Laurie Duggan was born in Melbourne in 1949. He moved to the UK in 2006 and currently lives in Faversham. His most recent books are Crab & Winkle (Shearsman, 2009), a new edition of The Epigrams of Martial (Boston, Pressed Wafer, 2010), Allotments (Wendell, Mass., Fewer & Further, 2011) and The Pursuit of Happiness (Shearsman, 2012). Forthcoming are The Complete Blue Hills (Puncher & Wattman, Sydney), and Leaving Here (Light-Trap, Brisbane).
life in the margin:
spring, still winter-like
old men in trainers
walk on bunions
back at The Sun
(beyond the . . .
I graph all this, with flattened accent
(drawn but not glottal)
(the test: ‘This is Illyria, lady’)
(I myself am a bracket,
but this is as it should be
the smudge of a glass
set down on paper
this this this
the impression of a bottle cut into a wall
above it a trophy (a crown or a hand,
hard to tell in the half-dark
a morning frost, bent stems
then a clear sky,
shadows in the window
a flame’s reflection
nails not quite hammered in
a rattle of cutlery
the mechanics of a worn philosophy
my work irrelevant as
an immense puzzle, lifelong
Peter Dawncy lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne. He has an Arts Degree with majors in English and Philosophy from Monash University and is currently completing Honours in poetry writing. For his thesis, Peter is undertaking a study of Philip Hammial’s poetry through Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. He hopes to begin his PhD next year. Peter has had poetry and fiction published in various Australian journals and magazines, and in 2010 he was the winner of the Monash Poetry Prize and came second in the Monash fiction-writing competition. His play, The Logue of Thomas P. T. Lawrence, was performed at the Arts Centre in June 2010.
satellites coalesce / fold
the corners to the
at the jetty’s end
in fluorescence by
container ships with
for salt meets sky
Melbourne woven in it
Eureka deep green
seen from afar
research vessel en route
to the Antarctic snowfields
smooth, wet pavement
as monkeys march
to flightless geese
wide and windless
hauling in mulloway—
a frame discards
and searches for a
for now, moonlight
skewers a dog’s nose,
bogong moths whirl,
opens the door, sneezes,
closes the door—
seem too polished
for a winter worn
twirl, slash the billowing
beneath the blue gum and
above the clamouring
bracken. milk thistles levelled
as dogwoods sneeze, black-
birds dive for the pine copse
and ferns puff dust
from their beards as
they lean and squint. a black-
wood teeters and quakes,
topples as its feet rent
like a child shredding
wrapping paper. somewhere
in the composting depths
a little girl in a green
and white dress
gets her hair caught
and screams for her mother.
Fiona Britton is a Sydney poet and writer. She was the 2010 winner of the Shoalhaven Literary Award and the 2011 joint winner of the Dorothy Porter Prize for poetry.
The tune of us
had I hands to write it
six-four time over a Balinese tinkle,
but I dream on, handless
inventing skip-beats (tha-rip) to pass the time.
I curve, acoustic,
for twenty six bars
of held breath —
the underground score
of an opera for insects:
my green grocer
my black prince, tap-dancer.
I tunnel out and count myself in.
you made your way on mass
sideways like sandcrabs
a ragged collegium,
full of fight and righteousness
shouting fond arguments
tugging at each other, tumbling
towards the isthmus
across that line you wouldn’t cross alone.
Great numbers meant great courage:
you ventured together
and accumulated faith.
The sun — celestial diplomat —
shone down ultraviolet
and gilded upturned faces
(friends, your sweet lips split,
the fresh skin pinked and puckered).
The wind grew calm:
evidence, you said —
such small miracles
will soon be handed down as fact.
Differences extinguished in the noonday bright,
you stopped your yelling
and prepared for a single, quiet truth.
Back among the blackened mangroves
beside the grey teeth
of the broken jetty
the shadows grow long,
At this remove
I hardly recognise you, friends.
Voices carry, high as baby birds’ —
gannet, egret, gull.
I listen but the wind snatches words.
Newborn and dismayed,
you turn in circles.
I grow mandibles; I digest things
here without a people,
I am bearded, brackish and alone.
New trunks thrust up
like stubby thumbs, from the mudflat.
Here I build a hollow for a heretic
where I can think,
kick the dripping boards;
dispute and come unstuck,
and let the biting insects
have my blood.
Ellen van Neerven is a descendant of the Mununjali people of the Gold Coast area. She is a recent QUT graduate in Fine Arts and lives in Brisbane.
Taking a break from my usual weekend warfare
I drive with my mother through the shifting rain
into Mununjali country
a roo bounds across the road
we meet at the pub and I order an
egg sandwich, orange muffin and a newspaper
on the last ten years of your life
We are cousins
though we grew up on different sides of the axis
different sides of the moon
got to remember
We don’t share memories
You recall a football game against boys
you fell down and
I turned on the fella who did it
This violence sounds entirely
not like me at all
I remember you came to live with us
when your house burnt down
you were amazed at how many socks I had
and you asked me if you went to my school would
you be the only dark girl in your class
This was the first time I realised that
others could see us differently
We drive up to Nana’s resting place
in front of Mt Barney
You take the wheel where I am a passenger
My uncle says you’ll teach me in a paddock
He seems to know all them old stories
While my mother is quiet
Got to remember
Used to the flies now I sit under a gum
This land heals all my city blues
I haven’t the language for that
You read me after all this time
I haven’t the language for that.
How My Heart Behaves
My coin purse is lined
with receipts of women I’ve fucked and left
Last night on the bed of a lover
slipping a singlet over my breasts
about to leave
I find myself suddenly desiccated
with need of child
Will I always be
a stranger to the sound of webbed feet
a moon in the orbit of others
I untangle from her sleeping form
Leave all my change under the pillow.
Michelle Murray explores identity and the space where her Scottish/Australian heritage merges with the land and culture of the Simpson Desert Channel Country . After acting college Michelle packed a swag and a bag to live on the edge of the desert with her husband who is descended from the Arabana people. They lived together on Wangkamadla (Bedourie) and Wangkangurru/Yarluyandi (Birdsville) country before moving to rural South Australia where Michelle has an Alexandrina Council artist residency at Goolwa. Michelle is an independent writer/performer. ‘Skeleton Woman’ was originally produced for Onkaparinga Council’s Double Vision art exhibition in October 2011.
The Skeleton Woman
Here my body lies, shallow beneath this silken sheet; a skeleton, a wreck, a place for sharks and waves. This thin veil shows my bones, exposes me for my loss of souls. How I yearn to stay submerged. Who could want for a dearth of flesh? Please me. Lay down with me. Sink your spirit into my cavities. Oh, what pleasures we had. This sunken whore who gave of herself so freely now breaks up and splinters; no thought of my own majesty. I dreamed of waves crashing men against rocks and sucking them out to sea. I heard the screams, chased them down the hill; joined the others in their horrible vigil. She took so very long to drown them, to dash them into final silence; those poor men, consignments: bags of wheat and salted meat; help arriving for too few, dragged to comfortable deaths in beds. I waited and waited for your body to emerge to carry you home.
All souls conjure the dead, make me whole again.
Remember the day you came?
‘Gidday,’ you said. ‘There’s somewhere here you want a windmill to stand?’ I took you to the top, you looked about, saw foothills falling into a river cliff, the far off swamp, the distant sea, the village below our feet forgotten in the rush toward prosperity. ‘I had no idea this place existed,’ you said.
I’d lay beside the trough breathing the smell of horse sweat, feeling the dirt curved beneath my feet, looking up into the sky with you drilling and me diving into that cosmic ocean, your voice in the windmill’s rusty turning. You would sing out that you could see the church steeple, you could see the ocean liners, you could see that sleepy river snaking her way past the Noarlungas.
‘Enough water for one fine lady thank you Lord, and a bit more for a cup of tea!’
And that was about all we got but not for the want of pumping. But the water didn’t matter, not to me. It was the drilling, the building and sweetest of all, you returning. Adjust a little here, realign there, cups of tea, horse hair, you and me, the river snaking through the valley, the church steeple, the ships waiting, conversation, your gentle mouth, my mother hosting dementia in the house, the clatter and bang of the windmill sucking air and dust and lust.
But it has been so long since I heard your voice, saw your face. Work took you so far away.
‘To be the pelican,’ you would say. ‘Inland lakes, that’d be the way! Erecting windmills, drilling bores, then all the way back to catch fish in the ocean, and you.’
No talk of the wife and kids. Sacred, you’d say. That promise to a dead man to never abandon them. And now you’re gone. That’s what they say. You will never return. I will never see your face. In the shallows of the cove the wreck of The Star of Greece still moans, the ground is hard under my bum, the windmill stands as it has done all this time. Nothing has changed. You are still away. I wait for your return. What else can be done?
You are everywhere: cats over fences, reflecting back in mirrors. I slept with a man who might have been you, his shoulders, his flat palette hands. It’s brutal.
From a tree in the gully
I hung upside down
The earth the moon
The branch the ground
My brother threw peaches
Dreaming of war
That made him a man
Who never came home
At the tree today in my search for him
I found all the men of my life
At the church on the hill my sins called my name. The minister said that you were found by the governess hanging from a windmill. From a distance it seemed to her eyes that an oblong fruit hung ripening on a tree without roots. Did you cry out? Did you rage that you stepped over that edge? How is it that fate, or misfortune – or worse – left you hanging between sky and earth?
I went all the way to the city to see the flowers at the cemetery, to watch the mourners, your family. I saw your wife clutch a man like you; her children stumbled at the grave. I waited a long time to see the backhoe fill you in. Did she hold you? Did she kiss your cold face? I would have stayed but for the train. If I missed it I would have missed the last bus and while I could spend the night on your freshly turned clod I couldn’t be sure of the company you keep. I’ve never known you but the two of us, a horse trough, the hill into the valley and the distant sea. And it’s funny, you know, because I got the feeling when the sun went down that even you didn’t hang around.
I found you flying on updrafts seeing way beyond the ships at sea and into the desert channel country. You told me to fly with you inland and make babies. I ran to the updraft, I reached for you tasting you on my tongue – snot and blood and semen. Jesus, where did that come from? When I woke – a rock in my back, the sun hot on my face – I got up and threw stones at those pelicans looking down at me. Such bloody piety.
I love your injuries, you would say to me, I crave your cavities, but it’s true isn’t it, that we three are bottles in your collection of miseries. The wife who grieved in your arms, children at her feet, the comfort you gave, the husband you made. The governess you took on the search: every plane, helicopter, car employed. You found him broken inside his chopper – his swag, his bag, her picture – of course you were there for her. And me. What did you see? A wretch trapped in a house of stale bread and boiled meat, a nutcase mother peeing in her bed. I found my legitimacy in you, surely. But of us, why so many?
A woman came. We never paid for the windmill.
‘It’ll have to come down,’ she said. ‘I’ll send a man.’ She reached out and touched your welds. ‘Money’s hard to come by these days,’ she said. ‘I wish it wasn’t this way.’ I stroked her cheek. She slapped my face. ‘Where do you get off?’ she spat.
I started to undress. My clothes dropped. Her face froze. My ugly bits exposed. I stared out to sea. I thought of all those sailors dashed on the rocks and their families.
‘We made love right here,’ I said, ‘again and again,’ since she thought she knew everything. She stared at the spot until something snapped. She raged back to her car but came back. She’d dropped her keys.
‘Put your bloody clothes back on,’ she said. She went through everything back and forth from the car; turned her bag inside out. The day started to deteriorate. She was crying I could see. ‘Oh, the humility,’ she kept saying and then she said, ‘oh the pain’. She threw stones at the windmill. ‘Why?’ she kept asking. I don’t know if it was why you slept with me or why you died. She cried and cried. I went to the house to check my mother. When I got back your wife was crumpled by the trough scratching the dry inside with a rock. I climbed in and she followed. She said you were a good lover, a good provider. She said you could never replace her first husband. She told you that. ‘I told him that,’ she said looking now at me. ‘What was I thinking?’ We sat quiet for a long time. ‘There’s another one,’ she said, ‘the one who found him. I want to hate her but it won’t come. All I can think is that poor woman. Then I wish it was me, not her. Then I’m glad it’s not my burden to bear. You’re the lucky one,’ she said. We drank from her bottle of gin.
‘What about your kids.’ I asked.
‘Oh, they’ll be fine,’ she said.
I was sure I could hear mum. She was drinking fast, your wife.
‘I really have to go, my mother,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ she said. We stood in the trough with no water.
At the house she watched me wipe my mother’s arse, make porridge and the old woman flick it all about. I made tea but she was happy with her gin. When she nearly fell over I steered her to my bedroom. She fell on the bed and complained the room was spinning. I left a bucket, wrestled the blankets; she snored and vomited. In the morning she sat with coffee at the end of my bed. I woke with her looking at me like an eagle surveying the dead.
‘I could like you,’ she said. Sober I suppose or at least with a hangover she leaned over and kissed me long on the lips. ‘I thought I was carrying this all myself but it’s not true is it?’ When she got up to leave she turned back. ‘I’ll still have to take the windmill. Sorry about that.’
We decided you were either an angel or an arsehole, a lover or a fraud. You dropped blessings into our cups then dropped off the face of the earth. We laughed hysterically into our glasses then cried at separate times. When one cried the other thought she a thief stealing memories. We hated each other passionately. She told me I don’t have a single interesting thought in my head so I must be good in bed.
‘You live in a disgusting mess,’ she said
‘I am a disgusting mess,’ I told her. ‘You should appreciate my transparency.’ She agreed, poured another one and we started all over again exchanging insults, doing our best to bruise each other, promising that we would not let the other go numb, promising that we’d still feel the pain then one day she didn’t come. A week went by. I got to thinking about you again, the windmill gone – nothing to focus on. I went to the ocean, took lavender and frankincense, poured the essence into the water, thought of sailors and lovers, sharks and blood, and her, thought of shipwrecks submerged and then I knew an entire world lived inside of you. A story I don’t know. Even so, like so many men, you took it to the grave: the unspeakable, the unfathomable, buried shallow, unreachable.
I got a letter from the governess the other day:
Just to say he spoke about you. I’m sorry I have nothing to say except the last thing he said to me was we will all understand one day. I lived like a skeleton woman, no flesh on my bones. I was certain no man would touch me but one did eventually come along. I hope you’re not alone. I read in the paper about water near your home. How a town was drowned, that the people can still be found sitting at the table ready to eat their meal; roads, bus stops, playgrounds but I doubt it’s real. When I think of it I think of you. I dreamed that you were washed out to sea, the dam wall broken dragging you out into water so deep I thought for sure you would never be retrieved, but on a beach my daughter picked up a pelican feather and I knew that one day you would find me and we would be sisters.
It’s been a long time now, my mother finally dead but not until she was utterly dependent. At the end she spoke of the beginning, she spoke of her childhood as she spoke of giving birth. She spoke to my brother, reaching out her hand and when the time came she spoke of pain. Then I really was alone. I put the place on the market. A run-down house built with no particular thought on land devoid of permanent water is worth a lot it turns out. I’m going to travel to all the places you spoke of and when I’m done I will travel beyond any place I have ever imagined. I hope one day that the wailing creaking cries of the sailors and the sunken woman bereft beneath the waves diminishes, that I will be fleshed out, that new life will spring from me and all of this will become a memory.
Goodnight my lovely.
Prasanta Das is Professor of English at Tezpur University in the northeast Indian state of Assam. He was born in Shillong, Meghalaya where his mother still lives. He is a two time Fulbrighter (Cornell and Harvard) and his poems and short stories have appeared in Kunapipi, Indian PEN, New Quest, and Out of Print.
Mr Deb’s Shop
“You must go to the cremation,” my mother said. But I had already made up my mind to go. Mr Deb had been my father’s friend and our neighbour for years. For as long as I could remember he had owned a small shop in Police Bazaar in a lane that was a couple of minutes walk from where the newsagents had their stalls. My father had always gone to Mr Deb’s shop when my brother or I needed a new pen or my mother wanted her brand of hair oil. As a small boy, I often accompanied my father on these trips. Sometimes our whole family would go to Police Bazaar. My father and mother would sit on little stools in Mr Deb’s shop, talking and laughing. Mr Deb would order tea and, when the boy brought it, he would emerge from behind the counter to courteously serve it himself. Later when I became older I was sometimes sent to do the shopping but I never went to Mr Deb’s shop. I preferred the bigger ones.
I was in Hyderabad when my father had died suddenly one afternoon at our home in Shillong. Mr Deb had got myHyderabadaddress from someone. He had broken the news to me gently, speaking with genuine feeling. I managed to reach Kolkata in the evening. But there wasn’t a flight to Guwahati until the next afternoon. The cremation was over by the time I reached home. Now, less than a year later, Mr Deb himself was dead. Attending his funeral would be a little like attending my father’s funeral.
Mr Deb became our neighbour when he bought a house near ours. This was after the hill state movement when Meghalaya was created and most Assamese families were selling their houses in Shillong to move to Guwahati. It was a difficult time for my parents since so many of their friends were leaving. In the end, they decided to stay. This was a great relief to my brother and me. We boys loved Shillong and could not imagine a life elsewhere.
There was the usual bickering over a boundary wall and for a couple of years relations between Mr Deb’s family and ours became quite strained. But after my father’s death I began to seek out Mr Deb’s company. It was then that I noticed how frequently he was away from Shillong. When I asked him about his absences, he told me he was building a second house in Silchar. Mr Deb had gone one more time to supervise the building of the house. But this time he had had a heart attack in the bus itself.
They had brought Mr Deb’s body home a little beforenoon. The driver and the conductor of the bus had stood around for a while and then quietly disappeared. In the cramped drawing room, Mr Vaswani, a couple of his tenants, and a Bengali gentleman who worked in the Account General’s Office sat on the cane chairs. I sat on the bed that was pushed up against the wall. Babu, Mr Deb’s son, was much younger than me. He had graduated recently from college. I often saw him in the evenings in Police Bazaar with a group of young men who idled away their time near Mr Deb’s shop. He was a rather quiet young man and now the shock of losing his father had further subdued him.
Mrs Deb entered. A fragrant smell of incense seemed to come from her. Her thin gray hair was loose and hung on her shoulder. She was the kind of woman who rarely left her home. I had expected her to scream and wail but she was almost composed as she received our condolences. “I told Babu’s father not to go”, she said to us. “I told him you are an old man now. But he would not listen.” We did not say anything. But all of us knew why Mr Deb had been building a second house in Silchar. The recent communal troubles in Shillong, the resentment against “outsiders” like us had made him nervous. A former refugee fromEast Pakistan, he wanted Babu to have a secure home. Though Mr Deb had never actually said so to anyone, it was clear that he was planning to sell off his house and shop in Shillong and move to Silchar. Mr Deb did not want Babu to go through the uncertainties he himself had faced when he had come to Shillong as a young man soon afterIndependenceand Partition.
From my place on the bed, I got a glimpse of the next room. I could see a broken harmonium placed on top of a wooden almirah. I wondered if the broken harmonium had belonged to Mr Deb and when he had played it. The house was now beginning to fill up with relatives, friends and other neighbors. Assured that my absence would not be noticed, I left.
I sat on the verandah of our house watching the mourners walk down the sloping road to Mr Deb’s shop. Aged men, some in tweed coats, others in home-knitted sweaters, and their wives were coming from Laban, Rilbong,Jail Roadand other places. As they went past, I heard them talking about Mr Deb in the Bengali they had brought with them forty years ago from their towns and villages in Sylhet. The tin-roofed, wooden-floored houses of my father’s generation needed looking after but Mr Deb’s house had not been painted in years. The roof was dark with rust. The house usually wore a dull, enclosed look because you rarely saw it with its doors and windows open. Today its owner’s death had given it a kind of life.
I sat on the verandah for several hours. When I heard the sound of bamboo being cut I knew they were making the bier and that it would not be long before they carried the body past our house.
I joined the procession when it reached our house. There were nearly fifty men, both young and elderly, in the procession. I recognized a few shopkeepers from Police Bazaar, Polo Ground and theJail Roadarea. The young men were mostly Babu’s friends.
It was the first time I was seeing the Mawlai cremation ground. Babu’s friends had lost their evening indolence and were full of energy. Some of them went off to the cottages nearby to buy firewood while the men gathered in small groups. I chose a spot at the edge of the ground and sat down to watch the preparations for the cremation. Mr Vaswani, noticing me sitting alone, came over and began to make conversation. He was a tall man of great bulk, a little stooped now because of his age. “Philosopher!” he jokingly chided me. Then he lit a cigarette and became serious. “That boy was here a few days back,” he said, pointing to one of Babu’s friends who was arranging the funeral pyre. “An uncle of his died. He knows what to do.”
It was a shock to see Mr Deb lying naked on the pyre. I remembered how, before he became our neighbor, my brother and I were so used to seeing Mr Deb behind the counter that he looked a little strange to us whenever we saw him whole – as on those occasions when he served tea to our parents.
“At Police Bazaar point,” Mr Deb had replied when I asked him where he had first met my father. My father was living alone in Shillong then. It was the period in his life when he was still sending his salary home to his brother. He had married recently but my mother was at her parents’ house in the village. My father had got into the habit of walking over to Police Bazaar in the evenings after his work at the State Secretariat was over. He would buy a copy of the Assam Tribune and stand reading it near Police Bazaar point. He and Mr Deb had met each other then. After this my father’s evening routine had varied a little. He would go to Mr Deb’s shop to read his paper and chat for a while before going back to his rented house. I could easily picture my father at this time in his life because at home there were a few photographs of him from his early days in Shillong. They revealed a dapper man, handsome despite a receding hairline. When as boys my brother and I had first come across these photographs, it was something of a wonder to us that our father had dressed in nice-looking suits and worn well-chosen ties in the past. But we also thought this was a thing a man usually did when he was young, just as a young man usually had more hair.
In the shop, Mr Deb and my father often talked of owning their own houses. Owning a house was a priority for them as for those of their generation who had left their homes to settle in Shillong. During the early years of his employment my father saved all he could to buy a suitable plot of land. His parents had died when he was small. He had brothers and sisters but how many I do not know because my brother and I never saw them. We did not visit them nor did they ever visit us. When we were children we were taken once a year to visit our maternal grandparents. But we never went to our father’s village. Later on, I came to know that my father had some land of his own. This was his share of the family property. My mother often complained that his brothers had sold off my father’s land. But I sometimes wondered who had taken the responsibility of educating my father. After all, it was this education that had made it possible for him to leave home and find employment in Shillong.
I decided that it must have been my father’s eldest brother who educated him since on the eldest son would fall such parental obligations. After he had graduated, my father was able to get a job as a government clerk in Shillong. And at some point after he had come to Shillong, my father had stopped sending money home. When my father stopped parting with his salary, his eldest brother would have felt justified in selling off my father’s share of the family land. I think my father accepted this as right and fair because I never heard him express any regret or bitterness.
My father did not like to talk of his earlier life because he had started life anew in Shillong and wanted to forget the past. But Mr Deb enjoyed talking of his past. He had arrived in Shillong as an almost penniless refugee and he had many dramatic stories to tell. As a boy, I envied him his connection with history. He was a small man, an ordinary man. Yet he a connection with history. My father had no such stories to tell. So I clung to something that my mother once told us brothers – that my father’s graduation had been delayed by a year or two because of his participation in the Quit India movement. There was another story my mother used to tell us: when my father graduated, he had become an object of curiosity in his village. This story used to me smile. It was only after he died that I realized that my father too had broken with the past. He too had taken his life in his own hands.
There was a breeze blowing and Mr Deb’s son was shivering a little in his dhoti. Sorrow had given him a chastened look. But he had composed himself and now, like a sincere schoolboy, he was following the directions of the priest. I wondered what he would do with the shop. In his own way, Mr Deb had made something of his life. Babu had received an ordinary education because unlike my father, who had sent my brother and me to the best school in Shillong, Mr Deb did not have much faith in education. He admired our school uniforms but entirely without envy. “Kalita Babu,” I heard him say to my father once, “quite a bit of your income must be going in paying the children’s fees”. My father had laughed, pleased.
The young men were prodding Mr Deb’s body with bamboo poles to make it burn well. They were arguing about wind direction and the placement of wood. Mr Deb’s body had lost its human softness and had become a charred object. Soon it would turn into ashes.
Two weeks after I had attended Mr Deb’s funeral, I took a taxi to Police Bazaar. It dropped me near the tourist taxi stand, where the touts accosted me shouting, “Guwahati! Guwahati!” I walked past Police Bazaar point, past the spot where the newsstands used to be, past the pharmacies, past Bijou cinema till I came to the lane where Mr Deb had his shop. It was open. Babu was standing behind the counter, talking to one of his friends, who was busy installing a photocopier. “It’s second hand,” Babu said to me. “But it’s in good condition.”
He invited me to sit. We talked. “Mr Vaswani came,” Babu said quietly. “He asked me if I wanted to sell the shop. I said no.” I nodded. “My father, my father…” Babu began. Then tears welled up in his eyes and his voice choked. I looked away. When he recovered we talked of other things.
On the way back home, instead of taking a taxi, I decided to walk. As I crossed the road at Police Bazaar point, near the place where my father had met Mr Deb all those years ago, I thought about Babu’s decision to drop his father’s plan of shifting to Silchar. It seemed like an act of disobedience. But I knew it wasn’t. Babu was staying on because he did not think his father’s life had been a mistake.
Edited by Victor Marsh
Clouds of Magellan
Reviewed by FIONA McKEAN
As Australia is currently poised to answer the question of whether it will say “I do” to same-sex marriage, it’s difficult to imagine a more topical publication than Speak Now, a collection of essays and creative non-fiction pieces on the theme of same-sex marriage. Since Speak Now was published in October 2011, the Queensland Parliament has passed legislation recognising same-sex civil unions—a compromise between marriage equality and lack of relationship recognition—and the first of these have been registered. Comedian Magda Szubanski has come out on national television for marriage equality, and the Australian Labor Party has changed its policy platform in favour of same-sex marriage. And two of the contributors to this volume, Elaine Crump and Sharon Dane, have dined with Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the Lodge to argue for marriage equality. Debate is intensifying, rather than diminishing. So what does Speak Now bring to the table?
Speak Now is a wide-ranging collection of 35 different essays, memoirs, and personal responses to same-sex marriage. As the content is truly eclectic—varying widely in stance, genre, and style—the entries are organised in alphabetical order by surname, rather than grouped thematically. This makes for something of a “lucky dip”. Michael Kirby’s foreword and Victor Marsh’s introduction provide an appropriate entrée, echoing as they do the most clearly recognisable division—between the more formal, academic and legal essays and informal personal accounts. Marsh’s introduction is particularly welcoming, and reassuring to any readers who might fear the presence of earnest, 90s-style oppression-speak in the pages that follow. After all, weddings are supposed to be fun!
The academic essays are uniformly well-researched, but vary in degree of accessibility. Wayne Morgan’s history of relationship law reform excels at the latter, and is logically structured and clearly written. He demonstrates how legal protection for all relationships in Australia has evolved over time, and how formalising same-sex unions builds on these previous reforms.
In “Christianity, Marriage, Love and Friendship”, Michael Carden provides a detailed historical analysis of marriage and marriage-like rituals, including adelphopoiesis, a formalised recognition of friendship. He examines the roles of patriarchy and capitalism in marriage before advocating a renaissance of friendship rituals, rather than adherence to a narrow construction of marriage.
Academic and activist Dennis Altman dryly questions whether gay people should rush to “buy into the myth of monogamous marriage, whose record is generally not inspiring” (5). Ryan Heath offers the confronting statistic that, on a global scale, “ten times as many countries imprison their citizens for homosexual activity than allow them to marry” (74). In an essay that blends personal experience with research, he uses such statistics to warn against apathy for those who question whether “enough” equality has been achieved, and invites personal involvement.
I can’t remember which Australian politician declared it was the personal stories of same-sex couples that finally altered his stance in favour of marriage equality, but I suspect he’s not alone. It’s in the unique stories of individuals—and the capacity for empathic connection they invoke—that potential for change exists. And it’s the personal accounts I connected to most strongly in this collection. To an extent, these were reminiscent of those in the seminal Word is Out: Stories of Some of our Lives. Decades have passed since its initial publication, but its power lay in the revelation of simple details of the everyday lives of lesbians and gay men. And it was the differences in these stories, rather than any monolithic representation of “gayness”, that enabled readers to identify with their narrators and demonstrated varied ways of living gay lives.
So, too, with Speak Now. The personal stories are narrated by same-sex partners, parents of same-sex children unable to marry, helping professionals and marriage celebrants, and vary as widely in tone and stance as the essays. The very title of Deb Wain’s contribution, “I Got Married, Some Can’t. That’s Not Fair” is both striking and succinct. She is similarly unsparing on religious objections to same-sex marriage:
There are a number of things that the bible says and there are a number of ways in which to quote the bible itself in rebuttal to these arguments. I’m not going to even bother doing this here for the simple reason that Australia has a secular government… The bible has no legitimate place in this argument. (236)
The tone of the personal recollections ranges from Deb Wain’s pithiness, to the sincere—Luke Gahan’s “The Ins and Outs of Marriage (and Divorce)”—to the slightly satirical, as in Tiffany Jones’s “Tying the K(NOT)!” Gahan retains an unwavering dedication to a romantic ideal of marriage, despite a same-sex divorce in his twenties. He speaks of the pressures he experienced in his marriage from both within and outside “the gay community”—from some of the latter, a lack of recognition and acceptance; from some of the former, pressure to accept infidelity and act as some sort of marriage movement martyr or role model. Gahan’s story explicates the reality beyond the fairytale, and debunks the notion that the fact a same-sex relationship may end invalidates formal recognition in the first place.
For me, the two outstanding pieces in this anthology are Donald Ritchie’s “Customs” and Michelle Dicinoski’s “How to Grow a Lawn”. Both are beautifully written accounts of marriages recognised in Canada, but not in the authors’ home country, Australia. Ritchie allows himself to hope that he may receive a positive response to his marriage from a Customs official, or at least recognition: “in that moment I think it may be different this time” (203). But this does not eventuate, and Ritchie observes “somewhere over the Pacific, at thirty-nine thousand feet, I lost a husband” (204). Similarly, Dicinoski retains hope despite the distinctly unneighbourly response of her neighbour, Bob, to news of her marriage. For these writers, gentle humour and controlled use of metaphor accomplish what browbeating never could.
Regardless of the diversity of their stances, none of the contributors seems to wholly oppose same-sex marriage. I found myself agreeing with Michael Kirby in his foreword (xxiv) and fellow reviewer David Allan that the collection might have benefited from the inclusion of some of these contrasting viewpoints. But readers may have been exposed to enough reductio ad absurdum arguments along the lines of “same-sex marriage will lead to people marrying their dogs” outside these pages to be relieved not to be meeting any more here within them.
According to the Speak Now blog, the collection has been criticised for the fact that “it doesn’t speak with one voice on the issue of marriage and that politicians could be ‘spooked’ by the proposal of polyamory expressed by some of the contributors”. But to me, this editorial risk-taking is one of the strengths of this collection. It exemplifies the principles of parity and inclusion that underline the push for marriage equality. To speak “with one voice” might be politically expedient, but it risks enforcing a new, albeit non-heterosexual, orthodoxy. The editor has chosen instead to embrace and celebrate the multi-faceted realities of people’s lives and heterogenous perspectives. To do otherwise would reinforce the misconception that the diversity within these pages somehow stands outside of—rather than is synecdochal of—human experience as a whole.
Because this collection is so eclectic—with variations in genre, exact topic, and approach—it would have benefited from an index. This is not a book to be read straight through. Rather it is one to dip into, put aside for rumination, and dip into again. As the personal pieces often introduce concepts expanded upon in the academic essays, an index would help to explicate these links. For example, Deb Wain’s assertion that marriage “as a concept and social construct … predates the Christian church” (236) could be cross-referenced to the essays expanding on this concept. For those interested in further reading, an index or select bibliography would also help to locate passing references to secondary sources in some of the essays.
The danger with a collection such as Speak Now is preaching to the choir—that it will primarily attract an audience already receptive to, and interested in, same-sex marriage. But the book’s diversity of voices prevents this. Victor Marsh’s admission of his own change of heart in his editorial introduction is not only disarming, it’s canny. By acknowledging his own shift in perspective, he opens up breathing space for readers to do the same.
Speak Now documents an array of different attitudes and approaches to same-sex marriage at a pivotal time in Australian political life. It will make a valuable contribution to queer historical scholarship in Australia. For the newly out or curious, it showcases some of the varied possibilities for living a queer life. Speak Now deserves a wide, enquiring readership. I hope it finds one.
You can access the accompanying blog for Speak Now at http://speaknowaustralia.blogspot.com.au/
Adair, Nancy. Word is Out: Stories of Some of our Lives. Delacorte Press, 1978.
Allan, David. Rev. of Speak Now: Australian Perspectives on Same-Sex Marriage. Ed. Victor Marsh. GayLawNet 20 November 2011. <http://www.gaylawnet.com/ezine/books/speak_now.htm>
“Wendell Rosevear Speaks Now”. Speak Now. http://speaknowaustralia.blogspot.com.au/2011/11/william-rosevear-speaks-now.html
FIONA McKEAN is a postgraduate student at The University of Queensland.
Australians love to venerate and immortalise their outlaws as heroes, seeing rebelliousness and the concept of a ‘fair go’ as part of their cultural identity. Men such as Ned Kelly, Mad Dog Morgan and Jack Doolan have been celebrated in both film and song for sticking it to the authorities and battling for the ‘little man’ but two other non-white figures going back to the first days of colonisation have until recently flown under the radar: John ‘Black’ Caesar, a black African who was Australia’s first bushranger and Pemulwuy, an almost mythical Aboriginal warrior who led the indigenous resistance against the fledgling British settlement.
It comes as a surprise to most Australians that there were 11 black men on the First Fleet in 1788. Caesar was one of these. His journey probably began in Madagascar. Taken as a slave to work in the fields in Virginia in the United States, he became one of the hordes of slaves to take refuge behind British lines in the American War of Independence. After the defeat of the British in 1783, a fleet carrying many runaway slaves and black loyalists fled to Nova Scotia. Caesar, thought to be 14 years old at the time, was one of them. The Minerva then took him to England in the same year, joining an estimated 9000 other slaves who had also left America.
Even though London was unquestionably the world’s greatest city and for some the streets were paved with gold, for most it was an unforgiving place full of danger and vice. For most of the former black loyalists the situation was dire and some, like Caesar turned to crime to survive. In 1786 in Kent, he was convicted of stealing money and soon was in the Ceres; a fetid, disease ridden prison hulk on the Thames. This was merely a precursor to being chained between decks for the trip on the Alexander to that outpost of the Empire, Botany Bay.
It is impossible to know for certain which black was in the initial work party at Botany Bay, but with Caesar’s imposing stature and immense physical strength (he was thought to be the strongest convict in the First Fleet) it wouldn’t be far fetched to say that he was one of the men sent ashore to try and carve something from the black sandy soil. Aboriginals from the Eora tribe who met the party must have not only been confused by the white convicts and marines in their strange garb but also by a pitch black man in the self same get up talking the same language as these otherworldly creatures. Finding Botany Bay not to their liking the entire fleet moved north to Port Jackson a few days later.
From our vantage point of history it is difficult to comprehend but in terms of European civilisation the First Fleet literally had nothing and the 732 convicts with their inadequate tools had to start from Year Zero. The rules they worked under were simple and brutal. Anyone caught stealing would hang. If they didn’t work, they didn’t eat and anyone trying to enter the woman’s tents would be shot. Of course this last rule lasted about as long as the ink took to dry and one officer in a letter home to his wife recalled that the woman’s camp soon resembled ‘whoredome’. The rations supplied to the convicts for their back breaking tasks were too little and in a couple of months were further reduced. Quite simply, for a man of Caesar’s size the rations were not enough and as noted by the man who would soon to become his nemesis, Marine Captain David Collins, Caesar was always ravenous. As such, Caesar’s first infraction in the new colony was when he was accused of stealing four pounds of bread from the tent of another convict. Although the surviving records don’t show Caesar’s punishment it is safe to assume he was tied to a tree and given 100-300 lashes. On this occasion it is also likely to assume that still swinging from the same tree that Caesar was tied to was a 17 year old youth who had been hung for stealing bread. The savage parameters of the new colony had been set but did little to stop the settlement sliding further into hunger as crops and animal rearing failed and dysentery and scurvy raised their ugly heads.
In April 1789, in what was to become a pattern, Caesar appeared in court for stealing. This time he wasn’t flogged but received a much worse punishment as his sentence was increased from seven years to life. Seeing a lifetime of punitive brutality and hunger stretching before him, Caesar made the first of his escapes. With a stolen musket and cooking pot, Caesar ventured into the great unknown beyond the settlement but was captured shortly after, weak with hunger and offering no resistance. This time, Caesar was sentenced to death.
The evocative alleged last words of Ned Kelly ‘Such is Life’ now feature on tattoos and on Eureka Stockade flags co-opted by drunken louts on Australia Day, reinforcing Kelly’s status as Australia’s folk hero of folk heroes. Caesar’s nonchalant reply on sentencing should also be duly celebrated but problems of translation may hinder this. He told the judge, “if they should scrag him he would quiz them all and show them some gig at the nubbing cheat, before he was turned off.” A loose translation of this convict argot was that he would play a trick on the executioner and get a laugh for both he and the crowd before he was hung. Judge Collins, who at various times called Caesar ‘ a wretch’, ‘a mere animal’ and ‘insensible alike to punishment and kindness’ did not want Caesar to become a symbol of convict resistance, something which may have eventuated if the proposed execution was turned into some sort of theatre. Instead Caesar, who was not averse to hard work was sent to work in chains on Garden Island, in the middle of Sydney Harbour, from where the settlement’s vegetables were supplied.
Even though he was allowed to supplement his meagre rations with what he grew Caesar again escaped in December 1789 after convincing sympathetic guards to remove his chains. Taking a canoe and a week’s worth of provisions he headed into the interior, stopping only to steal a musket from the settlement. He roamed for six weeks until he was recaptured suffering from severe spear wounds. Various accounts have been put forward as to how he had come to be speared; from his own unlikely tale that he had been trying to drive a lost herd of cattle away from Aborigines back to the settlement to the idea that he had tried to integrate himself with the Aborigines but had committed a cultural error and was cast out. The most probable cause was Caesar (who had no ammunition for his musket) would descend on Aborigines when they had anything on the fire, swaggering and brandishing his musket. The Aborigines who had no idea that Caesar had no ammunition and knowing the power of the weapon, scattered. That was until he lost his musket and was attacked. Again given the sentence of death, he was sent to hospital to recover until fit enough to hang.
Probably realising at this stage it was far easier to get rid of Caesar (in a geographical sense), he once again escaped the noose and in 1790 was sent to far away Norfolk Island. On Norfolk, with the incentive of more freedom and food Caesar threw himself into his work and took a wife, Anne Poore. Making a good go of it, Caesar worked his one acre plot for three days a week, providing not only enough for himself but also his family which now included a baby daughter. Even so, not all was rosy on Norfolk Island and circumstances were again conspiring to change the trajectory of Caesar’s journey. When soldiers from the New South Wales Corps (a body of men whose self penned motto of profits over glory attracted a less than desirable bunch) replaced the Marines on the island they demanded land of their own as well as women. Being a law unto themselves, their demands were taken very seriously and to avoid bloodshed, ‘trouble makers’ like Caesar were sent back to Sydney in 1793. His family was not permitted to come with him.
During the time that Caesar had been on Norfolk, Pemulwuy had also put himself on the British hit list by spearing John McIntyre, one of Governor’s game hunters. The spear (used by the Bidjigal clan of the Eora peoples) had been designed to cause a slow and painful death with barbs meant to come off when the spear head was removed from the body. A reprisal operation took place (interestingly led by another black convict, John Randall) which was supposed to capture Pemulwuy and bring back the heads of another six Aboriginal men. This grisly operation was an utter failure with no Aboriginals found but Pemulwuy was now too, a marked man.
A distraught Caesar arrived back in Sydney with the settlement careering towards starvation. The only thing not in short supply was alcohol, which like most saleable items was controlled by the New South Wales Corps. Almost as if he had come full circle, Caesar again absconded and following the same pattern was caught and flogged unmercifully. But like a scene in ‘The Proposition’, Caesar, with flesh hanging from his back and the flogger wiping gore off the cat of nine tails after each stroke, refused to buckle telling Collins that ‘all the flogging in the world would not make him better’. In the eyes of the other convicts Caesar’s acts of defiance as well as his swift turn of phrase gained him an almost legendary standing amongst his fellows.
Pemulwuy and the Eora had also become a bigger problem as the settlement spread from Sydney and Parramatta, further encroaching on Aboriginal land and chasing away more game. In a series of co-ordinated attacks, Pemulwuy’s gang (which included a couple of Irish runaways who helped with information about the settlement and military tactics of the British) raided settlers farms stealing ripening crops and provisions. The British put these raids down to the Aboriginals having taken a liking to corn, not giving the Aboriginals credit enough for an organised coherent strategy designed to get them out of their hunting lands. The attacks pushed the settlement to the brink and the British responded by retaliating harshly. Pemulwuy responded in kind and dead were left on both sides in a series of gruesome attacks and counter attacks. For a time it looked as though the raids and guerilla tactics would prevail as amongst the British there was talk of abandoning prime farming land and looking for new sites. One can imagine the British wondering who was the biggest scourge to the new settlement, the Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy or the incorrigible Black Caesar.
This was especially so when Caesar escaped ‘honest labour’ again. This time, however he was more successful as like other bushrangers after him, he was able to get arms, ammunition and supplies from the growing number of ex-convict settlers who sympathised with him and his stand against oppression. Nor was Caesar the only runaway and soon a ragtag gang had formed around him. The legend of the first Australian bush ranger had been born. Although death would be the only thing that would make Caesar ‘acceptable’ to the British authorities he achieved a notion of acceptability when he clashed with Pemulwuy. The swirling miasma of history has obscured the reasons for this clash (some have suggested that Pemulwuy and Caesar had joined forces) but the bloody conflict left Pemulwuy severely wounded with a fractured skull and musket wounds. At first, the rumours that filtered back to the settlement stated that the feared Aboriginal warrior was dead, cheering the authorities no end. Judge Collins still considered Caesar as a ‘savage of a darker hue, and full as far removed from civilisation,’ but having removed one of the obstacles to the success of the colony sent word to Caesar that he was ready to cut him some slack. Caesar from bitter experience had become inured to the broken promises and savagery of the British laughed off the offers and continued on his newly found bush ranging ways. Caesar’s continued defiance and resulting embarrassment to the authorities led to other offers of conditional pardons but Caesar, echoing villains past and present sent back word he wouldn’t come in or be taken alive.
In January 1796, an official notice was published which made every scoundrel in the colony sit up and take notice. ‘Whoever shall secure this man Black Caesar and bring him in with his arms shall receive as a reward five gallons of spirits.’ As alcohol was more plentiful than food and more important than money this large reward attracted more than its fair share of bounty hunters. As time went by and Caesar was still at large, his legend and celebrity grew until every crime in the colony was being attributed to him and breathless reports built him up to almost invincible proportions. Alas, this was not the case and on the 15th of February 1796 at Liberty Plains west of Sydney Cove, Black Caesar was shot down in cold blood by an alcoholic ex-highwayman, John Winbow who may have been part of Caesar’s own gang. An unflinching Collins when hearing the news of the death of the first icon of convict resistance wrote, ‘thus ended a man who certainly during life could never have been estimated at one remove above the brute.’
If the British thought getting rid of Black Caesar would calm things down they were sadly mistaken as in February, 1797, a fully recovered Pemulwuy managed to attack the small outpost of Toongabbie, five miles west of Parramatta. With many of the Eora nation’s sub groups attracted to his cause, much of Toongabbie was burnt and ransacked as it became the first town in the new colony to be taken by the indigenous peoples. Even though this attack sent shivers down the spines of both settlers and authorities alike, it was nothing like March of the same year when the stronghold of Parramatta was attacked in what became known as the ‘Battle of Parramatta’. Much of the town’s population retreated to the military stockade as many of the farms and houses on the outskirts were hit in the audacious attack. Fierce battles broke out with losses on both sides. Much to the authorities embarrassment, this ‘riotous and primitive savage Pemulwuy’ managed to take the town briefly before he was felled, shot seven times. He was captured and taken to a hospital, near death.
Pemulwuy, amongst his own people was known to be a ‘clever man’, that is someone associated with being able to harness supernatural powers. His escape from jail only emphasised these claims as after all how could a severely wounded man in leg irons, get away. To the Eora, the explanation was simple, he had turned himself into a bird and flown away … The white settlers, some already half believing the rumours that bullets couldn’t kill him (they somehow passed right through him) and that he could be in several places at once became even more skittish after Pemulwuy recovered and resumed his attacks. This time, his main weapon was a terrifying ally that his people had used for millennia, fire.
Burning down crops and the areas surrounding farms, Pemulwuy sowed seeds of terror and again pushed the settlement towards famine. Wheat Protection Squads were set up but Pemulwuy changed his tactics again, letting the men protect the crops as he attacked the homes, terrifying the women and children. Soon, the Protection Squads were useless as the men refused to venture far from their terrified families. Added to this, the bushrangers Thomas Thrush and William Knight were thought to be in cahoots with him. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until late 1801 (and after 11 years of resistance) that Pemulwuy’s name was recorded in an official document ̶ a sign perhaps of the whitewashing of history that occurred after his death. The all powerful New South Wales Corps seeing their profits being snatched from them with the continual attacks and fires around Parramatta and its prime farming land, responded in kind. Every known Eora campsite was to be attacked and anyone found there, killed. Massacres of children, women and the elderly followed. Already decimated due to an outbreak of influenza, the indigenous Eora teetered on the brink of extinction.
Coupled with this was the staggering reward put on Pemulwuy’s head: 20 gallons of spirits, free pardon and two suits of clothes. In June 1802, Pemulwuy ‘The Rainbow Warrior’ (so called because he wore the various colours of the distinct groups that made up the Eora nation) was shot dead, his head cut off and sent to England for ‘scientific’ purposes. Even his enemies had to acknowledge, ‘although a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character’. His son Tedbury continued the fight until, he too, was killed in 1810.
Although being seen as a heroic figure by the Aborigines, Pemulwuy has also gained recognition in the wider community: a suburb in Sydney was named after him, as well as a park. Prince William, on a recent visit to Australia was presented with a petition to have Pemulwuy’s remains brought back to Australia. One can hope that these are the first steps in acceptance being gained by a true Australian hero. Hopefully the same can also be said of his one time adversary, the giant Black Caesar.
Michael Spann is currently trying to piece together the links between Australia and the mysterious German author B.Traven. He currently lives in Brisbane, Australia.