Ken Chau

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKen Chau is a poet living in Melbourne, Australia. His poems have been published in Australia, France, Hong Kong, UK and USA, including the anthology Growing Up Asian in Australia, ed. Alice Pung (Black Inc., 2008). He was most recently published in The Best Australian Poems 2012, ed. John Tranter (Black Inc., 2012) with his “Chinese Love Poem”.



Chinese Silence No. 101

        after Timothy Yu, “Chinese Silence No. 4”
after Billy Collins, “China”


I am a flattened spider inside a discarded book of Chinese poems
on the drawing board of a curious architect.

Grand designs are being drafted.
Many bottles of champagne await opening day. 

But even when he’s mad
and hurls the book across the room,

I stay as silently still as the dead,
unread words on these pages.



Chinese Silence No. 103

       after Timothy Yu, “Chinese Silence No. 8
after Billy Collins, “Hangover” 

If I were crowned Paramount Leader of China this afternoon
every peasant planting rice in a paddy field
would be re-educated and silenced forever
from uttering the name of Mao Zedong 

Mao Zedong Mao Zedong 

then would not be required to read The Little Red Book
but my My Book of Thoughts
and learn to spell Chairman Mao’s name in English
in my preferred transliteration of 

Mao Tse-tung Mao Tse-tung 

after which they would be quizzed
about the spelling of his name then executed by firing squad
regardless of how little they retained
of their thoughts of how 

Mao Zedong thought Mao Zedong Thought would be thought of.



Marcelle Freiman

marcelleMarcelle Freiman has published two books of poetry, White Lines (Vertical) (Hybrid Publishers) and Monkey’s Wedding (Island Press). She grew up in South Africa and lived in London before migrating to Sydney, where she has resided since 1981. Much of her poetry emerges from her biography and from a constantly shifting sense of place. She teaches creative writing and literature at Macquarie University and has research interests in creative writing as theory and practice, and in poetry and postcolonial and diaspora literatures.



A Book

I’m leaning towards a book
with pages the colour of honey
and linen – as if clawed
from a desert wadi cave,
preserved by the cold arid nights:
threaded like beads on fibres of jute,
the words in this book
veil a quiet love – hidden
in the traces of names of things
I want to hand to you: feather, wood,
a whitened shard of glass smoothed by tides,
grains of sand sieved fine through my fingers,
the chambers of a nautilus –
can these objects – stone, pebble, driftwood, shell –
echo my body’s sound waves,
transmitting like whale-song
or pulsing satellite arcing across the sky
sudden as a falling star?
A body in feeling is silenced
in the face of wind-tunnels of distance.
Only the emptiness in my hands
is the name my love – a blown
feather, multiplication of cells,
a book without end,
amber pages and caught threads.


Chinese Box in Hong Kong

Roots of a banyan have taken the stone wall,
this street is uneven, like an ankle-twist
the air thick with heat, humid with fumes,
bloomers and t-shirts hang above the canopy
of a restaurant, modern food in lacquer bowls,
shiny shops, heavy jade buddhas, money runs
in the veins of this city, the drains of wet markets
and fancy boys in pants cut for tight hips
and haircut perfection queue for noodles, the best in Soho
where sidewalks slide down hills, the escalator clacks
up to Mid-levels. I buy red happiness candles
and an antique box of leather, also red,
its dark metal ying-yang clasp a promise
one day I will learn this too is home, 
that you thrive like scarlet bauhinia
growing on rocky peaks of this city
with its dumpling stalls and teeming streets –
its speed the energy in the tips of your newest roots.



Sudesh Mishra


Sudesh Mishra was born in Suva and educated in Fiji and Australia.  He has been, on different occasions, the recipient of an ARC Postdoctoral Fellowship, the Harri Jones Memorial Prize for Poetry and an Asialink Residency.  He is the author of four books of poems, including Tandava (Meanjin Press) and Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying (Otago UP), two critical monographs, Preparing Faces: Modernism and Indian Poetry in English (Flinders University and USP) and Diaspora Criticism (Edinburgh UP), two plays Ferringhi and The International Dateline (Institute of Pacific Studies, Suva), and several short stories.  Sudesh has also co-edited Trapped, an anthology of writing from Fiji.  His creative work has appeared in a wide array of publications, including Nuanua: Pacific Writing in English since 1980, The Indigo Book of Modern Australian Sonnets, Lines Review: Twelve Modern Young Indian Poets, Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia, Sixty Indian Poets, The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry, The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry, The World Record and Concert of Voices: An Anthology of World Writing in English. Sudesh is working on a fifth collection of poems, a collaborative project on popular Hindi cinema (with Vijay Mishra) and a series of papers on minor history.  He is currently Professor in Literature, Language and Linguistics at the University of the South Pacific. 

                                                                                                                                                                                    Photograph by  Semi Francis


Every day straggler word-bees fly up
His nostrils to swarm in the cold bone-urn
Of his skull; and all winter they settle 

On the atomic flower of his brain
Which radiates no light the hue of nectar,
Dry and dyeless as a reef in a book. 

So drinking of desolation they die
With a shudder of wings on the bone-floor,
And although their ashen remains swirl up 

In a wind that is no wind of nature
To serve him an apparition of spring,
He’s sly to the artifice in its art 

And waits for a sudden trick of season
That lures with light the vocal survivor
To tropics that ignite beyond his skull. 

And sighting a reef of nameless flowers
It lands a name on all that namelessness,
Sipping at alphabets, making honey.



Amid the swish and buffeting
Of archangels’ wings, the city
Of angels left behind, howling
At the pact between god and man,
I lost faith with the force of faith
And cried to be a child again,
Striking out at the stars striking out,
A fever driving my fevered chalk
Through points of skyfall light,
Up and right and left and down,
Reverse, transverse—all night.
Until there you were, my Father,
A most furious constellation
By the bitter furies composed.


Ambulance Driver

The phone leaps to unbead
The rosary of sleep
Before you pick it up
On the other side of
Dreaming.  We sink deeper
Into cool valleys
Of pillows, snuffing out
The crunch of dry gears
And convulsing light
That gives notice of
Your night errant to streets
Of hurting and dying,
Of unsleeping houses
Where Pain makes faces
Like a spoilt child.
You’re Delivery Man,
Shuttling flesh from house
To hospital to house,
But taking no man’s wage,
Though rouged Capital
Tries chatting you up
At every traffic light.
No, never commodity,
Your compassion runs
Like a seam no miner
Dare harvest nor priest
Baptise as Religion.
And when prodigal you
Return to cool valleys
Now overrun by trolls
And ogres, like us they
Too suffer an alchemy,
Turning into songbirds
On boughs of groaning fruit,
And all the terrors burn
Like music in our ears,
As mangoes in our grip.



When you surfaced,
Berry-eyed, boxer-nosed,
Cub of the ocean,
We were ruminants
Startled out of ourselves,
The deliberate, alluring hunger,
The browsing on interior lives.
My rubbery periscope,
My submarine voyeur,
How you nod from left to right,
From right to left,
Now as you did then,
Wet brat of inspiration
Affecting dolour
In a crestfall of whiskers.
I hold you a moment,
Flourishing generation,
Then let slip,
Squeezed dollop of oil,
Primordial ooze
In a growling mill
That never shuts down.
Who could ever endure
Your vanishing?
Even as you vanish
Without sound or slick
Beneath coupling waves
To sprout, aeons later,
Sooty sapling, turgid root,
Your tail a swivelling T
Against a furious dusk:
Turner.  Template.  Tree. 

My seal,
Dryad of metaphor,
You struck me
Before I could strike you,
A marine fever
That respects neither mind
Nor season,
But bewilders the heart
In the quiet of arid places,
A recrudescence of happiness.



Like flocks the dust flew off the timbered hatch
When she sprang the hasp on the dowry chest
And plunged in, elbow-deep, her hand a perch
Swimming in mothballed waters, now a guest
Where once it ran host, rummaging for things
That keep slipping the fingers: a fawn brooch,
A ruched scarf, a blouse raging with sequins;
Until it gleans her wedding saree, scorch-
Ing as that day she left home in a spray
Of pulse and flower, the tears soldering off
Her cheeks and her father looking away,
His eyes drilling holes through a stubborn bluff
Estranging like this stranger, drift-boned, shy,
He handpicked for the apple of his I.


Now swatch by torrid swatch, I feel the dream
Unwind in her hands to be wound again
Years down the track by aunts who tack and seam
And smother her girlhood in silk, the skein
Reeling in their present as the past un-
Reels in mine.  Amid the insinuating
Chatter, the laughter, I watch her snag on
A doubt, the future a nightmare drifting
Like crockery on a pitiless shelf.
How I want my dumb art to scream, to say:
‘Mother, swim out into your doubting self.
Plunge in against the current.  Go astray.
I will your life to heave like a Van Gogh
Brushstroke, like verses, like poplar leaves.  Go.’



Though it runs over the island in leaps
And bounds, no islander says what it is.
‘Prison bars,’ says the resident farmer
When pressed, his tone uncrimped by irony.
Others who grind the mills of prophecy
Talk without pause of molasses, bagasse,
Of all it’ll be when it’s not what it is.
Then there are the outsiders, the townfolk
Not in the know-how, who will compare it
To a phalanx, having read their history,
To an eclogue, having read their Virgil,
Although some among them will disagree,
The builder because he thinks of pillars,
The teacher because she thinks of margins.
But they too must lose it to some other—
Say a girl whose giggle makes it survive
In an orchard of desire, beyond itself
And that literal need to mark itself out.



An idle clasp, a relaxed swing, his arms
Snatch and heft the axe over his shoulder
Till, meeting the eye of itself, it turns
Ounceless as a wraith.  Then it’s a boulder
Outsprinting eye, mind, his very muscles
In a downward run that smashes through sky
And estranging hill, and glazed apostles
Canonized for wresting brutes from the sty.
‘What lacks root?’ says the rippled sycamore
As the fanged axe splits it down the middle,
Splays it out like a moth.  In the uproar
Of sparrows and chips, he cracks the riddle:
‘A stranger estranged by his own strangeness.’
Yet writ on your palm my wood’s graininess.


Ancient wood: cumbrous, hewable, cured hock.
Massive arboreal tome, how I love you—
Your alligator’s bark, your wrestler’s torque,
Your bailiff’s gravitas and breath of zoo.
Let them love the hot in you, the telos,
And hoard their bones against your bones, let them
Appraise a house, a hull, a Trojan Horse
In praise of you, but let my love affirm
What’s always forever to no purpose—
Like zephyrs vetching through a mortuary,
Like Greek myths related to Odysseus,
Like bonesmith’s art in a boneless country.
My love’s of your ancient venerable stock:
It goes right through the head to ring the block. 



Woodflakes are flaking off like tuna flakes.
Axe droppings.  Hot leftovers and leavings.
Chipped sunlight, terracotta.  Exhumings.
You crouch amid ruins, remains.  Your hand rakes
Up an art that shirks endings for random
Gleanings.  Now here’s an ivory toothpick,
Late Ashanti.  There, sheeny as garlic,
Some Renaissance tidbit, a severed thumb
By Cellini.  Further, writ in magma,
Polynesian petroglyphs.  To your left
Flotsam from a wreck.  To your right tuna
Flakes flaking. 
                    But all at once you’re bereft.
Leonidas is berthing.  The light’s in gold.
Sixteen dead spartans in the tuna hold.



After a glut of heresy
We are believers again.
We worship mud. 

We admired
The slick swerving run
Of the floodcat
But simply adore
The lumbering trudge
Of the mudox. 

The floodcat
Was a thing of marvel
But outran
The marvellous
That abides in memory. 

Whereas the mudox
Neither runs nor roars
But dumbly pours
Its fat protean bulk
Into wretched dreams
And exhausted boots
And open graves,
And champagne glasses
Crammed with gold dentures. 

Until everything
Is a smother of mudlove:
A sprig of rose,
Wisecracks imported
From Scotland,
Sixty bolts of excellent linen,
And this town of course,
A muddy tract of skin
Which is the tract of memory
Composed of silt and silage,
A luscious, impervious heaven
Refuting the blasphemy
Of a single raindrop.


A Wishing Well in Suva

Let the tsunami come,
Let it come as an ogre in grey armature,
His forelocks in the sky.
To this town let it hum
A gravelly tune, and break
In the sound of wind through screes
Over and over and over.
Let it come exactly
At twelve, now or in the future,
When the trader is dealing a lie
To the worker; and the rake
Is drumming a lay on the knees
Of a gazelle who answers to Pavlova;
And the Ratu is consigning
All wilderness to woodchips
Over a hopsy lunch with a lumber
Baron from Malaysia;
And the Colonel is admiring
In a circus mirror his shoulder-pips;
And from his drunken slumber
A tramp is urging the tide to come in
Like scrolls of euthanasia,
Obliterating a lagoon
Where the egret grows sick on toxin. 

O but let it come soon.
Let it flower like the 4th of July
And wipe out everything,
Except perhaps a tuft of fern
Adorning some crevice or crack
Where once the tern
Wove a nest from sea-wrack,
And an egg shook the world
(O shook this entire beautiful world)
With an inner knocking.




Everything weeps.  This nib weeps.
The moon weeps.  Weeps moonlight.
A hill weeps.  As does the sky.
That blade of grass?  It weeps.
It weeps in secret, tonight.
My earth weeps.  Earth in my eye. 

Pardon this grief.  I have nothing
With which to sway your mind.
No wit, no image that leaps
And astounds with its leaping.
Just this grief, just this blind
Leakage of heart.  A stone weeps. 




I: Albert Park, 1928

He’d shaved a thermal lather off Hawaii
When they got wind of his mad intention
And felled trees, teak, kauri, the great ivi
Under which Degei pondered his creation,
Coiled in the lacework shade, a fossil of
Himself, bats fruiting in the boughs above.
The knolls were graded, apertures filled in,
Telegraph poles lowered for the approach.
Then they waited, planter, taukei and kin,
Twelve coolies, the Governor in his coach.
Around noon a nymph jabbed her parasol
At the sky and down she came like a swift,
Shearing a few trees, blowing up a squall
That stank of brine and carbon, and of myth.

II: Icarus

At the royal ball, dog-tired, goggle-eyed,
He ignored nymphs mooching about his wick
Like stricken moths, but nursed a gin and tried
Not to smile when they toasted his epic
Voyage in accents clipped and sedentary.
Later, he slipped out into the moonlight,
While a Planter’s wife murdered Tchaikovsky
On a church organ, and pondered the height
Icarus reached before he got waxed.  Then
It struck him that all follies were classical,
Though one were both Smith and Antipodean,
Though one always verged on the cynical.
Next day a maid counting plumes on his bed
Saw him in the sunlight, half-man, half-bird. 




diaspora and the difficult art of dying 

  The way of writing is straight and crooked


in the end is my memory of the beginning, a mixed brew of history and hyperbole, the sun’s chakra breaking up the earth of basti into six million jigsaw pieces, and the bo-tree catching fire at midnight by itself, and the koels pecking out the eyes of brinda the milch cow, and pitaji standing among the ruined fields of channa, weeping, and maji bent over the inflated moons of roti, weeping because he wept, and the immemorial debt to a greasy man of crisp dhoti and castemark whom we called maibaap, and my sister nudging the age of dowry, and i the eldest of three sons, sixteen years old and already corroded by despair, stealing away from home and village and province, never once looking at the moon grazing on the thatch of my nostalgia, walking by night and sleeping by day, until rivers no longer gave up their names nor roads their destinations, how many times i yearned to return to my village, ask me how many times my legs faltered during that terrible flight, but then i remembered the scorpions crackling in the wells of basti and the mynahs dying in the skies of basti, and that nightmare drove me towards i knew not where, maybe i sought work in a modest village, maybe i desired to fall off the edge of the world, maybe i was questing for ayodhya, shangri-la, el dorado, maybe, maybe, there are maybes ad nauseum, but my destiny was an arkathi with a tongue sweeter than shakkar, who sold me a story as steep as the himalayas, and his images had the tang of lassi and his metaphors had the glint of rupees, so that two days later i was on pericles, hauling anchor in the calcutta of my diaspora, and india slipped through my fingers like silk, like silk it slipped through the fingers of three thousand seven hundred and forty eight girmityas, and many things were lost during that nautical passage, family, caste and religion, and yet many things were also found, chamars found brahmins, muslims found hindus, biharis found marathis, so that by the end of the voyage we were a nation of jahajibhais, rowat gawat heelat dholat adat padat, all for one and one for all, yet this newfound myth fell apart the moment we docked in nukulau, because the sahibs hacked our bonds with the sabre of their commands and took us away in dribs and drabs, rahim to navua, shakuntala to labasa, mahabir to nandi, and my lot was a stony acreage of hell in naitasiri, where i served the indenture of my perdition, seasick, as if the earth here was no more than an extension of the sea, you must understand that nothing else bothered me quite as much, not the coolumber and his whoring with our women, not the fifteen hours of drudgery in fields that offended horizons, not the miserly rations of stale chawal, not even the sadistic lashes of sirdar ahmed kaffar ali, no, none of that bothered me quite as much as my illness, which came and went in purple swirls of nausea, and then one day i saw chinappa retching his innards over a bed of marigolds, his feet clearing terra firma by twelve feet and at once i knew we shared a secret fever, a month later twenty girmityas of uciwai had soared beyond the canefields to the utter dismay of the overseer, who ordered them back to the plantation with the aid of an inflamed crucifix, then docked their wages for trying to levitate all the way back to india, in fact my fever had turned into an epidemic of sorts, travelling from fiji to mauritius, from mauritius to trinidad, from trinidad to surinam, but though a platoon of experts was consulted in three continents and two hemispheres, though a flock of dispatches flew with the grace of carrier pigeons from csr to governor gordon to colonial office to india office to viceroy and back again, and though every quack in the empire came up with the placebo of a remedy, no antidote was ever found for mal de mer, and i was still defying gravity, then one night adaam aziz hanged himself from a rafter in bhut len, the soles of his feet were a tangle of cankered roots, a week later badlu prasad stowed away on british peer to the kasi of his memories, haunted by the putrefied soles of adaam aziz, but i was no devotee of yamraj and my dreams of india were marred by a brood of scorpions, and between the hell of girmit and the hell of basti was an ocean of alchemy, yes i stayed back because i had endured a sea-change and was no longer the i of my origin, what more is there to say, i served the girmit of my misfortune and leased a bhiga of land from the company and married sundaree, who in less than one year retched up all her memories of krishnas and tulsis and neems and diyas, thus letting the past stray from her mouth to form the present, so that in the end she no longer felt the surf rolling beneath her feet, while in contrast my sickness grew worse by the minute, which was odd since this was the great age of our communal imagining, tazia in fields and holi in streets, puja in mandirs and namaj in masjids, samajis in labasa and sanatanis in ba, maybe in my heart of hearts i knew we were imagining ourselves against the sahibs in order to supplant them, and around the taukeis in order to ignore them, maybe that was why my condition grew steadily worse, then one morning of pitchfork rains and slapdash winds i met ratu ilisoni viriviri, the tui-ni-vanua who roamed the margins of my land, my house, my vision, but who said i roamed the margins of his land, his house, his vision, thus began the shitty history of our misunderstanding, he was blind to my illness and i was blind to his terror of my illness, yet for the first time that night i dreamt of degei who scribbled fiji on a parchment of waves, and the gata of creation said that to be rid of my affliction i had to die into the vanua, the land, but like all muses the vanua accepts only those who invoke it by name, hence dying is an art like living, procured in the ripeness of time, safe to say i took his advice to heart and shaped from it my life’s philosophy, even as the plough struck the clods of freedom in the colony of our despair, and learning the art of dying i began to live through all my senses, they were the great years of my life because i began to discover what was already discovered, to name things as they were already named, i’d see but not hear a turtle dove until i said kurukuru, then its liquid-glass throat would bubble in the reeds of my soul, i’d smell but not taste an oyster until i said dio, then it would deposit the pearl of a flavour on my tongue, i’d hear but not feel the breeze until i said caucau, then it would stroke with a royal plume the castle of my skin, i’d savour but not smell a fish until i said ika, then it would fill my lungs with the breath of oceania, i’d feel but not see the storm until i said cava, then it would strike with lightning the domes of my eyes, so it was that little by little i went through another sea-change as my discovery of an oceanic present leaked into my memory of an indian past, until a time came when i could no longer think of machli, for instance, without thinking of ika, it was as if machli as word and idea and culture had never existed prior to ika, prior to my life on this archipelago, and yet one was forever inside and around the other, in short my act of invocation had made me visible and the island real, yes in the end i recognised the country of my banishment, i knew for instance that the third tide after the full moon brought in the king walu, that a hurricane was imminent when the doi flowered in march, that the flesh of niu karawa was more succulent in the dry season, with the result that i suffered less and less from my ailment and seldom left terra firma and then only by a few inches, and it was about this time that i sprang a taste for kava and shared mine with no less a foe than ratu viriviri, together we’d sit on a pandanus mat in the twilight of our decrepitude and he’d point to a flame tree and say sekoula and i’d point to the same tree and say gulmohur, and he’d reflect on what i’d said before conceding yes yes that is a better name, and i’d wonder if the names from my past were altering his present in the way that the names of his present had altered my past, o yes that year i ought to have died into the vanua, but instead we—grower and harvester and mill-worker—struck against the company and the sahibs sent in the native sepoys in frowning khakis to break up the hartaal, and hobbling in their midst was my friend ratu viriviri, yet i begrudge him nothing for they had us both bamboozled, taukei and coolie alike, yes it may be true that he joined the valagi to protect his vanua, it may be equally true that i fought against the latter to secure my freedom, but truth is a fickle sheikh in a seraglio of memories, so let me say that what happened happened, and afterwards i felt the land uncoiling beneath my feet and the surf growling in my eardrums, and realised that everything had changed and yet nothing had changed, and all at once i knew that i’d come to the end of my tether, and yet i’d never been further away from dying, and so it was that two months later, in the mercurial season of canefires and the sky a vulture swarm of black confetti, i dissolved into the grey rodent flesh of my only child mahadeo, and sundaree looked for me everywhere and then assumed that a madness had sent me back to the basti of my genesis, but all the while i was there in the hearth of her affection, learning to be unlike my runaway father, so that i grew up with an intense hatred of ratoons, you see, unlike the girmitya of my former avatar, i ascribed my condition to the whole damnable history of sugar and to the stolid gull of a peasantry, in a word, i switched professions and became a carpenter, yet i admit that mine was no potluck decision but one taken with a firm millennial end in mind, i had resolved to build a house that would withstand the oceanic tremors of my island, that would give me respite from my long and giddy life, and i remember on the day of my resolution as i dismantled the shack of my serfdom, kanti the trader arrived all the way from surat, his body trigged out in yards of homespun tornado, his feet shod in scarlet chappals, and he had a limp saffron jholi draped across his shoulder and an ashen moon thumbed on his forehead, and he asked me about my desires from under the shade of a raintree and i told him all, as if he were the shaman of my salvation, and he dug into his gunny sack and pulled out bolts and planks and beams and roofs, and in return i gave him the earnings from my bygone pastoral life, and once a month he came by to watch the wood grow into a bungalow, his jholi glowing with the materials of my slow addiction, and i thought he envied my lot in life while it was i who envied his self-assurance, his breezy gait and blustery talk, his freedom from mal de mer, his genius for six languages and feeling for one, and much more besides, then one day he took off his chappals and showed me his feet which were smothered in a network of ingrown roots, alive and squirming, as if sustained by some dark visceral logic, and i knew then that his sickness was worse than mine, that he was little more than the contents of his jholi and that, in less than one year, he would forsake the radha of his life to marry a stranger in the surat of his myopia, but that is the stuff of a different story, meanwhile i had moved into my new house with sundaree, my wife, my mother, who expired on the night i wed amrita, the daughter of a market vendor, but who refused to burn until her corpse had been duly sprinkled with gangajal, thus dying into india without acknowledging fiji, but unlike sundaree i lived on in the flesh of my undying self, sheltering from the sea in the fortress of my seclusion, then the theatre of war erupted somewhere beyond the horizon and i auditioned for a part, thinking that i may yet die into the vanua, the land, but i was escorted from the stage by a special force of berets in a state of delirium, and later amrita told me about my great relapse, how i had turned the colour of offal and droned out a mad litany of demands in exchange for my service, equal pay for equal worth for equal risk, independence for fiji, india, africa, expulsion of the csr from the known universe, unconditional access to valagi hospitals, clubs, schools and playing fields, crash course on imperialism for the local taukei, secure land tenure for peasant farmers and the like, and when many years later the grandson of ratu viriviri alluded to this moment of my treachery to justify his coup d’etat, i set about blaming my illness instead of probing his logic, in any event, i went back to the lair of my refuge after the shame of military rejection and pottered around the house while amrita sold dog-eared cabbages from a backyard garden to keep us afloat, then one dawn she found the lease of our undoing inside a dowry box and by noon a squadron of termites had invaded the house, and they shed their wings and chatted through the timber, and for some twenty years i heard the rumour of their carpentry, until in the end the house was reduced to a midden of talcum powder, but by then i had melted into subadra, my only daughter, and amrita had eloped to england with the cockney of her infatuation, yes amrita had shared my illness but felt that the remedy lay in physical motion, in not staying put, she was convinced that if the sea was the cause of her malaise then it was also its cure, that in time the caravel becomes the cradle so long as we stay afloat, but i was in love with the island of my torment, and so after the termites ate through my lease and ratu viriviri took back the land of his ancestry, i wandered from village to village for what seemed like an eternity, until one day i arrived in suva where everyone had my illness, even the taukei, but not a soul suffered from it, and it struck me that the denizens of the city had no need of roots because they had smothered the vanua in steel and concrete, thereby making of their illness a wondrous virtue, and they floated through the streets with a lightness of being and they chewed their food with a casual dispassion, and they had no need to stray from the city because the world came to them on trucks and ships and planes, and they procreated and laboured and expired as citizens, as those who were defined by what they had created and not by what they had inherited, and though i saw the moth of capital alight on the few and not the many, and though i understood its great sleights and feints and evasions, i was nonetheless attracted to its erratic flight through the raucous bazaar of my fascination and to its raw magic that transformed the humble lemon seller into a lemonade tycoon, but most of all i was attracted to the way it first made and then forgave the rootless soul, and so i settled down in the city of my third avatar and joined the local bank as a clerk, and that year when the sahibs departed with their union jack, i met and married the civil servant of my stability and together we worshipped the twin gods of thrift and industry, and together we built a house on the freehold of our dreams, and together we sent our son abroad to learn the ways of other cities, i thought i’d at last found respite from my long illness, i thought the city by its nature belonged to all citizens, but they came on the may of our unforgetting to claim for themselves the city we had all made, kaindia and kaiviti and kaivalagi, and once again i witnessed the miracle of mass levitation, though this time not in the remote plantations of girmit but in the desperate streets of suva, as teachers, toy-makers, lawyers, panel-beaters, civil servants, physicians, wholesalers, plumbers, tax agents, engineers, beauticians, batik-printers, among others, among many others, lifted clear off the ground and drifted across the reefs to the lands of their new diaspora, america and canada and aotearoa and australia, and i too felt the asphalt yield under my feet and saw jagan, my husband of twenty years, beckoning furiously from the streets below, but nothing could entice me back to earth, not my husband, not my city, not my history, nothing, and, in a few seconds, i’d breached a cupola of clouds and rounded the towers of sydney and dissolved into the body of my son, rajesh, who sat at his desk writing the first of his many stories about the island of his nostalgia in the hope that some day, when no one is watching, he will die into the acreage of his prose.



Citations: this selection of poems appeared in Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying,  Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2002.


Philippe Soupault translated by Marty Hiatt

Marty Hiatt is a Melbourne poet. His chapbook Rook’s Lair on a Lever was published in October 2012. Contact:




Say it with music

The golden bracelets and drapes
the locomotives the boats
and the salubrious wind and clouds
I simply abandon them
my heart’s too small
or too big
and my life is short
I don’t know exactly when my death will come
but I age
I descend the day’s steps
with a prayer on my lips
On each floor is it friend waiting for me
or a thief
or me
I no longer know how to see anything other
than a single star or cloud in the sky
according to my sorrow or joy
I no longer know how to lower my head
is it too heavy
Nor do I know if in my hands
I hold soap bubbles or cannon balls
I walk
I age
but my red blood my dear red blood
roams through my veins
driving out memories of the present
but my thirst is too great
I stop again and await
the light
Paradise paradise paradise


Say it with music

Les bracelets d’or et les drapeaux
les locomotives les bateaux
et le vent salubre et les nuages
je les abandonne simplement
mon cœur est trop petit
ou trop grand
et ma vie est courte
je ne sais quand viendra ma mort exactement
mais je vieillis
je descends les marches quotidiennes
en laissant une prière s’échapper de mes lèvres
A chaque étage est-ce un ami qui m’attend
est-ce un voleur
est-ce moi
je ne sais plus voir dans le ciel
qu’une seule étoile ou qu’un seul nuage
selon ma tristesse ou ma joie
je ne sais plus baisser la tête
est-elle trop lourde
Dans mes mains je ne sais pas non plus
si je tiens des bulles de savon ou de boulets de canon
je marche
je vieillis
mais mon sang rouge mon cher sang rouge
parcourt mes veines
en chassant devant lui les souvenirs du présent
mais ma soif est trop grande
je m’arrête encore et j’attends
la lumière
Paradis paradis paradis


Philippe Soupault (born in 1897) was a French writer and poet, novelist, critic, and political activist. He was active in Dadaism and later founded the Surrealist movement with André Breton.

Mediating Mishra: an Itinerary of the Heart by John O’Carroll


1. Itinerary
The one-time Marxist philosopher of religion and culture, Régis Debray wrote Religion: An Itinerary, a book on religion in which he worked by a series of staging points, an itinerary, as he called it. For me too, in considering Sudesh Mishra’s poems, a tour of sorts is at stake – and in this respect, this is less an article than it is an itinerary. Despite the hesitation many feel about the critic as mediator, it would seem that the work of one of Australia’s – and indeed, the Pacific’s – finest poets, requires a guide, one to check off the tour points, to make sense of the landmarks, to act even as curator (which in its Latin original concerns caring for, as well as being guardian of, in this case, the artwork).

Mediation is also at stake in the verse. For Mishra is a mediator of words and worlds, a shuttle driver of ideas and of textures. The locations, the key political milestones, the literary forms he uses, the major religious frameworks: these are the things that we need to check off as we proceed through this particular selection of verse, one generous in its amplitude and in its variety. There are, indeed, more poems here than I will, or wish, to discuss.

2. Envoi

The ending is, so to speak, at the beginning. The ending is also a sending. An envoi is a poetic ending, the concluding line – or lines – to a ballad. And those who know Mishra, or who read him carefully, will find not just references to music, but also, sonic dimensions to the poetry at every turn. In his choice of forms, as we shall see later, such as the sonnet, he invents new sounds in old genres – but does so in light of a rich and complex heritage of Fijian and Indo-Fijian, and Australian/European legacies.

And as Mishra’s allusive habit operates, envoi is also a French word, the basis of English envoy. It is also a heading in Jacques Derrida’s time-play book on the impossibilities of writing and of legacy, The Postcard: from Socrates to Freud and Beyond. The ending is at the beginning, and, as he puts it elsewhere, “So the snake devours its tail/And so the third-eye on itself prevails” (“Feejee,” Tandava 12). So, as Derrida might have put it, a (s)ending, something in flashback tells its end before the beginning.

The poem, “Envoi,” itself is about the sending and the ends of poetry – from its creation to its reception. Yet the poet is an artificer, he tells us. The “atomic flower of his brain/which radiates no light the hue of nectar,/Dry and dyeless as a reef in a book” (“Envoi”). “Drinking” on this art, the bees die. The end comes at the beginning as in Kagaaz ke Phool, the flawed and terrifying film by Guru Dutt, whose final song concerns, and flashes back to abandonment, but first (last) explains that aspiring youth should flee the fakeries of the cinema, that birds will not find nectar in the “paper flowers” of the cinema, that none of it is real. And yet, Dutt made the film, and Mishra wrote the poem, adding that while the poet is “sly to the artifice in its art,” he nevertheless waits and expects that the poem will find an audience, and thereby life….because poetry “lands a name on all that namelessness” and therein lies the value, the honey.

3. On Death

There is much to say about death, and Mishra’s poems do deal with it in many oblique ways. In “Fall,” for instance, there is an intense symmetry between a child’s loss of faith and the fall of the Archangel, Lucifer. But then there is the more prosaic angel of mercy, the ambulance driver.

In “Ambulance Driver,” the poem opens with a domestic scene, a sleeper evoked, shown stumbling over the crinkly cords of the telephone, while the rest of us sleep on. The poem’s trajectory of travel from home to hospital to home offers a view of emergency workers not just as service workers, but as secular agents of compassion. In this respect, they displace the clergy’s role, as they minister in practical ways, to the sick, the elderly and the dying. The miner does not “dare harvest” this seam, the one where the damaged need help. In its closing lines, the poem suggests that the ambulance driver do not always work, but rather, in their days off, they live among us, in cool valleys – and they fear what we fear, as in the midst of plenty they feel “terrors burn/Like music in our ears” (“Ambulance Driver”).

Death of course is not only harvested. Death is also deferred – and in terms of the desire for death, it affords also a terrifying politics. In “A Wishing Well in Suva,” Mishra’s most apocalyptic epiphany of Fiji, he lets forth a torrent of subjunctive and jussive declamations. At the head of both of its two stanzas, he opens with lines like these:

Let the tsunami come
Let it come as an ogre in grey armature….
O but let it come soon…
And wipe out everything,
Except perhaps a tuft of fern

                             (“A Wishing Well”)

The desire for utter annihilation, something also evinced in the title of his Tandava collection (with its evocation of Lord Shiva’s dance of death), is also a desire for cleansing, political cleansing. Such terrible desires arise from the legacies of Fiji’s many histories, and especially its histories of coups, of the corruption of culture and of people – and of land:

And the Ratu is consigning
All wilderness to woodchips
Over a hopsy lunch with a lumber
Baron from Malaysia;
And Colonel is admiring
In a circus mirror his shoulder pips.

                             (“A Wishing Well”)

The Ratu is a title applied to distinguish those with chiefly status from indigenous commoners. The Colonel, of course, was Sitiveni Rabuka. If the situation of coups and government has changed, the legacy of 1987 and the trauma of the Speight coup in particular, remain.

4. Diaspora, Colonisation, Memory

Many who write of diaspora do so in a way that seems to suggest that it is the riddle that holds keys to identity, power relations, and history. In fact, it is only a small part of that riddle, something Mishra’s own critical work has amply demonstrated (see especially, his book Diaspora Criticism). The interface of gender, class, and diaspora collide in his two part sonnet sequence, “Dowry.” In the first part, a complete sonnet, the dowry scene is presented, but not in simple terms. Many Hindi films show a father with tears in his eyes as a daughter is married, taken to the son’s parents’ home, handed over in a rite of Hindu celebration and tradition. Yet these are modern times – with memories in parental minds of marriages long ago – even if these are mixed with filmic representations.

In the poems themselves, the logic of arranged marriage, of dowry, and of domestic sorrow converge as a history. This is the story of parents, and of generations bearing witness to them. In this memory, the father is shown grimly turning his face aside from the scene he has helped create:

…she left home in a spray
Of pulse and flower, the tears soldering off
Her cheeks and her father looking away,
His eyes drilling holes through a stubborn bluff
Estranging like this stranger, drift-boned, shy,
He handpicked for the apple of his I.


In the second poem, however, a vision of courage, of what can happen when the threads of a marriage unravel, emerges, and the poet, silenced by his own histories, nevertheless has the urge to cry out for her to leave:
                  How I want my dumb art to scream, to say:
                  “Mother, swim out into your doubting self.
                  Plunge in against the current. Go astray.”
Behind her of course, things are not so easy: the “insinuating chatter” makes her life a misery.

Public history, of course, is quite different in nature. Mishra does not dwell particularly on it, but it turns up as part of the weave of the present and of memory. This is the effect – and pattern – of European colonisation. Few who visit Suva can fail to miss Albert Park as they travel, perhaps en route to the Suva Museum (for an itinerary of a different kind of cared-for-memories). At Albert Park (named for Queen Victoria’s beloved), a memory of European history is sketched subtly with the evocation of the scene of the landing of Kingsford-Smith at the park, as the poem says, in 1928. The poems on the aviator are by turns jesting, by turns serious, yet shows how colonial life marked Suva and Fiji more generally. The excitement of the arrival of the aviator led to them felling trees,

…teak, kauri, the great ivi
Under which Degei pondered his creation,
Coiled in the lacework shade, a fossil of
Himself, bats fruiting in the boughs above.
The knolls were graded…

(“Albert Park, Kingsford-Smith”)

The destruction of sacred histories, not to mention great and ancient trees gives a darker note to the levity. Mishra writes that the “planter, taukei and kin” and “twelve coolies” were all on hand: these were to some extent the superimpositions of the colonial and colonising imagination. The planters are the colonial owners of farmland; the taukei are the indigenous Fijians. And the plane landed of course – blowing up its own storm that “stank of brine and carbon and of myth” (“Albert Park, Kingsford-Smith”). In the second part of the sequence, a comedy of the kind Homi Bhabha, would acknowledge as salient unfolds: the colonial society tries to entertain the guest, and the “Planter’s wife murdered Tchaikovsky/on a church organ” as the hero himself is imagined as wondering about the society in which he found himself, as well as about his adventures like Icarus (and their risks). But to all who witnessed it, there was an effect, including on the maid who “counting plumes on his bed/Saw him in the sunlight, half-man, half-bird” (“Icarus, Kingsford-Smith”).

5. Nature

It is rarely remarked, but Mishra writes often of nature. Sometimes, as in the passing reflection on forests being woodchipped by greedy landowners, it is a lament. At other times, it is mediated through other art, as in his poem on Gauguin (with a fascinating meditation on rotting fruit, something that is unavoidable anywhere, but which is very much in evidence in the tropical heat of Nadi). However, one of the most beautiful dimensions of Mishra’s work, from his earliest collection, Rahu (with its encounter with horses on the road between Nadi and Suva) is his attention to nature of all kinds. In this collection, there are many poems that deal with trees and plants, but perhaps the one that is most striking in its attention to nature is the poem, “Seal.” While it is not made explicit, the poet’s engagement with the seal is punctuated with a slap from its tail (whether harmless in the ocean or against the poet’s body is unclear). The poem, written on Kangaroo Island, reflects on the characteristic look and movement of the animal:

Your tail a swivelling T
Against a furious dusk:
Turner. Template. Tree.


Despite the tumult, and the fact it “bewilders the heart,” the encounter with the seal engenders a “recrudescence of happiness” (“Seal”).

The poems on plants, however, are the most striking dimension of Mishra’s attention to landscape and environment. Sometimes the relationship is indirect, as in “Grain,” where in a series of sonnets, he meditates on the transformation from tree to wood to product. These three poems mix classical references to the Trojan horse (made of wood) with the timbers of Fiji, and indeed of its history: as at the end of the sequence he is brought back to the shocking memory of the ship, the Leonidas that brought the first indentured labourers to Fiji:

But all at once you’re bereft.
Leonidas is berthing. The light’s in gold.
Sixteen dead spartans in the tuna hold.

                            (“Grain III”)

Why Spartans? The ship itself has a name that clearly is more pompous than its station: its name comes from the Spartan king.

In his nature poems, too, he frequently depicts a powerful relationship to human behaviour and history. This is especially true of his reflections on plants like sugar cane which are etched into the classed history of indenture. In his poem, “Cane,” it seems he will write only in light-hearted way of the sugar cane running “over the island in leaps and bounds” (“Cane”). However, he quickly rejoins this with the context of indenture:

…no islander says what it is.
“Prison bars,” says the resident farmer
When pressed, his tone uncrimped by irony.


Sugar has inscribed itself into Fiji-Indian indentured consciousness, and Mishra’s poem makes sense of this legacy in just these terms.

6. Form

Mishra has a fondness for technical experimentation. Even in his most free form poetry, there is a powerful sonic sense, as in the poem, “Flood,” where the tragedy of flood is given life with the image of two animal forms responding to it. The catform is one: running in the rain, deftly dodging puddles and muck; the other is the ox, plodding, dragging itself through the sludge, oblivious to what lies beneath its great bulk – and what it destroys as it walks. The poem itself is a free verse poem, but is filled with sonic cues: Flood and mud rhyme endlessly and without structure throughout the poem; and the “Mudox/Neither runs nor roars/But dumbly pours/ Its protean bulk/ Into wretched dreams” (“Flood”). The only thing that survives all this is, in one sense, everything: the town itself, captured in a series of sibilant sounds that suggest its very defiance and resilience (“Flood”).

Just as often though, Mishra toys with forms – the ten syllable pattern of the sonnet is a particular form that recurs. This has been evident since his Tandava collection, where in the opening “Feejee” sequence there are a number of sonnets, and where the collection closes with the ten-sonnet set of “Sonnets for a Valediction,” some of Mishra’s finest poems. In this collection, too, we find the form recurring, as in the poems discussed already – the poem sets on “Dowry,” on “Grain,” and on “Kingsford-Smith.” The poems that are not so tightly circumscribed, however, also have form, as Mishra plays with striking syntax and acrobatic wordplay (and vocabulary). His poems may at times have direct themes, but their sonic force, and their imaginative brilliance are a tour de force of the capacity of poetry to challenge and to confront.

Perhaps the best example of this is the well-known prose poem that I (and others) have discussed elsewhere. It is the title poem from his collection, Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying. The entire poem consists of one sentence. It narrates the history, the complete history, of the diaspora in Fiji. It starts with the recruiters, the voyage (on which everyone became jahajibhais – shipmates), and the landfall. But then, ingeniously, by means of a conceit of sorts (a bowdlerised Hindu tradition of levitating Gurus), Mishra imagines an illness that makes the entire Fiji Indian population lose connection with the earth, and float mysteriously above the ground. The ingenuity of the idea gathers together a culture by synecdoche (Mishra elsewhere in the prose poem points out that “chamars found brahmins, muslims found hindus, biharis found marathis” (“Diaspora”), and has them disconnect from reality – or at least the land – together. The poem ends in pessimism in some ways, partly in indictment of the diasporic population, for this very disconnection. But there is also sympathy for the histories that led to this, especially in terms of colonial historical segregation and class warfare.

7. Itineraries: Of Travel, and of the Heart

Mishra’s work mediates worlds, and I have tried to suggest this without recourse to the obvious: Mishra is a traveller. Analysis of his work could take the form of a literal itinerary. He has lived not just in Fiji, but also in Australia, and for a time in Scotland. Not only has he travelled widely, but also, in many of his poems (including some here) he has reflected on these travels. His travels are reflexive, and he dwells on poets like Garcia Lorca murdered in the Spanish Civil War, and on painters like Vincent van Gogh or Paul Gauguin. Yet they are also always local, paying attention to what is at hand, and in many ways, the sheer variety of his reflections may appear to require an itinerary of sorts.

Even so, this is not the kind of itinerary I have sketched. For me, the itinerary that is the most difficult to trace is the one that I find most challenging, and interesting, in his work. He offers an itinerary of the heart, as someone who feels the forces of nature intensely, as someone who senses the tragedy of its destruction, as someone who writes of injustice whether historical or current, whether of his own people or of others (witness his shocking and often-requested poem, “Palestine”). And he does so in a way that weaves words into a force of their own.


Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
Débray, Regis. God: An Itinerary. London: Verso, 2004.
Derrida, Jacques. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans Alan Bass.
Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1987.
Dutt, Guru. Dir. Kaagaz ke Phool [Paper Flowers]. Motion picture. Twentieth Century
Fox/Guru Dutt Films. With Guru Dutt and Waheda Rehman, 1959
Mishra, Sudesh. Tandava. Melbourne: Meanjin, 1992.
—. Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying. Otago: Otago UP, 2002
—. Rahu. Suva: Vision, 1987.
—. Diaspora Criticism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2006.



JOHN O’CARROLL is a researcher in the fields of Australian and Pacific Literature, as well as aspects of social and cultural analysis, currently working at Charles Sturt University teaching English. He has published many articles on literature, both in Australia and in the Pacific. With Chris Fleming, he has also recently published a chapter in Kafka’s Cages, a book on modernity and Franz Kafka’s Trial.  He has also written books, one with Chris McGillion on the lives of priests, and one with Bob Hodge
on Australian multiculturalism.  Apart from his present position at Charles Sturt, he has worked also at James Cook University, Murdoch University, the University of Western Sydney, and the University of the South Pacific.