ‘us’) and this we/us was repeated again and again.’ (30) The sense of collectivity, of ‘be[ing] one among so many,’ (31) is however called into question as she realises how ‘we/us so easily might mean not-you.’ (30)
The individual’s dilution into ‘one seething skin, born from that one voice, we/us’ (31) in which she felt entirely alone (31) gives way to a larger critique in the parodial mode of the Thakins’ movement (meaning ‘master’ in ironic defiance of the British’s paternalistic attitude towards the colonised) and the Marxist project to which they subscribed.
Of middle-class background, highly educated, some of them in London, and with ‘an unwavering faith in ‘progress’ and modernity,’ as Callahan argues, their portrayal by Aung Thin in turn reduces them to “mimic men” – ‘ for they were all men…black men, brown men, yellow men…hard-eyed with thin, pinched faces’ (30) – with ‘no centre and no direction’ (32) and who play at being, rather than are, communists, as evident in one of the rare women present at the demonstration and the speech she delivers to the crowd:
‘My friends’, came the girl’s voice through the megaphone, a little reedy for being further away, ‘my comrades, we share a cause.’ There were jeers from the labourers – comrades, they would be laughing at the very idea – but of course this did not deter that steely young woman, who merely adjusted the angle of her attack. ‘Wealth,’ she cried, ‘is the foundation of all power. And we shall be poor no longer.’ (32)
Contra the “Great March of History” and the big narratives of modernity, Aung Thin as a writer with an interest in subjectivity and interpersonal relationships instead articulates in her novel what may be defined as a politics of desire through focusing on the triangular love affair between Winsome, Desmond, and his British employer Jonathan Grace.
The novel however does not fall into the postmodernist trap of removing the Subject from history or agency. Personal desire is primarily shaped by external factors, colonialism in particular. Such is in effect the driving force and law of (e)motion behind the characters’ actions – what constitutes in the incipit a metaphor for those “lines of flight” that Winsome seeks as she boards the train toward a new life in Rangoon:
She had felt a violent lurch to the left and when she looked out the window into the dark night, there was the gleam of a new track running along them. That glimmer was a sign the city was close and indeed she could feel this imminence in the train’s momentum. ‘Soon, soon, Rangoon, Rangoon…’ (3)
Perhaps Aung Thin’s greatest achievement in The Monsoon Bride is the way she powerfully communicates the paradoxical sense of Oriental lethargic spleen and langor, ‘boredom and loneliness’ (18), decay and disease, as well as a feeling of agitation, over-excitement and rebirth, which is not so much symptomatic of Rangoon’s tropical climate as it characterises the stulsifying rigidity, the ‘sucking stillness’ (14) of the colonial theatrical decorum and its stratisfied hierarchies.
This is how Winsome reviews her surroundings at the European Refreshment Room:
Around the room, white men and women in expensive travelling clothes watched from over their own cups while along the walls, behind the boilers, black eyes stared out of impassive brown faces. The bearer waited. Desmond stood stiffly, his arms at his sides. (14)
Ultimately, both are forced to leave since they do not fit into the picture, neither black nor white.
Within the colonial machine, based on ‘an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ maintained by a small set of rules’ (188), desire – the desire for transcendence, for love, for being able to reach the ‘Other’ – occurs through simultaneous ‘revulsion’ and ‘desire’, ‘one so like the other’ (104). Colonialism and the longing (and fear) of becoming-other – ‘between here and that other life, like the space between one heartbeat and the next, the difference between who you were and who you might become’ (190) – is what pushes Winsome and Jonathan towards each other and what eventually pulls them apart.
As newness enters the world toward the end of the novel, and as Jonathan and Winsome are forced beyond the illusion of romance to confront hard facts, love is temporarily stripped bare of its social weight to become “pure” desire: ‘He moved his hands across her lips, over her hair, her breasts, he rubbed his face against her skin, his fingers searching for this new woman, measuring her against the one he had known.’ (223)
Again, desire in the novel is not merely sexual, but (bio)political. Such is the strength of The Monsoon Bride that it always associates physical desire with the lack of, or hunger for, a world beyond the colonial machine: ‘There was a word for it, a word like poverty. Paucity. That was it. She would have said it out loud if he had not been beside her. It meant not enough, never enough.’ (136) The impending Burmese revolution itself is in fact driven by a politics of desire.
This is how Winsome’s employer, a respected Burmese photographer and a representative of Rangoon’s aspiring middle-class as well as a supporter of the Thakin Movement, describes her sojourn in Europe: ‘It was not awe that she felt among those much lauded icons of their civilisations, not jealousy either, but something worse; it was as if she had lived through a famine and could never again have enough to eat.’ (161)
In her essay, ‘The Name Game’, Michelle Aung Thin expressed her fear that the word ‘bride’ in the title of her novel may seem too ‘girly’: ‘You see, while I write like a woman I find that I am worried about being read as one.’ Like her female character Winsome, Michelle’s writerly journey is driven by a similar desire to subvert socio-cultural expectations of a woman (writer)’s place, and her awareness that ‘only a fraction of women are reviewed in the major literary magazines compared to men.’
In this regard as in many other aspects, The Monsoon Bride is a immense success. As for Winsome,
These were heaty days, when something in the thick air loosened her joints and razed her judgment so that she looked when she should have turned away, stared when she should have cast her eyes down. It was on a heaty day that she first realised Rangoon was a city of men; men pulled rickshaws, drove buses, important men in light-coloured suits rushed along Phayre Street, holding their noses against the smell of drains. White men, brown men, black and yellow men, bunched like so much ripening fruit. She imagined them falling, warm from the branch, onto the flat of her hand. (27)
 Aung Thin, Michelle. ‘Interview’.
 Aung Thin, Michelle. ‘Interview’.
 Callahan, Mary. ‘Myanmar’s perpetual junta’, New Left Review 60, Nov-Dec 2009, p. 56.
 Ibid, p. 31.
 Ibid, p. 36.
 Ibid, p. 39.
 Aung Thin, Michelle. ‘The Name Game’. (2010)